Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pope Francis on Thomism

The current pope recently had this to say about Thomism:

"The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence."

Ouch! Even I, Scotist though I be, have spent many happy hours poring over Thomist manuals. I can only dream of such an education.

We might ask, why were they decadent? It is contrasted with "thinking of the human being", which perhaps means restricting ones' theologizing and philosophizing to human affairs and human nature. so no transcendental metaphysics, no seven-fold division of distinction? I'm not really sure. Of course, who would disagree that the church should strive for genius and not decadence?

Maybe this is the best response.


Anonymous said...

I would quite like to learn what the Pope meant by this. (If it turned out that "decadent" Thomism is "rationalist" and "essentialist", in the sort of way described by existential Thomist and Jesuit Fr. Norris Clark Clark SJ, I would not be surprised.) It's always seemed to me quite curious that Aquinas was "existential", but Duns Scotus was not. Oh well-

Michael Sullivan said...

I've thought a lot about these manuals. It is certainly true that many of them - I won't say all - are very off-putting and very boring compared to genuine scholastic texts. But it's not easy to say why, exactly, when they seem to be cast in a very similar form.

I think the biggest thing that stands out about many of them is that in them philosophy (and theology) begin to look like purely deductive systems like logic and mathematics: set out (and perhaps justify) your principles, and then pile up inferences until you have a big scientific body of knowledge. It begins to look almost like something a computer could do, as though no real thinking, only cogitating, is going into the construction of the system. But good philosophy shouldn't be like that: it should be a direct encounter of the intellect with reality. This includes making arguments, of course. Thinking without arguments isn't much thinking; but arguments without thinking isn't really philosophy either.

The manuals can be incredibly helpful as organized and systematized distillations of arguments, but they're often not much help in getting you to actually think the arguments through, rather than to parrot them. One feels that often the authors themselves were collecting, organizing, and parroting, rather than thinking things through.

On the other hand, the non-manual works by Thomists formed by manuals - Maritain and his ilk - can sometimes feel like they merely present the conclusions of the manuals without the arguments, and fill in a lot of rhetoric and poetry where the arguments should go. By no means all the time, but often enough. Their books can often be very valuable and full of insight (I finished a very good one by Yves Simon last week), but I still get left with the uncomfortable feeling that, having prematurely swallowed the manualist nugget of Thomist orthodoxy and left it undigested, they haven't really thought through their principles down to the very bottom. Maritain's introduction to metaphysics is as useless as Heidegger's is.

All this is, of course, a general impression rather than a well-developed critique.

Brandon said...

I think we probably can't break that paragraph off from the next:

When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.

I don't remember said it but I remember someone saying that the manuals failed through their ambitious optimism: no matter how good the manual, there's simply no way to guarantee quality across the sheer numbers of people who were using them to teach. The real scholastic works were people who were very much not teaching by a book; but the manualist tradition was in part killed by its own success, because it made it too easy to teach by the book.

Lee Faber said...

Fair enough, Brandon. I wonder what it means, though, for the Church to recover genius...