Universals And The Real: Some Thoughts

Universals And The Real: Some Thoughts March 26, 2012

One of the major debates in the history of philosophy is the debate over universals. It is a debate as to the role of language and its ability to actually describe reality. It’s a debate as to whether or not there are universal, real entities which we actually observe or if we construct conventions relating things together which have no inherent connection to each other. It’s a question as to the meaning of words, if they have some inherent meaning which connects them to the things we use them to describe or if our words are sounds without any inherent meaning to them. It’s a debate as to whether or not what we perceive as common characteristics behind things actually unite them or whether or not we conveniently see things as being alike which, nonetheless, have no unity behind them. Do two chairs contain behind them some sort of “chairness” which makes them chairs, or is the idea of merely a human construct without any eternal truth behind it?

While the Western medieval debate over universals is famous, it must be said that this debate is found all over the world. It manifests itself in many different ways, each providing new and interesting questions. For example, we can see this debate occurring in China. It was once asked, “Is a white horse a horse?” Now, for the Western mind, the accident of whiteness appears non-essential to the horseness of a white horse, however, for the Chinese mind a white horse is fundamentally something different from a brown horse, and the two are different from a horse (white horseness is different from horseness; but if this is the case, what is it which connects them to make us think there is something which connects them?). Similarly, in India, we see what the West attributes as an accident as often representing something fundamental to the entity; this is how Buddhism can be seen as describing the constant flux and change of entities, to say that the atman (the self) of a person is constantly changing and unstable because the person is constantly changing and no longer the same fundamental entity from moment to moment.  This, of course, makes many Buddhists say that universals are conventions (with many them pointing out, even if they are a convention there is truth contained in it, so that conventional truths are truths even if they are not absolutes).

Having observed the debates, I think the problem lies in that the debates have not been systematic enough, and they have not explored all the possible options contained in metaphysics. There are too many assumptions which are made. For example, if it is shown that there are conventions which do not tie with something real, does that make all words used for universals mere convention? I think the answer here needs to be no. And with that, many questions and debates, many pieces of evidence once brought into play, become no longer relevant. If one can accept that there are conventions without reality behind them, then one can explain those conventions which are brought up by those who deny universals as being such (if those conventions really do not have a universal backing it).

But here, one can ask a question: how can we construct conventions which are unreal, if we follow one of the traditional approaches to universals? The answer is rather obvious and has been there all along, though often, it has not often been used to engage this question. The answer deals with the gradation of being and with it, the fact that some words, which are often conceived as universals, are really constructions based upon the experience of some phenomenal absence of being. That is, we have turned evil, which is the absence of good and so not a real universal but the lack of one, into a conventional truth with a conventional reality. In the absolute sense, evil does not exist, so evil cannot be said to be an absolute universal, but in conventional, phenomenal experience, evil exists, and we create conventions which tie various evils together to establish “evilness.” Conventional truths are truth: their value lies not in absolute truth, but the truth of phenomenal experience. In conventional truths, we establish or construct universals to tie together experiences of objects mixed levels of anti-being. These phenomena exist in our experience, we experience them based upon the fact that some actual being is being used by them to make them manifest, but they do not exist in being, they do not hold universal being, and so cannot be said to be absolute universals.

We, as humans, are naming things in the world of phenomena, in the world which we experience. Our experience is with real beings, with real universals, but often we do not experience the universal, but something less than it. We construct the world of conventions and of conventional universals, a world which has a value of truth but must not be confused with absolute truth. This means there are conventional universals and absolute universals. Nominalists have caught on to the truth of convention, of the conventional reality and how we construct it through sometimes arbitrary relationships, but realists are right to point out that we experience something more than this, that we are often experiencing – and expressing – universals which are real, universals which are not always realized in concrete, material forms, universals which give the world form. And we, in our experience of them, can often put those forms to words which are proper to them, allowing us to manifest them through the invocation of their name (or names, as we know such universals are known and experienced through a multitude of names due to vast variety of languages which exist).  Those names are proper names for universals which connect sounds and ideas to the universal, so that through the invocation of that name, the universal is experienced in some fashion: its presence is made known by the use of the word in question. When a word does not fit a universal, when it is a purely arbitrary construct, the word will not last, for it will have no life, no connection to the universal to give it life, and so its presence will not be manifest when the word is used. When languages change and mutate, the value or connection between sounds to a universal might change, explaining why words come and go, though the universals behind them remain the same. In this way, the nominalist is right in pointing out the changing nature of languages, but they are wrong in assuming that means there is no absolute universal which is invoked when they see a word used for a universal. The elements of a word are like elements of a good painting; the painting can represent something in reality, but as the matter behind the painting is slowly destroyed through the ravages of time, what is left on a canvas will no longer invoke that reality. It would be wrong to say that it never invoked it, because it certainly did and allowed the experience of that reality be present to the viewer of the painting. So, too, does time destroy language, making words which had connections to universals lose those same connections: the presence of the universal is manifest but slowly lost due to time. Though the connection is lost, it would be wrong in assuming that there were no truth, no connection, at any time or place between the word and the universal.[1]

Now, I know many questions contained in the debates over universals have not been expressed with what I have said above.  But what I have posited above is where my thoughts on the debate are taking me. I am in a rather unique position of being an “extreme realist” in regards to universals while acknowledging, and agreeing with, many of the critiques of universals found around the world. I realize that there are conventional universals as well as absolute ones. When people can see and understand this, I think the debate will change, and indeed, many solutions will emerge to the questions posited in the past.  I am not saying I have the answers: I don’t. I just think this is a way forward to see if we can find them. The great chain of being must have a connection to the question of universals. The role of anti-being in the world must tie with the way universals are not all absolute. There is truth to the notion that the words we use are constructs, but on the other hand, just as a painting is a construct which can bring the presence of what is portrayed in it to the viewer, so too a word is a creative construct which can manifest the reality which lies behind it. To tie universals merely to the word construction so as to believe there are no universals is a problem, but of course, to deny there is a construction is a problem because history can show words are indeed constructed. How they are constructed is what is important. Words bring the presence of some real, some universal to us, but they do so in an imperfect sense. They can and do present unreality to us as well. We must believe that there is some real value behind words, but the value does not have to be the same for each other: the great chain of being is manifest in language, not separate from it. When we see it as all or nothing, the question of universals cannot be answered, for there will always be questions which present contradictions to the answer we give. Only be realizing the vast array of potentiality which can be expressed by words do we truly come to understand the power of words and their limitations.

This truth can be found in the way we talk about God. God is beyond names, but yet, God is named so we can experience God through his name. God is incomprehensible and yet we can actually know something about Him. How are these possible? The reality and unreality of words, that is how.

God transcends the names and yet makes them real, so too, the universal transcend the words which invoke them and yet, by their presence, the words reveal the real. We construct words, we construct conventions of the real, and yet we must allow for the real to transcend the constructions, to be what it is as it is, beyond the words we use for them. When we think legalistically, we accept the immanent but not the transcendent nature of the real. The legalist confuses the word for all there is of the real instead of as something symbolic which manifest the real. We must understand words as symbols, where they point beyond themselves and yet manifest something of what they point to, the better they do so, the more real they are. We cannot, however, keep reality trapped in words; we must experience it beyond the words, beyond the constructions which manifest the real if we want to understand the real itself. This is why we must stop our intellect from thinking thoughts based upon words and open our mind to the experience of the real beyond all words. Then we can incarnate and live in and with the experience, to use words without being used by them, to be followers of the spirit, full of life, instead of followers of the letter, stuck in the dead-end of their untranscendent experience of the real. Words provide the real, provide the experience of the transcendent universal, according to different capabilities; but we must be willing to follow them and engage that transcendent reality if we ever want to see and know the truth contained in words. And is that not what we seek?

[1] Now, the connection between paintings and words is apt, because we can find paintings which have little to no connections with the real: we can see the vast potentiality of the great chain of being expressed in art, allowing us to understand how this can be true also with words.

""The brain, we know now, is the seat of rationality." Following Aquinas, a Thomist would ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology
"I agree that the matters of God's providence and the meaning of human existence are ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology
"Well, you have to ask why we are created in this physical world at all. ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology
"It seems to me that a physical being capable of being endowed with a rational ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • “the great chain of being is manifest in language, not separate from it.”

    Yes, I think that’s the realization we must have.

    We can’t expect language to provide a “complete” picture of reality, because language is PART of reality, is the very “programming language” our brains use to construct reality. Even a 360-degree eye must have a blindspot at it’s own center. Language can provide some meta-reflection on itself, of course, but it will never be complete.

    I suppose “God” is in this blindspot, in the inability for any system to be complete.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Somehow I always thought that a Catholic would get around to making a Catholic interpretation of ideas Noam Chomsky made famous, and you appear to have done it. Just don’t start making trips to Nicaragua.

    • Well, there is a lot more going on, many more questions about universals not brought up in here, questions which would separate me from Chomsky I believe. I wanted to state something which is going on in my mind — the “conventional universal” — something I think we can find being attempted also in some of the works of Nishida (though I also diverge from him as well). Of course, that is not everything, either.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        You’re great. And full of surprises. Check out the unpublished (I think ) dissertation by Robert Wargo on Nishida called “The Logic of Basho”. I read it years ago at the Library of Congress, and it was incredible!

        • I’ve heard of the book before, but, as with many things, it’s one thing to look into “later.”

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        On reflection, I guess the lingering question about all these thinkers (and I think you are one of them) who are indebted to Leibniz is this: Can one admit that the quest for a final language of reality is just one more quest, and not likely to be found? I think for me I don’t have a problem with a thinker acting and thinking as if there is a final language just as long as they don’t think that the having of that language proscribes other languages. None of which means that we don’t have moral conviction from which we don’t budge practically. Just that they are are rooted in a deep conviction beyond language, final or otherwise.

        • To answer the question (and this goes along with the questions of Agellius), I think the answer with these things are never simple. For example, I don’t think there is one final language, unless one follows through with something transcendent of the human condition and point to the Logos from which all other logoi flow. But this Logos must not be understood as a final language in the way you describe, because it is more the source of language than language itself; there is a lot of construction involved with human language, as well as a lot of discovery. If you have not read the review I did of the recent Bulgakov translation, you might want to — for it connects to an aspect of what I am about here: the artistic side. We can and do have a multitude of arts which are true symbols in the way of establishing presence of what is symbolized, and so we can have many languages or words which construct maps of the real, but we must understand that in both instances, there is something beyond the human map. It is as the Buddhist says, the truth of conventions as contained by the philosophers — it is truth, but it is not absolute truth. We understand the absolute, however, only in conventions which is where things often break down.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Great minds think alike. I agree. There is no final language, though in a sense they might be final for a particular person. This goes back to our Eastern church-Western church discussions. The West has gotten caught up with a final language. And no amount of quoting Aquinas saying ti is all “straw” is going to persuade that that language has not become a de facto final one for many. this makes theology really a dead end for many, and an invitation to reaction, not creativity. AS you indicated as well in re folks like your focus on Bulgakov there is a level of artistic creativity possible which gets lost in the endless hunt for proofs we have found the final language. (you know I was just kidding about Noam Chomsky, buddy! — by the way the ONLY thing I really like about Noam Chomsky is his famous line: Free markets are for the poor, government subsidies are for the rich)

        • Yes, there is value for language for a person, and one could say there is a final language for a particular person (if one means they get beyond language through language itself). The West is good in producing systems, but it is bad in understanding (or was bad at understanding) the problem inherent in systems. Systems have a value but they can never be the Promethean solution which many try to make them out to be — they are creative ways of seeing the world and produce ways to truth, but all systems must, in the end, realize their own limitation if they are going to be a way to absolute truth. Clearly the apophatic tradition helps here, but I do think what we see in Buddhism helps show how one can produce systems once one gets beyond language itself (and so helpful to learn from in many ways because of it). I always find it humorous when I show people that Mahayana does include Abhidarhma after they thought Mahayana was about the rejection of all systems – the reaction either shows they get it or they never understood Mahayana….

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Yes, I am afraid that when it comes to precise schematization of religious experience Nagarjuna makes Aquinas look like an amateur. In fact it makes Aquinas look rather pragmatic and results-oriented by comparison. There is perhaps a lesson in that. The West was and always will be more results-oriented. But we need to ‘fess up to that in the West. It is a strength and a weakness. Thomists act like they have cornered the market on religious precision, when in fact , by comparison, they are rather blunderbuss. Given that blunderbuss approach few can blame many in the West for being skeptical about religious dialectics in a way — ironically– that many are not in the East. In the East, both in Christianity and in other religions, the attitude seems to be that religious dialectics is a human activity that has its place, but is NOT the experience or the mystery itself. In the West, many are so enamored of their visage in the Thomistic reflecting pool that they imagine they have glimpsed the final language. And Aeterni Patris only encouraged them!

        • I prefer Asanga and Vasubandhu to Nagarjuna — for there are some problems with Nagarjuna’s way of declaration which has led many (even Buddhists) read his work as nihilistic — I don’t think it is (to be sure), but I think it is easy to misconstrue it as such. Asanga and Vasubandhu’s elaboration and development of Mahayana I think work best to present how sunyata is not the nothing of nihilism, but I do think the two-truths of Madhyamika is a good, basic foundation to work with when engaging rhetoric, to help people understand the value of conventions in relation to the absolute.

          And you are right Thomas’ strength is his weakness, but of course, the weakness is more in those who follow the letter of Thomas and not the method. “Thomas says” vs “Thomas did…” so to speak. I find greatness in his work, but I certainly don’t find myself limited to it (and I think Bonaventure is superior here because he really seemed disillusioned by scholasticism while working with it).

          I have had to tell people so many times St Thomas is not the official teacher which everyone has to follow, but of course, for many they will have none of it and they think they have all the easy answers. I wish it was that easy. But the world would look quite different if the system as it is presented worked as claimed.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Outstanding!! And I would only add that what even critics of St. Thomas can recognize is the brilliance of his method. As an efflorescence of human ability to parse contrary positions it is very special.

        But one question. Is it not a fair reading of RC documentary history that Aeterni Patris mandates that Thomas must be the official teacher?? But you have been to theology school more recently that was so there is perhaps a finessing on the matter at the higher academic level that I have missed. I would like to clear. For that is certainly the view of more right-wing types emblazoned across the internet.

        • No, St Thomas is not ‘the official teacher.’ Yes, I know some have tried to suggest it, but he was, even them, represented as the exemplar of method more than the exact teachings he proclaimed. For in his teachings one can find things which are quite suspect to average Catholics, and not just in recent times. So what he is shown to represent is what a good Catholic intellectual can do — engage, explore, come to speculative conclusions – but to posit everything he taught as the Catholic way of thought contradicts everything Catholic (see St Bonaventure). As for why he was chosen for this, well, Dominicans have influence. But it is quite clear the Church allows for a variety of thought and ways — not of course all ways of thought (which should be obvious). Even when the Pope tried to make Thomas studied by all in seminary, it still didn’t mean one had to be a Thomist (but at least Thomas could be used to represent how one can engage the world in a way which could be easily discerned).

          Nonetheless, you are right, many have conflated the praise of Thomas into “Thomas the only.” And it is not “Thomas the only” but “the conclusions of Thomas as the only way to go” instead of the method. I think his method is where he is best. Sometimes his conclusions are worthy of it, but often, becomes of the premises of his time, we must admit he would never get to conclusions we would recognize today (cosmology, anthropology, etc).

          Now, I will say, I know more who went for philosophy who act as if Thomas is the all in all than those who went for theology. For theology, however, I had all kinds of debates with some of the more right-wing who saw everything in simplistic terms. I remember one day debating the Bible with one who said the only consistent way to read the Bible was Trinitarian. I disagreed — even though I believe in the Trinity, I know many consistent ways to interpret the text, based upon one’s hermeneutics.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Well that is an interesting “on the ground” assessment of the attitude in theological environments of today. But for what it is worth here is a telling excerpt from Aeterni Patris. One wonders in relation to it what the status of “obedience” to encyclical directives is construed to be nowadays. For not only does the document seem to create a mandatum for establish the “Angelic Doctor” at the heart of all university trainings (one could read it not only limited to theology, but in the sciences); but it seems to proscribe more modern interpretations of Thomas, and require looking to Thomas own “fountain”. that sorta nixes a lot of Rahnerian thought, but whose noticing. To wit:

        ” Let carefully selected teachers endeavor to implant the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas in the minds of students, and set forth clearly his solidity and excellence over others. Let the universities already founded or to be founded by you illustrate and defend this doctrine, and use it for the refutation of prevailing errors. But, lest the false for the true or the corrupt for the pure be drunk in, be ye watchful that the doctrine of Thomas be drawn from his own fountains, or at least from those rivulets which, derived from the very fount, have thus far flowed, according to the established agreement of learned men, pure and clear; be careful to guard the minds of youth from those which are said to flow thence, but in reality are gathered from strange and unwholesome streams.”

        • Even in its time, saying that people should teach Thomas Aquinas did not mean one had to follow him in all details. He could be seen as a representative of someone engaging faith and reason or — as some took it — he could be seen as representing what one must believe. The second was the popular understanding suggested by some, but even then, one could find non-Thomists pointing out that this cannot be the case. So, Thomas was seen (in part, because of the Pope’s own education) as a representation of an ideal, but the question was to become, was it the method or the pronouncements, the first of course opening up all kinds of pursuits.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Please don’t take this as a tit-for-tat attempt to trip you up here. But a serious research question for a change (from me at least here). To wit, who were those non-Thomists you mention?

        • Well, it depends upon which field one looks into. We have to remember that Franciscans never were expected to be Thomists (and one would thus have to study the works of those who engaged Bonaventure, Scotus, Occam, or the like, to find them). However, a famous philosopher (as an example) is Maurice Blondel, whose influence is tremendous in the 20th century. And of course, there are Eastern Catholics, and they certainly are not Thomists (but there were all kinds of conflicts which happened with them). Of course, the major figures in this era which I study tend to be Orthodox, but I know from things I’ve read, I’ve see the Franciscan side come up from time to time. And this doesn’t get into the Jesuits!

  • Agellius

    HK writes, “We construct words, we construct conventions of the real, and yet we must allow for the real to transcend the constructions, to be what it is as it is, beyond the words we use for them. When we think legalistically, we accept the immanent but not the transcendent nature of the real. The legalist confuses the word for all there is of the real instead of as something symbolic which manifest the real. We must understand words as symbols, where they point beyond themselves and yet manifest something of what they point to, the better they do so, the more real they are.”

    Obviously words point to realities beyond themselves. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this. But what do you mean by a “legalist” in this context? Do you mean someone who believes that words do *not* point beyond themselves? Do you actually know anyone who believes that?

    • I know quite a few who do that when interpreting texts, and indeed, it is to those who follow the letter not the spirit where we see this happens.

      • Agellius

        Henry writes, “I know quite a few who do that when interpreting texts, and indeed, it is to those who follow the letter not the spirit where we see this happens.”

        You know people who believe words do not point beyond themselves? So, they literally believe that the letters on the page or the sound coming out of the mouth, is all there is to it?

        • They think “the word means as it means, nothing more nor less” and that every word is therefore simple to understand and able to interpret “just is as it is.” I’ve seen it before and I will see it again.

  • Agellius

    Henry writes, “They think “the word means as it means, nothing more nor less” and that every word is therefore simple to understand and able to interpret “just is as it is.” I’ve seen it before and I will see it again.”

    I’m honestly having trouble understanding how this would work in practice.

    Let’s take the word “cat”. It’s a simple word and 99% of people understand what it means. You can define it as “a four-legged mammal that eats meat and meows”. But everyone knows there’s more to a cat than that. You talk about stopping ourselves from thinking in words and just experience the reality. Well, I think everyone does that when he is in the prescence of a cat: You watch the way it walks, the way it slinks up to you and rubs against your leg, the graceful way it jumps — you experience all this without putting it all into words.

    Everyone who knows the word “cat” and has seen a cat knows that there is more to a cat than the word and its definition. Yet, he also knows that “cat” means a specific kind of thing and not any other: By no stretch of the imagination can “cat” refer to an elephant or a car or the sun.

    The two are not mutually exclusive: “Cat” can mean something definite and specifically limited, yet at the same time refer to things that are hard to put into words. But the thing is, all the things about cats that are hard to describe, are nevertheless included in the word “cat”, because the word points to the actual things called cats, as well as the catness that is common to all cats.

    So what is incorrect about saying that “cat” “means as it means, nothing more nor less”? What else can it mean?

    • Julia Smucker

      What is incorrect about the presumption of unmediated meaning (the basic linguistic error of both Liturgiam Authenticam and fundamentalist doctrines of inerrancy) is, simply put, that the word is not the thing. Meaning is mediated by words, which is not to say that words do not contain a limited meaning that excludes certain other meanings; it is simply to say that semantic domain is not always so unambiguous.

      I wonder if it would be helpful to think of language in terms of “real symbol”, though in a somewhat weaker sense than Rahner’s coinage: it makes present some abstraction of what it signifies.

      • Agellius

        Julia writes, “What is incorrect about the presumption of unmediated meaning … is, simply put, that the word is not the thing. Meaning is mediated by words, ….”

        I don’t know what you mean by “the presumption of unmediated meaning”. I know the word is not the thing. I said myself that the word points beyond itself to the thing.

        Frankly, much of this discussion makes no sense to me. I get the feeling people (though not so much you) are deliberately not saying things in a straightforward manner, in order to prove their point that language can’t convey reality. : )

    • Julia Smucker

      Come to think of it, Agellius, I could use your example to answer your question, “What else can it mean?” You are of course correct that by using the word “cat” you are greatly narrowing the possible meanings by excluding countless things that it could not be. Still, this does not leave only one thing that it can mean. Does the word “cat” refer to the creature that jumps onto my lap and purrs, or to the entire feline genus, or even to some artistic depiction of either of these? All of these are commonly accepted meanings of the word, which must be determined from context.

  • Agellius’ comment reminds me of a well-known Zen koan. “Joshu” is one of the greatest of all Zen masters; “Nansen” is his student.

    Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: “If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.”

    No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

    That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.

    Nansen said: “If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.”

    It isn’t a matter of “cat” meaning something other than a feline (as it can). Consider how you might feel if you suffer a lapse of memory, and can’t remember the word to go with the animal. A cat jumps on your lap and purrs, but you can’t remember its name. Would you panic at such a loss?!

    Can you, without suffering the loss of the word, notice how comfortable it is to have the concept “cat” firmly embedded in mind, ready to pounce at the first meow? Few of us notice how that comfort limits our experience.

    • Sorry,… “Nansen” is Joshu’s teacher, not his student…

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      Your Zen quote reminded me of a great story I read in one of the great acupuncture theory books of Claude Larre (a Jesuit who worked in Vietnam for most of his career and is now famous with “traditional acupuncture” practitioners around the world. The story was used to make the point that sometimes theory and philosophy gets in the way of recognizing more pressing concerns that threaten life. The story went like this:

      The Philosopher decided that his normal life was keeping him from having the ultimate realization of things. So he left all behind and went into the forest. First he left all his emotional attachments behind. Then he left all his concepts behind. Then he left all his ambitions behind. Then a giant cat (tiger) appeared in the forest and ate him.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    That was a really good response. And I can see how you can makes a case with the examples you mention Blondel and the Franciscans. But on the other hand there is this: First the Franciscans have to be see as part of the Scholastic revolution that Thomas was the undisputed epigone of. And we know this because they were treated with the same opprobrium (see Mendicant Controversy). Second, though Nominalism later took on a life of its own, it can historically primarily be seen as a reaction to Scholasticism at its inception, and crucially as a pressing theological need to fight Wycliffian and later Hussite critiques of Church corruption. Therefore it hardly represents any sort of “freedom” of inquiry apart from Scholastic dictates in Church at the time.

    As to Blondel, he is a good example I concede. But his influence is was nowhere near what more Thomstically inclined, especially in French culture even, like Maritain. We are basically talking about a rivulet and not a stream, and hardly a competitor to the oceanic controls of Thomism. Further, in some ways, his work can even be seen as inversely dependent on Thomism as he seems to have both had to study contemporaneous Thomsitic manuals to some extent, and thus rejected further study on them because of the hegemony of such manual training. As always, “rejection” in intellectual history is ultimately legible as a sort of strong influence. Don’t we former Catholics know about that phenomenon!!

    • It is true that the Franciscans were a part of scholastic thought, but they were not Thomists – the rivalry between the Dominicans and Franciscans are famous (and had to require all kinds of vague terminology at Trent to deal with it so neither side felt abused). And I would say, the more one reads Bonaventure, the more one sees him turning more into a Bernard when it comes to scholasticism; yes, he followed through with it, but he also seemed to live out a rejection of scholasticism in his later years, seeing its weakness, and this thought can be seen in his work before he finally establishes his criticism. Plus, when he did engage the scholastic enterprise, his response often differed greatly with Thomas (being far more Augustinian, and therefore, Platonic). In this way they could have accepted Thomas as an example of what was wanted to be done, but they did not see it as meaning Thomism is the official philosophy or theology of the Church. It wasn’t: it was rather seen as one of the greatest attempts at theology with a great system which worked for its day and time. But as is clear with history, even the Thomists rejected Thomas and developed neo-Thomism, trying to use Thomas to hide their differences from him!

      Blondel I thought represented a good example because he shows an example of one who is recommended, recognized, praised for his work, during the time when people think Thomism ruled. Certainly he was influenced by it — but he was not limited to it, and he clearly went against it in many ways and yet this didn’t mean he was seen as going against the Church’s idea of philosophical engagement.

      So my point was that, if we looked, we can find all kinds of examples; yes we know of the Thomists and Neo-Thomists and their sway on things in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was not everything, and the Church didn’t suggest it was. More that Thomas was used as an introduction and foundation than as a necessary solution, though of course, in popular thought, he became the solution. Which is of course where the real problem lies!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Very well said.