In defence of scholasticism

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Over on Dave Osler’s blog, there has been a discussion going on about British Labour Party membership and the strength or otherwise of the Labour left. I don’t intend to enter that discussion, but I was struck by a contribution from Mark P of the Socialist Party, than whom nobody’s imagination ranges further. Mark regards discussing the Labour left as analogous to “medieval scholastic debates about the numbers of angels in each choir of heaven.” I’d love to know who these scholastics are, because this doesn’t correspond to any scholastics I’ve ever read. I suspect that we are dealing here not with actual scholastic philosophy, but with a vulgar Marxist’s idea of what scholastic philosophy ought to be about.

This calumny against the scholastics has been doing the rounds a very long time. I heard the late Tony Cliff, with a good deal more wit than Mark P, do a version of it dozens of times. And like many of Cliff’s wisecracks, it was older even than he was, stemming from the Protestant Reformation and subsequently from anti-Catholic philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. And it was a pretty boring joke even in Hobbes’ day.

Allow me to explain. Luther’s concept of justification by faith alone meant getting rid of scholasticism, which attempted to introduce reason into theology, notably in Augustine’s use of Platonic concepts to explain the Trinity. Luther moderated his position in his later years, realising that the Christian couldn’t do without reason altogether, but the Hobbes-Locke paradigm was even more insistent in erecting a Chinese wall between Keplerian experimental science and religion, which was to be determined by reference to the Book. Scholasticism was damned because it didn’t respect these boundaries, and held that rational thought could be brought to bear on matters of religion. This meant throwing out a huge and rich tapestry of thought, including even someone like Bacon, probably Europe’s first experimental scientist, and who could only be rehabilitated in scientific tradition by pretending he wasn’t a scholastic.

The parody of scholasticism comes from this background, and parody it is. There are few thinkers more rigorous than Aquinas, the undisputed master of the Aristotelian dialectic, who makes most of our twenty-first-century Marxists look like doltish obscurantists. Forgive me for waxing Thomist, but I think there’s actually a lot to be learned in terms of method and categories from the scholastics. As a little experiment, let’s apply Aristotelian categories to the scientific materialists of the Irish left.

In the early 1990s, if you went to the SWM’s Marxism conference, you couldn’t have missed a huge banner proclaiming “No revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory”. Our modern Marxists, at least in the two British franchises, operate a dichotomy between the two. In the case of the Marxism conference, the implication was that, while we may spend most of our time running around like blue-arsed flies, we could take a weekend a year to, like, totally talk about Lenin and shit? And then go out and run around like blue-arsed flies some more.

“Theory” was conceived narrowly, in terms of group gurus writing learned articles and the rank and file being schooled in them. An example would be Militant’s Basic Education Programme for new cadre, which meant rote learning of the works of Grant, Taaffe and Hadden, plus a very narrow selection of Lenin and Trotsky articles where the greybeards argued for positions Militant found congenial. In the SWM things were less structured and more eclectic, but not dissimilar. And, as Andy points out, each group regarded itself as having a definitive intellectual system that needed no reference to anything outside itself. “Practice”, on the other hand, was and is defined in very broad terms as “doing stuff”.

It is perhaps more fruitful to apply an Aristotelian three-way distinction. According to this model, theory consists of logic and mathematics, thus pure contemplation. Practice, or praxis if you want to be pretentious, consists of engagement with the other, aiming at the creation of a higher synthesis – dialogue, in other words. Between the two you have production, meaning poetry and rhetoric – that is, doing stuff, but in a contemplative way.

When we look at our actually existing left, we find an overwhelming amount of production. The franchises’ anti-theoretical bias is well known, but this doesn’t translate into practice as most of the stuff they do is self-referential and therefore contemplative. Dialogue is conspicuous by its absence.

Take campaigns. A fruitful way of working, in the Aristotelian sense, would involve concerned people getting together, having a full discussion of what the problems were, what we wanted to achieve and the necessary action; taking the necessary action; reflecting on the action and its outcomes and trying to draw any lessons for the way forward; and so on. Note that discussion and reflection are integral to the process, and are not optional extras or inconveniences.

How do left campaigns work in practice? Have you ever gone to a meeting aimed at launching a campaign where there was open discussion? In my own experience, very rarely. The left normally follow not the Aristotelian model, but the Zoë Salmon model. As in, here’s one I prepared earlier. Here’s the campaign, the plan of action, probably a steering committee already set up. All you need to do is “join the movement”.

So where does dialogue, the root of the dialectic, come into this? The answer is, it doesn’t. The broad masses are exhorted to do stuff, but to do it in a contemplative manner. Thus we move from the Zoë Salmon model to the Paul Simon model: “Get on the bus, Gus. We don’t need to discuss much.” This is why – and the bin tax meetings were a shining example of this – when you say you should talk about what the campaign is about and what it needs to do, you get stared at like a lunatic. And production begets production, even an hundredfold.

This is the self-referential and solipsistic conceptual world of the sectarian. Repeat after me: Activity without engaging with the other is not practice, it is production. It is the intellectual equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again. Sitting on a committee with people who agree with you on every issue of importance is production. Even inscribing pithy legends on cardboard placards and walking up and down O’Connell Street on a Saturday afternoon isn’t practice. It’s just doing stuff. Not that production is necessarily a bad thing in itself, far from it, but it isn’t to be mistaken for practice.

So be careful before you diss mediaeval scholastics, because they had a sophisticated and flexible system of thought that can still be of use to us today. Meanwhile, many of our would-be scientific materialists have, as the late Frank Zappa put it, transcended mere mumbo-jumbo and entered the more elevated realms of mumbo-pocus.

17 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    June 14, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    To be fair, though, there is some virtue in having a plan of action and a steering committee in place before you start, to wit that if you do not, you will spend the entire opening meeting fighting over the name of the organisation without even getting as far as what it should do and how it proposes to do it.

    Additionally, given the numerical shrinking of the left and the labour movement, it’s not like it would have been a generation ago where you could have arranged a meeting and a large number of experienced people might very well have turned up.

    Which is not to say I agree with it as a method of proceeding, but just that as with a lot of things we may disagree with, there are good reasons behind it which we ought to take into account.

    Incidentally I should scholastically oberserve that Paul Simon addresses Gus in the second person rather than the first person plural.

  2. Mark P said,

    June 14, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    I’m honoured to find a flip remark of mine in the comments section of another blog turned into the basis for such a lengthy, if rambling, blog post here.

    I have to admit that my first hand familiarity with the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and the rest is limited to the point of vanishing. However, and I’m more than willing to be corrected on this, my second hand understanding is that they did indeed discuss and debate the properties and behaviour of angels at some length. For instance, the Summa Theologica contains a number of sections dealing with angelic substance, movement, location and the like. Aquinas also wrote about the division of angels into different “choirs”.

    This interest in the nature and abilities of angels was indeed later parodied by hostile thinkers as a concern with the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. But the important word here is “parodied”. Reformation and later Enlightenment thinkers were mocking scholastic discussions about angels, but the scholastics really did discuss the properties of angels at length.

    Serious debate about the properties of angels seems ludicrous to us now, just as it did to the anti-scholastics who came up with the head of a pin jibe. Similarly, serious debate about the exact numbers of and strategies open to tens of thousands of non-existent Labour left activists struck me as more than a little ridiculous.

    The fact that scholastic thought involved such things does not, of course, render the entire body of scholastic thinking foolish, or useless or irrelevant. I don’t pretend to have enough knowledge of the thought of Aquinas or of the other major scholastic thinkers to draw worthwhile conclusions about its broader merits. So I didn’t do so.

    Here is a link to the first of the fifteen questions in the Summa Theologica dealing with angels: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1050.htm

  3. The Imugi said,

    June 14, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    You are absolutely right to point out that most criticism of “Scholasticism” is a mere charicature. I would never consider myself a Thomist (let alone a neo-Scholastic), but I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Aquinas, and I think he was one of the greatest philosophical luminaries in the European tradition.

    It’s interesting to me that most people who study the scholastics are paleo-conservative Roman Catholics—I think it would really interesting to see a modern Marxist well-versed in that tradition. And if Liberation Theologians and Rabbi Michael Lerner are right, perhaps spirituality and Marxism have more in common then one would think!

  4. chekov said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I think you’re letting your hostility towards Mark P/the SP get the better of you. I mean, your defence of scholastic reasoning doesn’t really impinge upon his point. When you apply a logical analytical method to the investigation of imaginary and arbitrarily defined entities, you’re not exactly going to learn much of use from it, no matter how good the method.

    I also think that his comparison between such thinking and the various debates about the configuration of the labour left are apposite. In both cases it doesn’t really matter how clever your analytic method is, you’re dealing with imaginary armies and your conclusions are only going to be relevant in the imaginary world which they inhabit.

    Incidentally, the combination of politics, socialism, theology, philosophy and titillating photies of young girlies on this blog has got to be unique.

  5. ejh said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Perfectly normal for male leftists of Catholic and university background in their forties, I’d have thought.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 15, 2007 at 7:52 am

    It’s actually quite common for modern Marxists to have serious debates about imaginary entities. The Bew-Patterson take on progressive unionism is a case in point. But I do stand by my argument that the scholastics were a lot more sophisticated and rigorous than most of what passes for radical thought these days. Trouble is, most of it isn’t accessible to people who don’t read Latin. I blame the education system.

  7. ejh said,

    June 15, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I can’t remember much more than Caecilius est pater, I’m afraid, though recalling the conjugation of amo does help in learning -ar verbs in Spanish.

  8. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 15, 2007 at 9:16 am

    I thought Splintered was Jewish, to be honest.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 15, 2007 at 11:17 am

    And then there’s the other point which prevents moderns from getting to grips with the scholastics. Not only are most of the texts, including the majority of Aquinas, untranslated from the Latin, but the use of theological language and its mixing with classical philosophical categories jars against the modern brain. When Aquinas analyses Origen on the corporeality of angels it comes across as really weird, but if he was using secular language – and the mind-body problem is still no nearer solution by philosophers – it wouldn’t.

    Then add to that the existence of both exoteric and esoteric levels of meaning in the texts – actually Maimonides is even more obscure than Aquinas, and I would recommend anybody to read Leo Strauss on Maimonides.

    Basically most people today don’t have the theological training to make head or tail of this stuff. I blame John XXIII.

  10. ejh said,

    June 15, 2007 at 11:25 am

    Through his fault
    Through his fault
    Through his own most grievous fault

  11. chekov said,

    June 15, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Probably a red rag to a bull, but what the heck.

    There’s nothing worth reading in scholastics at all, unless you have a particular interest in the history of theological thought. Their methods were borrowed from the Greeks and they did not add to their sophistication – they simplified if anything. Their subject matter also tended to be far less interesting since the Greeks had mostly moved on from dealing with imaginary entities by the beginning of the ‘classical’ period.

    So, I don’t see why on earth anybody would waste their time grappling with their writings in the Latin unless they were theological historians or students of Latin language (a state in which I found myself for many years).

    Secondly, probably also a red rag to a bull, but it’s been a long time since anybody who is interested in such things has turned to a philosopher for direction in the “mind-body” problem. It would be like turning to a philosopher for direction about the universe’s origin. In the world of science, on the other hand, the mind-body problem is a rapidly shrinking one, and one where most neuro-science researchers believe that there is no philosophical problem at all, just one of complexity.

    Probably the best general overview of the staggering amount of stuff that is now known can be found in the book whose website is here: http://www.questforconsciousness.com/

  12. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 15, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    But isn’t it the case that to accept the current scientific orthodoxy on the ‘mind-body’ problem it is necessary to accept the particular philosophical premises that underly that scientific orthodoxy?

  13. ejh said,

    June 15, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Ooooh, the philosophers are going to be on to you if they get hold of this.

  14. Andy Newman said,

    June 15, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    Chekov: Incidentally, the combination of politics, socialism, theology, philosophy and titillating photies of young girlies on this blog has got to be unique.

    Sonia’s blog is well worth checking out if this sort of combination tickles your fancy.
    http://sonia-belle.blogspot.com/

    If it is really written by a nudist cutie with the politics of Christopher Hitchins i will eat my own testicles.

  15. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 15, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    She’s too nice looking to be a real nudist.

    I suspect ‘she’ is a forty year old man who bears a more than passing resemblance to the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 16, 2007 at 9:50 am

    A red rag, Chekov? Hardly. It’s probable that there is likely little of interest in the scholastics to most students of philosophy. But they’re of great interest to people who are interested in that kind of thing. An acquired taste, sure – but so is Southern Culture On The Skids, and that never put me off.

    I’m not convinced that the scholastics – and I’ll own up to being a Maimonides aficionado rather than Aquinas – are a general regression from the classical Greeks. Bear in mind that while the Greeks didn’t use what strikes us as theological language, they did operate against an intellectual background of what Renaissance thinkers would term superstition.

    And if there’s one thing from the scholastics that does have legs, it’s Aquinas’ formulation of natural law. Any attempts I’m aware of to come up with alternatives have collapsed into utilitarianism.

    Actually, it becomes clearer to me that the style of this blog is obviously much too deadpan, if the reader can assume he’s dealing with hardline Thomism. Scroll down to my earlier tongue-in-cheek “defence” of postmodernism and you’ll see what I was getting at. I’m no more an uncritical follower of Baudrillard than I am of Aquinas, but I do think these were serious guys who deserve serious criticism. I’m not having a go at Mark P, it’s just that his recycling of one of Hobbes’ less funny one-liners touched on a bugbear of mine.

  17. Ciarán said,

    June 16, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    splintered: “It’s actually quite common for modern Marxists to have serious debates about imaginary entities. The Bew-Patterson take on progressive unionism is a case in point.

    You fairly pounced on that opening. Well done.


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