Monday, September 27, 2010

Adler the Aristotelian

Here's a snippet of a reply I made in an online discussion about quasi-Thomist philosophers Jacques Maritain and Mortimer Adler.


One reason modern philosophers can't touch Aquinas is that the Dominican saint had a complete, coherent, and consistent system that accounted for everything. The distinctions of Aquinas were built on classical distinctions that can be traced back to Aristotle -- cosmology, rational psychology, metaphysics, political philosophy, philosophy of math, ethics, etc. -- and the same core principles apply across all the areas. Moderate realism is the key philosophy for opening the door to understanding all aspects of reality.

The modern philosophies are derived from the work of Descartes, and generally they are limited to epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge (i.e. what is knowledge? how do we know what we know? what is truth?). For the most part the modern philosophers simply ignore the other distinctions (e.g. metaphysics, logic). That by itself is a fatal flaw, but what's even worse is that their lopsided approach caused them to neglect considerations of the objective and stay fixated on subjective considerations. "What is true for you isn't true for me" and "that was true back then but not today" are nonsensical but typical cliches of the heirs of the modern philosophers. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre -- a classically trained Thomist who faithfully applied the tenets to moderate realism to the modern milieu -- had an adequate answer for that: "Rather than join you in modern error, I'll just wait until tomorrow when what I believe becomes true again."

When you understand the Thomistic core principles in one area, you have a solid foundation that can be immediately applied to help you make progress in the others. I observed this magnificent coherence myself when I was taking instruction to become a Catholic -- it was like someone suddenly turning on a brilliant light, and for the first time I could see vistas I never even imagined. This coherence and supreme reasonableness of Catholic thought was a profound influence on my decision to convert.

Regarding Maritain and Adler:

Jacques Maritain's specialty was political philosophy. The traditionally formed Thomists (e.g. Abp. Lefebvre) were suspicious of a number of his statements. Citations from They Have Uncrowned Him are illustrative.

Mortimer Adler became a Catholic late in life; he'd been close for a long time, and when he finally crossed the Rubicon I don't believe anyone was surprised. Though he gets credit for being a Thomisthe was really more of an Aristotelian. Aristotle did brilliant work, but there were flaws in his efforts that Aquinas corrected. A fellow could do still pretty well combating modern errors using just Aristotle; at the end of the day it would be imperfect, but it would be a big improvement on the nonsense we all live with because of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, etc. Adler's chief work was in the arena of rational psychology, or what is called the Philosophy of Man, which deals with the immortality of the soul, distinctions between man vs. animals, and a number of other elements that give fits to modern materialists.

So what do we make of Maritain and Adler? I'd rather read Abp. Lefebvre myself: that way I would be certain to get the classical Thomist treatment and nothing but. It could be useful to read the other two men to understand the historical development of modern debates in philosophy, and certainly their writings would have recognizable Thomistic themes; for my part I'd reply on a reliable authority as a guide.

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