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.

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