Saint Thomas Aquinas

Monday, January 30, 2012

Companion to the Summa: Modernity and the Problem

One set of books worth owning is Walter Farrell O.P.'s work titled 'A Companion to the Summa.' If you do not want to invest in a hard copy, it is available online for free. If you want an entertaining introduction and explanation of the Aquinas' Summa Theologica, then you will not be disappointed. I was reading through Vol I, and the entry addressing question 84 of the Summa caught my attention. The question deals with man's intellect, man's knowledge, and how man comes to know and understand things. Here Farrell addresses some of the gravest errors of modern philosophy, and how they oppose reality. What I found interesting was that Farrell singles out the philosopher Henri Bergson. If you read my critical book review of Hans Urs von Balthasar's book, 'Razing the Bastions' you may remember that Balthasar quoted Bergson as one his mentors. He explained his new view of "truth" as being rooted in modern philosophy.  “This exclusively modern experience- that the different realms of truth demand a change of one’s intellectual standpoint (an experience given clear expression by Hegel’s dialectics, Bergson’s and Dilthey’s intellectual philosophy of life and of understanding, and Husserl’s phenomenology)- reinforces in an exceptional manner the necessity of truth in intellectual matters.” Balthasar clearly painted himself as an intellectual now enlightened by the thought and principles invented by Hegel and elaborated and developed further by Bergson. It was a philosophy rooted in man's supposed development, his action and an alleged ever changing intellectual viewpoint concerning reality. Farrell however recognized the danger of this philosophy, which were also many times condemned by many popes. He described Bergson's error quite clearly, "Coming down closer to our own day, Bergson made a polite gesture towards intellect as he stabbed it in the back by his contention that the intellect was not an instrument of valid knowledge and reality was so fluid a thing that it could not be known without being stopped in its flow and so falsified."  Below is an excerpt from the 'Companion to the Summa' which explains some of the main errors of the philosophy that so many modern theologians embrace today.

Modernity and the problem:
History of the modern view

It is not strange that the philosophy of our day has lost no share of the universal interest in the problem of knowledge. What is surprising is that the activity of modern philosophy should be centered chiefly in denying the humanity of man's knowledge rather than in trying to explain it. But the fact is plain. This opposition to the humanity of man's knowledge is one of the chief grounds for the rejection of the scholastic answer to the problem -- the so-called naive notion of the scholastics that the knowledge of man exceeds the content of sense knowledge yet takes its rise from the senses and the sensible world. The moderns have rejected one or the other of these two elements or the conjunction of the two. one school will insist that the world of sense is a world of illusions, it is the mind that we are projecting and playing with when we play the game of knowing the world about us; the other completely disregards intellectual activity, or tries to, reducing such activity to the world of the sensible, automatic, blind, instinctive forces. In this way the heights and the depths, the mystery and speed and all the rest are done away with by the simple expedient of blowing up the sensible world or of strangling the mind of men; quite a high price to pay for the comfort of level territory.

Position of the moderns
The technique of escape from the problem of knowledge is by no means new. It was tried when philosophy was young and many a time since; still the world goes on and the minds of men go on. But a man who is trying to run away is not to be discouraged by previous failures; inevitably the technique would be tried again. The modern attempt can trace its intellectual roots to the beginning of the modern era when Descartes assumed his artificial chasm between the mind and the world of reality, an assumption that forced him to build the fantastic bridge of totally unwarranted parallelism. 

A fantastic bridge to span an assumed chasm seems fair enough; but men took it seriously. Kant gave this assumption a philosophical flavor by apparently justifying it, when, with typical modern clumsiness, he rushed to the "rescue" of the humanity of man's knowledge against the positivistic attacks of Locke, Berkely and Hume. The rescue was effected by murdering the victim. Kant proceeded by assuming that what is not given formally in experience comes wholly from the mind; such an unqualified statement as "sugar is sweet" is obviously not given formally in experience for all sugar cannot be experientially tested for its sweetness, so the statement must take its rise wholly from the mind. Both of these elements of Kant's original assumption were then developed independently to their logical conclusion of naturalism and idealism. The problem of knowledge was escaped again by the same technique of denying or disregarding one or the other of its constituent elements, the world or the mind. Still there were the stubborn facts remaining unexplained: both the world and the mind refused to be snubbed.

Coming down closer to our own day, Bergson made a polite gesture towards intellect as he stabbed it in the back by his contention that the intellect was not an instrument of valid knowledge and reality was so fluid a thing that it could not be known without being stopped in its flow and so falsified. The result was that we had neither a worth-while mind nor a world with which we could come into contact. The intellect of man was not a valid investigator of the world of reality; it was a falsifier, a maker of useful (not true) concepts whose whole purpose was action. William James accepted the Bergsonian gesture with open arms, developed his Pragmatism (or disregard of truth in favor of utility), thus turning a valid scientific method of inquiry into an immensely popular and thoroughly worthless system of philosophy.

Today we reap the fruits of this wild sowing. For it is our age that has come sharply up against the express attempt at a thorough invalidation of the intellect and its activity or even a downright denial of the existence of the intellect. That means that we are heed with a denial of human knowledge, with all the consequences of such a denial for philosophy, science, human activity and human life. We are the victims of a modern "rescue" of men by modern "champions" of man's humanity.

Below is a brief explanation of Bergson's idea of "reality."

Bergson agrees with William James that truth is a dynamic relation between an idea and an existing reality. Truth is not a static property inherent in an idea or judgment. Truth is something which happens to an idea, and which has practical consequences for action. The truth of an idea can tell us how to respond to events, and how to develop plans for action. Truth is not a static relation of correspondence to an unchanging, preexistent state of being. Truth is an active relation between an idea and events that may change according to the flow of reality.

To summarize some of the principles of Bergson’s philosophy, as outlined in The Creative Mind:
1) ultimate reality is changing, rather than unchanging; 2) ultimate reality is knowable by direct intuition; 3) intellect and intuition provide two different kinds of knowledge, which can be integrated to produce a unified knowledge of reality; 4) intellectual knowledge is relative knowledge, intuitive knowledge is absolute knowledge; 5) intuition is a direct perception and experience of the continuous flow of reality, without the use of any intellectual concepts; 6) the flow of time as real duration can be experienced only by intuition; 6) the intellect may falsify the perception of reality by substituting stability for mobility, and by substituting discontinuity for continuity; 7) many philosophical problems are caused by the use of conceptual instead of intuitive thinking, and are resolved by the use of intuition as a philosophical method.

Online Source. Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind

1 comment:

Gregory the Eremite said...

Garrigou-Lagrange wasn't too impressed by Bergson either...