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1/11/2017 4:48 pm  #1

Q&A with Rondo Keele

I'm reserving this thread for the Q&A—something like what the reddit gentlemen call an AMA—with Professor Rondo Keele.

I ask that you gentlemen try to formulate your questions succinctly, ask no more than three per post, and wait until your first bunch have been answered before asking more. He's only one man, and answering questions usually takes more time than asking them does.


1/11/2017 11:53 pm  #2

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Hello everyone.  Thanks to John for inviting me to a Q and A.  Ask me anything, especially about Ockham or Chatton, I suppose, But I'm also interested in scholasticism more generally, and philosophical theology more generally still, as are many of you I'm sure.

I publish on Ockham, Chatton, and their contemporaries, but my teaching range is quite a bit wider.  I teach ancient and mediaeval philosophy, naturally, but also courses in Latin poetry, gnostic Christianity, and logic.

The project I'm working on most recently is a translation into English of a Latin logic text, itself a translation of Al-Ghazali's Maqasid al-filasifa, "The Aims of the Philosophers".  The translation has extensive notes correlating some of the Latin and Arabic technical terminology.  It's an interesting text, historically; it seems to have been very widely cited beginning in the early 13th century.


1/12/2017 1:20 am  #3

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

wow, thank you so much for coming over!! I've loved your book on Ockham and enjoyed the articles you've written on Walter Chatton!
(1) How does Chatton's anti-razor differ from Ockham's?
(2) How can a concept be used in any other way other than second intention? I don't understand quite understand how a concept is used in first intention.


1/12/2017 8:45 am  #4

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Hi, Dennis.  I'm glad you enjoyed my book.  I'll try to answer both questions, but in two posts, maybe.

Both Chatton and Ockham agree that we have to posit the existence of things; there are philosophical arguments that force us to do this, as well as sensory experiences and religious sources.  If I see a chair I'm bound to admit the chair exists; God announces himself in many ways as well.  So we must believe in these things.

The more difficult question for theologians arises when we consider the philosophical background we want to adopt or continue with as we do theology -- in short, how much Aristotle should we accept, and how should this Aristotle be understood?  Here is where the first thing I mentioned comes in to play -- rational argumentation.  Aristotle seems to make us to admit that form and matter exist, that accidents exist, etc., by force of argument.  The issue is simply this:  how are his claims to be understood, and how good are the arguments for them?  For example, maybe we agree that there are qualitative accidents, such as this whiteness in the paper on my desk, but we do not agree whether there is such a thing as the relation of similarity that this whiteness in this paper has with that whiteness in that paper.  Aristotle said things that might allow me to believe in the existence of relations and to develop a theory of relations along the lines he provided.  But do you really have to accept the existence of these things or not?

In the course of fighting about these issues the English especially became fond of trying to short circuit certain arguments by type, that is, to knock down whole swathes of argument in favor of the existence of certain entities by claiming that alternative explanations could be given for the phenomena those arguments based themselves on.  These are razors, if you like.  The gist is that you don't need to posit those entities, actually.

This strategy is open to overuse by those zealous in combating the level of Aristotelianism in theology, to the extent that certain very useful parts of that philosophical framework are rejected, the baby becoming lost with the bathwater.  And so a backlash emerges, the anti-razors, which attempt to expose the poverty resulting from crippling certain parts of Aristotle.

Ockham was generally keen to reduce and restrict what he regarded as sloppy, thoughtless adoption of Aristotle in theology, and so aimed to short-circuit many arguments he didn't like (arguments for universals, relations and the like).  Chatton, attempting to salvage more room for traditional theology and to make a name for himself, went up against Ockham on this general point, reminding him that sentences about things, if they are to be true at all, require us to posit the things they are about as existing.  Moreover, and here is the difference between the two men, Chatton thought that once posited, certain entities (like first substances) require you to posit others (like relations) in order to make the system work as a whole.  Ockham recognized this general issue under pressure, but tended to argue that we could get away with even less Aristotle, and that we should, because the arguments for certain parts of his philosophy (like first substances) was better that the arguments for others (like relations).  Hence Chatton's anti-razor attempts to save and defend a larger chunk of Aristotle for theology than Ockham's anti-razor does.

More technically and specifically, Chatton holds that changes in truth-value of sentences of physics, theology, and philosophy, say, cannot be explained as Ockham often does using connotation theory by citing the passage of time or a particular arrangement of entities as causes of the truth-value change; sometimes, Chatton said, you must posit the arrangements themselves as entities.  If a change, say in time or location, make a sentence that was true now false, then mechanically speaking you must posit those entities needed to explain all aspects of the change, and if an arrangement of entities make a sentence that was true now false, then mechanically speaking you must posit those entities needed to explain all aspects of the arrangement.  And this might include positing that the arrangement itself is an entity...  For example, must we say that there is a relation of similarity inhering in two similarly white pieces of paper, existing as a real, separable thing in those pieces of paper (Chatton), or can we take their similarity as a brute fact, saying that they are similar simply in virtue of their similar whitenesses (Ockham)?  Chatton tended to believe that more of the technical machinery of Aristotelian metaphysics would have to be retained in order to explain especially dynamic situations, such as physical change.  Ockham's sin, in his eyes, was in stripping the machine down so far that it would fail to perform not only for theology but even for physics.

In Ockham Explained, for example, I try to argue that Chatton is correct in the case of motion.  It's not that Aristotle's theory of local motion must be kept in all respects, but simply that, if you want to give a broadly Aristotelian account of motion you cannot reduce your stock of entities as far as Ockham does, the same way you can probably keep me alive if you take out my appendix and my gall bladder, but not my brain.

I love Ockham's rigor and high standards of evidence, but I think Chatton is right that his philosophy is ontologically crippled.  He really does try to get away with a tiny, tiny set of metaphysical categories...


1/12/2017 5:55 pm  #5

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

I sometimes see people accuse Ockham of a really extreme voluntarism (one that makes God's decisions more or less arbitrary). 

Was Ockham's voluntarism really so radical, and do you think it compatible with something like a principle of sufficient reason?

     Thread Starter

1/14/2017 2:52 pm  #6

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Professor, I appreciate you for your time and detailed contribution and attention to our forum.

1. I understand that this is a very historically complicated question, but since you are a competent historian as well as a philosopher, I wanted to know:

What do you think of the position of somebody like Lloyd Gerson that Platonism and Aristotlianism are not as strictly distinct a set of positions as is sometimes pretended?

2. On what points of philosophical importance are Chatton and Ockham in major substantive agreement?

3. You've charecterised a key point of disagreement between Ockham and Chatton as one over indirect realism in the fictum theory. Many of us here have in one form or the other discussed the problems of indirect realism in early modern thought. Would it be in any respect accurate to think that the fictum theory "had legs" despite Ockham's ultimate rejection or does the indirect realism of modernity have some other traceable source in medieval thinking?

Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger

1/15/2017 2:06 pm  #7

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Hi, everyone.  Let me get back to Dennis's second question and then catch up on the latest two questions.

Dennis asked: "How can a concept be used in any other way other than second intention? I don't understand quite understand how a concept is used in first intention."

I could be misunderstanding the question, but I'll try to answer according to my comprehension.  I think perhaps there is a confusion between the provenance of a concept and its referent.  Briefly, for Ockham spoken or written terms are of first imposition if they are about non-linguistic things in the world.  So the written term 'deer' refers to that very common mammal.  Spoken or written terms are of second imposition if they are about linguistic things in the world, specifically if they refer to spoken or written signs.  So the spoken term 'noun' refers, among other things, to terms like 'deer' from the example above; hence 'noun' is of second imposition.  Second imposition terms help us organize and talk about first imposition terms; they are names of names.

Among those terms of first imposition are those that refer to stuff in the world which is not in my head, such as the written term 'wolf' , but also there are first imposition terms that are about stuff that is in my head such as the concept 'wolf' (i.e., the mental word 'wolf').  The former kind of first imposition term is said to be of first intention, the other is said to be of second intention.  Another example of a second intention is the spoken term 'species', which refers to fairly low-level concepts organizing reality, concepts like deer and wolf.  So second intentions -- let's be very careful here! -- are spoken or written signs that refer to concepts.

So to answer the first part of your question, no concept is strictly speaking a second intention; second intentions are spoken or written signs that refer in a particular way, viz., to concepts.  But no concept is a first intention either, since both first and second intentions are spoken or written signs.

Now, and here is where there may be some confusion, sometimes people say things like this when they attempt to describe Ockham's nominalism:  "For Ockham, universals are merely second intentions."  This perfectly true and is fine as far as it goes, but it can be easily misunderstood.  If someone asked for clarification of this claim, it might be said "Oh, what I mean is that for Ockham universals are concepts."  This is also a true sentence, but the two together cause the listener to infer that second intentions = concepts.  But this is simply not Ockham's view of second intentions at all.  In fact one finds precisely this mistake in much of the early literature on Ockham being done around the time his critical editions were being prepared, and just before (say, ~1950).  It led to terminological confusion that lasted a long, long time.  It may have caught you as well, if you are reading older accounts of Ockham, or if you are being taught by people following older accounts of Ockham.

Strictly speaking, since 'second intention' =df 'a spoken or written first-intention term that refers to concepts"  if we simply substitute into the first claim in quotation marks above we get:  "For Ockham, universals are merely spoken or written first-intention terms that refer to concepts."  And this is right.  And a shorthand way of saying the same thing is that, for Ockham, words like the spoken term 'species' refer, not to universal realities, but to concepts, because such words are second intentions.  It does not follow however that second intentions are concepts, strictly speaking.  It is much safer to say instead that second intentions pick out concepts, and moreover that what some other realist philosophers call 'universals' are nothing more than these concepts, since nothing whatsoever outside the mind is in any way at all universal, according to Ockham.

I wish to stress that the earlier mode of talking about Ockham's nominalism that I mentioned is not so much an older interpretation lately discredited; rather, it is a terminological mistake, now corrected.  Good basic sources on this include my little book on Ockham (Ockham Explained), but to see more deeply how the mistake happened, have a look at the Cambridge Companion to Ockham, especially chpts. 3, 5, and 8.  Chapter 8 is by Eleanore Stump, who knows Thomas very well and can locate this debate inside of more familiar Thomistic territory.

[edited for typos]

Last edited by rondokeele (1/19/2017 9:38 am)


1/15/2017 3:11 pm  #8

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Crumbs.  I had a long reply to John, but then I hit the wrong button and lost it...

Never mind, I'll come at it again, maybe later today or tomorrow, and then tackle iwpoe's questions as well.


1/15/2017 4:20 pm  #9

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Ugh. I hate it when that happens. Take your time Professor. We're just glad to have you here.

Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger

1/15/2017 10:59 pm  #10

Re: Q&A with Rondo Keele

Hi, John.

Usually we say that any theory or outlook that lays special emphasis on the will exhibits ‘voluntarism’.  The will involved here can be either human or divine will.  Ockham is often said to be a voluntarist in both senses.  I think this is a fair claim.

To expand, we can say that Ockham holds at least these two theses:  (1) the human will is the locus of moral responsibility, and nothing, not moral habits nor desires can fundamentally eclipse its freedom, (2) the divine will is absolutely omnipotent; God almighty can bring into being anything the bringing into being of which is not a contradiction.

As for his voluntarism in the first sense, you can see Rega Wood’s Ockham on the Virtues, say, in one of the book’s many introductions.  I also have a recent article, “The Early Reception of Peter Auriol,” part of which deals with this aspect of Ockham; you might read pp. 325-331 to get an overview (and pp. 301-306, if you want to see what I’m doing in the article generally).  Here’s a link to a download of a .pdf:

You ask about his voluntarism in sense (2), though.  It arises in conjunction with his approach to what we call ‘the Euthyphro problem’:  is the good good because God will it, or does he will it because it is good?  Ockham will say that the good is good because God wills it.  He is a divine command theorist.

Sometimes people object to this answer by saying asking, hypothetically:  Could God will that innocent infants be tortured tomorrow, and if he did would this be good?  Ockham’s answer would be:  yes, and yes.  God could will this, and it would therefore be good; but he won’t do that.

You might want to say:  how do you know he won’t do that?

The answer is:  you don’t.  But you believe he won’t, and you trust him.

Many people find this answer unsatisfying, they want something stronger.  But nothing stronger is consistent with God’s majesty and omnipotence, together with divine command theory, according to Ockham.  And this is surely correct, I think.

Another way to think about it:  normally theists already believe (I’m an orthodox Sunni Muslim, and I certainly believe) that God created hellfire, and that after judgment day it will not be empty.  We trust God, and have no choice but to trust God, with the fate of souls and with damnation.  Surely this is a more serious matter than infant torture, however horrific this goofy example is.  Why would we trust God with salvation, but not trust him not to order infant torture?

Ockham is absolutely clear-eyed in his commitment to the principle of divine omnipotence I stated earlier.  In fact, I would put this principle up there with the razor as the heart of his philosophical outlook.
It is important to set Ockham’s answer in the context of Franciscan spirituality and philosophy in this period, especially the views of Scotus.  (Not all notable Franciscans thought this way; Peter Auriol was a major exception, for example.)

Regarding the principle of sufficient reason, I think we have to admit that God is not obliged to do anything based on a reason.  Ockham is explicit about this:  God made many things he did not have to make, and that fact that he made a thing is always enough; everything he does is right and fitting and no other reason need be sought for the rightness of anything God does or anything he made.

Many people find this view quite strong.

Last edited by rondokeele (1/15/2017 11:01 pm)


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