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From Thomistic Papers II, Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B. and Jack C. Marler, eds., The Center for Thomistic Studies, The University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX, 1985, 133-158.


Aquinas and Philosophical Pluralism

Joseph Owens, C. Ss. R.


The philosophical thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas has been interpreted in many different ways.  Read Capreolus, Cajetan, Suarez, John of St. Thomas, in former days, and Maritain, Gilson, Fabro, Donceel—to mention only a few—in our own epoch, and you will find that no two of them understand Aquinas exactly alike.  Why is this?  Is it a peculiar requirement of the thought of Aquinas itself?  Or is it inherent in the very nature of philosophy to be radically pluralistic, in a way that makes each person’s thought differ in some way from that of everyone else, even when inter-preting the same texts?  Asked in its broadest compass, the question is whether it is of the nature of philosophy to be as individualistic in each person as fingerprints or physiognomy.

There can be no doubt about the fact of the variety in interpretation of Aquinas.  At times the interpretations are contradictorily opposed.  Perhaps the most notorious instance, as signalized by Etienne Gilson at a Marquette Aquinas Lecture in 1947 (see infra, n. 12), is on the question whether or not the distinction between a created thing and its being is real.  The philosophical explanation of the fact, however, is still a problem.  Ultimately, the issue of doctrinal truth in pluralism has to be settled by epistemological considerations.  But epistemologies differ just as do philosophies, and share their DNA characteristics.  The only philosophical discipline that allows every philosophy to stand thematically in its own right is the history of philosophy.  Its goal is historical truth in correctly reporting and describing the various philosophies and their actual relations towards one another.  To it, therefore, appeal is to be made for a philosophical answer to the question of philosophical pluralism.  As a discipline traditionally included in philosophical programs, it should without hesitation be expected to provide the desired philosophical solution to the present problem.



Yet, despite its place in college curricula, the stand that history of philosophy is not itself a philosophical procedure may still be encountered. That view seems to arise from a too facile assimilation of philosophy to other disciplines.  But there is a difference.  Writing the history of music, for example, does not produce a special kind of music. Nor is the history of military campaigns a particular type of war.  The theme of the history of biology is not another and specifically distinct aspect of cells and their growth, an aspect that would give rise to further biological knowledge.  In the history of those disciplines you are not making melodies, you are not planning strategy, you are not doing new biology. Yet can the same be said of the history of philosophy? Can you allege that in it you are not truly doing philosophy, that you are not producing new philosophy of a special kind?

Think carefully.  History of philosophy studies the emergence of the different philosophical conceptions from their seeds and roots.  It investigates in chronological sequence the interrelations of these concepts and their variations and nuances as they develop.  It focuses on the course of their dynamic and ongoing life in what is accepted as a single philosophical oikoumenê or inhabited world—oikou-menê, it seems, was the nearest the Greeks could come to the phrase “the global village,” as made current by the late Marshall McLuhan.  Have you not there the specifying object of a genuinely philoso-phical science?  Is it not as thoroughly philosophical a subject matter as the objects of logic, metaphysics, ethics, and the other recognized philosophical studies?  Does it not give rise, therefore, to a truly philosophical enterprise, which is one distinct branch of philosophy alongside the others?  Does it not function in exactly the same order of procedure as they?  So, even though writing the history of obstetrics does not mean bringing a child into the world, is not the genetic study of philosophy the producing of a new philosophy of its own charac-teristic type, or at least—if you so wish it—acting as midwife for its birth?

These queries demand a satisfactory answer before appeal may legitimately be made to the history of philosophy for solutions that are genuinely philosophical in nature.  The professional historian is fully able to discuss whether or not Thales really fell into the well while gazing at the stars, whether Socrates was given a rough time by Xanthippe, whether the Peripatetics actually walked up and down when discussing their themes,1 whether people could set their clocks by Kant’s afternoon walk, whether Russell became persuaded that Wittgenstein was a genius on reading only the first sentence of his essay,2 and whether he put him through the search under all the desks for the non-existent rhinoceros.3 Those topics come under the purview of the professional historian, or, as it may be, of the philologist.  But whether Aristotle’s four causes actually emerged from Presocratic speculations, whether the Aristotelian universal is an outgrowth of the Platonic Idea and how the one is related to the other, whether Descartes’ distinction of mind and bodily machine is parallel with medieval notions of soul and matter, whether intentionality is a continuous concept from the Latin Avicenna through Brentano into Husserl and contemporary pheno-menology—do not these objects specify in a decidedly philosophical dimension?  Are they not inalienably issues for philosophical decision?  Can philosophy be asked to renounce its sovereignty in their regard?

It is indeed the issues of this kind rather than the non-philosophical events in the course of a person’s life that constitute the essential object of the history of philosophy.  Philosophical notions, not day-to-day happenings, are quite obviously its subject matter. Peripherally it may need to track down dates of birth and death, the philosopher’s medical history, his educational opportunities, his geographical and social environment, and other such details.  But the function of those items is to provide the material setting in which the philosophical thinking pursued its going course.  Are they not comparable to what the details of a cultural matrix do for ethics, or what the world as known through the modern natural and life sciences does for the philosophy of nature?  They are not the object that gives history of philosophy its essential specification.  Rather, the issues that specify the history of philosophy lie outside the competence of any non-philosophical inquiry.  They have to be handled by a philosopher and in a philosophical way.  That means doing philosophy.

Further, there is something even more discon-certing for the contrary view.  Not only the individual philosophical interrelations but also the overall nature and extension of philosophy itself elude the grasp of the non-philosophical historian.  You can know what music is, what biology is, what mathe-matics is, without being involved professionally in any of these disciplines.  But can anyone know in a corresponding way what philosophy is?  Try to tell any person outside the discipline what it is.  Do you not find the task a bit difficult?  It is easy enough to say ostensively that philosophy is what is done at philosophical conventions, what is found in philosophical journals and books, what is taught in university listings under the heading “philosophy.” But, when it comes to showing what it is that is taught in those courses or written in those books, no easy indication of the subject matter is found to match the way in which you can so readily answer that botany investigates plants and entomology studies bugs.  The subject matter of philosophy escapes offhand characterization.

Nor can you really do much better if you consult an expert.  He will give you a neatly worded reply. But try to confirm his answer through another expert, by way of a second opinion.  You are told “No, that is all wrong.  Philosophy is something entirely differ-ent.”  Ask a devotee of traditional philosophy. He may give you Cicero’s celebrated answer that philosophy is the knowledge of things divine and human, and of their causes.4  But an old-time idealist will say to you “No, not at all.  Philosophy does not give primacy to the concrete.  It is a study of ideas, the building of a system of thought.”  A phenomen-ologist will answer that philosophy is an altogether special method of approach through vivid appearances and their foundation in human subjec-tivity.  An analyst will claim that it is none of these, but rather the solution of puzzles caused by misuse of language.  There will likewise be all sorts of variations within each of these broad classifications, as well as intermediate or hybrid answers.  In a word, if you are sufficiently discerning, you will find that no two genuine thinkers give you exactly the same reply.  Moreover, if you yourself have worked a full lifetime in philosophy you may well succeed in answering to your own satisfaction, in perfectly clear and convincing terms, the question about what philosophy is.  But, unfortunately, you will find that nobody else quite agrees with you.

By all these tests, then, the illusiveness of philosophy seems inherent in its very nature.  Is any non-philosophical procedure able to deal with so volatile a subject?  There is, in recent phrasing, no “single developing whole”5 to confront the historian of philosophy.  The subject matter does not lie before his gaze to be treated in ordinary historical fashion, any more than the subject matter of other branches of philosophy is amenable to the methods of mathematics, or of the natural or life or social sciences.  Both the subject matter as a whole, and the differences between the links among the many-faceted notions involved, require approach in a manner that matches their nature as philosophy, even though material details such as the dating of manuscripts and the points of chronological succession call for use of the established techniques of the historian.  The essential objects can be brought into vision only through the focus of a philosophical microscope.  They require investigation by philoso-phy itself.



This, then, is the factual situation.  How is it to be explained?  Philosophy, whatever you may conceive it to be, will inevitably include itself among the objects with which it deals.  Other disciplines are not essentially interested in themselves as objects. They are aware that they are sciences or branches of knowledge, but they have no concern for probing what knowledge is or how they themselves come under it.  Each, correctly, goes about its own work without asking what cognition in general is or how it itself fits into the overall schema of knowledge.  None of them brings under its object the noetic considerations it concomitantly involves.  But philosophy is in this respect reflexive upon itself.  It undertakes the explanation of its own noetic nature in one of its branches that today is usually labeled epistemology.  Further, the same inherent propensity to reflexion upon itself leads philosophy to investigate its own genesis in its own characteristic way, that is, philosophically.  Its history comes in consequence under its subject matter.  Philosophy finds itself capable, yet entirely in its own way, of giving an explanation of its development.  This sets up a special, but authentic, branch of philosophy.

So understood, history of philosophy will superficially acknowledge the lines drawn in ordinary histories among “schools” or trends of thought. Platonists, Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Scotists, Cartesians, Hegelians, Realists, Positivists, Phenomenologists, Linguistic Analysts, and so on, will parade across its stage.  But in its own more profound study the history of philosophy will find difficulty in discovering any single original thinker who fits exactly under anyone of these categories, even the founder of the so-called “school” himself. On severe scrutiny philosophies turn out to be as individual as fingerprints.  No two are entirely alike. They are at best grouped by “family resemblances”—an expression used to describe the groupings of medieval philosophies well before Wittgenstein brought it into current notice.6 Aristotle (Metaph., 2.3.994b32-995a3) had remarked how a person’s ethos, that is, the way the person has been brought up, influences his strictly theoretical as well as his moral thinking.  The habituation developed by predecessors puts a subsequent philosopher in their debt (2.1.993b11-14).  But in every individual thinker habituation and ethos will mean personal differences. These will influence his thought radically, if he is philosophizing in any genuine fashion.  The influence is perhaps more noticeable in oral discussion with living philosophers, since in their written works they tend to revise carefully before publishing and accommodate their final draft as best they can to the common understanding of their readers.

Bluntly, if you examine critically those whom you encounter in philosophy, I doubt if you will ever find any two who think exactly alike.  If you do, there may be ground for wondering whether at least one of them is not reciting by rote.  So, there is reason to recoil when someone insists “I do not care who said it; I am interested only in what the truth of the matter is; who said it is immaterial to me.”  On the contrary, it will often make considerable if not all the difference.  For example, one finds the same word “universal” used by Aristotle, by Aquinas, by Scotus, and by modern logicians, and the term “existence” in Aquinas, in Suarez, in Marcel, and in Heidegger.  In these instances it makes a world of difference who is doing the talking.  History of philosophy alerts you to this and shows how to trace the differences.  In that thoroughgoing type of reflexion upon itself in its genetic development is it not pursuing as genuinely a philosophical investigation as is found in its reflection upon its own static nature through epistemology?  If epistemology is to be accepted as an authentic branch of philosophy, why does history not have a like claim?



From all this one may realize how essential the history of philosophy is for understanding the very nature of philosophy itself, as well as for tolerance and genuine friendship inside the philosophic global village.  History of philosophy shows how the differ-ent thinkers start their philosophizing differently, and are affected throughout by their starting points.  In broad lines, each begins somewhere in one of three readily indicated areas.  These areas are things, thought, and language, with “thought” taken broadly enough to include mind and subjectivity.  The ancients and medieval—not excepting Plato or Augustine7—began with things.  Lack of historical understanding may anachronistically lead to viewing them through modern epistemological eyeglasses, classifying them abruptly as “naive realists.”  But a philosophically historical acquaintance with their highly sophisticated explanations of knowledge soon shows how naive it is to label them “naive.”  The twentieth century notion of realism, insofar as it is trying to prove that something existent in itself is the correlate of human ideas and sense data, does not even touch their procedure.  Correspondingly, philo-sophies that start in the realm of thought are not, in their own orbit, open to Dr. Johnson’s refutation by “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone.”8  Nor can the Oxford philosophy of Urmson’s Philosophical Analysis be set aside by Russell’s devastating quip that it is concerned “only with the different ways in which silly people can say silly things.”9

No.  Things, thought, and speech are obvious to everybody.  All three offer within themselves an indefinite number of starting points from which one’s philosophy may begin.  But, once accepted, the starting points remain sovereign.  They cannot be refuted by the principles or conclusions of any other philosophy.  Yet the possibilities for communication and dialogue lie wide open.  Talk and thought are about things.  Things are described in concepts and language.  Speech and thought are themselves things.  The content in all three is common.  It gives ample ground for exchange of philosophical wisdom.

But what is common—as Aristotle and Aquinas have so trenchantly insisted—has no being insofar as it is common.10  It has real existence only in individuals.  Philosophies live and breathe and struggle solely in their individual instances.  If the history of philosophy is sending out a correct mes-sage, it is that their effort should not be concentrated on refuting one another.  Rather, it should be to understand other philosophies.  The philosophies benefit reciprocally by the communication.  There is no merging, there is no melding, but there is philosophical ecumenism.  From the viewpoint of the history of philosophy, all the different philosophies partake of the ongoing life in the one variegated philosophical world.

There you have what is, or what should be, the benefit of the history of philosophy when it is pursued as a philosophical study.  It explains how philosophy is essentially able to be pluralistic.  In this way it shows in historical perspective what the nature of philosophy is.  May I repeat, it shows in historical perspective what the nature of philosophy is.  It makes manifest the indefinitely varying character of philosophy as something highly individual from start to finish in each individual thinker, while at the same time all philosophies share in a common intellectual life.  Acceptance of anyone else’s principles or conclusions is not required by this philosophical ecumenism.  Nor, by the same token, need it give rise to the least doubt about the truth of one’s own thinking, when one’s principles are correct. The question of doctrinal truth is not one that is settled by the history of philosophy. Historical truth, rather, is describing the genesis of the philosophy as it actually took place.  The reward of history of philosophy is accordingly the understanding of the dynamics of global philosophical activity and the correct gauging of the force to be accorded each instance of philosophical reasoning in the light of accumulated experience.  Respect for the other person’s thinking is inculcated.  Ecumenism, not assimilation, is the result.

Two objections at once arise against this conception of the nature of philosophy.

The first objection is that it seems to make philosophy thoroughly relativistic.  Each philosopher would appear to be a law unto himself.  There can be no standard outside himself to which he must conform.  How is this charge to be faced?

The charge can hardly be brought to bear upon Aristotle or Aquinas.  For each of them there is a standard to which a philosophy has to conform.  The standard is for Aristotle the world of sensible substances, each a substance standing in its own right.  As substances in themselves, sensible things are independent of human cognition. Epistemolo-gically they are prior to one’s perception of knowledge of them.  They are not adjuncts or products of human cognition.  They are known directly, with awareness of one’s own cognition only concomitant to them and dependent upon them.  In Aristotle’s phraseology: “But evidently knowledge and perception and opinion and understanding have always something else as their object, and themselves only by the way” (Metaph., 12.9.1074b35-36; Oxford trans.).  The form that makes each of the things be in the real world by actuating the matter is the same form that is received by the percipient or knower and thereby causes the cognitive agent to be, in the actuality of cognition, the thing itself.  In this way the sensible thing is attained in prior fashion.  It is known directly. One does not first have to know concepts or sensations or ideas in order to know things.  Sensible things, therefore, are with Aristotle radically inde-pendent of human awareness of them.  It is by them that human cognition is to be judged. Epistem-ologically prior in this way to human cognition, they are independent of every human perception of them. Accordingly they are a common standard by which all human cognition is to be judged.  In that perspective they are an absolute norm by which all human cognition, regardless of the individual, has to render an account.  Not individual sensations, as with Locke or Hume, but the sensible things themselves, provide the absolute basis to which all human cognition is relative.

With Aquinas the norm is the sensible thing exis-tent in itself.  Judgments concerning the things have to conform to the way things are, if they are to be true.  Quite as in Aristotle, there is found in the sensible world the firm basis for common and absolute truth.

Correspondingly, for a linguistic philosophy there is the common language shared by all who use it.  A common use of words is present by which meaning can be checked.  There is of course a certain amount of relativity in linguistic use, but at least a flexible norm is offered by which statements can be judged.

Much more difficult is the situation with idealistic philosophies.  Human ideas are not external immediately in the way language and sensible things are.  How can they be shown to be common to all thinkers?  This is a problem that each idealism has to answer for itself.  A recent issue of the Monist (July, 1984) was devoted to the theme “Is Relativism Defensible?” and gave a number of thinkers the opportunity to justify their outlooks on the problem. But in spite of the best efforts the problem seems to remain.  This was strikingly expressed at the conclusion of Quine’s article in that issue: “Still we can treat of the world and its objects only within some scientific idiom, this or another: there are others, but absolutism. all?”11

The other objection is that the historical explanation of the nature of philosophy provides no means for determining doctrinal truth.  That is correct.  The truth determined by the history of philosophy is whether such and such a philosopher held the doctrines attributed to him and how the doctrines were related to his predecessors and to the contemporary background.  The competence of history of philosophy does not extend any further.  When the question is about which of the many philosophies is doctrinally true the answer is to be sought in epistemology.  Epistemology examines the nature of human cognition and shows which procedures are correct and which are erroneous.  But in doing epistemology one is already within a definite philosophy.  The answers will accordingly be different in keeping with the different starting points.  With Aquinas the starting points are sensible things existent in themselves.  Judged in that framework, philosophical procedures that start from common natures or ideas or sensations or language will be wrong, and the truth they contain will be based upon what these starting points reflect from existent sensible things.  In that perspective the doctrinal truth present in them will be recognized and appreciated.  But those philosophies themselves will keep their conclusions within their own perspectives, and will make different judgments on many particular issues, as well as on the general nature of philosophy.  Hence philosophical disagreement and plurality.  They will have enough in common for mutual understanding and dialogue.  But as long as they build on their own foundations they will differ radically.  Their epistemologies are part of themselves.

These observations apply equally in the philosophy of religion.  In the wake of Hume, Kant, and Hegel, the philosophy of religion has become a recognized discipline, and the literature on it is extensive.  Its subject matter is generally located in religious experience, which offers an indefinite number of starting points.  Hence pluralism in it has to be acknowledged.  But the pluralism here as elsewhere is fully compatible with adherence to the truth of one set of starting points, and in their light the appreciation of whatever truth may be contained in other starting points and the conclusions drawn from them.  Even though for Aquinas neither history of philosophy nor epistemology nor philosophy of religion can be set up as though they were separate studies, his philosophical principles are capable of dealing satisfactorily with the fields they cover.  In particular, his doctrine of knowledge through affectivity is readily adaptable to development in the philosophy of religion.





How, then, does all this apply to the charge that commentators on Aquinas’s doctrine of existence live in different philosophical worlds?  In general, it shows how to relate Aquinas to the other parties in the global village of philosophy.  Acknowledged to be a great philosophical thinker, Aquinas can be expected to have his own highly individual starting points and to develop his own characteristic philosophy upon the basis they offer.  Distinctly individual, his thought will remain true to its own starting points while remaining open to the widest dialogue with other philosophies.  No agreement need be expected.  But mutual benefit will result.  Nor need there be any weakening of adherence to his tenets on the ground that others cannot be brought to accept them. Philosophical ecumenism, not assimilation, is to be sought for and recognized.  One must frankly acknowledge that the variegated starting points of different philosophies do not allow the same terms to be understood by all in the same way.  The history of philosophy, however, when pursued philosophically, shows where the differences lie and how the pluralism is to be kept under control in dialogue. Continued alertness to the care required in philosophical discussion is the result.

These are the general observations.  In regard to the particular controversial instance mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the considerations from the history of philosophy can easily be seen to have very relevant application.  They vitally affect the discussions on the problem of the distinction between essence and existence in Aquinas.12  Those of us who were introduced to philosophy through the Scholastic textbooks of the twenties and thirties, will remember how large this question loomed up on the horizon.  Nonetheless even a student was left with the vague impression that the books did not have any too clear a notion of the subject they were dealing with.  At least they did not succeed in getting a convincing notion across to the reader.  Knowledge of the history of the problem shows why.  The disputants were talking about different objects, without knowing it, even when using the same words. Suarez had been showing—and irrefutably—that essential being coincided with existential being. Texts of St. Thomas were used by his opponents against that stand.  Yet the texts of Aquinas had nothing against the real identity of existential being with essential being.  They were in no way concerned with that problem.  They bore only upon the distinction of that being, whether called essential or existential, from the thing it made exist.

To realize what was at issue here, is not the pluralistic approach from the history of philosophy indispensable?  Aristotle had stated in his Metaphysics that “one man and being a man and a man are the same” (4.2.1003b26-27; Apostle trans. Cf. 10.2.1054a16-19).  Though in fact the expressions are formulated differently, it would make no difference if one accepted a single expression for them (1003b25-26).  Rather, Aristotle considered that it would be more advantageous for this purpose at the moment if they were taken as the same notion.  In that setting could the problem of the distinction between essence and existence have any meaning for the Stagirite, or in general for the Greeks?  However, that way of presenting it main-tained lasting sway.  The problem faced was whether the objects of two concepts, that of essence and that of existence, were the same or different.  The notion that being entirely escaped the original conceptual-ization of a finite thing did not arise.  It was a question of looking at a thing, and seeing that it was something and that it existed.  Both aspects were regarded as immediate objects of conceptualization, on quite the same level.  The possibility that each might have a radically different cognitional origin did not make itsel f felt.  This attitude was too deeply entrenched to permit easy removal.

Later in Islamic and Christian Aristotelianism, however, the revealed doctrine of creation had come to make the difference between a creature and its being an acute question.  Against the Aristotelian background the problem still was generally ap-proached as though both the thing and its being were originally known through conceptualization.  Essence and existence were regarded as the immediate objects of concepts when a finite thing confronted the human mind.  From this viewpoint there was parity in their origin.  The problem was whether the objects of these concepts were really different from each other, or else only conceptually different, or different in some other way that did not involve real distinction.

With Aquinas, on the other hand, the problem presented itself in radically different fashion.  In the starting point of his metaphysical thinking the being of a thing was originally grasped not through concep-tualization but through judgment.  You knew what a man or a phoenix is through conceptualization, but that the man or phoenix existed you knew only through a different type of intellection that was expressed in a proposition or sentence.  You saw that the man in front of you existed in the real world.  You did not see the same for the phoenix.  But in the concept of neither man nor phoenix was existence contained.  Even in the concept of God, who included all conceivable perfection, existence was not contained.  For its inclusion, one needed first to know that God exists.  The Anselmian argument had to be rejected.  Only when the existence seen in sensible things was traced to its source in subsistent existence, God, its primary efficient and exemplar cause, was the nature of existence reached, and the possibility of drawing conclusions about it from its nature established.  Only then did you have the basis for inferring apodictically that the existence of a creature is really different from the creature itself. The conclusion had to burst forth in splendor from the truth sublime that Aquinas saw in God’s revelation of himself to Moses as I am who am (Exodus 1.14). Everything else had to receive being as actuality really distinct from itself.  In its status as a nature, that is, as something on the “essence” side of the “essence-existence” couplet, being was infinite.  In this status it could not form any part of a finite nature.  Where present in any real thing other than God it had to be really distinct from the finite nature it was actuating.  It was not just conceptually distinct, as an object attained by judgment is conceptually distinct from an object attained through conceptual-ization.  Immediate reflexion showed that it was distinct in that conceptual way.  But the difficult metaphysical reasoning finally showed that the distinction was much greater than one that remained in the conceptual order.  It is a real distinction.

This metaphysical reasoning, however, was possible only from Aquinas’ absolutely novel starting point of an existence grasped originally, not as a nature through conceptualization, but as an actuality known through judgment.  This tenet that existence is originally known through judgment, as contrasted with conceptualization, had no recognizable ancestry.  It was a new departure, the starting point of a radically new metaphysics, distinctively charac-teristic of Aquinas.  Aristotle (De an., 3.6.430a26-b6) had clearly distinguished knowledge of simple objects from knowledge of composites.  But he had not placed existence as the object of the synthe-sizing type of knowledge.  Aquinas did so place it.  A close study of the history of philosophy is required to make that clear.  This study will show why Aquinas’s route to the real distinction between a thing and its being has to proceed first to the existence of God, the infinite ocean of being, and only afterwards reason through that infinite nature of being to the real distinction in all else.

So much for the particular instance.  Returning to pluralism in general, and summing up briefly, the basic reason why people disagree is brought out clearly enough by a close study of the history of philosophy.  The basic reason is that people are built differently.  That conclusion may not seem very startling.  It is quite what common sense might suggest without any philosophical investigation.13 People are built in different fashions, physically and physiologically.  The physiological disposition of an elderly person may give rise to a notion of proper temperature that prompts him or her to turn up the thermostat to a degree that nobody else in the house can stand.  More pertinently, the habits and mentality in which a person is brought up are regularly expected to influence his or her views on a wide variety of topics.  There is also the fact of backlash against one’s environment, prompted by dissatisfaction with and revolt against the attitudes in which one has been trained.  These are recognizable facts.  But to understand them, and to appreciate their dynamics in the pluralism of human thinking, the study of the history of philosophy has a dominant role.

That study shows graphically how a wide, indefinitely wide, variety of starting points are open to human thought.  These may be taken from any of three broad areas, things, thought itself, or language. The starting points will shape the whole course of the individual’s thought, if he is consistent.  If he is inconsistent, it will cause internal trouble.  But where the thinking is consistent it need not involve any ill-will or hardheadedness or stupidity when confronted with different ways of thinking in other persons. Because each thinks according to his starting points, what is crystal clear to one will be opaque or downright wrong to others.

A serious study of the history of philosophy, therefore, grounds respect for the views and opinions of others, no matter how much they diverge from one’s own.  It shows the possibility of working towards mutual understanding and tolerance, and reveals the way in which gradual change in habitu-ation can take place.  Application of logical analysis to Greek and mediaeval texts, for example, has had noticeable influence in the last couple of decades in bringing many of its adherents to a deep appreciation of the earlier philosophies in their own right, as opposed to the attitude that there never had been any real philosophy before the advent of modern logic.  Ecumenism and cooperation in philosophy is accordingly possible, and devoutly to be wished.  In Aristotle human virtue lies between divine excellence and utter brutishness, and anyone human virtue involves all the others.  In this perspective the ordinary human is neither virtuous nor vicious. Indeed, the ordinary human for Aristotle does not fit neatly into either the restrained or the unrestrained types that come between the virtuous and the vicious.  Rather, ordinary persons come in between even those two inner types, and alternate variously between them in everyday conduct.  So in the philosophical panorama it would be too much to expect anyone on earth to be entirely consistent throughout a long lifetime.  His habituation can change gradually through new experience and the open-mindedness with which it is met.  The change can be for better or worse.  One may not be giving in too much to Greek moral optimism in trusting that with the promotion of serious thinking the good will gradually prevail.  In this vein, I think, full approbation may be given to Aristotle’s appeal to start from what confronts oneself and work towards what is universally acceptable:  “. . . just as in conduct our task is to start from what is good for each and make what is without qualification good good for each, so it is our task to start from what is more knowable to oneself and make what is knowable by nature knowable to oneself” (Metaph., 7,3,1029b5-8; Oxford trans.).

In any case, a study like the foregoing should help to locate Aquinas in philosophy’s global village.  It brings into the open glare of public comparison the outstanding merit of his philosophical thinking.  It safeguards fully the apodictic character of his de-monstrations of God’s existence, the indestructibility of the human soul, and the primary role played by contemplation in human destiny. These are surely the metaphysical underpinnings of a Christian culture.  In Aquinas they find unrivalled expression. But if we are to appreciate his thought we have to approach it through the understanding that emerges from the history of philosophy.  By the same token, the radical disagreements among his commentators can be assessed, and any scandal or discouragement they might otherwise occasion can be obviated.

Aquinas himself was sensitive to the radically different character of the sources in philosophy.  He noted, for instance, how Augustine in following Plato was on a different path from that of Aristotle.14  But, within his own use of sources, what may be regarded as a more intimate type of pluralism is at work.  In their light the same notions come to be viewed from different vantage points.  Peter of Bergamo could observe routinely, as he listed Aquinas’s tenets one after another in the Tabula aurea (e.g., s. v v. creatio and esse), “he seems to say the opposite” of what had been asserted in immediately preceding texts. Peter’s own introductory comment was that the contradictions were in appearance only, and not in fact.15  Such a pair of opposites, for example, may be seen in the assertions that being is an accident and is not an accident.  In the present century attempts have been made to explain some alleged inconsis-tencies by change of opinion with the course of time, for instance on the one hand that there is no reason on the part of the creature against its becoming an instrument in creation, and on the other that creative power is not communicable to a creature in instru-mental fashion.16  Etienne Gilson remarked in a letter of August 1, 1959: “Thomas has said everything, and its contrary, at least twice, but in words only—his own meaning is one, stabilisque manens.”  One’s reading of the Thomistic texts needs accordingly to be flexible.  It becomes wooden at its own peril.

To understand this phenomenon, however, the deep background of philosophical pluralism has to be kept in view.  The pluralism in Aquinas’s own use of his sources does not coincide precisely with the pluralism found in those sources when they are considered just in themselves.  They had passed through Aquinas’s thinking, and they had thereby been adapted to his own mentality.  They were sources as he had rethought them, and as revitalized in the unifying flow of a new blood stream.  There need be little wonder, then, that they functioned in a different way, but with enough of their original pluralism seeping through to cause trouble for an unalerted reader.  They gave rise to an internal pluralism, distinct but analogous in type, and requiring acquaintance with the original pluralism for the correct understanding of their thrusts.

Correspondingly, the intramural pluralism of the Thomistic commentators is not exactly the same as the pluralism outside their orbit.  These writers work on the same texts and remain for the most part within Scholastic tradition.  The unifying influence of those factors keeps exercising its effect. Nevertheless the pluralistic nature of philosophical thinking remains basic in their interpretations.  In spite of varying family resemblances the differences stay profound.  Common acceptance of texts and common respect for Scholastic tradition does not keep their work from being a pluralism of its own type.  From this viewpoint pluralism is itself plural-istic in the degrees in which it makes itself manifest.

To the charge that this conception of pluralism allows no room for any “objective” standard by which philosophies may be assessed, one may point out the difficulty inherent in the use of that term.  At one stage in its history “objective” was contrasted with “real”. It meant:  “Existing as an object of con-sciousness as distinct from having any real existence” (O.E.D., s. v., A2a).  Objective being was contradistinguished from real being.  With Aquinas, only the individual is really existent.  In general, unless one accepts Platonic Ideas or Scotistic common natures, anything taken apart from the individual is brought into being by human thought.

Against that background, a historian may be considered objective if he treats each individual person or event as actually found in real existence, without coloring the facts by framing them in his own preconceived ideas or making them conform to his personal tastes.  The historian of philosophy never-theless can rate one philosophy as more widespread, more influential, or more enduring than another, as for instance Hegelianism through the influencing of both Marxism and Fascism may be given a higher rating than Rosmini’s ontologism.  To that extent the historian of philosophy may be said to have in his own right an objective norm for his judgments.  But, for rating the different philosophies in terms of their doctrinal truth, he has to have recourse to epistem-ology.  He is thereby placed within the mold of a particular philosophy, as formed within a specific way of thinking.  The judgments made in its light can hardly be expected to receive approbation by all as objectively historical.  Compare, for example, Marxist with Augustinian versions of the historical events in human cultural development.  To be objective, the historian has to view each philosophy as standing in its own right and as not subject to the tribunal of any other way of philosophical thinking.  It may well be that no one historian of philosophy will attain that objectivity in a perfect degree.  Yet he can strive for it, and attain it “roughly and for the most part,” as an Aristotelian ethical procedure.  The objectivity allows for experts and for amateurs.

But the history of philosophy is only one branch of the discipline.  Epistemology is there to examine the respective philosophies from the viewpoint of doc-trinal truth.  Its objectivity, however, remains within the philosophy of which it is a part.  As developed from the Aristotelian tradition, epistemology is able to assess satisfactorily the internal pluralism in Aquinas himself, the intramural pluralism among his commentators, and the utterly radical pluralism in the panorama of world philosophies.



1 For the evidence, see Ingemar During, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition (Goteborg: distr. Almqvist & Wicksell, Stockholm, 1957), 404-411.

2 See Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 26-27; The Autobiography of Bertran Russell (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967), 330.

3 See Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 170.

4 “. . . rerum divinarum et humanarum causarumque, quibus eae res continentur, scientia.” De off., 2.2.5.

5 Maurice Mandelbaum, “The History of Philosophy: Some Methodological Issues,” The Journal of Philosophy, 74 (1977), 572. Cf. pp. 568-569.

6 “. . . family resemblances,” in Maurice De Wulf, Scholasticism Old and New, trans. P. Coffee (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1910), 46. Cf. “family likenesses,” De Wulf, History of Medieval Philosophy, 3rd ed., trans. P. Coffey (Longmans, Green and Co., 1909), 108. “Like the various members of a single family, each of the scholastics reveals his own individuality”—ibid., p. 109.

7 For Plato (Prm., 132BD) the Forms were not human concepts but existents in reality. For Augustine (Magistro, 40, 1; ed. Weigel, p. 49.2-4) the things themselves were spread out before the human mind in the divine illumination.

8 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birbeck Hill, rev. by L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), I, 471.

9 Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), 230.

10 Aristotle, Metaph., 7.13.1038b8-1039a3; 16.1040b25-1041a5. Aquinas, De ente et essentia, 3.52-70 (ed. Leonine, 43, 374).

11 W. V. Quine, “Relativism and Absolutism,” The Monist, 67 (1984), 295.

12 “Here are two philosophically different worlds, for indeed beings cannot, at one and the same time, be essences actualized by distinct acts of existing, and essences not so actualized. but these choices contradict one another.” E. Gilson, History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1948), 33-34.

13 So Browning’s question “Now, who shall arbitrate?” makes itself felt.  Platonic or Aristotelian, Cartesian or Kantian, Hegelian or Heideggerian or phenomeno-logical, the different philosophies contradict each other on innumerable points.  Yet their authors and proponents are all intelligent persons, highly trained by years of research and meditation, mature in their views and widely experienced in teaching or writing. “They are people who in ears and eyes match me; we all surmise, they, this thing, and I, that; whom shall my soul believe?” (Rabbi Ben Ezra, XXII, lines 127-132).  One’s own reason, whether in speculative or practical matters, has to make the decision.

14 “Augustinus autem, Platonenm secutus quantum fides catholica patiebatur, non posuit species rerum per se subsistentes; sed loco earum posuit rationes rerum in mente divina Aristoteles autem per aliam viam processit.” De spir. creat., 10.ad 8; cf. ST, 1.84.5c.

15 Tabula aurea (Rome: Editiones Paulinae, 1960), p. x.

16 See Dagobert D. Runes, The Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1942), 16b (s. v. Aquinas, Thomas).

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