Aquinas, Spinoza: Sentient intelligence (Part I)


“So the highest, most perfect level of life is that of the intellect, for intellect can reflect upon itself and understand itself. The human mind, even though it can come to self-awareness, must still start by knowing outside things, and they can’t be understood without sense-images… More perfect then is the intellectual life of angels, in which intellects know themselves not from outside but by knowing themselves in themselves. And yet their life isn’t yet the acme of perfection, for although the idea in their mind is altogether within them it isn’t what they are, since in them to exist is different from to understand The acme of perfection in life, then, belongs to God, in whom to exist is to understand… so that in God the idea in his mind what God himself is.” – St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 4.11

I have, it seems, an uncomfortable confession to make.

For all the critical theory I have studied, for all the socialism and Marxism, for all the feminism and post-colonialism, for all the post-structuralism and phenomenology, for all the radical theology, and above all else for the love of Wittgenstein himself, I have had the most difficult time in the world dispensing with natural theology. In particular, I speak of the intellectual work of an Italian Dominican priest named Saint Thomas Aquinas, and in general the tradition of classical theism.

There is, as it were, a certain vanishing remainder which continues to come back and haunt me found in its very formality and seriousness. For all the play of Derrida and Laruelle, something about the Scholastic brand of rationality lingers nevertheless. My passion may be contained perhaps in the singular phrase, “existential inertia”, the decidedly problematic term that simply rolls off my tongue ever since I encountered it about two years ago in a paper of the same name by Thomist Dr. Edward Feser (his blog is here), author of The Last Superstition.

This thesis reads (see here):

The “existential inertia” thesis holds that, once in existence, the natural world tends to remain in existence without need of a divine conserving cause.  Critics of the doctrine of divine conservation often allege that its defenders have not provided arguments in favor of it and against the rival doctrine of existential inertia.  But in fact, when properly understood, the traditional theistic arguments summed up in Aquinas’s Five Ways can themselves be seen to be (or at least to imply) arguments against existential inertia and in favor of divine conservation.  Moreover, they are challenging arguments, to which defenders of the existential inertia thesis have yet seriously to respond.

They are, as he rightly says, challenging arguments. And, what’s more, I think he’s ultimately right to challenge this doctrine.


I am prompted to give this confession due to my respectful distance from the negativity of orthodox dialectical materialism, and more general move towards the positivity of radical immanence. This is not merely a personal preference, but a realization that another competing rationality exists, and that many others may exist in-between these two ends (see my post here). The distance between this kind of materialism and this form of immanence is a subtle one; but, like any change from A to B, to use Fredric Jameson’s term, there is likely to be found a “vanishing mediator”. It seems as though, in this translation, as found also in the greater “hermetic turn” in recent discussions on Deleuze, this remainder is the category of “Nature” itself, and more generally the idea and practice of natural theology.

In the work of the late Schelling, in the work of Spinoza, and in the central aim of Speculative Realism at large, the consideration of “being qua being” is in part a function of those over-loaded words which sound off as “Nature” or “Reality”. To re-create this category in the face of its disappearance is perhaps what most strongly draws me to SR/OOO. This contemplation of “Nature” draws us back, in many ways, to recall the via contemplativa of the late Ancient Greeks, the Scholastic tradition, and of “monastic rule” in general.

My claim here is simple: that studying Thomism helps us learn how to begin to re-create a concept of Nature in the 21st century.

While radical leftist philosophy sometimes touches upon modern forms of neo-Platonism, its Aristotelian counterpart has been long-forgotten. Perhaps only now we’re slowly realizing that this was a poor move, as we find with the historical dissolution of the category “Nature” comes a looming global ecological catastrophe. It was once avoided with good reason: the wide-sweeping line of Scholasticism from Aristotle onward through to Aquinas and his aftermath was appropriated and indeed colonized by socially conservative and fundamentalist voices in politics and religion.

Now, I believe it is time to take back its potential by articulating a new, dynamic understanding of Nature.

The dawning of the age of Aquinas:

My Wandering, it has taken me through many rooms in the “gallery of heroes” as Hegel famously called it, and some of my longest stays have been with the beautiful work of St. Thomas. I do not wish to do his work any violence, and begin by recalling how desperately I struggled with his work.

Having begun my “crisis of faith” which prompted my entering into the Wilderness (see here) approximately three years ago, it was only after I slowly grew accustomed to my naturalistic atheism that I realized suddenly how serious of a threat Aquinas is to naturalism as such. Somewhere in analytic philosophy, somewhere in the depths of the Hume-Kant academic debate in modern metaphysics, I found there lies a classical voice of a pious Dominican priest which still echoes to this day, in the work of very serious conservatives David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism and Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition in particular.

I devoured both of these books.

For about a year I struggled intimately with Aquinas, eventually siding with the likes of Barth by favoring “Revelation” over “Nature”. Yet, in the long run, this does not dispel the dichotomy, but merely pushes it aside. Having just lifted the Barthian anchor (see here), however, it seems as though Thomism is back on the table — if it ever left in the first place — especially given the re-realization of the role revelation plays in the Summa. At this stage, I  humbly wish to browse the file cabinet labeled “Thomism” in order to bring out those fragments from the archive which are useful to us today.

In this rebellion presumably against Aquinas, I waded deep into modern philosophy of science, into what has been called “Scientific essentialism, into a field called “metaphysics of powers”, specifically into the various exchanges between the likes of Brian David Ellis, E.J. Lowe, Stephen Mumford, David Armstrong, Kit Fine, Nancy Cartwright, David Lewis, Toby Handfield, and Alexander Bird. I assure you that this is good company to be around. I encountered Bird’s work Nature’s Metaphysics and read it from cover-to-cover, likewise with a big appetite.


In my pursuit, I began collaboration with both Dr. Bird and Dr. Feser, and in particular I remember calling Dr. Feser at a random time in the middle of the afternoon.

Almost miraculously, the vanguard scholar and torch-bearer of St. Thomas’ thought answered my freshmen plea, and spent a good 30 minutes of his time listening to my pathetic story, giving his own sincere testimony, and explaining carefully the nuances of Aquinas’ thought. In fact, both of these thinkers sent me extended, contemplative, multi-page responses through e-mail, and extended to me the utmost hospitality and responded to my questions. In this time, Dr. Feser provided me with access to his article “Existential Inertia” which I mentioned earlier. This rigorous experience of learning how to swim in analytic and metaphysical academia, in retrospect, was a very formative one.

If there is one thing I should like to say given my experience here, it is that analytic philosophy is just as creative than continental. It is this element of a “creative synthesis” which I would like to again hone in on as being key to re-vitalizing Nature.

Baroque Spinoza:

Yes, Thomism has its (obvious) faults if you look at it from a distance, but it’s also unfairly in my opinion taken it’s fair number of hits throughout the years. One of these historical hits, more notably, came from Spinoza (who was not Baroque himself).

Dr. Feser, in his wisdom, argues that Spinoza does not provide any compelling arguments against Aquinas’ use of Aristotelian final causes (see here), and counters Spinoza by revealing his own inconsistency. It is absolutely curious to me how, from both the conservative and the radical leftist side, the argument for Spinoza’s fantastic inconsistency is made, albeit with differing attitudes towards it.

I speak, in particular, of several passages from what has become one of my favorite books, $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan by A. Kiarina Kordela, pages 6-7, 9, and perhaps 117:

From the moment one ascribes a “final cause”—which by definition gives a specific meaning to life—to anything occurring in life, one is already in the field of “fictions.” Conversely, however, what Spinoza effectively proves here, and is the first philosopher to argue against his own intentions, is that the only possible truth about the cause, end, or meaning of life is, therefore, fictional—which is one of the fundamental psychoanalytic premises. [...] By contrast, Spinoza himself (i.e., his enunciation and intention) remained blind to the truth of his symptom and thus persisted on the distinction between moral (fictional) and scientific (true) causes. (6-7)

Even as Spinoza wanted to maintain the distinction between scientific and moral truth, his own theory contradicts him, for it was the one to posit the primary psychoanalytic principle, namely, that “truth is the standard both of itself and of the false” (Spinoza 1985, 479; Ethics, part II, prop. 43, school). (9)

“By contrast, “the Spinozian principle” of monism indicates “that something can only be limited by something else that is of the same nature,” namely, also “positive”. Therefore for Spinoza, Pfaller concludes, “the solution of a problem of transgression can never consist only in the ‘empty gesture’ of a negation”; “if we want to transgress a space we must arrive at another space . . . (whereas a space that cannot be transgressed at all, cannot be transgressed by negation either)”. [...] It is on the level of this second degree ideology that universal truth can be located, as the shared precondition of all ideologies.” (117)

It is increasingly funny to me how this exact scene in Kordela’s remarkable text has been likewise re-played through recent developments in that field of analytic metaphysics, where “second-order relations” require this originary inconsistency or paradox and thus the possibility of losing of the “negative” version of (especially materialist) monism. As such, I would highly recommend recent developments in what is being called “Qualitative Dispositional Essentialism” (or QDE, see here), where monism is shown to be problematic in the face of this second-level relations.

In a way, then, Feser is right, but we may say that he does not know how right he really is. Hylemorphic dualism, as it is called, touches upon a very deep truth which is surely missed by the more dogmatic of atheists. Yet, to fully exploit this truth, the Thomist must give up his anthropocentric bend for perfection in an effort to re-consider Spinoza’s inconsistency as likewise necessary, rather than a merely accidental. In addition to his intellect, he must be —  in a word – sensible.

The key to understanding Spinoza here is thus his paradoxical leveling of Aquinas whereby, as Hasana Sharp writes in Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, “[Spinoza] redefines human agency as entirely natural, locating it within a system that reserves no special status whatsoever for humans”. As such, and from the same book, we may speak of a Baroque Spinoza whose understanding of nature is as follows:


Or, from the previous paper on QDE, “it is, instead, purely the qualitative aspects of a thing’s properties which ground its dispositions.”

Sentient intelligence:

Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri (see here for his thought) calls this inseparability of the sensible and the intellect “sentient intelligence”. It is noteworthy in his book On Essence that we also see several “Thomist” strains come to light, most notably in my opinion the Scholastic notion of (divine) simplicity. The idea that “Man is a rational animal” can no longer be said with such a strong emphasis on rationality. That is, by reading in this way, we can use our Thomist inspirations to move up the scale of Xavier Zubiri’s diagram to a more proper formalization:

 ZubiriLike we have done in previous posts (see here), Zubiri likewise opts for a non-Cantorian understanding:

Mathematics itself has produced, among other things, two theorems whose essence…is…the anteriority of reality over truth. Gödel’s theorem, according to which that constructed by postulation has de suyo more properties than those formally postulated, in my view expresses that what is postulated is reality before it is truth. And Cohen’s theorem (let us call the non-Cantorian theory of groups that): groups are not just systems of elements determined by postulation; rather, prior to this, there are groups which he terms “generic” and which as I see it are not generic but the simple realization of the group, without the specific properties determined by postulation. The postulated properties themselves are then real prior to being true….It is the reality of the group prior to the axiomatic truth postulated.

What, then, do we make of the questionable doctrine of “existential intertia”? We may, with the aid of these constructive mathematics, re-interpret it by way of our caricature of Baroque Spinoza.

Errett Bishop writes the following list of complaints, of which most may be applicable to analytical Thomism as well:

One could probably make a long list of schizophrenia attributes of contemporary mathematics, but I think the following short list covers most of the ground: rejection of common sense in favor of formalism; debasement of meaning by wilful refusal to accomodate certain aspects of reality; inappropriateness of means to ends; the esoteric quality of the communication; and fragmentation. [...] Common sense is a quality that is constantly under attack. It tends to be supplanted by methodology, shading into dogma. [...]

That is, the doctrine existential inertia is only problematic if and only if it is read as being formally consistent, whereupon existence is seen through a static and unchanging lens, and not through a dynamic and constructive one of becoming. To read it otherwise, the phrase “once in existence” (much like Derrida’s “if there is one”) is to imply that it is not possible for anything “be in existence” for an extended amount of time, for existence is a doing rather than a being.

What does this verb mean? It means roughly to continually “grow, thrive, and survive or shrink and die like any other natural being”

It is only by way of this paradoxical action of popping in and out of existence that the idea of “Nature” can be re-invented. If “Nature” does not exist presently, then it is now clear that they may be created in the future. At this point, I would like to share two poems, on page 14 of Contemporary Mathematics volume 39, entitled Errett Bishop: Reflections on Him and His Research:


More on the status of Spinoza sure to come. There is — or so I intend to create —  a slow and careful build-up in the works. By bringing in Jacobi and the debates in German idealism on the pantheist controversy and so forth, I hope to touch upon that next level of “Real affection”, “Otherness of reality”, and “Force of imposition” in Zubiri’s thought.

With this new composition, provided our own prior paralysis, I think we are getting much closer to being well equipped enough so as to be able to examine and better attend to questions of not merely mutual disagreement, but eventually, of violence.

Works Cited

Bird, Alexander. Nature’s metaphysics: laws and properties. Oxford: Clarendon Press ;, 2007. Print.

Feser, Edward. The last superstition: a refutation of the new atheism. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008. Print.

Kordela, A. Kiarina. $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007. Print.

Oderberg, David S.. Real essentialism. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Ramey, Joshua Alan. The hermetic Deleuze: philosophy and spiritual ordeal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.

Rosenblatt, Murray, and Errett Bishop. Errett Bishop: reflections on him and his research. Providence, R.I.: American Mathematical Society, 1985. Print.

Sharp, Hasana. Spinoza and the politics of renaturalization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

Summa contra gentiles. Notre Dame [Ind.]: University of Notre Dame Press, 197519551957. Print.

Zubiri, Xavier, and A. Robert Caponigri. On essence. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1980. Print.

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4 thoughts on “Aquinas, Spinoza: Sentient intelligence (Part I)”

  1. Hello, David! Great post!

    To my shame, I haven’t read much of books which you cited, but spirit of your writing is breathtaking. What I understand, is, to say loosely, you’re trying to put under suspicion every form of atheism, that ignores the question of endurance of natural laws. And, finally to find connection between what human consciousness considering as this endurance and what considering as violence. For question is: what is the laws if not a violence of God himself, where “God” means every comprehensible form of “Power”. It’s just first reaction. Sorry, if I didn’t get the point.

    1. Hi Max, thank you for your kind words. I’m not so much calling into suspicion “…every form of atheism that ignores the question of endurance of natural laws” as you suggest, insofar as I am suggesting that what it means “to exist”, as well as the way in which we think about what is “natural” must take radically new forms if they are to remain useful, and if we are to avoid the negativity of Hegel and keep with the spirited work of the late Schelling instead. I am, of course, aiming at something that has a lot less to do with a static and unchanging state of being than I am many more dynamic and creative processes — and I think you arrive at a proper balance by reconciling the irreconcilable in Aquinas and Spinoza.

      1. Okey, so I must learn =)

        What I can reliably grasp from your definitely complicated thought: analytic philosophy has the same “depth” of investigation, on which continental used to pretend. Being struggle for a long time with this opposition, and, surprisingly, formulated it yesterday.

        Secondly, can you say that attention to Schelling is growing in the last times? It seems like his work previously was considered naive, comparing to that of Hegel. When I was in trouble with Hegel in my first time of acquaintance with philosophy, I had adopt opinion like “Okey, Shelling is some sort of a naive metaphysics of nature, clear as a day” even without reading him )

        And, what is especially interesting: did you get through “Set theory and Continuum Hypothesis”? See you talking about this stuff. Although I have some math background, still can’t estimate how much time it requires, so I’m afraid. If I could find someone who got it, it will help a lot.

  2. Have you noticed that all of the modern talking heads that refer to Aquinas are so incredibly boring!
    As are all of the usual “authorities” , old and new, with their fragmented speculations.
    Have you noticed for instance that none of them ever use the word Consciousness with a capital C. Or Light which is the Energy of Consciousness.
    Please check out these references.
    With reference to Wittgenstein

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