Postmodernism And Thomism

D G Boland © 2000

If we take "postmodern" in the sense of that which wants to leave a certain period of intellectual culture behind and identify that mental culture as what we have come to understand as "Modern Thought" then there is some hope that there may be a rapprochement between Postmodernism and Thomism. For both are in some way "anti-modern". Both reject the materialist or empiricist "dogmatism" underlying the methods of modern science.

Postmodernists it seems believe that much that passes for "objective" scientific laws is either a projection of a particular subjective view of the world or a cleverly disguised means of manipulating others to advantage, whether political or economic. Not that I am all that familiar with their particular writings, but to me they seem to be rather cynical and unnecessarily disparaging in their assessment of modern science. This leads them back to the very radical skepticism that lies at the root of modern thought. One would expect that some new type of dogmatism will come out of this, for society cannot long sustain an intellectual culture of such negativity.

But they do point to the fact that the dogmatism that developed in modern thought is a spent force. This dogmatism is really a false philosophy that pretended to speak in the name of science and to claim credit for its achievements in the modern era. There is necessarily much that has been gained and discovered for the benefit of mankind in the modern era. The Thomist does not reject the mighty achievements of the modern intellectual culture. It is question rather of the philosophical "matrix" in which this has taken place. Leaving aside the supernatural dimension of the loss of faith and religious unity, with which the Church is primarily concerned, there was at the beginning of the modern era a loss of faith in rational processes, as traditionally understood. This engendered a period of temporary skepticism generally but very soon there arose a new "faith" in human reason. It was however a reason very much circumscribed as compared with previous thought.

In general terms Aristotle might have described it as concentrating too much on material and secondary efficient causes to the neglect of first formal and final ones. But the shift of emphasis was not uncalled for in the study of nature. Modern science blossomed. The dramatic success of the new "scientific" method was the occasion, however, for the entrenchment of the dogma of Scientism in the modern mind. This is the false notion that reason is limited in all its endeavours to the restrictions of this method. Materialism regarding the nature of things and Empiricism regarding our knowledge of reality was the natural philosophical outcome of this view of things. Such became the dogma upon which modern philosophy was built. Mathematics took the place of Metaphysics.

The fault lay not in the discovery of the fertility of the scientific method (empirio-mathematical) but in the exclusive reliance upon what provides only a partial grasp of reality, even when applied to the appropriate subject matter. It presents the truth of things but only half (or indeed less than half) the truth. By itself it is merely instrumental and useful knowledge. Thus it can happen and has happened that it has been made to serve on occasion the false gods of Humanism (Man as God) and, sad to say, man's inhumanity to man (Man as Devil). Without being complemented by more profound grasps of, or deeper insights into, reality the (half-) truths of Science and Technology can easily be used by false ideologies and cruel oligarchs to deceive and oppress.

This no doubt the postmodernists have somehow perceived, and they rightly ridicule the hypocritical "objectivity" of much modern pseudo-scientific dogma. But, as usual, the tendency is to throw the baby out with the bath-water. From one extreme of dogmatism, they go to the other extreme of a radical skepticism - a denial of the possibility of truth, in the theoretical sciences, or of the knowledge of objective value (goodness), in the practical sciences. Little do they seem to appreciate that, in its own way, such a stance is as dogmatic and hypocritical as what they are criticising.

Nonetheless, there is common ground to be cultivated by the Postmodernists and the Thomists. If only they could be made to see the reason why modern science has become so ossified philosophically, they may be persuaded that there is truth and right judgement and not all is prejudice and naked power.

D G Boland © 2000


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 6/7 (2000).
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