Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nostalgia

Browsing through my library this morning I discovered, tucked into the index, the receipt for my copy of Bernard Lonergan's Insight, which it turns out I purchased nine years ago today. Does that ever make me feel old! And it took me back to when I first read the book in the previous year as a 19-year-old sophomore. Insight and Maritain's Degrees of Knowledge were probably the two modern books that had the greatest effect on me that year and set the stage for my thinking for a long time. After I finished my B.A. and went to grad school I turned in my "Thomist" license plate and began studying more scholastics and fewer neo-Thomists, but I still owe those guys a debt of gratitude. In fact going through my shelves made me (as so often happens) think that it might be time to read some of these books again (and there are still a few by Gilson I've never gotten around to). But when is that going to happen?

All that being said, check out this bit from the preface to Degrees of Knowledge:

In truth, Thomism is a common task. One is not a Thomist because, in the emporium of systems, one chooses it as if one were choosing one system among others just as you try one pair of shoes after another in a shoestore until you find a pattern that fits your foot better. If that were the way it was done, it would be more stimulating to cut a system to one's own measure. One is a Thomist because one has repudiated every attempt to find philosophical truth in any system fabricated by an individual (even though that individual be called ego) and because one wants to seek out what is true - for oneself, indeed, and by one's own reason - by allowing oneself to be taught by the whole range of human thought, in order not to neglect anything of that which is. Aristotle and St. Thomas occupy a privileged place for us only because, thank to their supreme docility to the lessons of the real, we find in them the principles and the scale of values through which the total effort of this universal thought can be preserved without running the risk of eclecticism and confusion.


This sort of thing really impressed me as a teenager; now that I'm pushing thirty it raises my hackles. At this point I'm suspicious of any philosophical "system" whatsoever, even one so venerable as Thomism. As soon as one turns one's insights, principles, arguments, and conclusions into a "system" it begins to take on a life of its own, to become a thought-artifact. This seems to be just what Maritain likes about Thomism, which he claims is "organic" and grows through the ages through cooperative work, like a medieval cathedral. But there is inevitably born in its inhabitants and curators the urge to defend the cathedral from outside attack, even if the attack comes only in the form of suggestions for remodeling. It's not clear to me that this defensive posture is the same thing as "supreme docility to the lessons of the real".

This criticism by no means falls on St Thomas himself just because it seems empirically to describe "Thomism". But it's also not clear to me that Thomas either intended to or did build a "system" - and indeed Maritain implies the opposite - or that his particular "thought-world" is a preeminently exemplary vessel of the philosophia perennis in some sort of self-contained and exclusionary way. This is in part why I didn't trade my "Thomist" plate in for a "Scotist" one ("Bonaventurean" wouldn't fit, even if it were accurate!): I'm not at all convinced that there is a "Scotism" or a "Scotistic synthesis", rather than simply a series of uniquely penetrating insights and arguments fitting into and conditioning a common scholasticism - common not in the sense of there being a shared common "system", but a shared terminology, outlook, method, and basic conceptual structure. I don't see any reason why it isn't possible to consider oneself a "Scomist", as one eminent academic I know likes to call himself, or a "Scotaventurean" or "Thomiventurscotist", for that matter. I think it's easier and more sensible just to call oneself a scholastic.

Now this very lack of "synthesis" has led people to criticize Scotus on just this point: his thought is not constructive, but critical, etc, and he's presented as part of a larger story in which the thirteenth century is the age of constructing the great cathedrals of thought and the fourteenth is the age of gnawing at the mortar to see how strong they are. But there's good reason to doubt this story, at least as a story of why the fourteenth century is not so worthy of study as the thirteenth. Everyone would admit that St Bonaventure and St Thomas have a greater power of "synthesis" than Bl Scotus does. But Bonaventure's thought is still closer to Scotus' than to Thomas'. And synthetic power is no guarantee of the truth of any given principle or conclusion. This seems to me the main point. Once we've told ourselves that St Thomas was "supremely docile to the lessons of the real" we're already likely to a) assume that his contemporaries weren't so supremely docile and that b) arguments which if accepted would impair the cathedral of Thomism must come from an inferior docility. As I've said many times before, I think this sort of attitude locates Thomas' merits in the wrong place, needlessly denigrates everyone else, and is bad for the philosophic spirit. If rejecting it means "running the risk of eclecticism and confusion", well, confusion is a constant and unavoidable risk in philosophy. And I have to admit that I don't quite grasp Maritain's horror of eclecticism. I'm not even entirely sure I know what he means.

11 comments:

Brandon said...

I suspect that there's an echo of Eclecticism in the mention of eclecticism here. That is, any properly educated French philosopher of the period would have known something of Victor Cousin, who advocated Eclecticism, capital E, which was explicitly put forward in order to create a third way between 'renouncing the independence of philosophy and returning to the Middle Ages' and 'continuing the circle of mutually-destroying systems' but "to reject no system and to accept none entirely, to neglect this element and to take that, to select in all what appears to be true and good, and consequently everlasting". As he interpreted it, all systems are sort-of true, no systems are wholly true, we can't generally invent new positions (just different combinations of old ones) and we have to accept all positions to a limited extent. If this is in the back of his mind, Maritain is claiming that Thomism allows assimilation and synthesis of prior insights without syncretism and patchwork. That's true, I think -- but it's not exclusive to following St. Thomas.

I'm pretty much in agreement here. St. Thomas was not building Thomism; he was doing Philosophy, as he found it in the Philosopher, under the guidance of the Christian faith, as part of the work of Sacred Teaching. Ditto with Bl. John. Of course, because they were teachers they did try to boil it down in a systematic way -- Aquinas usually more than Scotus, because the bulk of Aquinas's works consists of textbooks of one sort or another. But it is one thing to take a Teacher; it is another to follow a script. And I think it's often the case that people claim to do the first but end up doing the latter.

Thomiventurscotism sounds like an extreme sport.

Michael said...

Thanks for this comment. I appreciate the information about Eclecticism, which, if I knew anything about it, I'd forgotten.

Thomiventurscotism sounds like an extreme sport.

That's good! I'd like to imagine that Thomiventurscotism:philosophy::Calvinball:outdoor sports. The rules are subject to change and no given set of safety apparatus can be adequate.

Lee Faber said...

Michael, I see you are trying to rekindle the 19th century De wulf historiograpy...as to the possibility of just being scholastic, what do you make of this:

"...This is, I believe, how the scholastic tradition has always seen its task. It is because of this self-understanding that scholastic thought created a large array of intellectual practices aimed at synthesis: collentions of 'sentences' dsitinctions in the meaning of words to uncover nuances in the taching of important texts, disputations and quaestiones to allow for the consideration of the different sides of particular issues, concordances and indices to catalogue intellectual material, diagrams to sketch the outline of systems, and summae to offer comprehensive doctrinal syntheses. Not all these intellectual practices will play a role in the future of scholastic thought: quaestiones and summae, for example, are no longer current as literary genres. In order to remian fiathful to its Herkunft, however, Schoalstic thought will always be animated by the dynamism of synthesis, endeavorouring to grow in contstructive dialgoe with oteher ways to approach the one truth. From the concordist apsect of Schoasltic thought, if follows immediately that Scholasticism should have a strong sense of history: since there is a difference between finite truth and the truth itself in its fullness - a tension that cannot be comapletely reconciled in this life - all synthesis always remains perfectible and hence provisional. [...]this is not the occasion to enter into a detailed discussion of the reasons for the ahistorical nature of much of Scholastic thought. It makes sense to assume, though, that the influence of the static, essentialist world-view of ancient Greece played a role in this congealing of the intellectual expression of Christianity. Aristotle, in particular, deliberately excluded history from the domain of episteme, becaue for him, science had to deal with necessary causes, not contingent evens. Aristotle's world consequently, was a world of essences, which, ultimately, could not change at all. [...] in teh final analysis, any changte is a process in which an essential core perpetuates itself.

Lee Faber said...

...Scholastic thought, therefore, needs to be saved from itself, as it were, with regard to the question of history, not only because Scholasticism needs the historical dimension in order to be able to funciion as an authentic expression of the Christian tradition; Scholastic thought must aslo not close itself off from teh one of the main insifhts of modern philsoiphy since Hegel: the insight that truth is inextricably connected with time. After Hegel, aNietzsche, Heiddegger, but especially after Foucault's detailed analysses of the ways in which truth, reality and human identity are constituted in defferent historical epochs - after these develoopments what its critics now call teh metaphysics of presence' has lost its credibility. The most compelling contemorary Christian thinkers do not attempt to evade this insight; rather - like Jean-luc marion, for instance - they endevoiur to revive metaphysical enquiry wityhout recourse to the otions of substance and being, which are so closely connected with the Aristotelian, static vision of reality. The traditins of Christian neo-platonism and negative theology appear to be better suited to meet the challenges of our post-metaphysical age."

From Philip Rosemann, "The future of Scholastic Thought," p. 265-266 (in"The Irish contribution to European Scholastic Thought")

Michael said...

Faber, I have to admit I don't quite see what you mean by I see you are trying to rekindle the 19th century De wulf historiograpy. I didn't think I was doing that at all.

As for the quote, hmm, I'm not sure what I make of it and I'm also not quite sure why you think it's relevant here. Of course I would deny Rosemann's claims that scholasticism is "ahistorical" if that means "not aware of its own history or the history of philosophy" - that seems demonstrably false. Also I would insist that there is indeed no episteme of history, given the Aristotelian conditions of science, but that this does not involve an indifference to the existence or significance of contingent facts. And I would deny of course 1) that metaphysical truth is temporally conditioned, and 2) that the good old-time metaphysics is "no longer credible" just because a lot of moderns have turned against it, and 3) that it's possible or reasonable to do good metaphysics without notions like substance and being.

But, again, I'm not sure that I know what your point is exactly.

Lee Faber said...

i was addressing a point you made that you weren't one of these systems, just a scholastic. Rosemann's article, indeed which I neglected to give context for, is about the future of Scholasticism. So I took it as a rival account of the future of S. For more or less the same reason, I took you to be following de Wulf in advocating "scholasticism" as opposed to thomism or scotism. But it is a stretch...De wulf thought (at one point) that there was just one undifferentiated mass known as scholasticism, with just a few minor unimportant differences.

onus probandi said...

"I'm pretty much in agreement here. St. Thomas was not building Thomism; he was doing Philosophy, as he found it in the Philosopher, under the guidance of the Christian faith, as part of the work of Sacred Teaching. Ditto with Bl. John. Of course, because they were teachers they did try to boil it down in a systematic way -- Aquinas usually more than Scotus, because the bulk of Aquinas's works consists of textbooks of one sort or another. But it is one thing to take a Teacher; it is another to follow a script. And I think it's often the case that people claim to do the first but end up doing the latter."


I wonder if this might perhaps be why, among many other obvious reasons of course (e.g., speculative thought concerning the Infinite and the Celestial), that the Golden Legend has Thomas declaring that all his works concerning theology and philosophy were but straw.



"The rules are subject to change and no given set of safety apparatus can be adequate."

Michael: Don't you mean 'apparati' (or something like that)? By the way, good writing here! I'm glad you've returned to your previous level of eloquence!

Also, my thanks to Mr. (Dr.?) Faber for the provided excerpts. Some more good food for thought there with respect to what once was the noble art of Scholasticism.

Michael said...

I'm glad you've returned to your previous level of eloquence!

Oh, had it been falling off?

As for the St Thomas anecdote, I tend to think it should be interpreted in conjunction with the other one, in which the corpus on the crucifix says to him while in prayer, "Thomas, you have written well of me", etc.

Michael said...

Faber,

I have no opinion about the "future of scholasticism", except that if what Rosemann wants happens then scholasticism will be dead. What you and I do is scholasticism; whether it has a future is another story.

De wulf thought (at one point) that there was just one undifferentiated mass known as scholasticism, with just a few minor unimportant differences.

Well, that certainly not what I'm advocating. What I'm saying is that one can be a scholastic without wholly identifying oneself with a particular school or thinker. People doing so may well have vast differences in their metaphysical commitments. Surely Bonaventure and Ockham were both scholastics, and even, in some sense, in the same "school", but it would be silly to say that they had in common one undifferentiated mass of doctrine, with a few minor unimportant differences.

Paul Hamilton said...

Michael, I appreciate this post. I was sitting at the lunch table with a pair of Thomists a few months ago, and they were convinced that if one called himself a Thomist, he must agree with every major insight of Thomas' system. I argued that this was silly, and that the terms are a lot more flexible than they made them out to be. Your example is case and point: Scotus did not create a vast synthesis like Thomas did, which would mean--according to my interlocutors--there are no Scotists!

I consider myself a Thomist not because I agree with everything Thomas says, but because when I have a question that needs answering, Thomas' writings are the first to which I turn. Labels are good things, but I cannot see how they could ever be used as rigidly as my interlocutors did.

Michael said...

I consider myself a Thomist not because I agree with everything Thomas says, but because when I have a question that needs answering, Thomas' writings are the first to which I turn.

This is very interesting, because it seems to confirm what I've argued before, namely that a lot of Thomas' superiority is pedagogical. It's so much easier to find things in his writings, and then to understand what he's getting at pretty quickly, that it makes perfect sense to go to him first. I frequently do myself.