The Liar and the Saint: Reconsidering Anselm’s argument

Upcoming presentation for the online conference New Perspectives in Philosophy of Religion, to be held on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of July 2021. Organized by the Centre for Logic, Epistemology, and the History of Science (CLE) of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil.

This paper explores a structural similarity between Anselm’s argument (AA) in Proslogion II and the Liar paradox (LP). The central claim is that LP is expressing the negative side and AA the positive side of the same transcendental dynamic. 

It is generally known that a Platonist epistemology and metaphysics, mediated through Augustinian illuminationism, forms the background of AA. Bonaventure brings the core Augustinian and Anselmian lines of thought together in his Disputed Questions on the mystery of the Trinity, Q.1 A.1, resulting in the indubitability of his own ‘if God is God, then God is’. In his reply to an objection against one of these arguments, he advances the claim that every proposition signifies its own truth, clearly cast in a Platonist mold. The claim that every proposition signifies its own truth in turn played, in different forms, a role in several later medieval approaches to LP, e.g. by Thomas Bradwardine, John Buridan and Albert of Saxony. It has kept on resurfacing ever since in solutions to the LP, up to the present day, and its Platonist bent is clearly present in Paul Finsler’s 20th century treatment of LP.

In several rounds of formulations, this paper seeks to put the finger more precisely on the connection between AA and LP. The negativity of LP is characterised as going against that which necessarily accompanies every proposition. Far from being a mere ad hoc solution to LP, this is in turn grounded in a Platonist metaphysics and epistemology whereby every proposition ultimately participates in, and thereby reveals, truth. LP therefore goes against the very ground of this enabling structure, and an understanding of this enabling structure suffices to reveal the LP as a mere contradiction instead of an insoluble paradox.

Bonaventure’s interpretation and strengthening of AA points to the ground and summit of the same metaphysics and epistemology that informs the preceding treatment of LP. Although AA is formulated in terms of ‘greater’, at other points in the Proslogion and even predominantly in the Monologion, the term ‘better’ is used. Given the convertibility of the transcendentals, ‘truth’ and ‘truer’ could be used as well, and Bonaventure’s approach is indeed more focused on the transcendental truth. Instead of going directly against it as in the case of LP, the particular formulation of AA is such that, when properly understood, it reveals the very ground and summit of all of our knowing, hence its indubitable and a priori character. 

In brief, LP and AA reveal the same transcendental dynamic (in the sense of ‘enabling conditions’) that, when understood against the proper background of the convertibility of the transcendentals (in the medieval sense), both explains the insolubility of LP when taken in the negative direction, and the thrust towards transcendence of AA when taken in the positive direction.

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