Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Thomistic Philosophy Unintelligible?

The Maverick Philosopher recently wrote a post leveling against St. Thomas perhaps the most serious charge that can be made against a philosopher - unintelligibility. It's one thing to say that a philosopher is wrong; quite another to say that he is unintelligible. Such a philosopher doesn't even rise to the dignity of error, in the words of C.S. Lewis's tutor (as quoted in Lewis's autobiography.) The charge is so serious because philosophy is an ongoing conversation and voyage of discovery; even when a philosopher is wrong, he is still contributing to the conversation and furthering the ongoing cultural project even if only as an example of a potential mistake. The philosopher who is unintelligible, however, is merely creating noise and hindering the philosophical project; in other words, he is not really a philosopher at all but only a counterfeit.

Of course I do not think St. Thomas, or the moderate realism he represents, is unintelligible. I will provide a detailed defense of St. Thomas in a coming post. For now, I would like to make a broader point about the general approach to great philosophers. St. Thomas Aquinas has been an inspiration for, and deeply studied by, many profound thinkers since his days in the thirteenth century. If we study him ourselves for some period, but find him unintelligible, should we suppose that the flaw is in ourselves or in St. Thomas? Great philosophers are great precisely because time has demonstrated that they possessed an uncommon power of insight, which is why philosophers through the ages refer to them again and again. Now St. Thomas may appear unintelligible to us because he is in fact unintelligible; but he may also appear unintelligible because we as yet lack the uncommon power of insight which he possessed. Again I ask... which is more likely?

This point holds for all of the great philosophers through history - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, etc. These philosophers all more or less disagreed with each other in various ways, but what makes them all outstanding is the uncommon insight they possessed. Their disagreements arise from the fact that their insight, while uncommon, is not always uniform. Kierkegaard, for example, may have penetrating insight into psychology and the subjective nature of existence, yet fail to have the fundamental metaphysical insight that St. Thomas had; while St. Thomas, for his part, might lack the psychological insight of a Kierkegaard. In any case, I find the dismissal of any great philosopher as unintelligible to be at least a very bold, and perhaps even a foolish move, for it implies that the great philosopher was speaking nonsense even in his own terms. And to know that, we must possess an insight into the philosopher's philosophy at least as profound as the philosopher himself, for there is really no other ground from which to justly make the charge of unintelligibility. And, for the last time, we must again ask ourselves the question: Is it more likely that I have penetrated to the depths of Thomistic philosophy and found it nonsense, or that I don't really understand what St. Thomas was talking about?

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