Monthly Archives: January 2015

In which I stayed up too late

In which I stayed up too late citing Aquinas and Locke,

and could really have used the sleep,

and some dinner.


In the sections of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that are dedicated to empirical science, Locke shows at length how the whole scholastic method of philosophy is intrinsically hostile to empirical science. He was no fool; he knew at whose works he was really aiming. And while I, like you, have made the journey from nominalism to realism, I think we can have realism without the scholastic method of philosophy, and if we value empirical science we must do so.

In short, you seem to think the only really important fight is between Aquinas and Augustine, who occupies the more militantly anti-rationalist space on Aquinas’ metaphysical “Right,” to use a political metaphor. But there is also space on Aquinas’ metaphysical “Left,” and the question between you and I is whether the golden mean lies where Aquinas is, or further to his Left.

(source: Et Seq. | Hang Together)

I’m just struggling to understand your stake in all of this, Greg.  I do understand that Locke had to make choices in a pretty highly charged environment, and we both have friends who have to do the same, but I really don’t see how that figures into a general understanding of their place in the history of ideas.

More to the point, I’m not sure why we’re discussing this when the salient fact remains that there is no significant difference between “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act” and “Kicking Unborn Child Act” to discuss; it makes no difference what level of medical knowledge you have, if you are committed to ignoring it to save a false principle.

From my perspective, Augustine and Aquinas are high points in an unfolding of Christian understanding of all things; Augustine’s work was perhaps the most developed expression of the relationship of divine revelation to all human knowing available, and the most tightly integrated with the period from Christ through the great Councils recognized by all Christians, and the most capable in using secular/pagan categories of understanding and rhetoric to relate revelation to all areas of thought and life.

There is a vulnerability in the tradition after Augustine, as there always is after a seminal thinker achieves a durable synthesis:  reduction to a flawed, less-than-the-reality-discussed, syllabus of rote points.  In the case of Augustine, the achievement and limitations of Boethius in transmitting the Platonic elements of the tradition combined with Augustine’s own Platonic antecedents and stylistic preferences.  (We also have to include the popularity of Dionysius the Aeropagite [pseudo-Dionysius] and the constant inroads of Gnostic/Manichaean/Paulician/Bogomil/Cathar heresy, as well.)  The difficulty in tying the Platonic tradition down–of recapturing the synthesis that seemed possible when reading Augustine–was the lack of articulation with reality.  As a result, unbalanced secularization or spiritualization threatened the effort to articulate divine truth with human lived experience in every area of life–politics, medicine, cosmology, sanctification, agriculture, etc.

What Aquinas achieved, I am convinced, was to recover Augustine from that reduction–to defend against that vulnerability to dualistic misinterpretation–by judicious application of Aristotle.  Aristotle had improved on Plato precisely by better articulating the junctures of world/mind, matter/form, real/ideal; he made it “philosophical” to build up an understanding of real things from observations of their properties.

Aquinas was not a scientist, himself, nor primarily concerned with such knowledge.  Nobody would claim that he was.  Albert the Great, his mentor, was profoundly interested in such knowledge, and defends empirical study, but spent his career bringing all the knowledge already recorded in Aristotle forward to a Western Europe that had been groping about for some sufficiently rich understanding of the world.

I see no reason to conclude that Aquinas believed himself to have advanced a best or final method of primary research, either. Continue reading »

Et Seq.

Quoth my very estimable host and interlocutor:

The idea that Aquinas is somehow a patron of the empirical sciences seems to me to involve an unjustified assumption that any advance in learning must somehow owe a debt to Aquinas.

I have to intervene, here.  I really don’t see how any such false enthymeme is involved.  I can think of no standard account of the significance of Aquinas for thought that does not involve his defense of natural reason, which proceeds from the readily known to the finally to-be-known, by means of a synthesis of Aristotle (from whom attention to particular beings as such, rather than as mere examples of ideals) and Augustine (from whom attention to the method of coming to understand eternal realities by means of both things and words, culminating in charity rather than comprehension).  I mean, Aquinas is not a scientist, himself, to be true.  In fact, I would argue that he is only a philosopher insofar as he finds it necessary to prevent theology students from following speculations into error, and to defend the proper use of natural reason in the elucidation of truth.  But it is precisely insofar as he found it obligatory and was chiefly notable for that defense of a true synthesis over against rival bifurcating errors (true to the Dominican emphasis on anti-dualist polemic) that Aquinas became first controversial and then essential to philosophy.

Here’s how things look to those of us who don’t take your line. From the moment modern empirical science began to develop, the Thomas Aquinas Fan Club began to spit on it. For centuries, they did everything in their power to destroy it. (Locke was denied a chair at Oxford because he wanted to do empirical science – in fact, medical science – and the Platonists couldn’t put up with that.) And now, with the Thomas Aquinas Fan Club having been proved disastrously wrong about empirical science, suddenly y’all want us all to forget about that, and you even strut around claiming credit (“you can’t have Francis Bacon without Aquinas” – really?) for developments that you did everything in your power to discredit and prevent.

(source: Follow-Through! | Hang Together)

I really don’t want to offer a ham-handed criticism of your History of Ideas, here, but I can’t follow you either on the standard-ish Heideggerian line, or on the line I learned as a teenager reading my way through as much of the Britannica Great Books and the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books as I could–starting with Locke, then wending my way back to Descartes, then forward again…and especially not on the line I’ve been following since I reached the conclusion of my post-structuralist inquiry and tipped over into metaphysical realism (quite by accident, from my own point of view; I knew theology and ecclesiology demanded Real Presence, and the rest followed as a matter of analogical fitness).

To take just one pull at untying this knot, the Platonists who set up an opposition between natural reasoning and divine revelation came primarily from among the Franciscans and Augustinians (and received the doubtful succour of the “double truth” Averroists like the Siger), and they were against Albert the Great (whose risky and often inaccurate work, as well as his mentoring of Aquinas, was CRUCIAL to the unfolding of Western interest in empirical science) and Aquinas and the Dominicans from the first, although Aquinas defended the mendicants as a whole when they were under attack. The endless bifurcations that happen whenever Platonic thought touches down on planet Earth without a careful set of Aristotelian (or Aristotle-like) distinctions–when rhetoric is conceived as the opponent of dialectic rather its unfolding–are precisely what Albert and Aquinas were set against.  I mean, really, Aquinas is the textbook example of a theorist of the concord of reason and revelation!

That “Thomism” lapsed into something rather less than what Aquinas made of it is pretty unremarkable–see under any “ism” derived from the work of a seminal thinker.  Wooden copying of cherry-picked conclusions is pretty much what we lesser minds end up doing with the greats, after all.  It is important to notice that “High Scholastic” thought is almost entirely dominated by opponents of Aquinas, though; and that the new Aristotelian thought he championed was what rescued Augustine from Platonic reduction and reversed the poles of aprioristic Ptolemaic thought.

What Aquinas did not do was simply take the other side of a Platonic bifurcation between Ideal and Real, or assimilate revelation to one and reason to the other.  He argued that natural reason could operate on its own because it was created, and the revelation was necessary to complete the created purpose of natural reason.  BOTH were divine gifts to real humans, and BOTH gave humans access to reality.

at the Charite Museum, Berlin.  disgusting.

Again, you really have to take the measure of the narrowing of the discourse that happened from the 13th century to the time of Locke.  Locke’s argument with the Platonists was an intramural argument among Ockhamist, Scotist, Platonist inheritors of the Franciscan/Augustinian heritage, and that argument tended to center on the priority or the subsequent harmony of two faculties presumed to have radically different principles.  Within that strain, Locke is a pre-eminent champion of the possibility of concord, but his efforts are limited by his need to justify himself in terms of that narrowed discussion.

More empirical facts are better than fewer, but they are not a good apart from and incommensurable with other goods, such as the respect for the integrity of human bodies that should have prevented a science from founding itself on stolen corpses and bodies in Bell jars.


This Reply doth most certainly warrant Further Reply. Quoth Greg:

Thanks for this! I will now shamelessly take the bait.

Although I share your appreciation for the improvement that the Middle Ages represented as compared to what came before, I cannot refrain from saying that the battle against bigotry does not seem to me to have reached its apex at that time. [Insert clichéd, oversimplified and historically half-literate references to medieval marginalization, abuse and torture of outsiders here]

It’s also worth noting that we owe our knowledge of the personhood of the embryo entirely to modern science. Thomas Aquinas condemned abortion on grounds that it was contraceptive, because he did not know it was homicide. If you’re glad that you know the embryo is an infant human, thank Francis Bacon.

(source: This Exam Only Needs One Question | Hang Together)

Hah!  Bait strictly accidental, sir.  I couldn’t consistently speak my mind on the subject without putting it that way, although I almost edited it out because I realized it might accidentally resonate with a remark you made in your post about “natural rights” at ETS.  (I’m sorry I didn’t try to attend, now that I know you did.  I may well try to put together a paper for next year–I’ve kept my membership, but haven’t had opportunity to make much use of it, lately.)

As I plan to make a post soon about the “downstream from culture” point and the controversial status of “natural rights” logic in religious discourse (and how “fundamental human rights” and “civil rights” may complicate that picture), I’ll disengage your riposte to my “Christendom” remark as follows:

First, I suspect that we, being both half-breed children of the Enlightenment and Christendom, would agree that the hegemony of post-Christian Western thought has produced evils that even the ancient empires could scarcely rival:  the rationalist regimes of the 20th Century, and their quasi-religious totalitarian counterparts, and even the wars of the supposedly englightened nations, more than keep up with the corvee labor of the Egyptians, the genocides of the Assyrians, or the wars of the Macedonians and Romans, Huns and Vandals.  If you prefer the 17th to the 13th Century, I still hardly think you’ll prefer Mao or Margaret Sanger (or Attila or Peter Singer or Alexander) to Aquinas or More (or Locke or Burke).  And if you prefer to see Aquinas as a swerve on a path that leads more truly through Locke, and I have come to see Locke as a swerve back toward a path more truly drawn forward through Aquinas, then we only prove that we are half-breeds, as our common cause in the post-Christian West is our repudiation of its most distinctive strains in favor of those elements most attributable to its Christian patrimony.

Further, I cannot imagine in what respect Aquinas, Bacon, Locke, or pretty much anyone even tangentially related to the tradition that ran through Aquinas could find themselves at odds on the point in question.  As you say, Aquinas and Christians generally got the moral question right (the moral difference between contraception and abortion is real, as is the moral difference between blasphemy and sacrilege, but less important than the truth that these are all acts that pit us against the gracious work of God, and cut us off from its merits and benefits), quite without benefit of more recent science.  It beggars belief to imagine that the protege of Albertus Magnus and great Dominican defender of Aristotelianism (against a settled Platonist reduction of Augustinian theology that had repeatedly proved vulnerable to dualist misinterpretation) would suddenly *reverse* the course he had charted in theses that were mistakenly (and briefly) condemned and in his controversy against the “double truth” theory of Siger of Brabant; he would hardly suddenly decide that honest understanding of nature was *not* coordinate with honest understanding of revelation!  You can’t have Francis Bacon without Aquinas, the better-formed product of the same 13th-Century University of Paris that produced the brilliant but troubled Franciscan Roger Bacon (and the route forward from Aquinas would have been better if Scotus, Ockham, and others of the Schoolmen hadn’t been so radically deficient in their understanding of his synthesis).

In sum, Aquinas believed, based on the best science available to him, that “quickening” was the point at which a truly human being–a living soul–was verifiably present in a woman’s womb.  In slightly different ways, so did Augustine and St. Jerome, if we are right to rely on popular snippets of their more obscure works.  All roundly condemned “abortion” thus [mis]understood as contraceptive rather than technically homicidal, and all considered abortion homicidal at least from the moment human life could be detected by ordinary means, so it’s really a question of using scientific data to help us decide *which* mortal sin to avoid and *how* to help heal the guilty soul).  I can conceive of no morally or scientifically significant difference between refusing to even vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and refusing to even vote on the Kicking Unborn Child Protection Act.

In any case, I know that you will unhesitatingly agree that none of this in any way exculpates the post-Christian West insofar as, with modern embryology to tell us better, we not only refuse to accept the data when it leads us more certainly to more correct conclusions about the humanity of infants, but also enshrine as a “human right” the willful and publicly-funded slaughter of these innocent, language-learning, pain-capable, helpless humans.

Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it….

(source: James 4:17 RSVCE – Whoever knows what is right to do and – Bible Gateway)