Aquinas Lecture Discusses Man’s Place in the World
The nature of man and the importance of the good were discussed by Dr. Michael Gorman, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, during the annual St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture on Philosophy and Theology at Providence College.
Gorman spoke about “Being, Goodness, and a Place for Persons” in Aquinas Hall Lounge. His topic fit the “Persons and Personhood” theme adopted this year by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies, which sponsored the lecture — one of four that is offered annually through the generosity of Edward J. Aquinas Quinn ’63 and his wife, Kathleen Reilly Quinn.
Gorman holds a Ph.D. in theology from Boston College and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was awarded a licentiate in philosophy from CUA, where he has taught since 1999. His primary interests are metaphysics, human nature, Christology, scholastic philosophy and theology, and analytic philosophy.
Gorman discussed the two images of man presented in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” a paper by the 20th century philosopher Willard Sellars.
The first image, dominant in pre-modern philosophy, draws a distinction between persons, characterized by their rationality, and non-persons, such as rocks and trees. The second, the scientific image, which has come to dominate much of modern philosophy, draws no distinction between persons and non-persons, but argues that reality consists of particles which interact in various ways.
“If everything is just a bunch of particles, it’s hard to understand how there can be any such thing as reason,” Gorman said. “Likewise, if everything is just a bunch of particles, it’s hard to understand how there can be any such thing as free will and moral responsibility.”
“The problem (Sellars) outlines seems to me to be the most important problem in philosophy since the 17th century,” Gorman added. “Our very ability to exist as human beings, or at least to exist as flourishing human beings, depends on our being able to understand ourselves in a certain way. ... We need not just a vision of ourselves, but a vision of the whole that includes a place for us.”
Likewise, a world that is home for people must be a world with a difference between good and bad, flourishing and failing to flourish, Gorman said. The scientific image tends to erase the distinction. Our job is to figure out how to reintroduce it into our theory of the world, he said.
“The right project, I want to suggest, is one that begins from a richer notion of being, a notion that already contains the good,” said Gorman. “The strategy I have proposed involves thinking of the natures of things as having an orientation to the good, an ordering to fulfillment. It’s not that we should figure out what things are, and then after that try to figure out how to insert goodness into that picture. The goodness was always there, and the difficulty is figuring out how to see it.”
When we think about things, we think about them in their ideal forms, Gorman said. As an example, he cited a cat. When people think of a cat, they envision a full-formed, ideal cat, though a three-legged cat would still truly be a cat. We think not about the individual features that a cat has, but the features that a cat ought to have.
“To be a cat, in short, is not to have certain features, but to be subject to a set of norms, norms specifying what cats ought to be like, i.e., what would be fulfillment or ideal for cats,” said Gorman.
“What makes something a cat, or a non-cat … is not what features it has, but what features it is supposed to have. The natures of things, what they are, have an 'ought' built right in. There’s an ‘ought’ right there in the ‘isness’ of felinity.”
Lisska Book Award winners
Before the lecture, winners of the annual Lisska Book Awards, established by Dr. Anthony Lisska ’63 and Lawrence Lisska ’66, were announced. The awards are given to the students who wrote the best paper in philosophy and the best paper in theology in the previous year, as determined by the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Theology.
Each winner receives a $200 gift certificate.
Eliza Zalis ’14 (Plattsburgh, N.Y.), who is studying abroad this semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, received the Lisska Prize in philosophy for her paper, “Intellectual Property: Does Government Have to Protect Ideas?”
Jessica Leonard ’14 (Portsmouth, R.I.) won the Lisska Prize in theology for her paper, “Renaissance Church Architecture: Riches of Rome for the Glory of God.”
— Vicki-Ann Downing
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