Gyula Klima: What can a scholastic do in the 21st century?

"What can a scholastic do in the 20th century?" - asks Katalin Vidrányi in the title of her article written in 1970.[1] If her characteristically systematic and pithy analysis can be summarized in a single sentence, the author's answer is this: many things, but not too much.

For if we survey the Christian philosophies carefully classified and perceptively analyzed by Vidrányi,[2] we find that in the last analysis they are all characterized by the same hopeless eclecticism and incapability of a genuine synthesis, that is to say, one which would be comparable to that produced by scholasticism (in particular, by Thomism). Indeed, we can say that there are basically only two things that connect the Christian philosophies analyzed in the paper: Christian religiousness (which, however, in itself does not guarantee some sort of philosophical, theoretical community), and the more or less tacit consensus that it is no longer possible to do philosophy in the traditional, scholastic (Thomistic) way.

But this is also the author's starting-point: "since the system [...] came into existence in the 13th century, whereas history, the sciences, and philosophy have produced some novelties since that time, more and more of the elements of the system have become obsolete, and a `Thomistic synthesis' in general has become entirely anachronistic".[3] Accordingly, "the traditional structure has become untenable, as the development of philosophy and the sciences has turned it into a fossil. - To put it in another way: the development of philosophical thinking has rendered all those efforts nonsensical which - figuratively speaking - exercised ontology in the form of climbing a ladder, in such a way that the ontologist would climb the rungs until, upon reaching the top rung, he would grab the foot of God".[4]

In fact, however, it is precisely this starting point that makes the question of the paper legitimate. After all, in the 13th century, nobody would have raised the question: what can a scholastic do in the 13th century? So, apparently, the legitimacy of the question is time-bound. The question can only be legitimately raised by those who agree that by our time the scholastic system and method have irrevocably failed. But what is it that made it so unambiguous by the beginning of the 20th century that "doing ontology in the form of climbing a ladder" is no longer possible? Indeed, now that this glorious century is finally coming to an end, is this question still equally legitimate? Or is, perhaps, the time now ripe for re-examining some of its presuppositions? Might we come to a different answer if we ask: what can a scholastic do in the 21st century?

In any case, if we look around the scene of contemporary philosophy -- which, despite all its eclecticism, is markedly different as a whole from the philosophical landscape of the beginning of this century -- what first hits the eye is the fact that metaphysics, despite its allegedly irrevocable and irreversible death, proclaimed repeatedly by several philosophical authorities of the past two centuries, is still alive and kicking. Well, of course, if someone were to say that this metaphysics is no longer that metaphysics, he would obviously be right. For most contemporary metaphysical studies are (quite paradoxically) the direct descendants of the logical positivist/analytic movement,[5] which in turn established its platform on a radical rejection of traditional metaphysics (proclaiming it to be simply meaningless). So, contemporary metaphysical investigations (here we should think of works of authors such as Armstrong, Bealer, Butchvarov, Gupta, Fine, Kripke, Lewis, Parsons, Plantinga, Putnam, Quine, van Inwagen, etc.) are radically different in their methods and principles as well as in their goals from anything that might pass for "traditional metaphysics". Nevertheless, one cannot fail to notice that in the works of contemporary metaphysicians, who in general are not quite familiar with, and who in fact do not care much about, traditional metaphysics, there is a slew of obstinately recurring traditional metaphysical problems: for example, considerations concerning "rigid designators" and "natural kinds" directly lead to contemporary views flirting with Aristotelian essentialism, problems with personal identity and "transworld identity" are closely related to the traditional problems of the principle of individuation, while questions regarding meaning and reference led to the revival of several aspects of the old problem of universals. Indeed, in general, the contemporary realism-antirealism debate with all its ramifications can quite fairly be characterized as being centered around the traditional problems of the relationships between modi essendi (modes of being), modi intelligendi (modes of understanding) and modi significandi (modes of signifying), primarily approaching the issue from the last member of this triad. In this situation, it is no wonder that we find a number of philosophically-minded historians as well as historically-minded philosophers (such as Adams, McCord Adams, Barnes, Burrell, Geach, Gracia, Henry, Kretzmann, Kenny, McInerny, Normore, Stump, Wolterstorff, etc.) who, being versatile both in analytic philosophy and in traditional metaphysics, are bringing the scholastic discussions directly to bear upon contemporary metaphysical problems and techniques.

Now, despite all their differences in particular considerations, methods and approaches, what is common to all these contemporary discussions is the careful logico-linguistic analysis, the reflective use of metaphysical language -- in other words, the continuous reflection on the metaphysical use of language. But it is precisely this feature that, on the one hand, distinguishes the modern metaphysical investigations from the "pre-analytic" philosophizing of the beginning of this century, and, on the other hand, connects these contemporary concerns to the scholastics' sophisticated metaphysical speculations. For the metaphysical considerations of the scholastics, as far as their methodology is concerned, are strikingly similar to these modern considerations in that we find the same continuous presence of the reflection on the metaphysical use of language in their treatment of metaphysical problems as we can find in the works of their modern counterparts. Thus there is no scholastic metaphysical discussion which would not in some way reflect on the role of the logical-semantic notion of analogy in metaphysical considerations, on the difference between the mode of signification of abstract and concrete terms in the problems of distinguishing metaphysical categories, or the relationships between words, concepts and things in the handling of problems concerning individuation and universals. Therefore, linguistic-logical-semantic reflection is an essential feature of both the modern and the scholastic metaphysical considerations.

However, what still radically sets them apart is the fundamental differences between the linguistic-logical-semantic conceptions that serve as the theoretical framework of such considerations. For the "disintegration of scholasticism" was not only, indeed, not primarily, the breaking up of some uniform, particular (and, we should add, because of the relatively underdeveloped state of positive sciences, necessarily limited) metaphysical world-view. (Those who are familiar with "high scholasticism" know what an immensely wide variety of radically different metaphysical conceptions could find their place within what can rightly be called scholasticism.) Rather, this disintegration was primarily the break-up of this linguistic-logical-semantic framework, which resulted in the radical transformation of the reflection on the metaphysical use of language, indeed, in its nearly complete disappearance in the post-scholastic, early modern period.

But when our basic concepts have changed, even though we still appear to be speaking the same language, we must eventually realize that the principles which so far we have taken for granted, turn out upon further reflection to be inconsistent with the new truths generated by the conceptual changes as well as the accumulation of our experiences. Worse still, we may even find that these principles have simply become irrelevant, or even entirely "vacuous" formulae which have totally lost their meaning.

In fact, this is the basic, defining experience of the Christian philosophies characterized by Vidrányi: if the scholastic terminology which provided the philosophical interpretation of Christian religious principles gets classified under the same category as Moličre's vis dormitiva, then one may start worrying that in this way Christianity itself might become entirely anachronistic. So the Christian philosophies analyzed by Vidrányi were first of all trying to get rid of their increasingly burdensome scholastic baggage. But as Vidrányi's analysis points out, these philosophies, since they did have to relate somehow to the Christian tradition, could not start out with a tabula rasa. On the other hand, they could not go on with the old scholastic discourse, which by their time became void of content. Without the historical-logical reflection needed to understand how scholastic discourse had lost its content, this situation could only lead to the hopeless eclecticism described by Vidrányi.

The moral of this analysis, therefore, is that it is not possible to have a comprehensive, modern, consistent Christian philosophy without reflecting on the changes that led to this "loss of content" of scholastic terminology. If the "ontological ladder" falls out from under our feet, then as a first reaction we may try, emulating Baron Münchhausen, to hold ourselves up by grabbing at our own hair, but such an attempt is necessarily doomed to failure. However, once we have fallen, which in this way was inevitable, the only sensible thing to do is to try and see what went wrong, and to try to find out how we could put together a similar, or even more reliable device to reach our end.

Thus, to the question of what a scholastic can do in the 21st century, as opposed to what he could do in the 20th, we can apparently give a substantially different reply. Rephrasing our summary of Katalin Vidrányi's reply to her own question, the answer should be this: one thing, but thereby quite a lot.

This "one thing", in accordance with the foregoing considerations, can only be the careful examination of exactly how the dissolution of the scholastic conceptual framework led to the situation in which scholastic discourse became more and more "vacuous", and which, in turn, eventually rendered all attempts to "do ontology in the form of ladder-climbing" apparently entirely nonsensical. That is to say, we should first of all try to see and reconstruct just those essential conceptual elements without which the continuation of scholastic metaphysical and theological discourse, regardless of its particular variants and content, is impossible.[6] On the other hand, the "quite a lot" which can possibly come out of such a project is a new conceptual synthesis, comparable to the scholastic synthesis, namely, one which is modern without any anachronism, and yet an authentic, organic continuation of the traditional discourse, and which therefore is able to present the breakdown of this discourse over the past few centuries as a (conceptually) merely contingent historical episode.

[1] K. Vidrányi: "Mit tehet egy skolaszta a XX. században?", Világosság, 1970(11), pp. 577-585.

[2] Vidrányi's paper deals with the works of more than a dozen, mostly but not exclusively Catholic, theologians from the first half of this century.

[3] Vidrányi, ibid., p. 577.

[4] Vidrányi, ibid., 578.

[5] The niceties of the intrinsic differences between members of these camps are quite irrelevant here.

[6] For a more definite outline of how I envision such a reconstruction see Gyula Klima: "The Semantic Principles Underlying Saint Thomas Aquinas's Metaphysics of Being", Medieval Philosophy and Theology, (5)1996, pp. 87-141.