History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education (Aquinas Lecture 12)

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Marler, eds. Thomas, Houston, TX, , Aquinas and Philosophical Pluralism. Joseph Owens, C. The philosophical thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas has been interpreted in many different ways. 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? 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 see infra , n. 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.

Chapter 1 What is Philosophy - Department of Social Sciences | Emporia State University

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. 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?

The Reality of the Historical Past

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.

Are they not inalienably issues for philosophical decision? Can philosophy be asked to renounce its sovereignty in their regard? Philosophical notions, not day-to-day happenings, are quite obviously its subject matter.

A Great Apostle for Philosophy

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.

source 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? 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. Philosophy is something entirely differ-ent.

Philosophy does not give primacy to the concrete.

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It is a study of ideas, the building of a system of thought. 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.


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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? 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.

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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.

Aquinas and Dante

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.

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