Tag Archives: idealism

The God Of The Medieval Mystics

ImageThe main stream of the philosophical tradition, whose headwaters were the Greek pre-Socratics, largely occupied itself with accounting for the order observable in the natural world. The purpose in doing so was to uncover a causal connection between the order of nature and the underlying principle or principles constituting the kosmos. The supposition is that the order observable in nature, which is intelligible to rational beings, reflects the ordering principle itself. Thus, rational beings can apprehend, to a limited degree, the purposive nature of the ordering principle, and thereby render an account complementary to, and supporting the philosophical account of the natural world.

One stream of thought running counter to the speculative physics and metaphysics of the Greeks was that of the Medieval speculative mystics. The nature of the mystical experience, which is in effect a miracle in both the order of creation and the order of cognition, abrogated the need to philosophically investigate the causes in nature in order to arrive at a mode of certitude concerning the nature of the divine.

According to the mystics, discursive reasoning is not the only means by which the nature of God is known.1 The mystical experience involves a direct internal experience of the divine that passes over the philosophical process of searching out univocal connections, or fixing dualities between the creator and the creation; the rules of deductive reasoning become irrelevant because the mystical union with God tends decidedly toward the irrational and intuitive. Hence, the experiences of the mystics led to the creation of a branch of negative theology running counter to the natural theology of Aristotle and his Medieval followers.

As the Ockhamists had demonstrated by the close of the Middle Ages, the rational mind of man is unable to adequately or accurately fathom the divine nature. Thus, the innovation introduced by the mystics into Medieval Theology was to uncover a direct experience of the divine that circumvented man’s limited natural knowledge of God. The writings of the mystics lay emphasis on the certitude of the knowledge of God through mystical interior experiences and visions, and count their knowledge superior to the work of reason unaided by the divine light. According to the speculative mystics, there is nothing to preclude the experience of God from being an interior experience; thus it became necessary to extend the possibility of what could be included under the category of experience as such.

The mystical encounter with God bypassed the sterility of Scholastic speculation, which was largely a failure at intensifying religious life, and served to show that a philosophical consciousness of one’s internal acts, such as will and reason, is not the sole means of arriving at certitude regarding how God is known or understood.

Under the influence of the neo-Platonists, the speculative mystic’s conception of God necessitated the expansion and spiritualization of the category of experience, which had hitherto been rendered inoperative beyond the philosophical threshold of sensory experience. Because the God of the mystics is rationally unintelligible, the well-trodden avenue of reason is of no avail in circumscribing the spiritual nature of the mystical experience. The God of the mystics is no more philosophically intelligible than the neo-Platonist Plotinus’ hierarchy of abstractions crowned by the One, which is beyond Intellect and Being, and is not a philosophically intelligible object in any sense. However, the difference between the two respective conceptions lies in the realm of possible experience. Any experience of Plotinus’ One is unattainable; on the other hand, experience of the God of the mystics is possible through a spiritual process variously referred to as “degrees of communion with God,” the “divine birth in the soul,” and “degrees of prayer,” among other designations.

As illustrated in the writings of the mystics themselves, the encounter with God is set out in terms reminiscent of Plotinus’ self-refuting endeavor to give an adequate description of the nature of the One, which is indescribable, or Pseudo-Dionysus’ attempt to communicate his incommunicable vision through fantastic images drawn from the world of mutable things. The self is all but extinguished in the mystical union with God, and a soul thus enraptured is unable to convey any positive impression of what occurs, or how. The stream of negative theology that began with the neo-Platonists, and which the speculative mystics were to inherit, culminated in a unique conception of God mirrored in the soul’s ecstatic experience of the divine. Because the mystical experience was an experience of the ineffable, the abstract philosophical attributes of God formulated by the Medieval Aristotelian philosophers fell uselessly away, leaving a quasi-theological, or mystical-theological certitude that functioned independently of the philosophical subtleties of Ancient Greek origin.

1 Neither theosophy nor revelation is mentioned here on account of the fact that the entire crux of Medieval mysticism lies in its apocalyptic and theosophical character.

The “Ontological” Proof of St. Anselm & Kant

B-17 Bomber flying over Capri, circa 1945According to Anselm, God, as the greatest thing that can be thought, is accordingly the most perfect thing as well. Pure perfection, as a philosophical concept, devolves on the possessor all positive properties. The nature of the property of pure perfection determines whether this or that attribute, such as goodness or badness, is included or not. For Anselm, “existence” is the property par excellence, because it is the greatest perfection. God, who is perfect and lacks no positive properties, is the only conceivable idea such that the idea corresponds to the existence of God— as in the case that the idea of God exists; hence, God exists.

Anselm’s proof for the existence of God marks out two possible types of existence: first, existence in the understanding, and second, existence in reality. If an object has existence in the understanding, then it exists as an idea, but if an object exists in reality, then the idea of that object refers to an object qua object. A desk, for example, exists in both the understanding and in reality, whereas mythological beasts exist only in the understanding. According to Anselm’s argument, it is more perfect to exist in both reality and in the understanding, rather than in only one. Existence in both reality and the understanding does not imply perfection qua perfection, or even actual existence. In the case of God, either God exists in the understanding but not in reality, or God exists in both reality and the understanding. In the former instance, God is a perfect thing that lacks something, namely existence; hence, God is an imperfect perfect thing, which is contradictory. God, however, is necessarily perfect, and thus the idea of God in the understanding as “that which nothing greater can be thought” must refer to an object that has actual existence if it is to also be the possessor of all possible perfections.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant addresses the claims of Anselm’s “ontological” proof for the existence of God. According to Kant, Anselm’s argument fails to gain its objective as an analytic or a priori proof for God’s existence because “being,” or existence qua existence, is not a real predicate in the statement, “God exists.” Possessing an external correlate (being) is not really a property since sentences can be constructed where being appears to be a real predicate, but is not, such as in the case of “God exists.” Kant states that not all a priori knowledge is vacuous, and this leads him to distinguish between two types of judgments, or propositions: analytic and synthetic. Analytic judgment/propositions are those in which the predicate in a proposition is contained in the subject (red is red, or all bodies are extended), and are merely explicative. The converse of an analytic proposition is a self-contradiction, and thus all analytic judgments are known a priori. Analytic proposition/judgments refer to those characteristics that do not extend or supplement knowledge about the world, since knowledge independent of experience cannot tell you anything about experience; thus, the concepts contained in analytic judgments refer to the logical structure of the mind alone, not any rationality underlying the contingencies of perception). Synthetic judgment propositions are those in which the predicate of a proposition is not contained in the subject (triangles are blue, or all bodies have weight), thus synthetic judgment/propositions are ampliative.

In Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, what is being predicated of God is neither analytic nor synthetic. Existence cannot be a property of anything because it adds nothing to the subject— if the predicate “existence” is added to the subject “Pegasus,” existence as a predicate is only added to the subject as an idea, and cannot bestow real existence on the subject if it doesn’t already exist. On the other hand, synthetic predicates add something specific to the object it’s predicative of; or in other words, it adds content to the subject. For example, the statement, “the triangle is red” predicates redness of the subject triangle. If existence were a predicate, then it would be adding content to what is predicated of it, but it does not. In the case of Anselm’s proof, the claim that God has existence as a correlate is an analytic judgment. As an analytic judgment, the proposition, “God exists” is the sole example of an analytic judgment that establishes the existence of something, that it is true by definition, and that what is predicated of the subject is true. Contrary to this claim, Kant claims that the predicate of existence only appears to be predicating something of the subject, when in fact it is not. Because the predicate “existence” is put into the form of a sentence, it only appears to prove what it claims, but in fact assumes what it sets out to prove, rather than proving it.