“You can’t properly think in English”

Let me introduce you to a little discussion on language and philosophy in the Netherlands. The title of this post refers to the title of an interview with the Dutch philosopher Ger Groot (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (Saturday 22th November). In this interview Groot expresses his deep worries about the gradual transition in the philosophy departments from Dutch to English. His objections are manifold. Ger GrootWriting essays in a non-native language gives a loss of subtility of expression and sensibility of turns of thought. Moreover, it will lead to an impoverishment of the native language as well. In short, the drift of the interview is that this development will inevitably lead to an attenuation of the education of philosophy in the Netherlands.

The article remained largely unnoticed. A couple of letters and reactions expressed approval and it must be admitted that Groot touches upon a couple of relevant objections. For example, he mentions that the translation of philosopical topics to the public domain (newspapers, other media) needs the creation of a philosophical discourse in the native language. The comparison with theology is readily made in this regard. The same objection can be made by and large for theological education as well. Doing theology has a practical aim: it serves the Church and its practices. But the language employed in most congregations in the Netherlands will be Dutch. That seems to have an important consequence for the language employed in theological education.

So, Ger Groot seems to underscore a valid point of view. However, in one sense I strongly disagree with him, for Groot presupposes a specific relation between language and reality. Let me give an example of this: “In science the use of language is very limited. In the case of philosophy the importance hardly can be overestimated. Words and philosophical concepts are indissolubly connected with each other.” “Anglo-Saxon philosophy often doesn’t fully realize how ‘language-dependent’ our thinking is.” In this connection, he speaks about a linguistic mono-culture. The journalist then remarks that there has been one scientific language before: Latin in the Middle Ages. But Groot’s answer again is typical: the use of Latin lead to scholastic thinking.

What is the problem with this way of reasoning?

1. First of all, there is a historical problem. It simply is a myth that one language leads to one (type of) philosophy. Latin was indeed the language of the scientific community, not only in the Middle Ages, but long since. Calvin’s Institutes for example were written in Latin, but it’s not a specimen of scholastic theology, in contrast with his friend Peter Martyr Vermigli, for example. That is not to say that a particular language is a matter of indifference. Far from that! And, of course, it is true that there are different traditions of doing philosophy. But my point is that accounting for these differences only, or even largely, in terms of (a particular) language is a gross misrepresentation of the complex reality of philosophical development.

2. The second problem is a philosophical one. In particular, it refers to the history and development of philosophy in the Netherlands. One of the remarkable achievements of Dutch philosophy has been in the area of the research of medieval philosophy. The name of Lambertus de Rijk stands out. A quote of Antonie Vos (pupil of De Rijk) from his The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus to illustrate this point:Lambertus de Rijk

In his important introduction to medieval philosophy, De Rijk lists four examples of original contributions that excel the inventions of ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Latin philosophy: terminist logic, which is in fact a part of the much wider phenomenon of the logica modernorum, the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the critical theory of knowledge of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a way of thought which differs markedly from necessitarian Greek philosophy.

3. Groot does not only seem to be unaware of this alternative way of thinking and doing philosophy in the Netherlands, by Lambertus de Rijk and his pupils, he also missed the systematic importance of these discoveries. Scholastic medieval thought emancipated from Greek and Hellenistic thought with its thought patterns of necessitarianism. It disconnected the absolute parallelism of thinking and being. But if that’s true, it is nonsense to bound up the content of a particular philosophy with the language in which it is spoken or written. In fact, this way of doing philosophy asks for a new sensitivity to the way language is used. One and the same sentence, be it in Latin, Dutch of English, can mean something completely different in a different context. Unearthing these differences is the task of a philosopher, and a theologian as well. Not always easy, but worth the effort!

So, yes, you can think properly in English, although it might be hard work, especially for a Dutchman…

Vermigli on necessity and contingency

Recently, I was involved in writing about God’s providence. In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the concept of permission with regard to divine providence. Shortly after that I had to prepare a sermon about God’s predestination. In the course of my preparation I spent some time on reading Peter Martyr’s commentary on Romans 9, especially his ‘scholium’ onPeter Martyr predestination. I was struck by his careful exposition of these matters in terms of contingency and will. I wrote before on Vermigli’s stance in matters of contingency and necessity, concluding then that the conceptual structure of his thinking doesn’t fit in with the concept of synchronic contingency. However, after reading parts of his scholium on predestination, I now think my conclusions were too rash. My conclusion was based on Vermigli’s assertion that something contingent becomes necessary, once it has occurred. I forgot, however, that even Scotus himself endorsed this view (Lectura I,40).

I am at the moment not in the position to give a definitive verdict in these matters. Instead, I want to give an indication of his conceptual skills by way of presenting Vermigli’s ‘toolbox’. I am not in the possession of the English translation in the particular volume of the Peter Martyr Library (on Predestination and Justification). So I will refer directly to the first Latin edition, printed in Basel in 1558. Vermigli starts a new entry in his discussion on predestination on p.434, asking (1) whether divine predestination entails – somehow – necessity for us; (2) whether it implies an impediment of the free will and (3) whether it removes God’s justice.
In order to answer the first question, Peter Martyr sets out to define what he means with necessity and to make a couple of distinctions. He starts with absolute necessity or ‘necessitas simplex’. This necessity consists in states of affairs, that can’t be denied without implying a contradiction. Examples are God and mathematical or geometric truths. He distinguishes these necessities carefully from physical and natural laws, such as the course of the sun, the burning of fire, and the like. These are not neccesary in an absolute or simple sense, because God can (as Scripture shows) decide to prevent their occurance.

Vermigli however recaputilates them as examples of neccesity on the basis of an inner principle, be it in different ‘degree’ of necessity. This he contrasts with neccesity on the basis of an external principle. He mentions two kinds of this kind of necessity, the first being coerced (by violence f. ex. to act against one’s will or nature. The second is more important for his argument, necessity ‘ex hypothesi’. He mentions (p.435) in this regard the scholastic distinction between the necessity of the consequent (necessitas consequentis) and the necessity of the consequence (neccitas consequentiae). The last necessity is also called implicative necessity. He connects this distinction with another one: ‘sensum compositum’, referring to the necessity of the consequent and ‘sensum divisum’, referring to the necessity of the consequence. His example is a classic in scholastic literature: what is white, can’t be black. Well, says Vermigli, that’s true if we take them together (in sensu composito): a thing can’t be white and black (= not white) at the same instance. In formula: -M (p & -p). However, it can be true, if we take them apart (in sensu diviso). In that case we could formalize it like this: Mp & M-p. He explicates: “Quod est enim album modo, mutari potest et efficiri nigrum”. It seems then, that Vermigli interprets this possibility in terms of change over time. What is possible now (t1), could be different at a later moment (t2): Mp[t1] & M-p[t2]. But even so, this example doesn’t by itself rule out the possibility of an underlying synchronic conceptual structure. Finally, Vermigli adds one more distinction to his conceptual toolbox, speaking about the neccesity of certitude or infallibility, before moving on to apply these distinctions to the questions surrounding divine predestination. This terminology goes back to Duns Scotus. A bit further, he explains his preference: “quia Deus nec mutari, nec falli potest”.

This passage is discussed in the book of Frank James, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination, (1998). He speaks of it as a ‘rather extensive scholastic exercise’ (p.82). Moreover, he interprets Vermigl24727i’s preference for his own terminology (neccisity of certitude or infallibility) due to dissatisfaction with existing scholastic vocabulary. James mentions these distinctions only in passing (in a footnote), apparently not being aware of its conceptual importance.
Luca Baschera treats the passage in his chapter ‘Aristotle and Scholasticism’, in Torrance Kirby, et al. (eds.), A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli  (2009).

In his discussion of whether divine foreknowledge renders all events necessary, Vermigli draws on the traditional distinction between necessity ‘of the consequent’ and necessity ‘of consequence’ in order to demonstrate how God’s infallible knowledge of the future does not entail any coercion of secondary causes. However, even though the nature of secondary causes is preserved by God who makes use of them without doing violence to them, it is quite clear that according to his position, all events, when related to the knowledge and will of God, are indeed necessary (p.157).

This can hardly count as a summary that does justice to Vermigli’s position. Both James and Baschera neglect the conceptual difficulties involved in the discussion about necessity and contingency. Interestingly though, Baschera points to the influence of Gregory of Rimini on Vermigli, although he suggests that the influence of Aquinas in matters of providence and predestination is more important. Gregory of Rimini is mentioned by Antonie Vos, in his masterpiece The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (2007), as one of the inheritors of the line of thought of Duns Scotus (p.6). As said before, at the moment I am not able to decide whether Vermigli did or didn’t work with a concept of synchronic contingency. But a fascinating and intriguing question it is for sure!

Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency

Recently, I read Barbara Pitkin’s essay ‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’ (published in The Journal of Religion 2004; 347-378; online available on Academia.eu). She shows how Melanchthon and Calvin differ on important issues concerning divine action and human liberty. Yes, they agree on the basic intent, namely that human beings are not capable to will the good on their own, but in the way they articulate this basic insight they differ considerably. Calvin, on the one hand, tends to downplay the ability of the human will in favour of the determing role of God’s willing and acting. Melanchthon, on the other hand, seeks to explore the way in which human willing is involved in and – in some sense – cooperates with God’s willing and acting. Pitkin shows how the interaction between the two men developped. Melanchton was concerned about Calvin’s views on predestination, deeply aware of the threat of determinism in Calvin’s theology.

This reminded me of an article in the Dutch journal Kerk en Theologie (2011; p.138-159) from Antonie Vos about the Freedom of the Will according to Melanchthon. Vos shows how Melanchthon changed his opinions about determinism and contingency between the first edition of his Loci Communes in 1521 and the second, revised edition of 1535. Vos uses the edition from the Utrecht University library, instead of the text from the Corpus Reformatorum (XXI), which is an amalgam of different editions. The textual history of the Loci is indeed quite complex (compare the ‘Introduction to the second edition’, p.xiii-xv from Benjamin T.G. Mayes in the English translation from Melanchthon’s Loci Praecipui Theologici from 1559): The Chief Theological Topics, translated by J.A.O. Preus (Concordia Publishing House 2011)). After some research I found a copy of this second 1535-edition on the internet, digitalized by the Herzog August Biblithek Wolfenbüttel. The quotes I checked, show that it is the same edition as the Utrecht-copy. The relevant texts are to be found under the title ‘De causa peccati & de contingentia’ (in PDF-reader, p.92).

On an earlier occasion I wrote about Antonie Vos and the rediscovery of synchronic contingency. Vos and his Research group published about the synchronic contingency in the theology and philosophy Duns Scotus on the one hand, and some important reformed theologians, like Voetius and Turretini, on the other hand. However, this seemed to presuppose a certain gap between medieval theology and the emergence of reformed scholasticism. And indeed, the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin show certainly deterministic traits, to say the least. Moreover, both Luther and Calvin fulminated against scholastic distinctions in this regard. The more surprising it is to discover Melanchton’s ‘conversion’ from determinism to contingency. “The freedom of the will is the cause of our action’s contingency”, he writes (Est autem libertas voluntatis causa contingentiae nostrarum actionum). The contrast with the 1521-edition is immense. There he asks rhetorically: “‘What then?’, you will ask, ‘isn’t there – to use a phrase of those – no contingency in reality, no chance, no fortune?'” (Quid igitur, inguies, nullane est in rebus, ut istorum vocabulo utar, contingentia, nihil casus, nihil fortuna).

So, between 1521 and 1535 Melanchthon changed his mind in this regard. The question is: can we trace this change more precisely? Vos mentions in his article a remark of Bernard Lohse, who suggests ‘after 1527’. Barbara Pitkin, following Timothy J. Wengert, mentions also 1527-1528, more specifically, his edition of the commentary on Colossians (‘The Protestant Zeno’, p.359). It certainly is worth further study to trace backhis notion of contingency. Moreover, it seems probable that Melanchthon wasn’t the only one who rediscovered the notion of (synchronic) contingency in the turmoil of the Reformation era. There must have been others as well, I expect. On top of my list of other ‘suspects’ is the name of Peter Martyr Vermigli

Paul Helm on Synchronic Contingency

As I wrote before Helm’s Deep is one of the blogs I frequently read. In his post at the beginning of this month, Paul Helm discusses the notion of ‘contingency’. He makes a distinction between two concepts of contingency: logical contingency and synchronic contingency. Concerning the latter, he mentions the name of John Duns Scotus and the advocates of his thinking. The notion of synchronic contingency in Duns has been (re)discovered in the early 1980’s, simultaneously,  by Jaako Hintiika (Helsinki) and Antonie Vos (Utrecht). Vos was one of my teachers in Utrecht.

However, Paul Helm is fairly critical about the concept of synchronic contingency. Why? In his post he gives two reasons for his critique. The first is this: “An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being.” But what’s odd here? In fact, as Helm himself notes, this way of applying temporal adjectives to God’s willing and acting has been part of a broad theological tradition. Helm refers to the idea of the divine decrees and the question of its order, as it has been worked out in the reformed tradition. So, his argument turns out to be not an argument about synchronic contingency after all, but, at most, an argument about applying temporal terms to an eternal (that is: timeless) God.

What about Helm’s second argument? Helm claims:

Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do.

Once again Helm seems to work with a confused conception of synchronic contingency. He seems to explain these ‘circumstances’  in a rather ‘psychological’ way. At least, that’s what the word ‘coping’ suggests. Does he think of those circumstances as influences on God’s willing or His motivational structure? But that is of course not the way any medieval (or reformed) theologian could have been thinking. God is the ‘prima causa’. What then could Helm mean with ‘circumstances’? The only alternative which I can come up with, is that Helm thinks of the set of all logical possibilities, which God (necessarily) knows. They ‘determine’ in a certain sense God’s willing and choosing. However, if that is what he means, the word ‘coping’ doesn’t seem very appropriate. God isn’t coping with these logical possible states of affairs. What is at stake in the notion of synchronic contingency in relation to God’s willing, is that He perfectly knows all logical possible states of affairs and chooses one possible world (a set of possible state of affairs), although He could have chosen differently.

So, I don’t think Helm produced sound arguments against synchronic contingency. His real arguments we are waiting for.