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On Education and Its Institutions

The contemporary controversy concerning education centers around the institutions tasked with providing it.  We ask ourselves what curricula should be implemented, what teaching methods are most effective, and how governmental agencies can assist in the growth of educational institutions—we debate the morality of teachers and their influence, the rights to speech and questioning, the difficulty of grading and assessment and so on and on.  All too rarely, especially as these disputes intensify, do we pause to question our presuppositions concerning the true nature and purpose of education itself.  Indeed: long is it overdue that we turn our gaze away from the institutional structure and instead towards the individual, the family, and especially the parents who themselves are not only the first teachers of their children, but who ought to teach them always—who ought to be models from which their children learn throughout life.

This is not to deny the necessity of educational institutions—not only as pragmatic necessities for parents who cannot afford to homeschool but also for higher learning of every kind.  Yet, though necessary, institutions will always be insufficient.  We cannot outsource or offload the responsibility for education to any institution or collection of institutions.  Institutions are lenses that help bring clarity and focus; but they are not the light.

Real Education

Education, as any experienced educator knows, consists in guiding rather than informing; in fostering the right questions rather than the correct answers.  Intellectual nourishment, however, requires a holistic approach.  Going to the gym five days a week will do relatively little for one’s health if all other hours of the day are marked by constant consumption of junk food and buttery baked goods.  So too, the best teaching in school cannot eradicate contrary examples given at home—nor, for that matter, should this be required.  For the student to see his parents’ leisure hours consumed whole by television or distractions encourages inheritance of the same infertile habit.  Every human being signifies to every other not only through words and actions, but by the virtues and vices cultivated in one’s person.  We not only think through signs; we are ourselves symbols, signifiers of the truths and goods in which we believe, shown through our actions.

Thus, we must reorient our perspective on education: the foundation—the first symbol by which its merit is conveyed to the child and spread throughout the culture—cannot be found in the institution but rather only within the household and particularly in parents aflame with their own love for wisdom and learning.  This love becomes a first spark in the lives of children—to be focused and brightened by the lenses of educational institutions.  But they can neither start nor maintain that fire.

Communal Lights

This love of learning and discovery passed from parent to child need not be of abstruse topics—neither metaphysics nor science, theological controversy nor philosophical dialectic—but can be rooted in the very life of the home: in the tradition of family, in the cultivation of land, in the play of language through story and invention.  Principally, this love must kindle the natural desire to know, that sits at the heart of every human being.  That parents may seek development of their own higher education, of course, serves all the better, for this demonstrates that learning not only satisfies curiosity or amusement, but that it requires discipline, and that this discipline earns the soul richer rewards. 

By showing this intellectual discipline to children—and, indeed, one’s whole community—the parent (or even the unmarried and childless adult) exposes the lie that education after childhood constitutes a mere hobby or pastime.  At the Lyceum Institute we aim to provide a digital community which supports this continued pursuit of learning—as, indeed, education always is enriched by being shared with others.  In fact, no education occurs alone; it is handed down by ourselves and by others and flourishes thereby, through books and records of findings and thought.  But a living engagement takes it further: brings it into the life possible only through conversation, through disputation, through real questioning. Community, structured by an institution, helps shape the lens through which the lights of learning shine brighter.

We would love for you to join us.

Medieval Semiotics

Though “semiotics” is a word coined only in the late 17th century—and used consistently and meaningfully beginning only in the late 19th—the study of signs and their actions goes back millennia. During those thousands of years, some of the most important contributions were made during the age often called “Medieval” (though it would be better termed “Latin”) and especially by the Scholastic thinkers. Listen to this two-part podcast as Brian Kemple joins Hunter Olson to discuss the key figures and ideas from this period.

And be sure to check out all the great interviews on the Dogs with Torches podcast!

On the “Culture War” and Formal Causality

The term kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle”, has long-since been translated into English as “culture war”.  I have no desire to participate in a “culture war”.  Indeed, as I will argue here, the very notion of the “culture war” is not only misguided but harmful.  But as someone living within a culture, however, I do believe it is inevitable that I and everyone else—willingly or not, consciously or not—everyone does participate in the struggle over culture.

Semantics of War and Struggle

Why this “quibbling over semantics”?  Before I get to the semantics themselves, I have to say that I have never accepted as legitimate the objection that one is quibbling over semantics.  Words are important.  They signify concepts, and concepts are that on the basis of which all human history (all that is truly human, that is) has unfolded.  If you do not believe words are important, there seems to be no reason for you to read this—or anything.  In fact, the objection of “quibbling over semantics” presumes a nominalist or at least idealist divorce between cognitive activity and things independent of cognitive activity; but pursuing that question would take us far off track.

Returning therefore to the semantics of “struggle” and “war”: I protest the latter term because it suggests an entirely inapt metaphor.  War, to be waged justly, must have a reasonable expectation of victory.  One adopts violent means out of necessity: the need, namely, to produce or restore an orderly way of life that allows human beings to pursue their natural and fitting goods.  War should be irregular.  And before anyone thinks about bringing it up, let me say that there is an entirely different way in which the concept of “spiritual warfare” or “spiritual combat” must be understood, which would take us into a discussion well outside the boundaries of what I am here to discuss today; but which, succinctly, may be presented by saying that there are conditions for decisive victory in matters of the spiritual soul of the human being.  Not so in matters of culture, which is, by nature, an intrinsically temporally-unfolding suprasubjective reality constituted through a pattern of relations which attains a new foundation in every human being who is born and reared within a society of other human beings.  Or to put this in other, simpler words, culture is an ever-present and ­ever-developing reality which can only exist through the exchanges human beings have with and towards one another.  It is never final, because we human beings, as existing on earth, are not final; we, by nature, are creatures that change both over the course of our individual lives and over the course of generations.  So long as humans have freedom of thought and will, culture may change.

What’s Wrong with the World?

Allow me an anecdote.  When I taught ethics at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, a secular school in Boston, Massachusetts, I started each semester by giving the students a notecard on which to write their names, email addresses, a hobby or interest, and—in a single sentence or less—something they believe to be wrong with the world today, with the promise that I’d give my own answer later in the semester.  Their answers ranged from the very thoughtful to the kind one might expect in a caricature of a beauty pageant.  Most were focused on what could be called systematic societal issues: poverty, inequality, abuse of power, ideologies, a lack of charity or honesty among people as a whole, and so on and so forth.  Throughout the semester, we read a variety of thinkers influential in ethics: David Hume, J.L. Mackie, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Marilyn Frye, and so on.  Each, in some way, provides a “system” for ethics either as a whole or with regard to some specific problems: rules or sets of principles which, if followed, are promised to improve society.  They might be rather loose rules or principles, or rather strict ones—but all had in mind the same goal, despite the significant differences in their means.  Mind you, I was required to provide a survey course covering a broad range of thinkers and theories—ideally, I would have focused the course more intently on better thinkers, but the conditions of my employment were non-negotiable.  Regardless, being required to teach a wide range of theories and thinkers, I spent most of the semester showing how these proposed systems have intrinsic and unavoidable flaws, no matter how strictly observed; how they fail in other words, how they do not provide us a secure and ethical society, and how they may be overcome or abused.  Towards the end of the semester, we would read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—after the first book of which, I would read their answers as to what’s wrong with the world back to them.  They would remember my promise, and that it was my turn. 

“What’s wrong with the world?” I asked myself, out loud, before them.  “Me,” I would answer; “I am.”

You might recognize this answer from a legend about Chesterton—I freely admit that I lifted it.  But it is, I believe, a good teaching tool: yes, there are many systematic problems with our country, our world, our politics, and our culture.  I cannot control any of those problems.  I can try to change them, but I cannot control them; for all are dependent upon millions of wills not my own.  I am, by nature, in control only of myself and even that only to a limited degree (i.e., I cannot will myself to be something I naturally am not—as I cannot will myself to be a top-tier athlete—maybe a decent one, but genetically that has always been out of my grasp—nor can someone born a man will himself to become a female, and so on).  The circumstances into which we all are born are beyond our control.  What is in our control is our capacity for virtue, the decisions and choices that we as individuals make.  Naturally, this extends into those with whom we have close relations: our individuality is only relative, and we are ourselves constituted largely through the relations we have with others.  But the faculty of the will extends efficaciously only to the self.  We may influence others through a kind of formal causality—objective or specifying causality, to be precise, which is just what I was attempting to do with those students, showing them the truth through a careful, painful, difficult process, one class session, one reading, one assignment, one Socratic hour at a time—but we cannot control their wills.  We can only attempt to specify objects for their thinking, propose to them what we believe is true, and strive to show them—most especially through how we live ourselves—the truth of the good, and thus that it is desirable.

Struggle and Habit

It in this inability to control others and the difficulty of showing the truth in which the struggle over culture consists.  It is perennial; it occurs again and anew with each individual human being who grows up in this or any other society.  Believing that ever there could occur a society where the demonstration of what is true is not difficult, where the struggle for it does not recur on a daily basis, is a fantasy which obscures the truth of the matter.  There are no shortcuts: the effect of specifying formal causality does not and cannot occur on a cultural scale through the impositions of force.  It is a gradual process of developing habits and requires careful and constant attention.  I had relatively decent success, teaching my ethics course, in persuading students to think that Aristotle was a very good starting point, to recognize that claim as true, in other words: but only because they were small classes of no more than 22 students.  (I doubt the effects were lasting, unfortunately—a single isolated course with students exposed to little else of similar thinking.  But I may hope that their thinking has remained on the track set down by the course, given the intensity of our discussions.)  That is not to say a larger class could not have been likewise incipiently persuaded; but affecting such a first step towards persuasion among most of a large crowd would likely have been only superficial, a fleeting adherence born not of intellectual conviction but birthed merely through winning the moment—through presenting them a fictionalized, fantastic version of Aristotle: the bold, counter-cultural Stagirite who stands athwart modernity, etc., etc.

In the age of mass media, and especially the internet, where any message has the potential to reach masses of people, such reductive approaches possess a seductive allure—especially if we conceive of the cultural struggle as being a war.  We see this video, or that trend, or this or that celebrity spreading a false message; we see their YouTube hit counters ticking over into hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of views; this odious Tweet (Twixt?) garnering countless likes and retweets, that Facebook post being shared over and over again; misinformation being spread far and wide; and we feel that we must combat these numbers with our own.  Alarms blare in our mind and we hear the shouts of: “They are beating us!  They are winning!  We are losing!”  They are gashing us; so we must, we think, respond in kind.  We fashion exaggerated narratives, pseudo-historical accounts—we put on airs of gnosticism, of being the elect, being “those who know”. 

Pyrrhic Wars of Formal Causality

But the battlefield of those who wage war on the truth is fantasy.  To engage them in combat is to step on to that battlefield; to have to use their weapons, weapons which rely upon a kind of seduction into a way of living rather than understanding the truth about the good—weapons which aim at the lower rather than higher faculties of the human being.  This would be to abuse the influence of objective causality. 

I do not mean to suggest that fiction and fantasy cannot be put to good use.  They can be powerful means for telling stories which elucidate truths better than can be done by any philosophy.  But with the degradation of good philosophical thinking the fantastic loses its proper context of significance.  For a right formation of the moral imagination there must also be the claritas of good intellectual judgment: not only that there may be produced good works of creative fiction but that their interpretation might be guided correctly.  To gain these two goods of intellectual correctness and imaginative rectitude proves not a matter of battle, but of struggle.  It is lived by each of us individually and realized culturally in our being with one another.  Approached as a war, you may “win” a battle here or there—changing a school curriculum, passing a law, discrediting a movie or television show or speaker—but fought as battles, they are inevitable pyrrhic, costing us more than they gain.

An older version of this is available in audio form here:

On Masculinity

Unless you have been living under a rock—which might in fact be quite an enviable place to live, these days—I should not need to point out that masculinity has been a controversial topic over the past decade.  I could argue here against the various claims that have been made against something like a “traditional” concept of masculinity, but I would rather not stick my toes into the cesspool of such thoughts.  I could also take up the various claims for a “traditional” concept of masculinity—claims, of course, not very traditional at all, but which instead laud the abuses of pre-modern relations between men and women as though they were the norm.  Rather, I want simply to talk about what masculinity is, without any qualifying adjectives.

Meaning of “Masculine”

To do this, let us ask: what do we typically mean in using the word “masculine”?  Derived from the Latin masculus, it is usually used as an adjective meaning “male”.  We also often transform this concrete descriptor into an abstract noun; that is, we use “masculine” to describe individuals, but we talk about “masculinity” as an object[1] in its own right.  Clearly, such an abstractly signified object is not a thing in itself: you cannot go out and poke masculinity in the ribs, or slap it in the face (no matter how much some people would seemingly love to), because it is not something which exists apart from the individuals in which it exists, and yet, at the same time, it does not reduce to any or even all of those individuals.

In other words, what we signify by the word “masculinity” is a pattern of possibilities which is only ever partially realized in actuality, in individuals.  There are infinite degrees of possible masculinity, though not infinite ways in which one can be masculine, for there is an essential configuration of this pattern, and without that essential configuration—no matter how many other realizations of the pattern one manifests—one cannot be masculine.

Naturally, we need therefore to identify the essential configuration of the pattern of masculinity.  Because of recent postgender ideology, many defenders of masculinity have focused on the biological aspect.  The distinctive male physiology is, of course, very important.  But there is a trap in thinking exclusively or primarily about masculinity from the biological perspective: namely, that it often leads to reductionism.  That is, if we look for the cause of the distinction of masculine from feminine solely in terms of genes and hormones, we are missing the bigger picture, and often implicitly accept ourselves a reductionistic and materialistic causal framework which is ultimately self-defeating.  Yes, to be sure, testosterone is important to masculinity.  So is the SRY protein.  So is the Y-chromosome.  But no quantity of testosterone makes a male human being “masculine” in the humanly-meaningful sense.  While someone cannot truly be masculine without these biological components—that is, we can describe a woman as being rather “masculine” in the sense that she possesses many incidental traits of masculinity, but she is not and cannot be essentially masculine—the requisite biology alone does not make someone masculine.

Nor, for that matter, can the masculine (or the feminine) be truly explained by evolutionary psychology.  One finds so-called “hypermasculine” types (the kind who would describe themselves as “alphas”—those who pursue sex, money, power, etc., as the ends of life itself) commonly subscribing to this theory.  Such evolutionary reductionism, however, seeks primarily to excuse immoral behavior by claiming that it stems from an impulse to reproduce, to further one’s genetic line, to have dominion—to “be the alpha”.  But this explanation does nothing to say what it is to be a man.  Rather, it tries to circumvent that question by bald assertion; it avoids the properly human function of questioning and subsequently thinking-through what is questioned by rooting all action in “pre-rational” motives of the given.  It tries to reduce moral action to biological imperatives—and thereby excuse immoral stupidity.

Aristotelian-Thomist Terms

To put the true exposition, by contrast, in Aristotelian-Thomistic causal terms: the form of masculinity, which is a property of the substantial form of being human, requires in any individual that it possess a certain kind of matter, just as the form of humanity requires in any individual that there be bones and flesh and so on (to use Aquinas’ example).  Any masculine individual must have the Y-chromosome and testosterone, from which there will be further consequences enabling the actions befitting a masculine individual, such as greater muscle growth (relative to women), male genitalia, a neurochemical tendency towards responding to situations with aggressiveness, and so on.  But the form of humanity is irreducible to having flesh and bones and organs in the correct disposition and proportion, and so too is the form of masculinity irreducible to having testosterone and muscles and man-parts in the correct disposition and proportion.  That is: the form of humanity consists principally in certain operations, most especially those concerned with virtuous exercise of the faculties which are distinctive to being human: those faculties of the intellect and will, which redound to and thereby elevate the faculties we share in common with other animals. 

The form of masculinity, as differentiated from femininity, does not produce specifically-distinct faculties in the human being and so does not produce distinct operations.  It does, however, modulate the faculties and therefore modifies the right or fitting way for a man to perform certain operations as opposed to the right way for a woman to perform certain operations.  In other words, depending upon one’s biological sex—as the material disposition required by the form of either masculinity or femininity—there are different fitting patterns of operation; and these fitting patterns are what we call gender.  There is something incomplete, I would posit, about someone with masculine biology who does not conduct himself within the fitting patterns of masculine gender, and likewise someone having feminine biology who does not conduct herself within the fitting patterns of feminine gender.

Foregoing any discussion of the feminine, how do we determine whether or not the pattern of one’s operations, however, befits his masculine form?  If our only criterion is whether the operations seem enabled by the biological, we will again miss the point.  We need to look beyond the formal and the material, in other words.  Specifically, here, we need to look also at three further kinds of causes.

Causal Distinctions

First is the objective or specifying cause.  This is a kind of causality unfamiliar to most people—it is not found in the traditional Aristotelian taxonomy but is a development of later scholasticism which has remained buried to most thinkers for centuries.  I have gone into greater detail in other publications.[2]  But to give a succinct presentation, the objective or specifying cause is an extrinsic formal cause, one which determines our cognitive and cathectic faculties by presenting to us objects in specific ways.  This cause differs for men and women insofar as their faculties, as aforementioned, are modulated by their respective masculine and feminine forms.  Put otherwise, nothing differs on the part of the object as it is independently of the person who receives it, but something is indeed different on the part of the recipient.  That such a difference occurs has been demonstrated by a number of studies showing, for instance, different toy preferences in very young children.  Male and female are not differently determined by all objects, or in all ways, but in many and perhaps most objects they likely are—even if only very slightly—but especially if they have grown up and maintained for years a kind of bifurcated environment fitting to their respective forms.  A girl brought up in the company of boys will likely develop more tomboyish attributes and be more alike to boys in the way she is determined by objects, whereas a boy brought up in the company of girls will likely develop more-typically feminine interests and responses.  These are not all wrong in all ways, but if excessive do result almost invariably in some one or another unfitting habituation for each sex with respect to gender, and, following that, with respect also often to sexual orientation.  Moreover, the media to which a mind is regularly attuned will have similar consequences.  The excess of fantasy-universe media attention, for instance, tends to distort our conceptualization insofar as it distorts our habituated patterns of image-creation.

Regardless, the point I am attempting to convey here is that the objects to which we direct our minds (and by which our minds are directed) are both influenced by and influential over the patterning of our gender: either in ways which are fitting to our forms or ways which are unfitting.  A girl may enjoy watching sports without losing her femininity, and a boy may feel great empathy for animals or children without losing his masculinity; but a girl who wishes to be very muscular and strong does lose something of her femininity and a boy who wishes to wear dresses and look pretty loses something quite important to his masculinity.

This brings us to the second kind of cause we cannot afford to here overlook: the internal final cause.  Every living individual has, by virtue of the essential form making it to be the kind of thing that it is, an end or a goal through which that living organism attains its perfection.  Often, this internal final cause results in a series of concatenated relative final causes.  For instance, someone seeking happiness seeks a spouse, and seeking a spouse seeks to make himself attractive, and seeking to make himself attractive, dresses nicely and works out, and so on and so forth.  Getting fit is an end, as is dressing nicely, as is appearing attractive, as is finding a spouse.  Since happiness—in the Aristotelian, eudaimonic sense—is the final cause of all human beings, our question is: how is this pursuit modulated by the form of masculinity?

This is a question every man must contemplate for himself, I believe.  For it is an ethical question, and ethical questions—while they may be understood from and interpreted through some universal laws—always require particular resolutions.  That is, the masculine modulation of virtue will be slightly different for every individual human male, but there are certain commonalities.  The virtue of courage, for instance, as specifically male, skews far closer to recklessness than caution than it does for women, for the most part.  But I think a specific modulation by sex and gender which has often been overlooked regards the virtue of prudence.  The virtue of prudence is the virtue of right reasoning concerning things to be done, i.e., actions to be taken.  Now you might say, “How can right reasoning be distinctively male or female?  Isn’t reasoning common to both men and women?  Are you saying men are more reasonable than women!?”  To answer these questions in reverse: no, men are not more reasonable than women; yes, reasoning is common to both, but it is distinctively male or female insofar as being formally differentiated we very typically, with rare exception, grow up being habituated to reason in different ways: not that we see different intellectual truths, but we do form different phantasms, insofar as we are differently specified by the objects, as mentioned above.

That is: men’s reasoning concerning things to be done is often focused on attaining results: on implementing plans, on who can do what, how, when, and where; while women’s reasoning concerning things to be done more often focuses upon the persons involved; on how they might or will be effected, are treated well, and so on.  That’s not to say women cannot be good planners or that men cannot be empathetic.  We are looking, rather, at typical and malleable patterns.  But there is good reason that these patterns tend to follow the way that they do: the biological foundations of each tends to conduce to them and each conduces to the other as complementary attributes; each completes the other.

This complementarity leads us into the last of our causes to consider, the external final cause.  We are each of us parts of a whole greater than any one of us.  While there is a unique dignity to the human individual which makes each—as a comprehendor of the universe, in some sense—greater than all the material whole, we are nonetheless still subordinate to a common good.  This unique dignity ties into so many things—many more than I could reasonably talk about here—being a good husband, a good father, a good leader in the community when called upon to do so, a good follower of other leaders when it is their talents that are called upon, and so on.


I suppose in sum, masculinity primarily consists in understanding yourself and how you are related to the things around you.  This self-understanding seems hard for many to grasp today; we live in an age of illusions, where media deeply infects our minds with habits of fantasy found hard to shake, and where the promise of technological mastery suggests that we may realize these fantasies.  Perhaps we may; and in gaining the whole of our desire, lose our souls.

[1] Understood, that is, in the sense of that which is precisely as in relation to a cognitive subject (or at least semiosic agent).  Cf. Deely 2009: Purely Objective Reality, 8-15.

[2] See, for instance, 2022: Introduction to Philosophical Principles.

Psychological Order and the Noble Soul

On 7 June 2023, the Lyceum Institute held a Philosophical Happy Hour discussing the nature of “mental health” and why it has become so problematic in the 21st century.  While the conversation ranged across many topics—isolation, technology, dualism, abuse of medicines, the pathologizing of every difficulty—two themes caught my attention.  These Happy Hour discussions are open to the public.

Note that this presentation proceeds in a manner open-ended and dialectic, even as it takes a definitive position.

1. Introduction: Seeking Definitions

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If there were but one complaint that I could lodge against the scientific discipline of psychology (and the practical extension of it in psychiatry and therapy), it is this: you have no good causal definition of “mental health”.  Mind you, there are many other just complaints, but this, I think, is principal among them all, for the failure to provision (or accept) a good definition of mental health leaves one incapable of pursuing it.

To be clear, it is not as though the psychological professions have no definitions of mental health; only that those they have—or, to be fair, the most prominently-displayed among them, as I will not pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the field—are not good definitions.  To look at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,[1] the statement closest to a definition I could find is this: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.  It affects how we think, feel, and act.  It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”  Comparably, the World Health Organization gives as a definition: “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” 

Operative in both definitions is the word “well-being”.  This, of course, says more vaguely what is said by “health”—such vagueness being quite problematic, given the role assigned to the word, “well-being”, in each definition.  The CDC further differentiates this “well-being” by “emotional, psychological, and social”; the WHO by the various things it enables people to do.  Neither differentiation is helpful.  The CDC’s specification seems oddly redundant (are not emotions something that belongs to the psyche?).  The WHO’s checklist may include key indicators, but this hardly constitutes a positive definition of what mental health is.  Indeed, neither definition gives us anything like a formal or final cause.  One could say, instead, that both are merely nominal definitions.  Such may be safer in an age lacking common first principles (a kind of “metaphysical pluralism”), but nominalism quickly gives way to motivations other than the discovery of truth or the promotion of the common good.

This radical deficiency is, of course, disastrous.  Despite a proliferation of “mental health professionals” in recent decades, the strength of our sanity seems only to wane, day by day.  I would not hesitate to identify the imprecision and vagueness of our definitions and our conception of what constitutes “mental health” to be a key cause (by absence) of this weakening sanity.  But, even further, I question whether the very concept of “mental health” itself is not a fundamentally misbegotten notion.  In back of this questioning I have also a yet-deeper concern over beliefs prevalent in medicine—and the broader conception of “health”, treated mechanistically so often as it is—but here, we will focus specifically on the application of “health” to the “mental”.

For, indeed: what do we mean by “mental”?  What is “the mind”?  To many, including those within psychology and its related fields, this question has not been answered.  Worse, for many of that many, the question either cannot or does not need to be answered.  The rationale for such positions (functionally the same), is that one can treat mental illness solely on the basis of the external indicators, such as social well-being or the ability to cope with stress and work; thus, we can adjudicate the mental healthiness of an individual not by anything formal or intrinsic to that individual, but by their perceptible relations to others and the social norms of the day.

In contrast to these deleterious positions, I would like here to suggest that the truth represented only obliquely by the phrase “mental health” can better be grasped through the concepts of order and nobility.

2. The Concept of “Mental Health”

Before proceeding into these positive conceptions, however, allow me a few paragraphs to expound on the shortcomings of the phrase “mental health”.  There are two principal and interrelated problems that I see.  The first is contingent upon the present conventional understanding of health, such that the idea of “health” broadly considered suffers a mechanistic interpretation.  The second both promotes and is exacerbated by this mechanicism: namely, that the separation of “mental health” from “health” generally at the very least implies a kind of dualism, and quite often compounds that dualism into a position of radical incoherence.

This first problem consists in the predominance of a background mechanistic conception about the whole world.  At the heart of this conception, as applied to health generally, is the belief that “health” follows from the correct kinds of efficient cause operating on properly-disposed matter, and that these two alone give a sufficient causal explanation for what is meant by “health”.  The limited but precise and impressive success in treating many conditions of the body following this conception has led to the concept’s entirely unsuitable extension to the so-called “mental”.  In other words: the mechanistic conception, though inaccurate in identifying the health of the body as such, has resulted in many efficacious treatments.  However, it is entirely unsuitable to the treatment of problems of a psychological nature.  It may and sometimes does genuinely treat of the symptoms of such a problem, and, in treating of those symptoms may even allow for a correction of the root problem—but incidentally, as it were, thereby confusing those who believe it sufficient and accurate in treating of all psychological difficulties.

Bridging this and the second problem of dualism runs the notion that “health” is an instrumental good of “the self”.  In some ways, of course, this is true, as it pertains to the body.  If “physical health” may be broadly (and provisionally) defined as “the right disposition of the organic body for the sake of the animal’s characteristic activities”, then “health” does, in a certain way, serve as an instrument—or rather, describes the condition of the instruments, namely, the organs through which we operate.[2]  But, even granting more extreme instrumentalist vies of the body, does the mechanistic conception of “health” result in an extension of this instrumentality to the “mental”?  In other words: if the health of the body is “for the good of the ‘self’”, then what is “mental health” for?

Thus, to identify the second problem, that of dualism: the notion of the body as merely an instrument suggests that the person and his or her body are not a unity, but, rather, that the body is a possession of the person.[3]  But, although the word “dualism” suggests a simple duality—the physical and the mental—we can see with a little reflection how much more complex the problem is in fact.  Ordinarily, that is, one suspects most dualisms of simply treating the body as an instrument and the mental as the personal self to whom that instrument belongs.  But with the mechanistic appropriation of “mental health”, the mental too becomes an instrument.  For thus “mental health” becomes something that one has—and we describe mental health problems as hurdles that the person has to overcome, and so on.  Holding that the body is a possession, an instrument, we strive after physical health as a right functioning of that instrument.  So, too—implicitly, unconsciously—the mind comes to be held likewise as a possession and an instrument in need of being well-tuned in order to perform as we wish it would.

Often, and paradoxically, this particular twist in dualistic thinking goes hand-in-hand with materialism: believing, for instance, that all our psychological experience is constituted neurologically—such that our “mental health” difficulties arise principally if not exclusively from physically-explicable (and resoluble) disorders in the brain—one becomes a de facto dualist.  For we experience a will and a desire to be something other than what is neurologically constituted (and all the flaws located therein).  Even if one maintains materialism as true, accepting this opposition must mean that some part of the brain—the part with which we identify—constitutes something distinct in its identity from the flawed parts.  Thus, the self becomes divided, again and again, part against part, with no resolution to any sense of a whole.

Finally, even if one were to post this standing of part against part, of the “true self” as only a part of one’s material whole as merely illusory—as though any identity of the self apart from the material consists in naught but epiphenomena—then one would be forced to accept that our manner of experience is entirely other than what the things purportedly-experienced themselves are in fact.  Such is a one-way street to solipsism.

3. Psychological Order

By contrast, we here propose that the psychological, or at the very least what we conventionally if vaguely designate by that term, is both distinct from the corporeal but also inseparable from the physical.[4]  This too might, prima facie, appear paradoxical.  But it must be known that not all distinctions are of two wholly different beings.  Certainly, my hand is a part of me; but I am not my hand.  Likewise, the psyche is the intrinsic principle of my body, but it is not my body itself.[5]  Moreover, the activities of the psyche are not limited to those which are strictly constrained to the corporeal, but are able to exceed that corporeality.  I’ll not dive into this here (such being a more difficult and engaged topic—covered, not incidentally, in the Thomistic Psychology: A Retrieval seminar) but simply posit these points as true in order to arrive at the main point of this essay: namely that, in brief, these psychological activities are relational, and consist in a being-towards objects understood under lights irreducible to the corporeal.

Let us therefore distinguish between the psyche as the principle of our whole being and the “psychological” as a descriptor used in designating those activities of the psyche which are not corporeally-constrained but rather relational in their constitution.  Anything constituted in its own proper being as intentional (by which is meant not “purposive” but “being-towards”), in other words, deserves the name of “psychological”: thus, activities of cognition and emotion or appetite.  These intentional activities, as it has been noted by a few particularly keen-minded individuals, are irreducibly triadic.  That’s a rather complex phrase to unpack.  Suffice it here only to say: they are realities that cannot consist merely in the efficient causation of one agent or instrument on another matter or recipient, but which exist together as a certain whole always constituted by no fewer than three distinct parts.[6]  Remove any part, and you destroy the whole—destroying the whole, you change the other parts, too.

There are things that happen to us, that happen to and within our bodies, that may affect our psyches but which are merely dyadic—like one billiard ball hitting another (although much more multifaceted and complex in the case of the human organism)—and there are things that happen to us and things that we do, things that are psychological, which are always triadic: things like knowing, and loving, desiring and hating, wondering, and anything that involves the presence in or to your mind in a way quite different than anything which comes to be present in your body.  Our lives are constituted from more than merely those experiences of which we are conscious—but it is through consciousness that we know ourselves and effect control and order in our lives.  Thus, it is easy to see how one can reduce the self to these psychological activities and their consequents.  But such would be a mistake, for a little reflection upon those psychological actions shows how dependent they are upon those dyadically-constituted and pre-conscious realities.

The myriad psychological activities in which we engage can be distinguished by the various kinds of objects towards which they are intentionally oriented.  Seeing light differentiated into colors differs from hearing the vibrations of motors and the chirping of birds, while knowing that five times six equals thirty is quite something other than loving your wife.  Distinguishing precisely the kinds of objects towards which we are intentionally oriented—and sorting out the complex ways in which they may intertwine in our experience—would take quite some time (and has already been well-done in the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition).  Briefly, however, we can generically enumerate what we call the external senses, internal or perceptual senses, the appetitive (or somewhat more broadly, cathectic) faculties, and the intellect and will.

Across all these diverse faculties which we possess for engaging in such triadic action, however, there exist three important commonalities: one, that each has some proper and fitting object for the kind of triadic action in which it is involved; two, that, although there is a proper object, the complex interaction of these faculties means that we can relate to any of these objects in ways which are unfitting for us; and, three, that not only within each faculty but also through their relations to one another, we form habits of relating to our objects.  The malleability of these habits are what allow us to be better or worse in the way that we live, in the way that we exercise our conscious living.  Therein we achieve, approach, deviate from, or destroy our psychological “well-being”: the right order that obtains between our faculties.

Or to put this otherwise, the possession of a right and fitting psychological order—what is sought after but missed by the phrase “mental health”—consists in the correct proportioning of these facultative habits both to their objects and to one another.  We must love the right things, rightly understood, in the right degree, and we must engender this love habitually.  We must not be consumed by cathectic habits of anger or lust.  We must know the truth—and, moreover, be able to perceive it, and especially to perceive the truth about the good in the world that we inhabit.

Unfortunately, today, the standard criteria and practices of “mental health” are ordered instead toward the myopic and self-focused.  It neither perceives nor promotes an awareness, let alone any “treatment”, of what are essentially triadic and intentional disorders, but rather attempts various subjective adjustments.  Being so-inwardly focused, what most of all has been lost is the sense of right-ordering towards what is noble.  Indeed, by contrast, it seems that while admiration for noble acts continues, behaving nobly is seen by most persons as unduly-burdensome.  This belief, I think, is the fundamental cause of much psychological disorder.

4. Habituating a Noble Soul

The word “noble” may conjure images of wealthy men riding in carriages, French or English aristocracy (or perhaps an oligarchy)—mansions and riches and so on.  Students of chemistry make think of gases or metals—of elements often found resistant to change.  Or it may evoke the thought of selfless and praiseworthy deeds, of chivalric action, of high aspirations.  For those familiar with the thought of Plato and Aristotle, it brings to mind virtue, of course, but also the beautiful: for the same word, καλόν (kalon), often is translated into English as both “noble” and “beautiful”.

Discussion of the noble could—and likely should—receive a whole treatise.  In the provisional manner of a short essay such as this, however, we can give it only a heuristic description: nobility, as a characteristic of the human soul, consists in the willingness to endure suffering and to make sacrifices for the greater good.  When the concept of “the good” becomes increasingly self-centered, self-focused, and myopically ordered to individual benefit and “well-being”—when a materialistically-presuppositive individualism becomes the norm—undertaking the actions indicative of a noble soul appears, indeed, unduly-burdensome.  Mind you, this is far from claiming that “mental health” and the many very real struggles had today reduce, simply, to “being selfish”.  The causes of psychological disorder are many.

But all of these causes are exacerbated when the individuals constituting the society fold in upon themselves, and direct their action primarily not at the common but solely the individual good.  This often-unconscious selfishness—taken not as a moral flaw but as a given of human nature—undermines the whole society; it frays the threads, the relations, that hold us together.  It leaves us lonely, even surrounded by others, for it saddles each and every one of us with the burden of an entire universe.

Contrariwise, what today we need are habits of the noble soul.  That is, we need habits that order us toward a good irreducible to ourselves: goods that are truly common.  When we pursue such goods, there is a converse resultance in ourselves: that is, we become ennobled by seeking noble ends.  This ennobling of our souls helps rectify the psychological order.  We are swayed less by distractions, temptations, more enabled to suffer anxieties and worries, if we know that our endurance of them may help contribute to a true and lasting good—that truly it serves a purpose beyond the satisfactions of the self.

5. Conclusion: Nobility and Rectitude

What conclusion can we reach, in so short a composition?  Nothing too immediately useful.  But for now suffice it only to say: our society is not well.  Focus on “mental well-being” has failed to produce it.  Rather, it has resulted in fragility.  Fear, anxiety, anger, despair—consequences of waning hope in the possibility of attaining a meaningful good, for we have only an atrophied and distant sense of the noble—and thus, fall into psychological disorder of countless and increasingly complexified kinds.  Pulling any thread of the knot in which we have tangled ourselves seems only to tighten it.  What leaves the knot tied, most of all, is the unwillingness to keep at it; to give up; to slide into a palliative care. 

But our situation is not hopeless; indeed, there is no knot that cannot be untied, with diligence, patience—strong, dexterous fingers—and recognition that our suffering, our struggle, serves a purpose beyond mere self-satisfaction.

[1] When did they add “Prevention”?  I just noticed this and find it disturbing.  Perhaps it has always been there.  Perhaps I should always have been disturbed.

[2] That is, the body is not an instrument as such, but has parts which are used instrumentally for the good of the whole person.  But this proves a topic more complex to demonstrate in full than would here be appropriate.

[3] The widespread tacit acceptance of this philosophical position appears, for instance, in the common mantra of “it’s my body, it’s my choice”—the implication being that one’s choice and one’s body are separate; that the latter possesses an absolute dominion over the former.

[4] That is, inseparable by nature.  Death and the question of the afterlife can only be understood as exceeding our experimental verification—thus, we can infer justly that an afterlife is necessarily fitting to what we as human beings are, but the reality of that afterlife exceeds our ability here and now to know with any certitude.

[5] Cf. Aristotle c.330bc: ΠερΨυχς, (On the Soul) book 2, c.1.

[6] For an introductory consideration of this triadic nature of the psychological, consider the 1989 lecture by Walker Percy titled, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andres Fault in the Modern Mind”.  This can be watched online here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?7788-1/san-andreas-fault-modern-mind or read in Signposts in a Strange Land.  One can also listen to a colloquium by Dr. Kirk Kanzelberger on “Mending the Fateful Rift” in our 2020 colloquium series.  A more in-depth treatment by Percy can be found in his “Delta Factor” article, printed in The Message in the Bottle.

Philosophy’s relation to Natural and Positive Law

Can we understand the law in a non-philosophical manner? Can the jurist afford to disdain questions of philosophy? We must have consensus in certain disciplines, and the positive law is one of them—but what grounds this consensus? Must we have a philosophical theory of the natural law? Can law truly be itself without a relation to philosophical analyses?

From Yves Simon’s Tradition of Natural Law, p.63-66:

Let us recognize that the question of natural law is itself philosophical. Further, it is related in the most inescapable way to profound issues of theoretical philosophy. Thus, the difficulties proper to philosophy are inescapably present in any discussion involving natural law. From this it follows that whenever there is a good reason to avoid these difficulties, there will also be a good reason to leave natural law out of the picture, whether by denying that it exists or by acting as if its existence did not matter.

In the present connection, the difficulties “proper to philosophy” pertain principally or mostly to the problem of communication, community in assent, consensus. Let the fundamentals of this issue be briefly stated. Wherever there is demonstration there is an absolutely firm ground for unanimous assent. An axiomatic propositions is necessarily assented to by any mind that understands it, and a demonstrated proposition necessitates the assent of any mind that considers it under the power of the demonstrating premises. But in this world of contingent occurrences there is an indeterminate discrepancy between the really normal and the factual, between that which would happen if essential necessities had their own way and what happens factually.* The popular belief—shared by a great variety of philosophical thinkers—that a genuinely demonstrated proposition necessarily entails factual consensus, and that failure to cause consensus is perfect evidence of failure to attain demonstrativeness, ignores the unpleasant fact that contingency affects intellectual life as certainly as it does the growth of plants in our forests and in our cultivated fields. There are departments of knowledge where demonstration, no matter how flawless, is unlikely to entail factual agreement except within small circles of kindred minds. Such is the case with all philosophic sciences, and if a man feels that he has no calling for solitary research, solitary contemplation, and solitary struggle against error, he should conclude that he has no calling for philosophy. But there are disciplines which by reason of their social function, and also by reason of the conditions to which their existence and their development are subjected, systematically seek factual communicability and the largest possible amount of agreement. Such is the case of all techniques (e.g., engineering, medicine) and of all the sciences insofar as they are directly or indirectly, proximately or remotely, dominated by technical purposes. Considering, further, that scientific research in our society is to an unprecedented extent the work of teams, it becomes clear that the successful communication of propositions is not only a condition of technical fertility: it is also a condition of progress and existence of such disciplines.

Another domain where factual agreement is sought systematically is that of positive law. There si no need to elaborate on this point: by the very fact that formulas of positive law are designed to hold men together, organize their cooperation, bring about uniformity in the behavior of indefinitely many individuals, it is highly desirable that these formulas should command the assent of all persons concerned or most of them. We must, accordingly, expect the jurists to evidence an eagerness to keep away from issues on which minds are irretrievably divided. In this respect there is a striking analogy between the case of the jurist and that of the natural scientist. Duhem, among others, said that if physics claimed to be an explanation of nature, it would soon become as controversial as metaphysics. Why should that be avoided? Again, because of the function that physics has to play in society and because of the social conditions of its existence and development. All natural scientists, no matter how divided they may be on the philosophical interpretation of their own science, would agree that the search for factual consensus plays a considerable role in their choice of questions and in the determination of their standpoints and their ways of research and expression. Thus the merits of consensus prompt the scientists to abstract from many aspects of reality which, indeed, may well be worth considering, which perhaps should be considered by somebody—e.g., by philosophers—but which have to be left out of the picture by men who absolutely need to understand each other in order to be able to work together. The sane need for abstraction is felt in positive law. The ideal of the positive jurist, especially in societies deeply divided on philosophical, moral, social, and religious subjects, is a system of legal formulas which would be equally acceptable to the nominalist and the realist, the mechanist and the hylomorphist, the believer in universal necessity and the believer in the reality of contingency, the upholder and the denier of free choice, the rationalist and the voluntarist, the theist and the atheist. Is such a system possible at all? The least that can be said is that it would be low in intelligibility and would defeat a major purpose of the jurist, which is to explain the law. Jurists are caught in an antinomy: inasmuch as they are concerned with explanation they are inclined toward philosophical analysis, and they move away from desirable consensus; but inasmuch as they systematically seek consensus they are bound to abstract from the really illuminating issues which are philosophic and on which, as a matter of fact (though not by essential necessity), minds will always be divided. Legal positivism is considered by many a valuable compromise. But it is just another philosophy, and its being describable as the philosophy of the nonphilosophers does not give it power to win consensus. Yet the legal positivist may at least cherish the illusion that he is satisfying the conditions of unanimous assent; the theorist of natural law cannot cherish such an illusion. Accordingly, jurists generally favor some sort of positivism. The case had been different in the past, prior to the constitution of positivism as a distinct system of philosophy. But when the theory of natural law seems to be commonly accepted and works as a factor of agreement, there are good reasons to suspect that it is embodied in an ideology. Then the weight which brings about consensus is not that of objectivity; it is rather a sociological weight which is at best an embarrassing ally of truth. The conflict between the requirements of philosophic analysis and those of consensus may cause difficulties in the work of the philosophers; it inevitably causes trouble in the treatment of such a subject as natural law by jurists, for they, indeed, have strong reasons to seek consensus. And we cannot doubt that such problems will last as long as there remains any philosophic interest in nature and in law.

*Assent to an axiomatic proposition is necessary as soon as this proposition is understood. Whether it is easy or not to understand axiomatic propositions is a totally different issue. The notion of logical immediacy, which means nothing else than the connection of a subject and a predicate without the offices of any intermediary term, must not be confused with the psychological disposition commonly expressed by the exclamations “That is obvious!”

If you are interested in these and like questions and texts, and wish to think deeply about the natural law, sign up for Dr. Matthew Minerd’s seminar—starting in July 2023!

What is Philosophical Habit?

A discussion of philosophical habit as the core of practice at the Lyceum Institute

What are habits? And what does it mean to have a philosophical habit? As I discuss in the above, it is a way of inquisitively holding ourselves towards the world—and with an attitude of genuine humility before the object.

Or to put this otherwise: how often do we find not only others but also ourselves presuming a certitude and a knowledge about the world in which we live? Often; and if we had better practices of reflection upon our own thinking and behavior, we would discover that we do it even more often than we think. We allow ourselves to be held by presuppositions about the world, ourselves, and what is true. By contrast, a philosophical habit consists in holding yourself humbly. This habit also therefore helps us to resist the converse habit—the prevalent tendency of today—of reactive distractedness.

No matter our age or station in life, we ought to strive to be learners; to be students. A student is not someone between the ages of 5 and 18, or 22, or 30. Rather, it is to be one eager for knowledge. To be a student is to embody the virtue of studiousness. I think here of Hugh of St. Victor’s words from the Didascalicon: “The good student, then, ought to be humble and docile, free alike from vain cares and from sensual indulgences, diligent and zealous to learn willingly from all, to presume never upon his own knowledge…”

Let us strive for these virtues!

The Habit of Conversation

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
-T.S. Eliot 1935: “Burnt Norton” (first of the Four Quartets), III.

Few poets ever have and likely ever will attain the prescience of T.S. Eliot. I find myself repeating, with increasing frequency, the lines quoted above: not only so that I might recall myself to focus, but to name the phenomena seen in others. We find ourselves struggling to hold meaningful conversations, dismayed either by others inattentiveness or ensnared by our own distractions.

But without conversation, we suffer an enormous blow to the integrity of our human way of life. We ought instead strive to affect a recovery of the habit of conversation. Here, allow us to explore some avenues through which such a recovery might be made.

The Language of Conversation: Holding vs. Having

First, it is important that we be able to say what a conversation is. As with many common phenomena, we likely take for granted that we “know” what a conversation is without needing to define it. But this kind of “knowledge”—experiential familiarity—does not help us overcome our present conversational malaise. In other words, we need to deepen our knowledge of conversation if we wish to have better conversations.

The way we speak about conversations, as with many other things, often reveals our underlying beliefs about what a conversation is, even if we are not consciously aware of that belief. For one thing, it seems that the phrase “holding a conversation has become increasingly rare, replaced by the more transactional “having a conversation.” The distinction between holding and having a conversation is subtle yet significant. “Holding” a conversation implies a sense of presence, responsibility, and of participation. The conversation is held between two people. By contrast, “having” a conversation suggests something that each individual gets or receives from the other(s) involved. It turns the conversation into a possession. This shift in language seemingly reflects the deeper, atomistic individualism pervasive in our society.

It implies, that is, that conversations have become commodities, something we acquire or consume, rather than an essential aspect of our human connection.

Holding Ourselves in Conversation

But holding a conversation is not merely a transitive, extrinsic action. We hold a conversation only by holding ourselves within it. We hold to the conversation. How often do we find ourselves not present or open to the other? Do we listen for an opportunity to speak—to rejoin, respond, to deviate into something else—or do we listen to what is being said? Do we listen so that we might hear or so that we might get something out of it?

Technology has undeniably altered our habits of conversation. Smartphones, in particular, have become both a distraction and a crutch, frequently drawing us away from in-person interactions. But are there other ways technology, other technologies, that affect our conversational habits?

One interesting aside to consider is the role of AI and chatbots like ChatGPT which may shape our conversational habits. The promise of instant feedback and the ability to return immediately to whatever topic offered by these platforms can reinforce the transactional attitude toward conversation: an exchange of information, on-demand. The silence, the gestational pause of thinking, of truly reasoning, plays no role in these technologies. Even our text-messaging habits lean into this: the absolute horror of being too long “left on read” without receiving a response.

Balance: Held by the Word, rather than the World

As humans, we navigate a delicate balance between active and passive engagement. However, it seems that our current approach to conversations may have disrupted this equilibrium. We must consider whether we are too passive or too active, or perhaps passive or active in the wrong ways. Reflecting on our conversational habits and our relationship with technology is an essential first step toward rekindling the art of meaningful dialogue.

Perhaps the best way to rectify this conversational degradation is, in fact, by having one: a thoughtful, careful, and meaningful participation—not an exchange, but truly communicating in the pursuit of truth. Join us this Wednesday for our Philosophical Happy Hour, exploring this critical aspect of human connection and rediscovering the beauty of holding, and being held by, a conversation.

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

On Architecture and Order

What is architecture? How can we define it? As a human art, it seems that we cannot conceive of what it is fully or properly without efficient and final causes: certainly it is by human beings, and somehow for human beings. But for human beings to do… what? What benefit does the architect render human beings in the production of his buildings? It seems that we need a good definition—a more precise definition—if we are to say whether the products of architecture are good or bad themselves.

Integral to architecture conception seems the broader notion of order. The work of the architect, that is, seems nothing if not the making of what has order. But where, and in what, does order germinate? Allow here a quotation of the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander (4 October 1935—2022 March 17):

Excerpts from The Nature of Order:

The activity we call building creates the physical order of the world, constantly, unendingly, day after day. In the last five millennia, human beings have created millions upon millions of cubic yards of building, and millions of buildings, house, roads, and cities—entire worlds. Our world is dominated by the order we create.

But although we are responsible for the creation of order on this enormous scale, we hardly even know what the word “order” means. Our present idea of “order” is obscure. Although the word is often used informally by artists and biologists and physicians—usually to stand for some deep regularity we cannot quite define—we need a better understanding of the deep geometric reality of order. If we are honest we must admit we hardly even know what kind of phenomenon it is. Yet we build the world, producing its order, day by day. Thus we go on, willy-nilly creating order int he world, without knowing what it is, why we are doing it, what its significance might be.

In the 20th century we have passed through a unique period, one in which architecture as a discipline has been in a state that is almost unimaginably bad. Sometimes I think of it as a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimension, in which the people of earth—in large numbers and in almost all contemporary societies—have created a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow. The ugliness which has been created in the cities of the world, and the banality and pretentiousness of many 20th-century buildings, streets, and parking lots have overwhelmed the earth. Much of this construction is caused by developers, hosing authorities, owners of hotels, motels, airport authorities. In that sense architects might be considered blameless, since in some degree the ugliness of what has been created is caused by new relations between time, money, labor, and materials and by a set of conditions in which the real thing—authentic architecture that has deep feeling and true worth—is almost impossible.

But architects are not blameless. For the most part, architects have stood by, content to play their role s part of the 20th-century machine. They gild the lily of commercial development with pretentiousness. Many architects have raised the designer-conscious fashion of building to new levels, have invented absurd ways of thinking about architecture, have altogether poisoned the earth with an abundance of terrible and senseless designs which have few redeeming features.

I believe that we have in us a residue of a world-picture which is essentially mechanical in nature—what we might call the mechanist-rationalist world-picture. Whether or not we believe that we are subscribing to this picture, whether or not we are aware of the impact of its residue in us, even when we consider ourselves moved by spiritual or ecological concerns, most of us are still—I believe—to a greater or lesser extent in the grip of some residue of this mechanical world-picture. Like an infection, it has entered us, it affects our actions, it affects our morals, it affects our sense of beauty. It controls the way we think when we try to make buildings and—in my view—it has made the making of beautiful buildings all but impossible.

Selections from Christopher Alexander 1980–2002: The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life.

This topic—the nature of architecture—cannot in fact be divorced from the question of the human soul, and, specifically, its development of habits. We live in a built-environment. The built-environment informs our perceptual behavior: how our eyes and ears are attuned, how we relate to the phenomena of places, distances; echoes and reverberations, how we are enveloped by air, by sound and silence, by light and shadow. Buildings envelope us every day, from waking to sleeping. We practice our daily behaviors at home or in offices, in coffee shops and grocery stores. Our religious cathexis depends in no small measure on the structure of our houses of worship. The weight of law finds its reflection in the gravitas of the courtroom and the houses of legislation.

Do we think enough about how these buildings come to be—and whether they are fitting to our being?

Philosophical Happy Hour

Interior from Havana, Cuba, free public domain CC0 image.

If you’d like to join us for a discussion of architecture and order in the built-environment, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

“The deepest and most important teaching of Classical Architecture concerns the human soul: before any other work it is necessary to forge your own soul, making it a temple of virtue and knowledge. Those who do not know how to build themselves, will never be able to build anything beautiful and noble.” 

Vitruvian man, from the edition of De Architectura of Giovan Battista Caporali, 1536

How and Why We Study Logic

Excerpted from the lectures given to the Lyceum Institute Trivium: Art of Logic Course.

“What more can be said about logic?”  I am acutely aware, as I pen these words that I pen them not to be read (even if someone other than myself might and does indeed read them), but to be spoken; to be given in a lecture, that is—a lecture for the Lyceum Institute, a lecture belonging to a course, and a course belonging to a holistic study of all three arts constituting the Trivium.  Though logic may be studied on its own, both as an art and as science, its greatest fruit comes when studied integrally with the other arts of the Trivium.  This sentiment—or rather, the mixed sentiments of hope, humility, and no small amount of trepidation, since I am myself well aware of my woeful inadequacy as a teacher, especially of logic—this sentiment finds itself grounded by the well-wrought intellectual insights of far wiser men: men such as R.E. Houser, John Deely, and John Poinsot, all of whom I consider my own teachers in this most difficult of subjects.  My failings, however, are not a reflection of their abilities: for I have learned logic through their printed works, rather than in-person instruction, and thus have not benefitted from direct correction.

The purpose of these lectures, indeed, is not to say anything new or novel about logic at all.  That does not mean there is nothing new to be said about logic, only that I am not here intending to say it.  Rather, these lectures aim—as is more broadly the goal of this course as a whole and of our first course of study of the Trivium in the Lyceum Institute—these lectures aim at displaying and explicating the art for a living audience.  They form part of a multi-party dialogue: between myself, as the instructor, and you, as the audience; between us, as a class, and the texts, which we read; and between the shared knowledge we gain and the knowledge we yet seek.  Between instructor and audience, there is formed a whole; between that whole, the class, and the texts, there is formed a second whole, that shared knowledge.  But knowledge, always and invariably, prompts new questions, an inquiry beyond itself.  These lectures are merely my own contribution… and rather a minor contribution, at that, in the grand scheme of this dialogue.

Our world—by which I mean not merely the physical environment of earth (though inclusive of it) but rather, more primarily, the specifically human environment of linguistically-perfused culture—suffers a problem of meaning.  I have addressed this problem in many other places.  We may redress this problem of meaning, however, only through language, and only if we conceive of language in the right way: not merely as an abstract system of arbitrarily-stipulated symbolic communications, ordered principally toward pragmatic ends and for the sake of manipulating that world to our ends (such manipulative bearing being one of, if not the, principal causes of our meaning problem), but rather as the way in which the true meaning of things comes to light in the first place.  For developing a facility with language so-conceived, we must study all three arts of the Trivium.  In the Art of Logic, in particular, we attend specifically to the illative relation, whereby we discover how language leads thinking through inference to truths not immediately evident—to truths obscured by malfeasant rhetoric or the will-to-power, to truths hidden by those who wish only to bend the world to their wills, instead of standing themselves humbly open to the real.

Sign up for the Lyceum Institute and join us in the study of Logic this Spring! Lectures begin 1 May 2023 and discussions on 8 May 2023. All members are welcome to take the Art of Logic course, at every level of enrollment.