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Jul 8, 2016

Neo-Thomism and the Virtue of Reasonableness

Smith explains the value of Neo-Thomistic books for libertarians and Randians, and what is meant by the virtue of reasonableness.  

In this and subsequent essays on the ethics of belief, I will sometimes quote or cite philosophers known as “Neo-Thomists,” after the thirteenth-century Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Because of my reliance on these sources, I deem it useful to provide some background on Neo-Thomism, especially in ethics and epistemology, by way of explanation.

The Neo-Thomists are capable defenders of a natural-law ethics (an ethics based on reason alone, without reference to God or revelation) and objective knowledge. Their writings in moral philosophy and epistemology are of considerable value to contemporary natural-law libertarians and to those libertarians sympathetic to the epistemological theories of Ayn Rand. A number of important libertarians, such as Murray Rothbard, Roy Childs, and Leonard Liggio, were fans of certain aspects of Scholastic philosophy, and I share their admiration. Of course, secular libertarians will reject the theology defended in works by Neo-Thomists. They will also reject their political theory, according to which the good of individuals should be subordinated to the “common good.” But these features can easily be winnowed out by discerning readers, leaving us with a core of essential arguments for a natural-law ethics and objective knowledge.

Now some background on Neo-Thomism—or Neo-Scholasticism, as it is sometimes called.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was largely responsible for reintroducing the ideas of Aristotle into western philosophy by integrating them into Christianity. Although this was a progressive and risky innovation—several of Aristotle’s key doctrines directly contradicted Catholic orthodoxy and were condemned on at least two occasions in Aquinas’s day by the Bishop of Paris—in subsequent centuries Scholasticism became ossified into an orthodox dogma that was rejected by most major figures in modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes in the seventeenth century. With a few exceptions, such as William Harvey (who discovered the circulation of blood), major figures in the Scientific Revolution repudiated Aristotle’s views not only in physics but also his a priori conception of the scientific method. By the nineteenth century, even many Catholic philosophers had abandoned Thomism, preferring instead to swim with the currents of irrationalism found in Romanticism and similar trends.

Thomism enjoyed a resurgence in the Catholic Church in the late nineteenth century, thanks largely to the work of Cardinal D. Mercier (1851-1926) at the University of Louvain in Belgium. (The Institut Catholique of Paris also played a significant role in this revival.) In subsequent years a flurry of Neo-Thomistic books were published on ethics, epistemology, and other branches of philosophy. (For a survey of Neo-Thomistic philosophers in various countries, see the chapter “Neo-Scholastic Thought,” in Philosophical Trends in the Contemporary World, by the distinguished Italian philosopher Michele Federico Sciacca; English translation published by University of Notre Dame in 1958). The Neo-Thomists sought to reconcile Catholicism with modern science, to criticize in detail the erroneous theories of modern philosophers—especially Hume’s theory of causation and Kant’s theory of knowledge—and to refute the arguments of those positivists and epistemological skeptics who called into question the possibility of objective knowledge. The Neo-Thomists embraced “moderate realism,” an epistemological tradition to which Ayn Rand also belonged, generally speaking.

As I said, Thomistic texts on ethics embrace a natural-law perspective that, when combined with their systematic presentations, can prove useful to libertarians—especially those libertarians who have been influenced by Ayn Rand and who wish to supplement her moral and epistemological theories with details and arguments that she failed to provide. My observation is not as strange as it may first appear, given that Neo-Thomistic moral theory builds on Aristotle, a philosopher for whom Rand expressed great admiration, even if she did scant justice to his theory of ethics. 

In the field of epistemology, I highly recommend the two-volume work Epistemology: or the Theory of Knowledge (1917; reprinted by Peter Smith, 1958), by the Irish Roman Catholic priest Peter Coffey, who was educated at the University of Louvain. Among many other worthwhile things, such as incisive treatments of the concepts “certainty” and “evidence,” this book contains an extensive critique of Kant’s theory of knowledge that will warm the cockles of every Randian. Also recommended are some volumes in the Stonyhurst Philosophical Series, published in uniform covers by Longmans, Green, & Co. in the early twentieth century. Among the better volumes in this series are Theories of Knowledge: Absolutism, Pragmatism, Realism (2nd ed., 1911), by Leslie J. Walker, S.J.; Psychology: Empirical and Rational (9th ed., 1921), by Michael Maher. S.J; Moral Philosophy: Ethics, Deontology and Natural Law (4th ed., 1923), by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.; The First Principles of Knowledge (4th ed., 1901), by John Rickaby, S.J. (the brother of Joseph); and Logic (1916), by Richard F. Clarke, S.J. A later book that I also recommend is Reality and the Mind: Epistemology (Bruce Publishing, 1936), by Celestine Bittle, the author of numerous Thomistic textbooks intended for students. I have owned the foregoing volumes for decades, and I frequently reread parts of them. I suggest that readers with interests similar to mine locate used copies and purchase them. I hesitate to say that these books should be read critically, because this advice pertains to every philosophy book one might read.

Interestingly, Celestine Bittle—whom I quoted in the chapter on skepticism in Atheism: The Case Against God (1974)—not  only defended some of the same ideas in epistemology as Rand later did, but he sometimes used very similar language, as we find in this statement: “Consciousness has a content. In order to be conscious, we must be conscious of something.” Bittle also agreed that consciousness (as Rand put it) is an axiomatic concept—an irreducible primary that cannot “be reduced to other facts or broken into component parts.” Consciousness, according to Bittle, is “an ultimate datum of experience” that “lies at the very root of all mental activity.” Bittle, like Rand, argued that consciousness “admits of no strict definition” and can only be described ostensively, i.e., “pointed out and described.” There are other significant similarities as well.

Another parallel between the Neo-Thomists and Ayn Rand may be found in the theory of volition, or “free will”—the latter being a term that many Neo-Thomists criticized as misleading. For Rand the essence of volition lies in the choice to think or not to think, and we find the same notion in many Neo-Thomistic works, sometimes expressed in exactly the same words.  

My purpose in recommending some Neo-Thomistic books on philosophy is to provide Randians and natural-law libertarians with intellectual ammunition. But a word of caution is in order. Philosophy students should cite these sources gingerly in their papers. Neo-Thomism was rarely taken seriously by modern mainstream philosophers, and the situation is probably even worse today. With some exceptions, to cite any of the works I mentioned will likely brand oneself a philosophical Neanderthal whose ideas are unworthy of serious consideration. We see this attitude in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contemptuous review (1913) of Peter Coffey’s The Science of Logic: an Inquiry into the Principles of Accurate Thought and Scientific Method. As the father of the philosophical schools known as logical positivism and linguistic analysis, Wittgenstein was probably the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein chided Coffey for ignoring modern mathematical (or symbolic) logic, which Wittgenstein seemed to regard as the greatest thing since sliced bread—a development “which has brought about an advance in Logic comparable only to that which made Astronomy out of Astrology, and Chemistry out of Alchemy.” Coffey, in confining himself to traditional Aristotelian logic, revealed himself an ignoramus. “Aristotle, whose name is taken so much in vain by our logicians, would turn in his grave if he knew that so many Logicians know no more about Logic to-day than he did 2,000 years ago.” It should be noted that later Neo-Thomistic works on logic discuss symbolic logic, but it is not treated with the uncritical reverence displayed by Wittgenstein.

In earlier years, while teaching at summer seminars, I was told by many philosophy students that they were extremely reluctant to cite or quote Ayn Rand in their papers, because they feared being graded down for using this disreputable source. Whatever may be the status of Rand in contemporary academia, I suspect that citing Neo-Thomists (outside of Catholic universities) in a philosophy paper might be more hazardous to one’s academic career than citing Rand. Academic philosophers should be respectable, after all.

The Virtue of Reasonableness

In The Uses of a Liberal Education (Open Court, 1973, p. 130), Brand Blanshard—one of my favorite twentieth-century philosophers, who hailed from the tradition of British Idealism defended by F.H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet—wrote:

What do we mean when we call a man reasonable? We mean at least this, that in his thinking and acting he shows objectivity of mind. And what is this? It means being realistic, impartial, just, seeing things as they are rather than as fear or desire or prejudice would tempt one to see them. The reasonable person will suit what he thinks and claims to the facts. He will be ready to give up an opinion if the facts are against it, and adhere to the opinion in the face of inner and outer pressure if the facts require it. His claims against others and their claims against him he will view impersonally and with detachment; he will not ask more for himself than is just merely because he is he; nor will he allow himself to be put upon for the like reason; he bases his self-respect upon respect for the sort of justice that is itself no respecter of persons.

Blanshard differentiated reasonableness from indiscriminate skepticism about all knowledge claims. As an example of unreasonable skepticism, he related the anecdote of “the man in the train who, when his friend remarked that the sheep in yonder field had been sheared, replied, ‘Well, on this side anyway.’” Reasonable skepticism entails refusing to embrace a belief without sufficient justification.

Blanshard’s discussion of reasonableness is relevant to the problem, which I explained in previous essays, of whether we should call beliefs per se “moral” or “immoral.” A reasonable person exercises his or her critical faculties habitually, often without a conscious decision. And as I explained in my last essay, a virtue is a morally good habit, whereas a vice is a morally bad habit. Many Neo-Thomistic books on ethics explore these concepts in considerable detail. Consider the following passage from Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics (Bruce Publishing, 1948, p. 155), by Thomas J. Higgens, S.J.:

A virtue is the inclination to act in accord with our rational nature, vice is the contrary habit disposing us to act against it. As good acts are the products of virtue, evil acts are the product of vice. Vices are formed the same way that virtues are formed, that is, by repetition—a repetition of evil acts which becomes, in turn, a partial cause of further sinful acts. A man is called good or bad, virtuous or vicious, in so far as he possesses virtue or vice, but he is adjudged guilty in so far as his act is good or bad. Guilt is chargeable not to the vice but to the act.

Although secular philosophers will reject the term “sinful” in this passage, the basic reasoning can be applied to any natural-law theory of ethics, whether theistic or atheistic. Higgens continued his discussion of virtue and vice by introducing the notion of moral responsibility.

Vices, like virtues, may become mechanical, involving no deliberation and consent. The vicious do evil, it is said, by second nature. Thus the question arises, “How responsible is a man for evil acts committed under the influence of a vice?” (a) If a person adverts and consents to a bad act, he is responsible for it, despite the presence of a vice. (b) If a person does not advert to a bad act as he performs it, the act is not chargeable to him as a wrong but the habit is imputed as a wrong if it is voluntary. A vice is voluntary when it has been knowingly contracted or when one neglects to break it as far as one can. It becomes involuntary when one sincerely renounces it by a definite will act. The sincerity of such a will act is manifested by the practical means one takes to implement his resolve. If no means are later taken to break a grave vice, one is guilty of grave neglect. If some measure of diligence is used, even though insufficient, one is not guilty.

A great deal of material is compressed into this passage, and, as we shall see in subsequent essays in this series, some of it is relevant to the question of whether we should apply the judgments “moral” and “immoral” to beliefs per se.

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