Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Existentialist Thomism: What to Read?

Share/Bookmark Quaeritur:

I was wondering if you know of any works in English which deal with the problem of existentialist Thomism from a more classical Thomist perspective. I am ordering a copy of The Sacred Monster of Thomism, which seems it may get into this issue to some extent in analyzing Father Garrigou-Lagrange's conflicts with Maritain, Gilson, Chenu, etc., but any other books you are aware of may be helpful. I am particularly interested in any works which may help to emphasize the balance of essence and existence in authentic Thomism as opposed to both the overemphasis on existence in existential Thomism and the overemphasis on logic and essences in essentialist Thomism. No need to fall into the essentialist errors which some of the more existentialist Thomists like to accuse authentic Thomism of.

Respondeo: I don't know of any works that BOTH explicitly contrast "Existentialist Thomism" with the more traditional Thomism of the manuals AND present the latter in a positive light. It would make sense to me that the sole reason why modern authors (last century) bring up the distinction between "Existentialist" and"Essentialist" Thomism is to show that either traditional Scholastic Thomism (supposedly the same as"Essentialist Thomism"), or both traditional and "Existentialist Thomism," don't work.

It is false, and even presumptious, to think that for 600-or-so years Thomists always fell into the error of "essentialism" until Fabro et al came along and removed our blinders. But it is equally false and presumptious to think that the truth lies somewhere in between, as if for 700-or-so years Thomists have always fell into either extreme of essentialist or existentialist Thomism, and that no one has ever found a "balance."

Rather, the truth lies in the consensus of Scholastic Thomists--not in what Fabro taught, not in what Cajetan taught (at least not in the exact way he taught it), but in what most Thomists have always taught. You will find this consensus in the traditional scholastic manuals and other similar scholastic works. So rather than telling you to read some "centrist" neo-Thomist, I would point you towards some of the best examples of traditional Thomism.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the best idea, in my view, is to start by reading the traditional Thomistic philosophical manuals in Latin (e.g., Hugon, Gredt, Zigliara, etc., which I have available through my Ite ad Thomam Out-of-Print Library in PDF format).

If you can't manage the Latin, then I would refer you to:

or, if you can read French:

If you can read Latin, once you've gotten a good summary from the manuals or from any/all of these works, I would recommend tackling:

  • Ramirez, De analogia, 4 vols (also available through my Ite ad Thomam Out-of-Print Library in PDF format). Ramirez's work is the most thorough discussion on analogy ever written from the traditional Thomistic point of view (painfully thorough, in fact).

And notice I don't initially recommend Cajetan. While Cajetan is the most famous commentator of the Summa, by no means are his views the very definition of "Thomism of the strict observance" (or, as I prefer to call it, traditional Scholastic Thomism). He is number one in the existentialists' list of "essentialist Thomists." And the reason is that Cajetan is perhaps a bit more an "essentialist" than the average--and certainly moreso than the best--traditional Scholastic Thomists. But it is an illegitimate move to lump Cajetan and the rest of the traditional Scholastic Thomists into one group, and then thinking that by refuting Cajetan one is refuting the entire school of Scholastic Thomists. The reality is more nuanced than that. Most Thomists don't put things in Cajetan's exact terms.

In fact, Garrigou-Lagrange, whose thought I DO consider to be the most advanced and profound expression of traditional Scholastic Thomism, sides with Cajetan in a qualified way only. Garrigou praises Cajetan over and over throughout his writings for his profound sense of mystery and says of him that, "[his] glory lies in his recognition of the true grandeur of St. Thomas." However, Garrigou acknowledges that Cajetan sometimes gets a bit hung up on logical abstractions, and every now and then you'll see Garrigou saying things such as, "Cajetan conceived the matter too abstractly." So, overall, he sides with Cajetan, but although Cajetan was usually right in Garrigou's view, things could nonetheless be expressed or conceived in a better or more adequate way. A bit like Aquinas, who treats Augustine with reverence and hides the fact that he disagrees with him, so Garrigou will do with Cajetan, to a lesser degree. In fact, you won't really see Garrigou-Lagrange flat-out rejecting the views of too many Thomists (Suarez's views were a definite exception, as he didn't consider Suarez to be a Thomist at all!), and this is partly because he revered them, partly because he practiced the axiom: seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.

PS. Pictured above are Cajetan and Luther. Cajetan was the Apostolic Legate to Germany and was commissioned by the Pope to confront Luther.


Anonymous said...

1. Regarding the original James' question, I have had a recent opportunity to take a look into the Ralph McInerny's new book "Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers". It seems to me that in it McInerny does, among other things, just what James is looking for: contrasts the "existential Thomism" with the more traditional approach, in favor of the later (he even, to the some extent, defends Cajetan against Gilson).

I must admit, however, that I am not too happy with his style of writing. I find it too chatty, unsystematic and digressive, which at times makes it difficult to follow the main line of reasoning and to see and appreciate the argument itself. (However, English is not my native language and maybe that could be the part of the problem). So, I would say (by borrowing the scholastic terminology as I understand it - and that is certainly not much) that the book is, in my opinion, materially good, but formally could be better. :)

I would like to know what do you (Francisco) think of Ralph McInerny generally (I know that you have a high regard for books by his brother "D.Q.") and of his approach to Thomism?

2. There is one thing that I don't quite understand in James' original question, so maybe James (or you, Francisco, if you agree with James) can help me with a clarification. James speaks "overemphasis on logic and essences in essentialist Thomism." Now, I don't see how one can "overemphasise" the logic? According to the traditional definition, logic is defined as "science and art of correct reasoning", or, more formally, as "science and art which directs the operations of the mind in the attainment of truth". Now, the only way of doing philosophy is by reasoning. So if we want this reasoning to be correct (and I hope we want that), and if we want to attain the truth in our philosophy (and I hope that we want that too), the only way that I see to do it is by using logic and by emphasizing it very much. Otherwise, I don't see how can we avoid arbitrariness in philosophical conclusions.

Don Paco said...

Dear Anonymous,

1. McInerny's book (which I have not read, but of which I have read reviews) does indeed address these issues generally. He has also written several works (especially "Aquinas on Analogy") which do address them more directly. However, McInerny--and I mean Ralph--stands in the middle ground between traditional Scholastic Thomism and Existentialist Thomism. James asked for a book which deals with the question from a "classical Thomistic perspective." I take him to mean that he's looking for a traditional, SCHOLASTIC Thomist who addresses the issue. I'm afraid Ralph McInerny is not quite at that end of the spectrum. He is more of a "centrist" Thomist than a traditional, Scholastic Thomist. If I understand him correctly, I believe he buys into the same basic problematic that the existentialist Thomists read into Cajetan and the rest of the tradition; he differs from them in that he offers a different solution. In other words, he agrees with them that the tradition is flawed, but disagrees with them in how to solve it. I do have high regard for him, and I commend him for his courage in doing what he does within the circles that he moves in (if he went any further to the right, he would be totally rejected and scorned by his peers at Notre Dame and elsewhere) but I cannot but agree with you that his works can be better, especially in their formal aspects (methodology, language, style).

I do like his brother's books, however. They may not be as "sexy" or as attractive to the modern scholar; but they are much better from a traditional Scholastic perspective, not only in terms of their content, but also, and especially, in their formal aspects. They are essentially (though at a very basic level) scientific, Scholastic manuals of Thomistic philosophy--the only thing of the sort written in English since Vatican II, and the only thing in English currently in print. They are, therefore, very useful, and easy to find; that is why I typically order them for my courses. D.Q. usually begins with first principles, proceeds with the proper Scholastic, scientific methodology, and arrives at conclusions scientifically. Throughout his books he is conscious of the fact that he is building a science, not just proving a point, and definitely not just talking--which is the trend among non-Scholastic (i.e., non-traditional) Thomists, whether they be existentialist, Analytic, historical, or otherwise. This sort of scholastic methodology that D.Q. employs at a very basic level is missing in his brother's (Ralph's) works--as you obviously noticed in his latest work "Preambula Fidei." Now, of course, there are many superb scholastic manuals, which are more sophisticated and more thoroughly scholastic (less "chatty") than those by D.Q., but they are mostly in Latin and out of print; and those few that HAVE been translated into English (such as H.D. Gardeil's) are not in print either.

2. The phrase "essentialism" and the accusation that it "overemphasizes logic" can be legitimate, although most of the time it isn't.

Sometimes scholastic thinkers who value logic highly make the mistake of "reifying" mental entities (entia rationis) such as genera, species, differentia, etc.; that is, of conceiving the entia rationis as being entia in the world. There are no genera out in the world. There is no such thing as "mamalhood" out there, grazing on the pastures. This is obvious, but what is not so obvious is the fact that essences aren't things either, at least in the same sense as any ordinary thing. This is a mistake which very few Thomists make and Cajetan is one who certainly had some tendencies in this direction. It is legitimate to accuse Cajetan, and a few of his most devoted followers, of having leaned a bit too much in that direction. (Although it's just a tendency, not a thesis that he argues for.) It would be wrong, however, to reject his entire contribution to Thomism (which is certain one of the greatest within the entire tradition) just because he expressed things a bit strongly in that direction.

That is the legitimate extent of the existentialists' warning not to be too "essentialistic". However, many existentialists apply that accusation more generally. Some existentialists cannot stomach the Scholastic form of logical, scientific argumentation that Thomists, including Aquinas himself, employ in their writings. This format of argumentation and of doing science is nothing but the very Scholastic method that defines us. And there is nothing illegitimate about that-to say the least. (I would even argue it is the most perfect way of doing science.) But, finding that Thomists do want to steer clear of the accusation of being "essentialits" they take advantage of that and stretch the catchphrase "essentialism" as a blanket condemnation of everything that is logical, scientific, and Scholastic. This is not a legitimate accusation. However, it is very common. As a result, mainstream Thomism nowadays does not observe the Scholastic method because it is unpopular, becaust it is tagged as being "essentialistic." Unfortunately, this rhetoric has kept some otherwise-Scholastic Thomists away from being true to the very method that Thomism is intended to follow.

I hope this helps.

Don Paco said...

If I may add, I am anxious to read McInerny's new book, as it has been recommended by a trusted source (who acknowledged the book is lacking in terms of scholastic format, but is good in terms of content). I'm especially interested in reading McInerny's refutation of the entire Gilsonian enterprise.