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A Philosophical Inquiry into Facts

What is a fact? The English word, used so commonly throughout the modern world, comes from its Latin cognate, factum: an event, occurrence, a deed, an achievement. But since the mid-17th century, under the auspices of the Enlightenment’s so-called “empiricism”, the word has been taken to be a “reality” known as independent of observation. The fact is Absolute. Facts, therefore, are discovered by and studied within “science”. They are “objective”. They are “verifiable”. That water at sea level boils at 212° Fahrenheit; that Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492; that Chicago is west of New York: most people regard these as facts.

Other claims may be disputed, such as that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; or that Domingo de Soto was the first to introduce the distinction between formal and instrumental signs. These disputes hinge upon the evidence: given the right data, it is thought, we could decide definitively one way or another. Other claims are not disputed as to their factuality, but regarded as irresoluble to facts. For instance, the claim that socialism is evil, or that capitalism drives moral flaw; that Aquinas was a better philosopher than Wittgenstein, or that a particular pope has undermined the Catholic faith.

Pseudo-Philosophical Presuppositions

This bifurcation into what is or is not a fact, however, presupposes much. Arguments often appeal to facts (or “evidence”). Arguments structured through or upon factual bases typically appear stronger. Contrariwise, if someone lacks a factual basis for his argument, others will regard that argument as “subjective”, a matter of opinion, and therefore as weak. To give an example, consider the claim that socialism is evil. The commonest way to defend this claim consists in examining facts about the Soviet Union. We advance the argument by pointing to the number of people killed, or the churches destroyed. We look at the facts of the Gulag. The Soviets themselves did all they could to hide these facts from much of the world.

Curiously enough, however, the Soviets (at least those making the decisions), despite their efforts to hide the facts did not seem overly troubled by them. Indeed: commonly, “facts” seem themselves always embedded in social contexts of interpretation. Bruno Latour has argued that what we regard as “facts” are not mind-independent truths discovered through science but socially-constructed fictions premised upon some observation. That is: circumstances and instruments, as well as often-tacit social agreements, contextualize every purported discovery of “fact”.

Discussing the Philosophical Reality of “Facts”

Yet the idea of the “fact”, despite such challenges, remains powerful in our contemporary social imaginary. Facts, as oft-repeated by a certain fast-talking pundit, do not care about your feelings.

But, we have to ask—we ought to ask—is there even really such a thing as a “fact”? What makes something to be a fact? How do we discover them, share them, interpret them? Can we gain “factual knowledge” without interpretation?

Join us this evening to discuss facts—and philosophy!

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Fall 2023: Heidegger’s Phenomenological Method – Part I

Phenomenology, a term rich with various meanings through history, is now commonly recognized as a collection of intellectual pathways pioneered by Edmund Husserl in his seminal work, Logische Untersuchungen or Logical Investigations (1900, revised in 1913 to coincide with the more-developed Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy). These philosophical explorations, all grounded in the foundational study of human understanding, are as diverse as they are profound. One remarkable and often misunderstood approach within this tradition is that of Martin Heidegger: a distinguished student of Husserl, but one whose interpretations diverge sharply from those of his mentor.

Join us for this eight-week seminar (the first of two) that delves into the complexities of Heidegger’s phenomenological method. Beginning with a contrast to the background that shaped his thinking, followed by an examination of Heidegger’s own conceptualization of his method, and culminating in a rigorous exploration of his groundbreaking work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), this course offers a comprehensive study of Heideggerian phenomenology. A focused consideration of his thought-provoking essay, “On the Essence of Truth” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit), will reveal both the merits and shortcomings of Heidegger’s approach.

Discover Phenomenology

  • Phenomenological Method: Discover the unique manner in which Heidegger conducts his own phenomenology—or “fundamental ontology”—by reading his most important works.
  • The Question of Being: Learn how Heidegger reinvigorated the question of being and opened new avenues for philosophical understanding across traditions.
  • World and Meaning: Investigate the structures of the World (Welt) and Meaning (Sinn and Bedeutung) through Heidegger’s philosophy.

Method & Structure

The seminar, designed for those familiar with the Western philosophical tradition, consists of:

  • Weekly Recorded Lectures: 40-60+ minute lectures expositing the work of Heidegger and attempting to make it more clearly intelligible.
  • Discussion Sessions: Participants and the instructor gather to discuss weekly readings and lecture every Saturday at 3:00-4:00 pm ET.
  • Reading: The primary text is Heidegger’s Being and Time with additional readings provided in PDF.
  • Time Commitment: Expect 8-10 hours per week for reading, lectures, and discussion.
  • Auditing or Completing: Participants who write an essay may “Complete” the seminar (and be considered for publication in Reality).

Meaningful Postmodernity

What distinguishes this seminar is its focus on demystifying the often-obscure thoughts of one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Under the instructor’s guidance, participants will navigate the intricate terrains of phenomenology and the question of being, gaining insights that resonate deeply with human existence and intellectual curiosity.

Embark on this philosophical adventure with the Lyceum Institute, and unravel the mysteries of Being through the eyes of Heidegger. Whether you are a seasoned scholar of phenomenology or simply eager to explore these profound questions, this seminar offers a rare opportunity to engage with the complex landscape of modern philosophy. Register today and join a community dedicated to rigorous intellectual pursuit and enlightening discussion.

Pricing Comparison

Standard priceBasic Lyceum
Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
Benefactor$200 per seminar$903 seminars included
$90 after
8 seminars included
$90 after
Patron$135 per seminar$653 seminars included
$65 after
8 seminars included
$65 after
Participant$80 per seminar$403 seminars included
$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after

Is Beauty a Transcendental?

Perhaps you have heard of Bryan Johnson, the wealthy man spending millions of dollars per year on a routine designed to reverse his age.  This routine requires absolute conformity: every day of his life is controlled by the program titled “Blueprint”, which comprises routine measurement and treatment of: heart, brain, lung, the gastrointestinal tract, his hair, skin, eyes, ears, his oral health, sleep, bone marrow, pancreas, prostate, cardiovascular system—and which commits him to a strict diet, supplements, and exercise regimen.  It runs his life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  He looks far younger than his 45 years.  He also looks rather effeminate.  He insists that he is happy, living a life controlled by precise measurements and prescriptions.

Measurement and Beauty

Bryan Johnson’s life may exceed mine in every quantifiable metric.  But the unquantifiable?  Can a life dictated by numbers be beautiful?  Some would, doubtless, say yes.  And certainly, beauty can be observed in and through numbers, especially as they settle into a proportion.  One may think of the Fibonacci sequence: of itself, that 4+6=10 and 6+10=16 and 10+16=26 may seem insignificant.  But apply this to font sizes:

Is this proportionality alone, however, sufficient to render something beautiful?  It is necessary; but it is not sufficient.  As Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae:

In order that there be beauty, three things are required: First, integrity or perfection, because those things which are fragmented are, by that fact, rendered ugly.  And second, due proportion or consonant harmony.  And third, clarity, for which reason those things having a bright color are said to be beautiful.

The fitting proportion of our font sizes would be marred by unsuitable words (whether because they signify crass objects or signify objects in a crass manner; or because they make no sense)—and, similarly, if the words were all nonsense, we might say that the font is attractive, but we’d not call the passage beautiful.

Beauty: A Transcendental?

Some may, and for good reason, cite this as an argument against the beautiful being listed as a transcendental.  Conventionally, predicates are regarded as being transcendental if they are “cross-categorical”: that is, if they can be said of something which in itself is found in any of Aristotle’s ten categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, time, place, vestition, posture, action, and passion).  Within the Thomistic tradition, this has led to a commonly-accepted list of transcendentals: being (ens), unity (unum), the good (bonum), and truth (verum).  Astute readers of Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Truth will know that he there, also and importantly, includes “thing” (res) and “something” (aliquid).  This list is divided in two: some pertain to beings as they are in themselves, and the rest to beings as related to others.  Those which are transcendentally predicated of beings as they are in themselves (in se) are being, unity, and thing; while those concerning relation to another (ad aliud) are good, true, and something (which, in its Latin etymology, is broken into aliud quid, i.e., “another ‘what’”).

The in se predicates concern us less, here, than the ad aliud.  For certainly, if beauty is to be a transcendental, it would seem to fall into this category: beauty seems somehow to consist in its admiration, its attractiveness, and something can be admired by and attractive to only that which is other than itself.  But, as Aquinas says elsewhere in the Disputed Questions on Truth (q.22, a.1, ad.12), the beautiful object as desirable is none other than the good (and peaceful!) object as desirable.  That “good” is a transcendental follows from the revelation of every object as somehow desirable (just as “truth” follows from every object as somehow signifiable by our minds).

But there are other passages in Thomas Aquinas, particularly in his commentary on the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius (and even in his questions on truth), that impart a unique significance to “beauty” and the “beautiful”—and, as I would like to suggest this evening, this unique significance consists in the intersection of the transcendental relativities of both good and true.

Further Reading

Thomas Aquinas:

The Point Magazine:


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Art of Rhetoric I: Discovery of Arguments

“…it is strange if it is a shameful thing not to be able to come to one’s own aid with one’s body but not a shameful thing to do so by means of argument, which is to a greater degree a human being’s own than is the use of the body.”

Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, 1355a 40—1355b 3.

The nature and function of rhetoric have both long been matters of controversy, even among classical and like-minded authors. We find the reason for this controversy in the complex relationality of orator and audience: for each is ordered to an object, and the correspondence of such order a matter necessarily complex. That is, persuasion—with which rhetoric is concerned—concerns a myriad of relations. The rhetorician aims to bring these relations into alignment. Rhetoric as a study concerns first the discovery of the means of such alignment and, second, their application.

Discovering the means requires keen awareness of the instruments suitable for this task. In persuasion, we attempt to change another’s beliefs. That is, we attempt to convince another of the truth of some proposition so as to act in accordance with that truth when the occasion occurs. If we are corrupt, we will do so with disregard to that propositions’ truth ourselves. If we are righteous, we will seek the clear exposition of that truth. But before we can affect such exposition, we must be clear-sighted ourselves. Attaining such clarity is the goal of this, the first of two Art of Rhetoric courses offered at the Lyceum Institute.

Overall Course Structure

This course—as but one of eight courses in our Trivium program—is not intended to be taken as a standalone pursuit but integrated with the other arts. There are no prerequisites to our study of Rhetoric I: Discovery of Arguments, although it is encouraged that students begin with Grammar I: Foundations and Logic I: Basics of Argumentation.

The Art of Rhetoric I: Discovery of Arguments is 8 weeks long, with one brief recorded lecture and two recorded discussion sessions each week.  Each discussion session is structured around readings of Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, and Edward Corbett’s textbook, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, with supplements and examples drawn from elsewhere in the tradition.  Our study within discovery will attend primarily to the works of Aristotle and Corbett.  Participants are expected to have read the assigned reading and listened to the lecture prior to the session, so that they may engage in a semi-structured discussion directed and moderated by the instructor and ask insightful questions about language and its use.  Moreover, continual discussion will foster that participation and engagement throughout the week.  Participants will be expected to partake in these discussions on a regular basis and will be challenged to do so directly.

Weekly Structure

Each week there will also be a 15 to 45-minute audio or video lecture, posted to Teams at the beginning of the week.  This lecture will be based upon the assigned reading, but will also stray into related topics, or may use the reading as a launching point for addressing some related issue (perhaps one more general, or perhaps one more specific). 

Though elements of the study of rhetoric can occur asynchronously—there being countless examples wherein we may encounter it on our own—discussions are nevertheless crucial for rightly directing our attention to the most salient points of expressing ourselves persuasively through language.  Accordingly, two discussion sessions per week (with a midway break) will be held on Mondays from 6:00-6:45pm ET and Thursdays from 12:00-12:45pm ET, beginning on 4 September 2023 and ending on 2 November 2023,

Required Texts

  • Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (in first or second editions; PDF provided though purchase strongly recommended).
  • Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, translated by Robert C. Barlett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  • Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria in the Loeb edition (Latin-English facing; PDFs provided).
  • Some additional readings will also be required (PDFs to be provided).  Readings are subject to change.

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On the Purposes of Art

What is the purpose of art?  It is not a new question.  To the contrary, it resides among the oldest of questions.  Some may despair of a meaningful answer, given the ancient age of a question yet still be asked—and, at times, asked as though nothing said in the millennia before us has given satisfaction.  Yet, that art has a purpose cannot be denied: for even the most-mysterious seeming of acts arises for the sake of some end, even if the act itself misses the mark by a wide margin.

To many, art seems to be primarily about communicating a message.  In the past decade, the media through which art is transmitted and promoted has been painfully, dare I say cringe-inducingly, self-righteous and moralistic.  In the words of Anastasia Berg, “For all its good intentions, art that tries to minister to its audience by showcasing moral aspirants and paragons or the abject victims of political oppression produces smug, tiresome works that are failures both as art and as agitprop.”[1]  Such works—questionable as to which category is primary, that is, the art or the propaganda—may yet be lauded by the ideologues in support of their messages.  But they are upheld as good works of art only by the most deluded.

To others, art may be purely about the “aesthetic experience”: by which is commonly meant works that somehow convey or evoke an emotional response at a perceptual level, a response that induces the audience to continue the experience.  Thus, the work of art may be beautiful or hideous, joyful or tragic, but its purpose—so say such claimants—consists in the experience of the attraction.  Notably, however, this attitude may result in works which require neither talent nor thought, but which have their whole being in provocation and stoking outrage.  Such works, just as little as pieces of pure propaganda, seem to deserve the name “art”.

Final Cause of Art

As Berg, again, writes, “Art must be for something—even if only for its own sake.  For all their differences, everybody seems to agree that beautiful images have ‘value’—the question is merely what kind.”  And, as she concludes:

If good art and its criticism can free us from anything, it can free us… from the comforting delusion that we can ever transcend our human limits, defeat death, unhappiness and evil once and for all, or live in anyone’s vision of heaven on earth.  This does not mean, however, that we can ever be liberated from the infinite pull of beauty itself, or be able to attend to images only when we feel like it.  It is rather like this: we can decide what to do, but we can never decide what to dream.

19 July 2023: [“On the Aesthetic Turn ” | The Point Magazine]

The “infinite pull of beauty”—as inescapable as dreaming: not always present to us, but something which comes whether we will it or not.  Just as we are fascinated by dreams, so, too, we are by the beautiful—not only to perceive it but to create it.  Yet is the purpose of art merely to free us from “comforting delusions”?  Such liberation, I believe, is an indirect and necessarily concomitant resultance of what art truly does; but hardly its primary purpose, for such presupposes the prevalence of these delusions, a prevalence which itself contradicts human nature in a way that our love for and pursuit of art does not.

Questions of Purpose

What then, can we say about art’s true purpose?  Do we not need, first, to understand at least provisionally what art is?  Can we identify its nature?  Can we explain how someone creates it?  Or how it is received?  Do we know the work itself—the form that may make something even physically unexceptional into a vessel of beauty?  What is the center—what is the final and orienting cause for art’s existence? Come join us this Wednesday (2 August 2023) for our Philosophical Happy Hour and discuss these important questions!

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.

[1] 19 July 2023: “On the Aesthetic Turn”, The Point Magazine [https://thepointmag.com/criticism/on-the-aesthetic-turn/]

What does it mean to know?

“I know.” “I don’t know.” We say these two sentences all the time. But do we know what they mean? Do we know what it means, “to know”? For many persons, content as they are not to ask meaningful questions, there seems no need of an answer. But for anyone who wishes to have confidence in the coherence of life, it seems an essential question to ask. We cannot, after all, claim confidently to know anything if we do not know what it is to know.

John Vervaeke’s “Cognition”

But is it truly a great secret—an ineffable mystery? To hear some thinkers of the 21st century tell it, nobody truly had a good answer for what we mean by “knowledge”—or all its many associated terms—until recently. Some might claim we still have no good answer. One of the recent claimants to the answer is John Vervaeke, professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. To put Vervaeke’s theory in summation (which one can find more thoroughly-presented in this link), knowing is one form of cognition, which stands in contrast to functional information processing. The latter, in essence, comprises the neurological operations of the brain and all our sensory apparatus. “Knowing”, on the other hand, consists in four types:

Watkins on Vervaeke’s Four 4’s of Knowledge.
  1. Propositional knowing. What ordinarily we signify by “knowledge”: the ability to form propositions which state what other things are, as , “That is a maple tree.”
  2. Procedural knowing. What we might also call “know-how”: a kind of embodied grasp of how to perform a certain function. I “know how” to type; my fingers move across the keyboard without having to explicitly think through which finger goes where.
  3. Perspectival knowing. This is the kind of knowing that understands the situation or environment in which one is placed. It is a general awareness of the objects constituting one’s surroundings.
  4. Participatory knowing. In short, “being comfortable in an environment”. This is described as being in a “state of flow”. Someone who gets on line at a bank, for instance, without having to deliberate or analyze the situation.

Connecting these two forms of cognition is Vervaeke’s theory of “recursive relevance realization”. Another way of saying this would be that, through our functional information processing, we form feedback loops that recursively inform us of the fittingness of what we “know”.

Thomism and Semiotics on Cognition

But is Vervaeke either saying anything truly new, or, for that matter, true? I would argue that nothing correct in the distinctions he provides has not been said by others, and, more poignantly, that the foundations of his approach (obscured behind the dazzling array of traditions and figures throughout history from whom he scrapes), are quite unstable. Indeed, Vervaeke has produced only a superficial mosaic behind which there stands no depth.

By contrast, as we will discuss tonight, the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of cognition, which locates operations in faculties, belonging to the soul, and therefore provides an essential (rather than merely contextual) unity for our cognitive acts, produces a much richer theory of cognition. Correlatively (as Thomism was itself developing in this direction as late as the 17th century), semiotics provides a better explanation of how we interact with our environments. Together, the two schools of thought provide a more coherent picture not only of our cognitive lives but also of our place within the whole universe.

For central to the Semiotic-Thomistic approach is the reality of relation. We hope you’ll join us to talk through this great topic tonight in our casual online environment! Links below (if you join live, we only ask that you use a real name).

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.

What does it mean to be “Rational”?

Common sense. “Practical.” “She has a good head on her shoulders.” “You’re being irrational!” Sayings uttered with frequency—but are they said with understanding? What do we mean by “being rational”? We contrast reason with feeling or emotion. We contrast reason or the rational, also, with the “irrational”. Does this mean that feelings or emotions are irrational? Is the world divided into rational and irrational phenomena or experiences—objects that possess or lack a rational core or rational being?

Rationality and Control

Often, “rationality”, today, is situated in the context of critical and pragmatic control: something is rational, in other words, if subject to the conscious control of human volition. This conscious control, it seems, must be intersubjective—or capable of being successfully communicated—as well. Consider, for instance, the “preliminary specification” for the meaning of rationality provided by Jürgen Habermas:

An expression satisfies the precondition for rationality if and insofar as it embodies fallible knowledge and therewith has a relation to the objective world (that is, a relation to the facts) and is open to objective judgment. A judgment can be objective if it is undertaken on the basis of a transsubjective validity claim that has the same meaning for observers and nonparticipants as it has for the acting subject himself. Truth and efficiency are claims of this kind. Thus assertions and goal-directed actions are the more rational the better the claim (to propositional truth or to efficiency) that is connected with them can be defended against criticism. Correspondingly, we use the expression “rational” as a disposition predicate for persons from whom such expressions can be expected, especially in difficult situations.

Habermas 1981: The Theory of Communicative Action, vol.1, 9-10

To give some concrete examples of what Habermas means, let us consider both a claim to truth and to efficiency. If I say that 5+5=10, this claim has the same meaning for anyone who understands the terms (leaving aside the sophists who would deny such). What I signify in making the claim is the same as what you, the observer, recognize in it. Likewise if I say that 10 of one thing is more than 6 of the same. I can then claim that getting the same results from doing something six times as doing it ten times is more efficient, which will likewise be “transsubjectively observable”.

Reason and Rationality

But is that it? Charles Peirce writes that “…‘rational’ means essentially self-criticizing, self-controlling and self-controlled, and therefore open to incessant question.” He uses the term, as we all typically do (conscious of it or not), to designate an attribute of persons and their actions. Of reason, however, he writes: “The very being of the General, of Reason, consists in its governing individual events. So, then, the essence of Reason is such that its being never can have been completely perfected. It always must be in a state of incipiency, of growth.” Is there, then, a difference between “reason” and “the rational”? A connection? In what would that difference, that connection, consist?

As William Barret writes in his Irrational Man:

To be rational is not the same as to be reasonable. In my time I have heard the most hair-raising and crazy things from very rational men, advanced in a perfectly rational way; no insight or feelings had been used to check the reasoning at any point. Nowadays, we accept in our public and political life the most humanly unreasonable behavior, provided it wears a rational mask and speaks in officialese, which is the rhetoric of rationality itself. Witness the recent announcement that science had been able to perfect a “clean” hydrogen bomb—to be sure, not perfectly “clean” yet, but “95 per cent clean” or even “96 per cent clean.” Of course the quantitative measurement makes the matter sound so scientific and rational that people no longer bother to ask themselves the human meaning of the whole thing. No doubt, they tell themselves, there must be a perfectly rational chain of arguments which, starting from the premise that there must be hydrogen bombs, leads to the conclusion that there must be “clean” hydrogen bombs—otherwise war itself would become impossible!

Barret 1958: Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, 270.

Here we see again the contrast: the rational opposed to the emotive. What then, does “the rational” mean? Join us this evening for a robust discussion at our Philosophical Happy Hour!

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.

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.

The Moral Noetic of the Natural Law

Law: the word, to many, conjures images of the courtroom or a legislature—ponderous tomes of tediously-written jargon rendering a complex web of oft-arbitrary-seeming stipulations and impingements.  So prevalent is this imagery that to speak of the “natural law” sounds often like a mere metaphor.  Exacerbating this “metaphorical” tenor of the phrase has been its use in ideological battles.  Sometimes it is made a shield against criticism; other times, a sword to cut down proposals.  But again and again, as history well shows, return to the notion is made, and not coincidentally when threat is made to the coherence of “nature” as normative in human experience.

The revival of interest in natural law in our own time is certainly related to the devastations wrought by positivism and existentialism in the intellectual and political life of a considerable part of Western society, which it is generally agreed is undergoing rapid and radical transformations.  By our own example, then, we realize how the theory of natural law may be influenced by the aspirations of a society, at a certain moment of its evolution, and how great is the danger for that theory of becoming nothing more than an expression of these aspirations.

Simon 1965: The Tradition of Natural Law: A Philosopher’s Reflections, 27.

Rather than capitulate theory of the natural law to these “aspirations of a society”, one ought instead to understand what that law is.  Perhaps most poignantly, we need to understand how that law is known.  How do we discover the first principles of the natural law?  How do these principles inform our moral reasoning?  Join us for this 8-week seminar, led by Dr. Matthew Minerd, to investigate these and other related questions.  Deadline for registration is 5 July 2023.


Discussion Sessions

11:00am ET

(World times)
Study Topics &

Lecture 1: Problematizing the Natural Law
Historical overview of the Natural Law; Gleanings from the history of natural law thinkers; lay of the land in some contemporary natural law debates.
» Simon, chs. 1 and 2.
Lecture 2: Theoretical Issues in the Background of Natural Law Discussions
Discussion of various themes in the background when discussing the natural law: nature, freedom, reason, natural theology, action theory.
» Simon, ch. 3.
Lecture 3: Law in General: Its Nature, Division, and Properties
Reading of Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of law in general.  Closest attention will be given to the general definition of law and the particular divisions of law.
» ST I-II, q. 90–92.
» Simon, ch. 4.
Lecture 4: Natural Law and Human Law
Reading of Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of natural law and human law, the latter considered as a concretization of the natural law.
Reading (same for weeks 4 and 5):
» ST I-II, q. 93–97.
» Simon, ch. 5.

Lecture 5: Natural Law and Human Law (continued)
Reading of Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of natural law and human law, the latter considered as a concretization of the natural law.
Reading (same for weeks 4 and 5):
» ST I-II, q. 93–97.
» Simon, ch. 5.
Lecture 6: The Noetics of the Natural Law
Introduction to the critiques of practical reason needed for understanding how the natural law is known.  (This will develop themes that we will have already encountered in Simon).
» Minerd, Matthew K.  “A Note on Synderesis, Moral Science, and Knowledge of the Natural Law.” Lex naturalis 5 (2020): 43–55.
» Rhonheimer, Martin.  “Practical Reason and the ‘Naturally Rational’: On the Doctrine of the Natural Law as a Principle of Praxis in Thomas Aquinas.” 
Lecture 7: Some Basic Discussion of New Natural Law and its Critics
The NNLT has developed quite a bit in the past sixty years.  It has many branches, more than we can cover in an introductory seminar.  We will consider a terminus a quo in an important early article by Germain Grisez and a terminus ad quem in a recent critique by Steven Jensen. 
» Grisez, Germain G.  “The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2.” Natural Law Forum 10 (1965): 168–201.
» Jensen, Steven J.  “The Fatal Flaw of New Natural Law Action Theory.”  The Thomist 86, no. 4 (October 2022): 543–572.
Lecture 8: Final Thoughts about the Natural Law
Discussion of the place of Natural Law in Thomism.  Some comments on the place of natural law in early Christianity and in Orthodox thought.  Closing remarks on the importance / state of the natural law today
» Harakas, Stanley.  “Eastern Orthodox Perspectives on Natural Law.”  Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Christian Ethics (1977): 41-56.
» Bourke, Vernon J. “Is Thomas Aquinas a Natural Law Ethicist?” The Monist 58, no. 1 (1974): 52–66.
» Simon, ch. 6.


Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

One payment covers all 8 weeks.

If you prefer an alternative payment method (i.e., not PayPal), use our contact form and state whether you prefer to pay as a Participant, Patron, or Benefactor, and an invoice will be emailed to you.

[2023 Summer] Moral Noetic – Public Participant

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[2023 Summer] Moral Noetic – Public Patron

Recommended for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought and for whom continued education is especially important (including professors and clergy). Helps allow us to subsidize lower-cost registrations.


[2023 Summer] Moral Noetic – Public Benefactor

Recommended for those with fulltime employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more. Greatly aids us in allowing to subsidize lower-cost registrations.


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Podcast – How Does One Know?

I recently joined John Johnson and Larissa Bianco over at the Albertus Magnus Institute to talk about all things (or, at least, a lot of things) related to knowledge and the specifically human difference in how that knowledge unfolds in our experience. Be sure to check out the AMI website, especially the two summer courses starting in June: close read’s of Newman’s Idea of a University and Plato’s Republic!

But first, follow us into the weeds of knowing (and be sure to listen to the many other great podcast episodes available here). What is knowledge? How do animals know? How does human knowledge differ fundamentally from that of an animal? What roles are played by signs and relation in human knowledge? Why is knowledge a source of joy? What does it mean to say that “all men desire to know?” What is the object of that knowledge? The questions keep on coming!

Mentioned in the podcast: Education and Digital Life: Founding Declaration and Related Essays.