Why Are Things the Way They Are?

Why Are Things the Way They Are?


New Oxford Review, May 2018 – By James V. Schall

“Science is chiefly an act generated by the human intellect, not by the human will or emotions.” — Peter Redpath, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics

“Specifically criticizing Protagoras, for saying nothing while pretending to say something remarkable in his dictum, ‘man is the measure of all things,’ Aristotle maintained that, strictly speaking, human knowledge and perception ‘are measured,’ they do not ‘measure other things.’” — Peter Redpath, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics

In 1963 Fr. Joseph Owens, a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, wrote a book entitled An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. More than 50 years later, Peter Redpath clearly had this book in mind when he wrote his two-volume study, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics. No doubt we can find some amusement in these titles. Redpath also once wrote a book entitled How to Read a Difficult Book, which likewise recalls How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. In my younger years, I read Adler’s book and found it extremely difficult, though I recognized that it was important.

In his Confessions, Augustine, as a vain but bright young man, affirmed that he had read and understood Aristotle’s Categories without any trouble — better, in fact, than his mentor had. To my knowledge, however, no one has ever called the study of metaphysics easy, whether elementary or not. After reading Redpath’s new book, I would say that metaphysics is still a difficult and demanding undertaking. But that is no argument against reading Redpath’s book. Indeed, it is an argument in favor of reading it. We do not usually come by the most important things without some considerable effort on our part. The “wonder” or curiosity about why something exists, or why it is what it is, together with the difficulty in learning about it, is made lightsome when we finally see why it is so. We have within us a persistent, nagging desire to know the truth of things, which we cannot shake except by finding out what we can about the things that are.

A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics is a rich book, and Redpath has a clear style. He breaks complicated issues into short, intelligible units. He repeats difficult points, and then he repeats them again, rephrasing them to make them understandable. This is a book I wish I’d had in my earlier years of studies. In reading it, I found that many notions and points I had often wondered about, or about which I needed more explanation, were much clearer after Redpath dealt with them. For us metaphysicians, this is a book of refreshment and a review of what we thought we knew.

Metaphysics is not a specifically Christian topic. This book is only Christian in the sense that a well-grounded metaphysics already in place will present to revelation, when and if it occurs, an intelligible world that knows that it does not itself answer every metaphysical perplexity. Paradoxically, metaphysics is complete by being incomplete. Christian revelation, complete in its own inner rational order, relates directly to these unresolved perplexities found in genuine metaphysics. Rightly, Redpath’s book does not deal directly with the metaphysical implications of the Trinity or Incarnation. But it does provide the basis on which they can be understood to be conceivable in a non-contradictory manner. What metaphysics can do that no other discipline can, but which all disciplines presuppose, is show what it means for something to be a contradiction. This is a great intellectual tool. To use Plato’s words, metaphysics can say of what is that it is, and of what is notthat it is not. From there it can proceed to distinguish from one another the things that do exist.

I will refer here mainly to the second volume of Redpath’s book (both volumes are relatively short, around 200 pages), in which he gives serious attention to a philosophical reconsideration of what science means. It is usually limited in modernity to narrowly speculative physics — a discipline that, by its own presuppositions, does not consider all of reality but only that which has quantity as part of its definition. Redpath’s concern includes the interpretations of metaphysics by many Thomistic thinkers. Indeed, he calls his own Thomism “ragamuffin” — a rather unfortunate word, in my view, that refers to a poorly clothed, ill-kempt child. According to Redpath, this word best describes how his thesis is likely to be received in academic circles. But his book is a carefully knit, sustained, comprehensive argument about what we do when we “do” metaphysics.


Peter Redpath is an emeritus professor of philosophy at St. John’s University’s Staten Island campus. He is a prolific writer; his books have covered much of philosophic history. He is also an “intellectual entrepreneur” in that he seeks to make available, through visual and written media, including online sources, the incentives for and means of learning for all age groups. In A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Redpath argues that a proper reading of Aristotle and Aquinas will serve to re-establish that science and philosophy are not two different disciplines but one and the same. When put together, they lead to wisdom, the highest of the intellectual virtues.

Science/philosophy is not a system or an independent concoction of the human mind formulated under the impetus of the human will or passions in the absence of the intelligibility of things. Science/philosophy is an intellectual habit that exists in a human mind that actively knows the various disciplines and their hierarchic relation to one another. Thus, science/philosophy does not exist “out there” somewhere in laboratories, books, or computers. It exists in the human mind when that mind is doing what it is made to do — that is, to know what is, in all its ramifications. This project will be daunting, no doubt, unless one goes about it with a good guide and enough leisure. Redpath is a good guide, but he does not suffer fools gladly. If there is a position or writer he does not like, the reader will soon know of it. This book is not some sort of “short course” or “metaphysics for dummies” that bypasses the difficult engagement of precise thinking. And yet, as mentioned above, this book is quite intelligible and persuasive if one takes the time to read each point carefully. Every point presupposes those that went before it and builds on the coherence of the overall argument.

In the beginning of these considerations, I cited two passages from the second volume. The first passage tells us that science/philosophy is an act of human reason that is generated in and of itself. But, as the second citation notes, even though science/philosophy exists in the human mind, it is not measured by the mind. Rather, the reality a human being knows is what measures the mind. Hence, the classical definition of truth is “the conformity of the mind and reality,” not the conformity of reality with what the mind makes. The latter is the definition of artistic truth, not metaphysical truth. So, the mind is a faculty of the soul, the normal function of which is to know what is not itself. It is by so knowing what is not itself that it comes to know itself. Hence, the existence of what is not the mind can become the object of what the mind does. In so doing, in activating the mind, the person, through his mind, can also come to know what the relations within the mind signify. This is what we know as logic. The confusion of logic and metaphysics is a constant problem in the history of thought, as Redpath notes. When we know what is out there to be known, we are dealing with science/philosophy.

The cosmos is filled with many different things that are simply out there doing what they do or being what they are. They all have things in common, but there are also things that differentiate them. They are wholes with parts. These wholes are not simply thrown out there; they have interrelated parts that enable each thing to do what it does. We know what a thing is by what it does. Thus, most things we know about are wholes made up of many parts, but each thing can be specified as a “one.” Each thing is what it is.

To know something, we must reduce it to its category and find its causes. Thus, we must know the difference between substances and accidents, potency and act, and Aristotle’s four causes of being (material, formal, efficient, and final). It is the function of philosophy to know these things. It is the function of logic to know the condition and relationships of things abstracted from the matter in which they exist. It is the function of metaphysics, once we know what we can about existing things in their diversity, to know finally why it all fits together, why things are as they are, why they exist in the way they do.

Thus, we have two things in the universe. First, we have an existing myriad of interacting things. Second, among these things is one creature that has the capacity to look out on the universe and ask, “What is it that is out there?” The universe is not complete until this human knowing happens within it. The human being did not give himself his powers of knowing, willing, and feeling — these came with the package, so to speak. It is not an accident that the world is knowable and that, simultaneously, there is within the actual world a being who can know what is not himself. It must be added that this knowing power belongs to each existing human individual, however perfectly or imperfectly he uses it. Knowledge does not exist apart from a knower who is aware that he is knowing something. This is why truth is in the intellect, as it actively knows something by affirming what it is or is not.


What Redpath does in A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics is account for the things to be known, the existence and nature of which the knowing person affirms. This effort means, in effect, that the knowing person must account for the different ways of knowing. He sees that he becomes aware of them initially through his sensory powers, by which he encounters particular things in their immense variety. All through the book, Redpath is aware of the need to show how things fit together. He explains this in light of modern theories of reality and knowledge that make it difficult or impossible to know things or account for all of their reality. When it comes to essentials, Aristotle and Aquinas are far from obsolete.

In the 19th book of City of God, Augustine states that “man by nature has no other reason for philosophizing than that he be happy.” This theme of the end of all our search for knowledge runs through Redpath’s explication of why we want to know and what happens to us when we do know. The drive to express accurately what we know, make, and feel — to know explicitly the kind of being each of us is — is the end that gives unity to the whole book. The reason metaphysics is the central theme of Redpath’s book is that this discipline concerns the knowing not merely of what is but what existence itself means. The fact that something stands outside of nothing elicits wonder about the origin of the kind of existences we know, always limited ones designed to do this or that particular thing.

Any cause of limited existence must be understood as existence itself, from which all other existing things find their source. In this sense, all existing, finite things stand between nothingness and existence itself. Once we understand what nothingis — we do not meet it on the streets — we see that a source must be found for what is. But nothing with a limited existence can bring something from nothing. So a necessary existence must be found at the origin of all the order. Our search for it in the existing universe leads to transcendence.

Redpath writes, “All science/philosophy starts in wonder and terminates only with complete intellectual, volitional, and emotional satisfaction; with a natural human desire to put to rest intellectual, volitional, and emotional dissatisfaction.” This passage is, briefly, the agenda Redpath sets for himself and his readers. He is not deterred by skepticism since he knows what it is and why it might exist — almost always because of some philosophical error. When we talk of intellect, will, and emotions, we talk of three obvious elements of our own makeup that function, at their best, when they properly relate to one another. What is different about human beings from the rest of creation is that we must order ourselves to achieve the perfection/happiness for which we exist. We do so by coming to know what we are in a world full of existing things other than ourselves, things we have the capacity to know and define.

Redpath does not think we are quasi-gods who, in this process of knowing ourselves and things, make no mistakes. Quite the contrary. He is, as it were, an admirer of errors and mistakes. “Without the help of failures, objections from others,” he writes, “especially those highly intelligent people familiar with subjects of study presenting us with difficult arguments to answer, crises, extreme hardships, hitting a brick wall in our thinking, political persecution, or some form of suffering, few human beings can make great discoveries.”

This is why philosophy, even in its innermost reflections, remains social, related to others who also have minds. But minds are not free to make up their own rules of reasoning and existence. What it means to reason in all its depths and distinctions is what Redpath’s book is about.


A book is an artifact that, once published, is just out there. It awaits a reader who can understand it, who is capable of seeing what truth or error might be found in it. A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics is one of those rare, to-the-point books that argues forcefully about the heart of things. The book is remarkably whole. It relates the order of the mind and the order of things in a way we seldom see in a brief space. Yes, it remains a difficult book. We must take time to read it. Philosophy, it is said, is the quest for a knowledge of the whole. It is this knowledge that completes each of us and points us to the reality from which and in which we live.

“The natural human desire to become happy, in turn, can only be satisfied by generating the sciences of metaphysics and ethics,” Redpath writes. “And of these two, ethical activity can only be completely satisfying to the extent to which we are able intellectually to satisfy ourselves that, in this life, we have achieved the best of human goods: a most perfect contemplative knowledge of the beauty of our own souls, that we possess the highest truth and perfect virtue.” Redpath is not a utopian and does not think everyone will choose and discipline himself to achieve the highest things in this life. But he is right in telling us what we are about when we know both ourselves and what is out there that is not ourselves.

The advantage of this book is its constant, step-by-step guidance to knowing how to achieve such an end of understanding what is, if we would have it. This is the highest service a professor can perform for those who wonder, for those who seek to know reality. And if he is wrong in any of his argument, Peter Redpath wants to be the first to know it and to know why, if indeed he is wrong.

This is a “not-so-elementary” treatise from a man who wrote about “how to read a difficult book.” If we are careful and persistent, when we come to the end of A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics, we will see that the difficulty was worth it. We will also see, much to our surprise, that metaphysics is the one discipline we dare not neglect. This is, perhaps, why Redpath calls it a Christian metaphysics.

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2 comments on “Why Are Things the Way They Are?

  1. The incessant falling away from metaphysical inquiry that defines liberalism is proof the latter truly is that which is not. Which explains much about why a Catholic, or at least a reflective Aristotelian, realizes what surrounds him in society is not only brimming with perdition but indeed the definition of perdition itself: nothing, the denial of what is.

  2. Interestingly, God Himself made the same point to St. Catherine of Siena, an illiterate until divinely infused with practical knowledge, and whose Dialogue provides magnificent illustrations of what matters most — self-knowledge, alone productive of true humility and without which no virtue is possible. St. John Chrysostum’s treatise on the incomprehensible unknowability of God, as well, is equally illustrative.

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