This is the second of three posts I’m doing on Kevin Hart’s reading of Aquinas as an ontotheologian. For an introduction to these posts, please see the first one. This second post simply picks up where the first left off.
Hart never explicitly connects the two objectives that he pursues in The Trespass of the Sign – the affirmation of God’s aseity and the development of a non-metaphysical theology (A similar complaint has been registered by Gregg Taylor in his review of the new edition of Hart’s book. Cf. Journal of Religion 81, 4 , 668). Despite this, I think that one legitimate assumption that we could make is that he believes that an ontotheological theology necessarily subordinates God to being or subsumes the divine reality under some other controlling concept, e.g., causality, ground, etc. and therefore endangers God’s aseity. Although he is critical of Heidegger, Hart’s debt to him is obvious. His way of characterizing ontotheology evidently derives from Heidegger’s own characterization, but he would probably want to add that he has filtered Heidegger through (Pseudo-) Denys and Derrida.
Hart’s assessment of Aquinas is negative on the whole and he makes no attempt to present Aquinas in a favorable light. While he never speaks of Aquinas denying God’s aseity, he does believe that Aquinas’s theology is thoroughly ontotheological. If Hart does assume a connection between ontotheology and a denial of God’s aseity, we would have to conclude that he would want us to believe that Aquinas is indeed guilty of both (i.e., ontotheology and denying God’s aseity). In his preface Hart sets his own project against Thomistic theology in general: “Contrary to the Thomist tradition, I argue that negative theology does not merely correct positive (or metaphysical) theology but supplements it at its origin” (TS, xxxv). It is possible that here Hart only wishes to indict Aquinas’s followers and not Aquinas himself. But from his treatment of Aquinas later in the book, it becomes clear that he means to include Aquinas in this group.
According to Hart, Aquinas’s negative theology suffers from the same lack of radicality as that of his disciples. Hart bases this judgment on a reading of Summa Theologiae, I, q. 13, a. 3. The question under consideration in this article is whether any name can be properly predicated of God. More precisely, what is at issue is whether everything we predicate of God only has metaphorical validity or whether some things that we say of God are literally true. Aquinas’s answer is that although some things said of God are only metaphors, e.g., “God is a rock,” the names which signify pure perfections, such as “good,” “living,” and the like, are literally predicated of God. “As regards what is signified [id quod significant] by these names, they belong properly to God, and more properly than they belong to creatures, and are applied primarily to him.” However, “as regards their mode of signifying [modum significandi], they do not properly and strictly apply to God for their mode of signifying befits creatures.” To put all this in simpler terms: we know that God really must possess certain absolute perfections, but the way that they actually exist in him surpasses our understanding and therefore we cannot express their reality adequately.
Hart takes St. Thomas’s statements in I, q. 13, a. 3 to mean that for him “negative theology and positive theology work together in a dialectic; moreover, this dialectic has a positive accent, for it affirms that God is the highest value” (TS, 191). A little later in the text Hart spells out his interpretation in more detail: “St. Thomas contends that theology is characterized by its positive statements about God; negative theology is required only to draw attention to the imperfections in the predicates we attach to God. In the vocabulary we have developed, negative theology supplements positive theology; it comes to fill a lack in positive theology, a lack which results from the use of improper predicates… [N]egative theology, thus understood, is metaphysical” (TS, 200-201. The italics are Hart’s.).
There is some exegetical confusion in Hart’s comment. He appears to be arguing that Aquinas holds that negative theology only relates to improper predicates. What Aquinas actually says is that it is not only improper predicates, e.g., metaphors, that must to some extent be denied of God but also proper predicates, the names of pure perfections, insofar as they fail to express the divine reality adequately, that is, insofar as their modus significandi is necessarily defective. (Hart seems to have gotten this somewhat complex matter right earlier in the text [Cf. TS, 191]. But if he did get it right, and understood Aquinas on this matter, then he must drop his unqualified claim that “St. Thomas contends that theology is characterized by its positive statements.”) Proper predicates must be both affirmed and denied of God, for the reasons we gave above. But putting this confusion aside, the thrust of Hart’s argument is fairly clear: Aquinas’s approach to theology is the opposite of his own. He takes Aquinas to be granting positive theology the priority over negative theology. For Hart this would have to mean that Aquinas thinks our concepts are adequate to the divine reality. How Hart can coherently make this claim when the passages from Aquinas that he considers appear to affirm just the contrary, it is not easy to say.
To be continued…