On the Utility and the Disadvantage of Neo-Scholastic Manuals for Intellectual Life

I have been reading Henri Grenier’s manual of moral philosophy. We have posted passages on personalism, on the subject of civil authority, and on private property at The Josias with introductory notes. I have found Grenier tremendously exciting and enjoyable, but I realize though that my enjoyment depends on a good deal of Vorbildung. Only to someone who has thought about the questions that he treats a good deal before hand, and seen the many difficulties involved in trying to answer could Grenier’s highly formal and apodictic presentation be enjoyable and exciting. James Chastek reports of his first discovery of Grenier: «I had the sense of having found the answer key to Thomistic thought.» I had the very same sense. But this is precisely the reason why I think that Grenier’s manual was completely unsuited to it’s original purpose: to be a text book for the seminarians beginning philosophy.

An answer key is the last thing that a beginner in philosophy needs. “Nothing is so incredible as an answer to an unasked question,” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it. (Perhaps he meant nothing is so unintelligible). Philosophy has to begin wonder, and also with dialectic, in the Aristotelian sense, a manifesting of the difficulties in trying to understand things:

People who inquire without stating the difficulties are like those who do not know were they have to go; besides, a man does not otherwise know even whether he has at any time found what he is looking for or not; for the end is not clear to such a man, while to him who has discussed the difficulties it is clear. (Metaphysics, 995a33- b2)

Grenier’s work is thus wonderful as a summary of philosophy for those who have already struggled with the difficulties using authors who actually do dialectic, but as a text book for beginners it is likely to poison people against philosophy (and has in fact been known to do so). The legendary Laval school Thomist, Maurice Dionne, is supposed to have leveled this very critique against Grenier (according to Martin Blais in a bizarre text  in which he compares Grenier to Goliath and Dionne to David [p.8]).

John Lamont recently gave a spirited defense of pre-conciliar Thomism at Rorate Caeli. I agree with most of Lamont’s essay, but there are two points on which I differ with him. The first is his contention that the Neo-Thomist manuals were “excellently designed” for the purpose of educating theological students. The second his too facile dismissal of objections to over abstraction in neo-Thomism. Lamont writes, “Any advanced field of study, such as philosophy, mathematics, or physics, can be convincingly portrayed as ‘arid’ and ‘rigid’… Precise and rigorous subjects inevitably have arid components.” What Lamont glosses over here is the danger of substituting technical definitions of things, for the pre-scientific knowledge on which such conceptions are based. As I have written before:

De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions.

Of course Lamont is right that a certain amount of technical vocabulary is necessary, but it has to constantly refer back to, and be derived from the ordinary speech with which our confused but certain pre-scientific knowledge of the world is expressed. It has to avoid the danger of a philosophical ‘system,’ a discourse that is about the definitions of things rather than the things themselves.

Now, I don’t think that Henri Grenier falls into the trap of making a ‘system’. On the contrary, I think Grenier thought deeply about reality and tries to summarize his conclusions in an orderly fashion. But I do think that his mode of presentation means that any reader who has not been well prepared by wondering about reality and being led dialectically to see the difficulties in understanding it, will almost inevitably misunderstand Grenier’s book as a system.

Manuals such as Grenier’s are thus indeed of great utility to someone who has already thought much about philosophy, since they clarify certain distinctions, remind him of certain conclusions, and put them in order, summarizing and clarifying what he for the most part already knows. But they can be very disadvantageous to those for whom they were actually written.

8 thoughts on “On the Utility and the Disadvantage of Neo-Scholastic Manuals for Intellectual Life

  1. Pingback: On Studying Philosophy « A Mighty Fortress

  2. What would you propose as a substitute? What would be a good course of a study for someone who wants to learn such things independently?


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