Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Thomistic Summer Institute 1997
Opening Remarks

Ralph McInerny
Saturday July 19

In Conrad's Lord Jim, a storm comes up, the crew panics and Jim, persuaded that the old tub on which he is sailing cannot possibly makes its destination, jumps ship with the other officers, leaving a shipful of pilgrims to their fate. After anxious days in an open boat, with time for Jim to reflect on what he has done, the deserters make their intended port. As they enter the harbor with their well-rehearsed story of what happened, Jim sees, docked, safe, arrived, the bucket of bolts they had left to sink with all its passengers.

There have always been a lot of not so lordly Jims in the ranks of Thomists, jumping ship because they were persuaded that the Cartesian or Kantian or Heideggerian turn called for a complete overhauling of Thomism. Some had simply come to believe that modern _________ (the blank was filled in in various ways), had made untenable a philosophy fashioned in the thirteenth century of elements derived from the fourth century B.C. But far and away the major motive for wanting to jettison, or at least radically revise, Thomism, has been the amazing advances in the sciences.

This diffidence before science has not of course been confined to Thomists. When I was a graduate student we read Hans Reichenbach's The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. The message seemed to be that the single task remaining for philosophy was to chronicle and analyze what the sciences were up to. Not an ignoble enterprise, certainly, but this was to make philosophy exclusively philosophy of science. A kind of ambulance chase after those who were in the business of really learning things.

A favorite image was the crumbling continent, that is, in the beginning, every human effort to know, however crude and primitive, was part of a single land mass and was included under the umbrella term philosophy. But even in its earliest centuries, at least to the anachronistic eye of a F. M. Cornford, the mind was seeking to escape from the mythical and religious beginnings of philosophy and head in a more scientific, that is, reductive naturalist, direction. Over the years, pieces of the philosophical continent drifted off like icebergs -- mixing metaphors with the abandon of Anaxagoras -- and metamorphosed into sciences. With Copernicus and Galileo, the rout of philosophy was on, as sciences multiplied and one division after another of human knowledge was rescued from philosophy and acquired epistemic or sovereign island status.

Philosophers are, of course, a hard bunch. Few registered for unemployment compensation. After all, one could philosophize about the loss of anything for philosophizing to be about. As Aristotle said, in another connection, even to ask whether or not one should philosophize is already to philosophize. Many ingenious retoolings of the philosophical enterprise have been proposed.

The philosopher could survive by describing his task as transcending the physical: he would deal with metaphysical matters. And when his right to do this was questioned, there was a fallback position.

If the wider world was the domain of science, the philosopher could recede within and retain status by claiming to clarify the a priori possibility of there being any knowledge at all.

It was the notion that philosophy is not so much a science as about the sciences, a meta-discipline that tidied up loose ends, that has had the longest run. Worrying about language may have replaced worrying about knowing, but basically the philosopher clarifies the instruments of knowing.

Small wonder that students of Thomas Aquinas, whose mandate was not that they become medievalists or historians, but rather to see the relevance for our times of the truths taught by Thomas, were affected by all this. To think Thomas in conjunction with ongoing issues was to confront claims that Thomism was erected on naivete, precritical thinking, or was a matter of being arrested at the level of breast feeding. not quite weaned enough to confront reality (Piaget).

It was under such pressures that some suggested that we redefine Thomism so that it could do the task it was meant to do. I think it safe to say that it was in the area of our knowledge of the natural world that the most unease was felt.

Thomism and Science

A first way of adjusting to the rise of science was to identify philosophy with metaphysics. Then the Aristotelian analysis of things that come to be as a result of a change -- natural or physical beings -- into matter and form could be retained as an ontological theory wholly different from the sorts of thing scientists say about the world. Cosmology became a special branch of metaphysics and presumably pursued its course in utter indifference to what the scientists might be up to.

Of course, a lot of very explicit Thomistic teachings have to be abandoned if this position is to be maintained. Thomas held, accepting and expanding an Aristotelian tenet, that the philosophy of nature or natural science is formally distinct from metaphysics.. Metaphysics has as its subject being as being, but until and unless we know that there are some beings that are not material, material being and being are the same thing. A cogent proof is necessary if we are going to maintain that there is something immaterial, and the proof will have a conjunction of truths about material things as its premises. Since metaphysics does not exist prior to such proofs, they must be looked for in one of the uncontested sciences, mathematics or natural science. Thomas points out that it is the proof of a first unmoved mover in the Physics and the proof in the De anima of the continued existence after death of the human soul that provide the basis for the truth that to be and to be material are not identical. Then, being as being can designate a subject broader than the subject of natural philosophy.

There were not wanting suggestions that by some sort of intuition the human mind could grasp that there are immaterial beings. As often as not, accounts of this supposed intuition came down to the salutary reminder that we should feel awe at the simple thereness of things. Why is there anything at all rather than nothing? Without such wonder, philosophy would never begin. But wonder at the things that are is not a proof that there are immaterial beings among the things that are.

Furthermore, the strange spin that has been put on the axiomatic truth that diversum est esse et id quod est led many students of Thomas to suggest that the recognition of this diversity, the grasp of esse, was just as such the grasp of the immaterial, confusing this diversitas with the separatio that characterizes metaphysics.. But the examples invoked made it clear that it is esse materiale that is seen to be diverse or distinct from what material things are. For them to be, after all, is to be material.

Jacques Maritain whose patronage broods over these proceedings made notable contributions to a Thomistic philosophy of nature. He rejected what can be called the Louvain understanding of philosophy of nature as special metaphysics. There is a philosophy of nature distinct from metaphysics, Maritain insisted. He also held that it is distinct from what he called the empiriological sciences. How do they differ?

In The Degrees of Knowledge, he stressed methodological differences. What characterizes modern science is the employment of mathematical overlays in order to say things about the world around us. Formally, such sciences are mathematical not physical or natural.

...physico-mathematical science appears from the outset as a mathematization of the sensible. From induction it requires a well-established empirical fact, but only in order to submit it to the deductive form and rule of explanation of the mathematical order. So it corresponds to the epistemological type which the ancients called "intermediary sciences" (scientiae mediae), sciences which straddle the physical order and the mathematical order. (Degrees, 147)

But if Maritain distinguished between natural philosophy and metaphysics, he describes both natural philosophy and the empiriological sciences as ontological, though differently. The latter are ontological only indirectly, in that their constructions are meant to refer to the real world. But philosophy of nature is ontological just as such.

As others would do, Maritain made use of Eddington's distinction between science and another more fundamental knowledge of the physical world: the scientist, Eddington wrote, is disposed to think "that a just appreciation of the physical world as it is understood today carries with it a feeling of open-mindedness towards a wider significance transcending scientific measurement." (Degrees, 185) Maritain claims this world which transcends mere measurement for the philosophy of nature.

There emerges a kind of two-track account of our knowledge of the natural world. There is the knowledge acquired by the sciences, which is somehow extrinsic to and dialectical vis-a-vis the natural world as it is, and knowledge which bears on natural things as they are.

Because he does not imagine this second line, that of philosophy of nature, as advancing toward more precise accounts, Maritain acknowledges that philosophy of nature must be satisfied "with certitudes of a very lofty universality." (189)

It must abandon all the specific diversities and peculiarities of the world of bodies, all the detail of the operations of sensible nature, to what Leibniz called 'symbolic' or 'blind' knowledge, and we propose to call empiriological knowledge. Indeed, this latter knowledge does descend to detail, but the essence escapes it. (189)

What emerges then is a philosophy of nature, which unlike the empiriological sciences, is ontological and concerned with the essences of things. And yet it has to be satisfied with lofty generalities. The empiriological sciences, on the other hand, get into great detail but not in such a way as to grasp the essences -- real natures -- of the things studied.

Maritain developed these suggestions in later writings -- notably in The Philosophy of Nature published in 1935 half a dozen years after The Degrees of Knowledge. His reflections exhibit the fact that Maritain studied science, specifically biology, for some years in Germany before turning definitively to philosophy. His account of the status of a philosophical knowledge of nature that attempts to give full credit to the sciences without ceding to them the whole realm of nature.

In the quarter of a century or more that intervened between Maritain's The Philosophy of Nature and the close of Vatican II, the discussion of the relationship between philosophy and science was carried on by Thomists in a lively fashion. The Louvain view, as codified by Fernand Renoirte, had its defenders in this country because of the role the Institut Supérieur de philosophie played in providing graduate and undergraduate teachers in the States. But the genial influence of Maritain was felt, and strongly felt, and his views gained many adherents. Indeed, the major rival account, a third way beyond both the Louvain view and Maritain's own, owed much to what Maritain had written.

Charles DeKoninck, a graduate of Louvain whose earliest writings adopt Maritain's view, developed an alternative to it when he took up his position at the Faculté de philosophie at Laval university. DeKoninck arrived there in the mid-thirties and soon American priests were being sent to Laval for theology and philosophy when study in Europe became chancy. After the war, the American delegation enlarged to include many laymen and women as well. DeKoninck himself had little sense of career management. He was as likely to publish pieces in a clergy review as a philosophical journal. What he held on the philosophy of nature and science came to be known as much through dissertations he directed -- e.g. that of Father Otis and that of Bernard Mullahy -- as from his own writings, which were for the most part occasional -- that is, until the lectures that became The Hollow Universe (1960). Eventually he found and edited the Laval théologique et philosophique and it was there that most of his writings appeared. His books, by and large, were either collections of such essays or developed from them In his last years, he divided his time between Quebec and South Bend, teaching at Notre Dame in the Fall and Laval in the Spring. He was a peritus at the Council and died in Rome in 1963.

Meanwhile, at River Forest, the Dominican studium in Chicago, under Humbert Kane, a theory all but identical to DeKoninck's was independently developed. Among those associated with River Forest then are Father Ashley and the late Fathers James Weisheipl and Raymond Nogar. Father William Wallace holds similar views but I am not sure whether he was influenced by any of these others or sprang full blown from the brow of Zeus.

Since Fathers Ashley and Wallace are with us, I will not presume to tell their story. I myself studied at Laval under DeKoninck and thus took in the theory, if not with my mother's milk (pace Piaget), at least with my Canadian ale and vin rouge canadien. Suffice it to say that it is a continuity view, rather than a two track view, but one that takes into account the obvious methodological differences between Aristotle's Physics and Newton's Principia.

A minute ago I referred to a stretch of time that extended to 1965 during which the matters before us were widely and variously discussed by Thomists. The suggestion was that something ended there. What ended of course was the exuberant Thomism that characterized those preconciliar decades, a time when Thomists could afford the luxury of innumerable internecine battles, rivalries and struggles for hegemony. There are those who have accepted the myth that Catholic philosophy prior to the Council was a dull and rote business that lulled generations of students into a dogmatic slumber in the classrooms of the nation. But then there are those who have been persuaded that Catholics did not participate in the Mass prior to the novus ordo. The disputes among Thomists were nowhere more lively than in the area to which I refer. There were champions of the positions I have alluded to, and of innumerable variants on them. My colleague during my first years at Notre Dame, Vincent Edward Smith, would have to be mentioned in any account of the period.

The Council had many unintended effects, among them the rapid disappearance of Thomism from Catholic colleges and universities. In Thomism in the Age of Renewal (1965) I gave a contemporary account of this phenomenon; the book retains a certain dated charm, I am told. It would be overly dramatic to suggest that one day the aulae maximae of the nation were melodious with lively disputations on a dozen matters and the next day were bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. But there was a precipitous decline among Thomists.

Father Ashley has told the story in "The River Forest School and Philosophy of Nature Today" in the essays gathered in memory of James Weisheipl by James Long in 1991 (pp. 1-15) The school that had flourished at River Forest moved to Dubuque and then went down the river to St. Louis where Father Ashley now lives. But if he like the school has been a moveable feast, it is safe to say that this itinerary is not a tale of flourishing so much as survival. Save, of course, in his august person.

When one looks back over the bleak philosophical landscape of the past thirty years, thomistice loquendo, it is heartening to see that Fathers Wallace and Ashley have continued the discussion. Their work during those years is on the record and, I believe, will now begin to have the effect it deserves. Indeed each of them has published definitive work on our topic quite recently, Father Ashley's Theologies of the Body in 1985 and Father Wallace the magisterial The Modeling of Nature in 1996.

This conference was not convened to canonize these two exemplary Dominicans, nor to promote one way of handling the issues before us over others. But it is called in the confidence that the disputes that have fallen into desuetude will now be revived and that the reflections of such scholars as Wallace and Ashley will play significant roles in that renewed discussion.

Nature and the Faith

If Thomas is right, a robust philosophy of nature is necessary if there is to be a metaphysics. That is important, but of course it does not reach to the heart of the Church's interest in the matter. When Leo XIII urged Catholics to heed once more the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, he was speaking as the Roman pontiff and was not delving into curricular matters because he was underemployed.

The Church has an interest in philosophy because knowledge of the natural order is presupposed by the supernatural. Faith presupposes reason though it is not, of course, a simple deduction from it. But the telos of philosophy itself, if Aristotle is right, is theology, such knowledge as men can attain of the divine. In his magisterial retrospect at the beginning of his Metaphysics, Aristotle puts before us the human mind's slow ascension from the sensible things around us to knowledge of a realm beyond the sensible, to an intimation of the divine. All men by nature desire to know, Aristotle says, but he is not invoking a supposed universal longing for a college education. A sign of this desire he says is the delight we take in our senses, particularly the sense of sight. Adumbrating a distinction that will emerge between the speculative and practical by noting that while sight enables us to be on the lookout, sometimes we want simply to look, Aristotle takes us gradually from practical skills, through a distinction between experience and knowledge, and on, after an allusion to the role of play, to knowledge sought for its own sake. We know when our why can be replaced by because. But there are causes and causes, and the ascent to the first causes is the ascent to the realm of the divine. First glimpsed negatively as an unmoved mover, God is described by Aristotle in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics as noesis noeton: thought thinking itself.

The trajectory of our knowledge leaves an indelible stamp on our epistemology and our language. We name as we know and the words first used to speak of the sensible things around us are retained and applied to progressively less obvious things until they are employed to speak of God himself. We have no direct access to God. We can come to know him only through the world around us. Scattered through the natural writings of Aristotle are reminders of the ultimate goal of the pursuit of truth. And there is the famous anecdote that Aristotle relays of Heraclitus. Visitors arrived to find that the great man was in the kitchen, and they hesitated to talk to him in such humble surrounded. Come in, the sage called, they are gods even here.

The traces of the divine in the natural world, the ordered whole that is the cosmos, urge the mind on. But Aristotle insists that it is only by going more and more deeply into the natural world that we will have a basis for a justified ascent to the realm above the natural, the metaphysical.

The status of this theology of the philosopher is questioned by many and those who find room for it do not always see it as a fruit of the study of nature. In such ways as I hinted at earlier, it is suggested that we have some kind of direct intuitive access to the immaterial. This suggestion is as often as not prompted by the belief that the philosophy of nature is no more.

Is There a Philosophy of Nature?

Is there knowledge of the natural world distinct from the knowledge that we have through the sciences? Can I know anything for sure about the natural world, the things around me, independently of the sciences?

Everyone answers these questions in the affirmative, often without realizing it. I mentioned earlier Maritain's invocation of Sir Arthur Eddington. Eddington introduced the famous distinction between two tables, the one he was writing on and the table as the physicist would describe it. The former was solid, resistant, stolidly occupying its spatial coordinates; the latter was porous, more emptiness than fullness, a constant shifting and altering of electrical charges, its edges more like the Dow Jones average than straight lines. Which is the real table? Must the everyday table be set aside in favor of the scientific table? Wilfrid Sellars called the former the manifest image and held that it was destined to be replaced by reports on brain stages.... Eddington made the obvious point that the table as ordinarily grasped is that to which the scientific account points and seeks to account for. Similarly, Russell observed that the astronomers sun is an account of the sun that rises and sets in ordinary experience.

Pre-scientific knowledge, that is. It is difficult to imagine anyone wanting to get along without it. One way of looking at the philosophy of nature is as a move beyond that pre-scientific knowledge which does not employ the mathematical techniques we associate with a scientific account. There are things and they are changing; they seemed to come to be as the result of a change, to change constantly until they undergo a change after which they are no more. That is what ta physica or naturalia meant. What is the least that can be said about such things? This is where the analysis of the first book of the Physics begins. As Aristotle reminds us, such beginnings are very general. We first know what things have in common before we know how they differ. This suggested to him that our knowledge of nature would move gradually from more to less general accounts... But the beginnings would be, as Maritain called them, glittering generalities.

The problem of the philosophy of nature is this: Is there a knowledge of the natural world which is beyond prescientific certainties and short of scientific?

The next problem, presupposing an affirmative answer to that, is: What is the relationship between philosophy of nature and what Maritain called the empiriological sciences?

Are any of the earlier Thomistic proposals worthwhile?

Should we start over in some way not envisaged by our predecessors?

Or should we jump ship like Lord Jim and bet that the good ship Thomas will never arrive at its destination of showing that there is an episteme of the natural world that is prior to what we call the sciences and that it is an important truth that this is so?