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MI, RP's, and the Problem of Scholastic Scientia
by Luke Rondinaro
18 June 2002 23:56 UTC
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 Dear WSN.

Before I break off the listserv discussion on Misleading Indicators, the “Mirror” metaphor, and “Real Principles” (and continue the conversation via private email between myself and Ranci) I wanted to say that anyone who’s interested in reading the ongoing discussion between us on this topic is welcome to get in touch with me at larondin@yahoo.com and as the discussion continues I’ll make sure to CC you.  Otherwise, I’ll end it on the WSNforum at this point.  In the meantime, please do consider the following caveat/question piece I wrote up on the issue of Scholastic scientia/philosophy in scholarship.  If you would, please respond by private email to me and not WSN unless you believe its a worthwhile point for everyone to read.  Thanks.


In my continuation pieces regarding the Misleading Indicators, the “Mirror” metaphor and “Real Principles” I went into a short explanation of the matter I was discussing (i.e., the parsing of Shostak’s particular sentence that was cited and the conceptual basis of it) and I talked about it in terms of Thomistic-Scholastic Epistemology and Ontology [Metaphysics], the study of Being as Being.

But, just so we’re clear, I want to make absolutely sure I make this point.  Even though I like the character and the methodology of Scholasticism a great deal, and even though I think its theoretic potential and technical, precision terminology is wonderful, it’s not a perfect conceptual system and it’s certainly not without its problems.

The first obvious problem is Legalism.  Now whether the problem came out of the decline of Scholasticism from its original Aristotelian-(Thomistic-Scotistic) conception or whether the problem was there from the very beginning, its roots in this factor or that factor aren’t my concern.  What is my concern is that, whether I like it or not, all subsequent Scholastic thought was shaped – and indeed – sullied by the problem of Legalism. 

Yet, even so, this “legalism” of sorts seemed to have served a purpose.  In a way that neither Platonic idealism - or other systems of thought before and after the late Medieval period – could, Scholasticism was able to (in a reasoned philosophic system) achieve a level of systematization and focus on fine circumstantial details that (was/is), at its highest aspired heights that could ever be the true counterpart of empirical science.  Despite its downfall as a refined system of thought, and despite its many pitfalls as a field of intellectual inquiry, Scholasticism is one of the few systems which can get at both at the sharp linguistic base of ideas that are tied into factual content (with all the shades of meaning and nuance and symbolism implied therein) and the actual level of analytical focus involve in [empirical/logical] inquiry.  [To your own knowledge, can you think of any other system of thought that can make a similar claim to fame or an even better one?  I’d be interested in hearing about such if there is . . . As far as I know Scholasticism still carries of air of distinction to itself because of these aforementioned qualities]

In any event, all this is important to me because it challenges the conventional wisdom about knowledge, ideas, and communicational systems.  If the standard of written English of the New York Times is the ideal we should be striving for in our scholarship, then why does it seem like Aquinas’s writing and that of the other Scholastics is able to conceptually say so much more about its content and through its subject matter than today’s writing can?  Today’s popular writing is supposedly simpler and clearer and so much better than the writing of the Scholastics; why then in spite of its “airy” philosophy (understand at its essentials as a personal, subjective belief system) could the writing of Aquinas and his contemporaries get its main points across so much better (without misinterpretation) than the envisioned ideal of today’s written work as embodies in the New York Times or Newsweek?   Shouldn’t today’s ideal of good written work conceptually trump the writing of the Scholastics (and other philosophic systems of the Past & around the world – Greco Roman Classics, Christian Patristics, Renaissance Humanists, etc.)? …

I recognize that Thomistic-Scholastic thought has its many problems – and many of you on this list could precisely detail these problems for me, but how would you answer my objections?  [concerning the writing of then and the writing of now, the conceptual basis of both and the talent of writers in the past for getting their meaning across and then some in terms of shading latent meanings in what they said, the difference between then & now regarding the meaning of philosophy – (scientia & scientific reasoning) versus the modern definition of philosophy given above, and the (conceptual, idea-logical power of today’s writing - via Ockham’s Razor - to give simpler sentences & paragraphs without altering the meaning of a text) versus the more complex writings of the past which seem to conceptually trump today’s more simplified textual material . . . ]


Here’s the oddity, however; despite all of this, I do see (in systematic social science and especially in World (-)Systems theory and modern world historical studies) a continuation of a rigorous integrative, analytical tradition as such was developed under Greco-Roman thought and perfected via the Scholastics.  And, as such is the case , there is it seems this connecting thread between the Sciences, the Social Sciences, and systematic Scholastic Philosophy.  But it should stand to reason that there wouldn’t be.  Shouldn’t it? … After all, Science is empirical and Scholasticism is legal-philosophic-theoretic.  How then can there be a connection? …  And if that were not enough, Social Science in general and World(-)Systems Analysis and World History in particular, have a concrete set of facts and (even) a practical level of content and issues in their analytical toolkits that properly-speaking (at least according to modern standards of what philosophical study consists of) Scholasticism shouldn’t have.  So why does it seem, then, that upon a close textual analysis of Scholastic works that the field does have such characteristics held in common with modern systematic social science?  … It does not make sense, but the textual evidence in Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae”, to give a more particular example, seems to suggest both a specified practicality to the work (content-wise and issue wise) as well as a level of factually-oriented depth.  How can this be, and furthermore (if it “is), then what does this connection between Scholasticism, Science, and Social Science actually consist of? 

I personally see World-Systems Theory and Modern World Historical Studies as carrying on in a great intellectual tradition that Scholastic philosophy aspired to as well from its beginning onward (i.e., the idea of maintaining that all-important balance between macro-level, system-wide, systematic analysis and more detail-oriented, content-based studies in one’s overall methodology).  But is that scholarly tradition itself older than Scholastic philosophy, and if so, where do the roots of such a tradition lie?  With the Classical tradition in Greece and Rome or someplace else at an earlier period of Intellectual History?

And, supposing legalism is the key here to my questions about Scholasticism versus Science, how would the legal-philosophic tradition of Scholastic study compare with and differ from the character, philosophy, and written presentation of the legal profession, itself, today?  How much of a difference would there be in establishment and laying out of a fact or facts (pick any sociological or economic fact you can think of, and use that as an example for the point I’m trying to get at here in this discussion) be between a legal analysis and presentation of such factual content and an empirical, scientific or social scientific exposition of that same content?  … [Would Shostak’s “Misleading Indicators” article itself be an example of this kind of legalized, (socio)economic approach to factual content?; What do you think?] 

From a world systems perspective, how would any of you on this list answer these questions of mine? …  I look forward to your responses on this matter. 

All the best!

Luke Rondinaro

p.s., it seems to me that a proper way to understand and analyze matters of this sort requires we combine the techniques and methods of a literary approach, linguistic analyses, as well as the more standardized social-scientific and technical epistemologies of scholastic-styled, scientiaefic reasoning from late Medieval to 19th century philosophies.  Toward that end, my own ideal has been to try and combine what I can learn from the best talents of a wordsmith like Gerard Manly Hopkins (literary-poetic genius), the mystical (yet nonetheless scientific vision of a Teilhard de Chardin), with the sharp, nuanced-oriented approach of a Karl Rahner with his eye for technical ideas and detailed content.  I’d readily admit this isn’t an easy task, nor could I ever achieve the high end talents these three greats achieved in their own work; but isn’t it important to at least strive after such goals in our scholarship?  Isn’t it important to at the very least try to pick up on such talents and emulate them in one’s own work?  … At least this has been what I’m trying to do more and more in my own material.  Is this a worthwhile goal for even a modern academic to try and attempt or is such a thing best left to genius-scholars of bygone eras?  Or should modern intellectuals just keep to their own specialized disciplines?   What you all think? . . .

p.s.s., If any of you is wondering as to what the Thomist scholars are up to nowadays, here are some good links to give you a good picture of such.







      (Under this one, please do reference their “Tools for doing Research into Thomas”)

Hope this proves useful !  (Luke R.)

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