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.


Anonymous said...

I don't think so. I think what they do is follow the trail of Dominicans in spite of and/or in opposition to any other school as the paradigm for Catholicism as a whole. But I don't think they are doing something like Luther where you have a complete rediscovery of something that had been dormant and unkown in the preceeding tradition.

Michael Sullivan said...

But what Owens is claiming is precisely that even the Dominican/Thomistic tradition failed to understand Thomas on the issue of existence and the apprehension of existence, which for these modern Thomists is the crux of Thomism and of all philosophy (just as for the early Protestants justification was the crux of the Gospel). They aren't all in agreement on how much and whether to utilize the Thomistic tradition--Maritain in particular thinks it's very important to be aware of it, as does Garrigou-Lagrange, etc.--but they do seem to be largely in agreement that nobody was a "real Thomist" until the 20th century. At the same time many of them want to insist that Thomism as such is normative for Catholic thought. It's a weird combination.

Anonymous said...

You have a good point there regarding that topic.

But then you also have a similar (and reverse) play going on with Lagrange and De Lubac on the relationship between nature and grace, where the 'Neo-Thomists' aren't really Thomists.

Like you, I'm very suspicious of those types of claims.


Lee Faber said...

hmm...of course, i tend to disbelieve owens claims, even for thomism.everyone maligns the 14th century without reading it, and yet what ive read so far is a great deal more sophisticated than the 13th, dare i say, more sophisticated than thomas or at least they offer far more detailed analyses and cover much less ground. and cognition was one of their biggest concerns. just the other day i read a section of auriol where he basically rails against certain and distinct concepts a la descartes.

Lee Faber said...

then again, what does this really tell us. people dont bother to read or research, and so declare new discoveries. or that everyone who makes a claim feels the need for some sort of justification or vilification of those who went before.

since i dont equate philosophy with thomism, one could also make a relativistic attack on owens. existence was the key in the 60's, but who thinks this today? now its all about grace and participation, in 2o years it will be back to analogy, and so on to the unending boredom of non thomists.

Lee Faber said...

thats it. i#m gone for 6 weeks and you do one post. why dont you do a translation of that passage in alnwicks qq de esse intelligibili where he talks about how many people held scotus view on intelligibile being but if scotus had been true to his principles etc he would have rejected it. its question 6, about halfway through when he is expositing scotus position.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting theory. Unfortunately I can't think of a way to overcome its ubiquity in popular discourse.