The writing style of the Canonized

I’ve been struggling on and off all day about how to describe the writing style of canonized saints. As a rule, it is clear, bold, and powerful. I can’t imagine the prose of a Saint sounding like Hegel or the average contemporary Academic.

At any rate, there does seem to be some common notes of style in the Doctors of The Church, just as there is also a certain style and tone that one comes to expect from contemporary Academics. The style is no doubt adapted to the purpose of the writing. So what can the style tell us about the purpose?

-A similar point: skepticism is a philosophical belief as old as philosophy. Idealism is at least five hundred years old now. The critical method has lingered on through the life span of many saints. So where are the Skeptical, or Histotical- Critical, or Idealist, or Empiricist Saints?

-My hypothesis there’s something to those philosophies that is opposed to the wisdom of the Gospel. These philosophies are self-centered. They have no confidence in what it is asserting. They cannot love their object. What is not self- absorption is negation. Each sets itself in opposition to nature, science, and wisdom.

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  1. Led Zep said,

    April 28, 2006 at 10:17 pm

    This is just a suggestion, and it’s not really idealism I suppose, but Edith Stein was a phenomenologist. What say you?

  2. shulamite8810 said,

    April 29, 2006 at 11:28 am

    That is exactly a point I wanted to bring up in order to support what I was trying to say! JPII would be another example. I think it shows two things: first, there is something to Phenomenology that is trully a development of perennial philosophy (intention is a marvelous distiction that helps to understand true philosophy.)
    I intentionally left out phenomenelogy from the list.

    Second, Edith Stein was radiantly clear, forceful, and powerful- exhibit A would be her “To Know as God”. Which is one of the most spellbinding accounts of speculative and mystical theology that I know. It is transparently lucid, and can be seen as a true development of Thomism.

  3. shulamite8810 said,

    April 29, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    That last response was rushed- I have a bit more time to write now.

    You are right to notice that there is a relation between idealism and phenomenology. How extensive one wants to make it will depend on which author one cites, exact points of textual interpretation, and their exact understaning of the doctrines they teach. I have no interest in such an examination. What I do notice is that Phenomenology insisted on the self-evident doctrine that thought is intentional, or about something, and inasmuch as it does so it ca be seen as a negation of idealism. Idealism, ever since descartes, has given primacy to the human idea over being or nature. Ideas become a certain matter out of which one tries to construct a world, nature, God. The inevitable result, as we all know, is the reduction of the world to a merely human idea. Morally, such a doctrine must lead to self- absorption- what is there but self in the universe anyway?

    The doctrine of intentionality dynamites idealism at its foundation. By noticing that thought as such is about something, it requires that thought as such be conditioned by something other than thought, nature or being. I would argue that it is this “return to the real” that made the doctrine so atractive to St. Edith Stein and JPII.

    There is another point in this that cannot be ommitted. Much of what gets called “personalism” or “phenomenological thought” in St. Edith and JPII is in fact the teaching of John of the Cross, which is deeply interior and experiential. But thephilosophical basis of Johnof the Cross is evident to any reader: the nes he calls appovingly “the philosophers” are peple who speak of matter, form, act, potency, reception of form, the grounding of all knowledge on sense knowledge, the inability to comprehend the divine essence… this is all the perennial philosophy.

  4. Brandon said,

    April 29, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    In fairness to empiricism (as opposed to the other positions you mention), it did produce J. H. Newman, who is at least Venerable. Philosophically he clearly does write in the tradition of Locke and Butler; and if he is ever canonized (currently the process has only reached investigation of the first miracle, which, if it pans out, will suffice for beatification), that would give the empiricists one saint.

  5. shulamite8810 said,

    April 29, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    Gosh, everyone is a mind reader on this post! I was really troubled with how to account for Newman- not in the sense that Newman is a “problem” or any such silly thing- I honestly don’t know how best to describe his thought. I have only read “idea of a university” and “development of Christian Doctrine”. In the first, he argues that al university education should be based on Aristotle, and in the second, he seems to want to place the engine of history in the actions of learned, holy men.

    I see what you mean about empiricism in Newman. That being said I wonder how many empiricists could bring themselves to say, as Newman does, that the thought of Aristotle is the true thought of every man. But you know more about the early moderns, so I’d defer to your judgment.

  6. shulamite8810 said,

    April 29, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    That last comment I wrote was trash- let me state my objection more clearly:

    Newman teaches that all Christians should submit to tradition, and that in all philosophy is grounded on Aristotle.

    Empiricists do not think that one should submit to tradition or that all philosophy is grounded on Aristotle.

    Therefore Newman isn’t an empiricist; or at least we can’t call him one without a great deal of qualification.

  7. Dan said,

    April 30, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Ok, I just can’t sit here and let you guys bash empiricism. One of you says that “Empiricists do not think that one should submit to tradition.” Philosophers generally should not submit to tradition. Philosophers seek truth, granted they can find it in tradition and honor a tradition if it is truthful, but they are primarily seeking truth in the present world. Once philosophers “submit” to any other philosopher (living or dead) they have destroyed the very reason for being a philosopher. Further you say that “all philosophy is grounded on Aristotle”. Really? All philosophy? What about the issues Aristotle never touched (like modality and possible worlds)? Or issues that Aristotle was clearly wrong on (like freedom)? I thought philosophy was grounded on truth not an any one philosopher.

    On another point, if you aren’t a Continental philosopher (and you have deeper problems if you are), then you are an heir of the empiricist movement, and that is no bad thing. Modern science is also an heir of the same movement. I think it is safe to say that in the 20th and 21st centuries philosophy is Analytic Philosophy, and this school of philosophy is by nature empiricist. And there a many analytic philosophers who are closer to God and the truth than I am: GEA Anscombe, Peter Geach, Alisdar MacIntyre, Anthony Kenny, RM Adams, Alvin Plantinga, John Haldane. All these philosophers also take insperation from Thomas, Aristotle, Plato, and Augustine while still remaining true empiricist ananlytic philosophers.

  8. shulamite8810 said,

    April 30, 2006 at 4:33 pm


    The previous discussion was about what J. H. Newman thought. You are free to agree or disagree with him all you want. You are not, however, objecting to anything that was actually said. You clearly want to discuss some other topic, which is fine, but you should make it clear that you want to change the topic.

  9. Brandon said,

    April 30, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Actually, Don, I think you’re defending the empiricists in entirely the wrong direction. I don’t think there’s actually a serious problem for empiricism in Newman’s affirmation of tradition. After all, the empiricists were strongest not in their accounts of individual experience but in their accounts of social interactions, testimony, authority, and the like. Berkeley in his Alciphron, for instance, mocks freethinkers who try to define themselves in the right by arbitrarily rejecting submission to tradition (among other things). Some of Newman’s thought on tradition is arguably influenced by his reading of Butler (definitely empiricist) who he mingled with Keble.

    I think the point about Aristotle is a more difficult one when we are considering whether to classify Newman as an empiricist, but I think the Essay toward a Grammar of Assent is perhaps instructive. The core of the Essay is heavily Aristotelian (particularly influenced by Aristotle’s account of phronesis), but the formulation of it is entirely in empiricist terms — in dialogue with and in criticism of Locke, and in the formulation of prudence about reasoning as an illative sense, entirely in keeping with the empiricist project (found in Hutcheson and others) of trying to identify and characterize various internal ‘senses’ — the sense of beauty, the sense of humor, etc.

  10. shulamite8810 said,

    April 30, 2006 at 7:18 pm


    Once again, I’m struck by the fact that if I read the same Berkeley that you read, I would have liked the guy a lot more. I could never get past “Principles” which I still regard as … well that’s beside the point.

    I think we might be speaking at cross purposes here. When I spoke about Empiricism, I had in mind two doctrines that I took to be very distinctive to it; the denial of anything underlying natural things (matter for Berkeley, substance for Locke, anything for Hume) and their rejection of proper universals. I see these doctrines principally as wrong, but also as perverse, for they negate the possibility of establishing the immortality of the soul.

    You however seem to take what is strongest or best in a school of thought. That is certainly what we should do when we encounter some thinker. But I don’t see how it ends up defining a shool of thought. I would be interested in heaing what you think are the distinctive doctrines of Empiricism, and if you think I was right to think that the doctrines I mentioned above are distintive of the movement.

  11. Brandon said,

    May 1, 2006 at 12:19 am

    I was thinking more paradigmatically — i.e., taking the cases that were obviously empiricist (Locke, Butler, Berkeley, Hutcheson, Hume) ; and so the question as I was understanding was one of how someone like Newman is related doctrinally to key figures like this. Taking it this way it would be possible for schools to mix. Thus Aquinas is clearly an Augustinian; he is clearly an Aristotelian; he is a blend of two schools. Thus, the problem with Newman’s Aristotelianism would be this: Does it overwhelm the obvious empiricist influence or is the blending more even than that? I think there’s good reason to think that the blending is more even than that.

    If we take a definitional approach, the classifications get less messy (although I think they are less easy to use when considering matters historically); on such a view Aquinas is distinctively an Aristotelian. And on this approach, I think it would be fair to say that Newman is an Aristotelian, simply speaking, who has been heavily influenced by empiricist thinkers.

    I think the denial of proper universals is a very plausible candidate for a distinctive doctrine, but I hesitate about it. Hutcheson, I think, has to be recognized as part of the empiricist school — he’s a Lockean, and one of the most influential ones. But it’s not clear that he would be classified as an empiricist if we take the two doctrines you suggest as distinctive, particularly with regard to the first doctrine. In other words, while your suggested distinctive doctrines, particularly the second, are catching all the right ones, and only the right ones, on metaphysics, the empiricists who primarily do work in moral philosophy are slipping through the net. And most of the people who we would certainly consider to be empiricists put a lot of emphasis on the moral aspect of their work.

    I think a likely candidate for distinctive doctrine of empiricism is probably the one suggested by Hume (he doesn’t use the term empiricism, of course, but he drew the distinction between the groups we call rationalists and empiricists early on): Empiricists hold that every idea (in Hume’s sense) must be traced back to an original sensory impression it copies. This catches everyone except (possibly) the marginal case of Butler and (certainly) the admittedly weird case of Berkeley, who accepts a similar principle for what he calls ideas, but not for some things that would count as ideas in the Humean sense (e.g., what Berkeley calls ‘notions’).

    If you ever have a chance to read Berkeley’s Alciphron, it’s worth it. It does still have weirdly Berkeleyan elements, including some of the serious flaws, but it’s beautifully written, has some absolutely wonderful satire of freethinkers (the subtitle of the work is ‘The Minute Philosopher’ — ‘minute philosophy’ is Berkeley’s favored term for freethinking), and shows a little more of Berkeley’s Platonist sympathies than the works that are more widely known.

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