Understanding Our Being

Understanding Our Being: Introduction to Speculative Philosophy in the Perennial Tradition

John W. Carlson
Copyright Date: 2008
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32b274
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  • Book Info
    Understanding Our Being
    Book Description:

    Written as an undergraduate textbook, Understanding Our Being treats central topics about our knowledge of being, the being of the natural world, and, via the latter, being as such

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-2034-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-24)

    This is a book of speculative philosophy;¹ but what, the reader may ask, is that? From its Greek etymology (philia, for ʺlove,ʺ plus sophia, for ʺwisdomʺ), the word ʺphilosophyʺ means ʺlove of wisdom.ʺ ʺWisdom,ʺ in turn, suggests an understanding of ultimate matters—in particular, concerning the nature of our being, as well as concerning the choices proper for us, as individuals and as communities. But just how we are to achieve such ultimate understandings has been the subject of a variety of proposals.

    Throughout history, and across cultures, there have been expressions of the search for wisdom. We might note,...

  6. PART 1. BEING
    • 1.1 KNOWLEDGE OF BEING: A REALIST APPROACH
      (pp. 27-41)

      Philosophy, as we noted in the Introduction, has its origin in wonder. For the speculative philosopher such wonder, or awe, is directed primarily at the very being of things. In the Introduction, we mentioned wonder at ʺthe splendor of existenceʺ in noting how Christian faith can inspire and enhance oneʹs philosophical thinking. But a person need not be a Christian, or formally religious at all, to share a sense of wonder. Aristotle clearly did so. And, just before his death, the American philosopher and professed atheist Sidney Hook (1902–89) confided that ʺthere were many times in his life …...

    • 1.2 PHILOSOPHY OF NATURAL BEING
      (pp. 41-55)

      Let us turn, then, to natural philosophy, which is said by the perennial tradition to share with pure natural science the first ʺorderʺ of abstraction, i.e., the physical, while being abstract or general to a higher ʺdegree.ʺ It is often remarked that the natural sciences are rooted in or based on facts. By a fact here is meant an individual reality, or conjunction of realities, judged to be such by experience. (In an extended sense, the term ʺfactʺ also applies to things judged to be realities by the equivalent, or near-equivalent, of experience—such as a well-founded theory of what...

    • 1.3 IMPLICATIONS OF NATURAL PHILOSOPHY
      (pp. 55-70)

      We noted in section 1.1 that the perennial philosophy proposes a type of realism that is critical and ordered. This means, in part, a realism that is sensitive to diverse modes (and to interrelations among the modes) of knowing. According to the Thomist account, we come to know and express the being of things by way of processes of abstraction. These processes and their results (i.e., universal concepts) can be distinguished into three general ʺorders.ʺ21

      As understood in philosophy, abstraction is the process by which the mind forms concepts, through picking out or apprehending (ʺabstractingʺ) intelligible features. A thorough discussion...

    • 1.4 METAPHYSICS PROPER
      (pp. 70-83)

      In the course of his writings (e.g., the Commentary on Aristotleʹs Metaphysics [book IV, lesson 1]), St. Thomas Aquinas described the subject matter of metaphysics in a variety of ways: e.g., ens qua ens (ʺbeing as beingʺ), ens secundum quod est ens (ʺbeing just insofar as it is beingʺ), and ens commune (ʺbeing as enjoyed in commonʺ). It is most important that we come to understand such notions clearly and correctly.

      As noted in section 1.1, there is a danger of coming to think that the object of metaphysics is simply the range of reference of a term (ʺbeingʺ) that...

    • 1.5 FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS
      (pp. 83-100)

      Having considered key metaphysical concepts (being; potency and act; essence, existence, and subsistence; and transcendental and pure perfections), let us now proceed to metaphysical principles—i.e., statements expressing the intellectʹs most fundamental judgments. Like the realities expressed by terms such as ʺbeing,ʺ these principles are arrived at through what Maritain called ʺintuitionʺ or ʺeidetic visualization.ʺ That is, we become aware of them through reflection on other, more immediate types of knowledge and awareness, rather than through direct experience. Three such metaphysical principles are commonly recognized. They were alluded to in the Introduction via a remark from John Paul II, and...

  7. PART 2. OUR PERSONAL BEING
    • 2.1 APPROACHES TO THE HUMAN
      (pp. 103-115)

      In this part of our book, general notions we have articulated about being (e.g., ʺsubstance,ʺ ʺform,ʺ ʺcausality,ʺ ʺactʺ and ʺpotency,ʺ etc.) are applied to the understanding of our specific type of being—namely, human and personal being. The reader will recall that we often referred to human reality and activity in our discussions in part 1. On reflection, this should come as no surprise. For, in spite of beingʹs analogical generality, our acquaintance with it can come only by way of beings we actually know; and, it seems, the beings we in some way know best are ourselves. (As we...

    • 2.2 LIFE OF KNOWLEDGE
      (pp. 115-128)

      The above question can be understood in two ways. According to the first, we are concerned to develop criteria for knowledge, that is, proper indications that one really does know. (Much of the work of recent epistemologists has been devoted to proposing and assessing such criteria.) According to the second way of understanding the question, we are concerned with knowledge or cognition as such: we want to know what sort of activity knowledge is, how it relates to the being of the knower, and how it relates to the being of the things known. A ʺtheory of knowledgeʺ as developed...

    • 2.3 LIFE OF AFFECTIVITY AND CHOICE
      (pp. 128-148)

      In keeping with a broadly Aristotelian and realist approach to philosophy, we are seeking in this part of the book to understand personal being by way of our characteristic activities. According to the ʺgreat traditionʺ spoken of by John Paul II, proper reflection upon these activities will enable us to gather indications of our nature or essence. We began by noting that we share with many other natural beings the property of being alive. The word ʺsoulʺ (Greek psuche, Latin anima) traditionally has been used to designate the type of form that organizes bodies into such living wholes. Next, we...

    • 2.4 PERSONS IN COMMUNITY
      (pp. 148-161)

      As suggested in the foregoing, a key element of human affectivity is the instinct for community life. This instinct, of course, is shared in various modes and degrees by other animal species. One thinks, for example, of colonies of ants, prides of lions, and pods of whales. But there are aspects and dimensions of the experienced desire for community that are distinctive to us as humans.

      Let us recall that a feature of the metaphysical subject is ʺincommunicability.ʺ As noted in section 1.4, this characteristic is exemplified across a wide range, from the simple material incommunicability of copies of the...

    • 2.5 HUMAN SOUL AS SPIRITUAL
      (pp. 161-182)

      Let us return to the concept of ʺsoulʺ (Greek psuche, Latin anima). It will be recalled from section 2.1 that this concept, as understood by the perennial tradition, designates one of the two principles of natural substance in a living being. Specifically, it designates the formal principle that organizes matter so as to give rise to a being that undertakes vital activities from within—growth, sensation, the affective pursuit of objects, etc. In light of this, it will be noted that soul, just as such (i.e., just as fundamental formal principle in plants, animals, and humans), is not itself a...

  8. PART 3. GOD—BEINGʹS SOURCE AND END
    • 3.1 REASONING TO GOD?
      (pp. 185-203)

      Near the end of each of the preceding parts, lines of thought related to traditional ideas of God suggested themselves. In section 1.5, we came to the idea of Absolute Being, which might provide an ultimately satisfactory explanation of the being of our experience. In section 2.5, we speculated about a Being that (or Who) might answer the deepest mysteries of our human, personal being. At this point in our inquiry, questions about God become the formal subject matter of our investigation. As a preliminary exercise, let us follow our practice of considering certain points about language. In particular, let...

    • 3.2 KNOWLEDGE OF GOD: NEGATIVE AND ANALOGICAL
      (pp. 204-215)

      Aquinas and the perennial tradition recognize the desire of the human mind—and the human heart—to know something of the nature of God. But they also recognize that, as a matter of principle, great difficulties attend any attempt to gain such knowledge. Indeed, in one place Aquinas flatly states: ʺ(W)e can know what God is not, and not what God is.ʺ (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 3, prologue.) Accordingly, in exploring what can be said of God, we should begin with what is called the ʺnegative wayʺ (in Latin, “via negativa”).

      Aquinasʹs views on this matter were influenced by those...

    • 3.3 THE WORLD AND ITS CREATOR
      (pp. 215-236)

      The ontologically first effect of Godʹs activity is, as we have seen, the very existence of things. Another word for this effect is “Creation.” We also might speak of Godʹs ʺConservation,ʺ that is, Godʹs maintenance of the universe through the continual coming to be of things of nature. But how are we to conceive these relationships between the world and God? Here let us recall that we are operating within what we have termed the ʺthird order of abstraction.ʺ That is, the objects of our thought—God and the worldʹs relations with God—are devoid of all matter. Thus they...

    • 3.4 PROVIDENCE AND EVIL
      (pp. 236-246)

      According to its everyday meaning, as applied to human persons, to be provident is to be responsible for (and, along with this, to ʺprovideʺ for) a range of future happenings—as well as their effects on ourselves and other persons, on the natural environment, etc. To be provident is to order events—or at any rate to try to order events—so that the things for which we are responsible achieve their proper or intended outcome. Thus, for example, in our society and most others parents are expected to provide for the needs of their children, especially when the children...

    • 3.5 ʺGODʹS CALLʺ AND THE RESPONSE OF FAITH
      (pp. 247-262)

      Let us recall one of our results from part 2: philosophical reflection on the human person reveals both the dignity and the mystery of our being. At this point it might be added that philosophical reasoning about the existence and nature of God only adds to the sense of mystery about our being. As we have seen in the preceding pages, God comes to be characterized as Source and Exemplar of all that is, including all personal being. Thus, in some real way, we ourselves must be ʺlike God.ʺ What then, we might ask, are we as human persons that...

  9. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 263-280)

    Under the general title Understanding Our Being, this book has sought to introduce students to speculative philosophy as undertaken in the perennial tradition. Let us review the principal results that have been articulated.

    In part 1, after clarifying the very idea of pursuing the being of things, we began with an investigation of natural being. Results here included the ʺhylemorphicʺ structure of physical reality, according to which each thing is as an individual substance through the organization of primary matter by a natural, substantial form. We noted that each such form in turn is associated with specific powers and acts....

  10. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 281-296)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 297-308)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 309-320)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 321-322)