Aquinas Seminar Series
Reports on Previous Years’ Activities
A Seminar Series is organised every Hilary Term, in which local and international speakers present papers related to the year’s theme, followed by discussion. We are grateful to Dr William Carroll for initiating this valuable Series and for organising it for many years. We are also grateful to the Earhart Foundation for funding the Seminar Series for many years until 2015, and to Prof Barbara R Walters-Doehrman and Steven R Doehrman for funding it in 2017 and 2018 in memory of, and with gratitude to, the late Eugene Walters and the late Virginia and Ralph Doehrman.
Reports on recent Seminar Series can be found below.
2018: “God and the Metaphysics of Human Action”
Continuing from the 2017 series on “Agency in Human Beings and Other Animals”, the 2018 series examined aspects of the relationship between human action and God.
Speakers, titles and links to recordings of the papers
Dr Daniel De Haan (Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge)
‘Freeing the Will from Neurophilosophy: Voluntary Acts in Aquinas and Libet-Style Experiments’
Mr Simon Kopf (Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford)
‘God’s Involvement in Creaturely Action: Physical Premotion, Aristotelian Premotion, or a Dimension of Creation-Conservation?’
Rev Dr Peter Hunter, OP (Blackfriars, Oxford)
‘Is There an Unmoved First Mover In Us? – Aquinas’ “No”’
Prof John D Love (Mount St Mary’s University, Emmitsburg)
‘Hand in Hand: Divine and Human Collaboration in Prudential Decision-Making According to Thomistic Texts’
Rev Dr Thomas Joseph White, OP (Thomistic Institute, Washington DC)
‘Aquinas and Predestination: the Omnipotence and Innocence of Divine Love’
2017: “Agency in Human Beings and Other Animals”
The 2017 Aquinas Seminar Series the Institute launched its research project on “Aquinas on Nature and Human Nature”. Inspired by Aquinas’ exploration of the unity-in-complexity of the human psyche, and his recognition of how we are rational in an animal way, and animal in a rational way, we wanted to explore humanity’s “embodied transcendence” in respectful conversation with the growing scientific knowledge about animals and humanity.
With the 2017 Aquinas Seminar Series the Institute launched its research project on “Aquinas on Nature and Human Nature”, as part of a project jointly undertaken with the Las Casas Institute on “Human Nature and Dignity: Resources for the 21st Century”. Among other issues, we want to test out the adequacy of the still widespread mechanistic view of animal and human bodies; capture more accurately the distinction between the human species and other animal species in the light of modern discoveries about human and animal consciousness, animal communication, and other aspects of animal social life; and question the tendency to correlate “personhood” with the phenomenon of self-consciousness or with similar mental abilities. This will help us assess whether the claim that the human being possesses a distinctive form of transcendence, freedom and responsibility, remains intellectually respectable in the light of contemporary science; it will lead into reflections on our vocation to moral and personal integrity, and on how that vocation is reliant on help from God and the community.
St Thomas Aquinas is a good “patron” for this research since he explored the unity-in-complexity of the human psyche, and recognised what we have in common with the higher animals. We are rational in an animal way, and animal in a rational way. The human psyche, though damaged by the Fall, is coherent, rather than an unnatural juxtaposition of angel-and-machine. Aquinas’ picture of humanity’s “embodied transcendence” allows us to reflect without fear on the growing scientific knowledge about animals and humanity.
Speakers, titles and links to recordings and abstracts of the papers
Rev Dr Richard Conrad, OP (Director, Aquinas Institute)
‘Where Is the Person that Makes the Decision?’
Abstract>> Fr Richard gave a brief introduction to the research project and the seminar series, and to the value of Aquinas’ thought. He mentioned a number of alternative positions about the human psyche, then presented Aquinas’ view of the psyche, bringing out its complexity, its “animal” components, and how many of our psychic activities happen pre- or non-consciously. He asked, “Is ‘a (human) person’ a ‘centre of consciousness’ or a ‘self-possessed self-determining entity’ that is to be discovered within the whole complex system that is a living human being?” and argued that Aquinas (and Bonaventure) recognised no such entity. Rather, personal decisions arise from an interaction between intellect and will within – and often in response to – a social context, with God alone being the Unmoved First Mover. Hence “the person that makes the decision” is not a something inside me, but the whole of my being. “The real me” is not to be discovered by introspection, but by observing the decisions I deliberately posit.
Dr Daniel De Haan (Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University; member of the Institute)
‘Diverse Dimensions of Animal Agency in Aquinas, Bermudez, and MacIntyre’
Abstract>> Dr De Haan outlined his theses that (1) all known species of non-human animals fail to exhibit the conditions for rational and voluntary agency as defined by Aquinas; (2) Aquinas’ account of non-human animal agency helpfully amplifies our contemporary categories for understanding certain aspects of their and our psychological experience; but (3) it fails to set in relief the capacities non-human animals have for purposive behaviour and problem-solving. Dr De Haan set out different approaches to animal psychology, warning us to be wary of anthropomorphism. He then gave a critical account of MacIntyre’s insights into animal agency, pointing out that purposive behaviour is possible even in non- or pre-linguistic cases. Finally, Dr De Haan brought Aquinas’ account of animal agency into conversation with some modern discoveries in animal psychology, suggesting that we can follow Aquinas in recognising that non-human animals possess “imperfect nonrational versions of enjoyment, intention, choice, consent, command and use”.
Rev Dr Peter Hunter, OP (Blackfriars, Oxford; member of the Institute’s Advisory Board)
‘Acting Willingly and Acting Freely’
Abstract>> Fr Peter brought out how the understanding of “the will” has changed profoundly between the ancient and mediaeval eras, on the one hand, and the modern era, on the other, even though the change is not often recognised. For Hume, free acts need to be caused if they are to be intelligible, and the cause is the character of the person acting. His actions are free because the cause is within him, so that he is free to the extent that he can do what he wants – but he is not “free to want what he wants”. Since we can’t derive an ought from an is, neither freedom nor moral judgment derive from an intellectual assessment, but from sensory desire or sentiment. The intellect helps us find the best way to satisfy our desires; but the will is prior to, and independent of, the intellect. This contrasts with the interrelationship between intellect and will accepted by earlier thinkers. Hume’s view seems to lie behind the assumption of analytical philosophy that will is a faculty of choice. Hume seems more-or-less to agree with Aquinas on the autonomy of non-human animals; they “act willingly” if they act in accordance with their desires. Aquinas recognised something of the subtlety of their sensual grasp of the world, and elements of “proto-reasoning”. We should not underestimate what their cognitio can achieve. Herbert McCabe used to point out that “by abstraction” they make the world relevant to their behaviour, and Denys Turner pointed out that this “abstraction” is not so much “leaving things out” as “seeing the significance” of the situation. The other animals grasp a situation in a subtle but still particular way; thus their desires are subtle and particular. The human intellect allows a further level of abstraction, since it shares a divine light which it can shed on the world. It can reach to the truth of things. The will is the intellectual desire; it is perhaps better called the linguistic or narrative desire – it fits into our ability to talk about the world and “tell our own story”. So we have free choice. Only God is the will’s First Cause. De Malo 6 explains that we have to see something as suitable if we are to will it, hence the will is only determined by its object if we can only see that object as fully good; if we can see it in different ways we can will it or not will it. This is not random, since our choices are explicable in the sense that we can if called upon give an account of them. A type of freedom emerges that is neither a random freedom of indifference (the kind Hume feared), nor a freedom of interior determinism.
Rev Prof Michael Sherwin, OP (Faculty of Theology, University of Fribourg; member of the Institute’s Advisory Board)
‘Christian Virtues as Animal Virtues?’
Abstract>> The last forty years of Anglo-American philosophy have been marked by a renewal of interest in virtue ethics. This renewal has led some philosophers to underline the centrality of human animality in character development. Their reflections have been facilitated by recent work in the animal and human sciences, which have largely rejected mechanistic and Cartesian accounts of human and animal behaviour. In short, philosophy is rediscovering that humans are animals. What are the implications of this rediscovery for theology? Since grace heals and elevates human nature, does this mean that the Christian virtues are animal virtues?
In his seminar, Fr Michael pointed out that grace works in and through human nature. Moreover, since the mystery of grace surpasses our understanding, we understand grace by analogy with the ways of nature. While pointing out the continuities between humans and other animals, Fr Michael also noted the unique way that humans are animal: by being rational: endowed with the spiritual powers of intellect and will. These powers, however, work through bodily/animal powers of the senses and the emotions. Fr. Michael argued, therefore, that a richer account of the stages of language acquisition and emotional growth (which includes emotional resonance, regulation and revision) could help better understand both communal and animal aspects of grace’s action in our lives.
Prof Thomas Pink (Department of Philosophy, King’s College London)
‘What Kinds of Power Produce Human Actions?’
Abstract>> Prof Pink explored a profound change in the English-language philosophical approach to human action due to Hobbe’s reaction against Suárez. This concerns (1) the power of self-determination and (2) the power of reason to move us normatively.
(1) Self-determination concerns our power to determine for ourselves what we do, and for the Aristotelian Scholastic tradition it concerns the relationship between the agent and his/her action. It is different from:
(2) Purposiveness, in which we are moved to pursue goals or ends, and what is at stake is how we are motivated to pursue those ends.
Regarding (1): In Suárez’ theory of “free causation” there is a “freedom of alternatives”: freedom relates the power of decision to more than one alternative, including the contingency of being able to act or not act – we control whether and how our power is exercised. Hobbes find this (a) incoherent, because it does not fit his univocal conception of how power must work – all power must work like ordinary causation: as with ordinary causation, any power capable of determining a given outcome under given circumstances must operate to produce it when those circumstances arise; the operation of the determining power cannot be contingent and up to its possessor to exercise or not – and (b) risking a vicious regress.
Regarding (2): for a Scholastic, “practical-reason-based” theory such as Suárez’, following Scotus, praxis is an act of the will, not the intellect; the will responds to an act of practical reason. Reason’s justifications exercise a normative power over us as rational beings, through objects of thought, by a form of final causality, i.e. by an “intentional” motivation. Since a goal may never in fact be realised, it is “goodness” (which is real) that imparts real force to goals. Hobbes, by contrast, sees motivations as purely passive passions, giving us a “voluntariness-based” theory of action in which acts express attitudes which are passive; and “goodness” simply expresses the fact that we are already moved. For Hobbes, the goal is “inert”; it is the object of a psychological state which can cause effects, and that psychological state is itself caused by (for example) our make-up and sense-stimuli.
Hobbes paves the way for Hume’s scepticism about the power of practical reason. By the 18th Century it is taken for granted that there are no motivating powers beyond “ordinary” causality, e.g. by Hutchinson; for Hume it is obvious that reason cannot move us, only passion can.
Prof John Finley (Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St. Louis; member of the Institute)
‘The Unity in Human Agency’
Abstract>> Prof Finley began with Owen Flanagan’s claim that (a) “we are animals through and through”, hence (b) “our animal side is our only side”, and hence (c) “we possess no spiritual soul, no immaterial intellect, no free will”. Flanagan wants (like many modern thinkers) to reject a “Cartesianism” that devalues the body; however, Aquinas’ hylomorphism is an alternative to “Cartesianism” that in fact values our bodiliness and our animality more than Flanagan does!
Following a text in Summa contra Gentiles II, 68, Prof Finley argued that there are degrees of unity, and that the human being possesses greater unity of soul and body (form and matter) than any other physical substance. While homogeneous inanimate substances have an accidental unity, living organisms are essentially one, the self pervading the whole, and the form being more closely related to this particular matter. The souls of plants and (in a higher degree) animals actualise and organise matter, elevating it to serve the whole. The human, spiritual soul communicates to matter the soul’s very being. Hence, immaterial being is more intimate to the human body than is any bodily quality. Conversely, the body is more intimate to the soul than are any of the soul’s powers, for the body is the organ of the soul, which possesses bodiliness “virtually”. In isolation from the body the soul is not a being of a complete nature – it cannot exercise its own proper activity, which is to know sensible reality, without the body; hence bodiliness is needed for the soul’s intellectual activity, that “return to self” in which self-presence is actualised.
This high degree of metaphysical unity is manifest at the level of action and experience (1) in the way the lower powers are transformed by their serving the higher, i.e. reason, and (2) by the way our engagement with the truth is manifest in speech, which is a peculiarly defining and distinguishing feature of human beings. Robert Sokolowski points out that in syntax “I” appears as an agent of truth: we reveal ourselves as wholes, aware of other realities. Hence first-person declaration – and, analogously, artistic and ethical behaviour – images our “self-return” in which we register a fact and ourselves as registering it.
Thus its participation in spiritual being gives our animality its unique quality and results in an intense degree of unity. This is not refuted by our experiences of psychological and physical disintegration, due to our extreme complexity. On the contrary, we experience the war between “flesh” and “spirit” more acutely because the tensions are within one being; and we abhor death more than the other animals because in our case it is more violent to us: it sunders a stronger unity. But death, as a final form of mortification, allows us to offer our selves in conformity to Christ in the hope of the resurrection of the body.
Prof Janice Chik (Ave Maria University)
‘Thomistic Animalism : Language Animals or Animal Agents?’
Abstract>> Animalism, according to its strongest proponents, is the view that human beings are ‘essentially or most fundamentally animals’. Specifically, ‘we are essentially animals if we couldn’t possibly exist without being animals’ (Olson 2008). Although contemporary animalism offers an account superior to its Lockean competitors, Olson’s ‘biological approach’ has certain limitations, particularly in its denial of any psychological continuity whatsoever as either necessary or sufficient for individual persistence through time. Prof Chik proposes a number of amendments towards a Thomistic variety of animalism that avoids the difficulties faced by the mainstream position. First, she recommends a way to preserve the coherence of contemporary animalism with a Thomistic account of post-death survival. Second, her paper advances considerations of Aquinas’s account in De ente et essentia of the term ‘animal’ as a partially determined concept (i.e., the description of the genus), as uniquely suited for handling the problem of analogical vs. univocal uses of the term ‘animal’ (e.g., between ‘exotic zoo animals’ vs. ‘rational animals’). Third, she proposes the inclusion of a Thomistic-Aristotelian account of action and language wherein the concept of an agent includes some non-human animals, and also in which human beings are distinguished from the many gregarious animal species by way of linguistic powers and the articulation of universal concepts.
Although prone to misinterpretation, animalism understood properly is compatible with Aquinas’s theory of subsistent intellect. Against recent challenges (Hughes 2015), Prof Chik defends the view that Thomistic animalism not only is intelligible, but is indeed crucial for understanding Aquinas’s view of human nature and rationality.
Prof Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame)
‘A Matter of Taste? Thomistic and Contemporary Perspectives on Temperance, Virtue, and Ideals of Consumption’
Abstract>> Prof Porter reminded us that in Aquinas’ moral psychology and theology, habits are needed if intellect and appetite are to operate in all but the most rudimentary ways. We can explore some unexpected resonances between this account and recent work in experimental psychology. Human infants have no food preferences, but seem to have a capacity to discriminate and generalise, because at between 12 and 14 months they start to respond to others’ food preferences, and develop a sense of “what people like me eat”. This looks like “habituation” that develops both judgments and desires.
Such studies on the social development of food preferences seem in tension with Aquinas’ account of temperance as regards food: he speaks of the mean being set by our bodily needs. In fact he sees temperance as concerned with what we need so as to live, and with what we need so as to live appropriately. Good customs, as well as health, are important.
Aquinas holds that passions can be habituated because (i) they are subject to the control of reason, (ii) they can be directed towards more than one object, and (iii) because they can be disposed well or badly. The account in 1a 81, 3 of how they relate to reason because (a) they can be elicited by sense images that are influenced by reason, and (b) cannot lead to action without judgment and the will’s consent, seems a bit thin, and concerned with adults shaping themselves. We can develop a fuller account. In animals, Aquinas holds, appetites naturally lead to vital operations. Human children have a limited innate repertoire; it’s by observing their caretakers that they build up a stock of images of typically satisfying eating activities to which their appetites can respond, as these come to be shaped by socially-contextual judgments. Despite the initial impression of 1a 81, 3, the intrinsically social development of food preferences suggests that judgments of reason do not always precede desire; there is (as Aquinas knew) an intimate interaction between intellect, will and the passions.
Children’s formed desires are not yet virtues, since this requires the full use of reason. But their experience of desire enables the development of a concept of the good, and the socially-derived normative judgments attached to food preferences make the desire for food amenable to the judgment of true temperance. Of course, temperance – and justice – enable one to assess whether one’s society’s ideals of consumption are positive or destructive.
Prof Porter concluded by mentioning further research she will undertake on the aesthetics of virtue, based on considering Aquinas’ teaching on the integral parts of temperance: shame and honourableness.
2016: “Aspects of Aquinas’ Anthropology”
Speakers, titles, and links to recordings and abstracts of the papers
Dr Daniel De Haan (Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University)
‘Vade Mecum: Thomas Aquinas’s Heuristic for Philosophical Anthropology’
Abstract>> Dr Daniel De Haan argues that Aquinas’s approach to philosophical anthropology can be fruitfully applied to contemporary philosophical and scientific wonder about human persons. Aquinas’s heuristic proceeds in three cumulative stages of inquiry: the phenomenological, the empirical, and the metaphysical. The first explicates a descriptive psychology of the more known to us, i.e., our activities as conscious rational animals, which provides the point of departure for the two explanatory stages. The second stage employs this descriptive psychology to probe interpretations of behavioural and cognitive neuropsychology; but empirical psychology itself discloses more precisely the range and limits of our cognitive-cum-behavioural capacities, the neuro-biochemical correlates of these capacities, and in light of such discoveries often invites revisions to our descriptive psychology. Drawing upon the synthesis of our descriptive–cum–empirical psychology, the third stage’s metaphysical psychology aims to establish the ontological structure and ground of our activities in their neural substrate and powers, and ultimately their ground in our nature as human persons.
Rev Dr Richard Conrad, OP (Director, Aquinas Institute)
‘Original Sin Does Not Mean Inheriting a “Flaw”, It Means Not “Inheriting” Grace’
Abstract>> Augustine’s anti-Pelagian polemic provided the Church with the doctrine that “Original Sin” is transmitted “by propagation rather than by imitation”. This can give the impression that Original Sin is an inherited guilt, or is akin to a genetically-transmitted disease. Taking his cue from some features of Augustine’s own theology, Aquinas sees Original Sin in negative terms: we inherit human nature, but without the grace with which it should be endowed. The “wounds” of sin – ignorance, malice, weakness and concupiscence – and our vulnerability and mortality are only to be expected, given the complexity of human nature and its need for supernatural assistance. Some counter-intuitive elements of Pius V’s doctrine, and one of the positions espoused by Rahner, seem to be based on Aquinas’ teaching.
Dr Michael Lamb (Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford University)
‘Passion, Act, and Virtue: Aquinas on Hope’
Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP (Angelicum)
‘Taking Nature Graciously: A Thomistic Perspective on Habits in Light of Biological Psychology’
Abstract>> When some attempt to explain—or to explain away—the behavior of a particular individual, it is common for people to say something like, “Well, I am just made that way,” or, “He can’t help it; that’s the way he is.” On the other hand, an ideology of a limitless world leads some people to think that, “everything in life can be a matter of choice,” that we can choose our own gender, ethnicity, or identity. Likewise, visions of grace can portray God’s influence on human action as merely an extension of the directions of nature or, contrarily, almost as a destruction of nature or at least an extrinsic imposition upon nature. Thomas Aquinas’s theology of habit is a bridge concept that successfully unites the insights of these various opinions while simultaneously transcending them. In this paper, I will outline how the polyvalent meaning of habit helps one to identify the good inclinations of nature, and to articulate the radical newness of the movements of grace which perfect and elevate those natural inclinations. Insights of biological psychology will help illustrate the extent and limits of the nature-grace interaction.
Dr John Finley (Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St Louis)
‘The Metaphysics of Gender: A Thomistic Approach’
Abstract>> While it is commonly accepted that Thomas Aquinas is mistaken on certain points concerning the biology of gender and the status of woman, the question remains as to what Thomistic philosophy could reveal about the metaphysical structure of gender, given current scientific knowledge. In this talk I attempt to answer that question. After outlining Thomas’s own position and noting the correctives of modern biology, I propose an account of gender, articulating it with respect to soul and body, person and essence, and modes of classification. I then examine the definitions of male and female, and conclude by addressing two contemporary concerns: sex reassignment surgery and the intersex condition. While some of my positions explicitly contradict Thomas, I argue that they accord better with the principles of his metaphysical anthropology. With respect to gender, then, this account contributes to a development of Thomistic thought.
Dr Adam Eitel (Yale University Divinity School)
‘Agape and Moral Persuasion: the Ethics of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Ethics in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae’
[organised by Bill Carroll; no overarching theme was published]
Speakers and titles
Rupert Mayer, OP (International Theological Institute, Austria)
‘The Question of Being: A Confrontation of Aquinas and Heidegger’
James Brent, OP (Catholic University of America)
‘Aquinas, God, and Order’
Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP (Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome)
‘Aquinas and the Gift of Wisdom’
Tianyue Wu (Peking University)
‘Are First Movements Venial Sins? Augustinian Doctrine and Aquinas’s Reinterpretation’
Pasquale Porro (Sorbonne)
‘Aquinas and Determinism’
Lee Yearley (Stanford University)
‘Virtues and Vices: Thomas Aquinas in Conversation with Classical Chinese Philosophy’
[organised by Bill Carroll; no overarching theme was published]
Speakers and titles
Gilles Emery, OP (Université de Fribourg)
‘The Relation of Creation’
Lydia Schumacher (Oriel College, Oxford)
‘Theological Philosophy: A Thomistic Departure from Inquiry into the Rationality of Christian Faith’
Emmanuel Durand, OP (Institut Catholique de Paris)
‘The Gospel of Prayer and Theologies of Providence’
Reinhard Hütter (Duke University)
‘What Conscience Is and Why It Matters: Perspectives from Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman’
Afifi al-Akiti (Worcester College, Oxford)
‘The Metaphysics of Created Human Freedom in al-Ghazali and Aquinas’
Andrea Robiglio (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)
‘Testimony in Aquinas: Articulation and Implications of a Philosophical Problem’