No World, Just Word Games?

Monday, 02-11-2019

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I have been studying natural law for my master’s thesis, but so far I haven’t been able to see how to answer the following objection which has been thrown at me.  It runs like this.  Given the implications of deconstructionism and the “linguistic turn,” what one person or culture means by “life,” “nature,” or “human flourishing” is not the same thing that another person (or culture) means when he uses those terms.  They both play by independent rules, given their respective language games, and so they are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, natural law is rendered linguistically effete.



What would you think if your dog had eaten some garbage, was throwing up, and just as you were about to take him to the vet, someone spoke like this? –


Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “dog,” “garbage,” and “throwing up” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, veterinary medicine is rendered linguistically meaningless.


Or if you had decided to overcome your fear of flying and take an airplane to a different location, and just as you were about to book the flight, someone spoke like this? –


Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “fear,” “flying,” “location,” and “not falling” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, the practice of air travel is rendered linguistically meaningless.


Reality is the way it is, and we all live in the same one.  If we are using words differently, then we should investigate which way of using them corresponds better to how things really are.  Yes, of course there are social conventions, but there must be some shared world even for there to be social conventions; there has to be some bedrock reality even for us to behave differently in it, or disagree about it.

Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass before the deconstructionists of whom you speak came onto the scene, but a little parable of his had them pegged.  What they want isn’t to live in the truth of reality with other people, but to manipulate them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Related: What’s Wrong with Universities?


Gentle Readers,

As some of you know, the website has a few glitches, which are undergoing repair.  In the meantime, here are some things you need to know to make your time at the site more pleasant.

1.  Don’t use the URL site.  (Ending in “.com.”)

2.  Update your bookmark to  (An “s” after “http,” no “www,” and ending in “.org.”)

3.  If you have any difficulties – for example, if a page doesn’t load, or if part of a page doesn’t load – you could do me an enormous favor by taking a screenshot (for example with the Microsoft Snipping tool), copying the URL of the page you were on, and sending me both the screenshot and the URL.  If you aren’t able to do that, just a sentence of description would be very helpful.

Thank you!


New Talk: Faith, Natural Law, and the Common Good

Thursday, 02-07-2019


In October, a conference on “Christianity and the Common Good” was held at Harvard Law School.  My own talk at the conference, “Faith, Natural Law, and the Common Good,” is now available for viewing, and has been added to the Underground Thomist Talks Page.  If you prefer, just listen to the audio.  I hope you enjoy it! 

The conference was sponsored by Harvard’s chapter of an excellent organization called the Thomistic Institute, with the help of Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule.  The Thomistic Institute is an initiative of the Dominican House of Studies.  Students, why not establish a chapter of the Thomistic Institute at your own university?

If you should chance to be near Oxford University on Saturday, March 2, I'll be giving one of the talks at the Annual Aquinas Colloquium, which is about “Aquinas on the Development of Law” this year.  The other speakers are Ryan Meade (Loyola University, Chicago), Jonathan Price (Oxford University), and Richard Conrad, OP (Aquinas Institute).



All That Weirdness

Monday, 02-04-2019


In studying Old Testament law, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that often what seems weird and obsolescent is not only realistic but very up to date.  Deuteronomy commands the Hebrew people as follows:

“When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations.  There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.  For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practices the Lord your God is driving them out before you.”

It would be unwise to consider ourselves above all that weirdness.  Although we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters by fire to the gods of fertility, we sacrifice them by knives to the gods of sterility.  As to the rest of the practices mentioned, it is immaterial to the validity of the precept whether people can really tell the future, speak to the dead, or cast evil spells.  Those who think they can – both practitioners and clients – do a great deal of harm even in the present life.  Moreover, they are ruining not only their own souls but also those of others, by promulgating false beliefs such as the omnipotence of fate and the associated denial of personal responsibility.  Their purpose is to gain favors, or attain mastery, by placating false gods, conniving with evil powers, and perverting the course of nature.

Do you think I exaggerate?  Curiously, the high-tech forms which charms and wizardry sometimes take today are not usually recognized for what they are.  A person who ingests hallucinogens because they make him feel divine, more than human, or in touch with another world, is really practicing what used to be called mediumistic sorcery.  Similarly, a man who uses the “date rape” drug Rohypnol to induce a woman’s sexual compliance is employing what used to be called a love philtre.  The authentic means of contacting divinity are to pray and practice charity, and of cultivating love, to be kind and chaste.


New Talk: What Makes Men Men?

Friday, 02-01-2019


Gentle Readers:  I’m glad to say that you can now watch the video of my talk, “What Makes Men Men?”, as well as the videos of the other speakers’ talks at the October 2018 conference “Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture.”  I enjoyed listening to them all.

If you’d like to see what else is new, you can mosey on over to the Underground Thomist Talks page.


Beauty and – Other Things

Monday, 01-28-2019


In the generation of Burke and Kant, people who thought about art were fascinated by the fact that beauty does not exhaust the range of aesthetic values.  Something is beautiful, they said, if it evokes admiration because of its grace of form and color, but it is sublime if it excites awe because of the vastness or mystery of its object.  An object can be beautiful without being sublime, and sublime without being beautiful.  In fact, an object which is sublime may even include elements of the jarring or grotesque, which are opposed to beauty in themselves.  A painting of the crucifixion in which Jesus does not seem to suffer does not awe.

Already things are becoming complicated, but even beauty and sublimity together are far from exhausting the qualities that people look for in a work of art.  I am not here thinking of attractions which are separable from the work, such as how much its great expense will delight my friends or how well its color scheme blends in with the rest of my decor.  Rather I am speaking of attractions which are intrinsic to the work itself, those it would possess even if it I had picked it up cheap at a garage sale and it looked out of place in my house.

It might be neither beautiful nor sublime, but intriguing.  It might be none of these things, but faithful to its object.  It might call my attention to something I had not thought of before.  It might catch or fool the eye.  It might suggest an episode in a story, or convey a lesson.  It might symbolize a concept.  It might excite admiration because of the labor which went into its composition.  It might evoke a mood, such as boredom, a philosophy, such as nihilism, or a psychological state, such as obsession.  It might call up a whisper of memory.  It might challenge, comfort, or irritate.  It might build up, or it might inflict damage and harm.  It might signal that the maker holds one of the currently fashionable views (or, more rarely, that he doesn’t).  It might do nothing more than express his attitude toward himself, other people, God, or the viewer, in the manner of a joke, a prayer, a sob, a sin, or a curse.

Such qualities have always been present in art.  The difference is that now they are at the center of the enterprise.  Mind you, though I could do without some of them, I am not at the moment passing judgment on all of them, but only pointing them out.  I am not one of those who hate all modernist art, though much of it leaves me cold.  It is often interesting -- even though it is not often what I would call beautiful.

I used to be puzzled by those who protested, “No, it is beautiful.”  But people who speak that way are not usually speaking of beauty per se.  They are merely using the term “beauty” as a lazy label for all of the things some people look for in art.  Where I might say that a given painting is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene, but not beautiful, they would call it beautiful because it is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene.

So, I think much of the appeal of modernist art for those who do fancy it arises not from the fact that they see something beautiful (or sublime) that other ages would have missed, but that, for better or for worse, some other quality than beauty or sublimity appeals to them much, much more.



Thursday, 01-24-2019



Your blog site seems to be having problems.  I am missing one of my better sources of sanity.



Thanks for the heads-up.  I’m afraid various pages at the website will be intermittently unavailable until the difficulties are fixed.  In the meantime, if a page you are looking for is hiding, just try again to reach it a little later in the day.

Since this problem has me pulling out my hair, I am most encouraged to learn that I still give an impression of being sane.


Are Souls Made of God-Stuff?

Monday, 01-21-2019



Having seen the "Query" posts on your blog, I was hoping you might take one from me!  I have an unshakable sense that we are all endowed with immortal souls.  However, I’m puzzled.  Our souls are immortal in a future-facing direction, but are understood to have distinct points of origin in time. From whence do they arise? Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself in some ineffable manner, or do they originate from, as it were, a void of nothingness?

I've cautiously approached two Christians about this.  Neither was able to offer a particularly cogent answer; the gist was “We are but humble humans, and that must remain a wondrous and holy mystery."  Maybe that’s fair, but it feels like a bit of a punt.  I have been influenced by the Vedic sage, Sri Aurobindo. but I'm wondering whether Thomas Aquinas might have pondered the issue.  I hope this isn’t a dumb question.



Your questions aren’t at all dumb.  Taking them in turn:


1.  From whence do our souls arise?

The soul is the form or pattern which makes the difference between a human body and a human corpse.  Our souls are created directly by God.  They are not made from anything that already existed, but brought into being immediately, at the same time they are infused into bodies.


2.  Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself?

No.  You know that I am a Christian; by faith, through the grace of Jesus Christ, I am assured that God dwells in me.  However, He isn't the same as me, He isn't a part of me, and He isn't a "higher" me.  I am made in His image, but I am not Him.  I’m not the same as Him, I’m not a part of Him, and I’m not a "splinter" of Him.  Nor will I ever be, even though I hope one day to see Him face to face.  He doesn't depend on anything else, because He is what everything else depends on.  He can't be explained by anything else, because He is what everything else must be explained by.


3.  Or do they originate from a void of nothingness?

Depends on what you mean.  When we say that God created us ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” we don’t mean that nothing is some kind of stuff from which He fashioned us.  Rather we mean that until He created us, we were not.

By the way, this reflects another of the fundamental differences between God and us.  We produce things from pre-existent matter, as a farmer grows his crop from the seed, a sculptor molds a statuette from clay, or an engineer assembles a mechanism from parts.  God does not produce; He creates.  He does not require pre-existent matter.  Until He made matter, there wasn’t any.  It is said that Friedrich Nietzsche once hurled at God the challenge, “I too can make a man.”  God replied to Nietzsche, “God ahead and try.”  Nietzsche took a fistful of dust and began to mold it.  God said, “Disqualified.  Get your own dust.”

Thomas Aquinas writes, “To say that the soul is of the Divine substance involves a manifest improbability.”  Why so?  He explains that sometimes the human soul is actualizing its powers, but sometimes they merely lie fallow.  By contrast, in God, nothing lies fallow; everything that He can be, He always is.

In St. Thomas’s view, the error of thinking that our souls are made of God’s substance probably arises from two other errors, which have been around for a long, long time.

One is the mistake of thinking that God, and our souls, are both matter – both stuff -- so that the stuff of our souls was made from the stuff of His.  However, God is not matter.   Several reasons can be given why He couldn’t be, but the simplest is that He is the first cause of all things, the reason for their existence.  Matter – stuff -- could not be the first cause of all things, because it has whatever form it takes only because of something else, not from itself.

Some mistaken thinkers do grasp that God is not matter but spirit – so far, so good.  But they make another mistake, thinking that just as man’s soul is the form of his material body – let us say, the pattern of an embodied human life – so then God is the soul of the whole world, the form of the entire material universe.  According to St. Thomas, the main problem these thinkers have is that they fail to recognize the differences among different kinds of spirits -- in this case, human souls and God -- except in terms of their relationship to bodies.

Why is that wrong?  Because although we and God are certainly different, the difference is not that we have a different relationship to our bodies than He has to “His body.”  In His own Being, He doesn’t need a body.  The Son chose to incarnate Himself in Christ -- but that was a free act for our salvation.

This should give you a start!  If you want to read St. Thomas himself on these questions, begin with the Summa Theologiae, First Part, Question 90, Article 1, “Whether the soul was made, or was of God's substance?”  You can find the whole Summa online.