Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Thomistic tradition, Part II

Concluding my overview of the main varieties of Thomism, with some final outtakes taken straight from the Aquinas cutting room floor:

6. Analytical Thomism: This newest approach to Thomism is described by John Haldane (pictured at left), its key proponent, as “a broad philosophical approach that brings into mutual relationship the styles and preoccupations of recent English-speaking philosophy and the concepts and concerns shared by Aquinas and his followers” (from the article on “analytical Thomism” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich). By “recent English-speaking philosophy” Haldane means the analytical tradition founded by thinkers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, which tends to dominate academic philosophy in the English-speaking world. Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) and her husband Peter Geach are sometimes considered the first “analytical Thomists,” though (like most writers to whom this label has been applied) they did not describe themselves in these terms, and as Haldane’s somewhat vague expression “mutual relationship” indicates, there does not seem to be any set of doctrines held in common by all so-called analytical Thomists. What they do have in common seems to be that they are philosophers trained in the analytic tradition who happen to be interested in Aquinas in some way; and the character of their “analytical Thomism” is determined by whether it tends to stress the “analytical” side of analytical Thomism, or the “Thomism” side, or, alternatively, attempts to emphasize both sides equally.

We might tentatively distinguish, then, between three subcategories within the group of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been described as “analytical Thomists.” The first category comprises analytic philosophers who are interested in Aquinas and would defend some of his ideas, but who would also reject certain other key Thomistic claims (perhaps precisely because of their perceived conflict with assumptions prevalent among analytic philosophers) and thus fail to count (or even to count themselves) as “Thomists” in any strict sense. This sort of “analytical Thomism” might be said to emphasize the “analytical” element at the expense of the “Thomism.” Anthony Kenny (who rejects Aquinas’s doctrine of being) and Robert Pasnau (who rejects certain aspects of his account of human nature) would seem to exemplify this first tendency. A second category within analytical Thomism would comprise thinkers who do see themselves as Thomists in some sense, and who would argue that those aspects of Aquinas’s thought which seem to conflict with assumptions common among analytical philosophers can be interpreted or reinterpreted so that there is no conflict. This approach might be said to give both the “analytical” and the “Thomistic” elements of analytical Thomism equal emphasis, and is represented by thinkers like Geach, Brian Davies, and C. F. J. Martin (all of whom would attempt to harmonize Aquinas’s doctrine of being with Frege’s understanding of existence) and Germain Grisez and John Finnis (who would reinterpret Aquinas’s ethics so as to avoid what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”). The work of Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump also possibly falls into this second category, though since it is often interpretative and scholarly rather than programmatic, it is harder to say.

Thomists of other schools have been very critical of both of these strains within analytical Thomism, sometimes to the extent of dismissing the very idea of analytical Thomism as being no more coherent than (in their view) “transcendental Thomism” is. But there is a third possible category of “analytical Thomists,” namely those whose training was in the analytic tradition and whose modes of argument and choice of topics reflects this background, but whose philosophical views are in substance basically just traditional Thomistic ones, without qualification or reinterpretation. Here the “Thomism” would be in the driver’s seat and the “analytical” modifier would reflect not so much the content of the views defended but rather the style in which they are defended. The work of writers like Gyula Klima and David Oderberg seems to fall into this category. Moreover, some writers who appear to fall into the second category of analytical Thomists when writing on certain topics seem closer to this third category when writing on others. (Martin, Davies, and Haldane would be examples, since while some of their work attempts to harmonize analytic themes with Thomistic ones, at other times they are more inclined to challenge certain common analytic assumptions in the name of Thomism.)

In addition to the various schools of thought within Thomism that I have been describing, other approaches could be distinguished. For example, while Aquinas is generally understood to be an Aristotelian, commentators like Cornelio Fabro (1911-1995) have emphasized the Platonic elements in his thought. John Deely advocates bringing Thomism together with semiotics, the general theory of signs and signification. I have not attempted to be comprehensive, and what I have said about the main approaches has been brief and oversimplified. But hopefully it will give the reader some (very general) guidance through the gigantic and often bewildering body of literature on Aquinas and Thomism. In the interests of full disclosure, I might mention that my own understanding of Aquinas has been influenced most by the work of writers in the Neo-Scholastic, Laval/River Forest, and Analytical schools (especially the third category of analytical Thomism that I distinguished). In particular, I follow these approaches in reading Aquinas as the pivotal figure in an ongoing “Aristotelico-Thomistic” tradition, a “perennial philosophy” which has its roots in the best of ancient Greek thought and continues to this day.

Further reading:

Treatments of the history of and various schools of thought within Thomism can be found in: Romanus Cessario, A Short History of Thomism (Catholic University of America Press, 2003); Helen James John, The Thomist Spectrum (Fordham University Press, 1966); Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Blackwell, 2002); Ralph M. McInerny, Thomism in an Age of Renewal (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968); and Brian J. Shanley, The Thomist Tradition (Kluwer, 2002). Useful collections of essays can be found in: Victor Brezik, ed., One Hundred Years of Thomism: Aeterni Patris and Afterwards, A Symposium (Center for Thomistic Studies, 1981); Deal W. Hudson and Dennis Wm. Moran, eds., The Future of Thomism (American Maritain Association, 1992); and the series Thomistic Papers published by the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas (Meridian Books, 1958) contains a useful collection of papal statements on the significance of Aquinas for Roman Catholic thought. Gerald A. McCool has developed a controversial interpretation of the recent history of Thomism in a series of books; see his Nineteenth-Century Scholasticism: The Search for a Unitary Method (Fordham University Press, 1989); From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism (Fordham University Press, 1989); and The Neo-Thomists (Marquette University Press, 1994). His interpretation is debated in John F. X. Knasas, ed., Thomistic Papers VI (Center for Thomistic Studies, 1994).

The Neo-Scholastic approach to Aquinas is summarized in Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (B. Herder Co., 1950; reprinted by Ex Fontibus Co., 2006). A recent treatment of Garrigou-Lagrange’s thought is Richard Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P. (St. Augustine’s Press, 2005). Presentations of existential Thomism can be found in Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1952) and Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (Vintage Books, 1966). John F. X. Knasas, Being and Some Twentieth-Century Thomists (Fordham University Press, 2003) is a recent defense and Ralph McInerny, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Catholic University of America Press, 2006) a recent critique. Two recent introductions to Laval/River Forest Thomism are The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume 1, edited and translated by Ralph McInerny (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008) and Benedict M. Ashley, The Way toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). For transcendental Thomism, see Joseph Donceel, ed., A Marechal Reader (Herder and Herder, 1970). For Lublin Thomism, see Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Eerdmans, 1997). For analytical Thomism, see the chapter on Aquinas in G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Three Philosophers (Basil Blackwell, 1961); John Haldane, ed., Mind, Metaphysics, and Value in the Thomistic and Analytical Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); The Monist, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1997), a special issue on Analytical Thomism edited by Haldane; and Craig Paterson and Matthew S. Pugh, eds., Analytical Thomism: Traditions in Dialogue (Ashgate, 2006).


  1. Thanks for this! Would you be kind enough to indicate (for someone who knows nothing about it) the way in which McCool's approach is considered controversial?

  2. What do you think of Stump's recent _Aquinas_ volume in the Arguments in the Philosophers series? Would this be a good place to go to learn about Aquinas's views for someone who is fairly well-versed in contemporary analytic philosophy?

  3. Great job, Ed. I posted on this on my web site.

    Do you know of Ashley's article on the River Forest School in the Weisheipl commemoration volume, Philosophy and the God of Abraham? It's a touchstone, and every time I think of it I remember back to my life-changing experience of attending Fr Weisheipl's funeral at the River Forest Priory in early 1985.

  4. Gregory,

    Basically, McCool rejects the notion of a perennially valid core to Thomism. Them's fightin' words!


    I like Stump's book, though despite its length, it's better on depth than breadth (e.g. you won't find a treatment of the Five Ways there). For breadth with less depth (but still significant depth) you might also look at Brian Davies' The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Then there's this other book on Aquinas by some arrogant Kant-dissing guy with an 80s hairstyle...


    Thanks! Yes, that's a great volume -- and hard to afford a used copy of without TARP money!

  5. Oh, I'm going to read your book when I have time...should I ever teach a medieval philosophy class (which is a distinct possibility at my institution), I'm going to need to bone up, quick.

    But the main thing is, I've bought your book, and now you've got you $1 royalty.

    And what's with the hair?

  6. "And what's with the hair?"

    Wait 'til you see my new Aquinas-inspired tonsured look. Back to the 80s -- the 1280s!

  7. Wow, thank you for the excellent "further reading" list. Maritain's St. Thomas Aquinas is available gratis online in its entirety. Also, the introduction to Paterson & Pugh's book on Analytical Thomism is available gratis online, too.

  8. @Dr. Feser: Could you please elaborate a bit on how "Basically, McCool rejects the notion of a perennially valid core to Thomism?" I just finished reading both of Fr. McCool's 19th and 20th century books on the history of Thomism, and my only criticisms are that he hardly gives any treatment to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's "strict observance Thomism" and that he seems to promote an "evolutionary/historical-relativist" interpretation of the history of Thomism. Is this what you mean, too? Thanks

  9. Have you read Deely's Four Ages of Understanding? If so, how was it? Benedict Ashley, O.P., highly recommends it and frequently cites it in his The Way toward Wisdom. Thanks

  10. so James F. Ross would be in third category of analytical Thomism ?