Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Priorism in the 3 Philosophical Categories

The three categories of philosophy--metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics (some add a fourth--aesthetics--the study of beauty) teach us about reality, knowledge and morality respectively.  A meta-philosophical approach to these categories asks the question as to which one comes first.  Do we know things first?  Or do we "start with the facts of reality" first?  Ethics hardly ever gets consideration for first in tow, leaving it shuffling its feet and kicking the pebbles on the playground.  Poor ethics.  Whence art thou?

But when the cigarettes light up and the espresso sits in the cup on the small round table under the portico on the cobblestone streets, the skinny, goateed kings of thought linearize in a way that is arbitrary.  What I mean is this: many in the Thomistica absoluta (school of Thomas Aquinas) tell us we need to "start with the facts."  This is so because, well, we have to.  We are reminded of Hume's pragmatic approach to his radical skepticism where he says we have to leave aside our skepticism about cause and effect, simply because life couldn't be lived any other way.  Omg I Kant believe it.

A recent article on a Christian apologetics website argued this case (I'm leaving it unnamed), saying that we must start with reality, defining reality as "That which is."  The author differentiates between metaphysics and reality, asserting that metaphysics asks the question of what is real, while Reality Proper is something that is prior to the question of asking what this Proper is.  So, we must begin "with the facts" of Reality and then we can ask about the nature of that reality.  Well, that seems like straining gnats.  Metaphysics isn't just a question about what is real, but also the study of what is real as well.  And how do you study something without asking questions about it?  One might argue that in order to ask a question about a thing that the thing must exist in the first place.  True enough that knowing reality assumes that reality is there in the first place.  Nevertheless, one theologian who knows a thing or two about philosophy says,

Epistemology presupposes metaphysics, to be sure. In order to understand “knowing,” you need to understand something about the world to be known. But the reverse is also true. Metaphysics presupposes epistemology. Because you can’t investigate metaphysics unless you understand how you can know anything.*

Metaphysical questions presuppose epistemological ones, don't they?  Isn't it true that in order for us to both assert that which is real and ask about what is real that there has to be something known?  Isn't it true that our minds are in the process of knowing, even as we assert the "facts" of reality?  So there is a mechanism at work while we investigate, and while our epistemology may not be hashed out in textbook form, well...neither is our metaphysics.  This is the problem with thinking according to Aristotle and Descarte: instead of thinking linearly, we need to think in terms of perspective and circle.  We need to presume all three categories simultaneously in order to build our philosophical house.  The same philosopher and theologian writes concerning that which "comes first" (metaphysics or epistemology):

When someone says that something or other is “first” in this kind of context, I ask “first what?” Does this mean (1) what we talk about before we talk about anything else? (2) what we emphasize more than anything else? (3) What we have to understand before we understand anything else? (4) what has more authority than anything else?*

Are we to talk about the "facts of reality" before we talk about anything else in inquiring as to the nature (origin and purpose) of the universe?  How do we do this?  It's arbitrary to say with Hume, "Well, we just have to."  No, not at all.  Ask, "If we must 'start with the facts,' why is that the case?"  The answer is nothing less than an ought (an ethical ought!): "Because we must."  And why must we?  Is it because it is the right thing to do?  Of course it is.  It is good and right that we affirm that which is real, and nothing else will do.  God has made us, and we must acknowledge this fact (Psalm 19 & Romans 1, dude).  We must (ethics) acknowledge (epistemology) this fact (metaphysics).

Christian philosophy begins with Christ, the one in whom are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).  God is Triune and neither person in the godhead precedes the other in essence, knowing or creative activity.  God is God and He is three in one.  If we start thinking in terms of the nature of the Triune God, our philosophy will soon follow.  We come to know the Triune God by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Son at the issue and command of the Father, and it is impossible for us to know God the Father apart from the ministry of the Son, and apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit.  We therefore think in terms of three perspectives simultaneously: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It's the same with our philosophy:  And then there is the knowledge of God, without which we cannot even understand ourselves (Calvin).*  Rather than thinking in a linear fashion with regard to our edifice of philosophy, we should think in a circle--a circle which reflects the nature of the Triune God. It's circular reasoning that is scares Thomists and other Christian thinkers, but it shouldn't.  Circular reasoning is inevitable.  It's just whether the circle is narrow or broad.  The solution isn't found in "asserting the facts of reality," because that only pushes the question back further to epistemology, ethics, and authority.  It's tri-perspectivalism, and it's uber good!

*All three citations are from a personal email with John Frame, professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando Florida. 

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