Monday, May 09, 2011

Quaeritur: Aren't You Unfairly Criticizing Gilson?

From a comment on a previous post:

Alan: Quaeritur: You comment [regarding Bouyer's claim that Aquinas "never systematized" his philosophy separately from his theology, and that he only philosophized in a theological context]

"St Thomas's philosophy can be found in his Commentaries on Aristotle exactly in that way: in a non-theological context. Only there, in fact, does it follow its own properly rational principles. The philosophy contained in the Summa is formally theology, and only materially philosophical. This is something that Gilson and his followers are willingly blind to."

I did not get this impression of Gilson when reading his chapter on Faith and Reason in Le Thomisme [English translation: The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas].

He writes:

"Even in the commentaries on Aristotle, his mind always knows where it is going, and there too, it works towards the doctrine of Faith, not as an explanation, but as a completion and counterpoise of mental balance. [...] We do not find in any of his works a body of his philosophical conceptions set out for their own sake and in their rational order. There is indeed a series of writings composed by St. Thomas according to the philosophical method: these are his commentaries on Aristotle and a small number of minor works. But the smaller works give us only a fraction of his ideas and the commentaries on Aristotle, following patiently the meanderings of an obscure text, enable us to guess only imperfectly what a "Summa" of the Thomistic philosophy might have been like, if it had been systematised by St. Thomas himself with that lucidity of genius which dominates his Summa Theologica."

Don Paco: Respondeo dicendum: That text you quote from Gilson is a perfect example of what I'm criticizing in him (and in Bouyer, who is only echoing the Gilsonian position).

The traditional Dominican Thomistic view is that in Aquinas' commentaries on Aristotle we do find "a body of his philosophical conceptions set out for their own sake and in their rational order."*

But Gilson rejected this (and this rejection is in fact one of the foundations of his novel form of Thomism). He thinks that Aquinas' commentaries fall short of this description because (a) they are done with theological motives, and hence they are not the work of a philosopher, but the work of a theologian (he thus seems to imply that they are formally theological); and especially because (b) in them, Aquinas is enslaved to "following patiently the meanderings of an obscure text." 

In other words, he sees the commentaries not as a full-fledged philosophical exposition of the philosophical sciences, done according to their own principles, but as a theologian's doxographical (historical) interpretation of an ancient philosopher. Aquinas, in this view, is not acting as a philosopher who, on the occasion of Aristotle's writings, presents his own philosophical positions, but rather, is acting as a theologian who is merely telling us what exactly Aristotle said, regardless of whether he thinks Aristotle is right or not (rather like a modern historian of philosophy does when giving an exposition on Plotinus, Descartes, or whomever else).  Ergo, Gilson concludes, Thomistic philosophers should not draw Aquinas' philosophy from the Commentaries, but from the Summa.  

(To indulge in a bit of caricature, courtesy of one of my former professors: "Aquinas died, and Gilson was born, and everyone in between got it wrong.  Thank God for Gilson, the Thomistic messias.")

Sed contra, Aquinas himself thinks that in Aristotle's works we find a complete corpus of philosophical sciences "set out for their own sake and in their rational order," to use Gilson's very words.  That this is so is evident from Aquinas' division of Aristotle's texts: there, he identifies the Philosopher's divisions with the divisions of the science itself which is being divided.  So, for instance, in the Physics, he will say that Aristotle first treats the principles of mobile being (Book I) and then the principles of the science (Book II), and at the same time he justifies this division, explaining why this has to be done.  (Aquinas engages extensively in this type of philosophical work of dividing sciences at the beginning of each lectio or set of lectiones.  Sadly, these divisiones textus are habitually ignored by many students of Aquinas' commentaries, and are even left out of some translations).  

That Aquinas thought that Aristotle's works represented the philosophical sciences themselves is even more evident from the prooemia to the commentaries.** In other words, Aquinas himself thinks Aristotle's words are not the mere "meanderings of an obscure text" but philosophical science itself done according to its proper philosophical order. The commentaries, then, are Aquinas' own completion and explanation of what he thought was an already-existing "summa of philosophy," as it were.

Because Gilson does not see it this way, he is inclined to regard the Summa theologiae as the most important source for Aquinas' philosophy. Yet the philosophy that he finds in the Summa is not a philosophy that is sought for its own sake; it is not pure philosophy. Rather, it is what Gilson calls "Christian philosophy," philosophy as being exercized within the science of theology. This is why Gilson organizes his entire The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (original French, Le Thomisme) according to the theological order in which philosophical topics are discussed in the Summa theologiae, instead of organizing them in the philosophical order in which St. Thomas himself thinks they should be treated.  Gilson,  therefore, and hence most modern Thomists (who are, whether knowingly or not, influenced by his thought), are abandoning the philosophical methodology of St. Thomas and bringing in his theological methodology into philosophy.***



* For an example of this traditional Dominican Thomistic approach to interpreting St. Thomas, see H.D. Gardeil, An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas 4 vols. available through ITOPL (only vols. 2-4 are in English translation; all four vols. are available in the original French).  See also Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality, ch. 1 (also available thorugh ITOPL).

** See especially his prooemium to the Posterior Analytics.  There, he performs an ambitious  division of the whole art of logic into its integral parts, and simultaneously tells the reader which works of Aristotle correspond to which parts of logic.  He does something similar regarding the integral parts of natural science and Aristotle's books on this science in Physics I, lectio 1 (this work does not have a prooemium but simply includes its prefatory material directly in the first lectio).

*** See the prooemia to the Commentaries, as well as the various texts throughout the Commentaries on the Division and Order of the SciencesSome scholarly work has been done on the philosophical importance of Aquinas' divisiones textus and prooemia.  A particularly important contribution to the issue has been done  in Spanish: see Jorge R. Morán, "Tomás de Aquino, intérprete de Aristóteles" in Héctor Velázquez (ed.), Tomás de Aquino, Comentador de Aristóteles, Mexico City, Mexico: Universidad Panamericana, 2010; pp. 125-154.



Alan Aversa said...

So Gilson thinks that because St. Thomas apparently philosophized only to theologize, his philosophy is not stand-alone? Thus is he not sincere when he says: "Such being the intimate relations between theology and philosophy, the fact still remains that they form two distinct, autonomous and formally separate spheres."? Is not St. Thomas's greatest contribution to philosphy—the primacy of esse, inspired by his faith in the truth of Exodus 3:14—found in his Summa? Is this as prominent in his commentaries on Aristotle?

Does Faith not have any effect on Reason? ¿How is Gilson wrong in saying:

"This transcendent influence of Faith upon Reason is an essential fact which it is important to understand, if the true features of Thomistic philosophy are to be preserved. Many of the criticisms directed against it, are based precisely on the alleged discovery of the mixture of Faith and Reason in it. But it is as inaccurate to say that St. Thomas has isolated these two spheres by a watertight compartment, as to say that he has confused them. We shall later on have to raise the question whether he has confused them, for the moment it is clear that he has not isolated them, but has kept them in contact in a manner which does not oblige him to confuse them ultimately. This enables us to understand the admirable unity of the philosophical and the theological work of St. Thomas. It is impossible to pretend that a mind of this temper is not fully conscious of its aim. Even in the commentaries on Aristotle, his mind always knows where it is going, and there too, it works towards the doctrine of Faith, not as an explanation, but as a completion and counterpoise of mental balance. And yet one may say that St. Thomas works in the full and clear consciousness of never appealing to arguments not strictly rational, for if Faith acts upon Reason, his Reason, supported and fertilised by his Faith, does not, for all that, cease to perform purely rational operations and to assert conclusions, based only on the evidence of first principles common to all human minds. The fear betrayed by some of his commentators of a possible contamination of his Reason by his Faith, is wholly un-Thomistic; to assert that he is unaware of, or opposed to, this beneficial influence, is to present as fundamentally inexplicable the accord which, in point of fact, his reconstruction of philosophy and theology ultimately readies, and suggests an uneasiness which St. Thomas himself would certainly not have understood. Aquinas is too certain of his thought to he afraid of anything of this kind. His thought proceeds under the helpful impulse of his Faith, as indeed he recognises; but he notes that in following the road of Revelation, Reason easily finds and, as it were, recognises the truths which it might have run some risk of mistaking. The traveller who has been led by a guide to the summit, is none the less entitled to the spectacle which unfolds itself from there, and the view is none the less true, because an external assistance has led him to it. No one can study St. Thomas for any time without being convinced that this vast system of the world which his doctrine presents, took shape in his mind in proportion as his doctrine of Faith was formed; and when he assures others that Faith is a salutary guide to Reason, the memory of the rational gain which he himself realised by Faith, is still vividly present to his mind."


Don Paco said...


I'm not sure how to answer your questions in the first paragraph. I don't deal well with rhetorical questions.

Question 1: No, Gilson does not think that in Aquinas' writings we can find a complete "stand alone" systematic philosophical treatise.

Question 2: No, I don't think Gilson is insincere. He might think of philosophy as an autonomous "sphere," but when it comes down to interpreting Aquinas, he thinks Aquinas never treated it that way. To put it bluntly, Gilson thinks Aquinas either theologized philosophically (in his Summa, for example) or philosophized exegetically (in the Commentaries). Because the Summa is original, while in the Commentaries he is just following the thought of someone else, Gilson concludes that it is primarily in the Summa that we find his *own* thought unadultered by Aristotle's order of proceeding.

Questions 3 and 4: I distinguish:

That such a doctrine is Aquinas' original contribution, I deny: it was already present in many of his predecessors, such as Al-Kindi (who merely reified a logical distinction in Aristotle and Boethius), Avicenna, William of Auvergne, St. Albert the Great, etc.

That such a doctrine is his greatest or most important philosophical doctrine, I deny: the real distinction between essence and existence is an instance (and development) of a more general and overarching principle, namely, the real distinction between potency and act, an Aristotelian doctrine. Thus, every application of the doctrine of essence and existence is in fact an application of the doctrine of potency and act.

That such a doctrine indeed in the Summa, and not as prominent in the Commentaries, I concede, yet I am not sure what you are trying to deduce from that fact.

Second Paragraph:

Question 1: That faith has an influence on reason, I concede, but this can happen in two distinct ways:

One thing is to use philosophical arguments within theological science, and another is to allow one's faith to permeate one's mind when engaging in a philosophical science. The first one is exemplified in the Summa, the second in the Commentaries. The first one is formally a theological act, the second is formally a philosophical one.

Question 2: I do not find any problems with the paragraph you quote. The paragraph is just too vague and full of existentialist expressions for me to be able to identify an error. The main point that I gather is that faith must influence the use of reason in philosophy. And that, every Catholic philosopher must grant. The only thing I am not sure of in this paragraph is what commentators he is criticizing and whether they really are as bad as he makes them be (i.e., I am suspicious of him creating a straw-man argument against the Thomistic tradition, as he is fond of doing).

Rather, what I criticize in Gilson is his use of the Summa as a philosophical text. That approach loses sight of the distinct nature and division of the philosophical sciences and theology. A science begins with its first, evident principles and proceeds to conclusions that are less evident. Thus, Theology begins with the articles of the faith, which are its first principles, which are evident in themselves (though not quoad nos) and deduces theological conclusions from them; whereas the different philosophical sciences begin, not with God, but with creatures, which are more evident philosophically, and then they ascend to know God as unmoved mover and ens primum. Following the plan of the Summa to do philosophy inverts the order: one would then begin philosophically with God, and then move on to creatures. The opposite happens in the Commentaries.

Don Paco said...

PS. Let me clarify, I criticize him for using the Summa as the *main* or *paradigmatic* philosophical text, as the text that teaches us how to proceed in philosophy, and especially as a text that teaches us the architecture of Aquinas' philosophical "system" (to use an un-Thomistic term). Aquinas ordered the different philosophical sciences in his own mind a way that is very different from what we find in the Summa. The Summa, rather shows the architecture of the science of *sacred theology*.

Don Paco said...

PS-2: There is nothing wrong with extrapolating texts from the Summa (e.g., texts on the real distinction, human acts, the natural law, etc., etc.) to supplement what is in the Commentaries. You are right in suggesting that the Commentaries are incomplete, insofar as there are many Thomistic philosophical doctrines that are not present in them. Yet they still provide the basic philosophical architecture, which is entirely missing in the Summa.

Alan Aversa said...

So it boils down to Existentialist Thomism versus River Forest Thomism? Thanks for clearing things up

Don Paco said...

Yes, indeed, Alan, this one of the main elements of that dispute between Gilson and "River Forest Thomism" (RFT).

The only qualification I would make is that not all Existentialist Thomists buy into Gilson's approach, and Gilson's hermeneutic is not merely against RFT, but against the approach of the whole of traditional Scholastic (mostly Dominican) Thomism, which is not a mere "offshot" or "version" of Thomism, but the centuries-old classical Thomistic school itself.

Just to clarify, my colleagues and I here at Ite ad Thomam are not doing River Forest Thomism. Rather, we are simply traditional Thomists. We actually tend not to disagree with the main points of RFT, but we defend some things that RFT would not, such as a return to the scholastic method, the faithful use of the commentators, pre-conciliar manuals, etc. Even RFT is a sort of offshoot of the traditional school, and hence departs from the school's traditiona somewhat, although it is perhaps the most respectable of the them all--arguably the most compatible with traditional Thomism.

We promote continuity within the Thomistic school, just as a traditional Catholic promotes continuity within Catholic theology. We are spearheading a "Thomistic counter-reformation," as it were, Gilsonian Thomism being one of the reformers that we oppose, among others, such as what could be called "historical Thomism."

jac said...

The problem I have with Gilson, and existential Thomists such as John F.X. Knasas, is that they come very near to interpreting every bit of St. Thomas' philosophy in a metaphysical manner: i.e. sub ratio entis (to paraphrase Knasas). The main problem I have with this interpretation is that it departs almost entirely from St. Thomas' roots in Islamic philosophy and Aristotelianism. The late Ralph McInerny (student of Charles DeKoninck) advocated what I consider to be the best approach to St. Thomas' works: through the works of Aristotle.

I don't care for the study of the pre-Conciliar manuals (though I own a copy of the manual of Josephs Gredt), I don't have a real problem with that approach either. Personally, I'd rather study the works of St. Thomas directly and not through a manual, but that is the way I learned myself having studied under another student of the late Professor DeKoninck.

Don Paco said...


I see your problem with Gilson, and I have noticed it too. Everything in Gilson is done at the third level of abstraction--there seems to be little (or no) room for a non-metaphysical natural science. The distinction between the levels of abstraction may be made in theory, but in practice no distinction is between which science is being carried out (whether natural philosophy or metaphysics), and never are the principles of one science distinguished from the other. The whole of the methodology laid out in the Posterior Analytics is ignored.

I also agree that the best way, at least for non-beginners, to study St. Thomas, is to do it through the works of Aristotle (and Aquinas' Commentaries, as I have made amply evident above). I also like DeKonink, and McInerny to a great extent (though not without qualification). Both are very good. My training, in fact, was at Marquette. The few Thomists and medievalists there were mainly from PIMS, with a bit of a River Forest flavor (e.g., students of Owens, Wippel, Weisheipl) who are quite convinced that Thomism should consist in a study of original texts--not only that, but analysis and edition of manuscripts, hard-core paleography, etc. So I'm very comfortable with that, yet at the later stages of my doctoral studies I thirsted for more...

I found that this approach, while interesting and historically illuminating, was a bit wanting in that it lacked logical rigor and could hardly be counted as philosophical (it was mostly historical: what Aquinas said, not what reality is). Moreover, it is not even Thomistic insofar as it is not scholastic. Aquinas was a scholastic, and modern Thomists are not. Those authors may be faithful to Aquinas' doctrine, but not to his methodology, at least his scholastic methodology, as distinct from his expositio methodology. Some even despise the scholastic methodology. (See my blurb on the scholastic method in the "about" page:

That is why I think decided to go back to those traditional manuals. They have taught me a lot: not only how to think philosophically using the scholastic method, but have also made me aware of important and interesting later developments of Thomistic doctrine not present in St. Thomas or Aristotle.

I have come to see the two methods, (scholastic and historical) as not being mutually opposed, but rather as complementary. I usually go to the manuals for an introduction to an issue, or for a summary of later Thomistic developments, and then dive into the texts for a deeper understanding.

What I'm saying, in short, is that studying the modern manuals and the original works of St. Thomas are not mutually exclusive. The former were meant for beginners, to get the basic issues in Aquinas (plus later developments) straight in their heads, before they dove into the Angelic Doctor's texts themselves, which are naturally more advanced, and not always as easy to interpret.

And, aside from the manuals, there are the monographs (and articles) and commentaries, which are an entirely different reality: in my opinion, those should be used mainly either in conjunction or after a thorough study of texts.

The traditional scholastic Thomists did all three things: they started with manuals or summae, then studied the texts, and then studied the commentaries, monographs, and articles. This then enabled them to write new (updated) manuals, monographs/articles, and/or commentaries. It's perfectly reasonable, I think. There is no reason to single out one of these as the only legitimate one or the only one worthwhile doing.

Alan Aversa said...

Where can I find Jorge Morán's article "Tomás de Aquino, intérprete de Aristóteles"? It appears on WorldCat that his book is only in the Oxford library. Thanks

Alan Aversa said...

After re-skimming "The River Forest School and the Philosophy of Nature Today" by Benedict Ashley, O.P., a proponent of Aristotelian or "River Forest" Thomism—esp. pg. 3, which says that in "the commentaries on Aristotle [...] the philosophical disciplines are treated according to their own principles and methods via inventionis"—I have finally understood why Gilson's position is erroneous; the Summa is wine and the commentaries are water (De Trinitate q. 2 a. 3 ad 5).