The Distinction Between Productive and Contemplative Knowledge – Part II.

If there is a distinction between natural things and products of human craft — as I argued some time ago — and this distinction lies in the presence of an internal principle of motion in natural things and an absence of that principle in things produced by craftsmanship, then we may explore the character of God’s creation of the natural world in light of this distinction.

One thing should be immediately evident: that Christians ought to be very wary about thinking of creation in a way that makes God a craftsman and creation a product of his art.

This image has some metaphorical value even if it is not an especially Biblical metaphor, but the metaphor is limited by the fact that natural things are fundamentally different than the products of a craft and God is fundamentally different from a craftsmen.

God does not create as a craftsman does, by gathering material together and impressing a form upon it. God creates ex nihilo, from nothing.

Further, God creates natural things, things that have their own internal principle of motion. To the extent that one thinks of creation in a way that denies the intrinsic nature of things, one thinks in opposition to reality.

This argument has a practical consequence in the current debates about the origin of species. William Paley’s design argument fails to fully take into account the distinction between natural things and the products of human craft.

Paley argued that just as if we found a watch in a field we would infer that an artificer exists, so when we look at created things we should likewise infer the existence of an artificer.

Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

In other words, the same sort of structure that one finds in a watch, one finds in created (i.e., natural) things. To the extent there is a difference, it is a difference of degree rather than of kind.

This is precisely the denial that things have inner natures, and therefore it is a denial of the way in which God created the natural world. Or, to put it another way, it is a denial that God’s ways are above ours. However innocent Paley’s mistake, it is one we should not commit ourselves.

The Distinction Between Productive and Contemplative Knowledge – Part I.

Aristotle distinguishes between productive and contemplative knowledge in The Metaphysics (Book XI:7).

In productive knowledge, the source of motion is in the one who makes, rather than in the thing being made.  For example, when one exercises one’s productive knowledge by making a bookshelf, the source of motion is in the carpenter, not the bookshelf. The  source of motion is in the carpenter, because he is the cause of the bookshelf coming into being. If the source of motion were  in the bookshelf, then it could come about without a carpenter.

Productive knowledge, therefore, is characterized by more than reflection. Productive knowledge is characterized by imposing one’s will on materials such as wood or stone.

In contemplative knowledge, the source of motion resides in the thing being thought about.  When one studies a tree, the source of motion remains in the tree. Unlike the bookshelf example, if one were to not take any action toward the tree, it would still be a tree. A tree needs no carpenter. The source of motion — whatever it is that makes the seed become a full-grown tree — is in the tree itself.

The nature of a natural thing (such as a tree) is not imposed on the tree from outside, but is within the tree itself. Whereas the material of the bookshelf (wood) does not strive to be a bookshelf, the material of a tree does strive to be a tree.

In this way Aristotle distinguishes what comes to be by nature and what comes to be by craft. What comes to be by nature has an internal principle of motion, and what comes to be by craft has an external principle of motion. Productive knowledge is the kind of knowledge embodied in craftsmanship. Contemplative knowledge is the kind of knowledge that belongs to the study of nature.

In the next two parts, I will explain the importance of this distinction in the Christian doctrine of creation and in the Classical theory of education.

A Short Thought On Constitutional Interpretation

The “original intent” theory of Constitutional interpretation says that we ought to understand the Constitution in terms of what the author intended the Constitution to mean. This theory is associated with conservative legal theory.

The “vectors of history” theory of Constitutional interpretation says that we ought to understand the meaning of the Constitution as shifting over time. This theory is associated with liberal legal theory.

If we believe in objective truth, we might find reason to not entirely buy into either theory. If we are trying to understand what, for example, cruel and unusual punishment is, we might look at the authors of the Constitution, as original intent theory does. Or we might look at what people today think of as cruel and unusual.

Both these approaches might tell us something important about what punishments are cruel and unusual.  Neither necessarily tell us what punishments actually are cruel and unusual. Both the founding fathers and prevalent opinion may well be wrong. If concepts have real, objective meanings, they are not limited by what the people who use them think that they mean.

The Concealed Foundation of Liberal Democracy

In a democratic society, we are often told, the question of who is right and who is wrong ought to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of grounding the political community in a moral framework that provides guidance to public leaders on what moral duties human beings owe to one another and to themselves, the political community instead creates a space where the freedom of individual choice gets free reign (so long as it doesn’t infringe too much on the individual choice of others), leaving questions of moral truth to the private sphere.

A concrete examples will help to make this clear. An evangelical Christian puts a storefront up to lease, and a group that peddles birth control and counsels young women for abortion wishes to rent the space. The owner refuses to lease to the group on the basis that their practices are immoral. We could adjudicate this dispute in two ways.

First, we could ask whether the Christian owner is right in his moral objection to birth control and abortion. In this case, the political community takes a stand on the moral truth that abortion is either permissible or impermissible.

Alternatively, we could suspend the question of truth. We might reverse the situation: what would we say if a pro-choice owner refused to lease to a pro-life group? If we suspend the suspend the question of what is right, then we must formulate a principle that would apply if the situation was reversed. We might say either that a landlord may refuse a tenant if he has a moral objection to the tenant; or we might say that a landlord may not refuse a tenant for moral reasons. Whichever principle we hold, the moral question remains undecided.

John Rawls calls the logic at work here sympathy. That is, in adjudicating such disputes, we do not ask whether the landlord is right, but instead consider what would happen were we the landlord and someone who disagreed with our moral views in the position of the judge. The fear that one who opposes our belief might gain power paralyzes our ability to impose our moral judgments on others. In this way, moral judgments are reserved for the personal, private sphere.

Why should a political community hesitate to make moral judgments? One answer has already been given; that those who believe otherwise might impose their beliefs onto us. While this explains why people don’t wish to make moral judgments as a community, it does not explain why they shouldn’t.

The normative explanation follows from the idea of a liberal democracy: the political community ought to be organized in such a way that the freedom to choose for oneself is maximized. However, this is an ineluctably moral judgment in itself; one the view moral judgments ought to avoided is itself a moral judgment. This has the effect of concealing the foundation of liberal democracy, of preventing its foundational moral judgment from being revealed as a moral judgment.

We must ask on what basis personal autonomy of choice ought to be maximized? Why ought the political community refrain from subjecting the actions of its members to moral criticism? This ought not be shielded from critical inquiry.

Do Inalienable Rights Exist? Part 2

Aristotelian political theory posits that the role of government is to foster human flourishing. The concept of human flourishing depends on central aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics. Metaphysically, the decisive thing is the concept of form. Ethically, the decisive thing is virtue.

Form may briefly be described as what makes a thing what it is, and may be contrasted with attributes. Attributes are aspects of a thing that the thing may have or not have, but which don’t change what the thing is. The color of one’s skin, for example, does not change whether or not one is a human being. Being dead would change whether or not one is considered human, and so life must belong to the human form.

Aristotle’s ethics can be understood as the description of the human form, and the practical ways in which one can most exhibit the human form. The goal of Aristotle’s ethical inquiry is simply the practical question of how one may best manifest what it means to be human (which is just “form” said another way).

The details concerning the nature of form and the specifics of the human form do not need to be dealt with here. However, one must grasp that the ethical life is the life that best shows what it means to be a human being, and that some humans conform to this more than others.

We might use an example from sports to make this clear. When an athlete puts on a great performance we say: that’s what this game is all about. An athlete’s great performance shows the nature of the sport in a more complete way than an ordinary performance.

When Aristotle speaks of virtue, he means human excellence. This includes the cultivation both of the soul in education and of the body in exercise. The above example of the athlete is not a metaphor for virtue, it is an example of virtue in its physical aspect.

The ethical person draws together excellence in all spheres of human life (the sphere of the mind, the body, the social, the religious, and so on), uniting these excellence through the course of his life and manifesting them within a political community. This is the context within which Aristotle situates his political thought.

Aristotle characterizes the purpose of government as maintaining a virtuous citizenry. Thus, the government acts rightly by placing limits on the behavior of citizens, and not only in the public realm. The habits developed in what we would think of as the private sphere are essential to developing virtue.

A good government limits the bad behavior of its citizens, often with punishment, and rewards good behavior with an eye particularly to fostering excellence. For this reason in ancient Greece, perfecting one’s body through public exercise and one’s mind through learning were not a private matter, to be done if one wished or abstained from as one pleased, but a public duty.

Rights do not limit the government’s actions, but practical concerns do. Society may wish to enjoin all to deeply expound on classic works of literature and run marathons, but practical concerns militate otherwise. Such policies may simply be unfeasible, they may cause unintended effect, or they may even have the opposite effect. Thus, we may formulate the purpose of government as creating virtuous citizens so far as is practical.

Where do rights fit in? Absolute rights, the kind of rights a person possesses without restriction, are necessarily excluded. The end of government must limit any rights. However, the right to farm on a piece of property, so long as one uses it well, fits in with the purpose of government both because farming is a virtuous activity and because in order for citizens to be virtuous they will have to be fed. The “rights” in Aristotelian political theory are always dependent on proper use of that right.

What would this look like today? What if, instead of arguing about one’s right to health care, or one’s right not to be taxed to pay for the health care of others, we asked what health care policy most engenders virtue? What if, instead of arguing about what economic policy will lead to maximal growth and efficiency, we asked what sort of economy brings out the best in human nature? (And shouldn’t we be appalled by Adam Smith’s suggestion that to act selfishly in a free economy would be identical to acting beneficently? ) What would the national security debate look like?

Most importantly, for Christians at least, we should ask which sort of political theory best comports with Christian theology and practice: that of virtue or that of right? Or is there a third possibility?

Do Inalienable Rights Exist? Part 1

The most prominent feature of political thought since the Enlightenment (both in the academic theories and in the public’s common sense) is surely the language of inalienable rights.

In fact, the emergence of inalienable political rights marks a break from more ancient times and is the distinctive feature of modern politics. Every mainstream political view in the United States accepts both the existence of individual rights and that an essential role of the state lies in safeguarding these rights.

What these rights are (e.g., whether employment or health care is a right) often is a subject on which persons of different political persuasions differ. And while some political theories maintain that the sole purpose of government is to safeguard individual rights (libertarianism, for example), other political theories maintain that the state has other aims in addition to safeguarding rights.

As an example of the latter case, traditional conservatism holds that the government ought to maintain public order, in addition to protecting individual rights.

As Americans, we cherish our rights. However, those who are skeptical about the other products of modernity (Enlightenment rationalism, modern pedagogy, and so on) might begin to wonder if there is something amiss within the philosophy of individual rights.

Is it plausible that the doctrine of individual rights managed to escape the flaws which characterize the modern project as a whole?

This seems improbable on its face. The doctrine of rights is not tangential to the modern project, it is its political expression.

Could it be that while Enlightenment’s epistemology is fundamentally flawed and its metaphysics leaves no place for God (though this realization only came gradually), the Enlightenment political philosophy stands unscathed by these errors?

It is possible; however, given that political theory shares much common ground with metaphysical and epistemological thinkers, we have no initial reason for any confidence.

Christians should be particularly skeptical. In the West, Christians largely had control of political institutions since the fourth century and through the Middle Ages. The doctrine of individual rights emerged not as Christian political power increased, but as more and more countries were given over to the secular governments.

These general historical observations seem to indicate that individual rights are a secular, and not a Christian, concept.

While it would perhaps be comfortable to believe that, while a belief in inalienable rights is perhaps not a distinctively Christian concept, it is consistent with Christianity, or — at the very least — that it does not contradict Christianity.

To take this road, there must be no political philosophy inherent to Christian theology that is incompatible with the doctrine of inalienable rights. In order to make this argument, one must have a concept of what the political implications arise out of Christian theology. This will be the subject of a further post.

Further, the Christian wishing to retain a belief in inalienable rights must not only establish that these are permissible for a Christian to believe in, but he must come up with a positive argument for the existence of these rights.

Proving the existence of these rights is infamously difficult, and most take the existence of natural rights without any sort of evidence.

The implications of the question of rights are quite broad. Perhaps all political discourse in the United States is predicated on the existence of natural rights. What if this is incorrect? What if another, more plausible approach exists?

In the next post, we will consider the classical, Aristotelian alternative.

The Difference Between Information and Knowledge

Martin Heidegger once instructed his students that “[i]t is advisable, therefore, that you postpone reading Nietzsche for the time being, and first study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.”

To one uninitiated in the field of ancient philosophy (and probably even to some in that field) this demand might seem absurd. Why devote so much time in studying a writer who lived thousands ago in order to understand someone who lived thousands of years later? Even if one did consider a thinker worthwhile, would it really take ten years to understand what he said?

There are many causes for reflection here, but in grasping one distinction, we might understand both why Heidegger’s demand is eminently reasonable and why it seems so incredible. That distinction may be formulated as the difference between knowledge and information.

The difference here should not be understood primarily in terms of the content of information on the one hand and the content of knowledge on the other; information about Aristotle and knowledge of Aristotle might be similar in terms of what they reference (e.g., both could address Aristotle’s concept of nature, but would not do so in the same way).

However, information and knowledge both should be understood as products of different sorts of reflection, as products that cannot be understood without grasping their form of production.

Information lies most conspicuously within the bounds of modern experience, and so we begin there.

What do we do when we gather information? Most simply and most often, we look up the information on the internet. Before that, we searched for information in file folders and dossiers. Some great differences stand out between a library filing system and the Google search engine, but they are similar enough in that the information lies ready to hand, uncovered and understood in the cursory act of viewing.

What of the information gained by such devices? Most obviously, information is that which the search process yields (we can almost add: “and nothing else”).

The information, while it keeps its referential character, is itself a tool, a means to an end. The information yielded by the search has its own use-value, the use-value being completely circumscribed by the intent of the inquirer.

Information has a discrete, finite, and — most importantly — objective character. The information is “out there” to be found; it exists and has its existence in full apart from the one who seeks it.

Words on a page, numbers in an Excel file; their character as information is not changed when someone reads it. One finds information much as one finds a natural resource.

The search for information determines both what information shows up and the significance of that information. Like a natural resource, information is mined, processed, and consumed.

Information, therefore, is easily come by; once one has found it, one has understood it. One then moves on to the next question; in this way, information is gathered progressively.

Information cannot be distinguished from the process of finding and using information.

At all points the “informational intent” delimits what shows up; and whatever shows up as useful is information. The question asked is always fully understood in the asking; the answer given is always readily digested. Information belongs to an inquiry that is inherently technological.

Knowledge, by comparison, is enigmatic.

It too is tied to a process. One comes across knowledge of, say, Aristotle, by reading him and reading about him, by hearing lectures on him, and by discussing his ideas with others.

However, even when one has heard an answer to a question, one has not necessarily understood it. One can ask “does Aristotle believe in the existence of God?”, and receive an affirmative answer; but although one has asked the question and listened to the answer one has not necessarily understood, because one has not fully understood the question.

After all, when Aristotle argues for the existence of God, what does he mean by God? And what would it mean for God to exist? And, what would existence itself mean in light of the question?

The informational impulse here immediately understands the question and the answer, already understanding what “God” means (and blithely indifferent to what Aristotle thinks the word means), and by not returning to the question, the informational impulse blocks off the possibility of knowledge.

One of my best philosophy professors once said that philosophy was the perpetual asking the question of what philosophy is.

Philosophy does not fit the model of a progressive science, which begins from a definite starting point, and, gathering information by stages, corrects itself and proceeds ever upward in both the quantity of information gathered and its accuracy.

Instead, philosophy constantly returns to its basic questions. An answer might be given, and it may be correct, but this does not make it a good answer. A good answer directs the philosopher to previously unnoticed folds of the question. The dialectic of knowledge follows a cycle: from question to answer, then back to the question.

Unlike the information yielded by a search, an answer cannot be divorced from its referential character; an answer has in itself no use-value.

The answer serves only to plunge one back into the perplexity of the question, and often its use is only to return one squarely to where one started. The lack of a use-value, to return to our example of natural resources, cannot be processed and consumed, it must be cared for and cultivated, and it exhibits a cyclical character.

Knowledge cannot be characterized as objective in the sense that information can be, as the sort of thing that anyone could find and, in the finding, immediately understand. Rather, knowledge confounds the means by which it may be obtained, inspiring perplexity in the seeker (as Plato argues in the Phaedo).

The difference between information and knowledge may be analogized to Aquinas’ distinction between ordinary physical food and the spiritual food of the Eucharist.

Taking the Aristotelian account of eating as that activity which destroys the formal integrity of the food, turning the material of the food instead toward the activity of the body, and forcing upon the material the form of the body (incompletely though, for the material gradually reasserts its own nature, resulting in the death of the person and the disintegration of his body), Aquinas inverts the formula.

Spiritual food, rather than having its sort of being destroyed and the material turned towards the activity of the soul that consumes it, retains its own form and turns the soul of him who consumes it towards the activity of what is consumed–the body of Jesus Christ.

In eating the body of Christ, one does not consume but is rather himself consumed.

Likewise, whereas the intent of the information-gathering process delimits in advance the nature of the information that shows up, the intent of the knowledge seeker, in the process of gaining knowledge, does not determine the object of its search, but is rather determined by it.

In finding out what one seeks to know, one must learn to surpass the form of the question posed, and one must go beyond oneself.

The process of learning involves necessarily being at the mercy of what one seeks; we can think of Aristotle’s image of the soul as being potentially all possible forms. The seeker of information consumes the information he finds. The seeker of knowledge is himself consumed by the knowledge that he seeks. Where information is technological, knowledge is contemplative.

The process of learning, therefore, requires the student to change and develop not only what he knows, but how he knows and how he goes about knowing more.

Knowledge isn’t so much acquired as it is lived, and this explains why, for the Greek philosophers, virtue is a prerequisite for knowing.

The student is wholly involved in the process of learning; he is, as it were, within the question itself. In order to know the answer, the student must realize the insufficiency of the way he asked the question. This task cannot be performed in a short period of time; it is a task for a lifetime.

This explains in part why Heidegger instructs his students to spend so much time studying Aristotle. Coming to any true knowledge of Aristotle (or anyone worth understanding) does not consist in simply sketching out his positions, as one would sketch out the positions of a politician running for office, nor does it consist in placing Aristotle in predetermined categories (e.g., materialist, empiricist, and so on); it requires getting at the heart of Aristotle’s philosophy by fully entering the cycle in which one’s previous intent is confounded and altered by the object of knowledge, and one is placed at the mercy of the dialectic of philosophy.