Monday, May 19, 2008
A review of A. Reimers's _The Soul of the Person_
The soul as the principle for principles of behavior
In *The Soul of the Person* (TSP), Professor Reimers has written a very fine book of contemporary philosophical anthropology. He has accomplished this both in terms of content and composition. In terms of content, or style, it is rare to find such a lucid, vivid writer of philosophy as Prof. Reimers. This is surely due to his Scholastic bearings, for, all Reformation and Enlightenment canards aside, the Scholastics were habitual masters at the telling, concrete example. I blew through this book, largely because I almost never found myself stumbling over Reimers's syntax, diction, or rhetorical flow. (The only snags came when poor editing had let a number of typos and omissions slip through.) The ease with which Reimers guides the reader through ostensibly arcane topics as Peircean semiotics, "ArisThomistic" hylomorphism, and Wojtylan phenomenology of action, indicates vast and deep learning on behalf of Prof. Reimers. I am quite reminded of Prof. James F. Ross, one of my favorite philosophers, who also succeeds in vivid exposition and seems to "breath Thomism" as naturally as Reimers does.
As far as the content of TSP goes, Reimers begins by addressing the "status of the question" of the soul in contemporary ethology and philosophy of mind. This presents a pretty standard lay of the materialist land à la Dennett, Searle, the Churchlands, Le Doux, et al., and thus indicates the backcloth against which Reimers's ArisThomistic account will be constructed.
He then proceeds to the, so to speak, matter of matter, defining materiality as reactivity. This raises the question, Is the human person merely material? Reimers denies this, moving on to a discussion of the, so to speak, spirit of the spiritual, which he presents as the capacity in humans to seek, grasp, and produce truth, goodness, and beauty. This is a crucial advance in the argument, since, if it can be shown humans authentically seek these things, and that these things exceed the logical and metaphysical bounds of sheer material reactivity (even when understood in Aristotelian terms of various organic teleology in the human organism), then we see how humans spiritually transcend the confines of materialism.
The way that Reimers illuminates our spiritual powers--as rational habits directed toward truth, goodness, and beauty--is to examine in Peircean and Wojtylan terms the phenomenology of action as habitus. Peirce presented three forms of rational analysis in human life: the deductive (logical), inductive (scientific), and abductive (or hypothetical). Ultimately, Reimers brings Peirce's abductive rationality together with the ArisThomistic account of practical syllogisms. This is important for his argument because under this schema, we can see how authentic human behavior differs from that of other animals. We are not sheer deductive logic machines. Neither are we sheer inductively trained lab rats. Rather, we are a species uniquely endowed with the abductive ability to imagine ourselves in different settings, following different values, in different ways, etc. Humans, in other words, are endowed with a principle of rational imagination, which allows us to encompass all being as such (ens), transcend each thing (res), and all things, as we know them in se, and, ultimately, integrally order our own lives based on a range of immaterial (or, super-material) values. This principle of rational discernment and self-arrangement, Reimers calls the soul. While all things tend to their own perfection based on their own formal natures (e.g., plants tend to pollination and fruition, animals tend to growth and reproduction, electrons tend to positive poles in a certain range of velocity, our organ systems tend to satiation, etc.), only human beings can, in principle if not always in practice, transcend these various entelechies in favor of rationally meaningful "signs" of value understood to supervene on things and urges. There must be some accounting for why humans so consistently ignore or contravene both strict logic and hardcore biological urges--and this account comes via the soul as an immaterial principle that integrally orders the body, physically and habitually, to act in various ways, for various goods, based on intelligible realities transmitted via the senses.
My favorite part of reading this book was learning about Charles S. Peirce's thought, even if only in cursory fashion. As Prof. Reimers notes, Peirce's dictum that the human "mind is a sign, developing according to the principles of inference", serves as his working motto for this book, some five years in the writing. It was also very nice to get exposure, even if, again, cursory, to Karol Wojtyla's phenomenology. In this vein, one of the most important points Reimers makes is that rationality--as the capacity for grasping intelligible goods--is antecedent to consciousness in the human organism. Indeed, consciousness is, Thomistically speaking, simply the application of rationality to this or that particular case (as when we focus our attention on one voice in a crowded room; or reexamine our action during a social event, gone awry, with intense scrutiny on how we dressed; or when we focus on our wrist angle rather than our opponent's footwork during tennis practice, etc.). This shift in emphasis, from consciousness to rationality as the primary order in human mental life, not only dispels pretty much all of the haranguing that goes on about the "hard problem" of consciousness (and qualia and zombies and inverted spectra, etc., etc., etc.) in contemporary epistemology, but also reveals how thought is not severed from action; as, Prof. Reimers puts it, humans are rational right to their fingertips.
When I said that learning about Peirce's thought was a great benefit of this book, I should have made explicit, as I am now doing, that Peirce's treatment of signs as value-driven practical hypothesis was what made Peirce so fulfilling. This is the sort of thing that makes philosophy a perennial pursuit, even when regarded as abstruse and useless by others: in reading a book like this, you actually come to know yourself better. "Ah, so THAT is what I do when I make a mistake, or set a goal! Of course!"
Along these lines I must add that Prof. Reimers himself seems like a beautiful man, which only adds to the enjoyment of this book. By beautiful I mean that he obviously has a great and tender regard for the human frame, in all its ages and conditions. Indeed, in the acknowledgments section, he calls his wife, who works with mentally and physically handicapped people (as does my mother), his "philosophical conscience", noting that if his account of the soul can't or doesn't deal with the least of these, it isn't much good. Throughout the book it is clear how deeply influenced Reimers has been by the beauty of John Paul II's theology of the body.
The only complaints I have with TSP are 1) that I wish Reimers had delved more deeply into the Latin and Greek of the foundations of his ArisThomistic anthropology, and 2) that he might have elaborated more on the immortality of the soul in the epilogue. Also, 3) the recurrence of minor typos was worrisome for a publisher as august as the Catholic U. of America. It might not be fair to call the first two complaints complaints, since they just amount to me saying Reimers should have written more just as well! I simply wanted more textual elaboration from Aristotle and Aquinas (then again, that's why they wrote what they wrote in the first place: so I can read it for my self).
*The Soul of the Person* is a very good book for people to use as an introduction to Wojtyla's personalism, a topic that can be, alas, prohibitively expensive to study, if Amazon prices for this book and related matters are any indication. Happily, I was able to find a copy of Wojtyla's *The Acting Person*, translated by Andrzej Potocki, online at personalism.net.