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Fossils and Frankenstein monsters

One sometimes hears it said that studying the works of Thomists only distorts one’s understanding of Aquinas. “Read St. Thomas himself, and forget the commentators!” This sounds sophisticated, or is supposed to. In fact it is superficial. No great philosopher, no matter how brilliant and systematic, ever uncovers all the implications of his position, foresees every possible objection, or imagines what rival systems might come into being centuries in the future. His work is never finished, and if it is worth finishing, others will come along to do the job. Since their work is, naturally enough, never finished either, a tradition of thought develops, committed to working out the implications of the founder’s system, applying it to new circumstances and challenges, and so forth.

Thus Thomas had Cajetan, Plato had Plotinus, and Aristotle had Aquinas himself – to name just three famous representatives of Thomism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism, respectively. And thus you cannot fully understand Thomas unless you understand Thomism, you cannot fully understand Plato unless you understand Platonism, you cannot fully understand Aristotle unless you understand Aristotelianism, and so on. “But writers in the traditions in question often disagree with one another!” Yes, and that is all the more reason to study them if one wants to understand the founders of these traditions; for the tensions and unanswered questions in a tradition reflect the richness of the system of thought originated by its founder.

Great philosophers, then, are not museum pieces, or shouldn’t be. Karl Popper famously derided the incessant “spectacle cleaning” of those linguistic philosophers who became so obsessed with the words we use to talk about philosophically problematic phenomena that they lost sight of the phenomena themselves. Historians of philosophy can make a similar mistake if they are not careful, becoming so obsessed with the minutiae of historical context that they make the arguments of a Plato or an Aristotle, an Augustine or an Aquinas, a Descartes or a Kant come to seem like fossils, so deeply embedded in the contingent controversies of their times that they can no longer speak to us today.

When an argument presented as paradigmatically Thomistic, Platonic, Aristotelian, Cartesian, or whatever is dismissed by the historian as “anachronistic” – as an accretion of the later tradition which must be stripped away in order to get at the “authentic” teaching of the founder, or as a reconstruction that goes beyond the actual text – then we are in danger of losing sight of the point of studying the thinkers in question in the first place. As Aquinas himself put it, “the study of philosophy is not about knowing what individuals thought, but about the way things are” (Exposition of Aristotle’s Treatise On the Heavens I.22). An argument as actually stated by some great philosopher of the past may be incomplete or unclear, and seem open to various objections. And yet it may also embody real insights, and contain in embryonic form a more compelling line of thought that later thinkers in the tradition have merely refined and strengthened rather than made from whole cloth. To ignore the latter is not to do justice to the thought of the founder, but precisely to do him an injustice. More to the point, it is to risk failure to discover the truth about some substantive philosophical matter in the name of a pedantic, narrow conception of “scholarship.” Hence those who study (for example) Plato’s arguments for the immorality of the soul and the theory of Forms, or Aquinas’s Five Ways, while ignoring the ways later Platonists and Thomists have interpreted and defended those arguments, blind themselves to the real power of these ideas.

As every Aristotelian knows, however, vices tend to come in pairs. And in avoiding the mistake of fossilizing great thinkers of the past, we must take care not to fall into the opposite error of making them over in our own image. This is what occasionally happens when the contemporary analytic philosopher pulls a volume of some great philosopher of the past off the shelf and decides he’s going to do said philosopher the favor of reconstructing his arguments in a style that might make them acceptable to a referee for Nous or The Philosophical Review. The result is sometimes interesting. But sometimes it involves (say) attributing to Aristotle a “functionalist” philosophy of mind, or interpreting Aquinas’s Third Way as an exercise in possible worlds theorizing. That is to say, the result is occasionally a kind of Frankenstein monster – the attempted reanimation of a (presumed) corpse via the latest philosophical technology, which yields only a grotesque distortion of the original. (Readers interested in these particular examples are referred to Aquinas, which among other things attempts to clear up some common misunderstandings of the Third Way and of the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to the mind-body problem.)

If the historian of philosophy is sometimes overly attentive to historical context, then, the analytic philosopher is sometimes insufficiently attentive to it. If his standard of philosophical respectability is what he was taught in grad school or what he hears talked about at the latest APA meeting, he is naturally going to assume that if Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or whomever really has something of interest to say, it must be expressible within the conceptual boundaries with which he and his friends in the profession are familiar. But a past philosopher’s significance is not to be measured in terms of the degree to which he approximates our opinions and assumptions. On the contrary, as Christopher Martin has said, “the great benefit to be derived from reading pre-modern authors is to come to realise that after all we [moderns] might have been mistaken” (Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, p. 203). A failure to interpret and evaluate the arguments of a past philosopher on their own terms not only entails misunderstanding what he had to say, but also deprives us of the opportunity of uncovering possible errors or limitations in our own thinking.

The only way for a philosopher to avoid both sterile historicism and ahistorical arrogance – both fossils and Frankenstein monsters – is to strive to understand the history of his subject while always keeping in mind that this historical knowledge is not an end in itself, but a means of approaching philosophical truth. In particular, it requires understanding the ongoing traditions of thought to which many of the great thinkers of the past contributed. To understand not just Thomas, Plato, or Aristotle, but Thomism, Platonism, or Aristotelianism, as living systems, is simultaneously to situate these thinkers within their proper intellectual context and to understand their contemporary relevance.


Comments (4)

I agree pretty much with what you have here, but I would add that when one intends to read the later commentators in a tradition, Cajetan and Bellarmine and Garrigou-Lagrange as expositors of Thomas, one SHOULD read Thomas, the primary of the tradition, first. Without that, (first of all) we cannot know exactly why the later commentator thought that he needed to expand, or clarify (or, sometimes) correct the primary. That is, we cannot know it on unbiased grounds: the expositor may say why he is doing it, but that is based on his own (potentially biased) reading of Thomas on the matter at hand. We should at least make an attempt to make a judgment of that attempt, which means we need to read and try to discern the primary before coming to the commentator and his particular "reading" of Thomas. This would imply a lot of reading of primary source material before reading later commentators in a tradition.

Secondly, if a thought tradition is fundamentally unsound in a really grievous and far-reaching way, (say, Marxism), knowing Marxism from his later expositors would imply seeing Marxism as living systems, is simultaneously to situate these thinkers within their proper intellectual context and to understand their contemporary relevance but would mean, importantly, knowing the source from which the contemporary supporters obtained their defects, but would not (necessarily) help explain why these men ever started down that path to begin with. To truly understand the thought tradition would be impossible without direct examination of the source, Marx himself.

So in general, while reading the primary does not imply a completion of the work before us, it should be the starting point generally.

I certainly think the question of whether some argument really was Thomas's (or Locke's, etc.) is an interesting one in itself, though I agree that it's possible to "fossilize" too much. But I think the interest in finding out what Thomas or any other long-ago thinker really said and really meant becomes obvious when that thinker is attacked for having messed up all of Western civilization or having been stupid or whatever, and his defenders claim that he is being misrepresented. Then it becomes important to find out whether the attackers or the defenders are right. I think a Thomist would agree that there can be way too much in the way of vague criticism and that it is frustrating to be told, "Well, so-and-so may not actually have said that, but that is how he was taken, so it's his fault that the tradition got messed up in this way." Or "So-and-so may not have said that, but somehow he _gives color_ to such thoughts by _thinking in that general way_, so really, it's a correct interpretation of him." And so forth. I have enough of a desire for accuracy to want people to come down to brass tacks. If I think that some defender of Thomas is interpreting him too creatively, I'll at least say, "Well, gee, I'm no expert, but when I read that passage, it really does sound to me like he's saying such-and-such." In other words, it seems to me weaseling to go in the direction of later traditions and penumbras as an excuse for criticizing a thinker. Which in turn indicates that the potentially fossilizing approach has more of a place and is more excusable than the Frankenstein approach. In other words, they aren't on a par.

As a student of Duns Scotus, I second Lydia's comment...in my case it's the thomists who have fostered centuries of misinformation that often does require detailed historical analysis to refute. Historical analysis, I might add, that is then largely ignored by later generations of thomists. One need only look at McIntyre's recent history of the university, in which he basically argues that thomism is true a priori; on the other hand, he is aware of the existence of Henry of Ghent. Brick by Brick, as fr. Z would say.

Sorry, I have forgotten Henry of Ghent, if I ever knew what he said.

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