The Center of Neville's Vision:An Elegant Axiology
This essay examines three themes that form the foundation of Neville's philosophical system as formulated in his trilogy Axiology of Thinking, which consists of Reconstruction of Thinking (volume 1), Recovery of the Measure (volume 2) and Normative Cultures (volume 3). Some questions are raised about each theme, as well as about the very meaning of "foundation" as it plays out in Neville's ontology.
Robert Cummings Neville1 first came to my attention when I was a senior in college. "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," as Bob Dylan crooned at the time. Serious and studious, I was reading scholarly journals in the stacks one Saturday night. Among them was the journal Theological Studies, and in the March 1969 issue was the most effusive book review I had ever read. It was of Neville's very first book, God the Creator: On the Transcendence and Presence of God. The Dominican reviewer was suitably impressed by the "brilliant" argument, but more than that, he was astonished to think that "Neville, at the time of publication, was twenty-eight."2 Curious about a brilliant author who was still in his twenties, I went in search of the book. It turned out to be the most demanding and most rewarding book I grappled with in college. Still grappling, fifty years later, with everything that Bob Neville writes, I am pleased to report that the rewards are still rich, but the demands have diminished somewhat as his prose has become more and more lucid with each volume, as he hones, amplifies, and applies his argument to a broad range of philosophical, religious, cultural, and comparative topics. [End Page 82]
Neville's Three-Volume Systematic Philosophy
At the center of Robert Neville's systematic philosophy is the Axiology of Thinking three-volume series, with which I am primarily concerned in this essay. Here already is the key to his entire philosophy, in which he thinks axiologically at every turn, and in each subsequent book, in terms of the meaning and foundation of value. This is his philosophical cosmology, and while he has characterized it as the culmination of his early period, calling it his "juvenilia," it is anything but that. Widely regarded as a mature and systematic expression of Neville's constructive philosophical aims, it is much like T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets in marking a mature meditation that shows the poet in full command of ideas and language. Eliot divides each of his quartets into five sections, creating an effect similar to the musical form of the sonata. Neville divides his into further fourths, but condensed into only three volumes, thus demonstrating the superiority of the philosopher's principle of parsimony over the poet's license to pontificate about spiritual rebirth.
The Axiology of Thinking is the work of a philosopher who is at heart a poet, as well as an architect. Neville thinks architectonically, and in terms of quartets. The four quartets of his axiological thinking are imagination, interpretation, theory, and responsibility. Each of these ways of thinking involves valuing the objects thought, in some sense or another. What is it that we are doing when we create images, or make interpretations, or theorize using formal structures, or hold obligations? Among the many specific answers to that question is the most general, all-encompassing answer that Neville spells out: we are valuing the objects thought about. Thinking itself is axiological. This remarkably simple hypothesis forms the foundation for the entire enterprise. But what does it mean to value something?
The answer unfolds in a four-fold fashion, as I have said—imagination, interpretation, theory, and responsibility. These comprise the ways in which value is created, recognized, expressed formally, and responded to. Indeed, these four comprise the dimensions of any act of thinking whatsoever. Architect joins poet in designing the three volumes in which the four themes are played out. You have only to catch the rhythm in order to follow the trajectory of Neville's thought. Look first in the first section of each chapter of each volume, then in the subsequent divisions, as they move from phenomenological familiarity to ever more detailed analytic elaboration in the next three sections. This is the rhythm of Neville's trilogy, throughout Reconstruction of Thinking, Recovery of the Measure, and Normative Cultures—all move to much the same rhythm. Neville himself supplies the choreography for how we might read his architectonic achievement more simply. Referring to volume 1, he invites us to [End Page 83] squint, and squinting we can "observe that in each chapter the first section is an imaginative phenomenology" so that the general reader might read only the first section in each chapter and still derive a coherent account of the book's presentation of the problems of reconstructing thinking and of its positive suggestions.3 In other words, read across each chapter, not down, from the first chapter to the last, omitting the other three sections of each chapter. The more interpretation you want, the more theory you are interested in, or the more responsibility you wish to pursue, read down the chapters to find the depth, the subtlety, the specification.
The rhythm of this architectonic structure (to mix my metaphors) reaches its apotheosis, for me, in this statement in Reconstructing the Measure: "We never get at reality except through interpretation," Neville writes, "yet this reality is the measure of our interpretations."4 Parsing this statement, I would only add the Buddhist admonition to recall that the decisively characteristic features of reality are its impermanence (anicca), its suffering (dukkha), and its insubstantiality (anatta). Neville does justice to these Buddhist themes in two remarkable volumes, The Tao and the Daimon: Segments of a Religious Inquiry and Behind the Masks of God: An Essay Toward Comparative Theology.5
Three Themes and Two Questions
Having laid out the architectonic beauty of Neville's systematic philosophy in order to provide a roadmap for reading, or re-reading, those three volumes, I now want to attempt a summation of the achievement that his philosophical trilogy represents. First, Neville has given us a theory of value, value as found in nature. Second, he has given us a theory of nature that deals with space, time, and movement. Third, he has given us a theory of intentionality, so that his theory of interpretation and of imaginative synthesis has Romance in it, and his analyses of both have echoes of the pragmatists and the hermeneutical tradition. Fourth, he has given us a theory of theorizing that spans science and culture at once, and that addresses the deep problem of theorizing across [End Page 84] different cultures. To top it all off, he has accomplished all this by effecting a form of practical reasoning that integrates responsibility with Confucian ritual theory.
By the end of the first volume, Reconstruction of Thinking, those two favorite heroes of modern philosophy—the Cartesian cognitive subject and the Kantian autonomous will—have been sent packing, and what emerges instead is an American pragmatist-process enterprise, whose heroes are Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, and I would add—Robert Cummings Neville himself. We turn to Neville's work in order to find the bold speculative spirit characteristic of the early American pragmatic thinkers. Themes from these philosophers appear throughout the three volumes and reappear in further Nevillean works. Three in particular will concern me here.
The first theme centers around the understandably vague character of Neville's discussion. I want to defend and amplify the theme of vagueness, specifying the Peircean sense of logical vagueness. Reality, after all, is infinitely dense, insistently particular, and everywhere contingent. How is the intellect ever able to speak of the world we live in terms of every determinate feature it exhibits? That, as I understand it, is one way of describing Neville's ambition in the Axiology. His is a metaphysical ambition that aspires to the level of covering any determinate thing. In order to cover all that ground, one can only employ a generic form of expression that is necessarily vague. Empirical inquiries will become important later for specifying the categories more concretely, since vague categories of the highest level of generality cannot dictate the contents of the world, only the forms that things can take.
The second idea that animates Neville's metaphysics and that appears as a lynchpin in the trilogy is the theme of an ontological context of mutual relevance (OCMR). To see the philosophical significance of the OCMR, we can begin as Neville does with a bunch of things that are determinate with reference to one another and that are real by virtue of their being created together at that most abstract level of creation. In other words, we begin with determinateness as such, and then argue that each determinate thing is a harmony of two kinds of components, essential and conditional. Both essential and conditional components are necessary, as Neville shows, if determinate things are to be themselves as well as internally related to other things. The field of determinate togetherness is both cosmological and ontological in its togetherness. The cosmological field, Neville reasons, is dependent upon an ontological field whose togetherness cannot be due to another determinate thing, else one could continue to ask "what makes that determinate thing determinate?" As long as the ontological context of mutual relevance (OCMR) is explained simply by something determinate, there is no complete explanation [End Page 85] at all, Neville thinks. In order to offer as complete an explanation as possible, Neville makes the extraordinarily original and logically vague hypothesis that the ontological field of mutual relevance is the ontological act of creation. This means that things are together as harmonies because they are made together. Why are they made together? They just are. The ontological act of creation is itself as fully contingent as any cosmological feature. This is the genius of Robert Neville in a nutshell.
For non-metaphysicians, the word "act" may conjure up a sense of "once upon a time;" therefore, it is important to clarify that Neville does not mean a single act that occurred in the past. Creatio ex nihilo is indeed singular, but not single. Rather than a once-and-for-all creation, Neville envisions an ongoing process in the Whiteheadian sense. If it is this creative act that generates space, time, and all relations, then space, time, and all relations are all an ongoing process as well. Coming to terms with this theme will be at once more difficult and more important for grasping his system than Neville may have imagined. I have registered my Whiteheadian reservations with Neville's argument elsewhere6 and will not repeat them here, except to note that a hypothesis, as he terms his extended argument, is not made any less hypothetical by virtue of being called metaphysical. The extreme hypotheticity (which is not the same as vagueness) of Neville's conjecture and the impressive systematic use he has made of it over fifty years notwithstanding, we may still wonder whether there is a major tension between the idea that the ontological creative act is indeterminate and the claim that the ontological creative act is also contingent. How can the same act be both indeterminate and contingent? Is not everything that is contingent also determinate, that is, having features, location, exclusions? Is not anything that is indeterminate also opaque to analysis? But an explanation, in order to explain a range of data, cannot be more opaque than the explanans. How then can creatio ex nihilo be a final explanation for the fact that there is something, and not nothing?
Which brings me to the third claim of greatest interest in this trilogy, the claim that there is a carry-over of value from the object interpreted into the interpreter's experience in the respect in which the interpretive signs stand for the object. This is Neville's definition of truth at the same time it amounts to his repudiation of the representationalist theory of knowledge. Notice that this is a dyadic carryover—from the object to the subject of experience in a relocation that makes something true of that object. What at first happens as [End Page 86] monadic then becomes dyadic; it is a process of gathering a multiplicity into a unity or harmonizing elements of value. Asserting that the carryover does indeed carryover makes it triadic. The carryover of value can then be understood as qualified by four things: biological and purposive factors, and cultural and semiotic ones.
I have some doubts as to whether the term "carry-over" is a poetic probe with real power, or a beguiling solecism like the one my graduate school professor once wrote on my paper—"Please see my successful refutation of this point." How could we ever know whether a purported "carry over of value" does in fact carry over either to the interpreter or from that which is engaged? Would not this require distinguishing, from a standpoint outside language, between those symbols/signs that do carry over and those that do not? Does one already need to value as "true" or "false" some particular sign/symbol by which engagement occurs in order to assert a successful (or nonsuccessful) carryover? Or, perhaps, since we know that Neville claims allegiance to the American pragmatist tradition, the test is entirely "pragmatic" in terms of the benefits bestowed on the interpreter who is better able to cope with ultimate matters, to find life flourishing, to integrate love and the quest for justice. In that case, the pragmatic import reduces to a utilitarian or functionalist argument. The utilitarian argument is flawed by the observation that, if Neville's argument is to be judged on the basis of an empirical claim about the pragmatic benefits it produces, rather than on the grounds that its propositional attitudes are true, this leaves it vulnerable to being outweighed by harmful consequences if the scales happen to tip the other way. The functionalist form of the argument is flawed by a logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, that is, by saying if Y, then Z; Z; therefore, Y. In this case, the argument would state: if the value is carried over, then as a function of that, a salutary effect will be had. Yet the same salutary effect might have occurred without, or in spite of, that value.
Can Neville's logically vague, impeccably precise, and very original argument be evaded, averted, or voided? Wesley Wildman has explored the major avenues he sees available for resisting Neville's juggernaut in an essay whose title is not entirely facetious—"How to Resist Robert Neville's Creatio Ex Nihilo Argument."7 At each turn, one pays a price for one's resistance, Wildman shows. For example, one may (1) grant all the argumentative ground to Neville's ontology while embracing any cosmology one chooses, since Neville has [End Page 87] shown that they are all compatible with an indeterminate act of creation; but this has the result of making the Ultimacy into something determinate a se, an unwelcome theological outcome for many; in addition, one would be expected to supply an independent argument for selecting just that determinate form of the ultimate. Or, one could (2) opt to block the infinite regress of determinations either by rejecting the univocal meaning of "being" in the case of "creator" and "world," in favor of an analogy of being, or by just dropping Neville's obsession with the problem of the one and the many, in favor of causal and valuational attention to cosmological matters. Either way, one forfeits a final form of clarity and rational intelligibility and winds up with empty mystery in the face of questions as to why there is something and not nothing. Or one may (3) challenge the very concept of determinateness by ruling out any such thing as "essential features," something left rather opaque by Neville, anyway. But this comes at the expense of dissolving everything into everything else, one un-differentiated mashup, and again forfeiting the basis for rational intelligibility.
Wildman's intervention appears decisive. There are only the three broad options, and each carries a cost. Pick your poison if you resist Neville's central vision. Why not, then, be convinced by (2)? Why not offer a Whiteheadian account of ultimacy as identical with creativity? Not creativity as a notion, principle, or abstraction, but creativity as the "ultimate of ultimates," signifying a dynamism that is the very actuality of things, their act of being there at all. What Neville regards as ultimate (the ontological creative act) Whitehead also regards as "the ultimate of ultimates"—only located differently. Whitehead gives us creativity as located immanently within each momentary event as its spontaneous power. As he says of the creative process, "It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity," and "the sole appeal is to intuition."8 According to Neville, this is evasive and represents a failure of rationality to assert its rights. But how different is it from Neville's saying of the ontological creative act, in effect, "it just is"? The more clearly Neville has stressed the utter contingency of his ultimate, the more it resembles the Whiteheadian appeal to the intuition that "it lies in the nature of things." In other words, it just is. Neville gains an extra step, but does not he, too, make a final appeal to mystery?
Having used both the architectonic image and the musical/poetic image to describe Neville's work, I will close by declaring that I like him better as a [End Page 88] musical maestro or a dance choreographer and creative poet than as an architect in search of foundations. By "foundations" Neville means ontological foundations, not the epistemological quest for certainty that the contemporary philosophical tradition has found laborious and unconvincing. As every architect knows, the foundation turns out to be the most important feature of a building, without which nothing is supported. For Neville that foundation is the ontological creative act that explains why there is a context of mutual relevance rather than not. Even Richard Rorty, that arch antifoundationalist, could not entirely resist the architectural metaphor when he recommended "edifying discourse" as an alternative to the notion of knowledge as representation.
However, even with those qualifications in mind, it is hard to ignore Neville's foundational concerns in ontology or to be persuaded that the demands and rights of rationality reach so far as to find a proper floor. Antifoundationalists will note that the very first section of volume 1 of the trilogy is entitled "Foundations," and Neville himself will admit that he is indeed engaged in a foundationalist project of sorts, a quest for bedrock where, as Wittgenstein said, "my spade is turned." But Wittgenstein, like Whitehead, was content to turn his spade over at the level of cosmology, regarding this running against the walls of our cage as absolutely hopeless, but adding that he would not for the life of him denigrate it. Those of us who think that finding ultimacy in the act that creates all things may be a bridge too far, nevertheless can salute the philosophical mind that built such a sturdy and impressive bridge. To him we now say, in the words of T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, as he echoed Krishna's words to Arjuna on the field of battle, Not fare well, But fare forward, voyager. [End Page 89]
Nancy K. Frankenberry is the John Phillips Professor in Religion, Emeritus, at Dartmouth College. She is the author of numerous publications in the areas of philosophy of religion, science and religion, and gender studies. She has served as President of the Metaphysical Society of America (2017) and President of the Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (2016–2020).
1. I want to thank Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore, Professor Wesley Wildman, other members of the Boston School of Theology, and my fellow panelists, for contributing to a splendid retirement event in honor of Robert Neville. I dedicate this paper to Beth Neville, his inspiration in life and art for fifty-seven years.
2. Anselm Atkins, O.C.S.O., "Neville's Dialectical Argument for an Indeterminate Creator," Theological Studies 30 (March 1969): 90.
3. Robert Cummings Neville, The Axiology of Thinking, vol. 1, Reconstruction of Thinking (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 30.
4. Robert Cummings Neville, The Axiology of Thinking, vol. 2, Recovery of the Measure (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 324.
5. See especially chapters 9, 10, and 11 in Robert Cummings Neville, The Tao and the Daimon: Segments of a Religious Inquiry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982); and chapters 5 and 6 in Neville, Behind the Masks of God: An Essay toward Comparative Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).
6. See my Presidential Address to the Metaphysical Society of America, published as Nancy Frankenberry, "Consenting to Contingency after Rorty and Nagarjuna," Review of Metaphysics (March 2019): 563–86.
7. Wesley J. Wildman, "How to Resist Robert Neville's Creatio Ex Nihilo Argument," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 36 (January 2015): 56–64.
8. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1979), 21–22.