John Knasas on Thomist Metaphysics
Past, Present and Future

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"The recipe for creativity
not only in Thomism
but in philosophy
itself is fidelity to the intuition of being."


Question One: "Would you please say a few words of introduction about yourself.?"

I am a Catholic man whose faith also functions in his professional life. I think that I know a good philosophical argument when I see one and that I am cognizant and respectful of the norms of philosophical discourse; nevertheless, I do not wish to do my thinking in a hermetically sealed chamber. Just as a mathematics student is assisted, encouraged, and guided by studying a math book that provides answers at the back, so to my Catholic faith assists, encourages, and guides my work in philosophy.

I am also a committed Thomist. My passion is the speculative side of Aquinas’s thought: his metaphysics, epistemology, and natural philosophy. As I reflect upon my scholarly activities of the past 25 years, I realize that I was decisively formed by my undergraduate professors at Boston College, especially Oliva Blanchette and Joseph Flanagan. In my mind I am still arguing with them. The point of the debate is whether realism can be mediated or not, and if not, must realism be dogmatic, uncritical and naïve. I was then and remain of the direct realist opinion. In that respect, it can be said that I am coming out of Gilson’s approach to Aquinas. Another point of profound sympathy between Gilson and myself concerns the intellect’s secunda operatio as a distinct grasp of actus essendi . Long before I had ever read Gilson, Maritain, or Owens, I possessed a lively sense that "the existence of the thing" meant much more than the fact of the thing. When I did discover the above authors (through an undergraduate course with Donald Gallagher), it was like rain in the desert.

When I came to Houston in the summer of 1983, I was aware that I was entering a program whose inspiration was both Maritain and Gilson. During my seventeen years in the Center for Thomistic Studies I have untiringly worked, in some dispiriting circumstances, to deepen, enrich, and to defend critically that Thomistic tradition, especially in regard to the conducting of metaphysics. My considered judgment is that "Existential Thomism" cannot be dusted off as "unable to make a case for itself." If admidst the potshots one can maintain his equanimity, one can see that existential Thomism is the better textually and philosophically. Its conception of Aquinas’s esse principle does not render essence irrelevant to the ratio entis; and so existential Thomism welcomes the insights on material essence provided by Aristotelian Thomism with its emphasis on natural philosophy. Also, the trumpeting of the secunda operatio intellectus as natural reason’s access to esse constrains the existential Thomist to know Aquinas’ epistemology better than is the case in Transcendental Thomism. Finally, only a direct realism can underwrite the objectivity of the ratio entis which as the good fundamentally enlivens the will and calls forth the entire project of ethics. This direct realist interpretation of the ratio entis conjoined with an emphasis on its esse dimension needs continued echo in contemporary philosophical and theological discussion as encouraged by the Pope himself in Fides et Ratio (paras. 97-8).

I have tried to bring my Thomistic position into engagement with my fellow Thomists as well as Heideggarians and process philosophers. I am definitely not a medievalist, though I can do the textual research. I am very interested in engaging the contemporary philosophical dialogue. I believe that this motivation is indicated by my publications. Currently I am writing a monograph on the 20 century Thomistic revival that argues (contra G. McCool, From Unity to Pluralism) for the continued vitality of Neo-Thomism.




Question Two: "As you have already mentioned and also in some of your work on the 20th century Thomisitic revival, you describe different schools of Thomism. Could you tell us what the distinguishing characteristics of these schools are?"


Three strains of Thomistic interpretation characterized the revival before Vatican II: Aristotelian Thomism, Existential Thomism and Transcendental Thomism. I group the first two camps under the rubric of "Neo-Thomism." Both were a posteriori in their epistemology. The mind abstractly draws its fundamental conceptual content from the human knower’s contact with the self-manifestly real things given in sensation. Among the concepts abstracted are the transcendentals, chief among which is the ratio entis, the notion or concept of being. It is an analogical commonality, and so a sameness-within-difference, whose analogates are absolutely everything, actual and conceivable.

Neo-Thomists dispute among themselves about the precise definition of being. The Aristotelian Thomists say that a being basically is a possessor of formal act (forma). This thinking derives from their central use of Aristotle’s hylomorphic analysis of changeable sensible substance. What impresses these Thomists is the definiteness and determinateness of sensible things. These aspects are rooted in the substantial form of a thing that is understood to be caused in matter by a moving agent. Ultimately this moving agent is an unmoved mover that is, in their opinion, identifiable with the Christian God.

Most famous of the Existential Thomists were Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. They proposed a more fundamental description of being in terms of existential act. The Existential Thomists use what they regard as Aquinas’ philosophically novel doctrine of esse, or actus essendi. The "existence of a thing" does not mean simply the fact of the thing, though ordinary conversation does leave it at that. Philosophical reflection discerns that the thing’s existence is an act of the thing somewhat similarly as a man’s running and speaking are other acts, though existential act is unique in its basicness and fundamentality to the thing. In creatures, the act of existing is participated; in the creator it is subsistent. Such a first cause is identifiable with the God of Judeo-Christian revelation who in the Vulgate told Moses that his name was "Ego sum qui sum."

Despite this disagreement both camps agree on the mind’s ability to work out in a posteriori fashion transcendental concepts, i.e., analogous commonalities that apply to absolutely everything. Hence, both camps are of the opinion that in principle, if not in fact, a single fundamental science of the real exists. No matter where or when one lives, the real beings before him in sensation are sufficient for the human intellect to work out a posteriori the analogous concept of being and to correctly read its nature. Consequently, if metaphysics is expressive of the crowning natural achievement of the human mind, then obviously theology must be done in terms of this one, true metaphysics. Otherwise, theology would have no connection to existing human knowers. Hence, de jure only one, true theology exists. From the vantage point of these two camps, it is not possible to have great metaphysics and great theologies that are all true, just as it is possible to have varied great athletes that are all genuine. If they are worthy of their name, various metaphysics bear on the transcendental of being, and they do this adequately or not.

The third strain of 20th century Thomistic interpretation is Transcendental Thomism. It follows a different epistemology than the others. At its most fundamental level, human knowing involves not reception from the real but a projection of the knower upon the real. The knower’s projection is the knower’s own intellectual dynamism to the unconceptualizable term of Infinite Being. Hence, the intellect’s basic contact wih reality is not through concepts abstracted from things, as is the case in the previous two camps. Rather, the intellect’s contact is through its own dynamism to Infinite Being. In the life of the mind, prior to static concepts is intellectual dynamism.

Intellectual dynamism is not only innate, or a priori. It is also "constitutive" of human awareness. Thanks to its immersion in the dynamism, the data of sense can profile itself in consciousness as finite and limited in perfection. A refrain among Transcendental Thomists is: "You can know the finite only if you know the infinite; you can know the limited only if you know the unlimited." Both the finite and the limited appear only in juxtaposition to the infinite and unlimited. The intellect’s dynamism to Infinite Being is what sets up that juxtaposition. As so held before consciousness, the data permits the abstraction of analogous concepts as described in the traditional Thomist account of knowledge and repeated by Aristotelian and Existential Thomists. But for Transcendental Thomists that traditional account is by itself insufficient. It fails to explain the initial setting up of the sense data as the finite beings that they are.

The a posteriori Thomists will not dispute the facts but the Transcendental Thomist interpretation of them. In terms of his immediate realism for sensation, the a posteriori Thomist will understand the objectification of things as finite beings in terms of an automatic and natural abstraction of the ratio entis. Against the richness of that abstractum, things will appear as finite beings. No need exists to understand the intellectual backdrop as an a priori projection of the human knower. The Transcendental Thomist will be quick to reply that the immediate realism presumed by this abstractive account is just naïve and dogmatic. Descartes’ dream and hallucination possibilities and the relativity in perception hammered on by the empiricists explain why since the modern period no philosophers of note have espoused that the data of sensation is self-manifestly real.

Transcendental Thomism claims to be a more in depth presentation of the human knower than was achieved by Immanuel Kant. Hence, the name of this third camp. The Transcendental Thomists take exception to the metaphysical skepticism of Kant’s first Critique. Any doubts about the non-distortive character of intellectual dynamism are resolved by its ineluctability. Doubt about something presupposes the ability to envisage other possibilities. But since intellectual dynamism is constitutive of human consciousness, any doubt about it will employ it. Hence, the doubt destroys itself. Transcendental Thomism calls this defense of realism retorsion or performative self-contradiction. They find a basis for it in Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s defense of the non-contradiction principle at Metaphysics IV. Other Thomists are not impressed.

Because of its epistemology, Transcendental Thomism has a different relation than a posteriori Thomism to the undeniable fact of philosophical pluralism. A posteriori Thomism claimed that despite the facts, in principle only one, true philosophy exists. This is because there is a single concept of being for all men who are struggling to understand how to fundamentally describe it. Transcendental Thomists claim that in principle one, true philosophy cannot exist. Since all concepts form in the wake of intellectual dynamism, then no concept adequately catches the end of the dynamism. Hence, far from being in contradiction to each other, each great metaphysics is a true but finite conceptual attempt to express the intellectual dynamism. Somewhat similarly each great athlete is a true but finite expression of the greatness that is common to all.




Question Three: "What shape is Thomism in today? It began to rapidly disappear at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Has it simply continued to disappear?"


All three of the above currents streamed into Vatican II. But, as a matter of historical fact, only Transcendental Thomism emerged with any vibrancy. In the time since and especially in its use by theologians Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Transcendental Thomism has been the reigning Thomism. In my opinion, it is accurate to observe that in Catholic intellectual circles, the way theology goes determines the way philosophy goes. Without intending to denigrate the philosophical genius of Maritain or Gilson, I think that a great amount of their popularity was tied to Catholic theological interest in the Thomism about which Maritain and Gilson were writing. So, to understand why Aristotelian Thomism and Existential Thomism were eclipsed by Transcendental Thomism, one must see what attracted Catholic theologians to Transcendental Thomism.

Theologians turned to Transcendental Thomism as their preferred philosophical instrument because of five perceived weaknesses in Neo-Thomism that Transcendental Thomism appeared to avoid.

The first two weaknesses are philosophical. First, as should be clear from my summaries of Aristotelian Thomism and Existential Thomism, the immediate realist understanding of sensation plays a crucial role in Neo-Thomism. According to immediate realism, the data of sensation, viz., what you are doing right now as you look this way and listen, is self-manifestly real. The data presents itself with an existence of its own such that if the sensing ceased, the item sensed would not cease. This real data plays a key role in working out hylomorphism and in working out the actus essendi conception of the thing’s existence, both of which lead to the mentioned different ways of understanding the ratio entis. Now according to Transcendental Thomism, Neo-Thomism has never satisfactorily defended immediate realism from the attacks of modern philosophy. Hence, immediate realism appears as a naive and dogmatic element in Neo-Thomism.

The modern objections to immediate realism include Descartes’ dream and hallucination possibilities. In sum, I have dreamed or hallucinated that I was in philosophy class listening to a lecture; how do I know that I am not dreaming or hallucinating right now? My inability to articulate a fool-proof answer prevents any assertion of immediate realism. Second, also from Descartes but especially from the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) comes the critique of immediate realism from the relativity of perception. I see the field of poppies as red, a colored-blind person sees the field as gray. Who sees the real color of the poppies? To stay perfectly impartial, these philosophers insist that we have to answer, "Maybe nobody sees the real color." The colors that we see may just exist in our perception. Also, the people to the front see the shape of the paper that I hold as rectangular; the people to the sides see the shape as trapezoidal. Who sees the real shape? To be impartial, we have to say, according to the Empiricists, that maybe no one sees the real shape. In this second way also, the immediate realist understanding of sensation slips away. The undeniable perspectival character of perception was also used by Husserl in Ideas I to critique the "natural attitude."

Transcendental Thomism believes that these problems cannot be solved just on their own terms. It concedes to modern philosophy that the data of sensation is not self-manifestly real. Rather, its apparent reality is a mediated phenomenon. The data of sensation appears as real thanks to its immersion in the intellect’s dynamism to Infinite Being. Just as the precise length of an object appears when the object is brought in juxtaposition to a ruler, so too the fundamental realness of the data of sensation appears when the data is placed within intellectual dynamism. One is confident that this apparent fundamental reality of the data is not illusory because by retorsion one is critically confident about the objectivity of intellectual dynamism. Transcendental Thomists claim that the use of retorsion here enables one to espouse a realist epistemology without the naivete and dogmatism of Neo-Thomism.

In the second philosophical problem, Transcendental Thomists say that even if Neo-Thomists could explain the realism of the senses, no mere a posteriori handling of the sensed data would enable the philosopher to rise to the all-perfect God of Christian belief, something Aquinas’ metaphysics is supposed to do. The problem is this. Since the real sensible things are finite and determinate things through and through, then any reasoned to cause for things need be only finite also. In a word, from a finite effect, you need conclude only to a finite cause. So, even granting the truth of immediate realism, Neo-Thomism still is woefully inadequate for the expressed purposes of Aquinas’ metaphysics.

In contrast, intellectual dynamism is a better way of knowing that an Infinite Being exists. The idea of the all-perfect is derived, not from an analysis of things, but from a Kantian-style transcendental analysis of human subjectivity. Again, via retorsion, we can be confident that this ideal is at least the idea of something authentically possible. At this point and in a manner reminiscent of the medieval, John Duns Scotus, Maréchal goes on to argue that the all-perfect can be possible only through its own actuality. In other words, a first being can be possible, not through the actuality of something else, but only through its own actuality. Hence, Infinite Being, the object of intellectual dynamism, exists. Based on a priori intellectual dynamism, reasoning strictly concludes to the Infinite.

The remaining difficulties are theological. Third, the Neo-Thomist espousal of a single and definitive metaphysics as the crown of man’s natural powers suggests a view of human nature to which supernatural grace would be not only gratuitous but also superfluous. In other words, in Neo-Thomism human nature appears as so integral that grace looks almost irrelevant and simply extrinsic to human nature. On the other hand, if Maréchal is correct that human nature is at rock bottom a dynamism to Infinite Being, then human striving can only be quieted by God, not by some metaphysics. Moreover, if what Maréchal says is true, then the entire life of grace as the means to bring the dynamism to its term are profoundly relevant to human beings.

Fourth, by its claim that there is a single metaphysics true for all time and for all places, Neo-Thomism is too ahistorical. The impression that Scholasticism was a monolith, a party-line, was ironically shattered by historical studies like those of the eminent Neo-Thomist, Etienne Gilson. The thinking of the Scholastics is as individual as finger prints. Studies in theology revealed the same peculiarities of time and place. Contemporary theologians think that Transcendental Thomist epistemology less scandalously accommodates this undeniable pluralism of human thinking. As explained, since concepts form in the wake of intellectual dynamism, then no concept adequately catches the end of the dynamism. In other words, no analogon extends that far. The analogous commonalities of traditional metaphysics now sink to the level of analogates formed around the mind’s supra-conceptual dynamism. Hence, far from being in contradiction to each other, each great metaphysics is a finite conceptual attempt to express the intellectual dynamism. Convinced that no reason exists to know whether the thing’s existence is just the fact of the thing or an act of the thing, Transcendental Thomists say that the Aristotelian Thomist understanding of being in terms of forma is one true but finite conceptualization of being; and the Existential Thomist understanding of being in terms of esse is another true but finite conceptualization of being. Insofar as both of these camps are being faithful to intellectual dynamism, then their two irreducible and distinct fundamental conceptions of being are in their respective finite ways both true. If philosophy is defined in terms of conceptual articulation, then philosophy is inherently and in principle pluralistic. No philosophy can claim to be the conceptual articulation of being.

Finally, fifth, because of its relentless a posteriori approach, Neo-Thomism appears as so cool and detached as to be singularly unappealing. In contrast, Transcendental Thomism provides an engaging portrayal of our inner life as conscious beings. The description of human nature as radically orientated to God, as naturally desiring God, is enticing and flattering. It seems to ring true to our felt dissatisfaction with our existence, and it does seem to express the agreement that we all concede when reading Augustine’s "My heart is restless until it rests in You."

So, in the light of the above problems with Neo-Thomism and the perceived success of Transcendental Thomism to solve them, Catholic theologians (Rahner, De Lubac, Lonergan) jettisoned Neo-Thomism for Transcendental Thomism. As a simple matter of historical fact, that is the shape Thomism is in today. The revival began with Neo-Thomism and its ideal of a one, true metaphysics and morphed into Transcendental Thomism and its thesis that only a pluralism of metaphysics is possible.

Speaking as a philosopher reflecting on the Thomistic revival, I would like to make one comment. I do not think that Transcendental Thomism successfully underwrites its claim to affirm realism without any of the arbitrariness and dogmatism that accompanied the affirmation of realism in Neo-Thomism. In other words, retorsion does not guarantee the objectivity of the basic constitutive factor of human consciousness, viz., the intellect’s dynamism to Infinite Being. Transcendental Thomists validate the dynamism by noting that it is an ineluctable context. Because I can never think of something apart from the context of intellectual dynamism, doubt about its non-distortive character never becomes airborne. A philosophical skeptic would find this argumentation unconvincing. The skeptic would gladly admit that intellectual dynamism is an ineluctable context. The skeptic’s case for possible distortion rests not on the eluctability of the context but upon a familiarity with less fundamental and less encompassing ones. It is not by a look ahead that the skeptic’s question arises but by a look back. The look back to less encompassing contexts acquaints the skeptic with the ideas of something standing outside a context and the context placing the thing in a different light. Contexts can be limited and distortive. The skeptic, naturally and correctly, in my opinion, wonders if such is the case with the a priori intellectual dynamism. Why may not it be actually limited too?

Ineluctability is indecisive. The ineluctability of a context could follow simply from the fundamentality of the context. The ineluctability of the context is not an exclusive property following upon the objectivity of the context. Given what the skeptic knows of what can be true of contexts, ineluctability could be indicating merely how we have to think rather than the way reality is.33

In a word, the Transcendental Thomist fails to beat the Kantian at his own game. Since no one can confidently say that assertions express more than how the mind works, then Kant’s strictures on classical metaphysics remain in place. And since whatever "Thomism" means, it means metaphysics, then Transcendental Thomism philosophically appears to have lost its Thomism. Granting neo-Thomism has given way to Transcendental Thomism, then the philosophical judgment is that the entire Thomistic revival has self-destructed.




Question Four: "What would it take for Thomism to regain its creativity? What kind of issues would you like to see it tackle?"


Given my negative opinion of the reigning Transcendental shape of Thomism, I as a Thomist find some incentive for some radical thinking. The radical thinking includes a double-check of the appraisal of Neo-Thomism. Is Neo-Thomism truly saddled by the five debits ticked off by Transcendental Thomists? In a forthcoming article in Logos (Univ. of St. Thomas, Minneapolis), I outline responses that my mentioned monograph is developing. Here, I want to spend a moment speaking about a point presupposed by all these responses and, in fact, presupposed by the life itself of the intellect. I want to express some remarks about the primum cognitum, the ratio entis - the notion of being, discussed by Aquinas at De Ver. I, 1c and XXI, 1c. My remarks follow Maritain’s presentation of the same in terms of his "intuition of being" thesis. For us both the ratio is not basically a logical notion, a second intention, that contains "blanks" or "variables" that are "filled in" by various modes. Rather, being is a sameness that we see extending through all things, but more importantly, extending precisely through the very differences of things. It is a sameness-in-difference, a formula that many Thomists designate as "analogy." This description may sound oxymoronic but even ordinary experience illustrates it. For example, the only way that we can express the sameness that we see between Koufax and Mays is to talk precisely of what one has and the other does not. Koufax is a great baseball player like Mays because of his pitching, and Mays is great precisely because of his fielding and hitting. The sameness in these two instances is within the differences. That is where you have to go to appreciate the sameness. To avoid these differences is to avoid the sameness.

As a sameness-in-difference being has an unsurpassable richness. Any conceivable thing with its differences is seen to give a limited expression to being itself. Does this not lead one to want to know more and more things which in their new ways of being enable one to see a little more of the richness of being? In other words, is not the intellectual life called forth here? Do we not have attractively presented the idea of pursuing knowledge just for the sake of knowledge? Each thing we know adds to the bouquet of being that the intellector is assembling in his mind.

But furthermore, some of the known instances of being are others like ourselves, are fellow intellectors of being. And so what is a dumb and speechless abstraction in ourselves is given a voice in and through the intellection of our fellows. In the human person, being has a voice. Does this realization not make attractive a social existence in which each shares with others what one sees of being and its richness?

You would be wrong to think that intellectual pursuit and society demand an explicit philosophical presentation of the above. For Neo-Thomists Aquinas understands being as such an automatic and natural abstraction from self-manifestly real things that the ratio entis can lie unnoticed in the depths of our conscious life and nevertheless have conscious effects. Such thinking goes a long way to explain why the non-contradiction principle is self-evident to all.

Because of this profound stamp of being on the human intellect, the Thomist prediction is that philosophy and intellectual inquiry will always exist. Fundamentally and always, we face each other as fellow intellectors of being; that is the stage upon which human existence is played. But the well-being of philosophical discourse will rise and fall in proportion to the intensity of the intuition. The recipe for creativity not only in Thomism but in philosophy itself is fidelity to the intuition of being. Is there any way to maintain philosophy in an integral state? Here I return to Fides et Ratio and its message that philosophy has nothing to fear from the Church’s teaching. The Christian faith stretches the intellect to its limits and in that way supports a sustained reflection on being as such, the sameness in difference that runs through all things.


John F. X. Knasas, Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.