Oct 31, 2010

Anselm on Persons in God's Mind (part 1)

Saint Anselm makes a very interesting distinction at several points in his writings.  He contrasts how things are in our thought, language, or knowledge about them with how things actually are in themselves.

Such a contrast between reality and appearance, or reality and representations of reality, is a commonplace found in nearly all philosophical approaches, even in those which accord priority to perspectives rather than to realities.  Anselm goes further, however, introducing a higher, or better put deeper, level: there is how things are in our knowledge of them, how things are in themselves (in se), and how they exist, as he puts it, in the divine Word, i.e. how they exist in the mind of God.  Here is one of several key passages (in Hopkin's and Richardson's translation:
Now, it is evident that the more truly the Creating Being exists than does the created being, the more truly every created substance exists in the Word (i.e., in the Understanding) of the Creator than in itself. Therefore, how would the human mind comprehend what that kind of speaking and knowledge is which is so vastly superior to and truer than created substances, if our knowledge is as vastly surpassed by these [created] things as their likenesses are different from their being?
I have discussed and employed this distinction in several papers on Anselm (here's one), and I keep meaning to revisit it and work it through as systematically as possible.  That might be a rather tricky, perhaps ultimately impossible project. Anselm refers to and makes use of this distinction at a number of places and in various ways in his works, but as is so often the case, although he doubtless explored and ruminated at great length upon this distinction, and applied it in his oral teaching and conversations with his fellow monks, his written discussions are more laconically evocative than fully explicative.  So, unpacking the distinction requires reading around through the Anselmian corpus, connecting disparate passages ostensibly discussing other matters primarily and the contours of this distinction only secondarily.  It requires what I have heard some call "philosophical detective work," which I do have to admit is catchier than the jargon I often name it by: "systematic exegesis."

Another reason has less to do with the accidents of Anselm's occasioned writing, and much more to to do with the subject itself and the implications of the distinction. If there are varying and hierarchically arranged degrees of reality (Anselm prefers the word "truth" to reality and even seemingly to "being" (though whether that really is the case -- fodder for another conversation) -- which Anselm, as any good Platonist will maintain -- and if how things are in our language or thought or even knowledge of them remains at a lesser degree of truth than how the things are in themselves, and if how things are in themselves remains still at a lesser degree of reality than how they are in God's mind, i.e. how they are known within the dynamic economy of the Trinity, a few problems arise almost immediately.

I'll put them in terms brief enough to render them enigmatic, then explore each of them a bit, the first in this post, the second and third in a later post.

First, the quality or reliability of the very instruments by which we carry out this distinction -- themselves involved in this distinction -- seems to contaminate the distinction itself.

Second, if this first problem does not make us despair about ever adequately grasping the very matters we are talking about, ontological puzzles about the differences, discontinuities, and identity of what is being distinguished arise.

Third, one of these puzzles provokes the further question:  So. . .  what are we human reasoners supposed to make of this?

In my view, two contrary temptations need to be resisted when developing this tripartite distinction.  Both of them have to do with the connection between the first and the third distinguished problems.

One is to assume that our mind and God's mind, our thought and language and God's thought, are so sufficiently similar as to make unproblematic too many inferences playing off of that likeness.  The other is to assume that how things are for us and how they are for God are too radically dissimilar to permit any meaningful reasoning or articulated understanding about God's mind or knowledge.

If Anselm had possessed the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of analogy, he would have framed this dilemma as a false one, positing either univocity or equivocity between our minds and knowledge and those of God, not the relation of analogy which actually does hold. Anselm articulates this in terms of similitude, mirroring, even participation.  His measure for this is in fact truthfulness, and he conceives of this in terms of images not representation.

Philosophers often proceed on the assumption that God's mind must be very much like ours, just greater than ours in certain ways.  Perhaps it is more (or even infinitely powerful), able to see and understand things to their very bases, processing, systematizing, and taking in at a glance more information.  Possibly God's is a mind subject to none of the epistemological obstacles and limitations marking and marring human thinking even at its best -- all of these features perfectly plain enough to, just not possessed by, the human mind.

All of these attributes, in such a view , are able to become in our language, in our thought, objects like any other, captured in their essence, discussable, subject to being scooped up and plopped into arguments which are supposed themselves to produce knowledge or disconfirm suggested hypotheses.  If we add to this sort of (ultimately uncritical, though at times historically terming itself "critical") stance doctrines which Anselm does agree with, for instance that all things in some way exist in God, that God's mind (or intellect, or reason, or wisdom . . . ) is not-different from the totality of what God is, then we end up very quickly making Anselm into something like a modern Idealist, metaphysically speaking.  But things are not that simple in Anselmian thought.

Anselm maintains and works through two realizations which remain in constant tension with each other.  Whatever likenesses we develop and employ in order to approach and understand God remain at best images which do not express the triune God "in accordance with the reality of its essence," speaking of and understanding God through similitudes to other, created, non-divine things.  Also, we can know about God, in particular through some sort of (aided) self-reflection.  This stems from the very type of beings we are:
just as the rational mind alone of all creatures is able to mount an investigation of the Supreme Being, so equally the rational mind alone is that through which the rational mind itself is most able to advance toward finding the Supreme Being. For we already know that the rational mind most nearly approximates the Supreme Nature through a likeness of natural being.
Anselm makes further distinctions within our knowledge, thought, or language, in its reference to created beings.  Again, he does not provide a systematized theory, as the Scholastics appearing in the generation after him might.  In Monologion, he contrasts different modes of expression.
in ordinary usage we recognize that we can speak of a single object in three ways. For we speak of objects either (1) by perceptibly employing perceptible signs (i.e., [signs] which can be perceived by the bodily senses) or (2) by imperceptibly thinking to ourselves these same signs, which are perceptible outside us, or (3) neither by perceptibly nor by imperceptibly employing these signs, but by inwardly and mentally speaking of the objects themselves—in accordance with their variety—either through the imagination of material things or through rational discernment.
In terms of the main distinction, all three of these -- even the last -- remain at the level of our thought, language, knowledge. They are just more or less adequate, truthful ways of grasping and expressing things.  The best worked-out metaphysics, epistemology, or theology will remain dependent upon human ways of knowing things, even when providing rational outlines of how things are for God.  They can be more or less truthful, i.e. more or less in accordance with the ways things actually are.

Or, from an Anselmian view, articulated in his De Veritate and invoked or referred to in several of his other works, they can be more or less truthful by being more or less in accordance with the purposes woven into each created being thing, even each derivable and usable concept.  This what Anselm calls their "what they were made for." Another complementary way of looking towards this is that their truthfulness
depends ultimately on how similar they are to the supreme being, i.e. to how things are in the mind of the supreme being, how the divine mind  intends them to be.

You see, for Anselm, it is not that the divine mind contains copies, as it were, of all created being.  It is not the case that first, foremost, and fundamentally the things exist in themselves, as independent substances, and then there are copies of them in the divine mind.  Instead, he tells us in Monologion:
before all things were made there was in the Supreme Nature's reason what they were going to be or what kind they were going to be or how they were going to be.
Well, all right then, one might say.  but, God first has these ideas in mind, and then creates the things -- after that, they exist independently, and God's knowledge of them, of anything new about them, is really a matter of God's mind accurately reflecting how things actually are, in themselves.  Not so, Anselm would say, and he uses an analogy
The living man is said to be the true man; but the likeness, or image, of a true man is said to be in a portrait [of this man]. By comparison, the Word is understood to be true Existence, for the being of the Word exists so supremely that, in a way, it alone exists; but a kind of likeness of this Supreme Being is understood to be in those things which, in a way, by comparison with it, do not exist—even though they have been made something through it and in accordance with it. Thus, Supreme Truth's Word, which Word is itself the Supreme Truth, will not become something greater or something lesser by virtue of a greater or lesser degree of likeness to creatures. Rather, it must be the case that every created thing both exists and is excellent in proportion to its likeness to what exists supremely and is supremely great.
An ontological reversal has taken place, one that leads now to the second and third problems, and this is where I leave off for this Sunday, to take up the discussion's thread on a later one.