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Four ages of understanding : the first postmodern survey of philosophy from ancient times to the turn of the twenty-first century

by John N Deely


"semiosis escapes idealism [...] saves the epistemology of Aristotle"   (2011-06-29)


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by Geremia10

I include here in full The Thomist journal's 2003 review--by Benedict Ashley, O.P., author of the excellent The Way toward Wisdom--of Deely's masterpiece:

Some histories of philosophy, like the admirable one of Frederick Copleston, only attempt to give an accurate account of various philosophies in their general historical setting. Others, like Bertrand Russell in his absurd A History of Western Philosophy or Étienne Gilson in his brilliant The Unity of Philosophical Experience proffer an argument for a particular philosophical position. Deely takes the second view and says that a good history of philosophy must be itself philosophy.

The thesis of this book, a history as brilliant as Gilson's and certainly one of the most original and comprehensive recent efforts to explain the value and scope of philosophy, is that postmodernism is not, as Heidegger claimed, the end of philosophy, but a promising new beginning. Ancient Philosophy discovered Substance. The Latin Age discovered Being. The Modern Age took the byway of Ideas. Thus with Descartes, modernity took a road that wobbled between idealism and empiricism and dead-ended in solipsism. Postmodernity is about to return to the true road it missed, although that true road lay open to it at the end of the Latin Age, the highway of the Sign. It will at last be freed of its solipsism and enabled to recognize that the world is a network of mind-dependent and mind-independent relations, of reality and cultural interpretation, that can be distinguished in order to be rightly united. This is not the postmodernity of Derrida, since that is merely the last gasp of modernity; it is the postmodernity of Charles Peirce--and, I must add, of Deely himself.

As Deely has explained Peirce, semiotics, the doctrine of signs that transcends the distinction between the real and the mental and enables us to make this distinction and interrelation clear, makes available to us today the major achievements of the three past ages of understanding. Ancient philosophy attained the notion of "sign" as regards natural signs, but even the masterly logic, psychology, and epistemology of Aristotle did not explicitly extend the concept of semeion to mental signs. The Latin Age, especially in the philosophy of being of Aquinas, took this major step, but its full implications were recognized only at its end, in the writings of Jean Poinsot (John of St. Thomas, O.P.). In the third Age of Modernity, beginning with Descartes, the failure to recognize this semiotic achievement resulted in the war of Idealism vs. Empiricism. But this Empiricism, by its assumption that what we know are not beings but representations, was as solipsistic as was Idealism. With Peirce, who went behind Modernity to recover something of the first two Ages, although mainly in its Scotistic version, the Fourth Age of Postmodernity has begun with the recognition that the Sign transcends the natural and the mental worlds by distinguishing and relating them in the complex web of historical cultures.

For Deely, however, as for Gilson, the philosophy of being of Thomas Aquinas remains central to this historical development. If Peirce had known Aquinas and what Poinsot made explicit in Aquinas rather than Scotus, and if in this new century Thomists can escape their Neoscholastic or Transcendentalist dead-ends, Post-Modernism will be saved from Modernism's destruction of philosophy. The reason that St. Thomas's philosophy of being remains fundamental even in this semiotic age is that it was he who showed us that the primum cognitum, the primary object of intelligence, is "being" in a sense that transcends mind-independent being and mind-dependent being. Only in this way does it become possible to establish the principle of contradiction by which real objects, which cannot contradict themselves, are distinguished from what human thought in its efforts to deal with real objects necessarily or arbitrarily projects on reality. Naïve realism cannot make this distinction, and idealism, no matter how sophisticated, cannot escape the contradictory and solipsistic world of its own construction.

This fundamental epistemological position of Aquinas was based on Aristotle's distinction between sense cognition and intellectual cognition and the dependence of the latter on the former. Aquinas was acquainted not only with Aristotle's notion of how we know through natural signs, from effect to cause, but also with Augustine's insight that there are not only natural signs but also cultural signs, as for example the Christian sacraments. Thus it became clear for Aquinas and scholasticism that signs are both natural and instrumental. At the culmination of Baroque scholasticism, Jean Poinsot's Tractatus De Signis demonstrates that this indifference of the sign to mind-independence or mind-dependence makes it possible for us to relate the real and the ideal without detriment to either. Immediately after this establishment of semiotics Poinsot's achievement was overwhelmed by the rise of Cartesian Modernity and it was not until Peirce creatively took up an undeveloped suggestion of Locke that a genuine semiotics again emerged.

What Peirce saw clearly, and Poinsot had in Scholastic terms anticipated, was the triadic relational nature of the sign. A sign is not simply something by mediation of which something else is known, a dyadic relation of sign and signified, but a triadic relation between first an object known A (the sign), another object known through the first object (the terminating object) C, and what Peirce called the "interpretant," that is, a third object of knowledge that is precisely the relation of signification between the first two objects, B. For example, a scientist observes that heavy objects fall (A) and infers that they have the property of gravity (C), because he understands this in terms of what in his scientific perspective he knows to be the logical relation of cause to effect (B). This critical or scientific understanding is possible only if the scientist does not confuse the logical relation of inference from effect to cause (which is purely mind-dependent) with the real dependence of effect on cause. If he does not make this distinction he falls either into Hume's empiricist notion that we do not know causal relations or Kant's idealist notion that this relation is a merely mental projection. One has only to look at current quantum theory to see into what puzzles such confusions have plunged modern science. As the Nobel Laureate in Physics Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying, "I think that I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

Poinsot, following Aristotle's and Aquinas's account of the category of relation, showed that predicamental (categorial) relation cannot be sensed but only known intellectually, and that it is supersubjective, since although it is a relation it exists not in a subject but between subjects that only supply its foundations. Since this is the nature of a relation, the triadic relation that constitutes a sign is independent of whether these subjects that supply its foundations are real or ideal. They are the sign-vehicles, not the relations that constitute the sign as such. It is this indifference of the sign relation to the real and the ideal, therefore, that makes it possible for semiotics, the study of the sign, as distinguished from semiology, the study of culturally determined signs, to deal with the intricate web of reality and ideality that constitutes the Lebenswelt or nature-culture world in which humans live.

It is by distinguishing and relating natural and cultural signs without confusion that we are not only freed for practical decisions, but also are enabled to make progress in theoretical knowledge as an historical process (not as a finished, dogmatic product) without falling into deconstructionist skepticism. Thus Deely pictures the history of thought as progressive, yet subject to occasional dead-ends, that can, however, eventually be overcome (and not without some positive profit). Thus Deely emphasizes that what is important is not just semiotics but semiosis, the action of signs by which thought is led from one insight to another through the intricate web of natural truth and cultural construction.

I believe that this work of Deely will make a major contribution to the revival of Thomism because it shows so vividly how Thomists can proceed to assimilate the positive achievements of modernity as a point of departure for a vigorous postmodernity. Moreover, Deely's treatment of Aquinas's own thought is excellent. He acutely exposes a number of Neothomist misreadings, such as the "Christian philosophy" confusion, the reduction of metaphysics to the single topic of esse, the over-emphasis on the originality of the real-distinction of essence and existence in Aquinas, and the Cajetanian mishandling of the doctrine of analogy.

What was lacking in the great synthesis worked by Aquinas was an adequate consideration of the way the historic development of culture and the perspective of individuals within their culture both limits and opens up their understanding of reality. While St. Thomas well understood that "a thing is received in the mode of its recipient," the pioneering culture in which he lived tended to naïve objectivity. What modern thought from Descartes to Heidegger achieved was a painful reflection on how much of our Lebenswelt is a cultural veil through which reality reveals itself with difficulty. Our efforts to understand the world do in fact--not totally, as Kant claimed, but in a major way--conceal it. This has now become evident in quantum theory where the action of observation is so entangled with the observed facts.

In keeping with this emphasis, Deely writes in a style that is at once erudite, critically argumentative, and vigorously personal--indeed, sometimes more personal than is often considered academically "proper." He lets us see that he is an active participant in this ongoing dialogue, employing a touch of polemical rhetoric as well as patient analysis. I enjoyed this liveliness of style in a very long and complex work and welcomed the immense amount of information contained in its lengthy bibliography and appendices.

On certain topics, however, Deely is not entirely faithful to his own emphasis on cultural contextuality. For example, he calls the Pseudo-Dionysius a "forger," when in the culture of that writer a pious pseudonymity was acceptable (even in the Sacred Scriptures), since its purpose was not so much to claim a spurious authority as to express humble deference to it. Similarly his unnuanced criticisms of the Inquisition are more "modern" than "postmodern." In particular, I prefer St. Thomas's benign reading of Aristotle on the question of creation and whether the Unmoved Mover knows the world to that of Deely, who follows current scholarship in this matter. While certainly Aristotle never speaks of creatio ex nihilo or of God's knowledge of creation, neither does he deny these truths; moreover, they are consistent with his metaphysical principles, while a denial of them, as Aquinas shows, would make Aristotle contradict himself--not likely in the Father of Logic. It should be noted that one of Aristotle's lost dialogues was On Prayer and that his will provides for sacrifices. Abraham P. Bos in his Cosmic and Meta-Cosmic Theology in Aristotle's Lost Dialogues (1989) has well argued that these are mature works in which Aristotle chose another literary form for his more religious speculations.

I must confess, moreover, that if I were to write a history of philosophy, I would center it not on the theme of sign, as important as Deely has convinced me that this theme is, but on Aristotle's discovery of First Philosophy in the sense of a science of Being as inclusive of immaterial as well as material existents. Deely does indeed accept the Aristotelian demonstration of the existence of an immaterial First Cause from sensibly observed change in the world, and hence I find that we are in fundamental agreement.

To sum up, Deely's perspective on thought as a network of semiosis escapes idealism by firmly grounding thought in sense observation and saves the epistemology of Aristotle and Aquinas as against Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Derrida, while at the same time showing how human thought exists always in a cultural context. No Thomist who faces the challenges of the postmodern age can afford to neglect this massive, lively, and profound work.

Benedict M. Ashley, O. P.
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, Missouri

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