Thomism in the 21st Century

The philosophical world today, as it has been for over a century, remains primarily divided along a single fault line: that which sunders so-called “analytic philosophy” from “continental philosophy”.  To paint with enormously broad strokes, the former philosophizes by seeking ideal a priori formulas which ensure the validity of its reasoning and subsequently to verify soundness through empirical observation and testing, while the latter seeks to educe meaning through the examination of experience, considered both in its lived subjectivity and its transcendental content.

But although these traditions are still dominant, there exist on the fringes of the academy some other identifiable, classifiable approaches which fail to sit neatly on either side of that tremendous fault.  Eastern philosophy, for one, which comprises distinct traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, represents not only a set of alternatives but one which has gained some traction in recent years.

Likewise, particularly in Europe and especially in the northern and eastern countries, semiotics (as opposed to semiology, which would fall broadly within the continental tradition) has been growing steadily in the academy, bolstered by the number of scientists and especially biologists who have been turned by the work of men such as Thomas Sebeok, Claus Emmeche, and Jesper Hoffmeyer, among others.

St. Thomas Aquinas

And then there is Thomism, a tradition which has existed in some form or another since at least the 14th century, but which, despite its age, receives less respect than possibly any other serious approach to philosophy.  Its practitioners today, though once prominent–Jacques Maritain at Princeton, Etienne Gilson in Toronto, Mortimer Adler at Chicago–seem to exist only within Catholic universities, and, whereas the other alternatives to analytic and continental philosophy seem to be growing, Thomism (and any sort of “neo-scholasticism” in general), seems at best to be in a state of arrested development.  A less optimistic view would proclaim it to be dying.  Why?

On the one hand, few if any philosophical approaches appear with as great of an outward-facing solidarity as does Thomism; as a relatively small clique, by holding one thinker as truly preeminent in nearly all respects, this gives an appearance of unity unmatched by any other tradition.  That is, while Kantians or Peirceans may be very much in favor of “their guy”, they also fall into broader camps, such that followers of other thinkers can still claim them as part of the “us”, whereas Thomists seem not to; since “medievalists” are typically historians, rather than philosophers, and “scholastics” or “neo-scholastics” are primarily Thomists.  It is rare to meet a Scotist or a Bonaventurian.

On the other hand, while all philosophical approaches seem to have much silly in-fighting over very minute issues with little-to-no relevance for the greater philosophical questions, Thomism is no exception, and the issues constituting its internal strife are very silly indeed.  That is, I find it hard to see why any non-Thomist would take Thomism seriously, when the Thomists have decades-long debates (still unresolved) about the “starting point of metaphysics” or whether the point made in a brief and obscure passage was more influenced by Aristotle or by Avicenna.

And so it is a legitimate question to ask: why should any philosopher bother with Thomism at all?

What is Thomism?

Having been steeped in the thought of Thomas Aquinas since 2006–with six years in graduate school at the Center for Thomistic Studies–I can, to some extent, only imagine what the external perception of Thomism is.  Based on my interactions with non-Thomist philosophers, I imagine it to be: Thomists are mostly religious ideologues hellbent upon smashing square metaphysical realist pegs into round, natural, materialist holes, just the way God intended.  I recall, as a graduate student, while at a party at the University of Dallas, being accused of “being a typical Thomist […] and having answers for everything.”  If compliments can be backhanded, I suppose that was a forehanded insult.

From the inside, the not-so-public self-perception(s) of Thomism are perhaps not so different from the public, though certainly put in a more positive light: that is, Thomists tend to see their commitment to metaphysical realism as a commitment to the correct way of viewing the nature of the universe, and as therefore something of a proudly-held principle; which makes Thomists the defenders of an immutable truth, the keyholders to a timeless tradition of ancient wisdom, the followers, protectors, and expositors of the rightly-vaunted intellect of St. Thomas Aquinas.  It can be a pretty haughty group (of course, that’s true of all philosophers).  The often-unspoken attitude is that while other traditions may have some truth, little “t”, but Thomism has priority access to Truth, big “T”–eternal, universal, end-all-be-all, “Only Truth that Really Matters” Truth.  It is little wonder that, as a group, Thomists come off as smug.  This is not aided by the fact that many Thomists, most especially its casual adherents, are adamantly “traditionalists” who demand a return to monarchy, traditional divisions of familial labor, dressing like Victorian dandies, and other such anachronistic revivals, and who perhaps doubt evolution or the non-Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological models.

The reality of Thomism varies widely from Thomist to Thomist.  Some are better, some are worse.  I have heard it joked that there are as many varieties of Thomism as there are Thomists.  I doubt this makes Thomism any different from most other schools of philosophy.  However, I do think that Thomism is perhaps a bit more arrogant as a tradition (not necessarily as individuals) than others, due the aforementioned attitude about having the Truth; but also I think Thomism is perhaps a bit more coherent, from principles to conclusions, than most other traditions, for at least some of the principles it holds are true and lead to more truth.  Unfortunately, I think that the grasp Thomism has on its own principles is one-handed and by the fingertips.

Part of what I argue in my book is that the weakness of this grasp is in no small part due to misapprehension of one of Thomas’ most important principles–that is, while one hand has latched successfully on to a true support, the other has grasped at a rope attached to nothing, and the first can only hold on for so long–but I’ll get to that (shameless self-promotion) later.


I have long had a problem with Thomistic in-fighting.  I can recall countless times in graduate school where, sitting in the seminar room (or at conferences), I heard the same tired debates rehashed again and again; and old, exposed wine being poured into new wine skins, so to speak, does not prevent it from turning to vinegar.  It is likely that some of this internal bitterness gestates from the structurally incestuous nature of academia: we fall into our cliques in graduate school, publish on issues within those cliques, go to conferences run by those cliques, and before we know it, have a CV five pages long that looks suspiciously like one of those conferences’ programs.  What else would we debate, when this is all we know?

Among the negative consequences of this isolationism, specifically for Thomism, is that its debates become increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of the day.  That is, while we should strive always to better understand what Thomas himself meant, endless debates about issues eight centuries past, as they were debated those many hundreds of years ago, contributes only marginally to correcting the erroneous thinking of today and to better teaching students who live in the twenty first century.  In other words, philosophy and traditions of philosophical thinking should always be universal in their scope–which means that if they cannot transcend their own history, they are faulty as philosophies.

What does Thomism have to say, for instance, about Blockchain?  How many Thomists even know what Blockchain is–let alone why it has the potential to be among the most important technological developments of the past decade?  There are possibly commentaries by some Thomists here or there on the nature of distributed ledgers–but none on a technology quite like those being developed and used today.   (these are some of the issues being looked at with the Center for the Study of Digital Life, where I am a fellow).  Does Thomism have any insight into technology at all, and how it has changed and will continue to change the ways we live, aside from reactionary movements against, say, transhumanism?  Or, how often do Thomists still to this day write or present arguments against abortion on the basis that the fetus is truly living and truly human, when that is not even why any among the intelligentsia are for a right to legal abortion?  How can Thomism attract students with a claim of perennial wisdom, if that wisdom cannot account for the socially-constituted reality with which we interact far more frequently, on a day-to-day basis, than any naturally-constituted reality?  Do Thomist professors of undergraduates exposit Thomas, or do they teach as Thomas himself would have?

There is hope.  The most recent issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly features two good articles by two good young Thomists (Therese Scarpelli Cory and Matthew Minerd) which, though heavily invested in scholarship, address poignant issues.  Some conferences have sought meaningful confrontation with the challenges of today.  There are many others I know of who are working in good, interesting, relevant areas, and making their teaching not simply the propounding of doctrine but who actually philosophize with their students.

At the same time, however, other articles recently published cover topics that have been covered to death, smothered, with naught but minor new alterations for a vague tint of originality.  One recent article has the title format, quite literally, of “[Tired topic] Reconsidered Once Again.”  Another makes an argument about Thomas’ unsourced Neo-Platonic influence on the basis of the intersection of three different themes.  Others examine parallel texts, or respond to responses about responses to interpretations of responses.  Countless titles contain, “A New Argument for [Old, Mostly Useless Interpretation]”.  Some of this publication likely introduces valuable work, but I cannot help thinking that a publish-or-perish mentality has resulted in a slapdash of near-frivolous production.

Thus the hope I have is that the younger generation of Thomists will breathe new life into the tradition.  Part of our difficulty, undoubtedly, has been the physically fragmentary nature of our work.  Aside from a few departments here and there in the country, the majority of us are geographically scattered, able to convene two, maybe three times a year (and some of us less).  But the younger generation is more technologically savvy–at least, somewhat–and online collaborations and conferences and discussion can likely help to facilitate increased relevance.  While nothing will replace geographic closeness, the digital universe can help us overcome the limitations of the far-flung job market–and perhaps, the irrelevance into which Thomism has descended.

An Aside on Religious Philosophy

Among the unfortunate tendencies of Thomists, one deserves special attention: sectarianism.  That is, many Thomists tend to characterize themselves as Christian philosophers.  It’s all well and fine to be a Christian and to be a philosopher; but to make “Christian” an adjective modifying “philosophy” does suggest that your philosophy is substantially modified by that Christianity, which, I think, undermines the validity of that philosophical and therefore the ability of Thomism as a whole to gain recognition.  It gives the impression of appropriating all things which are true under the umbrella of Christianity, or (more frequently) Catholicism, which simultaneously rejects as false all things which are not Christian or Catholic–that is, it turns truth itself into a sectarian divide.

In other words, to paraphrase and expand on a frequent statement of John Deely, the moment a philosophy becomes sectarian it ceases to be a philosophy, and begins to be an apologetic.  To repeat myself: philosophy and the traditions of philosophy must always be universal.  Certainly, if a philosopher is an atheist, a Christian, a Daoist, or a pantheist, all these things will undoubtedly have an impact on how he or she lives her life, and that includes his or her philosophical endeavors; but that does not mean one should philosophize explicitly, specifically, intentionally in the spirit of promoting or defending one’s religious beliefs.

It would be absurd for anyone to proclaim that Thomism is incompatible with faith, naturally, especially since its namesake is one of the most widely, publicly, and deliberately revered saints of the Roman Catholic Church, whose primary aim was that of theology.  Indeed, Thomistic philosophy does not exhaust Thomism; for the philosophical approach is a means necessary to intelligent theological exposition, and Catholic theology is at its best (in my opinion) when it is imbued with Thomistic philosophy.  But as a systematic philosophical tradition, while it may and even should point towards faith and the truth of faith as a philosophical probability, Thomas can not legitimately require such faith.  One should not need to be a Christian in order to be a Thomist, if the philosophy of Thomism is true, even if its truth exhorts one to Christianity.

In other words, I think it a mistake for a philosopher to make of explicit religious beliefs–of anything attained through faith–to be a principle of one’s philosophizing.  That is, although faith proposes something as an ultimate truth and philosophy has as its goal the truth (or, one might say, the meaning of truth, the truth of meaning, and whatever falls in between), the final principle of a philosophical inquiry needs to be indeterminate in order that the inquiry unfold in a genuinely philosophical manner.

Thomism and Postmodernity

Finally, if Thomism is to become again a philosophical force in the 21st century, relevant to the lives of those living now and to live in the future, we require some clearer exposition of its principles–that is, we need a real answer to what Thomism is.  Attempts have been made to define it in the past, such as the 24 Thomistic Theses–which are generally accurate but require so much interpretation to be understood properly that they are about as useful for understanding Thomism as the documents of Vatican II are for understanding the Catholic Church.

Another principle commonly invoked is that of the “real” distinction between essence and existence.  Certainly, this is a central tenet of Thomas Aquinas and crucial to understanding his philosophy, though I think the term “real” is perhaps misunderstood; after all, he marks as really related things any of which one has an effect upon the other (see ST Ia, q.28, a.1) and not, as is commonly thought, two things which are wholly separable in principle; this being a distinction possible only with respect to things which are substantiae or which have entirely different essentiae; but that’s another topic altogether.

But among the principles of St. Thomas which I think are as yet under-recognized, and which lack of recognition has heretofore inhibited its impact on philosophy in the 21st century, are the nature of ens primum cognitum (being as it is first known by the intellect) and the duplex viae, i.e., the via resolutionis et inventionis, as the ways of intellectual proceeding.  Reinterpreting Thomas’ theory of human knowledge along these two lines is the goal I sought in my book.  Continuing to explain those ideas is part of what I am hoping to do here, as part of the overall effort to sustain and nourish the life of Thomistic philosophy.

What I think these principles of Thomism will reveal, once grasped, is that rather than a backward-looking (Deely liked the polemic “Rear-View Mirror Thomism”) tradition, Thomism more so than any other has the philosophical might to determine a truly postmodern philosophy–that is, a philosophy which does not confine itself to a nominalist quagmire and which realizes, accepts, and builds upon the truths discovered through the empiriometric (or “idioscopic”) sciences.  While semiotics and phenomenology, rightly understood, can both contribute greatly to this effort, they do so best in concert with those principles of Thomism and with its fundamental teachings about the human person, about existence, and about God.

So here I am…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s