Different Meanings of Substance

The term “substance” functions as a key element in a number of important philosophical and theological arguments. At first glance, it appears to be a rather simple word that we use all the time, but this disguises several layers of complexity that often lead to confusion. “Substance” can have quite different senses in different philosophical contexts, sometimes directly at odds with each other. It will be helpful, then, to untangle a few of these different meanings so that we can keep our future discussions clear.

Right away, we can set to one side a couple meanings peculiar to the way that the word “substance” is used in English. Perhaps the most common is the use of “substance” to mean “stuff.” For example, we can imagine Star Trek characters finding a “strange substance” on the surface of a planet, which appears as a thick black goop. Philosophers will instead prefer the terms “matter” and “material” for this.

We can also set aside another sense of the English term that does not have a direct bearing on philosophy: in older English, “substance” can mean “wealth” or “livelihood.” One can read in Jane Austen, for example, someone described as a “man of substance,” meaning that he is rich.

Next, philosophers often use “substance” as a standard translation for Aristotle’s term οὐσία. This is not the place to give a full account of Aristotle’s philosophy of substance, but we can note briefly the way he uses the term in the Categories and the Metaphysics. In the Categories, Aristotle distinguishes between “primary” and “secondary” substance. Primary substance refers to a particular entity as the bearer of properties. Secondary substance refers to the species or genera to which these primary substances belong. For example, primary substance would refer to Socrates, while secondary substance would refer to Man or Animal. This simple distinction becomes much more complex in the Metaphysics, and there is scholarly dispute regarding how we are ultimately to interpret Aristotle’s view of substance in this work. We can gloss over these nuances for now, however, and say broadly that Aristotle comes to conceive of substance here as that which is most real.

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Jordan Peterson and Platonic Realism

As Jordan Peterson rose to popularity a few years ago, I noticed a corresponding rise in people talking about symbolism, archetype, and meaning. Peterson frequently talks about these issues in a way that appeals deeply to thinking Christians and especially Christian Platonists like myself. In important ways, however, the approach Peterson takes, based on Carl Jung, differs dramatically from Platonic realism. While I may be competent to give a brief outline of what I mean by Platonic realism, I consider myself very much a student in the realm of Jungian archetypes. If anyone can set me straight, please do so. I’ll do my best, however, to articulate an important bridge that I see between the Jungian understanding and the Platonic, while cautioning against an important contrast.

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The Kingdom of the Heavens

The last two weekends, I preached for both Lexington Christian Fellowship and Jessamine Christian Fellowship on the Kingdom of the Heavens in the Gospel of Matthew. You can find audio for the first week here, and audio for the second week here.

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Religious Experience and Brain Activity

Suppose neuroscientists could pin down with a high degree of accuracy a particular region of the brain tightly associated with religious experience. Suppose the association between subjective experience and measurable brain activity goes both ways. Each time the region lights up the test subject reports having a religious experience, and every time he reports having a religious experience, the region lights up. (I know; I know. Those of you who actually pray will tell me that this is not really how “religious experience” works, but run with it for a second.)

Let’s take an even scarier step: suppose that these scientists work out a way to stimulate this region of the brain in such a way that they can induce religious experiences. The scientists have a big red button on a console labeled, “TRANSENDENCE.” Whenever they push it, a man with wires running into his shaved scalp becomes a mystic.

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Guilt by Association

Conservative Christians, with whom I am otherwise quite sympathetic, sometimes become skittish around philosophical ideas that I hold dear (Platonism). This fear often amounts to no more than an unarticulated worry about contamination from non-Christian, pagan sources. Better to stay on the safe ground of the Apostle than to wander off into those dark regions of thought where who knows what ideas might lie. Here be dragons. As a simple heuristic for those who don’t have the resources to be full-time readers, this approach isn’t so bad, and frequently their worry turns out to be justified. For example, I know mothers with children who began to experiment with New Age ideas or dabble in the materialistic syncretism that dominates our age. Since this dabbling was motivated out of rebellion rather than genuine philosophical inquiry it unsurprisingly led to the disintegration of the child’s already unstable Christian world-view. Such parents are right to be leery when they see others taking similar first steps down a road that all-too-often ends in disaster.

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Hildebrand on Sin and Sanctity

We have now to emphasize that the real antithesis to pharisaism and all forms of self-righteousness is to be found in the humility and charity that we find in a saint. The saint—and not the tragic sinner—is the antithesis to the pharisee and the self-righteous man. Humility necessarily implies a consciousness of our sinfulness and imperfection, but clearly it does not presuppose sinning, a blatant disobedience of any moral commandment. In the saints we find the deepest and most vivid consciousness of their unworthiness and sinfulness—notwithstanding the fact that they abstain from sinning. They clearly testify to the fact that humility in no way presupposes sin, and that it is a grave error to deal with sin as the antithesis of pharisaism and self-righteousness.1

Here we see drawn together several important observations about humility and sin. People often say that they are “only human” or that “nobody’s perfect.” The underlying thought is that humility requires this belief and that means they must accept the fact that they will go on sinning. Here, however, we have the important distinction between an awareness of our frailty and a complacency with our sin. The Christian ideal requires full repentance from sin and at the same time an awareness of our own weakness and former sin.

We will always find it psychologically impossible to hold these two ends together so long as we conceive the moral struggle in solitary terms. If I, like the ancient ethical Greek, attempt to train virtue within myself under my own power and with my own solitary resources, I must inevitably lapse into either despair (because I keep on failing) or pharisaism (because I convince myself that I am morally excellent in a way that others are not). Only by introducing a deep awareness of supernatural grace can the Christian saint simultaneously walk free from sin and walk in humility toward others. This awareness only becomes possible once we step out of ethical solitude into an I–Thou encounter with a holy and merciful God.


  1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Morality and Situation Ethics (Hildebrand Press, 2019), 92.

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Traditionalism

Several all-too-simple contrasts readily present themselves whenever we try to make sense of what is going on today: Liberal–Conservative, Secular–Religious, Relativist–Realist, Globalist–Nationalist, etc. You’ve probably heard by now that all of these are simplistic, but we need simple categories if we are ever to come to grips with a complex reality. As a starting point, they aren’t so bad.

Again and again in recent conversations, I’ve found the pair Modernist–Traditionalist especially helpful for understanding people’s basic orientations to a host of issues. I want to notice, however, a worse way and a better way of understanding this contrast, and make a plug for metaphysical realism along the way.

The worse way to understand the contrast views Modernism and Traditionalism as equal and opposite prejudices that have to do with time. Modernism begins from the idea that something is better because it is newer, and views with scorn all things that are out-dated or unprogressive. The Traditionalist, by contrast, tends to view new ideas or practices with a default stance of skepticism, sometimes eccentrically reverting to very old things just to register his disgust with the new-fangled. Hence we have a fight between the New Ways and the Old Ways, and the battlefield is the timeline of history.

Unfortunately, this way of characterizing the disagreement is typical of modernists (or better: post-modernists). It leaves out an essential third element that rises above the timeline and really cannot be understood in terms of Old and New. I mean, of course, the Truth.

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Two Personalisms

In the last few blog posts I have tried to clarify some important terms such as “Platonism” and “the Forms.” While I’m at it, I should also clarify another term important for explaining my own philosophical sensibilities: Personalism. I consider myself to be a student and admirer of the “Christian personalist” movement that flourished, especially though not exclusively among Catholic thinkers, in the early part of the twentieth century. Important figures for this movement include Max Scheler, Gabriel Marcel, Edith Stein, Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), John Zizioulas, and my absolute favorite, Dietrich von Hildebrand.

I frequently meet a certain confusion about the term personalism, however, especially when I am talking to people who are interested in apologetics. I came to find out that the well-known apologist Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart have been advancing a critique of what they call “theistic personalism,” in an effort to counter a dangerous trend they see in analytic philosophy of religion. They especially have in view the even more well-known William Lane Craig, and they propose “classical theism” in opposition. As some indication of how well-known these figures are right now, both Feser and Craig have recently been interviewed by Ben Shapiro on the Daily Wire, and Hart has such a fan club that people frequently refer to him merely by the acronym DBH and expect you will know whom they mean. For the details of the controversy between “theistic personalism” and “classical theism,” I recommend this interesting post on Feser’s personal blog.

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What are the Forms?

In my last post I explained that being a Platonist in my vocabulary just means that I believe in the Forms. On the one hand, this position is thicker than a mere rejection of nominalism because the doctrine of the Forms gives a sophisticated, meaningful account of how the world outside our heads has the qualities that it does. On the other hand, this position is thiner than a commitment to the whole body of various doctrines found in the historical Platonic school. In that post, I defined Platonism like this:

Platonism
We understand the world by grasping (i) real, (ii) eternal, (iii) immaterial, (iv) intelligible structures, called Forms, which exist beyond any individual instances, called participants, that embody them.

In this post, I would like to dive into these four attributes and explain what I mean by Forms. I should note that this is what I mean by Forms, rather than a textual commentary on what Plato means by Forms. I’m obviously getting most of the ideas from Plato’s dialogues, but I’m mainly concerned with figuring out how reality is actually structured rather than figuring out which interpretation of Plato is correct.

We can start by using the Form of the Beautiful as an example. Both the beautiful sunset and the beautiful symphony exhibit an internal structure, a pattern, a kind of inner logic. Although a symphony is a very different kind of thing than a sunset, we nevertheless recognize something in common between the two: both have a diversity of elements arranged in such a way that the whole achieves a particular harmony, a harmony that manifests an inner radiance. (St. Thomas defines this succinctly as the splendor formae.)

This structure, the structure of harmony-yielding-radiance, is the Beautiful. When we say “the Form of the Beautiful,” we simply mean this structure that appears repeatedly in the world. This structure is just what it means for something to be beautiful. In general, we can say that “The Form of \(X\)” is a shorthand of saying, “What it means for something to be \(X\), the structure that something must participate in for it to be \(X\).”

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What I Mean by Platonism

In contemporary philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, people use the term “Platonism” as a synonym for metaphysical realism in general. This often amounts to little more than the claim that universals are real. (This means that categories like tree or green are real features of the world and not merely human concepts that we project onto the world in order to organize individual trees and green things.) Mostly, this usage comes from an innocent need for a simple term to capture an important position. Sometimes, however, contemporary philosophers have little contact with actual historical philosophy and only took a few courses as undergrads or early in graduate school. They seem to have come away from these courses with the impression that “Platonism” in this sense exhausts the whole message of Plato’s theory of the Forms—that Forms are nothing but universals which are supposed to be real.

At the other extreme, there are a good number of contemporary scholars who work as specialists in ancient philosophy or on Plato in particular. For such scholars, “Platonism” has a technical meaning, referring to the ancient school of philosophy, centered around Plato’s academy (for certain periods of its history) and in competition with other schools such as the Stoics, Epicureans, and Aristotelians. For such scholars, “Platonism” involves a whole host of doctrines, including the theory of the Forms but extending to the tripartite soul, recollection, or the distinction between knowledge and opinion. One even meets at conferences every now and then a true believer in this kind of Platonism, and some scholars treat each line of each dialogue as the words of Holy Writ.

When I use the term “Platonism” or describe myself as a “Platonist,” I mean something between these two. Like those scholars who work in contemporary philosophy, I mean to describe a metaphysical position, that is, a view of how the world actually is, rather than a merely historical set of ideas that some people used to believe. I am also focused on the theory of the Forms. While I think that we can find many important insights in Plato’s theory of the soul or his depiction of the ideal city, these are not views that I would endorse. (Whether Plato himself endorses the ideas expressed by his characters is a discussion for another day.) Like other scholars who specialize in ancient philosophy, however, my conception of the Forms is more complex than the mere assertion that universals are real. In another post, I want to go into more detail about what this metaphysical position involves, but for now I can offer a working definition:

Platonism
The position that we understand the world by grasping (i) real, (ii) eternal, (iii) immaterial, (iv) intelligible structures, called Forms, which exist beyond any individual instances, called participants, that embody them.

We can distinguish this from the simple position that universals are real, because this claim does not necessarily mean that all universals have a Form. We might wonder, for instance, whether there are Forms for human artifacts, like chairs and iPhones. And perhaps some universals, such as individual numbers, are simply the playing out of a single deeper structure, such as Number. It may also be that we do project some categories onto the world and thus fail conceptually to carve the world at its joints. What matters is that some fundamental structures do exist and that we could not make sense of the world without some grasp of them, without some intimation of the eternal behind the familiar world of sensation.

In this sense and not the others, we may speak of nearly all the Fathers of the Church as “Christian Platonists.” I hope to see a revival of such Christian Platonism because I believe that a definite, nuanced, articulate account along these lines would counteract a great deal of the folly to which our age is prone.

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