In Anselm’s first work, he offered many proofs for the existence of God and its various divine attributes. But he quickly became dissatisfied with these proofs, primarily because all of them were so complicated (“a chaining together of many arguments”). So, he did what any enterprising person would do—he searched for a single argument which could do it all. Unfortunately, this search would consume Anselm and he eventually began to think that his inability to concentrate on anything else, was the work of the devil; though he tried to give up thinking on it, he found that he simply could not forsake the idea of a single, all doing, proof. Eventually, though, the proof came to him—this is Anselm’s second work, the Proslogian. (Probably didn’t spell that right; again, all of these great course lectures I am transcribing notes to without any spelling reference.)
The argument Anselm lays out is commonly called ‘the ontological argument’, or, as Professor Williams calls it, the argument of the Proslogian; he does this as the ‘ontology’ part has little to do with what we now know as ontology, and though some thinkers will make a big deal of the Greek ‘onto-‘, the truth is that it has little to do with anything which we today would recognize.
Fun fact: the medieval simply called this “Arguementali-Anse,” or ‘the argument of Anselm.
If Anselm argument works, then it proves everything—God, his divine attributes, the whole she-bang! So, the argument you say? Well, much debate has raged over Anselm’s work, specifically, in how the argument is presented, Professor Williams does not share in the consensus which the academic mainstream has arrived at. So he offers first a non-committal consensus reading (Gonio’s criticisms) and then how the argument ought to be understood in light of that evidence.
(Throughout this lecture, I will simply be jotting down the gist of the content instead of a highly detailed blow-by-blow account due to a wish to focus on the big details.)
The argument– Premise One: God is that which nothing greater can be thought. Following this, then, our quest is to find something in reality which fits this description of something being so mighty and inconceivable that nothing beyond it may be thought; the genius of this argument is that it posits God’s existence simply by forcing the reader to think really hard. The example Williams gives is that if you define a unicorn as a ‘horse with a horn’ then simply by focusing on that idea—of a horse with a horn—then unicorns exist if you then find something in nature which corresponds to ‘horse with a horn’.
Premise Two: That which nothing greater can be thought, exists in our understanding. The analogy used this time is that of a painter whose work exists in his mind before he paints it. Though the image does not exist in reality, because he has yet to paint it, he understands it to be real, not like those ‘fools’ who deny God because they cannot see it in reality.
But, the question remains, we want to prove that God exists in reality—how? Anselm uses the following principle: “It is greater to exist in reality, than only in the understanding.” Anselm does not defend this premise as he believes it to be obvious. Remember that ‘greater’ means something which has more ‘measure’ or metaphysical oomph. What is greater, the real thing or the mere idea of a thing? Clearly a real thing, but if this is true we can see now that the psalmist’s fool is self-contradictory; the fool acknowledges that which nothing greater can be thought, exists in his understanding. But he denies that which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality. But since it’s greater to exist in reality than merely exist in the understanding, if that which nothing greater can be thought existed only in the understanding, it wouldn’t be that which a greater can be thought. You would be able to think of something greater than that which nothing greater can be thought, namely, that being itself only existing in reality. So it turns out that in saying that God does not exist, is saying that which nothing greater can be thought is that which is something greater can be thought. Obviously a contradiction: what the fool says in his heart must be false, that which nothing greater can be thought must exist in reality.
That is the consensus interpretation. It is, again, not Williams’s own interpretation, so he now gives us his own view on how the argument should be understood; Williams remarks that he feels that the community has interpreted the argument this way was because the argument’s first critic interpreted it this way. This is where we enter Gonio.
We know nothing about Gonio except his criticism of Anselm, but this was enough to earn him a place in the history of philosophy. Gonio was a monk, so he believed that God existed, but he just didn’t think that Anselm’s argument proved God’s existence; not at least in the way which the fool would’ve believed it to exist. So Gonio entitled his response “A Reply on Behalf of the Fool”, what an unbeliever could say without yielding to the force of Anselm’s argument. One of Anselm’s arguments, in particular, that of ‘The Lost Island’ Counter-argument, has inspired resistance to this day.
Williams says that it is worth quoting in full since it is so clever. Gonio writes:
There are those that say somewhere in the ocean is an island, which because of the difficulty, or rather, impossibility, of finding what does not exist, some call the lost island. This island, or so the story goes, is so plentifully endowed than even the isles of the blessed. With an indescribable abundance of riches and delights, and because it has neither owner nor inhabitant it is everywhere superior in its abundant riches to all the other lands than human beings inhabit. Suppose that someone tells me all this and the story is easily told so I understand it. But if this person were to go on and draw a conclusion and say that ‘you cannot any longer doubt that this island is more excellent than all others on Earth truly exists somewhere in reality, for you do not doubt that this island exists in your understanding, and since it is more excellent to exist not merely in understanding but also in reality, this island must also exist in reality. For if it did not, then any land that existed in reality would be greater than it. And so this more excellent thing you have understood would not in fact be more excellent. If I say he should try and convince me of this argument that I should no longer doubt that this island truly exists, either I would think that he was joking or I would not know who to think more foolish—myself, if I grant him his conclusion, or him, if he thinks he has established the existence of that island with any degree of certainty.
If we tidy up this argument then it seems that we have one similar to Anselm’s own argument.
If Anselm’s argument proves the existence of a being whose greater-ness cannot be thought, then Gonio’s argument proves the existence of an island which no greater island can exist. Indeed, this can be applied to anything, any [X] which can be thought—tree, cockroach, a piece of trash. Anselm, of course, replied to Gonio and this is where things get tricky. Because people were so struck by the island counter-argument, they judge Anselm’s response by attempting to find that anti-island tract. But, Williams says that if that is what we look for in Anselm’s reply, we will come away disappointed since Anselm’s response seems non-responsive; we search for why his argument works for God but not an island and yet, he never writes such an argument; he says that his argument works for a God but not an island but he never explains why not.
Williams remarks that at first, he believed that Anselm’s non-response was an indignant non-response hiding the fact that he simply couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was incorrect. But this doesn’t square well with a piece of evidence which comes outside of Anselm’s writings.
We learn from Anselm’s biographer that Anselm himself ordered that he and Gonio’s exchange be appended to the Proslogian. What this tells us is that Anselm must have thought that both his own piece was correct and that his response to Gonio acceptable. Furthermore, he must have believed that some purpose was served in appending the exchange within his work—to demonstrate facts, minutia, forestall misunderstandings and the like. So if we read Anselm’s response in this light, as a manner of illuminating latent details left otherwise unsaid, then we find a reasonably clear line of argumentation which he employed in the Proslogian. Indeed, it makes the argument clearer.
At the start of Anselm’s reply, he identifies the crucial elements of Gonio’s objections: (1) Gonio argued that that which nothing greater can be thought, cannot be thought, or at least, not in any meaningful way. For Gonio, that which cannot be thought does not actually exist in our understanding, as we cannot conceive of a greater. So if we cannot even form this idea, then the argument does not even lift from the ground. (2) Anselm understands Gonio’s other objection as That even if that which nothing greater can be thought, is thought, that if we can form an idea, it simply doesn’t follow that nothing greater can be thought, exists in reality. In other words, to the extent that we can form an idea of God, there is nothing in that idea that God exists. So the stakes are big—if Anselm is right, then God is proven, but if Gonio is right, then we cannot even attempt to prove the existence of God.
Anselm replies by defending both claims, that we can, indeed, have something greater than that which nothing greater can be thought in our understanding and that, once we do, it follows that such a being must exist in reality.
One point one, Anselm clarifies what he means by thinking and understanding, something that he did not spend a great deal quantifying in the Proslogian. The sort of thinking at work in this text is what Anselm called ‘Mental Conception’, or, where one has a conception of a human being in their mind, for example, when a human being is before them in all their essence; we can have the essence of things which are imaginary or do not exist. We are perceiving these things before our mind’s gaze. What we cannot get before the mind’s eye is the impossible. Anselm’s theory of thought allows for the possibility of mental misfiring; one can believe themselves to be thinking something and yet, not actually be thinking it because one hasn’t gotten before their mind’s eye the thing whose essence would inspire it. This is what Anselm believes has happened with the Psalm’s fool: anyone who really has before their mind that which nothing greater can be thought, sees that that being not only does but must exist; for that reason, then, that thing which nothing greater can be thought, cannot be thought, not to exist. Of course, getting that which nothing greater can be thought before the mind’s eye, is tricky, and in doing so, by mentally concentrating on its existence, rules out the possibility of its inexistence (essentially). In denying, on behalf of the fool, that God can be thought at all, Gonio is suggesting that the fool does not and cannot have any such robust notion of God.
On point two: if nothing greater than can be thought is thought, then it must exist in reality. Now that we have a being before our minds, that which eluded the fool since he did not have it before his mind’s eye, what is it like? We know that it has no beginning. And we know that something which has no beginning is greater than something which has a beginning. So that which nothing greater can be though lacking, in fact, a beginning. We also know that this being can be thought while impossible things cannot be thought; because if that which nothing greater than can be thought did not exist, the only way it could exist, would have to involve beginning itself to exist (something which lacks a definite existence, something which merely existed instead of having to exist, would constitute having a beginning.)
To sum up Anselm’s argument in his reply to Gonio: that which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, if that which nothing greater can be thought, can be thought, it exists in reality. Therefore, that which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality.
But how does any of this constitute a reply to Gonio’s island counter-argument? The truth is that both men were talking past one another. Gonio thought that Anselm replied on the principle that to exist in reality is greater than to exist in the understanding; after all, this is the premise which does the mischief in the lost island argument. But Anselm never realized that this was what Gonio objected to because he never intended to claim that existing, in reality, is better than existing in understanding. All that Anselm meant to claim was that if you are thinking of that which nothing greater can be thought, as not existing, then you haven’t yet managed to think of that which nothing greater can be thought, because anything which is truly that which nothing greater can be thought is greater than something which is capable of not existing.