17.11.07, Shields and Pasnau, The Philosophy of Aquinas

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Anthony Lisska

The Medieval Review 17.11.07

Shields, Christopher, and Robert Pasnau. The Philosophy of Aquinas, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. xii, 322. ISBN: 9780199301249 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anthony Lisska
Denison University

This is a modestly revised monograph on Aquinas's philosophy originally published a bit more than a decade ago (Westview, 2003) and written by two of the foremost Greek and medieval scholars working today, Chris Shields and Bob Pasnau. When these guys write something, it's always worth reading and taking seriously, even if one might disagree with a particular position articulated. There are nine chapters in this monograph, the first one a rather good biography of Aquinas, and then eight more dealing with important philosophical topics in the corpus of Aquinas's writings. This book would probably fit under what today is often referred to as "Analytical Thomism." Both novice and more experienced students of Aquinas will find the succinct biography useful and fruitful. As a sidelight, this reviewer has found that the best overall intellectual biography of Thomas is found in Simon Tugwell's Albert and Thomas(1988).

Shields and Pasnau work structurally with Aquinas's writings using as an interpretative paradigm--what the authors refer to as "Aquinas's Explanatory Framework"--Aristotle's four-fold theory of causality, the ever-famous "material, formal, efficient and final causes." They articulate the position that the most fruitful way to render Aquinas's texts intelligible consistently for the contemporary reader is through the lenses of Aristotle's theory of causality, a theory that Aquinas adopts readily. Following a chapter elucidating the "Explanatory Framework," the remaining seven chapters treat substantively (a) the metaphysical account of being, (b) the existence and nature of God, (c) the order of the universe, (d) the human person with a soul and a body, (e) the philosophy of mind with sense and intellect, (f) the overall goal of living a human life, and (g) moral theory with a consideration of natural law and the virtues. One notices that the thrust of this text focuses attention on the philosophical themes found in Aquinas and not on the more theological issues contained in the biblical commentaries or in, for instance, the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae. One interpretive principle that Aquinas used throughout is the phrase: "Seldom affirm a proposition, never deny a proposition, always make a distinction." Shields/Pasnau follow this principle, and their distinctions are often illuminating in making sense of concepts in the Aquinas corpus. For example, in the discussion of matter and form, a distinction is offered regarding the concept of "matter as potency" between a "potency" and a "possibility." There are limits to the concept of "matter as potency" that do not exist if one is considering a logical or physical possibility--or "impossibility." Novices coming to medieval philosophy often muddle this important distinction.

Another conceptual confusion often rendered about medieval philosophers--and Aquinas in particular--concerns the ontological structure of an Aristotelian primary substance. The structure of such an entity is in terms of matter and form. Shields/Pasnau begin the discussion using the example of a "house" with the form being the structure; the matter would be the bricks or wood or whatever the principal building material might be. The form provides the structure or organization for the material objects that make up the house. However, this is but an analogy and not an exact account of the form/matter distinction articulated by Aquinas. Shields/Pasnau do render a correct analysis of the nature of a primary substance in a longish footnote in this chapter. Yet part of this footnote is a promissory note for a more developed analysis in a later chapter. For Aquinas, a primary substance--the individual of a natural kind that is the principal ontological category in Aquinas's world--is always a living thing and never an artifact. Too often commentators on Aquinas argue as if there is no difference between a structured pile of bricks made into a house and a living daffodil bulb or a prancing Morgan horse. Aquinas argues that only the latter living entities are primary substances. This squares with what Aristotle wrote in the Posterior Analytics about a predicate "said of" a subject and another predicate "found in" a subject. Only the former part of this distinction describes a real primary substance; the other part of this distinction accounts for a bunch of objects with material properties--a pile of bricks--with no organic structure. An artifact--a table, chair or beer can--is nothing more than a bundle of material properties. The similarities with Berkeley and Hume are obvious.

Emphasis in this book on the concept of "being" depends upon Aquinas's early text, De Ente et Essentia. Aquinas is a realist, so these authors argue, and not a conventionalist. This is in opposition to several Post-Modern Thomists like Pickstock who wish to render Aquinas's positions closer to conventionalism. Shields/Pasnau, however, point out several issues here that Aquinas does not explain, especially rendering individuation consistent. Diagrams in this chapter on these ontological issues are most useful.

This review places emphasis on the metaphysical, epistemological and moral issues treated by Thomas and skips over the chapter devoted to Aquinas's proofs for God's existence. The chapter on the order of the universe rightly places emphasis on the Neoplatonic character of much of Aquinas's metaphysical theory: while Aquinas is certainly an Aristotelian at heart, nonetheless the fundamental ontological issues associated with the nature of "being" move consistently towards Neoplatonism. These foundational issues are spelled out nicely in this text. What this reviewer found interesting is the authors' almost total metaphysical direction towards the texts of Aquinas found in the Summa Contra Gentiles. Shields/Pasnau point out the importance and the philosophical structure of this somewhat early comprehensive text of Aquinas written almost two decades prior to the beginning article in the more well-known and studied Summa Theologiae. In matters of freedom and determinism, Shields/Pasnau suggest that Thomas is best described as a compatibilist.

The explicatio textus of Aquinas's treatment of the problem of universals is very useful for students of Aquinas digging into the rich lode that is Aquinas's ontology. In both philosophy of mind and metaphysics, Aquinas offers a middle-ground position between the extreme realism of Plato and the innate rationalism of Descartes. Shields/Pasnau break down their discussion of Aquinas's philosophy of mind into two principal categories: sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. Pasnau has worked often in the arena of sense perception, and his account of the external senses is right on the money. The account of inner sense breaks down a bit insofar as there is little if any discussion of what this reviewer takes to be the principal inner sense faculty of the vis cogitativa. Considering texts in Thomas's Commentary on the Soul (Sententia libri De Anima), one might argue that it is through the awareness of the vis cogitativa that one is able to perceive the individual primary substances, which, as noted above, make up the principal ontological category in Aquinas's realist metaphysics. Shields/Pasnau need to consider in more detail Aquinas's distinction between a combination of proper and common sense qualities (a bundle view) and the incidental object of sense (a substance view). Aquinas explicitly discusses these three distinct objects of sensation in both the Summa Theologiae and the Commentary on the Soul. It is here that Aquinas moves beyond the meager analysis offered by Aristotle in his De Anima and affirms a real distinction between objects of sensation and objects of perception.

In discussing Aquinas's analysis of "concept formation" through a discussion of the active or agent intellect (intellectus agens), the turn of the analysis goes towards what Aquinas might mean by "abstraction." Indeed abstraction is a terribly difficult philosophical chestnut to crack. Much ink has been spilt undertaking such analyses. Aquinas does use the concept of an "efficient cause" when discussing how the active intellect undertakes its unique intentional mental act of abstraction. In some way, the active intellect "makes" the concept rather than "pulling a common feature" out of the array of phantasms stored in the inner sense faculty of the sense memory. In his Mental Acts, Geach was the first contemporary philosopher to suggest the connection between abstraction and efficient cause. Haldane, Anscombe and Kenny also suggest this kind of analysis. This useful analysis is not part of the explicatio textus offered in the Shields/Pasnau book.

The final two chapters of the book deal with Aquinas's moral theory. Shields/Pasnau provide a more traditional account of Aquinas's take on both natural law theory and the theory of the virtues. Shields/Pasnau consider these two categories as fundamental in terms of making sense out of what Aquinas has to say about moral theory. Aquinas offers a middle ground position between the utilitarianism of Mill and the formalism of Kant. The trick, of course, is to make a coherent whole of Aquinas's theory mostly found in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae. Shields/Pasnau suggest that their account of Aquinas on moral theory is not aligned with what has recently been referred to as the "New Natural Law" theory defended by Grisez and Finnis. This latter position denies that any form of philosophical anthropology is a necessary condition for understanding Aquinas's moral theory. Shields/Pasnau hold that moral judgments are "sortal relative," which means that moral judgments are always made with reference to the kind of things under moral discussion and judgment. This concept of "sortal relative" is a perspicuous way to consider Aquinas's meta-ethics, and, a fortiori, Aristotle's position. Veatch, MacIntyre and Foot, among others, reject this "New Natural Law" account. This rejection of non-ontological foundationalism appears to be on the right track. The discussion of the importance of the intellectual virtue of prudence when conjoined with an account of practical reason discussed in this book is first rate; prudence is a concept subject to much hand waving in attempts to articulate Aquinas's account of right and wrong actions. This monograph offers an excellent analysis of the somewhat muddy concept of synderisis, which is the first principle of practical reason in Aquinas's meta-ethics.

In conclusion, Shields/Pasnau offer the following hallmark of Aquinas's approach to undertaking philosophical analysis: "Aquinas displays...[a] clarity and resourcefulness that is characteristic of all his philosophy" (188).

Marginalia: Novices coming to Aquinas's philosophical work early on will find the succinct glossary useful. The "List of Works" is appropriate for a reader with moderate experience with the prodigious work of Thomas. Anthony Kenny once remarked that the corpus of authentic works of Thomas approaches eight million words while if the catalogue also includes the disputed works, the number of words reaches over eleven million. The list Shields/Pasnau provide includes most of the major works indicating translations when available. The Leonine edition of the Opera Omnia begun almost a century and a half ago is still incomplete. To augment the published list in this book, one should note that a translation of sections of Aquinas's Commentary on the Sentences is scheduled to appear under the OUP imprint later this calendar year. Shields/Pasnau include translations of rather obscure Aquinas texts by the late American Dominican friar, Pierre Conway; Conway knew the texts of Thomas better than any English-speaking philosopher this reviewer ever met. Conway and his colleague, Sister Margaret Ann, OP, established what I believe was called the "Alum Creek Institute" at the then College of St. Mary of the Springs in Columbus, Ohio (now Ohio Dominican University) where they spearheaded a project in the middle part of the last century translating and discussing Aquinas's texts. It is useful for Aquinas scholars that Shields/Pasnau in some way have resurrected this now mostly forgotten or lost important cadre of philosophical work.

In discussing the various translations of the Summa Theologiae, Shields/Pasnau note the disagreements found among Aquinas students over the merits of each major translation--The Shapcote translation begun in the early part of the twentieth century (with the modestly altered Benzinger reprint at mid-century) and the Gilby/O'Brien 61-volume Latin-English text with appendices appearing in the second third of the twentieth century. Shields/Pasnau are correct to note the somewhat "erratic" quality of this latter translation. For a reader interested in the travails undertaken by Gilby/O'Brien in trying to get this translation not only undertaken but also finished, one might read John Vidmar's excellent history of the American Dominican Friars (Father Fenwick's "Little American Province", 2005). One blatant typographical error in Shields/Pasnau is in this discussion of the various translations/editions of the Summa Theologiae where the dates of the Shapcote translation are listed as "1212-1236"--a proofreader's huge oversight!

This book would be most suitable for advanced undergraduate students in philosophy programs and, of course, graduate students working their way through the intricate puzzles of Aquinas's metaphysics and philosophy of mind. This monograph provides a basketful of cogent examples helping to articulate what Aquinas is up to. While this review expresses some issues of mild concern with the arguments undertaken in this analytic account, nonetheless it is one of the better expositions of Aquinas's overall approach to philosophy that this reviewer has discovered in his many years spent reading in and about Thomas Aquinas.

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