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Metaphysics. The Creation of Hierarchy. Foreword by J. Milbank.
Grand Rapids u. a.: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2012. XXXV, 521 S. = Interventions. Kart. US$ 55,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6451-2.
Eric E. Hall
In this book, Adrian Pabst has taken on an idea that has become something of a commonsense idea for all but a few post-enlightenment thinkers: that the individual substance manifests itself as the primary avenue through which to talk about the »real,« »being,« »ontology.« The book, thus, traces out the intellectual history of this contemporary tradition through the various, historical conceptualizations of the process, locus, and source of individuation and espouses a counter-possibility to our current tradition – one grounded in a Trinitarian Platonism or, rather, the classical metaphysical, Christian tradition.
To summarize some of the main ideas, P. argues that in modern (including most contemporary) »ontology,« the individual substance reins supreme. That is, modernity takes the individual thing to exist as that individual, existing in a universe without inherent relational and hierarchical structure. (Hence, the term »ontology« comes to signify throughout the book a mistaken view of the world that sees individual things as bare facts without inherent relation to one another determined by an ultimate telos; »metaphysics« unfolds the opposite and proper understanding.) More precisely, grounded as it is in nominalism, its corresponding voluntarism, and some of the more contemporary interpreters and conveyers as such, relationality comes to signify »just a position that explains how a thing exists but not why« (16). The why is self-grounded and self-sustaining.
However, in a properly understood »metaphysical« understanding of the cosmos, relationality in a number of manners functions as an extremely important principle for both the real individua-tion of things and our grasp of such. On the one hand, P. thus argues through several classically oriented, metaphysical thinkers for both an inherently horizontal and vertically based relationality, without which something like individual things could not be at all. Individuals exist not self-subsistently but according, first, to their (vertical) participation in the divine: as created (ex nihilo) beings whom God unfurls in essence, existence, and materiality. Secondly, and contextualized within this primary form of relationality, beings are inherently related to one another (horizontally) both as individuals (which is always a locus of relations) and species (which relates the individual beings to a cosmos).
In either case, relation does not for P. merely signify a position that explains the how rather than why of a thing’s existence, as previously stated. Relationality takes the place of »substantiality« and forms the very condition for the possibility of being itself. It makes sense, then, that for P. the One from whom the cosmos as a whole derives and toward which it is oriented is intrinsically relational. The Triune God – especially within an Augustinian understanding of the relationally defined and derived personhood of God – be-comes the focal point of this book, the principle and ground through which the Logos of a relationally hierarchical (metaphy-sical) cosmos comes to make sense.
To find a weakness in this book is no easy task. P. has done a truly fine job in structural, scholarly, argumentative, and creative terms. With each chapter I found myself rethinking ancient and modern thinkers anew, reevaluating my previous assessments of them and the story their though tell in relation to the others. Especially impressive were P.’s sensitive treatments of Plato, Augustine, Nazianzus, and Suarez. Regarding the first two, too many thinkers seem to cling in the name of rejecting »patriarchy« and »tradition« to mal-interpretations that too often fail to do either person’s thought justice. P. wonderfully portrays both thinkers in a sympathetic light and does so in such a way that usual critiques don’t seem to stand: P. sees the inherent relationality and unity of their thought. Moreover, P.’s sensitive synthesis of Augustine and Nazianzus helps to tie Christian metaphysics – East and West – together in a helpful manner, all while seeing the influence of Suarez on modern misinterpretations of Augustinian-Thomistic thought. For these points and many more, the book remains highly commendable.
I chalk any critique up to two main points, only one of which truly concerns this author. The first critique is a semi-critique in the form of a question: does the book presents anything new after the Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory – does it present anything other than a story that indicts Scotus and Suarez for the fall of the West’s spiritual and political vitality? Yes and no. The story is most certainly similar in its trajectory to Theology and Social Theory, but P. draws a similar critique to new, important, and interesting lengths that are implied but not as fully drawn out in other Radically Orthodox thinkers, namely, all the way back to Aristotelian critiques of Plato. Besides, it would be entirely unfair to think that anyone works outside of influence and conviction, and the Radically Orthodox story has become an important one in attempts to re-take and re-evaluate western identity.
Secondly, and more importantly, Trinity stands at the forefront of the book. Good. However, while the Trinitarian cosmos setup by P. is comfortable, this author doubts that one can discuss the Trinity as such apart from its grounding point in Jesus of Nazareth– the Christ. The point is both historical and hermeneutic. Historically, Trinitarian questions emerged out of a desire to reconcile the understanding of salvation in Christ (a duality in God) with the unity of the godhead as attested to both in scripture and reason. But the historical reason rests on the hermeneutic reason: early Trinitarian thinkers only ever posited and thought the Trinity be-cause of this man, making the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection a key and dialogical component in interpreting Trinity. In other words, at times P.’s use of the Trinity seems to stem from a philosophical desire to produce a relational universe rather than a Christian reflection on the universe in light of the Trinity as grounded in the God-man. Neither is the accusation directed at P.’s person and conviction but his method in this book: Trinity is a »useful« hypothesis.
Either way, the book is a very good read and takes seriously both the scholarly and creative commitments of philosophy and theol-ogy.