Ostensibly, Adrian Pabst’s Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy is an essay on individuation and individuality. The questions surrounding individuation—what makes an individual an individual, what makes one entity numerically distinct from another, what accounts for an individual’s self-identity across time and change (each of which also has an epistemological form)—have constituted perennial problems within philosophy ever since antiquity. As the title of Pabst’s work suggests, however, identifying the principle of individuation or the nature of “the individual” quickly plunges one into the far wider and deeper waters of metaphysics and politics as such. Within the realm of metaphysics the question of individuation involves notions of substance and accidents, relation, causality, generation, the status of universals, the relationship between matter and form, essence and existence, and transcendence and immanence. Within the realm of politics the identification and description of what constitutes “the individual” has immense ramifications for understanding the nature of sovereignty, the polis, and desired forms of human sociality and solidarity.
As for its method and argument, Pabst offers a genealogy of two rival accounts of individuation that stretches from Plato and Aristotle to Wolff and Kant. However, the book could also be called an exercise in ambitious and tendentious portraiture. Pabst is supremely clear on the theologically and philosophically superior account of individuation and the dire deleteriousness of its inferior yet ascendant rival. These judgments come across in the portraits of varying length and detail he provides of figures as diverse as Aristotle, Gregory of Nyssa, Boethius, Avicenna, Gilbert Porreta, Suárez, and Spinoza.
On Pabst’s telling, the inferior and deleterious account of individuation begins with Aristotle and runs through and is developed in the medieval, early modern, and modern periods. What characterizes the Aristotelian account is, broadly speaking, a metaphysical horizon of immanence. Individuation is explained by the generation of individuals by individuals and is in some sense “self-caused” by the individual in question. The broader context of this account of individuation is the Aristotelian priority of substance over being and over relation as mere “accident,” the separation of the science of being as being from the science of the divine, and an account of the divine as the distant telos of beings rather than source of all being as such which remains present in and with beings. It is this immanent vision of individuation which in various ways courses through Avicenna and Gilbert Porreta, Scotus and Ockham, Suárez and Spinoza, and Leibniz and Kant. In the process this account of individuation becomes associated with a host of banes within theology and philosophy: emphasis upon an arbitrary divine will, fideism and rationalism, the ascendance of logic and semantics over metaphysics and of efficient causality over first, formal, and final causality, and an autonomous sphere of pure nature.
The superior account of individuation begins with Plato and reaches its culmination in Christian Neo-Platonism. What characterizes the Platonic account is a metaphysical horizon of transcendence, understood not as the contrast or negation of the immanent but as its source, ground, and end. Individuation is not explained solely in terms of generation or self-causation, but in terms of relationality and participation in the Good. Relation and participation in a transcendent source of being and goodness become metaphysically constitutive of the individual. To speak of relation and participation in the Good is also to speak of hierarchical, for what an individual is, is also determined by its degree and manner of participation in the Good. However, the Platonic account of individuation in terms of participation, relation, analogy, mediation, the Good, and hierarchy is only perfected within Christianity as its account not simply of the transcendent Good, but of a triune God who is ecstatic and self-giving plentitude, pure and loving relation in and of himself, and who becomes supremely present to his creatures in Jesus Christ. Such a vision of individuation and its vast metaphysical context can be found in the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Aquinas.
Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy is, then, an ambitious, tendentious, and unapologetic apologia for a doctrine of God and of the creature which remains decidedly within the broad stream of Christian Neo-Platonism. As should be made clear in the symposium responses and replies which follow, Pabst’s able articulation and defense of the merits of Christian Platonism renders the book both a powerful source of inspiration and a formidable foe to be engaged depending upon one’s theological and philosophical leanings. Rodney Howsare, for instance, questions both the form and content of the genealogy the books puts forth, while Robert Saler asks what place a theology of the cross could and might have in such a metaphysics. Gregory Walter then reflects upon the category of possibility in both divine and creaturely being. Finally, and appropriately, Benjamin DeSpain takes up the work’s critique of secular liberalism and its vision for a “imperative of relationality” within politics.