Sunday, April 8, 2012

John W. Carlson's "Words of Wisdom": Bibliography

Samuel Johnson inaugurated the age of the English dictionary, or "word-book" as he would say, and as it becomes easier and easier to mechanically reproduce texts, there are more dictionaries now than ever. There's nothing like a computer to help the book industry, right?

Given the plethora of dictionaries, one might wonder: do we really need another? Why purchase John W. Carlson's Words of Wisdom? Perhaps the publisher was hoping a catchy title would signal the book's pretensions: "This is no ordinary philosophic dictionary," the title seems to say, "rather, this dictionary cares about wisdom and tries to foster it."  Ambitious. Does it succeed?

Regarding the bibliography, the cut-and-paste powers of the computer were well-employed here. There is little one couldn't find in the bibliography of a contemporary Thomistic-oriented dissertation. Furthermore, as was pointed out earlier in this blog, the perspective of these bibliographies is rather limited. Here are the divisions with my thoughts on them.
  • Section I, Works by St. Thomas Aquinas in English. This confirms what the title of the book implies: that the target buyer-peruser of this work is an under-educated student or professor of philosophy or theology -- the sort who skims a book in order to have more time to mention it while discussing politics over a couple of beers. When a bibliography lists the works of an author only in translation, it implies that the reader would not or could not make use of the author's works in their original language. In other words, it assumes that scholars will probably not find the bibliography (implied: the dictionary) valuable.
  • Section II, Recent Commentaries and Elaborations on Perennial Themes. This section could also be entitled, "Books I Like That You Should Consider Reading." The books in this section are mostly by Thomists from 1940 onward (e.g., Maritian, Lonergan, Giles Emery), along with personalists (e.g., Wojtyla, von Hildebrand), and a handful of others who, for some reason, count as the lucky few (e.g., Henri de Lubac, John Milbank). There is at least one notable exception to what I have said. This section, as a good dictionary shouldn't, stretches the meaning of a term. How could the works of John [Poinsot] of St. Thomas (included here) count as "contemporary" and on perennial themes, but the works of Friedrich Nietzsche (included below) counted as either not contemporary or not on perennial themes? A single explanation suggests itself: Carlson misuses words to fit his own purposes: he includes John of St. Thomas in Section II because he agrees with that way of thinking, while he sticks Nietzsche in Section III because the German fellow is disagreeable. Thus, a brief dictionary of Carlson's language would be as follows. "Perennial theme" = "Whatever Carlson thinks is true" = an amalgam of Poinsotian Thomism mixed with personalism and other contemporary (mostly-) Catholic thought for good measure.
  • Section III, Works by Other Authors Cited in This Dictionary. One of the chief jobs of a good dictionary is to make clear distinctions. If a dictionary of flora and fauna does not clarify the difference between an apple and an Adam's apple, then it is better used to prop up my desk rather than to raise my understanding. In this case, Carlson makes a division in his bibliography that manifests what books are worthwhile in his judgment. They are, in descending order: 1st, the works of Thomas in English. 2nd, the works of people who agree with or expound on Thomas, or who are pretty much good chaps whose books are still in print. 3rd, everyone else. Since they are neither contemporary nor Thomists, they count as "other." This implies they are lesser (otherwise, why not include studies on them in the Section II?). Although Carlson gestures toward Albert the Great, Aristotle, Augustine, Cicero, Plato, Scotus, and Suarez, among others, his entries rely far more on the authors in Section II of his bibliography than the authors in Section III.
In sum, the bibliography gives evidence of what the title implies: this is not a scholarly dictionary. It seems to me that the best feature of Carlson's dictionary is its bibliographic introduction. This helps readers find other dictionaries that will probably be more helpful.

My next post on this book will examine the dictionary entries themselves.

1 comment:

Lee Faber said...

Thanks for these more thorough thoughts. My response to your remarks on section 1 is that it just confirms what I've found in my dissertation research: thomists of the american variety probably don't know latin, or know it just enough to get the right passage in the footnotes for their disseration and never look at it again.

To take one example, the controversy for the past 30-40 years on divine simplicity and aquinas. all texts in this debate are from the summa theologiae (english). Yet if one reads scholarship from the 1920's, one finds out about the existence of something called the 'quaestio de attributis' which aquinas disputed at rome (the same year as he began the summa th) on the topic of plurality in divinis. Aquinas goes so far as to say all the contents of book I of the Sentences depend on the resolution of the question. he then ordered his scribes to insert the dispute into I Sent. to clarify some remakrs he made about a plurality of rationes.

Surprise surprise, there is not a whisper of this text in contemporary thomist discussions about divine simplicity. Maybe there are other reasons for this than that it is in latin, i don't know. There certainly isnt any talk about truthmakers or properties or anything sexy like that.