Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Thomism as Protestantism?

As a post a while back made clear, I recently read Joseph Owens' An interpretation of existence. One thing that struck me forcefully at a number of places throughout the book was the peculiar and familiar character of some of his statements. Consider the following passage:

. . . But the genetic leap to judgment as a distinct synthesizing cognition that apprehends an existential synthesizing in the thing appears for the first time in Aquinas. It ushers in a profoundly new metaphysical starting point. Nor is there any evidence that it was understood or appreciated by his successors. The distinction between simple apprehension and judgment did become a commonplace in Scholastic tradition. But the logical background of the distinction proved too dominant to allow the metaphysical import of the Thomistic texts to make itself felt. . . . The Thomistic insight that the judgment itself was the original knowledge of the existential synthesis eluded the attention of the later Scholastic thinkers. The notion that the intellectual activity of synthesizing was itself the knowing of existence escaped them. In Kant's penetrating scrutiny, however, the notion that a synthesis underlies conceptual knowledge reappears . . .

There seems to me something uncannily like what the Protestants like to say about St Paul here. Substitute "Paul" for "Aquinas", "Scripture" for "Thomistic texts," "Scholastic tradition" for "Christian tradition," and what do we get? Paul says something which everyone forgot about or misinterpreted for centuries until Luther rediscovered its true meaning, enabling him to discard all previous Christian tradition at his whim and thereby making it unnecessary for Protestants to even become familiar with the contents of that tradition. (By the way, Owens is by no means the only Thomist who talks like this. I recall both Gilson and Maritain saying very similar things.)

And this is just what many (most?) Thomists do! Like Protestants, they read their sacred texts in isolation from both the historical context of the texts themselves and from the way that the later tradition read them. Thomists tend not to read other scholastics, or not much. Instead they read Thomas in the context of contemporary philosophical and theological thought--like Protestants!--and, lacking the proper context and really appreciating Thomas for his "relevance" to our own concerns rather than for his own sake, they (first subtly, then increasingly drastically) distort Thomas' thought itself, all the while maintaining its supremacy--like Protestants!

The other thing that struck me in Owens' book was this: several times he mentions Heidegger's suggestion in the latter's Introduction to Metaphysics that "being", however interpreted, holds "the spiritual destiny of the West." Owens uses the phrase with approval and makes Heidegger's question his own epigraph. Now here's the funny thing: I was recently also reading Heidegger's book and it stuck me that the very same Protestantlike element pervades Heidegger's own thought! Just replace "Paul" or "Aquinas" with "the Greeks" and take as our texts the Presocratics, and make the tradition the tradition of all Western philosophy, and don't we have almost the exact same claim, namely that the "true meaning" of the original insights were almost immediately forgotten and abandoned by every successor, who mouthed the relevant words under a devastating and ruinous interpretation, until a lone genius prophet rediscovered the Gospel for himself and brought it back to the world? Isn't Heidegger just Luthor redux?

Coincidence? Or is this where the Thomists learned to talk like this? Or am I nuts?

One might in fairness note that many many philosophers have made similar gestures ever since Descartes, though not usually as radically as Heidegger. But if so this may simply reinforce my long-standing suspicion that modern philosophy is in large part simply the rationalistic flip-side of Protestant thinking.