We come to the end of our series within a series, on Michael Allen Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity. We’ve spent a lot of time on this text because it’s such good, rich material, and because it’s a fairly recent book with a genuinely novel perspective. For my part, I’m persuaded that nominalism goes a long way toward explaining the modern world. Before we leave this book behind, however, I’d like to wrap up the discussion by summarizing in a single article what it’s about and why it matters.
The basic premise of Gillespie’s book is that a nihilistic crisis occurred not at the end, but at the beginning, of modernity. What has happened is that as the culture has become more secular, our points of reference in the past have become more secular as well. Modernity is thought to begin with the Enlightenment, that period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when secular intellectuals began to exercise their reason, unconstrained by ecclesiastical authority, dogma, tradition, and other inherited but untrustworthy sources of knowledge. The time before that is often regarded as a period of ignorance, darkness, and unreason. Or, to put things a bit more accurately, it is very common for us to think in terms of a tripartite division of history: classical antiquity (good), the dark ages (bad), the modern age (good.) The first and third ages were characterized by the use of reason; the second, the religious age, by ignorance and superstition. So what this way of looking at history does is focus our attention on people who are supposed to be like us—that is, secular people, people who do not acknowledge any source of truth apart from the free exercise of reason, like Socrates and Aristotle, Voltaire and Hume. What happened in the middle is really not very important, on this view, so it gets skipped over. This causes us to lose sight of people who had a very different perspective, but whose lives and opinions exercised a formative influence on our modern world. Gillespie argues, in short, that modernity has a theological history that we have largely lost sight of. His project is to recover it, so that we can better understand ourselves and people unlike us.
As we saw in previous articles, the characteristic activity of Christian theology in the Latin West, for roughly a thousand years, was the attempt to synthesize Greek philosophy with Hebraic revelation. As the Roman world became increasingly Christian, Roman knowledge (largely inherited from the Greeks) had to be synthesized within a new, Christian worldview. This was accomplished by relying on Neoplatonism, a philosophy of late antiquity. Neoplatonism was the mystical reinterpretation of Plato and his heirs by the Alexandrian philosopher Plotinus, and what it insisted on, above all else, was the identification of reason (logos) and divinity. Where mysticism and rationalism are often taken to be opposites in a modern context, for Plotinus and his heirs true rationality was not simply a matter of discursive reason, but of re-ordering the soul along rational principles. When Neoplatonism was incorporated into Christian theology, the reason became not simply abstract thoughts in the mind of God (though they remained that as well), but the incarnate divinity, Jesus Christ, who, according to the gospel of John, was the word (logos) through which the world was created from the beginning, and by which it was governed. So the Greek logos became identified with the Hebrew Messiah, and it was on this basis that the synthesis of Greek and Hebrew thought, so characteristic of Christian theology, proceeded.
Fast forward about a thousand years, from the time of Plotinus (c. 250) and the Council of Nicaea (325), to the time of William of Ockham (c. 1325). Tensions were running high within the Latin Church over the relationship between what Max Weber called charismatic and institutional authority. Charismatic authority is what saints, mystics, and preachers have: a personal magnetism that inspires trust and confidence in others. Francis of Assisi had this kind of authority, and he founded the Franciscan order with the mission of truly imitating the lives of Jesus and the Apostles. They wandered from town to town, preaching and serving, owning nothing, but instead practicing a self-denial intended to remove every obstacle that could stand in the way of the soul’s union with the divine. Institutional authority is what popes, cardinals, and bishops have: the ability to influence the behavior of others through promises and threats, whether of a this-worldly or other-worldly nature. The Catholic Church of course claims this kind of authority. That’s why its coat of arms is a pair of keys—the keys that open the doors to heaven and hell.
The Franciscan call for a more original, purer Christianity could only rebound to the discredit of the actual, practical church of their own time. Their model of piety repudiated things that the institutional authorities possessed and had to possess in order to maintain their position—things like wealth, honors, and political power, which, the Franciscans argued, Jesus and his disciples had not possessed.
According to Ockham, there is no such thing as a universal kind: all being is particular and individual.
In the course of this dispute, Pope John XXII and the Dominicans called in the Greek half of the Greek-Hebrew synthesis to argue that property ownership was good and natural. After all, Plato and Aristotle had been aristocrats, and they had defended property as a natural good and right. So why shouldn’t the church possess property as well? Plato and Aristotle had not practiced or believed in asceticism. From the Franciscan point of view, real Christians should get their knowledge from God and from Scripture, not from pagan philosophers. By attacking the existence of real universals (such as “natural right,” for instance), William of Ockham tried to undermine the authority of the Greek philosophers, and by implication, the claim of the institutional authorities that they had a right to their properties. According to Ockham, there is no such thing as a universal kind: all being is particular and individual. Since our categories are only approximations of truth, not direct perceptions of it, it’s always possible that we’re wrong when we use such a category.
Crucially for theology, “love,” “justice,” “righteousness,” “faithfulness,” and other attributes of God are categories. If their meaning is direct and given to natural reason, then they really do mean what they appear to mean, and God can be approached with confidence. The rules might be demanding, they might be complicated, but they’re not unknowable. If someone is willing to do their part, they can be saved. But if the meaning of these terms is only approximate, then we can’t be sure that they mean the same thing to God that they mean to us. Maybe God’s love is very different from our concept of love. Maybe God’s justice is very different from our concept of justice. But if it’s always possible that we have wrong ideas about God, how can anyone approach God with confidence? The rules become worse than difficult—they become unknowable. The gulf between human beings and God vastly increases. God becomes distant, inscrutable, threatening.
Ockham and his followers held that God’s primary attribute was not omniscience, as the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian theologians held, but omnipotence. “God is no mans’ debtor,” Ockham said, meaning that God owes exactly nothing to human beings. Not salvation, not existence, not an explanation, nothing. God does what God wants for no other reason than that God wants to do it, for if there were some reason external to God that compelled God to act in one way and not another, it would be a diminution of God’s power. God would not then be truly omnipotent, but constrained, domesticated, reduced.
In our time nihilism is often thought to be a particular problem for atheism, but I think Gillespie shows that it can be an even more serious problem for theism. For an atheist, whatever good or bad occurs during a human life eventually ends; life is finite and thus manageable. But for a theist who believes in an eternal God and an immortal soul, the dimensions of life are infinite, and so, too, the good or evil it might contain. It’s not just that the concept of hell, as an eternal torture chamber, is objectively horrifying—the concept of a God who sends people there for literally no reason, or at any rate none that humans can understand, but simply as an arbitrary act of omnipotent will, is also pretty unsettling. Since, on the nominalist conception, no one can be quite certain what words like “love” and “mercy” really mean when applied to God, no one can be really certain that they’re among the saved and not the damned. “God is no man’s debtor,” as Ockham says, hence nothing that human beings do can oblige God one way or another. Skeptics often say that people only believe in God because it makes them feel good, but I’m not so sure about that. It’s not clear to me how thoughts of this sort could make anyone feel good, and I sincerely doubt they ever have. Perhaps atheism, by disposing of such thoughts, is what reassures people.
Confusion drives people to philosophy just as often as curiosity, and it’s much more likely to confuse them further than to clarify their thinking.
So, why does this matter for the modern world? Isn’t this just a dispute in obscure medieval theology? Who cares? Well, I think we can see now how the existence of real universals, as asserted in the Neoplatonic/Aristotelian tradition, functioned as a kind of glue to hold the medieval world together. We often think of the middle ages as a time where angels and demons, saints and witches, etc., were supposed to rule the world, and where science was unknown, so the world was basically arbitrary, unknowable, capricious. I think this is exactly wrong. The modern world is what’s arbitrary and capricious because, science and secularism notwithstanding, truth is a very problematic concept for us moderns. It’s not at all clear what it means, how knowledge of it is possible, or what sort of burdens it imposes on us. Confusion drives people to philosophy just as often as curiosity, and it’s much more likely to confuse them further than to clarify their thinking.
Medieval people didn’t have this problem. Truth, knowledge, and ethics were unproblematic, and the problem of political ideology hadn’t even happened yet. Their conceptual space, I would argue, was much more orderly than that of modernity, angels and devils notwithstanding. But let’s explore their world concept a bit further to see how this was the case.
Medieval metaphysics divided the category of the real, of being, into basically three distinct kinds: God, humanity, and nature. The existence of real universals was what held it all together because terms like "love" meant the same thing across all three of them. Consider, for instance, erotic love, sexual desire. For God, humans, and nature it meant basically the same thing: the generative, creative act, the bringing into being of new life. Of course it happened in different ways for God, humans, and nature. God creates out of nothing, human beings copulate, plants drop seeds, etc. But these are all instances of generation, and so basically the same thing, according to medieval metaphysics. I don’t think many people would be comfortable talking this way in a modern context, because nominalism is so fundamental to contemporary metaphysics that it tends to instantly call into question the appropriateness of talking about erotic love when applied to nonhuman agents like God or plants. We need nonhuman concepts to describe them accurately precisely because of the divorce between God, humanity, and nature brought about by nominalism.
The relevance of all this to modernity is that these basic categories of God, humanity, and nature, substantially define our intellectual environment to this day. Most of the world views on offer today can be thought of as falling into one of three general descriptions: classical theism, humanism, and scientific naturalism. What defines them is the priority they give to these kinds of being.
For instance, classical theism gives the highest priority of being (what Gillespie calls ontic priority) to God. God’s existence is taken as the baseline from which explanation proceeds and at which it stops. Thus a phenomenon is fully explained when it is seen in theological perspective. This doesn’t necessarily entail the denial of a scientific or a humanistic perspective, although it might. Plenty of people believe in God and also think that science is generally an accurate and reliable way to learn about the world, but they insist that science doesn't necessarily have the final word on any topic. They don’t reject the claim that science describes the world, they reject is the claim that only science describes the world, leaving no place or role for theology. So, because they see God as the most basic type of cause, the most basic type of being, I would describe them as classical theists.
I specify "classical" here because there are varieties of theism that affirm and understand God as a subordinate order of being. Consider the pragmatic theism of William James, for instance. He and other pragmatists tried to "take Darwin seriously in epistemology." They wondered what the consequences of a Darwinian view for knowledge would be if Darwinism was regarded as not simply an object of belief, but as a ground for belief—if a Darwinian rationale were applied to the justification of beliefs of any description whatever. Put crudely, then, their position was that a justified belief was one conducive to the survival of the organism. James held that God-beliefs are conducive to the survival of the organism, and are therefore justified. So James counts as a theist, because he affirms the existence of God, but not as a classical theist, because God remains at a subordinate order of being in his system. He basically agrees with skeptics like the later pragmatist, Richard Rorty, who consider God to be a human construct. The difference is that where Rorty thinks that God is an unjustified human construct, James thinks it is justified; in other words, at the level of epistemology, not of ontology.
Maybe science works through an appeal to interest and vanity as much as through appeals to fact and evidence.
In these versions of pragmatism, I think we can see an example of another general family of world views: humanism. Humanism gives ontic priority to human consciousness and agency. I would also include in this category existentialism, postmodernism, hermeneutics, and historicism. For humanism, explanation starts and stops with human beings—with their needs, anxieties, choices, and creativity. The same rationale at work above, with God, can be seen when it comes to nature. Consider, for instance, historicist critiques of Darwinian biology. In an article I wrote several years ago about Robert M. Young, I explained the criticism of Darwinian biology that says it’s really a reflection of laissez-faire capitalism. Darwin’s organisms struggle for their survival, compete with each other, and creatively adapt to their environment, in ways that some observers have thought suspiciously similar to the striving of capitalists to turn a profit. After all, capitalism is intrinsically competitive. It rewards creative adaptation. The consequence of failing in the competition of business is bankruptcy, extinction. Maybe Darwin liked to think of nature as essentially competitive because he was himself a successful competitor, and in every way a member of the elite of his own society—a white, male millionaire sitting at the heart of the global British Empire, which ruled over hundreds of millions of people in his time. Maybe the white male biology professors who read his book liked it because they, too, were elites who liked to think of themselves as successful competitors. Maybe science works through an appeal to interest and vanity as much as through appeals to fact and evidence.
The point here isn’t the truth of Robert M. Young’s theory. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The point is that when human agency and scientific explanation meet, a person can choose to prioritize one or the other. In Young’s explanation, human agency is prioritized over scientific explanation because the human agency is what explains the science. An inversion of this perspective would be E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology, which regards human agency as explained by Darwinian selection methods. For Wilson, it’s Darwinian biology that does the explaining, not the class interest and self-conception of scientists like himself.
With Wilson we come to the third family of world view, which holds that explanation starts and stops with the natural world, as explained by science. Another example would be eliminative materialism. According to philosopher Daniel Dennett (also a pragmatist, but of a different stripe than James and Rorty), existence is nothing but force and matter operating according to natural law. Not only is there no God, there aren’t even any human minds to conceive of God. Dennett, of course, does not deny the existence of human beings when understood as clumps of matter, what he denies is the validity of human beings as traditionally understood: autonomous, willing, sentient agents. He denies, in other words, the existence of minds. So here we have another collision between the three "realms" of being. For Dennett, both God and humanity are subsumed beneath nature. But scientific naturalism doesn’t have to be quite so extreme. A person could hold that minds exist, but are ultimately reducible to brain states, and that those brain states are ultimately explicable according to force, matter, and natural law. That would still count as scientific naturalism, because it’s still the science that is calling the shots, not God or human agency. Similarly, a person might affirm the existence of God, but hold that this is not a fact of any great relevance for the conduct of life. A deist, for instance, who thinks that God exists, but is so distant from us as to be more or less irrelevant, or a pantheist, who thinks that God’s existence is identical with that of the natural world, might also still count as scientific naturalists.
Well, you get the idea. I think a good case can be made that the concept of ontic priority, as distributed across God, humanity, and nature, basically maps the Western intellectual environment, and has since the medieval times at least. The chief difference between our time and theirs is that these realms of being are held in a state of seemingly permanent antagonism, where for them, they were more or less integrated. Medieval people had their controversies, to be sure, but they were mostly about the nature of God. It was taken for granted by practically everyone involved that explanation began and ended with God. That the concept of humanity might subsume the concept of God, or of nature, or nature that of God or humanity, was not, to my knowledge, seriously entertained. Our intellectual landscape is much more fragmented, and the reason is that nominalism dissolved the conceptual glue that used to hold all these pieces together. We’ve been trying for centuries to put them back together, without much success, it seems.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this book, but it’s time to move on. I should probably say that I’ve exercised some considerable freedom with the text in these discussions. Some of the history we’ve talked about isn’t in it, but is drawn from other sources and seemed relevant, other things that are in it we haven’t talked about. I haven’t presented, or tried to present, a book review, but rather a discussion that takes Gillespie’s book as a point of exploration, and occasionally of departure.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.