Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher and theologian of 12th century Europe. He flourished right before the great influx of translations to Latin from Arabic and Hebrew.

For Abelard, common names refer collectively and directly to many individual things, and there are no separate universal things apart from individual things. But in addition to reference, words have signification, or practical informational content.

The signification of sentences, moreover, cannot be reduced to the signification of the nouns and verbs that make them up. Sentences convey irreducible judgments (dicta) about how things are. Abelard has been said to hold an adverbial view of thought.

He opposed two simplified views of understanding commonly attributed to Aristotle in the tradition: that the mind literally takes on the same form that it apprehends, and that images in the mind resemble the things it apprehends.

Abelard endured persecution for opposing the proto-fundamentalist view of Bernard of Clairvaux that sentences about the faith have a “plain meaning” that is beyond question. He also openly acknowledged that Church authorities contradicted one another on numerous points. At the same time, he is said to have rejected views he attributed to his teacher Roscelin that human reason can explain everything; that we should not accept anything that cannot be explained by reason; and that authority has no rational force.

Abelard reportedly held that the agent’s intention alone determines the moral worth of an action, and that obedience to God’s will consists in applying the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Only God has the right to morally judge others. Ethics is not a matter of acting in conformity to law. Nonetheless, human law may legitimately disregard good intentions in punishing actions that had genuinely bad consequences, as a lesson to others.

In Genèse du dieu souverain, Gwenaëlle Aubry says Abelard devoted considerable energy to combatting the notion of a “tyrant God”, citing Daniel’s confrontation with the neo-Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar. Here he seems to me to anticipate Leibniz in connecting theological voluntarism with tyranny. According to Aubry, Abelard argued that “God, if He is at once rational and good, can only choose the good. Further, a God who did not will and do all the good that He could would be not good but jealous. Therefore, God wills and does all the good that he can, and cannot do anything other than what He does do” (p. 123, my translation). “The essential point that separates Abelard from Augustine… is in effect the following…. it is not sufficient to say that divine action is governed by reason and by the good, rather it is also necessary to affirm that human reason can reason about that reason and that good” (ibid). Here again, on this account Abelard seems to anticipate Leibniz.

According to Aubry, Abelard quotes Augustine saying God is omnipotent “because He can do what He wills….[God] is all-powerful, not because He can do all, but because He can do all that he wills” (p. 124, brackets in original). From this Abelard argues that “It is necessary to say not that God could have done something but did not will to do it, but rather that what he does not will, he can in no way do. The scope of power is indeed not more extended than that of divine will…. [I]n God, power and will are united in such a way that where will is lacking, power is also lacking” (p. 125).

“In [Abelard’s] Theologia Christiana, omnipotence is defined as that for which the will suffices by itself to do all that needs to be done. Omnipotence is thus characterized not by an excess over its effects but by an adequation to them. Not that which is capable of more things than it does is omnipotent, but that which has the power sufficient to what it wills to do” (p. 126).

According to Aubry, Abelard insists on the immutability of divine power and action. Augustine too emphasized the eternity of God, which also implies immutability. But in general he treats the human mind as an image of God, whereas Aubry says Abelard warns against thinking about God’s power in terms of human power. In the works I am familiar with, Augustine treats human will as a power of choice. Is divine will a power of choice too for Augustine, or is it the definite will Aubry suggests Abelard implies it is? I don’t currently know the answer.

Is there any way that power of choice could even have meaning for a genuinely eternal being? It has always seemed to me that choice implies temporal conditions that are incompatible with eternity.

Aubry says that referring to Plato’s Timaeus (a fragment of which was the only text of Plato available in Latin at the time), Abelard distances divine power from the creation from nothing with which it is strongly associated in Augustine, in order to associate it essentially with reason. According to Aubry, Abelard says this is not only the best of all possible worlds, but the only possible world, whereas Augustine says this world could be changed by divine will. Aubry relates this to the excess of divine power over divine will in Augustine.

She makes the Platonic-sounding point that Abelard in Theologia Christiana says not that God is by himself the good, but rather that the good is that which one calls God…. In this way, theology is subsumed by ethics rather than ethics by theology” (p. 130). Aubry also says Abelard transposes the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of excluded middle, and the principle of sufficient reason from the realm of ontology to that of axiology or values.

In both Theologia Christiana and Theologia Scholarium, Abelard raises the question, “Could God do more or better than He does, or again not do what he does?” (p. 133). He answers no, because to say yes would degrade the goodness of God.

“Hard” Kantianism?

Kantian Deeds (2010) by Henrik Jøker Bjerre is a book-length argument for a Žižekian Kant, with extensive, relatively polite polemical discussion of Brandom and John McDowell. Non-Žižekian readings of Kant are labelled “Soft”, while a Žižekian reading is introduced as a uniquely “Hard” Kantianism.

The main ingredients seem to be an identification of Kantian freedom with voluntarism; literal endorsement of Kant’s argument that reason necessarily leads to antinomies, as a segue to Žižekian contradiction; and a Heideggerian argument for the importance of metaphysics and the question of Being. Bjerre combines these in an attempt to justify claims for the importance of an extraordinary, “extra-moral” morality in Kant alongside ordinary morality. Ordinary morality is made to sound more like social conformity.

Each part of the above summary seems wrong to me. Here I won’t repeat contents of the above-linked articles that give some of my reasons.

While I welcome the elementary insight that Kantian morality involves more than rule-following, there seems to be no real textual basis in Kant for the “extra-moral” morality of a nonrational “surplus” of the deed that this book imports or invents. Simultaneously, the breadth and substantiality of Kant’s actual discussions of “ordinary” morality is much diminished, in order to leave a bigger territory for the putative extra-moral.

Dominik Finkelde’s Excessive Subjectivity: Kant, Hegel, Lacan, and the Foundations of Ethics (2017; German edition 2015) continues along a similar path. “To put it plainly, for Kant the subject is either premoral or extramoral” (p. 8). If Kant said anything suggesting that, I would attribute it to his rather pessimistic view of human nature, not to any endorsement of arbitrariness. We are treated to the spectacle of a Kant made to sound like a Badiouian decisionist. Again, a “deed” presented as fundamentally irrational is everything, and this is supposed to be the way to social emancipation. This is illustrated by a description of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to sit in the back of the bus as effectively a Badiouian disruptive “event” leading to a new arbitrary “truth”. Never mind that racial segregation in the U.S. was an obvious, egregious violation of ordinary Kantian respect and universality, which any truly honest person could see as irrational all along. Rosa Parks’ action was not at all arbitrary, but rather full of meaning.

Neither social emancipation nor philosophy benefits from all this metaphysics and all this apologetic for arbitrariness. Moreover, the denigration of reason and ordinary ethics as inherently “conservative” weakens the real basis of emancipation. (See also Kantian Will; In Defense of Ordinariness.)