Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Conceptions of Reason

Christopher Martin


I've spent the last few days deleting various introductory paragraphs.

Like Prof. McInerny, I want to look at first principles, implicit philosophy; like Prof. Dougherty, I want to investigate the ambiguities involved in notions such as "faith" and "reason", rather than try to deal with the relations between these notions, as if they were wholly fixed and univocal, and all that needed dealing with were their mutual dealings.

I want to start in a rather provincial way, with some quotations from the great ghost that stalks through English-speaking philosophy, that of David Hume. (One advantage of Scottish parochialism in this context is that it enables one to say that Hume is not, as so many seem to think, the world's greatest philosopher, not even perhaps Scotland's greatest philosopher: if we can accept the plausible hypothesis that Duns Scotus was indeed born in Duns, we can argue that Hume is probably no more than Berwickshire's second greatest philosopher. The jibe has added point when one remembers that Berwickshire, on the English borders of Scotland, is such a wretched little county that it has lacked its capital, or county town, the City of Berwick, since the English captured it in the fourteenth century and with typical bad faith failed to restore it at the peace treaty.)

Speaking of reason, Hume has some interesting things to say (I quote more or less from memory): the reason is and should be the slave of the passions; that "the ordinary way of reasoning" is quite separate from what we affirm in moral judgements; and that it is "not contrary to reason" to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of one's little finger.

This last remark would perhaps inspire any normal person to say; well, if your conception of reason entails that conclusion, you'd better get a different conception of reason. Would the encyclical, would St Thomas, endorse this naive reaction?

Naturally one feels that both ought to: but the position is more complex than that. In the first place, the phrases quoted from Hume relate more to practical reason than to speculative reason - though we could have a nice little argument about "scientia speculativa de practicis", if we wanted - while the encyclical seems to relate more obviously to speculative reason. This perhaps doesn't matter. I could easily have quoted a number of Humean principles about speculative reason, such as his genealogical validation of ideas, or such as his distinction between "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas", which he intends should rule out the whole of scholastic theology and metaphysics, as fit only to be consigned to the flames. Or I could say that the reason why this encyclical does not deal with the practical reason is that this task was performed already by Veritatis Splendor. I hope everyone agrees that to a philosopher of average talents and tidy mind it is a cause for annoyance that Veritatis Splendor should have come out before Fides et Ratio, when it is so clear that Veritatis Splendor is no more than an application (admittedly in a very important field) of the principles laid down in Fides et Ratio. It is amusing how much the enemies of the Church and of God's law were upset by Veritatis Splendor, and how little they cared about Fides et Ratio, when clearly the later encyclical provides the justification for everything that was attacked in the earlier.

A more serious reaction, perhaps, would be to notice that the doing of philosophy is itself a practice, and must therefore be governed by the principles of good practice which are enshrined in the Ten commandments and elsewhere in Revelation, which are taught by the Church, and which the greatest of pagan philosophers struggled to articulate (and in so many cases succeeded). A person who tries to live by these moral norms would not have agreed with Hume that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of one's little finger.

Or perhaps the answer should be: Veritatis Splendor deal with errors in practical reasoning, but does not deal with practical reasoning as such. But there is an obvious reply to this, which I think is at first sight correct: that Fides et Ratio deals with aberrations in speculative reason, but does not deal with the nature and perfection of speculative reason as such. I am bolstered up in this reaction by the fact that Prof. McInerny has found it necessary to work carefully through the text, attempting to derive from it some features of the perfection of speculative reasoning as such. If the encyclical bore an account of the perfection of reason on its face, such an investigation would not be necessary.

This leads me to my main point. "Faith and reason", we say: but, to plagiarise a more famous pair of questions, "Whose faith? Which reason?" I will leave faith on one side and speak of reason. "Whose reason?" we ask, and the only answer I can definitely give at this stage is: not Hume's. I brought in Hume not merely because he enable me to make a couple of jokes about Berwickshire, but because there is little doubt that a very large number of Hume's basic principles of "reason" - whether of practical or of speculative reason - are shared by our contemporaries in English- speaking universities (and some others) throughout the world: our contemporaries, our fellow-philosophers, in some sense; our colleagues. And some of us have been so affected by our company that we begin to feel that at least some of their methods and perhaps some of their attitudes can or should be taken on board by us.

So this is going to turn into another piece on the question "Is analytical Thomism possible, or even recommendable?" The absence of Prof Haldane, which from one point of view I regret with everyone else, from another I am rather pleased to see (always provided that the cause of his absence is innocuous) because it means that I may be able to get away with making some rather naive comments without magisterial correction.

First, I want to say that some of the methods and attitudes of analytical philosophy are to me entirely admirable. A preference for writing clearly and simply, limiting oneself, as I once recommended to a Spanish colleague to one abstract noun per sentence, is one which I share and would recommend to any young person starting philosophy. And I must say that when I try to read contemporary French or German philosophy, I am reinforced in my view, and come to believe that obscurity is often adopted as a mere simulacrum for profundity. St Thomas is clear as well as deep. Depth is something we cannot all achieve, but clarity is, and it strikes me that it is something of a moral duty to strive for it.

This example, many will remark, is trivial. I am not so sure,, but we can let it pass. What is wrong with analytical philosophy that some people regard it as in some ways the antithesis of Thomism?

I am going to assert, without any argument, that what is principally wrong with analytical philosophy is its historical origin in a highly Humeanised milieu - that, in fact, what is wrong with analytical philosophy is its first principles of reason, shared with Berwickshire's second greatest philosopher, indeed inherited from him. Accept that as a hypothesis, which at least brings the debate on analytical philosophy within the scope of the discussion of the first principles of reason, as mentioned in Fides et Ratio.

My point here would be that analytical philosophy possesses resources within itself to overthrow its false first principles. Quine's brilliant overthrow of the Humean distinction between analytic and empirical truths in Two dogmas of Empiricism would be a case in point. So would the demonstration by Kripke that the metaphysics presupposed by our ordinary language - and Kripke, at least, knows enough to know that "our ordinary language" does not mean "English" - is a metaphysics of substance, substances which have essences. The whole basis of empiricism is overthrown by the reflections of analytical philosophers, using techniques that first arose in a thoroughly empiricist milieu. That no-one seems to have bothered to take on board the implications of the work of Quine and Kripke on these questions is regrettable, but has more to do with the ethics of the practice of doing philosophy, of which we spoke earlier. If analytical philosophy has the resources to overturn the false first principles of reason with which it is born, that is all we can demand, surely. We cannot also demand that it should turn its practitioners into philosophical saints capable of welcoming this overthrow and seeking to work further on a new basis.

A similar point can be made about the Humean principles of practical reason with which I started. It is not necessary to have much, or indeed any cargo of Thomistic knowledge on board to overturn the fact- value distinction: the resources of analytical philosophy are quite sufficient, as the work of Prior, Foot and Hursthouse have shown. (Though, indeed, the former pair do know something about Thomas, and the last knows a lot about Aristotle: but no-one would call them Thomists or Aristotelians.)

If the false first principles of Americo-British analytical philosophy can be overthrown adequately by the use of the methods of the same philosophy, we can clearly make a distinction between the methods and the false first principles. At first sight, then, it should be absolutely harmless for a Thomist to adopt at least some of the methods and attitudes of analytical philosophy: she or he will not thereby be committed to the false principles with which analytical philosophy began, and indeed may be more successful in arguing against them. The techniques and resources of analytical philosophy, then, can be quite easily detached from the principles of false reason with which they are associated, and put at the disposal of true reason.

But is this enough? Given that analytical methods etc. may be innocuous, and may even be of value in overthrowing falsehood, is this enough to show that a true analytical Thomism is possible or even valuable? About this positive point I have less to say. but let us take a case related to what we have already said. Once the false principles of reason are undermined, are the resources of analytical philosophy sufficient to arrive at true principles? Perhaps the example of Kripke, already cited, can be used again - on either side. There is no doubt in my mind that the work of the middle Kripke can be a starting place for the establishment of true first principles of reason. There is equally no doubt that no-one has ever tried to do it. My question is, if Thomists do not try to do it, who will? It seems pretty obvious that the work done in Naming and Necessity and Identity and Necessity was so alien to the false principles of reason on which most of Americo-British philosophy is based, that no-one wanted to follow it up - not even Kripke. Well, if not Thomists, who? And if this task is not carried out by Thomists, what right have Thomists to claim that they have at least attempted to dialogue with their misguided peers in a way which those colleagues will appreciate and understand? And if Thomists are not willing to do this, shouldn't we read Faith and Reason a little more carefully?

The theoretical structure of Thomist thought - as opposed to what St Thomas actually does, or what his followers actually do, which is often different, as it should be - that structure seems to have no resources for establishing first principles. We heard why the other day: it is obvious that no-one can argue deductively to first principles. Aristotle and St Thomas appear to offer little explicit guidance here. How does one argue to first principles? Dialectically, inductively, even rhetorically, or ad hominem; by reductio ad absurdum. Now, what criticisms are most often made by old-fashioned Thomists against analytical philosophy? Perhaps that they ignore there power of inductive argument, but instead argue dialectically, inductively, even rhetorically, or ad hominem; by reductio ad absurdum.

I think with that I rest my case, such as it is.