Dutch neo-Thomism and the critique of modern philosophy (Apr 2016)

Conference “Metaphysics in Modernity: Tradition and Innovation”, 16 March 2016, Leuven.


A remarkable feature of neo-Thomism is that it did not attribute a ‘metaphysical rest’ to modern philosophy, like for example Nietzsche, Heidegger and Habermas did. Instead, it claims that modern philosophy suffers from a ‘lack of metaphysics’. In this presentation, I will illuminate this supposed lack from the perspective of Thomas of Aquinas’ attempt to unite the Christian idea of creation with Aristotelian philosophy. Before we examine more closely how this attempt is confronted with modern philosophy, we need to understand why this confrontation is important today. In fact, the philosophy of Thomas of Aquinas is more important today than it was in the 12th Century, because today neo-Thomism is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. This evidently raises the question: How up-to-date is Thomistic philosophy? The article in which the question is put forward in the most pregnant way is “Wijsgerige reflecties op de scheppingsidee: St. Thomas, Hegel en de Grieken” (Philosophical reflections about the idea of creation: Saint Thomas, Hegel and the Greeks) from 1975 by Jan Hollak. Hollak poses, I think, the one quintessential question: Is Thomas’ concept of absolute truth (God) compatible with modern subjective freedom that Kant calls autonomy? On the one hand, Hollak acknowledges that the classic Thomistic understanding of the idea of creation stands in a problematic relation to modern freedom. On the other hand, he sees an unused potency in the Thomistic doctrine of God’s trinity that could resolve this problem. Another scholar in Dutch neo-Thomism, Jan Aertsen, offers a comparable reading of Thomas; therefore, we will also include him in our investigation.

Both Hollak and Aertsen stress that modern philosophy’s lack of metaphysics concerns the Kantian viewpoint that the entire domain of metaphysics is covered by the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. Kant emphasizes that analytic judgments are always a priori, but also tautological. The possibility of metaphysics therefore depends, Kant argues, on the possibility of pure synthetic judgments a priori. And even though Hegel – the most important modern discussion partner for Hollak – rejects the analytic/synthetic-distinction, his philosophy can nonetheless be regarded as a thinking through of Kants synthetic judgment a priori. For Kant, the synthesis remains a conjunction between two originally distinct faculties of knowledge, understanding and intuition; Hegel shows that the synthesis is merely the abstract moment of what is in truth a dialectical relation between mind and body. So what appears in Kant as the contingent relation between the categories and the senses, is understood by Hegel through the unity of mind and body. Hollak praises Hegel’s speculative dialectics because it transcends the sphere of categorical thinking by conceiving the understanding “as being in relation to … human spirit as embodied spirit”. At the same time however, Hollak thinks that Hegel does not fully grasp the sphere of the ‘supra-categorical’ (het boven-categoriale), i.e., the spiritualness of embodied spirit.

Aertsen’s 1986 article “Eenheid en veelheid: Thomas van Aquino over de grondvraag van de metafysiek” can illuminate the meaning of the supra-categorical. Like Hollak, Aertsen argues that in the analytic/synthetic-distinction the ‘genuine’ idea of metaphysics, or at least Thomas’ conception thereof, remains out of sight. Against Kant’s rejection of the doctrine of the transcendentals (the one, the truth, and the good) as solid building stones for metaphysics because of their tautological character, Aertsen claims that Thomas develops a doctrine of the transcendentals that avoids tautology. To say that the being is one adds something to the being, if we regard unity as undividedness. The oneness of the being in the meaning of undividedness points towards a conception of truth that cannot be expressed in synthetic thinking, because in synthetic thinking unity appears as the unity of unity and difference. With regard to Thomas’ conception of unity as undividedness the relation between the one and the many is different. Here, the measure to which the being is more divided or less divided is comparable to the measure to which the being is more one or less one, or more manifold and less manifold. Consequently, the being that less divided is not only more perfectly one, but also more perfectly many.

This fundamentally different approach to the relation between oneness and manifold is important to neo-Thomism because the Catholic Church teaches the trinity: God is perfectly one and he is perfectly many. In comparison, whereas synthetic thinking can only conceive of perfectibility in terms of conjunction, the unity=undividedness operates through perfect disjunction. Hollak criticizes Hegel’s philosophical reconstruction of the trinity in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion as a dialectical development, because this presents the trinity one-sidedly as a conjunction. For Hollak, this implies an illegitimate transgression of the limits of philosophy in the sense that Hegel tries to grasp the how of God. When Hollak maintains that a philosopher ought not make claims about the how of God, only to introduce his neo-Thomistic philosophical concept of God, our most reasonable interpretation is to assume that this philosophical concept of God does not completely comprehends God but merely comprehends his incomprehensibility.

At this point, Hollak introduces Thomas’ conception of creation. The finite being in relation to its absolute origin of being has to be regarded, from the perspective of the creator, as a relation of creation; and from the perspective of the creature as a relation of becoming-created. Because in this relation the creator is perfectly independent from the creature and the creature is perfectly dependent from the creator, God’s infinity is not at all compromised by his act of creation. He is absolute freedom. Hollak notices, however, that God’s absoluteness is being emphasized at the expense of the freedom of the creature, which finds itself in a relation of pure dependency. He compares this to Hegel’s relation between lord and bondsman and it is easy to see in it the metaphysical expression of the unfreedom and inequality that Hegel observes in Catholicism. True freedom, according to Hegel, is to be found in the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman. Hollak tries to conceive of a similar overcoming in the context of the idea of creation, which so far only one-sidedly expresses the dependency of the creature of its creator; and hence how the finite occurs in the infinite, but not how the infinite occurs in the finite.

How does the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman takes place in Hegel? Most importantly, the relation between lord and bondsman is a relationship of freedom, as opposed to what for example Kojève and Habermas believe. In the lord and bondsman freedom is real as the self-subjection of the bondsman to the lord: it is a metaphor for the individual that obeys the laws of society. Hegel’s point is that obedience implies freedom, because it shows that the human individual’s fidelity to a non-natural law form is not fully determined by natural inclinations. However, to the extent that this freedom only appears as ‘working in the service of the lord’, it remains one-sided and inadequate. Overcoming the lord/bondsman-relation consists in grasping the freedom that makes this relation possible as it is in and for itself. In this grasping, the mutual dependency of lord and bondsman becomes explicit: the bondsman has to become its own lord, it has to serve its own essence.

If we want to conceive of a similar overcoming with regard to the Thomistic idea of creation, the point cannot be that the pure independency (exemplified by the lord) turns out to be depending on the activity of a finite being (exemplified by the bondsman). Instead, that which has to be grasped is the perfect dependency. Hollak uses the term “relative autonomy”. The true grasping of the perfect dependency expressed in the idea of creation, i.e. the one of the finite creature from its creator, cannot be a synthesizing or dialectical grasping. Thus insofar as Hegel’s grasping of the lord/bondsman-relation implies a relation of mutual dependency in which the lord, i.e. freedom, depends on the bondsman, i.e. the realization of freedom, infinitude and finitude mingle on improper grounds. However, if we concentrate on Hegel’s claim that the bondsman understands that whatever he does in service to the lord is in truth service to himself and his own essence; acquiring this insight in no way implies a (self-)finitization of this essence. This makes a non-dialectical reading of Hegel’s passage of lord and bondsman possible, through which Hollak succeeds in explicating a non-synthetic and non-dialectical dimension of the concept of modern subjective freedom; a dimension, which nonetheless belongs to the core of freedom.

Similar to our understanding that the lord, which is being served by the bondsman, is in fact the absolute essence of the bondsman, the finite being can recognize its autonomy in the relation of perfect dependence. The finite being is absolute, i.e. free, in a finite manner. Hence the term ‘relative autonomy’: autonomy exists as relation. Relative autonomy does not indicate a dialectical relation, but signifies in the words of Hollak the domain of spirit as a supra-categorical sphere, but apart from Hegel’s mind/body-related transcending of categorical thinking. Hollak regards it as ‘revelation’ in the Christian meaning, the creator who announces himself in the creature, which he conceives of as an internal critique of Thomas of Aquinas. The latter’s conception of the idea of creation as a relation of perfect dependence cannot account for creation as revelation. Consequently, Thomas misconceives of the relation between creature and creator as one of passive participation, whereas Hollak argues that perfect dependence does not exclude active participation at all: the finite being participates in the infinitude of God to the extent that he takes on his being-created in a self-conscious manner.

This shows that the Thomistic conception of the doctrine of creation does not contradict subjective freedom, even though it posits a perfect dependency of the creature from its creator, because the finite being’s consciousness about his contingency is at the same time self-consciousness. The theological doctrine in Roman Catholicism about the nature of the finite being’s perfect unity with God thus can be affirmed without violation subjective freedom, which was Hegel’s concern in the first place. The apparent ambiguity, to be able to affirm the that but not the how of God, disappears when we understand that the any possible knowledge of God is to be obtained exclusively through the finite being’s active participation to the relation of perfect dependency. In other words, the knowledge of God is mediated through self-knowledge, always mediated and always indirect. In this regard too, it is clear that the point is not to overcome subjective freedom. In fact, retrospectively, subjective freedom is necessary to make the Thomistic doctrine of God comprehensible at all.

This brings me to the end of my paper. For the sake of completeness, I have to add that Hollak thought that his critique of Hegelian dialectics concerned Hegel’s entire philosophy: Hegel does not fully do justice to human contingency, because he reduces the absolute to its dialectical relation to finite reality. I disagree with this assessment: for Hegel, the relation between absolute and objective spirit is not a purely dialectical relation. However, this discussion cannot be decided here. What I find convincing about Hollak’s criticism of Hegel is that he shows that Hegel is wrong when he privileges Protestant religion as the only religion that does justice to subjective freedom. Particularly in our world, which is one of many cultures, such a position is obsolete. Hollak’s analysis makes explicit that in this specific sense, Hegel does not do justice to the contingency of the tradition in which he philosophizes. Again, this is not Hollak’s position but my position to clarify why neo-Thomism is relevant today: it is a serious attempt – and in the case of Hollak: a successful one – to reconcile tradition and modernity, whereas the common tendency of today’s discussions is too often polarizing.