Philosophical Pluralism

Topica, Number 1, September 2001

by dgboland 2000

The task of translation is, without doubt, a difficult one at the best of times. When it comes to translating a document concerned with the profound questions of faith and reason and their interrelationship it assumes daunting proportions. One should avoid, then, being too critical of the English translation of Fides et Ratio. I would not be so presumptuous as to say that I could have done a better job. Nonetheless, that does not prevent my, or anyone else's, pointing to particular passages where the translator seems not to have followed the Latin as faithfully as he might have.

As presently translated, there are passages that seem to jar with the sentiment of the encyclical as a whole. It is clear, for instance, that the Church does endorse a certain basic philosophical position, which is to be found best expressed in St. Thomas Aquinas.

Take the following statement from Fides et Ratio, para. 78:

"His praepositis cogitationibus, probe intellegitur cur subinde laudaverit Magisterium sancti Thomae philosophiae merita eundemque putaverit ductorem atque theologiae disciplinae exemplar."

The English translation we have is as follows:

"It should be clear in the light of these reflections why the Magisterium has repeatedly acclaimed the merits of St. Thomas' thought and made him the guide and model for theological studies."

My attempt at a translation would be:

"Given the foregoing reflections, one can well understand why the Magisterium has repeatedly acclaimed the merits of St. Thomas' philosophy and held up the same Thomas as the guide and model for theological studies."

Even here one cannot help noticing the substitution of "thought" for what more obviously translates as "philosophy". The same paragraph goes on to say:

"Nihil intererat philosophicas quasdam questiones complecti, neque imperare peculiares opinationes ut teneretur."

The English translation is:

"This has not been in order to take a position on properly philosophical questions nor to demand adherence to particular theses."

Whereas I would translate it as:

"It was not its [the Magisterium's] concern to involve itself in certain philosophical questions, nor to demand adherence to particular conjectures."

One might detect already a looseness of expression in the translation that could affect the interpretation of particular phrases and sentences if taken out of context.

Immediately after the above in the same place we have, in the English translation:

"The Magisterium's intention has always been to show how St. Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason."

If that is not, amongst other things, a ringing endorsement of his work within the sphere of reason proper, i.e. in philosophy, one wonders what would be.
Yet probably the part of the encyclical that has been highlighted most is from paragraph 49:

"Suam ipsius philosophiam non exhibet Ecclesia, neque quamlibet praelegit peculiarem philosophiam aliarum damno."

The received translation is:

"The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others."

I would rather translate it as follows:

"The Church does not put forward her own philosophy nor does she expound upon any private philosophy you please to the detriment of others."

The point being made, as I understand it, which is brought out in the words following these in the encyclical, is that philosophic truth is the property of no one. It belongs to God and to the human race as a whole. The sentiment accords well with Chesterton's famous remark: "The philosophy that I subscribe to is not my philosophy. God and humanity made it and it made me."

The Church does not therefore endorse "the philosophy of St. Thomas" (called Thomism) nor that of St. Augustine, or of St. Bonaventure, or of St. Anselm. The Church, however, endorses what they say in many cases, and in regard to St. Thomas, more so than with others. But the reason for this is because what they say is the truth, not because they have said it. For there is only one true philosophy, fundamentally and finally, that which in the encyclical the Pope calls the Implicit Philosophy of humanity. Historically, many great thinkers, such as Aristotle, have contributed to its exposition and explanation, but all deficiently when compared to the sum total of natural truth. But there is a core of truths uncovered for us to adhere to. These truths may be expressed in various ways but the objects understood are not thereby multiplied.

In the encyclical we are given some pretty clear tests whereby we may judge the truth or otherwise of a good number of particular philosophies (peculiares philosophiae). Many of these, particularly in modern times, are clearly excluded from being expressions of the truth of things. How would many measure up to this requirement?

"… that philosophy verify the human capacity to know the truth, to come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth by means of that adaequatio rei et intellectus to which the Scholastic Doctors referred. This requirement, proper to faith, was explicitly reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council: 'Intelligence is not confined to the observable data alone. It can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable though in consequence of sin that certitude is partially obscured and weakened'… Sacred Scripture always assumes that the individual, even if guilty of duplicity and mendacity, can know and grasp the clear and simple truth." (para. 82)

The radical phenomenalism and utilitarianism of the most celebrated English-speaking philosophers from Hume onwards, as well as much of Continental philosophy affected by the fundamental relativism engendered by the ingenious Kant palpably fall down on this test.

The matter is not merely academic. The lack of speculative and practical wisdom in a philosophy brings a warning. "This sapiential dimension is all the more necessary today, because the immense expansion of humanity's technical capability demands a renewed and sharpened sense of ultimate values. If this technology is not ordered to something greater than a merely utilitarian end, then it could soon prove inhuman and even become potential destroyer of the human race." (para. 81) Can we not already detect the entry of this inhumanity into the proud achievements of current science and bio-technology?

Another related requirement listed in the encyclical is "the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth… I want only to state that reality and truth do transcend the factual and empirical, and to vindicate the human being's capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical". (para.83)

What the encyclical defends, then, is the proposition that philosophical truth is of an absolutely universal nature, extending in principle to the whole of reality. Its development and exposition as such, however, is not the business of the Church, but of all of us, including Christians, as rational human beings. There can be, therefore, only one philosophy, or natural wisdom about things. We are all living in the same world, and when we all see things as they truly are we shall be of the one mind. This is not to deny that no one of us sees the whole of reality in all its richness, or that some see more than others, or that none of us in this life understands comprehensively even one thing. But we do get an insight into many truths including the universality and unity of being. Moreover, if I understand at all what you are saying we are seeing things in the same way to the extent of that understanding. We have made a beginning, then, in our efforts to be of the same mind.

We must, then, hold, with Socrates against Protagoras, that truth is absolute, in the sense that there is an objective reality known. We can say that truth is relative, just as vision is, in the sense that it is received according to the capacity of our powers of knowledge. But, as there is such a thing as a clear day, so there is such a thing as a clear and simple truth. By inordinately concentrating on the imperfections of our faculties we can manufacture difficulties for ourselves. Philosophers are not immune from this. Fundamentally, the eye is healthy and the intellect is a power of understanding. The double or multiple vision of much of modern thought can be accounted for as being the result of artificial pressure externally applied to the eye of the mind.

The Pope is reassuring us: "Look and see, the world is true, and good and beautiful, thanks be to God." Have courage to admit that things are as they are, and not necessarily as we would like them to be. We might even grow then to like them as they are (once we understand the ultimately relative, or rather privative, character of the evil aspects of the false, the bad and the ugly). Moreover, just as there is unity of reality, there is, at the metaphysical level, unity in philosophy.

What, then, are we to make of those, including some who call themselves Thomists, who argue for a philosophical pluralism that asserts that there is no one true philosophy, even when we take philosophy in its ultimate metaphysical "dimension"?

All the above was said to defend our capacity to know things as they are, and not merely as they appear, to know the real and not just the phenomenal. We too, like St. Thomas, can produce a philosophy not merely of appearing but of being. However, there is a cautionary note to be sounded. We can be confident that we have the truth but at the same time be aware not only of how much we do not know, and have to learn, but also of a whole world of being and truth that lies beyond our capacity. As Aristotle noted, so far as our knowledge of the most real of beings and the most elevated truths is concerned, our mind is like the eye of the owl to the noon day sun. It is humbling to realise how little we actually do, and naturally can, know. Because we can see the necessary connection between the existence of the world of our experience and this other realm of reality, as effect to cause, even from the use of our natural reason we have some idea of this world "beyond being" as we know it. It is best understood indeed relative to our own being as spiritual. Realistically, however, it is more a case of not knowing than knowing.

We must be careful, then, not to introduce into philosophical discussions, regarding our first concepts and principles of knowledge, notions of absolute being that properly apply, not to being in general as we understand it, or being in common, but to the cause of being, i.e. to God as unknown. The abstract infinity of our concept of being does not allow us to form any definite notion of God as Infinite Being or as Absolute Being. The best we can do is to establish the existence of this cause relative to the world we know. What we can naturally know about God or the Absolute, then, is always in terms of material things*. The formal object of the human intellect remains "what some body is".

Such a confusion regarding absolute being as somehow within the object of our intellect is, I believe, at the root of the project of Transcendental Thomism and the argument by some for philosophical pluralism, even within Thomism. It involves a leap into the dark, or rather into an excess of light, in which all sense of definition and objectivity is lost. Link this to the "dynamism" of our intellectual knowledge, and to the denial of true objectivity in our concepts because of the logical superiority of judgements, and one has the recipe for a return to subjectivism, relativism and historicism under the banner of Thomism.

One does not question the good intentions of the thinkers concerned. Indeed, in a culture dominated by materialism and atheism, the defence of the spiritual and religious basis of philosophy, if exaggerated, is something to be grateful for. But, strictly from a philosophical point of view, they are making, as I see it, the same error as that made by Spinoza, the "God-intoxicated" philosopher, as seen through the lens of Kant's transcendental method. The notions of infinite, absolute etc are used without proper discrimination, and logical and ontological considerations are not kept distinct.


Indeed our knowledge of the existence of God arrived at by natural reason does not enable us to know anything of the Absolute Being in itself. ("Esse dupliciter dicitur: uno modo significat actum essendi; alio modo significat compositionem propositionis, quam anima adinvenit coniugans praedicatum subiecto. Primo igitur modo accipiendo esse, non possumus scire esse Dei, sicut nec eius essentiam: sed solum secundo modo. Scimus enim quod haec propositio quam formamus de Deo, cum dicimus 'Deus est' vera est. Et hoc scimus ex eius effectibus". Summa Theologiae, I, q. 3, a. 4, ad 2., which translated reads: "To be is said in two ways; in one way it signifies the act of being; in the other its signifies the composition of a proposition, that the mind makes joining the predicate to the subject. In the first way of taking to be, then, we cannot know the existence of God, as neither can we know his essence, but only in the second way. For we know that this proposition that we form about God, when we say 'God exists' is true. And this we know from his effects.")

by dgboland 2000


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

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Topica, No. 1 (2001).
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