The Importance Of Jacques Maritain's Work
By W. R. THOMPSON, F.R.S.
Moderns have got into the habit of saying that in the Middle Ages the human mind was in chains and passively subordinate to ecclesiastical authority. What the most casual examination of philosophical history really shows, is that mental indiscipline in the Catholic body was far more serious and violent than it is now. Though Rome recognised from the first the incomparable quality of the Thomist synthesis—St.
Thomas Aquinas was canonised by John XXII in 1323, only fifty years after his death—the uninterrupted series of Papal admonitions in his favour did not prevent the rise and development of alien systems. Even up till fairly recent times the philosophical basis of Catholic apologetics was of a very varied character; and attempts were still being made, even in theological circles, to interpret Catholic dogmas in terms of the principles of Kant and Descartes.
Aeterni Patris, the great encyclical of Leo XIII (August 4, 1879) and the many instructions issued thereafter by this Pope and his successors were designed to put an end to this anomalous state of affairs and, in spite of certain occasional (and probably temporary) concessions made to human weakness, the mind of the Church in regard to philosophical principles has by now been made so clear that, as far as the present writer can see, no further argument is possible for Catholics.
Not that Thomist philosophy is imposed as an article of belief; it contains within itself its own rational justification, which is sufficient. But the Church is much more than a custodian of dogma; and when we consider the conditions of this age, with its infinite multiplicity of philosophies, the tremendous facilities for the diffusion of opinion and the possibility for the average citizen of mental and moral shipwreck, we can hardly feel anything but gratitude for the help she gives us, through her advocacy of the doctrine of St. Thomas to maintain a fundamentally rational outlook.
The study and diffusion of the Thomist principles is, it seems clear. the duty of all philosophically-minded Catholics. It is also evident that this task is beyond the capacity of the official guardians of Thomism and even of the clergy as a whole; not only because of their numerical insignificance in the modern world but because of the great variety and multiplicity of the technical problems involved. Thomism is a universal philosophy, but for this very reason, the application of its externally valid principles involves a minute knowledge of a multitude of concrete and practical problems that now fall, in the normal course of events within the sphere and competence of the layman.
The work of authors like Maritain and Gilson is a remarkable example of what well-directed lay effort can accomplish. We are in no sense underestimating the value of the labours of the great ecclesiastical Thomists if we say, as I think we can, that very few among them have been able to do so much for the propagation of Thomism in the world at large as these two lay philosophers.
The Degrees of Knowledge, translated by Bernard Wall and Margot Adamson, Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press: 21s. is the most comprehensive exposition of Thomist epistemology Maritain has published. After a preliminary chapter on the possibilities and limitations of metaphysics, he passes in a great sweep through the several planes of rational knowledge. examining first the relation between science and philosophy and then the departments of philosophy itself, as specified by the objects they envisage; and concludes with three hang and profound chapters on superrational knowledge as exemplified in mystical contemplation.
Important Work One of the most important lines of Maritain's work, which has covered in one way or another, practically the whole philosophical field, has been the application of Thomist principles to scientific problems, especially the problem of the nature and meaning of scientific theory v. method. His qualifications for this arc exceptional for his university training included not only the normal preparation for a degree in science, but an additional period of advanced research, under the distinguished biologist H. Driesch. He has always maintained his interest in scientific questions and in making the degrees of knowledge available to the English-speaking workers in science, the translators and publisher have rendered an important service to scientific thought.
Scientific theory has recently been the subject of some lively discussions in English scientific circles. But in a recent and most interesting " symposium " in Nature (June 12, 1937), the Aristotelian of Thomist standpoint was represented mainly by a caricature labelled as Aristotelian by Professor Dingle. His use of the word had, it is true, some historical justification if referred to the decadence of scholasticism. But it is a remarkable fact that though Fr.
McEntegart, of Heythrop, and Professor G. Dawes Hicks, the philosopher, made justi fiable protests, none of the scientific disputants seemed to have any understanding of Aristotelian philosophy much less any suspicion that Aristotelians had dealt with these questions.
am well aware that some Catholic scientists, though well acquainted with Thomist philosophy. find Maritain's treat ment of physical theory unpalatable. The careful and detailed discussions (based, it is safe to say. on fundamentally Thomist
principles) to be found in The Degrees of Knowledge may induce them to modify
their views and should, at all events, provoke argument of a highly useful and stimulating character.
Thomist philosophy is not an easy sub
(Cals.tinteed inmext cohnuL)
ject, Maritain is not an easy author and this is not an easy book. It cannot be fairly prescribed as a beginner's introduction to Thomism. It is evident from the preface inserted by one of the translators, that they did not find the translation into English an easy problem and it is an unfortunate fact that they did not altogether succeed in solving it. The construction has, practically throughout, a strange and markedly un-English flavour. In one place, the phrase "le calcul a prise " is rendered as " the calculus is drawn," in another " specificita " as "specificness," while
" plasma sanguin " and parois vasculaires " become " plasms of the 'blood and the arterial surround." The most regrettable example of this kind of thing is perhaps the translation of " ens rationis " by " rational being." The "ens rationis " of Maritain's discussion is, in most cases, the mental construction used by the scientist as a basis for certain explanatory systems. The gene-maps of the geneticists, from which the results of crosses can be deduced, and the complicated mechanical analogy used by Maxwell in developing the equations of electromagnetics, are constructions of this kind. The translation of " entia rationis " by " rational beings" gives a rather peculiar effect suggesting at certain points, the existence of a spiritual advisory committee, nominated by the scientist.
These defects probably depend on a rather inadequate acquaintance with the very difficult subject matter of the book, and they strongly suggest that the translation of such works can only by carried through satisfactorily by philosophical experts and technicians working in co-operation.
The Degrees of Knowledge is a book of the first importance which everyone inter
ested in Thomism must possess and study.
But what is one to say of the publication of a work of 475 large pages without any index, even the names index of the original?
The French edition has a detailed and very useful table of contents, giving the numerous sub-headings within the chapters.
In the English edition the sub-headings have all been omitted. These omissions are highly regrettable and greatly diminish the utility of the book as a work of reference.
Let us hope that in later editions both index and table of contents will be provided.