Aquinas: God & Action. David Burrell, C.S.C.
Burrell’s study of Aquinas is focused on Aquinas’s use of logic and grammar as tools for inquiring into a subject, Divinity, that necessarily outstrips direct human understanding. The impetus for this reading of Aquinas is clear – the rise of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy with its focus on linguistic and conceptual analysis, though Burrell thinks that this is a faithful interpretation of Aquinas’s work. In Part I, Burrell, through a careful examination of the early chapters of the Summa Theologiae, along with a number of other writings by Aquinas, argues that Aquinas does not put forward a positive doctrine of God, a statement of what God is like. Rather, through a linguistic, grammatical exercise Aquinas shows negatively what cannot be said of God. Then, Burrell puts this reading of Aquinas into dialogue with positions, Process Theology and the psychology/philosophy of Jung, that seek to critique what they see as Aquinas’s view. Burrell shows how these critiques of Aquinas miss their mark when he is read in the manner that he advocates. Furthermore, Burrell’s reading of Aquinas incorporates many of the valid criticisms by Process Theologians and Jung of what is traditionally considered Aquinas’s view. In Part II, Burrell analyzes the one positive statement that Aquinas allows himself to make about God, that he is Act, showing what this statement could mean and how Aquinas harnesses the power of analogy in order to make it without overstepping his own strictures on what one can say about God. In the hope of not getting bogged down in the details of secondary literature, I will focus in my summary on the early chapter of Part I as I think that it is in those sections that we really get a sense of what is distinctive in Burrell’s reading and method. Or I may have just found that part much more interesting. I apologize if this makes the summary seem uneven; please draw my attention to the parts that I may have missed in your comments.
Part I Scientia Divina: The Grammar of Divinity
Chapter I: Background: Philosophical Grammar
Burrell sets the stage for his reading of Aquinas by discussing the importance of philosophical grammar for 13th century Christian thinkers. Philosophical grammar includes skills in logic, grammar, and criticism. According to Burrell, Aquinas’s discussion of God in the early chapters of the Summa must be read as not stating a positive theory of God, but as an exercise in philosophical grammar. This focus on grammar must be understood against the background of a belief, in reality common to all philosophy, that ‘language and reality are structurally isomorphic.’ What can be said has a relationship to what is, similarly what cannot be said has a relationship to what cannot be.
Burrell illustrates Aquinas’s attention to, and use of, philosophical grammar through three examples. First, he discusses how Aquinas’s claim that God is simple causes logical problems and how Aquinas tries to elucidate these difficulties using both concrete and abstract terms. It is logically problematic to claim that God is simple because the formal structure of predication requires that a predicate outreach its subject. Simply put, if one were to claim that x is y, but that y is a unique attribute of x, identical with its nature, then y would not fill the connotative role of a predicate, extension and intension, while distinct, are related. Predicates must be shared, in some way, by various subjects in order to be meaningful. Burrell argues that Aquinas makes the assertion that God is simple, knowing full well that he is violating a rule, in order to stress God’s transcendence. Similarly, Aquinas uses abstract predicates in order to show that God is transcendent by indicating that he exhausts a particular concept. At the same time, though, Aquinas also uses concrete predicates in order to show God’s subsistence. Aquinas alternates between concrete and abstract terms in order to express that God is both simple and subsistent, but in a way that we cannot properly state. “Aquinas is concerned to show what we cannot use our language to say, yet there is no medium of exposition available other than language itself…He is reminding us of certain grammatical features of our discourse to make us aware of how we might use those features to show what something which transcended that discourse would be like.”
The next example Burrell discusses is the two different senses of ‘to be.’ Aquinas asserts that ‘God is,’ however, Burrell stresses that Aquinas never offers an ontological argument. Rather, Aquinas makes two distinct statements. The first is that to be God is to be. This statement asserts that God is simple, his essence is identical with his existence, but actually sheds no further light on God’s nature, it doesn’t tell us what his nature is. The second is that ‘God is the cause of these existing effects’ and can be said to exist insomuch as they do. This statement does work towards a proof for God existence, but not an ontological one.
The final example that Burrell presents is Aquinas’ discussion of the distinction between the object signified and mode of signification. According to Burrell, Aquinas raises this distinction in order to draw attention to the diverse ways of signifying and then to the radical discontinuities between the different ways that the same term can be used. The recognition that one cannot account for the relationship between all the different uses of one term will prepare an individual for the use of creaturely perfection language in describing a God that transcends all experience.
Chapter II: The Unknown
Burrell, first, discusses Aquinas proofs of God’s existence, defining this exercise a pre-theological. Aquinas ‘defines’ God as the beginning and end of all things and, then, through each of the proofs shows that this formula has an application. However, this ‘definition’ does not define God because it just shows how God is the beginning and end of a particular set of phenomena, causes or movers for example, while God, in truth, is the ultimate first. Additionally, it sets the stage for a discussion of the transcendence of God because. if he is the beginning and end of all things, then he is not among those things. Thus, he is radically different than all things in human experience. The rest of Aquinas’ discussion of God therefore is dedicated to considering ‘the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does.’ Aquinas, according to Burrell, does not give a theory of God, rather he engages in an critical exercise in philosophical grammar or logical analysis in order to express what cannot be said of God.
The focal point for describing the ways in which God does not exist is the assertion of God’s simpleness. This assertion is backed up by being a formal feature of that which is the beginning and end of all things. As the beginning and end of things, God cannot be composed of anything prior, either materially or formally. Consequently, no articulated statement can succeed in properly stating anything about God. The simple form of predication would belie God’s simpleness. Throughout Question 3 of Part I of the Summa, Aquinas moves from empirical to logical questions about God’s composition, at each step arguing for a more and more radical sense of simpleness, moving from eliminating corporeality, matter/form, and potentiality/actuality. Aquinas is forced by the logic of God’s simpleness and individuality to assert that God is his own nature, despite the fact that this claim is not understood. This leads to the use, as discussed above, of both abstract and concrete terms to describe God. Aquinas is also forced to conclude that God’s essence is identical with his existence. This is necessary because God’s existence cannot be derived from something else; if it was, he could not be the beginning and end of all things. It also cannot derive from his essence because existence is not an attribute. Burrell argues that Aquinas is forced by the logic of the matter to assert that to be God is to be to-be, despite the fact that we cannot really comprehend this statement. Aquinas also argues that God is neither composed of a genus/species composition nor a substance/accident composition. The reasons Aquinas gives to rule out substance/accident composition focus on a lack of potentiality in God, and serves to re-stress the utter failure of language to make proper statements about God. In truth, nothing can properly be said about God.
After having asserted God’s radical simpleness, Aquinas, according to Burrell, spends a number of articles explaining how God’s simpleness should not be taken as indicating deficiency, but rather perfection. He describes how goodness, limitlessness, unchangeableness, and oneness, follow as formal corollaries from God’s central formal feature of simpleness and all indicate transcendence. First, Aquinas analyzes the term good and shows that existence is the most basic kind of good. Good is identified with being. It is not God’s activities which are good, rather it his being. God as the beginning and end of all things is good, because he is the source of all being and that towards which all things orient themselves. Next, Aquinas, according to Burrell, clarifies that God is limitless, but not in the sense that he is the most general of all things and thus not substantial. Burrell reasserts Aquinas’ uses of both abstract and concrete language in order to indicate both God’s limitlessness, the most formal thing/abstract terms, and individuality, existence/concrete terms. Similarly, God exists in all things, but not in the manner of pantheism, his identity with his existence ensures substantiality. Rather he exists in all things in the manner in which an agent exists in actions as being the cause of all things’ existence. This statement while in some ways enlightening is also quite difficult because existence is not properly a predicate. Grammarians refer to it as pseudo-predicate because it does not tell us anything about the thing itself. We cannot really know what it means for something to possess existence and therefore we cannot know what it is for God to be present in all things as the cause of their existence. Finally, Aquinas discusses God’s unchangeableness. Contrary to critic’s claims, Aquinas is not asserting here the impassible God of classic theism. Rather, unchangeableness is a formal corollary of God’s simpleness. Because God simply is what he is, there is no room for potentiality in his being. God cannot be said, therefore, to be striving to accomplish a goal at present unmet. This does not, however, rule out intentional activity. Here is why: in contrast to movements that connote striving, and thus potentiality, intentional activity has accomplishment grammatically already built in to them, to think is to already have thought, to love is already to have loved, and to will is already to have willed. This will be discussed much more in Part II. Next, Aquinas discusses the eternity of God, which according to Burrell expresses God being what he is in a (a)temporal, religious, and dark idiom. This discussion of the formal corollaries of God’s simpleness is capped by a consideration of God’s oneness.
Thus, Aquinas, according to Burrell asserts God’s transcendence as well as his simpleness, the grammatical analogue of transcendence, based on his being the beginning and end of all things. He then unpacks this simpleness and shows how it logically entails negations of possible features of God. These negations, while logically necessary, leave us with a Being that we cannot conceive. Burrell further shows how these features (or negation-features) indicate no deficiency but logically entail a number of perfections, including oneness. In no way, according to Burrell, does Aquinas give a theory of God; in fact he is articulating what cannot be said about God.
Chapter III: Showing a Way: Esse
In this chapter Burrell focuses more closely in on Aquinas statement that to be God is to be to-be. He argues that despite some misleading statements, Aquinas firmly holds that existence is not a predicate. Rather, he uses the inherited categories that he had at his disposal matter/form and potentiality/actuality in order to describe what could not be explained – the fact of existence. Existence, however, differs from matter/form and potentiality/actuality because it does not map on to the subject/predicate structure of our language. It cannot be captured by syntax, but requires attention to performance – in the same way that statement asserted differs from a statement entertained. According to Burrell, Aquinas always recognized that existence differ from attributes as assertion from predication. Burrell argues that all of the statements that Aquinas makes which seem to imply that existence is a predicate and/or substantial can be explained away. He argues that this can be shown by ‘pegging such statements onto the performance of asserting a proposition otherwise merely entertained.’ I am not sure how this works, but Burris claims that it can show that Aquinas is not treating existence as a substance or a predicate. Basically, this problem develops for Aquinas because the notion of existence elides proper articulation as it does not map on to the syntax of our language. It can only be made clear by the performative relationship of assertion/entertaining. Aquinas uses the resources his language does have and this is what makes it seem like he is treating existence as a predicate.
Additionally, Burrell argues that when Aquinas says that we can know God as the cause of existence in all things he is proposing a way of arriving at sense of the unknowability of God through a type of transcendental exercise. By examining the different modes or manners of existence in which we encounter things (substance, accident, etc) we can be directed towards a sense, but never an understanding, of what it would be for something to be exist absolutely or unmannered. Our language depends on these categories of existence; anything we speak about is constrained by them. To realize this is to realize the limits of our language and to point in direction beyond it.
Chapter IV: Analogical Predication
As we saw in our reading of the Summa, the use of analogical expression is very important for Aquinas in descriptions of God’s perfections (Good, Wise, Living, etc.). Many commentators have assumed, therefore, that Aquinas had a well-worked out theory of analogies, which would to apply analogical language to God in order to give us a sense of what God is. Burrell claims that is simply not true. Paralleling Aquinas’ lack of a theory of God, Aquinas did not have a theory of how to use analogical language in order to say something literally true of God. Rather, Aquinas employed analogy analogously, aware that analogy never gives us a definite formula in order to understand the second term of the analogy. (This chapter actually directly responds to my comment on our reading of Aquinas). Aquinas notes that we may use analogous perfection terms in order to describe God, but that we must make clear through our performance that we are aware of the actual inadequacy of these terms. One example of making clear this inadequacy has been discussed above, using both the abstract and the concrete form of the term. Additionally, he indicates that we can become aware of the inadequacy of such expression by paying attention to the manner of signification that is ineliminable from every attempt to nakedly describe the signified.
In particular, perfection terms are always mannered relative to the thing they are being applied to. We have no sense of what good simply is, or what wisdom simply is, but we can talk to a good bicycle as well as a good boy, and a wise Latina as well as a wise guy. Perfection terms are always used analogously relative to the term that they are describing. When we use such terms of God we are aware that we are using them relative to what he is, absolute and simple, which is something we do not understand. We do understand though that God, as the beginning and end of all things, would possess that perfection in the most proper way as he is the source and goal of all the creaturely instances of these perfections. At the same time, remembering that God is the beginning and end of all things reminds us that we have no idea in what way God is wise.
Chapter V: Truth in Matters Religious
The question whether Aquinas has offered a true conception of God is a false question. Aquinas does not offer a conception of God at all. He does not view philosophy as constructive, but rather critical. His account cannot tell us what God really is, rather it can merely eliminate improper conceptions of God. Improper conceptions will give us a definition of a perfection applied to God, proper conceptions, or non-conceptions as it may be, will always make sure that that the literal meaning of the perfection outreaches us. Consequently, improper conceptions of God, will try to tell us what God is, they will not respect Divine Transcendence. The authentic religion, according to Burrell, will respect the mystery of God and his transcendence. Burrell then discusses how one tries to decide between religions. He concludes that we seldom every actually choose between religions that are live options for us. Furthermore, religions cannot be understood dispassionately. Rather, a religious way is “a manner of living with those questions which outreach our capacity to answer.”
Burrell concludes this section, which is his positive (?) statement of his reading of Aquinas, by reflecting on how Aquinas has shown how one can carry on to explore what one is driven to seek but cannot comprehend.
The next two chapters discuss possible objections to Aquinas’ account. I am going to be a bit more schematic in my summary here because 1) a lot of it is an extension of Burrell's previous comments 2) as Liane said this is secondary literature and my comments are getting very long 3) I think I just found the Chapter I-V much more interesting and relevant beyond Aquinas Studies.
Chapter VI: A Philosophical Objection: Process Theology
In this chapter Burrell considers and rejects one major objection to Aquinas’ account. Process Theologians, chief among them Hartshorne, have criticized classical theism for privileging a certain image of God that they find objectionable, a monopolar God, one who is utterly impassive. They believe that that this privileging is the result of an Aristotelian fixation on substance. Instead, Process Theologians promote the centrality of process in Metaphysics. Process Theologians like Hartshorne have identified Aquinas with despised classical theism. Burrell argues that, first, Process Theologians have misread Aquinas, attributing to him a doctrine of God when he merely critically traces out the logical grammar of what can be said of God. Aquinas is not giving a theory of God as impassive substance; rather he is acting as a critical philosopher by noting the limits of our own language. Second, Aquinas, in fact, tries to prevent these grammatical statements about what cannot be said about God from being transformed into positive statements about an impassive, solitary divinity by supplementing them with religious descriptions of God.
Burrell then proceeds to examine Aquinas’ direct statements about God’s relationship with the world. First, Burrell argues that Aquinas’ statement that God does not really have a relationship with the world is not because he is fixated on a monopolar deity. Rather, it is because in his intellectual tradition ‘real’ as opposed to ‘intellectual’ relationships require reasons, natural or inherent properties, that cause the relationship. God as transcendent has no natural or inherent property that ‘forces’ him to relate to the world. Instead, his relationship to the world is governed by his own free will and creative intellect. Thus, Aquinas’ assertion that God cannot be said to really relate to the world, instead of setting up an impassive monopolar deity, actually respects God’s transcendence as well as lays the groundwork for his free personhood. Finally, Burrell responds to Process Theologians claims that God’s love must require that he be in some way dependent on us. He argues that, following in Aquinas footsteps regarding analogy, by considering creaturely love we can be pointed towards a notion of Godly love that is totally devoid of need.
Chapter VII: A Psychological Objection: Jung and Privatio Boni
Jung criticizes the Christian/Western tradition for describing evil as a mere privation of good. Instead, he holds that Good and Evil are true contraries of an opposition. He links the view that evil is a mere privation with a naïve hope for progress and a denial of true evil. Burrell argues that describing evil as a privation is dictated by analytical and experiential factors. Based on logic and psychology it is necessary to define the ends of actions as a good. Actions are defined by movements towards definite ends. These ends must be seen as goods, in some sense, in order to elicit the action. Good is logically and psychologically prior to evil. Goods are defined as capacities and evils as their privations. Additionally, from common experience we see that evil is usually seen as the removal/destruction of something good. Moreover, according to Burrell, Jung’s own comments about the substantiality of evil are premised on a sense of one overarching good as a capacity and evil as its privation: consciousness that allows for wholeness.
Additionally, Burrell critiques Jung’s conception of the relationship of good and evil on the basis of certain problems that he sees as stemming from Hegel. (Ben you might want to help us unpack this a little bit as our resident Hegelian)
Furthermore, Burrell explicates the psychological experience that underlies defining evil as privation. Evil actions are those which have no reason. They are done for simply no purpose as we see from the phenomenological account of sin given by Augustine. Sinful actions are the result of attempting pretentiously to reject our ontological status as beings drawn towards God. Since it is not possible to not be who we are, sinful, evil actions have no purpose or cause. In fact, they are not actions at all, since as discussed above actions have ends, or goods. Rather, evil actions are brute refusals to be who we are. According to Burrell, what Aquinas appreciates and what Jung misses is the senselessness of evil deeds.
Moreover, Burrell argues that Aquinas’ grammatical comments about Evil as privation should not be taken to indicate that he naively deemed evil not to be a real force in the world. Indeed, his medieval belief in the devil as an active force in the world dovetails in many ways with Jung’s notion of the demonic forces in the unconscious. In truth, both Aquinas and Jung’s views on evil militate against the naïve and destructive cult of autonomy and progress espoused by modern day liberalism.
Part II: The Operative Analogous Expression
Chapter VIII: Actus: An Inherently Analogous Expression
Burrell argues the actus is the master metaphor standing as the central insight behind Aquinas’ grammatical exposition of what can (not) be said of God. Actus is the one semi-positive statement that he uses describe to God, identifying it with existence. Moreover, actus is an extremely analogous expression. Its uses abound, exhausting all of the different modes of existence. However, the paradigm use of actus is intentional activities such as knowing and loving and, in particular, the immanent act of understanding that underlies all human action.
Burrell then spends a number of chapters discussing Aquinas’ uses of the term actus and demonstrating how intentional activities and the act of understanding that lies behind them is the most paradigmatic sense
Chapter IX: Intentional Activity and Performance: Paradigm for Actus
Understanding, according to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Burrell, is not mere reception, but involves an actual act. Burrell argues that the richness of this description of understanding establishes it as the paradigmatic case of actus. All other uses of actus are related to it analogically.
Understanding underlies all of human activity. In order to define something as an action, it must be related, be supported by, some form of understanding. All action, in order to be actions at all, must be intentional. This has a number of implications for Aquinas’ theory of action. In particular, it provides an important component in Aquinas’ theory of motivation and decision. According to him, human beings do not choose ends, rather, they are naturally drawn towards ends or goods that are already identified as such. However, in order for their actions towards those ends to be actions, individuals must consent to those ends and goods. Thus, there is a receptive and active component to all actions. Burrell claims that this account of action is more coherent then contemporary decision-theory or theories of existential decisions. Additionally, it holds individuals responsible, over the long term, not only for their actions but for their dispositions or habitus and eventually for their self.
Burrell notes that at no time has he or Aquinas articulated what it is to act, though the notion of actus has underlies all of this description. He claims that this is because actus is a properly basic term. We cannot full articulate what it is, yet we all know what acts are because we do them all the time. The way to make sense of a term like actus is identify its many uses and then determine its paradigmatic case that functions as a focal meaning.
Chapter X: Natural Process: Actus and Causality
In this chapter, Burrell describes Aquinas’ ‘theory of causality,’ or lack thereof, in order to show how actus works in this context. Additionally, he attempts to show how actus underlies the notion of physical cause and that actus is irreducible to physical cause. According to Burrell, Aquinas preserves action as the fundamental explanatory category and relates causality to action through a change of the formal relationship between the agent, who is already acting, and the thing moved, who is acted upon. The act of the agent becomes the act of the thing acted on. No act of transfer is required in order to explain causality. This serves to preserve the role of intentional act as the paradigmatic case of actus, not reducible to physical causality, as is done in contemporary science.
Chapter XI: Divine Activity: Creating and Immanent
In this chapter Burrell describes how Aquinas applies the grammar of actus to the acts of God, including creation and the trinity.
Creation should not be viewed as an empirical statement; rather it viewed as description of a formal relationship of dependence. Existence should be viewed as an act, and all those things that have existence should be viewed as dependent on the God who is Act. The effect of an understanding of this formal relationship of dependence cannot be expressed as part of our grammar. Rather, it is expressed through a comportment towards the world.
The Trinity, an interior action of the divine life, is also best explained in reference to actus. The problem of ascribing change to God is avoided when intentional activity is taken as the paradigmatic sense of actus. As described above, certain basic intentional activities, in particular intellectual activities, has the special linguistic feature that it avoids any hint of process. To think is already to have thought, to love is to already to have loved. Therefore, when actus is viewed in this way, it is no longer problematic to countenance God’s speech (the Son) and love (the Holy Spirit). Burrell also shows how God’s unity and trinity can be reconciled through viewing the trinity as a formal relationship of one substance to itself.
In this chapter Burrell provides a comprehensive account of what can be taken to be Aquinas’ theory of knowledge. Very essentially, this reduces to identity in act. The act of understanding is the ability to reproduce the act of the thing understood. Interestingly, he discusses how the absence of change in intellectual acts leads to their being conceived of as immaterial. Matter is only required to explain change. But more importantly, he believes that Aquinas’ theory of knowledge can be made plausible by appeal to the grammar used to describe instances of knowing as well as regular experience. He discusses how this is the only way we have for evaluating models or theories of this sort. In his discussion of knowing, he notes how expression is the completion of a human act of understanding. This expression can be described as an inner word, an actus actus, or an emanation. At the extreme physical side of things it can be described as comportment.
The paradigmatic actus of intellectual activity can be applied analogically to God. This is fitting because of intellectual activity’s immanence and atemporality. In God’s case, however, understanding need not necessarily express itself. Burrell maintains, though, that it does and that this is the key to understanding the Trinity. The Word of God, according to Burrell, can be seen as gratuitous, syntactical, or ordered, expression-in-use. Burrell goes to lengths to discuss why this expression must be syntactical in the most abstract sense possible in order to be the Son, the Word of God that is identical with God.
Loving is also an intellectual activity and therefore also is grammatically atemporal and immanent. Beyond understanding is the recognition of a good as good. Loving is the spontaneous issue of the expression of understanding in the will. Burrell identifies this love with the Holy Spirit.
In the final chapter Burrell discusses why only the term actus is used to describe God. The reason for this is because of its supreme propensity for analogical uses. This allows the term to express transcendence. Burrell then discusses two cases when actus is used analogically to describe something which one might think is the opposite of action – martyrdom and the contemplative life – in order to show the extreme analogical nature of the term. In martyrdom actus is used to describe the fortitude of will that is necessary to restrain from actual physical action or reaction. In the contemplative life the action of contemplation is preferred because it attunes one to the sanctifying activity of God even though it separates the individual from physical accomplishment. Thus, the term actus for Aquinas is so analogical that it can refer to activities that are bereft of what Western culture would normally identify as the hallmark of action – accomplishment. From this point, Burrell discusses the Western cultural bias of linking action to accomplishment and how other models, Wittegensteinian and those drawn from the Gita and the Ramayana, go beyond this perspective and recognize actions as being defined primarily by intention. Additionally, he stresses that true actions must be authentic, almost radical intentions, else they are merely reactions. In order to have such intentions, according to Burrell, it is necessary to renounce the fruits of one’s actions. Burrell closes by discussing the irreducible basic-ness of the notion of actus as intellectual activity. It functions as a primitive experience and is not really capable of being explicated. It is this sort of intentional activity that Aquinas ascribes to God analogically, of course, when he describes him as Actus.