Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Locating the Lost Island

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Locating the Lost Island

Article excerpt

PHILOSOPHERS HAVE NOW HAD nine and one-third centuries to dwell on Anselm's ontological argument in the Proslogion. Recent literature on the argument indicates that there is vigorous and sophisticated disagreement about what the argument presupposes, what the argument's logical structure is, and even where the argument is best located) The disagreement persists in spite of, perhaps even because of, the fact that during Anselm's lifetime Gaunilo criticized the Proslogion argument and Anselm replied to that criticism. What I propose here is to examine Gaunilo's most famous criticism to see what we can learn about Anselm's argument in light of it. Anselm's argument has fired up Gaunilo's critical engine, but he lacks the sophistication to express his objection magisterially. His prose needs to be tightened; his argument needs to be articulated more carefully; his logic needs to be brought to the surface for inspection. If we do that on his behalf, we will find that his criticism by counterexample puts significant pressure on Anselm's claim to have discovered a "single argument" for God's existence, and on recent attempts to refurbish Anselm's argument.

I

Before proceeding further we should note that on one interpretation of the Anselm-Gaunilo exchange, Anselm did a disservice to Gaunilo and the subsequent history of philosophical understanding by writing Proslogion 2. According to Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams, on this occasion Anselm expressed his reasoning "in language so compressed as to be elliptical and indeed misleading." For example, they say, "Anselm famously contrasts 'existing in the understanding' with 'existing in reality,' as though he had some metaphysical doctrine about two modes of existence. As we shall see, he has no such doctrine; such a thing never entered his mind. He clearly just thought the phrasing sounded nice and made the argument memorable." (2) For Visser and Williams Proslogion 2 is a misfired and misleading mess, made worse by its being placed strategically as the first chapter of philosophical substance in a thoroughly philosophical work. They argue instead that Anselm does a better job of elucidating his argument in his reply to Gaunilo.

We should be reluctant to join in this judgment, especially in light of Visser and Williams's earlier acknowledgment that "Anselm was not the kind of philosopher who writes to get his thoughts in order. Anselm tended to work everything out in his head first and only then write it down." (3) Moreover, if his reply to Gaunilo presents a more considered revision of an argument badly presented in Proslogion 2, then it is puzzling that he persists in invoking the distinction between existing in the understanding and existing in reality. Visser and Williams have reasons for discounting Proslogion 2, chief among them the fact that Anselm so curtly dismisses Gaunilo's most vivid objection rather than respond to it. However, from the fact that Anselm's dismissal fails to respond satisfactorily to Gaunilo's criticism it does not follow that Anselm had a completely new or different argument in mind. I will examine Anselm's dismissal below.

Here is the core of Anselm's argument as presented in Proslogion 2:

   We believe you [Lord] to be something than which nothing greater
   could be conceived. Or is there then not something of such a
   nature, since the fool has said in his heart, "There is no God"
   [Psalm 14:1, 53:1]? But surely this same fool, when he hears this
   very thing that I speak--"something than which nothing greater can
   be conceived"--understands that which he hears, and that which he
   understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand
   it to exist.... And surely that than which a greater cannot be
   conceived cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is in the
   understanding alone, it can be conceived to exist in reality also,
   which is greater. Thus if that than which a greater cannot be
   conceived is in the understanding alone, then that than which a
   greater cannot be conceived itself is that than which a greater can
   be conceived. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.