Monday, July 21, 2014

McCool's "From Unity to Pluralism"

Gerald A. McCool, From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism, New York, Fordham University Press, 1992, 248 pages.

This post is partly a review of McCool's From Unity to Pluralism and mostly a collection of notes that might aid my own project on the conflict of mysticism and reason in the USA in our time.

SUBJECT. McCool tells the history of a certain movement of European Catholic scholars (theologians and philosophers) in the 1800s. These scholars, the Neo-Scholastic movement, wanted to counter the tide of modernist philosophy that was tearing down religious culture. The modernist philosophers ranged from Descartes (1596-1650) to the successors of Kant (1724-1804).

In particular, some Neo-Scholastics looked back to the worldview Thomas Aquinas had developed. They thought (wrongly) that he had developed a worldview that integrated the insights of other ancient and medieval Christian philosophers—such as Augustine and Bonaventure—into a harmonious whole. They also thought (1) that this supposedly integrated worldview had been shared by other Christian intellectuals in the medieval Christian world; (2) that the worldview had been lost at the end of the Middle Ages, and (3) that the worldview had been recovered by post-Renaissance Catholic theologians such as Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). Thomism, these 19th Century Catholic intellectuals thought, was potentially a unifier for modern culture, a culture disintegrating under the effects of post-Descartes philosophers such as Kant.

These first Neo-Thomists, in the early and mid-1800s, held a vision of Thomas's philosophy as resting on an epistemology of "common sense realism." In this epistemology, a concept in the mind comes from a thing in the world. For Neo-Thomists, the starting point of philosophy, therefore, is sense-perception, not Descartes' cogito. (p. 29) Cogito ("I know") as the starting point of a philosophy is subjectivist; it has no anchor in reality independent of one's own mind. Thus Thomism was radically opposed to the major post-Descartes philosophies.

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris officially confirmed the Neo-Thomist estimation of Thomism and directed the Church to incorporate Thomism into higher-level Church education (the universities and seminaries), thus presumably disseminating Thomism to the remainder of Catholic culture. This approach was to be the Church's defense against Modernism (atheism, moral relativism, personal subjectivism, and so forth). Further, the Church would use Thomism, Leo XIII hoped, as a foundation on which to stand while conducting a "dialogue" with contemporary philosophies. (pp. 1 and 9)

McCool's purpose in the book is to trace the trajectory of the Neo-Thomist movement from the late 1800s to the 1960s: its rise, expansion, disintegration, and fall. (p. 2)

STRUCTURE. The general order of the book is chronological. Selecting from many individual intellectuals in the movement, McCool focuses on four main intellectuals (theologians, philosophers, historians) who shaped the internal evolution of the Neo-Thomist movement: Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915), Joseph Marechal (1878-1944), Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), and Etienne Gilson (1884-1978).

CHRONOLOGY. Unfortunately McCool does not provide a chronology of persons and events in this complicated history. A chronology would have simplified the reading. Here is my brief version:

1225-1274: Thomas Aquinas lives.

c. 1820: Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, the pioneer of Neo-Scholasticism, begins influencing Giacchino Pecci to admire Thomism. Pecci is a young seminary student who will fifty years later become Pope Leo XIII. (p. 5)

1846: In Naples, Gaetano Sansaverino founds the first academy devoted to the philosophy of Thomas. One of Sansaverino' students is Salvatore Talamo, who later recommends to Leo XIII that Thomism be made the only philosophy taught in Catholic schools. (p. 12)

1878: Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892), a prominent Neo-Scholastic who, along with other writers, has campaigned publicly for the restoration of Thomism, writes a draft of the encyclical that will become Aeterni Patris. (p. 12)

1879: Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issues his encyclical Aeterni Patris (On Christian Philosophy), calling for a revival of Thomism as an answer to the threat from Modernist philosophers. (pp. 5 and 6)

1879-1962: Through support from the papacy, Neo-Thomism acquires a privileged position in Catholic philosophical culture. (p. 5) Here "privileged" means that the support for Neo-Thomism is coming from the hierarchy that administers the Church, not from laymen, who are the vast majority of Church membership. The support (McCool says on p. 32) includes replacing seminary professors who do not support Thomism with Neo-Scholastic professors.

c. 1900: A third generation of Neo-Thomists arises. Trained in northern European universities (not Italian seminaries) they are familiar with—and ominously more sympathetic to—the philosophies that Neo-Thomists should counter, as Pope Leo XIII had hoped. Four intellectuals of this generation are the main subjects of this book: Pierre Rousselot, Joseph Marechal, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson. (p. 34)

1900-1950: This period is the "Thomistic Revival." (p. 34) This period ends because leading Neo-Thomists themselves no longer believe Thomism alone is adequate as a philosophy and theology. (p. 35) Acceptance of pluralism—the idea that different periods inevitably give rise to different philosophies—dominates Catholic intellectual culture by 1950. (p. 35)

THEME. McCool's theme is straight-forward: "... [Neo-Scholastic] Thomism's own internal development had to lead inevitably to the undermining of the nineteenth-century conception of [Thomism] which had inspired [Leo XIII's] Aeterni Patris." (p.3) Because the 19th Century Neo-Scholastics inadvertently (or perhaps with wishful thinking) created a false of view of Thomism (that it harmonized the, in fact, discordant philosophical voices of ancient and medieval Catholics), their efforts were ultimately unproductive. The leaders of a movement cannot make accurate plans for changing their culture if they are working from false historical premises.

The following two paragraphs, at the beginning of Chapter 7, summarize much of the book: 

In Aeterni Patris Leo XIII envisioned two main paths he was confident would lead to the recovery and authentic development of St. Thomas' own philosophy. One of these was ongoing dialogue between Thomists and other contemporary philosophers; the other was rigorous research into Thomism's historical sources in the texts of the medieval Doctors [the leading theologians] and their [later] commentators. (p. 161)

As we have seen, Neo-Thomism's dialogue with contemporary [19th and 20th century] philosophy, far from promoting its own internal unity, led to the emergence of systematic pluralism among Thomists themselves. ... Marechal and Maritain were poles apart in their understanding of the nature and function of Thomistic metaphysics. Like Marechal, Rousselot was extremely open to Kantian and post-Kantian idealism. … Gilson, like Maritain, believed that Thomism and idealism were fundamentally incompatible and attempts to reconcile the two were bound to end in failure. (p.161)

OBSERVATIONS ON THE NEO-THOMIST MOVEMENT. Following are notes I have drawn from McCool's insights about the Neo-Thomist movement. Some of these insights, properly generalized, might apply to other movements.

First, in the perspective of the struggle between reason and mysticism, why would the rise or fall of Thomism be important? Thomism, like all Catholicism, tries to "integrate" the supernatural and the natural. Thomas at least worked inductively from observation of this world, thus philosophically maintaining some contact with it. The post-Cartesian rationalists looked inside their own minds, not at the world. (p. 20) A revival of Thomism might offer a chance for Catholicism to move toward a more objective worldview.

St. Thomas' metaphysics does not descend, as do the post-Cartesian systems of metaphysics, from an intuitively grasped God to finite and sensible reality. Starting from sensible reality and discovering its structure through metaphysical analysis, it follows an ascending order from the world to God. (p. 20)

Second, movements do not perfectly overlap with organizations. A new movement might win the allegiance of some members of an established organization, but not others. The result can be conflict within the organization. For example, consider the Society of Jesus. Some Jesuit scholars were enthusiastic supporters of the idea of making Thomism the official philosophy taught in Catholic schools; other Jesuits were indifferent; and still others opposed the suggestion. (p. 13)

Third, even if they are not concise and always clear, books written by members of a movement do influence other members of the movement. An example is the massive five-volume work on theology by Joseph Kleutgen, whose works were published successively for 20 years (1853-1874). Its influence continued into the early 20th Century. (p. 21)

Fourth, for decades, the Neo-Thomist movement also used the textbooks of Neo-Thomist leaders to convey their view to the next generation. (p. 32) Books are transmitters from generation to generation as well as disseminators within a generation.

Fifth, after the first, pioneer generation of Neo-Thomist thinkers, no deep thinkers  followed in the second generation. Equally limiting was the failure of the Neo-Thomists to disseminate Neo-Thomism among the lay intellectuals in the Church. (For example, most Neo-Thomist writings remained in Latin.)

EVALUATION. I would recommend this book only to a specialist focusing on theological and philosophical history of European-American Catholic intellectual culture in the last 150 years. Reading is often difficult and the author provides few aids such as a chronology or brief biographies for the main characters..

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here: