A Brief Definition of Philosophy

*This post is a word-for-word section taken from a paper on St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical theology. Where it seems to lack context and citations, they are present in the paper.*

The Philosophical Task

[Chief among contemporary concerns about Aquinas’ theological method is his extensive use of Aristotelian philosophy. However, in order to defend or denounce Aquinas, the philosophical task must first be identified closely.]

In a recent essay, Philipp Rosemann claims that philosophy “oscillates between two poles: […]the polysemy of story[… and] the univocity of science.” Following the progression of modern western thought, the “polysemy of story” has been safely relegated to the far-off, unobtrusive realm of fiction or the sentimentalism of personal religious belief. Whatever it is, and wherever it is kept, such multiplicity of meaning is no longer allowed to infiltrate the now scientific task of philosophy; it has been banished by rationalism, unless of course we consider the stereotypical caricature of the postmodern alternative: relativism. Catherine Pickstock, in a careful defense of fiction– a close correlate to myth– claims that the modern temptation is “to reduce fiction either to reality or subjective fantasy” while the postmodern side of the coin seeks to “vaporize reality in favor of a universal reign of fiction.” It seems that modern philosophy has become more of a zero-sum scientific task; it is either the search for univocal certainty or subsequent rejection of truth and reality altogether. Rosemann’s definition of philosophy between the poles of story and science complicates the contemporary understanding while elucidating a more ancient alternative. A philosophy that oscillates between story and science is seen in the paradigmatic character of Socrates.

Socrates defines his entire life as a response to the mythological oracle at Delphi, via the inscription which lined the arch above the temple entrance, reading: “know thyself.” The mythological element of such a claim, at such a trial, for such a man, should not escape modern readers. The philosopher upon whom hinges the entire history of philosophy, was being tried for impiety, and in defense of his philosophical life, his justification is an emphatic and totalizing appeal to the Delphic myth. Philosophy, for Rosemann, does not subsist outside of mythos, but rather emerges from it and subjects it to “critical examination.” This mythological emergence is made clear in Socrates’ self-defense. The philosophical task, then, is neither mere myth nor rational science. Philosophy inhabits the in-between of mythos and logos as Socrates inhabits the space between marginalization and the “activities that occur inside the society to which he belongs.” It is with these distinctions in mind that we turn then to Aquinas’ philosophical theology.

As Rosemann points out, Aquinas’ method deviates from the narrativity invoked throughout the Church Fathers– exemplified by St. Augustine– as Aristotle deviated from Plato on the same matter: namely, Plato’s literary style. Both Aristotle and Aquinas, following suit, opted for a more systematic approach to the order of reality. Aquinas seems to leave Augustine’s compelling narrative methodology– i.e. Confessions– to take theology “as far as Christian thought can go toward science without losing itself.” However, one should not jump too quickly to the anachronistic conclusion of a Thomistic flight from myth to reason. It is within the same article which asks whether sacred teaching is a science that Aquinas invokes Augustine as his authoritative ‘On the contrary’, quoting “to this science alone belongs that whereby salutary faith is begotten, nourished, defended, and strengthened.” Aquinas appropriated Augustine’s use of the term scientia in reference to Christian teaching. It is important to recognize that the sacred science, scientia divina, is a science of a unique sort, as it “proceeds from principles known through a higher science…namely the science that belongs to God and the blessed.” Whatever can be said of this scientia, it is certainly not bound to the limited notions of contemporary understandings of the physical sciences, logic, etc. or the scientific approaches which define much analytic philosophy following Wittgenstein. Aquinas’ scientia divina, on the contrary– as the science of God and the blessed – is a speculative science which considers things under the formality of being divinely revealed and reasons from the effects of its object, God. It is crucial to keep in mind that the first article of Aquinas’ oeuvre declares that sacred teaching is “in accord with divine revelation, beyond the philosophical disciplines investigated by human reason.” Therefore, whatever may be understood, praised, or critiqued about Aquinas’ decision to begin the Summa from the place of largely-Aristotelian philosophy, it cannot be said that the decision is made in order to prioritize philosophy (of any kind) over theology.

Christian scripture seems to pose a problem for the Aristotelian philosophical system, as it is highly anthropomorphic. However, anthropomorphism is a necessary aspect of myth. Myth is that medium of story-telling which narratively holds together paradoxical tensions in order to provide a meaningful engagement with reality– for societies and individuals. This does not devolve religious myths into fables; such an abuse of religious meaning could only follow an overly-confident rationalism. Rather, it is myth which chiefly provides meaning above philosophy or any other scientia. It may be that myth, or narrative, is more apt to provide meaning than philosophy. In fact, as was shown above, this is the case for Thomas Aquinas in reference to the mythology of sacra doctrina, or sacred teaching. Perhaps some concern over Thomas’ engagement with philosophy assumes that Christian scripture already engages in philosophy, and thus, Aristotle via Aquinas should never speak in contradiction to scripture; this would be, however, to confuse the category of sacred teaching by projecting the demands of modern philosophies on it. If, on the other hand, philosophy is a different sort of task than myth (though, certainly interwoven), then there must be room allowed for seeming contradictions; this is, of course, because they are not contradictions at all, as long as both are speaking in different categories. In a summative definition of philosophy, Philipp Rosemann puts it strikingly:

…philosophy is propelled toward the Absolute by stories that place the human being in relation to the divine, but that its critical functions show these stories to be what they are: metaphorical language attempting to speak of the unspeakable. Philosophy, then confronts us with our finitude, but it cannot promise us salvation.

Referenced: Aquinas’ On the Divine Nature (First 13 questions of the Summa Th. [Hackett]). Philipp Rosemann’s article “What is Philosophy?” Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity.

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