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.

4 Thoughts.

  1. Throughout your account you conflate “natural reason” with “empirical science” and act as though the defense of the former entailed the defense of the later. It does not. And yes, the people who tried to run Locke out of Oxford were far inferior to Aquinas – but it does not follow from this that Aquinas was a champion of empirical science (as distinct from “natural reason”). 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.

  2. 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 this is in focus 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 folks have, if they 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. There is a vulnerability in the tradition after Augustine, as there always is after a seminal thinker achieves a durable synthesis. Aquinas defended Augustine against that vulnerability to dualistic misinterpretation by judicious application of Aristotle.

    I think Locke wanted what Aquinas wanted, and I think that he did a remarkable job of excavating many of the same insights from beneath several centuries of political turmoil. I think that it is profoundly regrettable that metaphysics had decayed so badly from Aquinas to Locke that Locke has to dig himself out from under so much rationalism to one side, Platonism to the other, with materialism poised to swoop.

    Which is why I don’t see the need to set Locke and Aquinas at odds at all, and I’m puzzled that you seem to think we should. I would rather see Locke as a useful adjunct to Aquinas (and subject to correction as well), much as I see Burke as advancing in Locke’s direction in aesthetics (and tuning Locke’s politics up a bit, too).

    (comment is short version of a longer reply that I’m editing into a post.)

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