Philosophize Like Jazz

Scott MacDonald, Professor at the Sage School of Philosophy and Norma K. Regan Professor in Christian Studies, loves jazz, and he finds philosophy to be similar to jazz. For him, the best part of being a philosopher is getting smart people with relevant expertise together to talk about philosophical texts and issues. Philosophy is dialogical in nature, an enterprise that essentially involves conversation with others. For MacDonald, it involves engaging with students and colleagues, and with the philosophical ideas in books and journal articles. And it involves creating opportunities for these sorts of conversations, which explains his commitment to organizing and participating in various workshops. “It’s like jazz”, MacDonald says, “With jazz, you get a group of musicians together, each virtuosic on their own instrument, each with something distinctively their own to contribute. But they make jazz together, in dialogue with each other, creating a conversation that is unpredictably alive, rich, and luminous.” One of MacDonald’s “bands” is the Cornell Summer Colloquium in Medieval Philosophy, a workshop he has organized every June for twenty-five years.

MacDonald was both a Cornell undergraduate and graduate student. Inspired by his mentor, the late Cornell philosopher Norman Kretzmann, he is intrigued by issues in philosophical theology and medieval attempts to understand the divine nature. “I have always been interested in the medieval period, when philosophical theology was keenly important and developed in sophisticated ways”, he says. As a leading scholar in medieval philosophy, MacDonald thinks of himself as conversing not only with living scholars and students but also with historical figures such as Augustine and Aquinas. “Of course, we can’t literally talk to Augustine now,” MacDonald says, “but it’s still possible to pursue a dialogue with him by working on his texts, figuring out what he has to say, bringing questions and objections to his ideas and then reconstructing how he would reply.” The texts of great philosophers of the past are our philosophical heritage and the stuff from which our own philosophical conversations are ultimately built. The complexity, sophistication, and historical distance of texts such as Augustine’s Confessions and De Trinitate sometimes make them difficult to understand, but they repay the effort. They’re full of intrinsically interesting philosophical reflection. Sometimes that reflection yields something shiny and utterly new; sometimes it yields a stunningly original riff on old standard idea or argument; almost always it makes for genuinely illuminating conversation.


One of MacDonald’s latest projects focuses on a perennial topic in the history of philosophy, the immortality of the soul. He is currently working on two papers on Augustine’s argument for the immortality of the soul in his early “dialogue” Soliloquia. In one MacDonald reconstructs Augustine’s argument and diagnoses its fatal flaw. In the other he argues that, in an unfinished draft of Soliloquia’s final book, Augustine himself appears to have realized that one of the argument’s fundamental assumptions is untenable and tried to repair it. Interestingly, this project itself was inspired by MacDonald’s participation in an intellectual dialogue. “I was invited to a workshop in Toronto to comment on a paper by a French colleague, Emmanuel Bermon, on Augustine’s argument for the immortality of the soul,” MacDonald says. “It interested me because the heart of Augustine’s argument concerns the relation between our mind and intelligible objects, which is an overarching theme in Augustine’s thought that I have been thinking about for a long time.” According to MacDonald, the argument starts from the observation that we are able to cognize intelligible objects — necessary truths (such as the truths of arithmetic and geometry) and their constituent elements (such as the numerical unit and geometrical point) — objects that are eternal and unchangeable. Augustine’s strategy is then to develop an account of the relation between our mind and these intelligible objects by virtue of which the mind must share in the intelligibles’ eternality, that is, be incapable of ceasing to exist. The relation Augustine tries to exploit for this purpose is the relation of ontological inherence which obtains between a particular quality and the subject on which the quality depends for its existence. If the intelligibles inhere in the mind in the way particular qualities inhere in their subjects, then, Augustine argues, since the intelligibles cannot cease to exist and cannot exist apart from the mind (their subject), the mind itself cannot cease to exist. “It’s a clever strategy,” MacDonald says, “but it flounders on the fact that the cognitive relation between our minds and the intelligibles (with which the argument begins) isn’t the same as, and doesn’t warrant the postulation of, a relation of ontological inherence between our minds and the intelligibles — so the argument fails.” MacDonald thinks that when Augustine came to write the concluding book of Soliloquia, he realized that our cognition of intelligibles requires some sort of relation between minds and these peculiar entities but not necessarily the relation of ontological inherence. That realization set him on the path of trying to understand the nature of our minds and their cognitive relation to intelligible objects, a path he trod throughout the remainder of his career.

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Professor Scott MacDonald