Hegelianism and scholasticism

Brandon wrote a post on the History of Philosophy that spoke to the general problem that HoP is respected and necessary to philosophy but disliked and marginalized by philosophers. During the course of the comments, Brandon suggested that the Scholastics provided a model for a better integration of philsophy and the history of Philosophy, because the Scholastics approached philosophy by way of commentary, which requires an understanding of the history of a given problem.

I think Brandon is right but I say it with a certain sadness. Scholasticism did not come to a happy end precisely because it saw it as its job to integrate all the history of given on a subject. Even by the time of Capreolus or Cajetan, a scholastic disputation on a single point went on far longer than anyone’s possible attention span. Even for those of us who have a background and a love of the late scholastics, to read them is maddening. You find yourself reading and reading point after point, and then after seven or eight pages of text, you read a sentence that says “and to the second I say…” and you find yourself saying “the second what?… where am I?” At the end of all the disputation, it’s quite possible that the author concludes with a dubia- he simply says he can’t figure out the answer.

The opposite problem to choking on the deatails of history is thinking that one can explain the whole of it in a single system. Hegel and those who followed him (especially Marx) bear a great deal of responsibility for making people think that such a history is possible. Hegel would insist that you can’t understand any part of History until you understood the whole, and the whole never seemed that hard to explain or figure out. The real was rational, after all. Anyone who reads Hegel’s account of history is familiar with this powerful spell he can cast over the mind of his reader- “Yes! it is all a progression of freedom toward democracy!” Any particular objection to the narrative is presented as a failure to appreciate the whole sweep of history, which is, of course, clear and scientific.

Both the Hegelian and the Scholastic roads are dead ends, though not in the same way. The Hegelian road is a dead end simply. The universal progression of events in time isn’t rational and any attempt to make it so is simply storytelling disguised as science. The scholastic mode might be possible for small groups of people, but one could never have it be a common mode of discourse for any sizeable group of people. Any attempt to make it so will lead to a backlash that makes scholasticism even more discredited. Scholasticim in all of its rigor is a small, cult activity- like ice- curling in Miami. It certainly could never get as large as robot destruction derby or quilting.

It would be easy to say that if Scholasiticim and Hegelianism are both dead ends, that we should just split the difference and find truth somewhere in the mean. I guess. But we would have to explain the mean in terms of our own mediocrity. If you can’t feel the desire to know with the precision of the Scholastics or the universality of Hegel you aren’t worthy to deny either.

Or maybe this isn’t the way to understand the mean between Hegel and the Scholastics. We must be desireing something if we are looking for such universality and precision. What satisfies both desires? What is the lesson that we take from the catastrophic failures of the two?


  1. Brandon said,

    November 9, 2008 at 7:39 am

    When you put it this way I think it shows striking similarities with problems in the manual tradition. That makes sense, I think — one way to understand the manual tradition is as an attempt to compensate for the jungle-like character of thought inherited from the later Scholasticism of the middle ages. But in compensating for this they still carried over an implicit assumption that had been the problem with Scholasticism, namely, they continued to operate as if there were a one-size-fits-all solution to the sort of problems of research and pedagogy that were raised. What the later scholastics needed, but never really got, was their Thomas Aquinas, i.e., someone who had a solid grasp of the whole, saw that it was a tangle, and set out to present it in a way that untangled it while keeping a lot of what was right about it. People disagreed with lots of what Thomas did, but he enriched everyone by laying things out in a new simplicity that didn’t sacrifice too much rigor and precision. But while there were people who did bits and pieces of this work (Burley’s Purity of Logic, the better commentators in their better moments), they never got their new Aquinas. One wonders whether that was just an accident of history, or was due to the fact that they had already let things get out of control (one wonders if even Aquinas would have been able to bring order and simplicity to the Scholasticism of Ockham’s time).

    In any case it brings out very clearly that research and pedagogy can’t be separated (as we often try to separate them today); they feed into each other over time, and problems for one are problems for the other.

  2. lee faber said,

    November 9, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    What do you mean by saying scholasticism was only possible for a small group of people? It was the dominant philosophical method for hundreds of years, being the only form of academic philosophy from 1200-whenever they lost the universities; certainly after the death of Descartes. That’s a pretty good run compared to say logical positivism and (probably) analytic philosophy. And it was only defeated because it’s natural philosophy was discredited, or so the general narrative goes (I trust none of them, especially that mentioned by Brandon regarding the “chaos” of late-medieval philosophy).

    Brandon, I”m not quite sure what the problem with scholasticism was; I think both Scotus and Ockham had a quite solid grasp of the state of the philosophy contemporary to them; do you mean someone needed to come along and defeat everyone so that there would then be only one scholastic philosophy? I”ll admit that if one wants to take scholasticm seriously, as possibly being true, the state of affairs by say the 15th century in which there are at least 4 major schools which can (allegedly) no longer talk to each other because their first principles are all so different is at the very least troubling. At the recent SIEPM conference in Palermo on the “universality of reason and the plurality of philosophies” they addressed this issue, but most everyone opted for the latter part of the title in relativist fashion, and the single person who opted for the first claimed one had to transcend mere aristotelian dialectis in favor some some near-beatific vision of the divine essence.

    As for your assesment on those studying history of philosophy, I completely agree and have the same problem that you identify. I (a grad student in a medieval institute) look like a historian to philosophers because nowadays high end medieval philosophical scholarship leans a great deal on institutional history of the mendicant orders, the papacy and the university, and all the sources I need are in manuscript which requires a host of necessary non-philosophicla skills. But I am too philosophical for the historians. My plan for the job market is to apply to great books programs, theology, and philosophy without holding my breath as to the latter.

  3. a thomist said,

    November 10, 2008 at 1:00 am


    Point well taken. I should qualify my claim and say it was more historically limited to the possibilities for Scholasticism now, or at least in the era we’ve lived in for a long time now. Scholasticism presupposes many years of the exclusive study of Aristotle- taking him not merely as some guy but as the primary authority on things- and also a sort of dedication to scripture that one could find nowhere among scholars. The last attempt to enforce top-down thomism shows the difficulty. It died fourty years after it really hit its stride in the twenties. Even the most liberal account of its lifespan (from Aeterni Patris to the Second Vatican Council) only gives it “seventy years or perhaps eighty”.

    But even the Scholasticism of the Medieval era was shorter than it appeared, I think- if one takes it from when it founded its first institutions to the time when it started to be more a source of confusion than of clarity. The Humanist backlash against it is visible by the time of Petrarch, and Scholasticism begins to become impenatrable to all but the most obscure specialist by the time of Ockham. The whole promise of Scholasticism was (and is) to provide greater clarity, simplicity and order among the various theological and philosophical authorities while still giving reason the perfection of somehow really knowing divine things, but I just don’t see it as able to do this for very long. To be honest, I think it tends to a sort of minimalism that works like acid on our understadnign of divine things- at least when it is practiced by many on a large scale. A single institution, or small set of institutions can be faithful to the scholastic program for a very long time- and I think it is best kept in small institutions that recognize a single master and strive to faithfully explain what he says. But I would expect them to be surrounded by an ocean of vulgar philosophy that sees the scholastic life as so much folly and nonsense.

    I think you are right that Scholasticism’s run was longer than logical positivism or analytic philsophy or existentialism or life-philsophy or process thought any of the other popular fads that have captured the academy forever now. But some fad will always be infinitely more popular than real scholasticism, practiced in fidelity and discipleship. Who knows what will be next? All we can do is sit and await our next condescending lecture about how our philosophy doesn’t speak to modern people’s concerns, how we are “Paleo” somethings, how our philosophy and theology don’t “stir the heart” and make people want to believe, how it has all been discredited… whatever.

  4. a thomist said,

    November 10, 2008 at 1:06 am

    But I want to be proven wrong on this, so I would thank you very much for destroying my opinion.

  5. Brandon said,

    November 10, 2008 at 6:50 am


    I have no doubt that Scotus and the like had part of what was required, to bring order to chaos, i.e., they were very familiar with the whole. And that they could in principle have taken steps to manage it is clear from things like, e.g., Scotus’s treatise on the first principle. But the Subtle Doctor is not in general a model of clear teaching that simplifies and clarifies the whole field under discussion, thus allowing it to reach a wider audience; and this goes for most of his contemporaries and the younger generation after him. And thus we find at the same time an increasing confinement of scholastic thought to the universities, where alone it could survive. It’s not that they needed someone to come along and defeat them — Aquinas, after all, didn’t come along and defeat anyone, since very few people really ended up agreeing with him until long after. But Aquinas really does take the whole field available to him and simplifies and clarifies it in a new and lasting way, and everyone, even those disagreeing with him, have benefited from this in the long run. Medieval scholasticism needed a few more like him. The generation of Ockham especially needed it, if only to make it clear that the schoolmen were not mere logic choppers; as it was, the research continued to be brilliant — for as long as the teaching could sustain it, at least. The manuals were a clever way to try to maintain this sustaining function; they failed to do so because they ended up, without really realizing it, jamming all of scholastic thought into a handful of formulas and summaries. Perhaps what people needed was not so much Aquinas as Chesterton, to get the basic point across to the man on the street without giving the illusion that there were no complicated questions involved; and there really doesn’t seem to have been much of a place for a Chesterton at the time. (Whether there was intellectual chaos — I don’t think there was, since I think the problem was not chaos but rich, complex intellectual inquiry that began to go well beyond what they could pass along to future generations — there certainly was a good amount of political and ecclesiastical disruption, and the right sort of political chaos can throw a wrench in the ability of teachers to pass on what they need to pass on.)

    My own view on the ‘universal reason vs. plurality of philosophies’ issue is that we should all opt strongly for the former, even if we end up arguing with each other to no end: the latter is historically a factor in weakness and deterioration, because philosophical schools, like people, build alliances in order to shore up weaknesses and to avoid the hard work and resource expenditure of developing strengths. That way is death. But what we should do is allow for a pluralism of styles. Scholastic thought definitely has the potential: Scotus is great, but why settle for Scotus alone when you can have both Scotus and Gerard Manley Hopkins? And so forth. But I say that because I’m more or less Thomistic, but have a style of thought (a set of interests, a preference for certain kinds of intellectual tools, etc.) that is more like the Romantics than like Aquinas himself. Thomas Aquinas in Romantic style! Certainly not for purists. But purism, too, is an element in philosophical deterioration, because it tries to capture living thought in lucite.

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