Deriving from Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, Thomism is a body of philosophical and theological ideas that seeks to articulate the intellectual content of Catholic Christianity. In its nineteenth and twentieth-century revivals Thomism has often characterized itself as the ‘perennial philosophy’. This description has several aspects: first, the suggestion that there is a set of central and enduring philosophical questions about reality, knowledge and value; second, that Thomism offers an ever-relevant set of answers to these; and third, that these answers constitute an integrated philosophical system.
In its general orientation Thomism is indeed preoccupied with an ancient philosophical agenda and does claim to offer a comprehensive, non-sceptical and realist response based on a synthesis of Greek thought – in particular that of Aristotle – and Judaeo-Christian religious doctrines. However, in their concern to emphasize the continuity of their tradition, Thomists have sometimes overlooked the extent to which it is reinterpretative of its earlier phases. The period from the original writings of Thomas Aquinas to late twentieth-century neo-scholastic and ‘analytical’ Thomism covers eight centuries and a stretch of intellectual history more varied in its composition than any other comparable period.
Not only have some self-proclaimed Thomists held positions with which Aquinas would probably have taken issue, some have advanced claims that he would not have been able to understand. Examples of the first are found in Neo-Kantian treatments of epistemology and ethics favoured by some twentieth-century Thomists. Examples of the second include attempts to reconcile Aquinas’ philosophy of nature with modern physics, and his informal Aristotelian logic with quantified predicate calculus and possible world semantics.
The term ‘Thomism’ is sometimes used narrowly to refer to the thought of Aquinas, and to its interpretation and elaboration by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentators such as Cajetan, Sylvester of Ferrara, Domingo Bañez and John of St Thomas. At other times it is employed in connection with any view that takes its central ideas from Aquinas but which may depart from other of his doctrines, or which combines his ideas with those of other philosophers and philosophies. Prominent examples of Thomists in this wider sense include Francisco Suárez (1548– 1617) who also drew on the epistemology and metaphysics of another great medieval thinker Duns Scotus; and, more recently, Joseph Marechal (1878–1944) whose ‘Transcendental Thomism’ accepted as its starting point the Kantian assumption that experience is of phenomena and not of reality as it is in itself. An example drawn from the ranks of contemporary analytical philosophers is Peter Geach who draws in equal measure from Aquinas, Frege and Wittgenstein.
In the twentieth century there have been two major proponents of the philosophy of Aquinas, namely Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, both of whom contributed significantly to the development of Neo-Thomism in North America. Interestingly, both men were French, neither had been trained in a Thomistic tradition and both were drawn into philosophy by attending lectures by Henri Bergson at the Collège de France in Paris. The Neo-Thomism they inspired declined following the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) as Catholics looked to other philosophical movements, including existentialism and phenomenology, or away from philosophy altogether. Today Thomists tend to be close followers and interpreters of the writings of Aquinas, but there is also a growing interest among mainstream English-language philosophers in some of his central ideas. While not a movement, this approach has been described as ‘analytical’ Thomism.
Citing this article:
Haldane, John J.. 'Thomism'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998: Accessed (May 05, 2016). https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thomism/v-1/. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N067-1
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