Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Closer to Truth, except in the case of Anselm

There is a marvellous resource for those interested in the big questions of philosophy at Closer to Truth. The interviews with philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Peter Van Inwagen and Brian Leftow are particularly fascinating and incredibly informative. Swinburne provides a masterful summary of his cumulative inductive probability argument for God.

Needless to say, there is a particular area that lets the site down. The discussions which deal with the ontological argument do not deal with Anselm's argument, not because those engaged in the discussion think Anselm's argument is different from the ontological argument as they present it, but because they think that their accounts of ontological arguments provide accurate accounts of Anselm's argument. The problem is that they don't.

For Anselm, 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' is the middle term of his argument. (As a dialectician, he thinks ALL logical arguments have middle terms.) The middle term of an argument cannot be replaced by another middle term without changing the argument, unless of course the two terms are synonymous. But the usual suspect, 'perfect being', is not synonymous with 'that than which a greater cannot be thought'. If it were it would be possible to substitute it for 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' in Anselm's argument without changing the argument (by the rule of replacement). But the argument is changed if such a substitution is made. Anselm's proof of the existence of 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' in Proslogion 2, changes if we substitute 'perfect being'. If a perfect being only exists in the understanding, then I can think of something greater, does not deliver what Anselm's argument delivers. One has to make another change to this argument, changing 'greater' to 'more perfect'. We end up with different arguments: one concerning perfection; the other concerning epistemic claims about the greatness of God. This can be seen in the conclusion of Proslogion 15 that 'God is greater than can be thought'. This does not follow from the non-Anselmian version of the argument. However, it does follow from Anselm's version: since God is 'that than which a greater cannot be thought', and since I can think of something greater than Him if He is not greater than can be thought, then He is 'greater than can be thought'. There is no reason to think that this kind of greatness is required in a 'perfect being', and it would not follow in the non-Anselmian version of the argument that it is more perfect to be greater than can be thought.

Anselm invested much effort in discovering his middle term, it seems a unfortunate to discard it with such apparent ease.

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