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Peter Geach, R.I.P.

The philosopher Peter Geach has died. He taught for many years at the Universities of Birmingham and Leeds, and also as a Visiting Professor at the University of Warsaw. He wrote many influential books and articles, several of which are noted here by the philosopher John Haldane. In 1941 Geach married Elizabeth Anscombe, and together they had seven children. (Here is a famous photograph of Geach and Anscombe, taken in 1990.) Along with Anscombe and Michael Dummett (whose death I noted in 2011), Geach was one of the very most important Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century.

Geach was born in London in 1916. He was raised mostly by his father, who had been trained in philosophy but had never been able to secure a prestigious teaching position, and saw in his son a worthy pupil. On Geach's telling, his father had the habit of changing his religious beliefs several times a year—always quite suddenly, and always with strong arguments for the change. As a young man Geach would follow his father through these transitions, and he recalls being teased by a school friend on returning from college: "Hullo, Geach! Good hols? Does God exist this term?"

Under his father's tutelage, one of Geach's earliest philosophical influences was the metaphysician J.M.E. McTaggart, who infamously argues in his 1908 book The Unreality of Time for, well, the unreality of time. Geach's initial resistance to McTaggart's views gave way to what he calls "the irresistible force of reasoning," and he became for some time a firm adherent to McTaggart's system, his views "honed to a sharp edge by controversy." After enrolling as a student at Oxford, Geach's intellectual combatants came to include increasing numbers of Catholics. He tells the rest:

I was certainly cleverer than they, but they had the immeasurable advantage that they were right—an advantage that they did not throw away by resorting to the bad philosophy and apologetics then sometimes taught in Catholic schools. One day my defences quite suddenly collapsed: I knew that if I were to remain an honest man I must seek instruction in the Catholic Religion. I was received into the Catholic Church on May 31, 1938.

I suspect that only someone who had seen his father undergo dozens of conversions could have changed his own views so suddenly. This time, however, it took.

As the above excerpts reveal (they are all from Geach's "Philosophical Autobiography," published in Peter Geach: Philosophical Encounters, ed. Harry A. Lewis), in addition to being an extraordinary philosopher Geach was an exquisitely talented writer. He could also be very funny, even in addressing technical philosophical topics: for example, there is a crucial passage in his well-known book Mental Acts where it will gradually dawn on the careful reader that Geach has adopted the prose style of Thomas Aquinas and is mirroring several Thomistic distinctions; he reveals in the following paragraph that this is no accident, as the passage follows almost phrase-for-phrase an article from the Summa Theologiae. The depth and scope of Geach's learning is evident in every page of his writing, where he draws freely on his knowledge of philosophical history in discussing complex issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind and language.

Along with Aquinas and McTaggart (whose system he presents in his 1982 book Truth, Love, and Immortality), Geach's main philosophical heroes were Aristotle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege. (Remarkably to me, in his autobiography Geach also has a lot of positive things to say about Thomas Hobbes.) Like any good Thomist, and unlike many poor ones, Geach did not work backwards from predetermined conclusions, but always let the reasons lead him, confident that truth would prevail. Here his how Geach describes his philosophical process in his autobiography, contrasting it with the "more adventurous" strategy of his wife Anscombe:

My mind works differently; the shocking theses I have defended in the philosophy of logic were reached not in bold leaps but by slow steps, with each step mentally tested against a multitude of examples and objections before the next step was taken. Both of us, I hope, have avoided two vices: frivolous change of mind, and adherence to past sayings in the desire to have been right rather than be right.

This difference in philosophical style also made Geach a very different sort of writer than Anscombe; whereas her writings lack the kind of evident structure that today's philosophers mostly take for granted, Geach is more obviously orderly in his presentation. But they shared a conviction that good philosophy requires close attention to the workings of language—an insight that in his autobiography Geach credits to Aquinas:

While studying Aquinas...I could not help noticing that he is linguistically very self-conscious, in a way that McTaggart is not: again and again there is a careful discussion of logico-grammatical points, like the roles of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and particles; he uses the best contemporary work of logicians (sophistae), but when their work will not serve his ends he devises tools of his own to analyse the language of his theological arguments.

Like Aquinas, Geach did not think the tools of logical analysis were applicable only to "abstract" topics like the nature of time or the semantics of singular terms. He also wrote, in the very same style, about love, hope, the soul, the efficacy of prayer, and whether we survive our deaths. He was an immensely important thinker, and his writings will remain influential for many years to come. May he rest in peace.

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Defender of Catholicism in anti-Catholic academe, lover of logic in weakly rational Catholicism, we owe him.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may the perpetual light shine upon him.  May he rest in peace.

Amen, amen.

I once heard Geach speak in Maynooth, where he denounced the idea that Jesus did not know he was God. "If he didn't know, how can we?" was his question. I suggested that it might be one of the truths that the Holy Spirit taught the infant church. The question still nags, however.

Geach and Anscombe were overheard by a philosopher friend of mine as they went up the stairs after a meeting with French philosophers - Anscombe was saying to Geach: "Of course, they don't really see what counts as an argument."

Like so many Catholic apologists, Geach could be feisty in debate, and is said to have either struck or poured beer over an antagonist in a pub discussion.

The story about pouring beer stems from a false accusation made by a madman who had been flicking beer at people in a pub, and on whose head a girl, annoyed by this, had poured beer herself. The lunatic assumed that it was my father who had done this, and pursued him down the hill to the university. My father Peter Geach said to him 'I am keeping my hands in my pockets', and when he got to the glass doors of the university quickly used his keys to get in and then shut the door. The madman walked through the glass of the door, smashing it, upon which the porters sent for the police, to whom he repeated his accusation before a gathering crowd of students who took his side. The poor fellow was taken away, since the charge against him was not that of attacking my father, but of damage to the property. of the university His disturbed state was expained after he committed suicide a week later: his girl had had their baby aborted. He had not been in discussion with my father about this or anything else.

Ms. Geach,

Your father is in my prayers. In my studies I have enjoyed reading the work of your parents immensely. One of my professors who knew them always had wonderful things to say about them. May the rest in peace.

In a chapter entitled "What Do We Think With" in his book God and the Soul, Peter Geach argued to the non-material character of the soul.  But a paragraph near the beginning of the chapter I think is simply mistaken. He wrote: 

The doctrine of acts of understanding is quite wrongly attributed to the medieval scholastics. Though in ordinary Latin 'intelligere" means "understand," medieval Latin is often a standard rendering of Aristotle's Greek, and "intelligere" is Aristotle's "noiein" which is Greek for "to think of" not for "to understand." 

First, my classical Greek dictionaries all give, as the first meaning of noiein "to perceive by the mind, to apprehend, to understand" , whereas "to consider, to think" is given as the second meaning. Second, the medieval scholastics had available the verb cogitare for "to think or think about", and at least Aquinas could speak of cogitatio or ratiocinatio as a process that ends with intellectio, "understanding, and "conceptio," the expression of the content of an act of understanding. This did not inspire confidence in Geach as an interpreter of Aquinas.  And I've been unable to understand why he should have thought it legitimate to speak of acts of thinking but not of acts of understanding. 

Ms. Geach --

I can't help wonder whether you or any of your siblings are writing reminiscences of the golden age of analytic philosophy.  It would be fascinating to see tthe analytic giants from your perspectives as children.  

in this year's longest night my father died

before the dawning of the darkest day

our youngest sister praying by his side

fair fruit of his love's generosity

who got us all goodheartedly all seven

and taught us to love truth that was his lord

whose courtier he asked to be in heaven

and was his soldier bore the spirit's sword

struck blow on blow for truth abd could divide

distinguish by the cunning that they brought 

truth spirit and truth's long-prevailing word

by their relations in that each in each

loves with a love reflected in man's speech

Mary Geach, my apologies for perpetuating that rumor -- I am very happy to see it scotched, and shall duly correct it if I ever encounter it again. Please accept my sympathies on your loss of a great father.

 

 

 

Not sure what the discussion of "acts of understanding" is about. Aristotle's noein had a big influence considered as an intuitive intelligizing that Augustine calls intellectus (see what he says on purity of heart in De sermone Domine in monte); the nosse sui or notitia sui in De trinitate IX is close to this noein, as transmitted via Plotinus. The active intellect of Aquinas also has a noetic character of this sort.

But of course the medievals had a huge grasp of logical intelligizing and of  the abstractive power of the agent intellect and of various practices of cogitation and judgment. So it is hard to say that any kind of act of understanding was unknown to them.

Perhaps Geach was making some sort of Wittgensteinian point about the non-existence of mental acts and was saying that the medievals had a more vibrant and integrated grasp of intellectual activity so that they did not need to posit such philosophical esoterica as "mental acts"?

Not sure what the discussion of "acts of understanding" is about. Aristotle's noein had a big influence considered as an intuitive intelligizing that Augustine calls intellectus (see what he says on purity of heart in De sermone Domine in monte); the nosse sui or notitia sui in De trinitate IX is close to this noein, as transmitted via Plotinus. The active intellect of Aquinas also has a noetic character of this sort.

But of course the medievals had a huge grasp of logical intelligizing and of  the abstractive power of the agent intellect and of various practices of cogitation and judgment. So it is hard to say that any kind of act of understanding was unknown to them.

Perhaps Geach was making some sort of Wittgensteinian point about the non-existence of mental acts and was saying that the medievals had a more vibrant and integrated grasp of intellectual activity so that they did not need to posit such philosophical esoterica as "mental acts"?

Ms. Geach --

What a beautiful tribute to your parents -- philosophers mirroring deepest theological truths!

Thank you so much for sharing it with us. 

Sorry about double posting, due to a strange message asking me to prove I am not a zombie -- must be the influence of philosophy.

And I've been unable to understand why he should have thought it legitimate to speak of acts of thinking but not of acts of understanding

I can't speak for Geach -- or on the question of translation -- but this particular point seems right to me. It makes good sense to speak of thoughts as consciously occurrent, and as progressing from beginning to end over a certain period of time (or maybe happening at an instant). (E.g. I think to myselfI wonder if there can be acts of understanding.) But understanding isn't like this: it doesn't have a conscious character in the same way as thought (though of course one may be consciously aware of what one understands), and even if understanding is temporally located, it doesn't unfold through time in the way that thoughts do, but simply begins and ends. Still, understanding may be a kind of act (or activity) -- but not in the sense that word has in everyday English.

P J McGrath made that objection to Lonergan's "Insight" -- he said that insight in Lonergan's sense could not be a mental act --- perhaps rooting out some "psychologism" in Lonergan (see Corcoran, ed. Looking at Lonergan's Method).

If I can be conscious of thinking, e.g., when I am trying to understand something, why cannot I be conscious of the act in which I get the point I've been trying to understand, a "Eureka!" moment?  Don't people today speak about "Aha! moments"? I don't think they occur unconsciously.

Or perhaps the problem is in what is meant by consciousness?

I never saw any problem with mental acts either, but I am not sure I understand what the problem is supposed to be.

If I can be conscious of thinking, e.g., when I am trying to understand something, why cannot I be conscious of the act in which I get the point I've been trying to understand, a "Eureka!" moment?  Don't people today speak about "Aha! moments"? I don't think they occur unconsciously.

I agree with this, but it shows only that there can be an act (in the everyday sense) of coming to understand, or of understanding's "dawning". But understanding itself persists beyond this initial moment, and has a very different character from it.

Well, yes, of course, understanding can persist after the dawning moment and, linked with other insights, can become part of the furniture of one's mind--which perhaps is what is meant by "habitual knowledge," which is not constantly before one's conscious mind, but can be drawn on as needed.  But Geach seemed to have set himself against acts of understanding themselves. I may be mistaken, but I don't get the impression he was talking about habitual knowledge. 

We are pretty deep into the woods here, but my thought on Geach's behalf is that in denying that there are acts of understanding he needn't deny that there are acts of coming to understand -- or, perhaps better, acts of conscious realization or "seeing how it fits together" that are closely associated with understanding but are not constitutive of it, standing to it instead as judgment stands to belief or a felt pang of yearning stands to desire.

JAK ==

About the ambiguity of "consciousness" -- consciousness has, of course, been a hot topic for generations now.  What I find surprising is that in spite of all the fine Aristotelian analyses of the elements of mental act, neither Aristotle nor his medieval followers had isolated out from the complexity of mental acts the clear, simple element of "awareness".  The medievals used the Latin word "conscientia" ambiguously to mean "thinking with others", "thinking about the morality of an act" ("consciene" in today's sense) including vaguely "being aware of".  They  just didn't have a word for the basic awareness that is common to all conscious acts.  As I see it, it was only with the work of G. E. Moore, the early analytic philosopher that the distinction between the *consciousness of-* an object and its *object* was finally made clear.

As I understand the history of the concept,  it was only with Descartes' "cogito" that the simple note of "being aware" began to be focused on. So far as I know, Locke was the first Anglophone to focus on awareness, and he started using the term "consciousness" without any connotation of "conscience".or "thinking with others". Husserl, of course,  was enormously interested in intentionality, but intentionalityis only a *characteristic* of awareness.  I don't know how far he got into isolating awareness as such.  (Does anybody here know?)

Finally, with Moore's making crystal clear the distinction between "consciousness of" and "a patch of blue", philosophy had an available distinction between "consciousness of" and "object of consciousness"  But it took over 2000 years to get there!  Today, of course, the word's meaning has been complicated by the realization that there are mental actions that are in some sense of the word "un-conscious" yet in some sense conscious at the same time -- "unconscious acts of consciousness" seems, obviously, an oxymoron, but we do seem to have them.

 

But this does not in any way solve the problem of whether there are acts of understanding, since we can ask of someone whether he understands a matter though he is  asleep. Of such a man,we can say that he undertands e.g. a mathematical fact. So whatever else it may be, understanding is not consciousness,in the sense of being a Cartesian cogitatio.

Surely Augustine grasped the reality of consciousness -- or awareness -- even more than Descartes; he broods on it quite a lot in De trinitate IX-X for example.

Husserl isolated the consciousness of time (Zeitbewusstein) insofar as this is possible.

And again, who was Husserl's primary predecessor in that? St Augustine! (Confesiones IX)

Both Augustine and Aquinas have the concept of a "notitia sui" (knowledge of oneself) that is not reflective, scientific "cognitio sui" (knowledge of oneself).  One could look at Aquinas' several treatments of the self-knowledge of the soul.  And both men seem to have had a keen sense of the mind's self-presence.

Ms Geach:  You wrote:  "But this does not in any way solve the problem of whether there are acts of understanding, since we can ask of someone whether he understands a matter though he is  asleep. Of such a man,we can say that he undertands e.g. a mathematical fact. So whatever else it may be, understanding is not consciousness,in the sense of being a Cartesian cogitatio."

If a person understands a mathematical fact while asleep, it can only be in the sense of habitual understanding.  I do not believe one can say that a sleeping man is understanding a mathematical fact.  

I do not identify understanding and consciousness, but I do claim that acts of understanding are conscious acts (so are sensing, inquiring, reflecting, judging, deliberating, deciding, etc.)  .

I would say that Descartes' appeal to the Cogito is to a conscious event that supplies the evidence for the inference: If A, then B. But A. Therefore B.

Does one who habitually understands have a habit of perorming acts of understanding?If he understands the use of the word 'of', say, does an act of understanding take place every time he uses the word?

I'd probably say that it means that an understanding of the use of the word is now so habitual, that is, so implanted in his general knowledge of how to use the English language that he does not advert to it. He may advert to it when someone, perhaps a foreigner, misues the word, and he must explain the English usage. In which case, the habitual understanding becomes actual.

What do you think it means to say that someone understands the use of the word 'of'"?

'I would say that he had the ability to use it correctly.I don't think that there is some bit of 'awareness' that he adverts to when he does so.

I agree and thought I had said so above.  I would also say that one has the ability by understanding how the word is used. 

 

I am in Venice, which is even more depopulated that when I was here in 2004 -- its thousands of bad restaurants are run by Chinese etc -- and at night it is dead, dead, dead -- so this leaves me leisure to reflect on what feats of consciousness underlie one's understanding of the world "of". 

It's a rather tricky example since one learned the use of this word so early in childhood.

A better example might be, how did I come to understand the difference between objective and subjective genitive. I certainly had headaches trying to understand it at various times in my life. Indeed I am experiencing such a headache at this very moment.

Let's see: "the king's daughter" is subjective genitive, I suppose -- she belongs to the subject who is the king.

Now what can an objective genitive be?

I'm stumped.

How about "mastery of English" -- it's not mastery that belongs to English as a subject but mastery of English as an object. Oh, something isglimmering in my mnd. Not quite an "Aha!" of insight but certainly a sense of performing an act of apparent understanding.

Let me secure the insight now, and never let it go,so that I will never again experience the headache I referred to.

"Vision of Dante" can mean a vision Dante had, as a subject, or a vision one has of Dante, as an object.

Gottit! 

Was this not an act of understanding?

About consciousness:  Even the concept of "self-knowledge" includes a complicating factor -- that of "self".  In other words, "conscious of self" is not a grasp of pure awareness.  (But this gets us into the contemporary problem of the meaning, if any, of "I".)

Once the object (awareness) is isolated out, my next question is:  are there different *kinds* of awareness, or do experiences differ only by oject, by complexity  or by some other differentia?  (There are many ways of classifying experiences, but I suspect that there is only one sort of awareness.)

I also suspect that the Buddhists have something to teach us about all this.  Pioneer phenomenologists.

Then there is Rom 5:5:  "The love of God is poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."  Is this "of God" an objective or a subjective genitive?

thI think that both "understand" and "habitual" are ambiguous.  To speak Aristotelianese, memory is the habitual presence of knowledge in the mind, and as such it is not fully actualized.  It is only when the knowledge becomes fully actualized (i.e., present in awareness) that we are said to "know" in the full sense of "know" or "understand".  

Note:  Aristotle didn't have a clear concept of "awareness" either, so far as I know.  It was for him, as for the others, implicit in their analyses but not analysed out, sort of like water to fish. 

 

Yes, in theology whole worlds turn on subj or obj genitives. "the faith of Christ" is a notorious case. But when Luther interprets the "righteousness of God" as not the righteousness that God has but the righteousness that God works in us, for our justification, or, extending this, "the love of God" not as the love that God has but the love he works in us, for our sanctification, the shift isnot from subjective to objective gentive but rather within the subjective genitive, a quality God has becoming an action God does. The objective genitive of "our love of God" is not in Paul but maybe in I John (and in active verbal form in the Shema repeated in the Gospels). It played a huge role in Western spirituality. 

Consider:  While awareness is ordinarily distinct from its object, it can also be aware of itself.  In other words, there is (1)  being aware of an obect which is other than the awareness of itself, and there is (2) being awareness being aware of itself.  But also there is (3) a generalized concept of awareness formed on the basis of (2

Ordinarily we aren't thinking that we are thinking as we do it, but sometimes we are acutely aware of thinking (2).  And we can generalize about both -- as when Descartes said, "I think, therefore, I am".   (Will he never cease to fascinate?)  This generalization is (3).  (Can we also think about thinking about thinking?  That's too rich for me :-)

It also seems to me that consciouness-of is not the same thing as attention/focusing/adverting.  The latter seems to be a very complex act.  Hopefully the neuroscientists with tell us something new about it -- it seems they're looking for a specific part of the brain which has focusing as its function.

 

I'd like to retract that last statement about Descartes' "I think" being a generalization.  It is a generalization in an Ockahmist, nominalist sort of way, but not in any Aristotelian sense.

I think consciousness is a concomitant awareness. When I see something, I am aware not only of the object seen but of my seeing it. Consciousness is the latter.  It is what permits us to advert to previous experiences when, for example, we are asked to explain the difference between "joy" and "happiness." The words point to different experiences, and we are able to understand these differences by recalling our experience, that is, consciousness, the two emotions.  

If I were to ask my students, "Have you ever had an "aha! moment?", and one were to say, "Yes," she would be able to point to a moment of subjective experience, with the focus not so much on what was understood but on the experience of having understood it, perhaps after a long or difficult struggle to understand.

The Buddhists have huge discussions about svasamvedana, reflexive awareness, and the Madhaymakas regard the idea with their usual skepticism. http://rimeshedranyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/ReflexiveAwarenessAndTheCogito-PaulBernier.pdf

Madhyamakas I mean.

JAK --  I agree that when one remembers joy and happiness one is also aware of having been aware of those two objects  -- but that is because joy and happiness are intrinsically conscious events, that is, there is no joy nor happiness without their being (1) awareness of the feelings and (2) awareness that  they are our own.  (Enter the awareness of the self?)  Hence the double awareness. 

But what about being aware of things that aren't subjective?  Let's say you look at the Thanksgiving buffet table and it's full of different dishes.  Will you be aware of being aware of them?  And to complicate things, will you be aware of the dishes individually as you glance at the table?  Would you know right off that there were both Brussell sprouts and spinach on the table?  And would you be conscious/aware of being conscious/aware of the sprouts and spinach too?

(I just think that even ordinary perceptions are extremely complex, not to mention the complexity of remembering and reasoning processes.)

 

It wasn't until I learned about grammatical cases in Latin that I understood the difference between "who" and "whom."  I had never heard of cases before, and I remember quite clearly the moment of insight that enabled me to use the language correctly.

Ann:  It's not simply joy and happiness that are "conscious events." So are looking at a Thanksgiving buffet, distinguishing among the variety of dishes, and discovering that there are both Brussel sprouts and spinach.  How could one do any of these while asleep or in a coma?  They're all conscious events. (By consciousness I don't mean an explicitly reflective act, nor an introspective one.  One can attempt introspection, if one wants, and try to analyze consciousness, but what you have done then is to turn one's consciousness into an object, but that effort, of course, is itself a conscious event. You can't catch up to yourself, as it were.  That's why I wouldn't speak of consciousness as an awareness of being aware.

How could you diagramme sentences without telling who from whom?  

I think by "consciousness" you mean what I would use "full awareness" for, i.e., awareness-of an object and awareness of awareness-of that object.  I suspect that there are *degrees* of consciousness (which, if you were Locke, would mess up your theory of the self, but you aren't :)

I don't think that the second awareness-of has exactly the same character as the first.  To be aware-of an object is clearly and intentional act, as Husserll makes clear, but the awareness of self in the second awareness doesn't seem to me to have the character of intentionality, of direction outside of itself.  It's not an esse ad, to use Aristotelianese in a non-Aristotelian way.  Perhaps intentionality also could be defined to include reflexivity, but  when I am conscious of my own consciousness it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  (Like this argument? :-)

I just noticed that Aristotle's definition of "relation" as  "esse ad" (i.e., "being-towards) might be what is cloudying my thinking about intentionality.   "Awareness of" does not seem to signify any *towards* another thing, so talking about both "awareness of" and "being towards" as equivalent would not be consistent.  The problem is:  how to eliminate the metaphorical character of the word "ad".  Or is the question more than just a semantic one?

I agree, Ann, that awareness of self as seeing is different from awareness of an object as seen. The latter is sensation or perception; the former is consciousness. 

ISTM that there are at least three levels/degrees/whatever of awareness being discussed here:  (1) awareness of a patch of blue, (2) awareness of that awarenes, (3) and, awarenes that 2 is an awarene *by me*, i.e., self-awareness.

I do some very primitive vipassana meditation which is watching the flow of consciousness go by.  In that sort of experience there is also sometimes a simultaneous sort of stepping back by attention to simultaneously watch 1, 2, and 3 as well.  It's really weird, sort of takes you out of the world while remaining in it.  The philosphical complication is, I think, the different sort of attention involved.  Complexity, complexity.

ISTM the Western philosophers have yet to realize how much the Asians know about consciousness that the West doesn't know.  And, I think, it's particularly important that the Western theologians start getting into it because of the great expansion of the Faith into the East.  There will be disputes, folks, there will be very serious disputes about the nature of prayer and of salvation.

Ann:   Your second paragraph above reminds me of Lonergan's reluctance, in trying to get people to advert to their consciousness, to speak of introspection--watching yourself watch, as it were; he preferred to speak of a hieghtening of consciousness, with attention to the differences among the levels of human intentional activity, from sensing to loving and deciding.

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About the Author

John Schwenkler is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.