Practical Signs

A Particular Kind of Asceticism

I had a lovely discussion with a colleague earlier this week.  He and I have slightly different approaches to philosophy, and it gave me pause to think a moment about the dynamics often at play for a Catholic philosopher.  Distinct disciplines have a hard time staying distinct in the soul of a thinker—who is one person, leading a life directed to his or her final end.

It takes a kind of asceticism to be a Catholic Philosopher.  It is so tempting to become involved in theological mattes.  These are lofty truths.  They are the sorts of things upon which the intellect feeds, rejoices, and then desires the greatest of all things—Vision of God Himself.

As a Thomist, it is sometimes even worse, I feel.  So many of our thinkers were theologians.  Furthermore, Thomist theology represents a singular instance of how philosophical reasoning can be deployed as an instrument in a higher discipline.  Gracious me, in theology, we find philosophy singing and vibrating with the chords of celestial realities.

But that higher light, the light of virtual revelation as the Thomists of yore would say, is not the light of reason itself.  It is reason as instrumentally used by the supernatural habitus of faith so as to draw out, in a scientific manner, the conclusions contained in the sacred deposit grasped under the light of formal revelation.  Reason shines—but with a light that is not its own, a light the elevates it, showing just how lofty reason itself is.  It is inspiring—and it does indeed show us the many things that can fall to philosophical rumination.

Philosophy is a bit like a dim room.  You can put things in order pretty well, but every so often, the sun outside of the room shines into it.  You realize that there is so much more to do with the room, so you move around and fix it up a bit.  However, in the evening, as the sun sets, you once again realize how little you can see.  If someone asked, "How did you do that," and that person knew not of the sun, you would not be able to explain it well.  It would be a lot harder to come up with a procedure that would work only in the dim candle light of the dim room.

Ah, so much more can be said.  Still, one more anecdote, and I will be done.  I have been reflecting of late on practical signs.  Our experience is perfused with them—PERFUSED.  And the Thomist account of signs and of relatio secundum esse, "essential relation" or "relation according to the manner that relation uniquely has being," gives a rich vocabulary for discussing such things.  John Deely is quite right that we are semiotic animals, though he doesn't meditate at length on artistic and moral being.  Alas.  But think around my desk alone—a cup is a sign of drinking, my books are signs of work to be done (in addition to the speculative role they play in being signs of thoughts about various topics), the picture of my wife and I is at once a speculative sign of an event to be remembered and an act of affection that I morally ought to have every so often.  Trust me for now—signs are everywhere.  We bathe in an ocean of them, an ocean.

Well the best writing on practical signs is probably found in the Dominican tradition stemming from the remarks that John of St. Thomas makes on... the Sacraments.  Alas, typical Thomists only get to these things in theology—and they do so well.  However, I am charged as a philosopher with doing some theological reasoning.  I must understand these arguments on their own terms—within a hermeneutic that includes the light of faith explicitly.  What is more, when I leave them, I must always remember that there are certain things that I cannot say.  For example, I cannot succumb to the temptation of saying with (sadly disgraced) Jesuit Cardinal Billot that there is a kind of "intentional causality" involved in sacramental signs.  That is, I must strongly realize the fact that signs never (even practical ones) never, never are efficient causes.  It seems simple, but the ramifications are dire!

So, we go on, though.  Stepping out of the lofty heights of the sacraments back down to the light of philosophy....  Let us pray that I do not sin against either light!