Friday 19 December 2014

Mahougnon Venance Sinsin, new doctor of philosophy

Venance Sinsin defended his doctoral thesis this evening at the Università Pontificia Salesiana, on the theory of knowing in the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, comparing this with the epistemology of Aristotle. The guide was Scaria Thuruthiyil, and the readers were Cristiana Freni and Maurizio Marin. Venance, who is already on the formation team at Gerini, is a valuable addition to the Faculty of Philosophy of the UPS. He was very much at home with his material, confident and articulate.

The joke I learnt long ago, teaching history of contemporary Western philosophy, ran like this: What is Russell's philosophy? The right answer is: Which year? So when I asked Venance a few days ago, Why Russell? he surprised me with a  great reply: because Russell provided the questions which Wittgenstein spent a lifetime answering. "Every philosopher fights his own demons," and among Wittgenstein's demons was Russell. Cristina Freni, in fact, cited something to this effect from Russell, something like: When you find someone saying something that strikes you as obviously absurd, instead of arguing with him and trying to confute him, stop a while and try to ask yourself: What is that led this intelligent person to this position?

Scaria had warned me that Marin knew Aristotle well, and that we could expect some hard questioning from him, and we were not disappointed. Leafing through the thesis, I myself thought that the Aristotle section could improve. I would have to ask about the two types of understanding, direct and reflective; about not only direct intellection, in other words, but also that intellection that leads to judgment. It is not enough to say: Russell is realist. We need to ask: and how did he think that we reach reality? It is not enough, again, to say that Russell believed in the reality of external objects, first of all because the internal-external pair inevitably tends to bring in the Cartesian problematic by the back door, and then because we would need to ask: what is his 'model' of reality, what is his 'sense' of reality? - But then here is an area where I myself need to attain clarity.

What I liked was that Venance clearly told us that Russell abandoned naive realism in favour of the constructive activity of the mind. What he did not really discuss was, how did Russell get out of the Kantian conundrum? If the mind has a constructive activity - and surely it has - how do we attain truth, if truth is correspondence, adaequatio? I would love to hear Venance on that.

He did speak about Russell's Monist phase, by which I understand that Russell refused to think of a subject apart from an object, obviously trying to sidestep the Cartesian problematic, but instead held for a 'unity' of subject and object. Was he trying, vaguely, to say what Lonergan said in Verbum: the critical problem is not a question of reaching out from a subject to an object, but acknowledging that we find ourselves within being, within which we then learn to make distinctions between subjects and objects.

But it is good to be around where such things are discussed. One has always the nagging sensation that one is wasting one's time, engaging in useless subtleties, but again, one also remembers that such things like truth and being and identity and difference do affect us at levels that are surprisingly not only deep but also practical. I will be forgiven for mentioning in this breath the classical doctrines of the blessed Trinity and Christology. Some day I should dedicate time to getting a little clearer about all this.

Some other questions: what about Aquinas' statement, so often repeated by Lonergan, that Aristotle learnt to say what he did say about understanding and knowing by repeatedly turning to his own experience of understanding? What about the sharp contrast Aquinas knows to make between what Lonergan calls Aristotle's theorem of knowing by identity, in contrast to Plato's theorem of knowing as confrontation - a contrast that, I believe, has much to do with the overcoming of the subject-object split in epistemology? And could we go much much deeper into the theme of wisdom, especially on the theme of wisdom as the virtue of right judgment? The key word here, in many ways, is virtue, habit: it makes us remember that knowing is not just a single act and not even just a series of single acts. What about the shift from propositions and the attendant need for clarity, to the multiply complex and variegated affair that is ordinary language and ordinary knowing, something that Wittgenstein learnt eventually to grapple with?

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