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Anderson’s Pure

Contemporary academic philosophers tend to be dismissive of the idea that philosophy has any intrinsic moral or spiritual significance. To be sure, the left-of-center ones among them (which is most of them) do think that it can be indirectly morally beneficial insofar as it disabuses the young people who study it of (what these philosophers regard as) the moral, political, and religious illusions foisted upon them by their parents and the surrounding culture. But they have little time for the notion of philosophy as a way of life, as something inherently practical as well as intellectual – something which of its very nature tends toward the moral and spiritual betterment of those devoted to it. W. V. Quine once wrote a condescending piece about Mortimer Adler, brushing aside the latter’s complaint that contemporary philosophy has lost contact with the concerns of ordinary people. “The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway,” Quine assured his readers, “since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him.” You can find the essay in Quine’s anthology Theories and Things. I remember as a young man reading it and chuckling knowingly at Adler’s evident folly.

Well, I was the fool. Here as in so many other ways, the elegant Harvard man Quine was wrong and the pugnacious academic outsider Adler was right. It would take me many years to get to the point where I could even begin to see why.

Of course, when one considers some of the things contemporary philosophy students are taught, one can understand why Quine might seem to have the better of the argument. There are, for instance, the ridiculous caricatures of the classical arguments for religion and for traditional morality, commonly used as fodder for exercises in “thinking critically.” (“Critical thinking” about religion and traditional morality, you see, involves ignoring the actual views of their greatest defenders, briskly refuting a few straw men instead, declaring a once-and-for-all victory against the forces of reaction, and dismissing anyone who objects to this farcical procedure as an ill-informed right-wing religious fanatic with a political agenda.) Then there are the arid technicalities many a philosophy teacher puts in place of these more traditional themes, divorced from any context which might make their significance intelligible. (I know of a prominent academic philosopher who once spent an entire Introduction to Philosophy course introducing his hapless charges to two topics: direct reference theory and Goodman’s grue paradox. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates the mentality.) Add to this the phony “professionalism” that is too often a mask for careerism and lazy conformity to fashionable academic opinion, and the result does indeed seem devoid of moral or spiritual import, or at least of any positive moral and spiritual import.

But things were not always so. From the point of view of the classical philosophical tradition – the tradition represented by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – the metaphysical preconditions of there being such things as philosophical and scientific inquiry in the first place inexorably lead us, upon rational analysis, to a divine sustaining cause of the world who is necessarily also the source and standard of all value; and they lead us too to the recognition that that within us which grasps these truths – the intellect – is like unto this divine source, and has (as Aristotle put it) the “service and contemplation” of the divine as its highest fulfillment. To be sure, these thinkers differed, often dramatically, over the details. But on this big picture they were agreed. Contra Quine and the majority of contemporary academic philosophers, the ancients and medievals regarded the intellectual and the spiritual, reason and religion, as necessarily fused all the way down.

That the ancients and medievals had it right is something I have done my own small part to try to show in books like The Last Superstition and Aquinas. Other contemporary philosophers have taken on the same task. David Conway’s book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia – which was, incidentally, instrumental in leading Antony Flew away from atheism – is one important example. Now comes another, Mark Anderson’s Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One. It is a small gem of a book – wise and beautifully written, both in substance and in style something like a glimpse into a lost and longed-for world. Here is the book description from the back cover:

Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One is an experimental work of philosophy in which the author aspires to think his way back to a “premodern” worldview derived from the philosophical tradition of Platonism. To this end he attempts to identify and elucidate the fundamental intellectual assumptions of modernity and to subject these assumptions to a critical evaluation from the perspective of Platonic metaphysics. The author addresses a broad range of subjects - from ethics, politics, metaphysics, and science to the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche - without losing sight of the single aim of formulating a premodern perspective in opposition to modernity. The work culminates in a series of essays on the practice of purification, a form of intellectual and spiritual discipline acknowledged by ancient and medieval philosophers alike to be a necessary preliminary to metaphysical insight.

Pure is informed throughout by rigorous scholarship, but it is not an “academic” work. The author avoids the plodding and professorial tone typical of contemporary philosophical research in favor of a meditative and aphoristic style. The book, in short, is learned without being pedantic. Readers interested in the history of philosophy and the intellectual roots of the crisis of modernity will find in Pure substantial matter for reflection.

As this indicates, Anderson’s approach is (unlike my own) Platonic rather than Aristotelian or Thomistic. More precisely, it is Neo-Platonic, though as Anderson emphasizes, the label “Neo-Platonism” is something modern scholars have imposed on Plotinus and Co., not one they applied, or would have applied, to themselves. The great Neo-Platonists regarded their position as Platonic without qualification, as at most an elaboration of themes Plato himself hinted at rather than the invention of anything radically new. I sympathize with this interpretation, and Anderson endorses it unapologetically. It is but one of the many ways in which Pure is refreshingly old-fashioned.

Nor should the differences between the Neo-Platonic and the Aristotelian-Thomistic views of the world be overstated. The extent to which Aristotle himself departed from Plato is a matter of controversy. The Neo-Platonists incorporated aspects of Aristotelianism into their own system. The Augustinian brand of Christian theology Aquinas grafted Aristotelianism onto was already heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism. The central theme of the Summa Theologiae – God as the first cause and last end of creation, He from Whom the world derives and to Whom it seeks to return – echoes Plotinus. And there are various other specific aspects of Aquinas’s thought which have long been understood as evincing a Neo-Platonic influence – such as his use of the language of “participation,” the henological approach to God in the Fourth Way, and the many citations of Pseudo-Dionysius.

More than any other recent defense of classical philosophy, Anderson’s book revives and reasserts the ancients’ emphasis on the moral preconditions of attaining philosophical understanding. This is the “purification” referred to in the back cover description and alluded to in the book’s title – a purification having physical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual components, all spelled out in Pure with reference to the Platonic tradition. As might be expected from that tradition, the purification in question fundamentally concerns deliverance from our enslavement to things material or bodily. But contrary to the standard caricature, the Platonist does not condemn either the body or the material world in general as such. What is condemned is rather the disorder which makes the body and its appetites the master of the soul, and the material realm rather than the immaterial the primary object of the intellect’s attention. The body has its place – and it should know its place, which is to be in every way subordinate to the soul, permitted to realize its desires only as reason dictates. And the material realm, while worthy of our empirical scientific efforts, points beyond itself to a higher realm, the object of a higher science – metaphysics – and ultimately to a divine Source of all which is no less an object of rational investigation than of spiritual aspiration.

For the typical modern reader, especially the typical contemporary academic philosopher, all of this is bound to raise eyebrows. Some riff on materialism and empiricism – a “naturalistic” approach to metaphysics and epistemology, say, to use the currently fashionable jargon – is de rigueur. But from a classical realist point of view – the basic metaphysical perspective shared in common by Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, whatever their differences – the falsity of materialism and empiricism is obvious. For (a) the reality of universals is unavoidable, (b) universals are necessarily immaterial, and (c) our conceptual grasp of them cannot in principle either be accounted for in terms of sensation alone or reduced to material processes in the brain. (To be sure, for Aristotle and the Scholastics there is nothing in the intellect that did not arise from the senses. But this does not entail the British empiricists’ thesis that concepts just are faint copies of sensations.) Moreover, to adopt some form of classical metaphysics is more or less to commit yourself to some kind of classical theism: a Platonic theory of Forms leads inexorably to something like the Form of the Good or The One; an Aristotelian act/potency distinction leads inexorably to that which is Actus Purus; a Thomistic essence/existence distinction leads inexorably to that which is ipsum esse subsistens.

I have elaborated on all of this in The Last Superstition and Aquinas. What Anderson emphasizes is the moral dimension to this fundamental metaphysical dispute. A culture as deeply informed as ours is by the errors of materialism and empiricism is bound to be a culture obsessed with material gain and prone to sensual overindulgence, and a culture dominated by these vices is bound to be drawn, in its intellectual moments, toward materialism and empiricism. The philosophical and moral errors in question are mutually reinforcing, and their combination is, for Anderson, of the essence of “modernity” – a condition possible at any time, even if it is the dominant spiritual condition of our own times. And from the point of view of classical philosophy, modernity in this sense is (as Anderson paraphrases the Socrates of the Phaedo) “the greatest and most extreme of all evils.” For of its essence it positively drives us away from the Good, in the classical sense – away from the pursuit of it, away from even the possibility of knowledge of it. Modernity is the life of Plato’s cave.

Certainly the greatest of the ancient philosophers would find their modern counterparts thoroughly uncongenial – in their dogmatic materialism, their dogmatic egalitarianism, their atheism, their easygoing attitude toward sensual indulgence, their tendency to think of justice primarily in material, economic terms (whether socialist, liberal, or libertarian – these are just different strains of the same virus). As Anderson acidly puts it: “Contemporary philosophers refuse to admit that Plato meant what he wrote, for what he wrote generally amounts to a repudiation of their moral and intellectual lives.”

That is an aphorism, and like all aphorisms it needs to be read with care – something the unsympathetic reader is unlikely to bring to his evaluation of a book like Pure. Secular left-of-center academics are happy to bend over backwards, forwards, and in every other direction to discern some rational insight packed into a throwaway aphorism of a Nietzsche (say) or the half-baked political rants of a Chomsky or Zinn. But they will dismissively nitpick even the most carefully formulated utterances of a conservative or religious writer. One can imagine what they would do with an Anderson line like this: “We must not refute Hume, we must refuse to converse with him – we must forget him.”

But this is another aphorism, and that Anderson does not mean by it to deny that the critic of Hume must provide arguments is clear from the rest of the book. For example, in criticizing the fideism of some Christians, Anderson rejects “groundless belief deriving from authority, hope, or desire” and insists that “we must not simply advocate the groundless substitution of a premodern metaphysical perspective for the assumptions of modernity.” The premodern perspective is something that can and must be argued for.

Regarding Hume, readers of The Last Superstition know that I consider him overrated, a “mere – brilliant – sophist,” as Elizabeth Anscombe famously described him. (I say this as a former atheist, who used to admire Hume greatly.) Hume’s best-known positions typically rest on crude philosophical errors (such as his assimilation of the intellect to the senses). And while (as Anscombe rightly conceded) in the course of developing his sophistries he sometimes raises interesting and important philosophical questions, his stature owes less to this than to his political usefulness – not in the sense of everyday electoral politics or even political philosophy, but in the sense that he has become a symbol of intellectual opposition to the claims of religion, a kind of anti-Aquinas who is thought somehow to have exposed natural theology as vacuous once and for all. It is Hume’s conclusions that his admirers like, and even if his arguments for those conclusions are worthless, continuing the fiction that he was a thinker comparable to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Co. affords those conclusions an unearned respectability they would not otherwise have. (Hume is in this respect like Marx.)

I do not want to put words in Anderson’s mouth, but my sense is that that is what he is getting at in the aphorism in question: We must stop participating in the maintenance of this fiction that Hume was ten feet tall, stop treating him as anything but the easily dispatched sophist that he was, stop buying into the lie that he did any serious damage whatsoever to the arguments of classical metaphysics. In a sane world, Hume would be treated as a curiosity and nothing more – a clever fellow who propagated some interesting errors. In short, he would be treated the same way contemporary secular academic philosophers treat Aquinas.

As the reference to Anderson’s views on Christianity indicates, Pure is not written from a Christian point of view, or at least not an explicitly Christian point of view. Indeed, it seems to me that Anderson’s brief remarks about early Christianity vis-à-vis Platonism overstate the fideism of the former (though he is careful to qualify his remarks as intended to apply to “some” Christian thinkers). But in this too Anderson’s book is refreshingly old-fashioned – reflective of a more sane era in the history of philosophy when the debate was not over whether God exists (every rational person knew that) but rather over how one ought to worship Him. With Pure, Anderson has contributed to the restoration of philosophical sanity.

Comments (16)

Thanks for that great review, Ed. Sounds like this one to add to the Christmas lists.

It is Hume’s conclusions that his admirers like, and even if his arguments for those conclusions are worthless, continuing the fiction that he was a thinker comparable to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Co. affords those conclusions an unearned respectability they would not otherwise have. (Hume is in this respect like Marx.)

You can imagine that I'm saying, "Amen" here heartily, as of course we've seen this dynamic in the area of Hume on miracles. It's been interesting in this respect to see the fury with which some have greeted a book by John Earman (no Christian, to be sure) called--cheekily enough--Hume's Abject Failure, with reference to Hume on miracles. How dare he! Earman has been much annoyed, when perhaps he should not have been surprised, to find people asking him if he is a Christian, just because he wrote that book.

Re. the blurb on the back cover, I was rather struck by this:

the practice of purification, a form of intellectual and spiritual discipline

Say what one will, the Gnostic sects were real things in the early history of Christianity, and they had Platonic roots. So it was that phrase that quirked my eyebrows. It made me almost think of some sort of gnostic ritual. I'm wondering what Anderson has in mind there.

One other point I wanted to make: For some of us in the analytic school of thought who are neither Platonists nor Aristotelians, there is one set of virtues cultivated by philosophy that you did not mention: This is the set of virtues surrounding the love of rigor and logic, carefulness and clarity of thought, intellectual honesty, and the pursuit of truth. I've recently been re-reading Lewis's space trilogy (somewhat out of order) and have been struck by the extent to which his evil men in _That Hideous Strength_ lack both classical and analytic (one might almost say scientific or mathematical) virtues. In fact (if you've read the book you'll recognize the name), the whole point of a character like Wither is that he constantly wishes to obscure the truth, not to believe in it, and not to conform his mind to it. And the whole point of a rather pathetic character like Mark Studdock is that he has no identifiable _set_ of virtues. He is not brave like a pagan or like an English aristocrat. He is not earthy and tough like a member of the English lower classes. And he does not have a true sense of professional honor and a love of truth like a scientist or philosopher. Hence, as Lewis says, he is a "man of straw."

I say all this simply because I think it's valuable to round out our set of ideas of what virtues philosophy might cultivate in a direction that might seem more "arid" in one sense than Platonism or Aristotelianism but that is, nonetheless, truly valuable in itself.

Thanks, Paul. Pure -- along with, say, Aquinas and The Last Superstition -- will all make great stocking stuffers for that special someone! ;-)

Hi Lydia, as it happens, some Neo-Platonists (e.g. Plotinus) were very critical of Gnosticism. And re: the intellectual virtues, Anderson would indeed include those as part of the intellectual aspect of purification. He says a fair bit in criticism against what Socrates in the Phaedo calls "misology," i.e. contempt for rational argumentation.

"To be sure, for Aristotle and the Scholastics there is nothing in the intellect that did arise from the senses."

I take it you mean

"To be sure, for Aristotle and the Scholastics there is nothing in the intellect that did NOT arise from the senses."

Yes indeed, thanks Bobcat -- I've fixed it.

So Aquinas starts out with a look at how Aristotle refuted Parmenides by incorporating change into the nature of being, from which Aquinas concludes (to make a long story short) that being is sustained by Pure Act. Even if you think Hume was fundamentally wrong, it doesn't negate the need to show the reasons why he was wrong, like Kant actually did.

Btw, I took copious notes on Aquinas, so be prepared for some pointed questioning.

A culture as deeply informed as ours is by the errors of materialism and empiricism is bound to be a culture obsessed with material gain and prone to sensual overindulgence, and a culture dominated by these vices is bound to be drawn, in its intellectual moments, toward materialism and empiricism.

This seems to say that it is a spiritual/moral defect that has influenced the decay in modern philosophy. If so, I would agree. One wonders if there has been anything like a progression (towards truth?) in modern philosophy or just a series of dominations of ideas by small cliques who, somehow, managed to achieve notoriety. Looking at the modern landscape of philosophical studies, one might conclude that there can be no such thing as a convergence towards truth in philosophy. I can easily imagine how this could pervert and demoralize the beginning students.

We've seen the same pattern in the arts. In music, there was a slow, steady progression towards a tonal system going back to the Greeks, which after being realized and being stabilized for centuries, was virtually abandoned in a very short time for nothing more than novelties (dressed up in pseudo-mathematical garb) and the cult of the Great Man.

Even as philosophy lost its spiritual basis, so did music, and the result was pretty much the same - inhuman philosophy and inhuman music.

The more important question for me is, if a spiritual decay proceedes the rational decay and since spiritual decay is usually along the lines of the seven cardinal sins, might not one expect to see a pattern in the decay in philosophy that should match this and allow the aberrations in philosophy to be classified. This might be an interesting project, if this thesis is correct.

Is it possible to have a correct spirituality without a correct philosophy; is it possible to have a correct philosophy without a correct spirituality? By spirituality, I mean a correct view of the spiritual in metaphysical terms.

If we wish to correct the philosophical decay, should one start with the mind or the spirit? I have been thinking about this because a friend showed me an article on the seemingly more vigorous assault than in the past on Christmas by atheists .

Any comments on how to change their world view by changing their philosophical outlook?

The Chicken

Any comments on how to change their world view by changing their philosophical outlook?

Start by teaching them to question authority in ethics classes. I've now seen too many (one is too many) good, Christian students go into philosophy and end up arguing for utilitarian positions in ethics that are shocking. I've already started talking to my daughter, who may major in philosophy, about how to sharpen her own negative reactions to the stuff she hears from the philosophy graduate students she knows. For example, recently one student said of an ethics class, "We were talking about overpopulation. If you could choose a world, would you choose a world with lots of people with low quality of life or a few people with high quality of life." Eldest Daughter's response: "What action is being contemplated here? Sterilizing people?" Graduate student: "Oh, no action. It's just a hypothetical." Uh-huh. We had a good conversation about the utilitarian assumptions behind this whole "choose a world" approach to ethics.

But students are often afraid to challenge fundamental assumptions in those types of classes.

I have been thinking about this because a friend showed me an article on the seemingly more vigorous assault than in the past on Christmas by atheists.

Don't let the Puritans off the hook so easy:

What action is being contemplated here? Sterilizing people?

Hardly. Female literacy rates are the main indicator of both stable population and economic prosperity.

Nice review, Ed. Professor Anderson sent me a copy of this book several months ago. I've been meaning to post something on it at Southern Appeal or Return to Rome blogs. But now I'll just link to this.

You write:

For the typical modern reader, especially the typical contemporary academic philosopher, all of this is bound to raise eyebrows. Some riff on materialism and empiricism – a “naturalistic” approach to metaphysics and epistemology, say, to use the currently fashionable jargon – is de rigueur.

Funny you should mention that. Just the other day, I was reading a well-known philosopher of law who was arguing for "naturalizing jurisprudence." Although it was well-written and informative, what struck me about this essay was the bandwagon feel to it. That is, his case amounted to this: "Metaphysicians and epistemologists are`naturalizing' their areas of study. So, legal philosophers should go that route as well." I thought to myself, "What an unphilosophical reason to suggest that its practitioners steer their sub-field of philosophy in one direction rather than another. Is this philosophy or American Idol? Has philosophy become a self-referential discipline in which posturing rather than arguing is now the coin of the realm?"

Many thanks to Ed for calling attention to my work. Pure has quite a bit in common with his two most recent books, even though they differ in detail (as he himself notes in his remarks). It is important to stress the commonalities, for our differences are minor compared to the agreements that separate us from popular materialism and scientism.

Speaking of materialism and the decay of modern philosophy mentioned by TMC, the culminating essay in Pure revolves around the Platonic idea that there can be no correct philosophy without what TMC calls a correct spirituality. Purification is the way to this goal. Plato writes about this at length in the Phaedo and Plotinus discusses it particularly in On Virtue. It is not easy to explain briefly, but it comes down to the point that philosophical error results from vice ("decadence" in Nietzsche's terminology. Of course what Nietzsche counts as error differs dramatically from what Platonists count as error, but it can be fruitful to reflect on the differences between their somewhat-similar rejections of modernity). Of course the typical modern may reject the very idea of vice, or the proposed connection between spiritual health (I borrow the word "health" in this context from the Phaedo) and intellectual merit, and this is why I said that one cannot easily explain these matters briefly. I have tried to work through the relevant problems in detail in the final chapter of my book.

One last note: I second Lydia's advice to her daughter, but (and I make this point in the book) I would express it in terms of questioning power, not authority. The blurring of the lines between them is one of the deplorable results of modernity's inevitable transformation into postmodernity. To clarify this point and its philosophical implications can do much to prepare a young student for his or her encounters with misguided grad students and sophistical professors.

I'll always owe a great debt to Mortimer Adler. I read him in high school, and he led me to Aristotle and the University of Chicago and solidified my instinctual belief in the stupidity of all forms of relativism at an early age.

Prof. Anderson, I agree with you. I was using the phrase "question authority" somewhat tongue in cheek, alluding to bumper stickers and the like that we used to see from the Left saying "question authority." When they are in power, of course, they don't like a taste of their own medicine.

I'm very glad to see your negative implications about postmodernism. I have seen too many philosophers, theologians, and bloggers who talk about getting back to a "pre-modern" viewpoint, using that notion as code for making common cause with postmodernists in the here and now. This always annoys me.


Prof. Anderson, I agree with you. I was using the phrase "question authority" somewhat tongue in cheek, alluding to bumper stickers and the like that we used to see from the Left saying "question authority."

Actually, that raises a kind of basic point: on what basis is a professor an "authority" in the philosophical sense to begin with? See, the term "authority" seems to have two separate meanings, and I think that there could be some equivocation going on. For a juridical authority, we are obliged to obey his commands, whether or not we think that they are likely to achieve their purpose. What we must submit is our actions. Not our intellectual assent.

For a professor, to call him an "authority" in the realm of philosophy (or science) is quite something else. To accept his authority is to accept that there is some basis for leaning toward his point of view instead of toward others' points of view, for believing his claims. That is to say, his authority bends your intellectual bearing, not your actions (except indirectly).

But for modern philosophers, generally they sit in direct defiance of the very possibility that someone (anyone) should be capable of that sort of philosophical authority. Therefore, were one to take them seriously, one would NEVER grant that they should stand in the place of an intellectual authority. One should ALWAYS question them, that is the only way to take their claims seriously.

But of course that is not how they operate - they expect to be treated as authorities in academe. But what this means, then, is that they want to assert the power of making the student incline in one direction that an authority has, without asserting the proper intellectual basis for that power. This suggests (as {Prof Anderson indicates) that in practice what they are doing is exercising raw juridical power rather than intellectual authority.

Tony, what you say is all too sadly true. I've seen it operate time and again.

Philosophy means thinking,the endeavour of the man to understand our life,its end and so on. Everybody is a philosopher. Socrates succeded on getting the solution of a mathematic problem from an illiterate man, a slave. I not feel superior to other people even thogh I have read thousands of books. What for me it matters most is the metaphisical world, the world beyond our sensorial organs. The book I have written may help in this direction and I want to draw it to your attention. Its title is "Travels of the mind" and it is available at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/TravelsOfTheMind.html
If you have any question I am most willing to discuss about this topic.
Ettore Grillo

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