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19.06.11 Campbell, Rethinking Anselm’s Arguments

19.06.11 Campbell, Rethinking Anselm’s Arguments

This book is an ambitious and exhaustive study of what Anselm (d. 1109) said and meant in his Proslogion by an author who has dedicated a good part of his scholarly life to the question, and this reviewer can only stand back in awe at his determination to convince by reason and logic that Anselm really did succed in proving the existence of God.

Campbell presents two main theses which challenge previous assumptions about Anselm's thinking. He insists that other philosophers have been mistaken in seeing chapter 2 of the Proslogion as a "proof" of God's existence. Anselm merely established here the necessity of a being than which none greater can be thought. It is only in the next chapter that Anselm related this being "to yourself, our Lord and God." Secondly Campbell demolishes the logic of the so-called "ontological proof," which has been handed down for generations as Anselm's proof for God's existence. Instead Campbell sees Anselm as having provided a "unique version of the cosmological argument" (445): "Anselm's genius is to have discovered a concept of something the existence of which is grounded in the reality of this universe." This something is "unlike all the contingent things which populate the universe" (446-7).

This is a surprising conclusion which cuts across the circular arguments which characterize the so-called ontological proof. Campbell is to a great extent faithful to Anselm's language and thinking: he considers the various translations of the Proslogion and provides some of his own (though he seems not to make use of Benedicta Ward's translation in the Penguin Classics series). Campbell is aware that much of theProslogion is formulated as a prayer, but he seems to divide the work up into sections of prayer and more discursive language. I see the entire Proslogion as a series of prayers, and for this reason it is appropriate that the it was combined with the other prayers and meditations of Anselm in the Penguin Classics volume.

How can the language of prayer be used to provide a philosophical proof? Anselm's answer, of which Campbell is aware, is that first one believes and then God provides enlightenment. "If I did not want to believe that you existed, still I should not be able not to understand it." (ch. 4., Penguin ed., 246) From the very beginning with Anselm there is this desire for belief. Because of this approach, I find it difficult to accept that he offers any proof at all. Certainly he saw the universe as manifesting the existence of God, but his God was already proven and extant from the start.

Anselm's Proslogion can be called a meditation on the existence of God and not a proof or vindication of God's existence. But to be fair to a colleague who has spent decades trying to understand Anselm's thought, I will try here to give some idea of how Campbell proceeds. In his Introduction he provides an excellent overview of his procedure. First he retranslates chapters 2-4 of the Proslogion and divides them up according to their arguments (14-17). Secondly he claims that Anselm moves "between the languge styles of first-to-second-person prayer and third person prose." He provides "at once an intellectual and a spiritual inquiry" (21). Here I have to differ: there is no distinction in Anselm between the intellectual and the spiritual in his quest: he is praying all the time, asking God for illumination.

Campbell provides already at an early stage what I consider to be one of his most important points, that many "commentators, supporters and opponents alike, assume that Anselm's Argument is wholly contained" in what Campbell calls P2 (ch. 2 of the Proslogion). He shows that it is not until P3 (ch. 3) that Anselm provides his proof. Anselm was "not attempting to penetrate the loftiness of God...he does not presume to know the essence of God" (32). I agree with Campbell, but what about what comes later in the Proslogion where Anselm defines God and his nature? Campbell claims that "Anselm can begin his quest without presupposing that his own faith is true" (35). But Anselm's faith is there from the very beginning of the Proslogion: "Let me seek you by desiring you/and desire you by seeking you" (Penguin ed., 243). God is present to Anselm. The purpose of the Proslogion is to celebrate the fact of this presence and to be grateful to God for what he has made. In this sense Campbell's use of the term "cosmological" for Anselm's proof--or way of perceiving God--is more than helpful. Campbell makes it clear that Anselm was not interested in convincing "non-believers that God exists" (37). His task was "to advance his own understanding." I would add that Anselm's project was to meet God in an act of prayer that would bear witness to God's existence and greatness.

Anselm concludes that "God is something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought" and God "could not be thought not to exist" (41). Campbell shows how Anselm's "chain of argumentation is like a tower constructed of building blocks." He sees three stages in this development, and the result is a hierarchical conception of the universe that fits into the cosmological proof which Campbell eventually reaches. I stop my review here. Each chapter of Campbell's book is a carefully written review not only of Anselm's thinking but also of the centuries of response that have been made to it, starting with the proverbial "Fool" who keeps popping up in Anselm's work.

If I can be allowed a personal recollection: I remember how as a D.Phil. student in Oxford in the late 1960s, I would discuss the existence of God with Richard Southern, the outstanding historian of Saint Anselm. Southern's point of view was that everyone believes in God's existence, whether they know it or not. He saw Anselm's argument as articulating something that is evident in the nature of language itself, but he certainly would have been surprised by the time and effort that Richard Campbell has invested in showing the necessity of God's existence. Anselm's God, Campbell asserts, "has a unique and maximal mode of existence" (41).

Anselm's argument, or what I would call his meditation on the existence and nature of God, remains to fascinate new generations of philosophers. As an historian who had to wade through these hundreds of pages in order to reach some kind of understanding, I returned time and again to the language of the Proslogion itself. This is a beautiful, powerful prayer. Campbell understands this dimension, but in his quest to understand God's existence as reached by Anselm, he goes beyond prayer. The reader can be grateful to Campbell for a clear articulation of Anselm's ideas and the manner in which succeeding generations of thinkers have interpreted them. This book reflects a lifetime's dedication. Its clarity, patience and insights deserve recognition, however much I at times disagree with its approach.