Feser on Lewis on transposition

Edward Feser, the distinguished Aristotelian–Thomist philosopher, has posted an excellent commentary on C. S. Lewis’s brilliant (and under-read) essay ‘Transposition’. It is hardly too much to say that Lewis’s essay describes one of the fundamental tools of thought, and Feser does much to make clear why this is necessarily so.

Lewis’s original essay:

‘Transposition’

Feser’s commentary:

‘Lewis on transposition’

A taste of Feser:

By “transposition,” Lewis has in mind the way in which a system which is richer or has more elements can be represented in a system that is poorer insofar as it has fewer elements.  The notion is best conveyed by means of his examples.  Consider, for instance, the way that the world of three dimensional colored objects can be represented in a two dimensional black and white line drawing; or the way that a piece of music scored for an orchestra might be adapted for piano; or the way something said in a language with many words at its disposal might be translated into a language containing far fewer words, if the relevant latter words have several senses.

As these examples indicate, in a transposition, the elements of the poorer system have to be susceptible of multiple interpretations if they are to capture what is contained in the richer system.  In a pen and ink drawing, black will have to represent not only objects that really are black, but also shadows and contours; white will have to represent not only objects that really are white, but also areas that are in bright light; a triangular shape will represent not only two dimensional objects, but also three dimensional objects like a road receding into the distance; and so on….

You cannot properly understand a transposition unless you understand something of both sides of it.  He asks us to consider a child born to a woman locked in a dungeon, who tries to teach the child about the outside world via black and white line drawings.  Through this medium “she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like” (p. 110).  For a time it seems that she is succeeding, but eventually something the child says indicates that he supposes that what exists outside the dungeon is a world filled with lines and other pencil marks.  The mother informs the child that this is not the case:

And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank.  For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it.  He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition… (Ibid.)

(Though Lewis does not note it, the parallel with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is obvious.)

… As Lewis points out, the notion of transposition is useful for understanding the relationship between mind and matter and the crudity of the errors made by materialists.

In other news, I have been suffering a series of emotional aftershocks from the deaths of my parents. I’ve been having nightmares about them, among other things. For a while this past week, I was so exhausted from being unable to sleep soundly that I woke up and fell asleep at more or less random intervals and could not frame to get anything useful done. I have decided to do at least one vaguely constructive thing and force myself to resume some level of blogging; so I hope there will not be any more long silences from me for the time being.

Comments

  1. It is a very tough situation you are in. I’m glad to see your occasional comment on TPV, and to hear blogging is something you fell you can do right now.

    I was fortunate that my four sisters, who all live in Mexico City with my parents, did all the hard work. They sent me the bit that had to be done in the States, but they have had to work together to do tons of things – and Daddy, who died in August, was relatively tidy, and the business (he was still working at 91) was more or less wrapped up.

    But older people can often leave many things behind that someone has to do.

    I keep promising myself not to do the same to my kids, but it IS going to take a major effort, and the spouse isn’t tidy.

    Praying for you.

    One thing a day seems eminently doable. And if you miss a day, get up and do something the next day.

  2. Feser’s handling of the transposition idea works quite well to illuminate what I think are his intellectual blind spots:

    “The religious believer who cannot understand how Heaven can lack earthly delights is like the materialist who cannot understand how thought could be more than brain activity, or the subjectivist ethical theorist who cannot understand how judgments of moral goodness and badness can be anything more than the expression of feelings.”

    If this analogy is taken at face value, then we can also reason that, if Heaven will lack Earthly delights, then human thought will also be better accomplished without the squishy medium of a human brain, and good and evil are most efficiently enacted by unfeeling reasoning completely without intermediation from the sentiments. (Feser shows absolute disdain for people who reject his reasoning on a mere sentimental basis.) Human language should not be written down or spoken, because the pure essence of a sequence of words is damaged and distorted by the vagaries of fonts, handwriting, and intonation. Certainly we can conclude (Feser indeed seems to do so) that the animal creation is not necessary to the Beatific Vision, and therefore it will perish irreversibly at the end of days. The Beatific Vision becomes difficult to tell from a Buddhist nirvana.

    If good things in this world are a transposition of good things in Heaven, we cannot get away with deleting them from our picture of Heaven just because it is inconvenient to our philosophy, or it feels tough and pious to assert that Heaven is just an endless and austere Sunday Mass. The higher reality actually has to be higher. For instance, in the case of a pet we can relate to, the higher reality which that pet is a transposition of ought to still be relational, which implies some type of pet; or at least a presently incomprehensible reality which is most accurately described in our limited understanding by calling it a pet. Of course, one might say that by being too attached to my cat I am focusing on the wrong element in my transposition of Heaven, thinking the pencil scratches are the object. But to say that my cat is only pencil-scratches amounts to a nihilism which says that the reality of my cat is already meaningless in the here and now. It is all the same whether I feed my cat or kick it, if not even God can be bothered to preserve its life in the long term. (In the end, the fact that we take care of cats, but butcher and eat other animals, often in a quite cruel and callous fashion, shows how irrational our sentiments really are. It is our callousness towards animals which is the really rational and realistic attitude, not our sentimental affection for them.)

    Similarly we may say in the case of marriage. Here we have clear words of Christ that in the resurrection there is no marriage. Nevertheless, the couple who treat each other as if they will have to remain married for ever is far closer to the Kingdom than the couple who is thinking what a relief it is that the marriage will only last this lifetime — and then the other spouse can sod off to Hell if they so want.

    So God save us from taking haughty philosophizing (mine, Feser’s, anyone else’s) more seriously than it deserves.

    • Matt Osterndorf says:

      It occurs to me that your description of Feser’s essay (I haven’t read the essay itself yet) could be contrasted profitably with Lewis’s fictional treatments of Heaven.

      • For what it’s worth, I doubt that Feser would have any issue with Lewis’s conception of Heaven (though, per “The Great Divorce”, he wouldn’t believe we had any chance to change our minds after our death).

        • On the contrary, ‘Great Divorce’ has that woman who is attended by absolute crowds of pets she happened to love during her Earthly life. Feser would presumably have a fit, given that he denies not only pets in Heaven but any form of animal life. (He argues against this using Thomist grounds “the human intellect is the only immaterial thing that persists to allow resurrection of the body” on the one hand, and using emotional “what would be the use of having disgusting tapeworms in Heaven?” appeals on the other hand.)

          One cannot chalk this down to a metaphorical depiction of an apophatic heaven of the Feser type. Unlike, say, the case where Lewis clearly states that he uses the post-death decisions of the souls in Great Divorce not as an assertion that such things actually happen in the afterlife, but as a metaphor for real, actual decisions be make in this life. That seems like a real, intelligible metaphor for a real thing.

          On the other hand, a metaphor can’t be made to stand for something that’s 180-degrees opposite from itself. If the woman in the Great Divorce has pets, that can’t be a metaphor for the complete absence of pets in Heaven. It can only be taken as a metaphor for some reality that is sufficiently pet-like that one of the most efficient way to talk about it is to use the metaphor of pets.

          Likewise in the ‘Last Battle’ they stand there and look at all the preserved Earthly / Narnian realms in the perfected Heavens, as they were before, but even more real, right down to Great Britain and the Digory house and all those things. As this is children’s literature, one can make the relevant commonsense influences as to what worldview Lewis is presenting. A child would not be so intellectually convoluted as to imagine Great Britain to be made more real by completely subtracting the wildlife.

          From what I’ve read of him (namely, a limited smattering of blog posts as well as his introductory summary of Aquinas), Feser has one simple barely-stated underlying assumption from which both the sensible and the ludicrous positions of his philosophy follow inevitably as a matter of theology and geometry. Being a trained philosopher and a Thomist, he believes in the power of the reason, and he seems to believe that the sentiments should never be allowed to override the reason under any circumstance. Thus only two modes of operation are acknowledged by the exponent of rationality — when the sentiments are in agreement with the reason (and can thus be ignored), or when the sentiments are denouncing the reason (and thus — by the above assumption — ipso facto must themselves be “broken in” and denounced). This leads to a very one-sided way of operating one’s human nature, and I am not aware of a single children’s book that advises it.

          In fact, sometimes the sentiments are merely sabotaging and resisting our reason to no good use, but sometimes our sentiments are the only thing remaining to provide us with an unalloyed view of the good, and reveal that we have actually taken a reasonable route from slightly flawed premises to a ludicrous conclusion. This is why discernment of right and wrong is crucial, and why it can only be reasonably conceived as a spiritual quality that does not depend on either reason or the sentiments, but is capable of judging between the two. Resolving only to reason from fixed premises consigns one to a life of sheer dumb luck as to whether one’s initial premises were accurate or not. Psychopaths are highly reasonable and rarely sentimental, and therefore find it difficult to acquire (during that highly non-syllogistic, sentimental time of childhood) moral premises basic to the rest of humanity, stranding them in a very difficult position — consider with what careful patience some of them must be reasoned into such principles as that murder is bad, even when otherwise convenient.

          I am planning to go one further to dissect specific flawed premises in Ed Feser’s arguments in his ‘Animal Souls’ posts, but will save that for another time and place.

          • On the contrary, ‘Great Divorce’ has that woman who is attended by absolute crowds of pets she happened to love during her Earthly life.

            Do you think that Lewis saw that as an actual representation of what Heaven would truly be like? I do not. I think a more accurate idea is shown in the final words of “The Last Battle”.

            (He argues against this using Thomist grounds “the human intellect is the only immaterial thing that persists to allow resurrection of the body” on the one hand, and using emotional “what would be the use of having disgusting tapeworms in Heaven?” appeals on the other hand

            This is unfair. Feser is making the sensible point that it goes both ways if you talk about how terrible it is to have no dogs in heaven.

            Being a trained philosopher and a Thomist, he believes in the power of the reason, and he seems to believe that the sentiments should never be allowed to override the reason under any circumstance. Thus only two modes of operation are acknowledged by the exponent of rationality — when the sentiments are in agreement with the reason (and can thus be ignored), or when the sentiments are denouncing the reason (and thus — by the above assumption — ipso facto must themselves be “broken in” and denounced). This leads to a very one-sided way of operating one’s human nature, and I am not aware of a single children’s book that advises it.

            I honestly have no idea what you’re trying to say, from here onto the end of your comment. Your major criticism of Feser’s worldview is…what? I’m not sure.

            • Matt Osterndorf says:

              Do you think that Lewis saw that as an actual representation of what Heaven would truly be like? I do not.

              Lewis actually speculates about pets and their eternal reward (or lack thereof) in the tail end of The Problem of Pain.

              I’ll quote a bit, but you can find it here in its entirety.

              “I am now going to suggest—though with great readiness to be set right by real theologians—that there may be a sense, corresponding, though not identical, with these, in which those beasts that attain a real self are in their masters. That is to say, you must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that.”

            • @Malcolm

              “Do you think that Lewis saw that as an actual representation of what Heaven would truly be like? I do not.”

              No, but Lewis used that picture as a reasonable metaphor for the realities of Heaven, and it would be dishonest (one may say euphemistically ‘misleading’) to use a metaphor that is 180 degrees opposed to the reality. Note that where Lewis allowed himself to use a metaphor that actually had the potential to be misleading (depicting the hypothetical choices of dead souls in the next life to illustrate the choices of living people in this life) he went to the trouble of writing a preface to caution that his metaphor is just a metaphor (and explain what it stands for), and disavow a literal assertion that souls in the next life will have the opportunity to make additional choices. “Choices in next life” as a metaphor for “choices in this life” is far more intelligible compared to “woman surrounded by pets” as a metaphor for “total absence of pets”.

              If the reality of Heaven lacks anything even slightly resembling pets and animal life, then it would be utterly dishonest to depict it using a metaphor that includes pets and animal life. Moreover, from my reading of the Great Divorce, Lewis seems to have spent quite some time developing the notion that the animals this woman loved during her Earthly life were not lost but taken up, as it were, into the very essence of her person, whence they are found along with her in the renewed Paradise. Likewise Matt Osterndorf points to a place in ‘Problem of Pain’ where he further develops that idea philosophically. So I infer that Lewis thought something very much like that was a plausible hope rather than wishful thinking, and did not consider it untruthful to encourage adult readers to contemplate such a notion. Thus on this point Lewis appears to disagree with Feser fairly significantly.

              As for what I think Lewis actually believed, it is clear that he was a flesh-and-blood layman who was of two minds on certain points, and when he laid out his thoughts over many years inevitably they would not form a fully consistent system. At some points he has written naive children’s books, and at other points he has written philosophical treatises that happen to offer ammunition for scholastics such as Feser to denounce the type of world the naive children’s books teach us to expect, as being sentimentalized wishful thinking. I cannot agree that this scholastic angle was the sum total Lewis’ real worldview, because a person could not write much-beloved children’s books while believing unambiguously that the worldview he was foisting on the children was sheer humbug; the Muses wash their hands of such a hypocrisy.

              With the Last Battle, as I said already, it presents rather the naive frisbee-with-Fido view of Heaven than otherwise. The fact that it’s a children’s book gives us a pretty good idea how it ought to be read; having Prof. Digory name-dropping Plato does not override the clear understanding of what is actually happening as described on the pages. Any ten-year-old who has seen a modicum of nature will look at the description of the new Earth there depicted and form such unspoken assumptions as that the new Platonic Britain retains its forests, rather than being a landscape of barren rock; and that the forests are teeming with interesting wildlife rather than eerily devoid of it. The overall impression ought to be more alive and harmonious than the fallen Britain ever was. Again, is Britain improved or made more alive by sterilizing all wildlife out of it, good and bad? Lewis does not strip away the details of his Heaven in favour of the “one thing needful” (the Beatific Vision) but rather embellishes them endlessly. Even an interesting old house, something which is a mere accidental man-made artifact for survival that could easily be dispensed with, is found preserved in its proper place, long after its Earthly analogue has been destroyed. Resurrection not only for animals, but even houses? Anyways, the overall tendency from reading The Last Battle is to imagine a Heaven where frivolous things like the old family home and Frisbee-with-Fido and even walking in the forest are not distractions to a Beatific Vision, but combine quite comfortably with it. The only case where Lewis shows something excluded from Heaven is in the case of people who have made their choice against God; however, trees, animals and houses lack the capacity for moral evil and are therefore in no such danger.

              To which I suppose a Feserian retort might be that The Last Battle is subversive literature tainted by modern sentimentality about houses and forests and pets and all that, and that the ten-year old is insufficiently tutored in the ways of Aquinas to have any weight in the argument.

              “I honestly have no idea what you’re trying to say, from here onto the end of your comment.”

              To get some understanding of what I am going on about, start by considering the question “is there any point at which the sentiments and the intuition ought to override one’s logical reasoning?”

              I assert that there is, and this argument about animal life in the next world is one of those cases. Logical reasoning can accurately combine premises together to form conclusions, but it is powerless to accurately judge the validity those premises. One of the ways we actually judge our premises is by observing when a consistent chain of reasoning leads us to an unacceptable conclusion. In the case of the animal souls debate, I see Feser building a presumably consistent edifice of logic that leads him to an absurd conclusion. (It would at least require us to throw The Last Battle into the garbage as a dangerously misleading depiction of Heaven.) Therefore I can make the reasonable assumption that, somewhere in his edifice of logic, Feser has misplaced a premise.

              Of course, because Feser does not admit that any other human faculty can be appointed judge over the intellect, it would be fruitless to actually argue with him on that basis. I had a strong feeling that this assumption was threaded through Feser’s work, given how consistently he uses ‘sentiment’ as a term of abuse against intellectual opponents, but on re-reading his ‘transpositions’ post, I found him to also state this position outright:

              “The point is just that feelings are the lower, poorer side of the transposition, whereas the intellect — which alone can ultimately judge one’s true spiritual state — is the higher, richer side.”

              i.e. “the intellect alone can ultimately judge one’s spiritual state”, which I think to be just plain wrong. Neither am I false in conflating ‘intellect’ (as Feser uses the word) with ‘logical reasoning’ in opposition to ‘sentiment’, as Feser explicitly defines the intellect to be something entirely distinct and separate from mere ‘feelings’.

              A cursory examination of Feser’s writings reveals other problematic assumptions (e.g. his implicit utilitarianism in saying such things as “receiving the Beatific Vision is a good that infinitely outweighs the loss of X, Y, and Z”), but it would require a lot more diligence to identify the exact faulty premise that leads him to deny the animal kingdom any place in the New Heaven and New Earth.

              • To which I suppose a Feserian retort might be that The Last Battle is subversive literature tainted by modern sentimentality about houses and forests and pets and all that, and that the ten-year old is insufficiently tutored in the ways of Aquinas to have any weight in the argument.

                Well, whoever you’re arguing with, it’s not Dr. Feser.

              • @Malcolm

                Do you mean to say that Feser would agree with the notion of the Digory house being preserved in Heaven, when he denies the same thing happening even to animals due to their lack of any immaterial existence that would allow their resurrection, and when man-made artefacts in the A-T view are considered to have an even more tenuous existence than that?

                Hence, from what I understand of Feser’s brand of A-T, the Narnia books encourage sentiments and intuitions that directly contradict that system, and must therefore be considered ‘subversive’ to it, though Feser himself would never bother saying that outright. My ‘Feserian retort’ is therefore exaggerated for the sake of rhetoric.

  3. Mr. Simon,

    I just used your contact form, in case you’re not in the habit of checking that email; do check it out if you have the time (the robot anthology email).

    • WordPress sends mail from my contact form to the same address as notifications of new comments, so I got both your messages just now. Thanks for making doubly sure, all the same. The robot anthology does sound interesting. I should like to participate if I can think of a good idea for a story.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The child raised in prison was a pretty popular medieval trope for life on earth vs heaven, which is probably where Lewis got the idea. (Although making the mother an artist is nicely new!) The best-known version of it is probably the Irish poem, “Bean torrach fa Tuar Broide” by Gofraidh Fionn O Dalaigh, circa 1360:

    A pregnant woman with sorrow’s sign,
    once there was, in painful prison.
    The God of Elements let her bear
    in prison there a little child.

    The little boy, when he was born,
    grew up like any other child
    (plain as we could see him there)
    for a space of years, in prison.

    That the woman was a prisoner
    did not lower the baby’s spirits.
    She minded him, though in prison,
    like one without punishment or pain.

    Nothing of the light of day
    (O misery!) could they see
    but a field’s bright ridge
    through a hole someone had made.

    Yet the loss was not the same
    for the son as for the mother:
    her fair face failed in form
    while the baby gained in health.

    The child, raised where he was,
    grew better by his bondage,
    not knowing in his fresh frail limbs
    but prison was ground of Paradise.

    He made little playful runs
    while her spirits only darkened.
    (Mark well, lest you regret,
    these deeds of son and mother.)

    He said one day, beholding
    a tear on her lovely face:
    “I see the signs of sadness;
    now let me hear the cause.”

    “No wonder that I mourn,
    my foolish child,” said she.
    “This cramped place is not our lot,
    and suffering pain in prison.”

    “Is there another place,” he said,
    “lovelier than ours?
    Is there a brighter light than this
    that your grief grows so heavy?”

    “For I believe,” the young child said,
    “Mother, although you mourn,
    we have our share of light.
    Don’t waste your thoughts in sorrow.”

    “I do not wonder at what you say,
    young son,” the girl replied.
    “You think this is a hopeful place
    because you have seen no other.

    “If you knew what I had seen
    before this dismal place,
    you would be downcast also
    in your nursery here, my soul.”

    “Since it is you know best, lady,”
    the little child replied,
    “Hide from me no longer
    what more it was you had.”

    “A great outer world in glory
    formerly was mine.
    After that, beloved boy,
    my fate is a darkened house.”

    At home in all his hardships,
    not knowing a happier state,
    fresh-cheeked and bright, he did not grudge
    the cold and desolate prison.

    And so is the moral given:
    the couple there in prison
    are the people of this world,
    imprisoned life their span.

    Compared with joy with the Son of God
    in His everlasting realm,
    an earthly mansion is only grief,
    all the living are imprisoned.

  5. Carbonel says:

    I have often found that some kind of mental work (such as editing a manuscript) can provide some surcease from an emotional storm. I hope hope this proves true for you as well. In addition you may enjoy the side benefit of knowing thatbyoubare glad denying (in your own small but inimitable way) the lives of those who enjoy your writing.

  6. Craig says:

    I must have read “Transposition” years ago (I know I read the book it’s in), but it clearly didn’t make as big an impression as it should have.

    As for your own situation — I am shamefully bad about remembering to pray for people, but I’ll make the attempt.

  7. Pellegri says:

    I don’t often comment, but I have likewise been praying for you and will redouble my efforts. I’m glad to see you writing again, though.

Speak Your Mind

*