Sunday, July 12, 2009

"The Dream of Reason": From Socrates to Sotomayor - Part III: Acquinas - Missing Link of Jurisprudential Analysis by Judy Joyce

When former Economist's editor and author Anthony Gottlieb's book, The Dream of Reason, follows the history of philosophical thought from earliest records to the point where he discusses the Middle Ages, his in depth analysis of critical thinkers who influenced politics, culture, religion and scholarship emerge in very interesting ways. One of the areas the author identifies early on in his book are the ways in which earlier civilizations relied on philosophical discourse to determine questions of justice.

From his discussions about the dawn of philosophy to the challenge of Aristotelian thinking made by Bacon in England centuries later, the critical thinking skills of Supreme Court Justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Samuel Alito could be identified as philosophically Socratic. Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, falls into the Sophist category. More modernly in America, William James morphed Sophist philosophy into Relativism and Utilitarianism.

In that context, James would contend what is good for the group is the best choice in decision making. (See Part II of this series) This would be true even if the definition of “best” were to be no more than what feels good. For Socratics, determining the best choice in life is that which is based on what can be determined to be as objectively true as possible - whether or not it feels good or feels right. (example, it may not feel right to withhold a candy bar from your little brother as you sit chomping away on one waiting for the bus - but if he's just had a filling put into a bad tooth, withhold it anyway)

The Missing Philosophical Link - Acquinas

Questions of what is “just” falls into decision-making philosophies of judges and encompasses decisions which tug at notions of what is right vs what is useful. What constitutes “justice” also falls into the broader umbrella of jurisprudence. Jurisprudence includes the administration of justice as a linchpin. In other words, justice must be administered with due process and equal protection for all under our constitutional form of government.

While illuminating many aspects of philosophical thought that impact notions of justice throughout history, Dream's narrative from the time of Thomas Acquinas onward to Bacon (who alleged facts that were untrue and misleading when attacking Aristotle - Gottlieb), the book fails to discuss in depth the impact of Acquinas on philosophical thought other than to reference his seminal work Summa Theologica in passing.

Gottlieb does remind the reader that:

By inventing the science of biology, Aristotle went unmatched in theory and findings until Darwin. Thus, Aristotle is given credit for the Academie later refined by St. Thomas Acquinas who is officially designated as a Scholastic.(Prose and Pale Ale note: the modern revival of Scholasticism is called Neo-scholasticism
or Thomism).

What is Scholasticism

According to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia's treatment:

Scholasticism is a term used to designate both a method and a system. It is applied to theology as well as to philosophy.

Applied to philosophy, the word "Scholastic" is often used... to designate a chronological division intervening between the end of the Patristic era in the fifth century and the beginning of the modern era, about 1450.

Distinctions between Theology and Philosophy

New Advent observes that some areas of Scholasticism were uniquely a system of a newly developing Christian philosophy revealing that:

With the Carolingian revival of learning in the ninth century began a period of educational activity which resulted in a new phase of Christian thought known as Scholasticism. (T)he first original thinker in the Scholastic era was John the Scot. (T)he Scholastic movement… endeavored to bring Patristic (principally Augustinian) tradition into touch with the new life of European Christianity.


They did not abandon Platonism. They knew little of Aristotle except as a logician. But by the emphasis they laid on dialectical reasoning, they gave a new direction to the Christian tradition in philosophy. Little by little, they admitted problems of psychology, metaphysics, cosmology and ethics. The Scholastic movement as a whole may be said to have sprung from the discussions of the dialecticians.

Cross-Cultural Scholasticism: Christians, Arabs, Jews, Greeks: Rise of Universities - Sorbonne

The taking of Constantinople in 1204, introduced Arabian, Jewish, and Greek works into the Christian schools, the rise of the universities, and the foundation of the mendicant orders -- these are the events which led to the extraordinary intellectual activity of the thirteenth century, which centered in the University of Paris (Sorbonne).

The translations of Aristotle made from the Arabian and accompanied by Arabian commentaries were tinged with Pantheism, Fatalism, and other Neoplatonic errors. These developments were suppressed by the most stringent disciplinary measures during the first few decades of the thirteenth century”.(New Advent)

Crowning Achievement of Scholasticism

In time, the translations made from the Greek revealed an Aristotle free from the errors attributed to him by the Arabians (while) the commanding genius of … St. Thomas Acquinas, who appeared at the critical moment, calmly surveyed the difficulties of the speculative aspects of Christian Philosophy and showed that there are two distinct sciences, Theology and Philosophy. Yet both sciences are not contradictory. They agree.

They are distinct, Acquinas teaches, because, while philosophy relies on reason alone, theology uses the truths derived from revelation.... also, there are some truths - the mysteries of Faith - which lie completely outside the domain of philosophy and belong to theology. (New Advent)

The recognition of the principles that nothing in the supernatural order (Theology) would contradict that in the natural order (Science and Philosophy) is a crowning achievement of Scholasticism and St. Thomas Acquinas....

It is a matter of constant surprise to those who know Scholasticism to find it misrepresented on this vital point. The distinguishing mark of Scholasticism in the age of its highest development is its use of the dialectical method. It is a matter, once more, for surprise, to find Scholasticism accused of undue subservience to authority and of the neglect of reason. (New Advent)

St. Thomas moderated the claims of reason, set limits to its power of proving spiritual truth, and maintained that the mysteries of faith could not be discovered and cannot be proved by unaided reason....The Scholastics used their reason and applied dialectic to the study: of nature; of human nature; and of supernatural truth.

Authority Must Submit to Reason

Far from depreciating reason, they (Scholastics)went as far as man can go -- some modern critics think they went too far -- in the application of reason to the discussion of the dogmas of Faith. They acknowledged the authority of revelation, as all Christian philosophers are obliged to do. They admitted the force of human authority when the conditions of its valid application were verified.

But in theology, the authority of revelation did not coerce their reason. In philosophy and in natural science, Scholastics taught very emphatically that the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments. They did not subordinate reason to authority in any unworthy sense of that phrase.

Scholasticism, in its general result, is the first revolt of the modern spirit against authority. (New Advent)

Nevertheless, one is compelled by the facts of history to admit that there is more truth in that description than in the superficial judgment of the historians who describe Scholasticism as the subordination of reason to authority.

Justices O'Connor, Alito and Sotomayor

The narratives of Dream of Reason, and inferences from the comments of O'Connor and Sotomayor about judges as decision makers, makes it clear that when these definitions of philosophy are applied to Sandra Day O'Connor, she appears to be Socratic.

Sotomayor is a Sophist for reasons discussed earlier (Socrates to Sotomayor - Part II).

Alito, the latest confirmation for the U.S. Supreme Court immediately preceding Sotomayor, is also a justice who has commented on his life experiences to assist his formation. Alito admits to being a practicing Roman Catholic and, therefore, of the Thomistic tradition. Thomism is not covered too deeply in Gottlieb's history of philosophy. However, Alito's Italian heritage and his religious tradition as a practicing Catholic is that of Scholasticism. Thus, the likelihood that Alito would be Socratic in his decision making and the administration of justice can be inferred.

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