Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Contarini's Response to Pomponazzi

Gasparo Contarini's Response to Pomponazzi: A Methodic Antidote to Physicalism of the Mind

Paul Richard Blum (Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore; currently Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic)
The printed version is now accessible here.

Abstract: Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) was the first to write a critique of Pietro Pomponazzi's treatise On the Immortality of the Soul. Pomponazzi, his former teacher, appreciated the critique so much that he published and republished it as the most comprehensive and serious contribution to the debate. This study suggests a close examination of the work because Contarini approaches the issue from a methodological, rather than dogmatic or ideological point of view, showing that the distinction between mortality and immortality is one of seamless transition. Concluding this sketch it is suggested to study Contarini's career as a diplomat and Cardinal as coherent with his philosophical achievements.

It is the purpose of this chapter to underline the importance and character of Gasparo Contarini's contribution[1] to the debate on the immortality of the soul. Contarini, a former student of Pietro Pomponazzi, responded immediately to the publication of Pomponazzi's De immortalitate animae (1516); and the teacher included, anonymously but approvingly, Contarini's critique in his Apologia (1518), which was his own response. Contarini's reply to the apology appeared together with the first critique as books I and II of his De immortalitate animae in the posthumous edition of his works.[2] Although we need to be aware that Contarini is closely responding to Pomponazzi's treatise, it would derail our investigation into an infinite regress if we went into the details of this exchange because it is obvious that Pomponazzi and Contarini were enveloped in the medieval and Renaissance debate about the nature of the human soul and intellect.[3] Therefore, it is methodically convenient to look at Contarini's book as a text in and of itself.
Let us begin with Contarini's statements on the principles of philosophizing that open and close his work. He seems to have identified a fundamental problem of philosophy that marks his disagreement with Pomponazzi and gives occasion to his writing.
1.    The Opening
In his dedicatory letter to Pomponazzi, Contarini exposes at length his wavering between mortality and immortality of the soul. He mentions his university experience in Padua, the major schools of Averroes and Alexander of Aphrodisias, but does not name any of the contemporaries. Within his description of the pro and con of mortality, he issues the principle "nullique assentiendum sit viro philosopho, quod neque per se sit notum; neque efficaci ratione comprobatum." (180E) This is, of course, not just an ephemeral autobiographic remark; rather, he is establishing a philosophical principle: a philosopher, cannot accept anything 'as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so,' either through self-evidence or through rational proof. Why is it necessary to state that? Because the student wants to beat his teacher with the weapons he had received from him: reliance on accessibility of truth and the power of rational argument. Furthermore, in the course of the discussion he will address the problem that had troubled Pomponazzi concerning the truth of faith as it is inevitably connected with the question of immortality. Is there a rift between faith and reason, authority and argument? That is the subtext Contarini is establishing.
For he continues observing that the one party denies immortality, the other claims to have clear rational insight about it (inspicere certis rationibus, 180F) and therefore deserves to be trusted (adhibenda sit fides). On the surface he suggests a solution of practical wisdom: when two people disagree whether they see a person at a distance or not, it is more likely that the one has a weak vision than that the other claims to see what is not there, provided that this one has sound eyes and mind (180G). This only appears to be a pragmatic conclusion with some epistemological merit. For, provided there is no ill will and reasoning comes to a standoff, it is epistemologically sound to suspect the source of variance in the beholder, rather than in the issue at hand. But also looking at it logically, one result outweighs the other, for the positive answer outweighs the negative one. To deny what is there is weaker than to affirm it, for it would require the counterfactuality of not seeing what is there. In the case at hand, not to believe in immortality would be easier (true or not) than to believe in immortality if it were false. In the end, it's a wager, and Contarini will come back to it.
Let us assess what Contarini is avoiding: he is not swerving into skepticism, nor into fideism—both strategies used by Pomponazzi in the final part of his treatise. Not even double truth is an option. Rather, towards the end of the second book, Contarini will refer to the truth of reason and that of faith: it is a relation of enhanced perfection to the effect that faith confirms and makes even more plausible what natural reason has found on its own:
If natural light proves that the soul is immortal but wavers with regard to the state of the souls after death and is unable to adduce anything certain, then it is highly consistent that it is perfected by the supernatural light; and what is perfected does not at all disagree with that which has been initiated by natural light.[4]
So he is not defending 'non-verlapping magisteria' as Stephen Jay Gould would have it.[5] Therefore we may term Contarini's programmatic approach an hermeneutics of plausibility. In the long history of fides quaerens intellectum, or intellectus quaerens fidem, it would be worth investigating whether this is an old strategy or a new twist. It seems to be more than establishing reason as elaborating the praeambula fidei, because—in an atmosphere when fideism was a serious alternative to rationalism—Contarini refuses to separate the truth of revelation from natural knowledge and claims a seamless consistence of both. This will be one of the major messages of this text to the detractors of immortality as we can see from the conclusion of the second book.
2.    The Conclusion
Concluding his response to Pomponazzi , Contarini summarizes the commonality and the divergences of their theories. They agree that the intellect is abstract from matter; that the intellect is one, indivisible, and not determined by place or time; and that understanding lies in the intellect (tanquam in subjecto, 231B; i.e., where it actually takes place) rather than in the body.
They disagree first on the series inferences, made by Contarini, namely that the intellect must be a form, which is an autonomous act (actus, qui per se est) that is imperishable. In these terms it appears contradictory that Pomponazzi admits abstraction but denies immortality (231B). The second point of disagreement is the theory that rational argumentation about the process of sensing and thinking proves that the intellect is a pure form, but that the consequences, namely the state of immortality, is beyond rational investigation.
For Contarini this amounts to denying an antecedent of a scientific proof on the basis of the impossibility to verify its factual consequence with the same epistemological instrument (eodem lumine certificari, 231C). Philosophy proves that the soul is immortal but cannot make any statements about the post-mortal life. In modern parlance, it is impossible to tell what it is like to be immortal. Contarini is stretching the scientific imagination because he implies that science can lead to further fields of investigation that are valid in some way and yet require some kind of transition to a different method or to different sources of verification. Reason leaves itself behind.
In a first approximation we may infer that there is a plurality of investigative fields and resources; and such plurality not only defies 'non-overlapping magisteria' in terms of scientific method but also assumes a seamless transition from one realm of reality to another. It is obvious that non-overlapping sciences cannot defeat each other. But the temptation lies in assuming that contiguous disciplines and heir relevant realities interfere with each other. The reality of the soul is such an area of contiguity and distinction: the material form, the lower powers of the soul, and the immaterial form of the human being—this is how the debate about immortality can be represented, as suggested by Contarini. One could either try to show that the physical reality of the embodied soul encompasses the soul entirely, including the mind. This would be physicalism.[6] Or one could try and convince oneself that the ultimate reality is of spiritual nature, as some Neoplatonists tried to argue, taking recourse to emanation and similar metaphysical forms of thought.[7] That would be animism. Here Contarini intervenes by stating: the fact that the study of the human soul leads to a reality (that of spiritual beings), which cannot be researched in terms of animal psychology, does not refute its finding that the human intellect is immortal, and the impossibility to research immortality from within does not make the human intellect mortal.
Those observations lead to his final remark that "this we take to be true philosophizing; and this philosophy is the perfection of the mind, namely, that which acknowledges its deficiency".[8] Contarini lifts his disagreement with Pomponazzi to the level of philosophical principle. If we want to label the two methods, we can certainly use terms like scientism versus critical philosophy. As Contarini presents his former teacher, Pomponazzi seems to follow the logic of Aristotelian natural philosophy, i.e., some sort of physicalism, whereas Contarini aims at philosophical method and uses the immortality problem as a welcome occasion to move forward into meta-theory. It is always wise to overcome a theoretical impasse by leaving the well-known stakes and claims behind and moving to a level that not only solves the problem but also explains why it has become contentious. This is what Contarini is doing in his opening and closing of his contribution to the debate. In order to overcome physicalism, he elevates the problem to a methodical and meta-theoretical level, which allows him, instead of simply denying physical stances, to show the contiguity of mortal and immortal soul in one consistent theory and reality.
Now it is time to see how he achieves that within this book on the immortality.
3.    Some examples
Contarini's aim is to prove that the human intellect is a form, and an immaterial one that is also immortal. In order to convince his readers he reports the notions of substance and accident, form and matter, generation (coming to be) and perishing; from there they moves on to material forms, to organic composites and their mode of activity. Then he explains motion and operation with the distinction between movement that is induced externally and internal movement (what Aristotle called animate substances) and arrives at that kind of motion which is eternal and (here he reaches the goal of his narrative), being infinite cannot be material (184E). The fruit of this reasoning is this second kind of forms, which are qualified as immaterial and as the principle of motion in material things.
If we feel reminded of lectures in history of philosophy, this might be a good guess. It is worth noting that Contarini refers again and again to "the philosophers" as those who established the notion of immaterial form step by step. He does not argue in the direct sense; rather he prefers a narrative that tells us: immortal souls are a plausible story. This is a rhetorical ploy with a number of effects and implications. For one thing, he can withdraw from their teachings any time, and specifically so, in case doubt about the orthodoxy of this philosophy arises. He also appeals to his primary reader, Pomponazzi, to recall the standards of professional philosophy, which are not idiosyncratic inventions but establish and follow certain rules of argument and terminology. But to my mind, the most important effect of this style of presentation is the distanced perspective on the theory. Referring to 'the philosophers' means inserting an argumentative layer between the argument and the matter at hand. Such an additional level not only allows to disown the subject matter (if need be) but also to take a critical look at the way the argument is coherently constructed and at the procedure that made the theory. At the same time, the whole argument acquires a historicist ring: 'that's why and how we arrived over time at the theory as it is now.' My point is to show that Contarini argues on the level of meta-theory.
The other example comes from the context of the activity of the soul that can be described as striving or desire (appetitus) and manifests itself in free will and choice. Contarini expressly states: "You see, from free choice of the will follows that the human soul is of itself without body and consequently absolutely immortal."[9] His philosophical argument is self-movement. And he refers to Plato who had argued the soul is immortal because it moves itself. Now, with respect to the host of traditional arguments regarding the freedom of will and choice, Contarini steps out of his routine and argues: "Whoever observes himself can see that: One should ask oneself 'who am I', and he will see clearly that one is neither brain, nor heart, nor some bodily part, but something standing above all parts of the body."[10] He claims that self-motivation and immateriality are evident to personal experience and that this argument trumps the historical development of Aristotelianism. He is not shy to proclaim that this argument is the strongest possible that less than any other evidence from the philosophy of nature may be objected (193C). Furthermore, it is of interest for modern philosophy of mind that he expressly distinguishes the mind from brain. He establishes a kind of brain/mind dualism in order to defeat it with self-inspection. Contarini declares the observation of the "Who am I?" to be the key to sound philosophy.
These examples from Contarini's complex treatise suggest that he not only enters the debate where it had matured with Pomponazzi, he also tends to transcend the debate by showing the theoretical 'economy' or 'mechanism' of the current discourse. To enter the debate would mean to plainly 'decide' whether or not the soul is immortal; what he achieves is to convince his readers of the foundations, the pruposes, and the philosophical strategies that are at work. This must have been the reason why Pomponazzi cherished his former student's response as the most comprehensive and acute of all.[11] How much he appreciated this critique of his own philosophy transpires from the fact that Pomponazzi used the same word "accutissimus" for it that even adorned the title of his own collection of tretises.
At this point some remarks on Contarini's personality are in order.
4.    Life and Philosophy
Contarini wrote a small number of other works, philosophical, political, and theological. Most importantly after his treatise on immortality he authored a Compendium on Prima Philosophia,[12] in which he established in short chapters and with little discussion a Neoplatonic system of the world, that is, a world of hierarchical ontology. The final part (liber septimus) reiterates the immateriality and immortality of the human soul based on the continuous gradation of beings from God via the intelligences down to material things.[13] He also wrote specialized treatises on logic, physics, and one on the freedom of the will, which might have been known to Descartes.[14] In a commentary on some letters of St. Paul he explains the doctrine of resurrection in the same pattern of hierarchy as we had seen: his terminology of incarnation and resurrection is that of the doctrine of body and soul. [15]
In this last mentioned work, the Cardinal was speaking, and therefore I want to make a few remarks on Contarini's public career.[16] As a member of a noble family in Venice he was born in 1483 and soon appeared to be gifted and prone to philosophy. As anonymous writer said about him:
Munera non sperno. Pien di philosophia la lingua e'l petto. (No task was too hard, for he always had philosophy on his tongue and in his heart.)[17]
Naturally he entered the service of the Venetian Republic after he had studied at Venice's university, that of Padua. His most important teachers were Marcus Musurus, a Byzantine, for Greek, and Pietro Pomponazzi for Philosophy. As I mentioned at the beginning, when Pomponazzi published Contarini's responses to his treatise on the immortality of the soul, he omitted the name, calling him just "The Contradictor", while at the same time praising his as the most complete critique possible. This is why Contarini remained nameless in the debate on immortality and as a philosopher in his own right.
It was also customary at that time that young noble men joined various clubs and circles with cultural and political agendas. One effect was that he entertained to join a religious order, another that he started to ponder the theology of justification and human works, not much different from Martin Luther at the same time. I don't know enough detail about Contarini's doubts; however, this fact makes it interesting how much Contarini emphasizes the activity and operation of the human mind and the experience of free will. An important experience was his visit in Florence in 1511, where he learned to admire Francesco Cattani da Diaccetto (1466-1522), one of Marsilio Ficino's students.
So, while the young Venetian is working as a diplomat and bureaucrat for his home town, he is personally engaged in religious and philosophical troubles. Therefore he wrote at the same time both his treatise on the immortality of the soul and a book on the duties of bishops, which exists in English translation, a book that set standards of morality and applies them to the public office.[18] The most exemplary bishop of his time, Contarini says, was Pietro Barozzi (1441-1507),[19] the same bishop of Venice who in 1489 had decreed that the theory of the one intellect by Averroes should not be discussed anymore. Of course this decree was futile, since among others Pomponazzi and his student kept debating about Averroism. So we see that Contarini kept combining political, moral, and theoretical agendas.
This was in 1517, a year known for the Lutheran reform. Indeed, in 1521 the Venetian was invited by the Emperor Charles V to the Diet (Reichstag) in Worms which among others debated the causa Luther. Shortly after that he is on a mission to Spain, where he wrote in his spare time the book on First Philosophy, as mentioned, followed by his most read book, at least in the past, on the Venetian government, which was most likely inspired by Thomas More, the author of the Utopia, whom he met in Flanders in 1521.  
During the years that followed he continued his political activities for Venice and also for the Church, which included an appeal to religious concord in his treatise on the Confessio Augustana, so that in 1535 he was made Cardinal. Together with Reginald Pole he was member of a group, called spirituali, with strong sympathy for Luther's doctrine of justification and with more or less heretic movements, but also with a strong conviction as to the authority of the Church. For their irenic attitude both became the leading Church politicians who tried to avoid the secession of the Protestants during the preparations of the Council of Trent (1545-63).
His combining spirituality and politics can be captured in the fact that Contarini made himself a copy of the (yet unedited) Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, having done the exercises personally; he helped writing the foundational document and worked to get the new order approved by Pope Paul III.[20] What he had not achieved with the Germans, he managed with the Basque and Spanish bullheads: he saved them from isolation and heresy and integrated them in the Church.
Therefore, my concluding question of this sketch, which is intended to raise interest in this nameless philosopher, is this: Is any of his attitudes, his spirituality, his politics, his Neoplatonic metaphysics, connected with his specific way of addressing the question of the immortality?

Works cited:
Carnap Rudolf, "Psychologie in physikalischer Sprache", Erkenntnis, 3 (1932/1933), 107-142.
Contarini Gasparo, Opera (Paris: Nivellius, 1571).
Contarini Gasparo, The Office of a Bishop, ed. John Patrick Donnelly (Milwaukee, Marquette, 2002).
Dittrich Fr. (ed.), Regesten und Briefe des Cardinals Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) (Braunsberg: Huye, 1881).
Fragnito Gigliola, "Gasparo Contarini", in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 28 (Roma: Treccani, 1983), sub voce: .
Fragnito Gigliola, "The Expurgatory Policy of the Church and the Works of Gasparo Contarini", in Heresy, Culture, and Religion in Early Modern Italy: Contexts and Contestations, ed. Ronald K. Delph, Fontaine, Michelle M. Fontaine, and John Jeffries Martin (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2006), pp. 193-210.
Gleason Elisabeth G. Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome, and Reform (Berkely:  University of California Press,  1993).
Gould Stephen Jay, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History 106 (March 1997) 16-22 (quoted from
Ignatius de Loyoa, Exercitia spiritualia, ed. Iosephus Calveras and Candidus de Dalmases (Rome: Institutum historicum Societatis Iesu, 1969) (Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, vol. 100).
Janowski Zbigniew, Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes' Quest for Certitude (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000).
Pomponazzi Pietro, Tractatus acutissimi, utillimi et mere peripatetici (Venice: Scotus, 1525; reprint ed. Francesco Paolo Raimondi Casarano: Eurocart, 1995).

[1] This chapter is a first attempt at highlighting the importance of Contarini. Therefore no attempt at presenting a full account of Contarini's life and thought has been made. On Gasparo  Contarini (1483-1542) see Fragnito Gigliola, "Gasparo Contarini", in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 28 (Roma: Treccani, 1983), sub voce: Gleason Elisabeth G. Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome, and Reform (Berkely:  University of California Press,  1993). Fragnito Gigliola, "The Expurgatory Policy of the Church and the Works of Gasparo Contarini", in Heresy, Culture, and Religion in Early Modern Italy: Contexts and Contestations, ed. Ronald K. Delph, Fontaine, Michelle M. Fontaine, and John Jeffries Martin (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2006), pp. 193-210.
[2] I will refer to the editions in Pomponazzi Pietro, Tractatus acutissimi, utillimi et mere peripatetici (Venice: Scotus, 1525; reprint ed. Francesco Paolo Raimondi Casarano: Eurocart, 1995), fols. 76r-80v; and Contarini Gasparo, Opera (Paris: Nivellius, 1571), pp. 179-231. Plain page references within the ranges of 179-231 will refer to this edition.
[3] For those not familiar with the debate, the question of the immortality of the soul had the following main components:
1.       The soul, according to the Aristotelian tradition, consisted of
a.       the vegetative
b.      the sensitive, and the rational part, whereby
1.       the sensitive and rational parts consisted of sense perception, common sense, imagination and phantasy, reason, and memory
2.       imagination, reason and memory could also be termed intellect
3.       the intellect includes also the will
2.       The intellect is
a.       either eternal before and after birth
b.      or born with a human being and dies with the body
c.       either incorporated in the individual but one and the same for all humans
d.      or created by God with the individual and survives individually after death waiting for reunification at the resurrection
3.       The soul is
a.       one thing together with the intellect – what happens to it at death?
b.      composed of several parts, of which the lower parts (vegetative and sensitive) die away while the upper part of the soul may be immortal
c.       the substantial form of the human being
4.       The human being is an individual thanks to
a.       the body which gives numeric identity
b.      the soul which makes the individual beyond death.
[4] 229C: "Cum ergo lumen naturale probet animam esse immortalem: de statu vero animarum post mortem fluctuet, nihilque certi affere possit, maxime congruum est, ut id lumine naturali perficiatur; neque hoch quod perfectum est, disconvenit ei quod lumine naturali inchoatum est."
[5] Gould Stephen Jay, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History 106 (March 1997) 16-22: "whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue." (Quoted from
[6] I am using the term 'physicalism in the sense of the programmatic attempt at describing and investigating psychic facts with the methods and patterns of physical science. Cf. Carnap Rudolf, "Psychologie in physikalischer Sprache", Erkenntnis, 3 (1932/1933), 107-142 ("Psychology in the Language of Physics").
[7] From a physicalist point of view, employing these modes of thought indicates defeat from the beginning.  
[8] 231C: "Hocque putamus vere philosophari; hancque philosophiam, quae suum noscit defectum, perfectionem animi esse censemus."
[9] 193C: "Ecce ergo quod ex electione libera voluntatis, sequitur humanum animum per se esse sine corpore: quare et absolute immortalem."
[10] 193C: "Si quis etiam se ipsum consideret, poterit hoc perspicue comprehendere: interroget enim se quisque, quis sum ego? videbit vtique se non esse cerebrum, neque cor, neque aliquam corporis partem, sed superius quoddam partibus omnibus corporis superstans."
[11] Pomponazzi,  Tractatus acutissimi, 76ra: "… hic contradictor, mea sententia nihil reliquit; quod rationabiliter adversus nos adduci possit. Est enim tractatus iste copiosus, doctus, gravis, acutissimus; et divino artificio conflates."
[12] Opera, pp. 9-176.
[13] Opera, pp. 169-176.
[14] Janowski Zbigniew, Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes' Quest for Certitude (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), p. 43-44.
[15] Opera, pp. 433-; Ad Hebraeos, chapter 2, pp. 516-517.
[16] Based on Fragnito and Gleason as cited.
[17] Dittrich Fr. (ed.), Regesten und Briefe des Cardinals Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) (Braunsberg: Huye, 1881), Regesten no. 1, p. 8.
[18] Contarini Gasparo, The Office of a Bishop, ed. John Patrick Donnelly (Milwaukee, Marquette, 2002).
[19] Ibid. pp. 85, 95, 121.
[20] Ignatius de Loyoa, Exercitia spiritualia, ed. Iosephus Calveras and Candidus de Dalmases (Rome: Institutum historicum Societatis Iesu, 1969) (Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, vol. 100), (introduction) p. 86: "Romae, Cardinalis Gasparus Contarini, factis Exercitiis, ea sibi manu popria exscripsit" (footnote: MI, Scripta, II, 872); p. 87 and 91: the scribe of the so-called Autograph of the Exercitia is identical with the one who wrote the Quinque Capita or Formula Instituti Societatis Iesu, which Contarini submitted to Paul III.