The nature and autonomy of philosophy

by John Henry Crosby

Mr. Kellmeyer’s recent article criticizing the philosophy department at FUS for its lack of theological awareness, reveals certain deep misconceptions and prejudices which I think far more debilitating to authentic intellectual growth than the lack of theological formation which he alleges to find in FUS philosophy students.

(1) Though Mr. Kellmeyer does not deal specifically with philosophy as a discipline, the inadequacy of his conception is evident enough. For however deeply philosophy’s task is bound up with that of theology, nevertheless as a discipline philosophy is essentially autonomous, having its own unique spirit and methods. Pope John Paul II points to this crucial fact when he writes in Fides et Ratio: “...even when [philosophy] engages theology, philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods.” (par. 49)

The autonomy of philosophy as a discipline implies neither that truths discovered by philosophers are immanent to philosophy (in the manner in which philosophical method is immanent to philosophy) nor that are they are contrary to truths discovered by theology. Indeed, it is Truth and Truth alone that acts as the unifying Telos among all of the disciplines. My point, however, is that even if philosophy and theology share a common orientation towards Truth, it in no way follows that one discipline can be reduced to the other.

The autonomy of the disciplines, moreover, does not imply that they cannot be checked and guided by each other. The notion of “person,” for example, which had its origins in Trinitarian theology, has sparked so much original philosophical work that one can justifiably speak of a Personalist Movement in philosophy. On the other hand, philosophy in many instances guides theological thinking. For instance, lending philosophical terminology to the explanation of the Christian mysteries, e.g., substance in transubstantiation.

Here I reach my crucial point: A recognition of the autonomy of philosophy as a discipline justifies the raising of the philosophical question about “egoism” in Thomas’s ethics. I must go further: Such questions must be asked, not rebelliously or disrespectfully, but since the integrity of philosophy in its pursuit after Truth demands not only the asking, but more importantly, the tireless repetition of questions, as developments in human experience and understanding shed new light on the perennial problems of philosophy.

Perhaps Mr. Kellmeyer will agree with what I am saying. And yet without seriously emending his conception of philosophy I do not see how he can. As it stands, he seems to think that good philosophers should simply adopt the tenets of Church-favored philosophers without examining them critically. This is nothing less than radically anti-intellectualistic.

(2) Mr. Kellmeyer’s conception of philosophy is distorted by a misunderstanding of the relationship between ecclesiastical authority and philosophy. For one, he seems to forget that the Church cannot enforce adherence to any one philosophical system, for the obvious reason that no single system of human thought could exhaust Truth. This of course is confirmed by Fides et Ratio, in which John Paul explicitly states that the Church has no official philosophy (par. 76), even if Thomism has had and continues to have a kind of pride of place.

It is perhaps significant that philosophy usually suffers a slump during periods of heavy-handed ecclesiological involvement in philosophical thinking, such as the largely sterile clerical neo-scholasticism of the 19th century.

(3) Related to my second criticism, Mr. Kellmeyer significantly over interprets the status of Church Doctor, making the common yet very serious mistake of identifying Thomistic teaching with Church teaching. Can he really mean otherwise if he claims that criticizing Thomas’ teaching as egoistic is tantamount to claiming that “the philosophy/theology of the Church is essentially egotistical,” or that “the Church’s own philosophy/theology is self-contradictory and absurdist”?

(4) While Mr. Kellmeyer admits that Church doctors can make errors, his article implies that such errors are essentially insignificant, and that an attack as “sweeping” as egoism is nothing less than an attack on the Church itself. As he writes: “Any FUS person who lays out such a charge is essentially denigrating not only Thomas, but also the Church’s understanding of and judgment of Thomas’s work.”

To me it is not so clear that Mr. Kellmeyer is right in considering egoism so much more “sweeping” than Augustine’s teaching on the state of unbaptized children or Aquinas’ tri-partite animation theory. Innumerable babies die unbaptized each day and all of us have souls. But even if it were, it is important to recognize that the teaching of the Church certainly does not imply that philosophers are not free to propose fundamental criticisms even of Doctors of the Church.

(5) I have not focused on the problem of egoism in Thomas’ ethics since I thought that certain more fundamental criticisms of Kellmeyer’s article were more to the point. In conclusion, however, I want briefly to clarify the meaning of the term “egoism” as it ought be understood in the context of this discussion. Unfortunately laden with numerous pejorative connotations, the charge of “egoism” should in no way be taken to imply that Thomas advocated selfishness! Such an notion would truly be in fatal conflict with the fact of Thomas’ sanctity. But Mr. Kellmeyer clearly does not understand this when he writes that the charge of egoism “assumes that Thomas failed to understand the theological virtue of love….” On the contrary, the charge of egoism against Thomas means that he too exclusively analyzed moral acting in terms of individual happiness and individual moral perfection. Clearly, happiness and perfection are part of the moral life; the charge of egoism, however, is equivalent to asking whether Thomas’ conception of moral acting should not perhaps be expanded, particularly in the light of philosophers who stress the importance of self-transcendence through value-response.

This semester the graduate philosophy students are privileged to be attending a class taught by the eminent Thomist philosopher, Fr. Norris Clarke. Great was my amazement when Fr. Clarke told the class how members of the FUS philosophy faculty had convinced him of an element of egoism in Thomistic ethics. Yet instead of burying his head in the sand or wielding the weapons of ecclesiastical authority, Fr. Clarke gladly accepted the criticisms and wrote an article in which he attempted to enrich the Thomistic position in light of what he had gained from his discussions. Now if this is not authentic philosophizing, I do not know what is! It is certainly in the spirit with which Thomas himself philosophized!

In the end, whether or not the criticism of Thomas turns out to be valid, Mr. Kellmeyer ought at least to acknowledge that there is nothing unreasonable or irreligious in raising it. Further, any attempt to stifle its being raised by doctrinal heavy-handedness would impoverish the intellectual life of the Church—theology as well as philosophy.

John Henry Crosby is a student in the FUS MA Philosophy Program.