Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Neo-Scholastic revival?

Neo-Scholasticism was a movement within philosophy and theology which sought to revive, develop, and defend Scholastic thought in general and Thomism in particular as an alternative to the various schools of modern thought. It flourished from the years just prior to Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris to the close of Vatican II in 1965. As those temporal markers indicate, it was mostly a Catholic movement, but there were several prominent non-Catholic thinkers who sympathized with the Aristotelian themes emphasized by most Neo-Scholastics. Mortimer Adler, John Wild, and Henry Veatch would be three examples. (Adler did finally convert to Catholicism not long before his death.)

A great many silly things have been said about this tradition by its critics. For example, within Roman Catholic circles, Neo-Scholasticism is often disparaged as “manualist,” because of the way in which Neo-Scholastic thought was often transmitted through manuals or textbooks of philosophy, theology, and ethics, usually for use in seminary education. Yet why such “manualism” is objectionable is a question to which no one has ever given a satisfying answer. We are told, for instance, that the teaching of the manuals was too “constricting” and pre-packaged, that the systematic and rigorous character of Scholastic thought stifles “creativity.” But of course, you could say the same thing about textbooks of physics or chemistry, and no one would suggest that this shows that what is taught in such textbooks is wrong. Physics and chemistry are what they are, and if that makes it more difficult for would-be physicists or chemists to show their “creativity,” that’s just tough luck for them. Similarly, if the teaching of the Neo-Scholastic manuals is correct, then complaining that it cramps one’s style is simply juvenile and frivolous, and certainly beside the point.

To be sure, one might object that that teaching is not correct. But it is amazing how infrequently this charge is actually made. People do object, of course, to this or that specific doctrine, especially in moral theology, but by and large the critics do not allege that the central philosophical and theological claims of Neo-Scholasticism are false, much less bother to put forward arguments against them. Instead they say that the manualist tradition is “outdated” or “doesn’t speak to the concerns of modern man.” Given that no attempt is made to refute that tradition, such claims thus turn out to entail little more than that Neo-Scholasticism isn’t fashionable. Again, one wants to ask: So what?

One might object that the comparison to physics and chemistry is inapt, since philosophical and theological inquiry don’t give us anything close to the kind of settled results that those sciences do. But this would simply be to beg the question against the Neo-Scholastics, who took the view that the “classical realist” tradition of thought extending from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine to Aquinas and the other great Scholastics represents, in part, a body of known truths, whose precise significance and implications may be open to reasonable debate, but whose essential correctness is not (certainly not from a Catholic point of view). Hence, from the Neo-Scholastic perspective, philosophy and theology are capable of yielding settled results, at least concerning the “big picture” – realism about universals, rejection of any mechanistic conception of nature, affirmation that the existence of God can be demonstrated, defense of the distinction between sensation and intellect, and so forth – even if they also leave much room for debate. (And anyone who thinks the Neo-Scholastics just repeated each other without engaging in serious controversy – another standard charge – has obviously not bothered to read them.)

Thankfully, there have been signs recently of a renewed appreciation for the Neo-Scholastic tradition. Among theologians, R. R. Reno, writing in First Things, has noted how the successors of the Neo-Scholastics have failed to put anything in the place of the systematic body of thought represented by the manuals, leaving a gigantic gap in ordinary theological education. The new emphasis on novelty and “creativity” effectively destroyed any sense of a common theological tradition and replaced it with a bewildering variety of unsystematic and idiosyncratic theologies as numerous as the theologians themselves. The upshot has been a catastrophic failure of catechesis within the Catholic Church in the last four decades. As Reno notes, this is a failure not only of blatantly heterodox writers like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, but also of those partisans of the nouvelle theologie who saw themselves as loyal to the Church’s magisterium, such as Balthasar and de Lubac. Reno recommends a new look at the great Neo-Scholastics, hinting that their critics would have been better advised to build on what they accomplished, even if modifying it somewhat in the process, rather than throwing it aside altogether.

Others have begun to take that second look. The greatest of the 20th century Neo-Scholastics – some of us dinosaurs would say the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, period – was Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (pictured in the photo above), whose work went into near-oblivion in the post-Vatican II period. Recently, however, two sympathetic book-length studies of his thought have appeared. The first is Richard Peddicord’s The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., which was published in 2005. (The title is taken from an epithet once directed at Garrigou-Lagrange by one of his detractors.) And this year Aidan Nichols has published Reason with Piety: Garrigou-Lagrange in the Service of Catholic Thought, originally presented as a series of lectures at Oxford. (Incidentally, if you are interested in exploring Garrigou-Lagrange’s own work, you cannot do better than to begin with his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, and continue with his great two-volume work God: His Existence and His Nature, both of which have recently been reprinted. See here, here, and here.)

Among moral theologians of the manualist era, John C. Ford stands out as particularly significant. Among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in persuading Pope Paul VI that the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception could not be changed. (Ford’s book Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume 2: Marriage Questions, co-authored with Gerald Kelly, is the best book in English on sexual morality that I know of.) Though he has, like Garrigou-Lagrange, been neglected in the post-Vatican II period, he too has been made the subject of a recent book-length study, John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era, by Eric Marcelo O. Genilo. (Genilo is not entirely sympathetic to Ford’s traditional approach to moral theology, but tries to be fair-minded.)

Within philosophy, Ralph McInerny has for decades been carrying the Thomistic banner passed on by the Neo-Scholastics, and like them he interprets Aquinas in light of the Dominican tradition of commentary represented by Cajetan. His recent book Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers is a defense of that tradition against critics of Neo-Scholasticism like de Lubac and Gilson, who sought to disassociate Aquinas from the commentators and from Aristotelianism more generally. (See here for a review of McInerny’s book, from the same issue of First Things in which Reno’s article appeared.)

Some philosophers often identified as “analytical Thomists” have also shown an interest in the Neo-Scholastic tradition. John Haldane recently edited Modern Writings on Thomism, a series of volumes reprinting several important Neo-Scholastic philosophy manuals of the pre-Vatican period. David Oderberg’s work also evinces sympathy with Neo-Scholasticism. His brilliant recent book Real Essentialism is must reading for anyone interested in a rigorous and detailed contemporary defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. And of course, other analytic philosophers with an interest in medieval philosophy have sought to show how the ideas of the medieval Scholastics, when properly understood, are as powerful and challenging today as they were in their own time. Gyula Klima’s work has been exemplary in this regard.

None of this quite adds up to a “Neo-Scholastic revival,” but it does provide evidence that such a revival is not out of the question. It is in any event sorely needed (or so I would argue) if the rational foundations of morality and religious belief are once again to be widely understood – indeed, if the rational foundations of anything are to be understood. For modern philosophy is an incoherent mess, and its false assumptions make problematic, not only natural theology and ethics, but empirical science and any other form of rational inquiry as well. The Last Superstition is devoted in part to making the case for this claim – and to doing my own small part to further the revival of the great Scholastic tradition.


  1. It may be worth pointing out, though, that even 'analytic' Thomists of whom you tend to approve, like Haldane and Davies, seem to agree that the manuals had some pretty negative effects, at least philosophically. Their point seems to be that learning from the manuals left people without any suitable sense of the dialectical basis of philosophy, giving students no adequate appreciation of how Aquinas' philosophy presents a set of answers to questions and problems. In terms of your comparison with physics and chemistry, the analogy would be to people who just know by rote what the latest theories are, but have no real appreciation for how one arrives at those theories, what the real reasons for accepting them are, and what the real alternatives might be. As with the natural sciences, this sort of knowledge is better than ignorance, but it's precisely this that makes a lot of people who are 'educated' in the sciences tend toward a dogmatic assurance that the theories in their textbooks are just true plain and simple and makes them completely misunderstand the nature of science as a matter of simply looking at what's out there and coming up with the best experimentally supportable account of it. I think the nature of philosophy is suitably different from the natural sciences to make this issue even more pressing, but even if we accept the analogy without complaint, it's easy to see how a manualist tradition could produce the results with which some have found fault. I'm not in a position to say whether or not it actually did, but it might go some way to explaining the typical insularity of neo-Thomism.

    As for substantive criticisms of the content of the manuals, quite a few people have complained that the manuals get Aquinas wrong by emphasizing rules and obligations to the detriment of virtues and that they don't adequately explain the treatment of analogy. Again, I'm not in a position to know whether this is true, but it is at least a real criticism.

  2. Well, the point of the manuals specifically -- as opposed to the other works of the sort of people who wrote the manuals -- was in part to assist in educating priests, and this practical task is one to which endless debate over philosophical minutiae is inappropriate. So to that extent such criticism is misplaced.

    I would also deny that neo-Thomism was insular. On the contrary, neo-Thomists were (and are) constantly engaging in debate with other traditions and incorporating what is of value in them. The trouble is that the other side, beholden to dogmas of its own, is too often unwilling to reciprocate. In short, the charge of "insularity" made by the critics of neo-Thomism is, it seems to me, more or less a case of projection.

    Re: your last remark, my point is that it was rarely argued or even suggested by its critics that the broad Neo-Scholastic framework as a whole had actually been refuted. This remains true even if (as you rightly note) there were quibbles over this or that point of detail. Instead of saying "Here's why (e.g.) the theory of act and potency or the essence/existence distinction is wrong," the anti-Scholastics just changed the subject altogether.

  3. Compare Haldane and Davies to, say, Garrigou-Lagrange. The first two write in a way that is meant to engage with people who disagree with them. With G-L, you'd better be pretty sympathetic to begin with or you won't be able to handle the amount ot stuff he lets go without responding to objections and the like. The fact that the charge of insularity is made by other Thomists is pretty telling, I think.

  4. Hell, consider even Mortimer Adler, for whom I have a kind of soft spot. Adler didn't fall short in arguments and addressing the real opposition in the way that some neo-Thomists did, but still, because he wrote entirely for novice philosophers, he didn't produce arguments of nearly the level of rigor and precision that would be necessary for him to be taken seriously by philosophers. It isn't just that he argued for unfashionable theses (many of those theses have become less unfashionable, but Adler's reputation has not improved); it's that he didn't give as much attention to detail or even acknowledge that there were problems of detail. It's no good to say that those problems aren't really there, or aren't really serious, or that the details aren't important; just look at how much more Oderberg has to do to produce a strong defense of just a few key Aristotelian theses, and you'll see my point.

    I'm not denigrating neo-Thomism as a whole. I'm just denying that the reason why nobody outside of traditional Catholic circles took it very seriously was because they were all a bunch of prejudiced, anti-Catholic dimwits. Just consider the fact that people did take Maritain seriously, consider why he was successful at being read and discussed by non-Catholics and even atheists when so many others weren't, and you'll see my point.

  5. I think you need to distinguish between 2 species:



    I recommend reading the late Fr Servais Pinckaers, OP's The Sources of Christian Ethics or the Reader's Digest version -- Catholic Morality, both English translations of the French and conveniently published by St Augustine Press the same publisher as some guy whose name escapes me at the moment, but I'm sure I will think of it.

  6. Interesting chap, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. R G-L consistently defended Petain and the Vichy, even after WWII. He seems to have considered Maritain--quite conservative himself--to be nearly a marxist. R G-L also condemned all protestants into Hell (Luther, most significantly), as well as Kant, Hegel, and English empiricists.

    1. If you think R G-L condemned all Protestants to hell, you clearly have not taken a peek at his Life Everlasting, where he actually favors a more generous position than most on the whole "many-or-few-will-be-saved?" controversy, and explicitly mentions how many Protestants will be saved, mentioning things like invincible ignorance and a perfect act of contrition.

  7. Thank you for the list of Neo-Scholastic sources.

    I've been thinking about what makes a Thomist a Thomist. Not that I'm assuming it need be just one thing; to be a Thomist perhaps it would be enough to philosophize in the "spirit" of Aquinas, whatever we might take that to mean.

    I'm thinking what if we had a philosopher with the following beliefs:

    (1) The God of traditional theism can by argument be proven to exist;
    (2) (1) is true not only in principle, there is also at least one argument we can point to that does prove God's existence ("prove" as in gives justification for rational assent to, or something);
    (3) hylomorphism about man's composite nature is right, with the rider that the mind is immaterial (and must be for knowledge to be possible);
    (4) free will exists (in terms of what I have heard described as moderate determinism);
    (5) all human actions have happiness, and in a more obscure way God, as their final end;
    (6) virtue theory is right;
    (7) natural law theory is right (and fits with virtue theory).

    I'm wondering if one can be a Thomist while rejecting any from (1)-(7), and if so which one(s). (My understanding is that some new natural law theorists will pretty much reject (5) but still be considered Thomists, or at least consider themselves as such, so maybe it would be better to consider whether any from (1)-(7), not counting (5), can be rejected while maintaining Thomism.)

    Part of why I want to get clear on what beliefs go into the makeup of a Thomist is so I can pinpoint where Thomism can contribute in today's philosophical debates. To me the aspect of (3) regarding hylomorphism and (5) jump out as areas of Thomistic thought not very prominent in contemporary philosophy.

    I know the post was intended specifically to defend Neo-Scholasticism against certain criticisms, but I'm interested to see what your opinion is concerning at what junctures of contemporary philosophy Thomism (or Neo-Thomism or Neo-Scholasticism, I'm not sure) is most needed. At a more basic level, I'm not sure if the value of Thomism is supposed to lie more in its specific doctrines, like those listed above, or in its systematic nature which, I take it, is much less characteristic of the contemporary philosophical scene.

  8. "he didn't produce arguments of nearly the level of rigor and precision that would be necessary for him to be taken seriously by philosophers."

    Give me an example.

  9. Dear Casey981,

    The purest distillation of neo-scholasticism must be the famous 24 theses below (commented on by R G-L in Reality). Very handy as a starting point but not as an end and a substitute for reading Thomas himself. In my experience, where such documents present exhustive clear and distinct principles, in Thomas they are often suggestive and non-exhaustive. The best example I have recently examined is on Natural Law. In contrast to the famous “five precepts” (codified by whom? Cajetan or Saurez?) what you see in Aquinas in the ST is a very loose set of examples nicked from Justinian and Cicero.

    In the end, although I am more in sympathy with the first respondent to Edward, it is surely unfair to accuse summary texts written for non-specialists of dogmatism (like science text books), when they should be pedagogical tool to be moved beyond. The real point of contention is the presuppositions of Cajetan et. al. inspired Neo-Thomism. So the story goes, it is these presuppositions that in part drive the need for clear and distict manuals and not just the practical clerical demands of the day that Edward invokes.