“Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part III of III)

16 Oct
"God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not." - Abraham Calov

“God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not.” – Abraham Calov

Here are part I and part II if you missed those….

d) presenting an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account

1. Is there not a human community of practice?: Throughout his book, Smith’s case seems to carry a real moral weight because he is fighting so that we humbly acknowledge our creaturehood, contingency, dependency, and sociality. He even argues that a view like the one he puts forth may be necessary in order to, for example, help the church defend its Scriptures vs. charges of irrelevance and benightedness (it is the secular world, not Christians, who scorn dependence!).[i] In the process, Smith talks much about our reliance on, and the importance of, “communities of practice” – an idea that came into its own around 1991.

I think that, overall, one can acknowledge what is good and helpful with Smith’s view, while in the end taking a radically different approach – an approach that even seems to me necessary.

What I mean is that there is knowledge that is not “fully relativist” in the Rortyan (or Wittgenstein-ian or Brandon-ian) sense precisely because we are finite, dependent, contingent and social – because we are one with the “human community of practice”. None of us can separate himself from other members of the community, all who depend on God for spirit and life – for moment-by-moment sustenance – in every sense of the word (for all, “He holds everything together with His powerful word” and we all should “live by every word that comes from his mouth”).[ii]

Not only this, but one feature of this human community of practice is that much of what it does – the “game” it plays – is trans-cultural and trans-historical. After all, it seems clear that many of the things in the created world – making their presence known with their more or less intractable ways – have themselves been structuring the attention of human beings (see, for example, Crawford’s “The World Outside Your Head: On Becoming an Individual [me: “Gasp!”] in an Age of Distraction) since humanity’s first breath. Rorty says that “hermeneutics is the refusal of epistemology, resisting the temptation to ‘ground’ knowledge or truth or justification in something extra-social or extra-linguistic” (93, see fn 16 also). Further, he claims that even our realisms (and attendant claims of correspondence) are dependent upon communities of practice (107). And yet, even if this were in some sense conceded, surely more can and should be said about the significance of – and consistency of – the “antics of things”… presences which impose and impress themselves upon the human community of practice.[iii]

In fact, one need not speak of “representations” in our minds here – but rather simply recognize that it at times makes good sense to insist that “nothing lies between us and the world we know” (p. 25).[iv] (an example: Matthew Crawford says, “the world is known to us because we live an act in it, and accumulate experience… we think through the body”, pp. 50-51, The World Outside Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction). In short, while rightly acknowledging the critical and primary role of social reality, does one not need to be careful about being overly anthropocentric (or worse: ethnocentric: is it helpful to insist that epistemology really only comes down to “the ethnography of a particular people”, 85) in one’s reflection here?[v] Another point: for Brandon and Smith, “we” only makes sense relative to a particular community. That said, vis a vis other animals, we recognize other human beings – those we can relate to and communicate meaning with (giving and receiving reasons) – precisely because we are humanity – the human community (we can talk to other human beings and we can sensibly talk about humanity, the thing).

Smith on Robert Brandon: “For Brandon, just by speaking I already functionally take up an ethical stance: ‘Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment’ (AR, 63).” (135, Smith)

Smith on Robert Brandon: “For Brandon, just by speaking I already functionally take up an ethical stance: ‘Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment’ (AR, 63).” (135, Smith)

It seems clear to me (and perhaps here something does lie between me and the world I know!) that this is not only a default assumption of those holding to the biblical narrative – who, let us emphasize, note a specific wider Heavenly community of practice going beyond human beings (which incidently, also gets the contingent ball rolling: as the late Oxford linguistics professor Roy Harris reminds us, communicative behavior cannot arise from non-communicative behavior) – but seems to be of many others as well. Furthermore, I submit that there is also no evidence from both historical and archaeological sources that should cause us to think otherwise (and, in all honesty, “natural history”, being without human explanation from the time, can only tell us so much). [footnote to Robert Brandon picture: [vi]]

Certainly there are very distinct communities of many kinds who utilize concepts unknown to the wider human community. Sometimes this may be because the “fuzzy concepts” that all humans depend on in practice all the time have been made more explicit, in this or that circumstance, by particular human communities (when they are able to be made more explicit!: see 54-56)[vii], but this is not all. Smith’s account suffers, in fact, because it does not reflect on the wider implications of his, I think healthy, de-Platonizing tendencies: the concepts of thunder and lightning (131), for example, could be understood (post fall!) by the trans-cultural and trans-historical community of practice while “Swatches” (148), of course, could not. In like fashion, while scientific communities, for example, may deal with highly abstract and extrapolated concepts relevant in complicated contexts (where the reality of the concepts and the wisdom of one’s commitment to them may often be readily doubted, see 93, fn 16), this kind of scientific hypothesizing can certainly be distinguished from more regular experiential knowledge – for example, the knowledge that it is raining or fire is burning.[viii]

The point I am making, of course, is that these distinct communities – with their unique concepts – lie within the larger human community of practice. Even conceding that someone like Rorty is worth taking seriously when he insists that “all our differences can [not] be resolved by finding some game-transcendent ‘common ground’ or extra-social ‘foundation’ or game-above-all-games ‘neutral language’ that would reduce all differences to agreement” (Smith, 93, italics mine), this does not preclude the significant amount of agreements we do find through common ground, and which should in fact be emphasized (while not denying the core importance of narrative in talking about the deeper meaning of the things whose presence commonly affects us).

In other words, one can accept the numerous nuances that Smith introduces that show the naivetes and overreaches of modern forms of realism without giving the impression that we should think first of communities of practice as separate human groups without real common ground.

In short, just because “all sorts of deluded people are ‘realists’” (89, see 22, fn 15), the “right community of practice” (where one can “find truth”) (93, italics mine) need not be set against assertions about “the way things are” (89) – as if these can only be “magical” (see 89, 97). For Smith, anyone making such an assertion is acting god-like. We can respond by insisting that if anyone is able to make a true assertion “on her own”, this is not something that happened apart from dependence on a community of practice (contra Rorty’s argument on p. 99). Nor is it likely that such a person – such an Elijah – is really all alone. Martin Luther, for one, found devout believers, though a minority community, who resonated with the truth he spoke and found common cause with him in the dual blessing and tragedy of the Reformation. Luther certainly desired to sing in harmony with the wider Catholic Church, but ultimately his conscience was “captive to the word of God” outside of himself.

I can indeed happily conclude this section with the following words of Smith:

“we creatures are called to depend rightly—relate rightly—to the One who is Absolute but graciously condescends to our finitude in the incarnation. In Jesus—the Absolute becomes dependent, Necessity inhabiting contingency—we learn how to be dependent. And as contingent rational creatures, we are called into rightly ordered communities of discursive practice” (180)

…but as I’ve noted above, there is much more to be said here. Smith’s helpful exposition of these pragmatists should indeed provoke us to think – but to really seek to think anew with the mind of the God-man Christ – whose views, to say the least, could never be suspected for a minute of being influenced by atheism and naturalism.

The "Heavenly Community of Practice" has clearly spoken: "And as we catalogue loci communes, clear passage after clear passage on the same topic, in our minds, we overwhelm this hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt with the sheer clarity of God’s word." - Christian Preus

Has the “Heavenly Community of Practice” not, in fact, spoken with startling clarity?: “And as we catalogue loci communes, clear passage after clear passage on the same topic, in our minds, we overwhelm this hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt with the sheer clarity of God’s word.” – Christian Preus

2. Are not God’s bare words recorded in Scripture teaching, “doctrine”, “theology”?: And just as the antics of things and the human community of practice will not let us just get away with saying anything, the same can be said of the biblical texts.[ix] In this last section, I will start with a longer exposition of Smith’s views concerning doctrine in the Christian church.

Professor Smith makes it clear that there is, in his view, development of doctrine. On p. 164, unpacking the “postliberal” views of George Lindbeck (from his 1984 book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age), he says that doctrines:

“are not primarily claims about God or the world; instead, they are rules that govern how we can speak about God and God’s relationship to the world on the ‘first-order’ level of prayer and proclamation. Church doctrine is a ‘guide to the fundamental interconnections within a religion’ (ND, 81). In other words, doctrines are about the inferential relationship between confessional claims and not the referential relation between our claims and the world. ‘Doctrines regulate truth claims by excluding some claims and permitting others’ (ND, 19), but they don’t manufacture the criteria for such regulation. Instead, they make explicit the norms already implicit in the biblical narrative and, in turn, Christian practice.[x]

…A grammar makes explicit the rules of discourse that were previously implicit in our linguistic ‘doings.’ So to theology and doctrine make explicit the commitments implicit in – and entailed by – our proclamation, praise, and prayer.”

And here we can see how Smith is clearly eager to put forth views largely in line with what has been called the “coherence theory of truth” (see 158, fn 16) – not the “correspondence theory of truth”. And, in line with the pragmatists he examines throughout the book, he places a priority on doing over thinking, and practice over theory (and as he has noted elsewhere, human beings are primarily lovers, not thinkers, and cultural practices, like church liturgies for example, are basically “pedagogies of desire”)[xi]. I think, in one sense, this is good, right, and salutary. As the early church said, Lex orandi, lex credenda (Wikipedia: “Latin loosely translated as ‘the law of praying [is] the law of believing’”).

At this point though, Smith puts forth Lindbeck’s “cognitive-linguistic model” of doctrine (see p. 160) over and against what Lindbeck calls the “cognitive-propositional model” of doctrine (the “experiential-expressive” approach is also decried), where “church doctrines function as informative propositions of truth claims about objective realities” (ND, 16). Smith notes that Lindbeck sees the cognitive-propositional model as a largely premodern approach, in fact being “the approach of traditional orthodoxies…” (see here for example). The problem is that this model has now come to be tethered to what are in fact the Enlightenment-derived referentialist, representationalist, modern realist approaches Smith and his gaggle of pragmatists criticize (see 154-158, particularly 158).

But this begs the question, and relates to my last section: just because the “cognitive-propositional model” is now, in practice, widely tethered to a representationalist epistemology, does this mean that steps cannot be taken to de-tether it? And that it is simply irrelevant in modern society and should not be salvaged? Perhaps with some creative imagination and relevant arguments, it could be re-introduced (again, see, for example, the work of the philosopher Matthew Crawford and the work of literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht, for example)?

Moving on to even weightier matters, one can see from the quote above that the practice of listening to the Word of God (for Smith: “biblical narrative”) is presumed, but I think it is important to ask a deeper question here. For example, read the following passage carefully and think about what might be its implications:

“While doctrine is ‘regulative’ rather than assertive, such an account of doctrine doesn’t preclude assertions; it just locates assertion in the lived communal confession of religious practice. Assertion is something we do; doctrines regulates our assertions by ‘conceptualizing’ them – articulating the norms implicit in them and thereby allowing us to assess those claims in the ‘space of reasons.’ So doctrines articulate the inferential logic that makes our confessions coherent. Doctrine is about our claims, not what/Who are claims are about. But such a regulative understanding of doctrine still makes room for – indeed assumes – that those ‘lived’ claims, the assertions we make in praise and prayers, are about something. These are our material commitments, Brandon would say, and doctrine is the ‘second-order’ attempt to harmonize them as a coherent whole for which we can take epistemic responsibility.” (167)

"Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written & formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature." - Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck - Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)

“Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature.” (see here) – Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck – Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)

And here I think: “What about the Material Commitment Incarnate, and His words from which we live? In fact: “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”? What about His “lived” claims, which we say “Amen” to? Are not such bare words “teaching”, “doctrine”, “theology” as well?[xii] If not, why not? Again, note that above I conceded the priority of practice over “theory”, doing over thinking…. That said, is not sitting at the feet of Christ like Mary and listening to words that even a child can understand (but an adult can never get to the bottom of) a practice?[xiii]

And so, for me, this begs the further question: “While Brian McClaren certainly does not share Smith’s ‘catholicizing tendencies’, what, in the end, distinguishes their views of the Word of God?” I struggle to see how anything does. While on the one hand we can talk about our knowledge being “partial, imperfect, and held from a limited point of view” should we not be more ready to talk about how it can also be sure, certain, and true – even if mystery remains and our knowledge has not been brought to its completion?

Smith rightly affirms the significance of language for life in this world: “Language is bound up with our investment in cultural projects; it is part and parcel of our culture making” (53). And yet, more often than not, his account, in line with the relativists he speaks of, is merely about how language helps us “cope” with the world – language is largely reduced to a functional tool for navigation. Likewise, knowledge and truth claims are “commodities”, the “currency” of “distinctly social practices” (85, italics his).

The Apostle Paul: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” (I Cor. 13). Impartial knowledge is not necessarily uncertain knowledge: mystery simply remains…..

The Apostle Paul: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” (I Cor. 13). Impartial knowledge is not necessarily uncertain knowledge: mystery simply remains…..

Are not language, knowledge and truth much more than all this though? Are they not one of God’s supreme gifts of love, meant to help us communicate to one another the love of God in Christ – and to make the historical actions of God gloriously concrete, specific, and explicit in our proclamation, praise, and prayer? I think so, because all language – and even verbal and written language – is not really well-described as a tool, but more as an expression of one’s deepest, shared, humanity. As art. As love. Even as poetry and song. God gives it to us that we may not only understand one another and cope together, but to enjoy, celebrate, and share Him and the wonderful creation He has made together. “[Gloriously] social because [gloriously] dependent” (99), as Smith says.

All created reality is contingent and dependent. I have no trouble with that – I only have trouble with Smith’s sweeping efforts to minimize or even abolish “the approach of traditional orthodoxies…”– instead of using his creative mind to defend it – even if efforts to introduce nuance in light of new threats may be necessary.



Update: I added some words above for the purposes of clarification and for the sake of smoother transitioning.

Images: Christian Preus:


[i] “Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spur our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. In short, it is the denial of dependence that undergirds a progressive agenda. The picture of knowledge bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment is a forthright denial of our dependence, and it yields a God-like picture of human reason. It is ‘objectivity’ that is ‘liberal’.” (35)

[ii] In other words, Christian Smith’s argument that relativism fails “because there would be no way to step outside a community to check wither our categories ‘match’ an external reality” (summed up by Smith, 31) is not the argument vs. Smith I am using.

[iii] In this post, I touched on how saying all of this – that the “antics of things” are in many cases, for our purposes in this life/world, permanent – is not necessarily opposed to contingency. Here is a relevant clip: “In being sympathetic with arguments like those of Socrates [(“The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so”)], did Christians go badly wrong, philosophizing in such a way (“voluntarism” and the like) that the church was removed further and further from what should have been a simple message? Namely that: while we cannot say that God’s creation and its laws necessarily had to be the exact way that they are, we can – and need to say – that these things are all in line with its Creator? For example, in order to defend God in a scientific age, it seems to me that one simply need not – and in fact should not – insist that God created (or especially needed to create) “the best of all possible worlds”. Could one not posit, for example, an immature and yet pure “very good” – which, had man responded well, could have become a mature and pure “very good” (ultimately becoming better… even more desirable)?”

[iv] Let’s say that all knowledge is not only socially mediated, but a social production, as Smith says – a social “accomplishment”. Rorty says we should not want to “be merely passive mirrors [who] fail to appreciate that knowledge is a human, social accomplishment” (p. 84, see also 24, footnote 22). Questions that follow:

First, is there room in this view to experience things – at least certain things! – as those entities which impact us… impress themselves upon us via their presence, often discerned to be purposeful? (see, e.g., Gumbrecht’s The Production of Presence). Second, if we define accomplishment as “something that has been achieved successfully”, do we cheapen the work done by God to “impose” and “impress” the things around us to us, either through the creation itself or special revelation? Third, if we do see knowledge, like civilization, as an accomplishment, certainly there is some knowledge that is easier to attain to than other knowledge (i.e., learning what a family dog is, does and means vs. learning about the dog’s genealogical heritage or internal workings, for example). Fourth, what about the work of God’s grace which leads to faith in Him (note that faith is *knowledge*, assent, and trust) which, by definition, is not something that we but He achieves – and even, as regards the act of justification, achieves apart from our active efforts?

[v] This is not about “locat[ing] some ‘privileged representations’ that function as the ground or ‘foundation” for knowing” (82). What I am claiming here is that this is naturally something we assume is true. Aristotle held to a similar view – he was not a foundationalist in the modern sense of the word (see here).

[vi] More deep thoughts on ethics from the philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford, talking about some ethical matters in a distinctly American context:

“According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention.

My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate.”

Read more at:

[vii] “Wittgenstein asks us to stop expecting our practice to conform to some Platonic idea and invites us instead to attend to what we actually do, how our language works. When we do so, we will find that we are more than able to manage without precise, crisp definitions. In fact, we need fuzzy concepts and depend on them in practice all the time. ‘Consider for example the proceedings that we all “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games and so on. What is common to them all?’ (66) And he immediately pushes back on our tendency to philosophical superstition – our tendency to impose Platonic expectations on our everyday experience….” (54)

[viii] More on “general knowledge” vs. “scientific knowledge” from an unpublished paper of mine on the Oxford integrationist linguist Roy Harris’s book After Epistemology:

“…is there possibly some bigger reason behind Karl Popper’s distinguishing between general and scientific knowledge, other than a desperate attempt to save himself from “his own epistemological muddle” (AE, p. 128)? Again, is this, perhaps, fundamentally about more than “linguistic connexions”? Regarding Harris’ view of Popper, is it likely that Popper would have agreed with his position being construed as metaphysical, i.e. “as soon as truth is idealized as some distant goal, a reified abstraction, located in a sempiternal vaccuum…”? (AE, p. 129) If not, I really wonder about how he might have countered Harris’ critique, and how Harris would have responded in turn. What if Popper had not equated truth with that which is “objective and absolute” (Horgan, 1996, p. 37), but had endeavored to speak in what are perhaps more measured tones (?) about “objective reality” (perhaps like the “objective truth” Harris speaks of, see AE, p. 147?)? Would this then be permissible? Was not Popper, the kind of scientifically-minded person who had a flawed, but nevertheless more humble view (relatively speaking), of what scientists were capable of, i.e. a friend of those in the humanities? If such is the case, perhaps integrationists could see him as more of an ally of sorts, despite his evidently confused view of language (or perhaps careless explanation of his views) and knowledge (i.e. abstracted from persons!)? Getting back to the “epistemological muddle” claim Harris makes, from my reading of the Popper book quoted in After Epistemology, it seems to me highly unlikely that Popper would have considered the fact that “it is raining” (Popper, 1982, p. 110) to be the kind of hypothetical or propositional knowledge (i.e. theories and “matters of the intellect”, see Popper, 1982, p. 22) that he says we can never know we are talking about (Popper, 1982, p. 27) – but rather something more akin to “knowledge in the ordinary sense”, i.e. regular experiential knowledge – a general awareness or familiarity of a fact or situation (like fire burning) – and something that we could certainly talk about with confidence (vs. Harris, in AE, p. 129). When one considers that the fact that “it is raining” is not any kind of problem to be solved by a theory (see Popper, 1982, pp. 182, 183) it seems clear to me at least that Popper was here simply concerned to draw a distinction between this regular experiential knowledge and the kind of hypothetical or scientific ideas that deal with problem solving and are necessarily built on more difficult interpretations of the world (i.e. dealing with increased levels of context, abstraction, extrapolation, etc.). Further, it seems that he, like Integrationists, emphasized the importance of practical knowledge in one’s local and temporal circumstances, i.e. pointing out that it is proper and necessary to start with the “truth” in your own backyard before trying to solve the world’s problems with ever more comprehensive (i.e. all-encompassing and all-explaining) scientific theories.”

Later in the review:

“….when Harris dismisses Hume’s defenders who speak of the “logical’ connexions between different items”, insisting that “in practice the connexions are linguistic” (AE, p. 46), this reader is greatly puzzled: are there not “natural” or “biological” connections as well? For instance, strictly speaking, even if it is true that smoke does not “mean” fire (AE, p. 123), is there not a kind of natural connection here – even if any particular person does not make this interpretation? And it seems to me that many a “common man”, for example, might point out that the connection between “male”, “female” and “offspring” seems to be a bit more than linguistic as well! After all, one does not require formal syllogisms – but only personal experience perhaps bolstered by historical knowledge – to determine that all children have a mother and a father.”

[ix] As I noted here: “while we should not think that a sincere agnostic, truly seeking to understand the Bible as a complete work, would come up with the Nicene Creed, what Mark Twain said about the Scriptures is certainly relevant here: ‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.’ Certainly, as we all know, there are some interpretations that certain words, whatever their context may be, will simply eliminate from the get go.”

[x] He continues: “By making things explicit, Brandon emphasizes, we (i.e., the relevant community of practice) can begin to discern inconsistencies, seek to harmonize our commitments, and, in some cases, renew and redirect our practice accordingly. Christian doctrine can be understood to play the same role: to make explicit the commitments implied in our proclamation, prayer, and praise (all of which themselves ‘live off of’ the narrative world of Scripture that is the self-communication of the Triune God). Thus doctrine articulates the norms implicit in our practice. Doctrines function as the rules of the Christian language-game.” (pp. 164-165)

[xi] As a reviewer notes, “This book therefore also needs to be seen as providing a philosophical framework for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, expressed in his books, Desiring the Kingdom (2009), and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) (cf.152, n3).”

[xii] There are other prominent theologians – particularly Eastern Orthodox theologians on the internet – who have touted Lindbeck-ian ideas vs. the traditional way of understanding doctrine. I have written posts challenging these views here, here, here, here, and here, for example.

[xiii] From a review of Smith’s book: “Jesus obviously considered knowing-that important because he spent much of his time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines. A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine. Indeed, in most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application. A biblical approach, I believe, requires a balance between doctrine and practice.”


1 Comment

Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


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One response to ““Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part III of III)

  1. Thursday

    March 10, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    Honestly, I think you, as well as Smith, would benefit from a deep immersion in Aristotle and Aquinas. I’d pay particular attention to De Anima.


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