To Systematize or not to Systematize: Philosophy at a Catholic University

by Rebecca Bratten

Of late there has been much discussion going on, regarding whether Franciscan University should fly the banner of Phenomenology or Thomism in its Philosophy Department. This is not merely a debate about particular theses held by these respective schools of thought; it is as much a question of which of these two schools deserves a position of primacy at a Catholic institution. I do not intend to deal here with the Thomistic theory of the convertibility of being and good, nor with the Phenomenological notion of value, nor with any of the other significant topics which are, quite rightly, uppermost in current philosophical discussions on campus. I prefer here to touch on the broader, more general (and consequently less clear) aspect of the debate.

This aspect can be considered in terms of two questions: the first involves the tendency of many participants in the debate to focus on the systems rather than on the particular issues involved; the second is the question of whether there exists such a thing as a specifically Catholic philosophy and, if so, what that thing might be like.

Apart from their particular disputes with Phenomenologists, Thomists will typically argue that, as St. Thomas Aquinas has been the preeminent Catholic philosopher for over 600 years, and as many popes have declared the study of his thought essential to any truly Catholic education, Catholics who replace his ideas with those of more recent thinkers, do so at the peril of both their philosophy and their faith.

The philosophy of St. Thomas has certainly been the loyal handmaid of the Church for ages, and, it may well appear that the Phenomenologists are irresponsibly and improperly disregarding him. To many Thomists it seems that the Phenomenologists—adhering to a philosophy which has not even been around for a hundred years, and was founded, not by a Catholic, but a secular Jew—are, as it were, displaying a pernicious irreverence towards what Chesterton dubbed “the democracy of the dead.”

But, Phenomenology, which was founded by Edmund Husserl at the beginning of this century, is not so much a system as it is a method. Thus, Phenomenologists argue, they are not attempting to dispose of or replace St. Thomas, but only to study his thought in a more philosophical manner—for it is not legitimate, philosophically, to accept unquestioningly the premises of any philosopher, however great he may be.

Among Phenomenologists can be named such great thinkers as Max Scheler—whose moral philosophy influenced the thought of John Paul II—and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who is considered by many a twentieth-century Doctor of the Church.

What I have frequently heard proposed by Thomists, as what is intended to be a liberal and open-minded compromise, is that while the duty of a Catholic university is to teach St. Thomas’ thought as a fundamental basis for further philosophizing, it is also legitimate to study other philosophies—after the young mind has been made secure against their fallacies.

This position I find almost absurdly unphilosophical. It presupposes that everything Thomistic is the truth, and the only reason for studying other philosophers is to refute them. Had St. Thomas taken such an approach—regarding St. Augustine, perhaps, as the quintessential philosopher, and never daring to touch upon the dangerous pagan manuscripts, except to refute them—he would never have been “the Angelic Doctor”, but merely another staid medieval commentator.

The fact is, that in philosophy, it is not good scholarship to accept uncritically the work of any thinker—however great he may be. Even if a thesis has been held for centuries as true, it would be irresponsible for a scholar (though not necessarily for a layman) to accept it until he sees the truth of it for himself.

Regarding the study of St. Thomas, it is not a thing that can be managed in a short time, so that a freshman after a semester of indoctrination can say glibly, “Oh yes, I’m a Thomist.” And regarding the study of other philosophers, there is no reason for a scholar to suppose that they are wrong unless he can be certain of it himself. Sometimes it is very easy to see the truth or falsity of a given position; sometimes it is quite difficult. In the case of St. Thomas, a tremendous amount of what he has written appears to be undeniably true; however, I would say the same of von Hildebrand. I would predicate infallibility of neither.

I would not, however, take the position of some Phenomenologists, who scorn all systematizing and regard Thomism as outdated. Such a position, while perhaps more conducive to original thinking, is nearly as unphilosophical as that of the encyclopedic Thomists. It, too, is decidedly irresponsible, and denotes a lack of sobriety which does not befit the scholar. If the other position tries to find an easy way out by getting rid of original thought, this position tries to find an easy way out by getting rid of the drudgery of research. I have often seen instances of students—generally former Thomists—who cling to the thought of von Hildebrand with as much unreasoning dogmatism as that which they displayed in their rejected philosophical past. I doubt whether either St. Thomas or von Hildebrand would take much delight in this situation

As is often the case, the correct position is the happy medium. It is unphilosophi-cal to indulge in premature systematizing, and dangerous to assume that system has no place in philosophy. Philosophy begins, not with the memorization of a system, but with the wonder at and openness to reality—the willingness to let things be themselves, and to unfold their inner wealth and significance. It is only afterwards that one may begin to synthesize, in the realization that all truths are compatible with one another, and that thus there already exists—independent of all our considerations—a kind of eternal system, the entirety of which can only be known by God.

If ever a philosopher has come to the point where he thinks he has seen and comprehended infinity, let him be reminded of that famous and true statement from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “there are more things in heaven and on earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In response to this, a Thomist might answer that my observations are all very well for a mere secular student of philosophy, but that our duty as Catholic philosophers is rather different. He might remind me that in his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII urges Catholic philosophers to “restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith…”1

Now, this is strictly speaking an exhortation which bears much weight in the field of theology, but as regards philosophy, the distinction between disciplines will be destroyed if premises are brought in that are not supported by reason or experience. However, philosophy has as its object pretty much everything, so there is no reason why we may not philosophize about what has been said in the field of theology.

As Catholics, we are more keenly aware of the importance and significance of these matters, and thus can see quite clearly their worthiness as philosophical objects. Therefore, I answer to the aforementioned objection: 1) Insofar as St. Thomas is a great philosopher, he deserves to be studied, and insofar as he is a great Catholic philosopher, we as Catholics ought to have a particular interest in him. 2) At the time of Leo XIII, the predominant philosophical schools were those of Kant and Hegel; Phenomenology had not yet come into existence. Surely the Pope would have been no less pleased with the efforts of von Hildebrand than he was with those of Thomas. Therefore, I do not see that we as Catholic philosophers have to regard our duty as being fundamentally distinct from those of other philosophers, although it does not follow from this that they are on all levels identical.

This brings us to the second topic of discussion: whether there is such a thing as a specifically Catholic philosophy. I would answer that, in the primary sense of philosophy, there is not. There is philosophy—an autonomous discipline the object of which is all of reality, and the final end of which is truth; it is carried out according to its own methods and laws—and there are philosophers. Philosophers have their particular systems, schools, methods, or ideas, which may or may not be in accordance with the truths of the Catholic Faith. Thus we call von Hildebrand and St. Thomas Catholic philosophers, in the secondary sense of the term.

A Catholic who philosophizes has a particular understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, which a secular philosopher might not have. He is aware of a whole realm of reality, available for philosophical analysis—the realm of faith and religion. He also understands philosophy in light of its secondary role as handmaid of theology—not as a slave, who is defined as a mere extension of his master’s will, but as a handmaid, who serves freely, and yet has a life and independence of her own, apart from that of her mistress. A Catholic who philosophizes will allow himself to be guided, personally, by the truths of his faith, but will never blur the distinction between the disciplines. This is not a wild and daring flight beyond the bounds of orthodoxy: we know that all truths are in harmony, and thus need not fear that our philosophizing will yield anything which does damage to our faith.

As long as Franciscan University is true to this understanding of philosophy, it will err neither on the side of extreme conservatism nor that of extreme liberalism. Those who are involved in the debate over Thomism and Phenomenology should continue to discuss problems and exchange ideas, in order to sift out the truths from the falsehoods, and to do all in a mature and charitable manner.

Moreover, it is important that we remember philosophy is not a quest for a system, but a quest for Truth. In the words of the Angelic Doctor: “The intellect’s end and good are the true, and its last end is the first truth. Therefore the last end of the whole man and of all his deeds and desires is to know the first truth, namely, God.”2

Rebecca Bratten is a graduate student in the University’s MA Philosophy program.

  1. Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII Aeterni Patris, St. Paul Books and Media ↑
  2. Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume II, Ed. Anton C. Pegis, Copyright 1945, Random House ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: st. thomas & catholic philosophy

I,2 Why the Church gives St. Thomas primacy of place in Catholic education, Edy Morel de la Prada I,3 The freedom of Catholic philosophers: Why we need not necessarily give primacy to St. Thomas, Richard Gordon I,4 St. Thomas and freedom: a reply to Richard Gordon, Edy Morel de la Prada I,4 St. Thomas and Catholic connaturality, Michael Waldstein I,5 Thomism and intellectual freedom, Kathleen van Schaijik I,6 Chairman addresses the question of Thomism in Franciscan University’s philosophy department, John F. Crosby I,6 Thomism, Courtney Scharfe I,7 A respectful reply to Dr. Crosby, Edy Morel de la Prada I,7 Finding common ground between Thomists and non-Thomists in Catholic philosophy, John F. Crosby II,3 On dwarfs, giants and little boys, Jules van Schaijik II,4 Why the little boy is more apt than the dwarf, Richard W. Cross II,5 Thomas not just a doctor, but a saint, Jim Fox

Same author