Joseph Trabbic on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

JosephTrabbicJoseph Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His research and publications are in medieval philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Let me begin with something of a detour. Before I answer this really great question, I should tell you about my general views on education, what you could call my “hermeneutic situation” vis-à-vis education. My views on education – like my views on just about everything else – are broadly those of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, or what I take that tradition to be. So, I accept the distinction between artes serviles and artes liberales, and I think that the latter should be at the heart of any university education. I don’t deny that professional or technical training – the servile arts – have a place in universities. No culture can survive unless the material conditions for human well-being are provided for and no culture can flourish unless they are well provided for. The latter would require a higher level of professional or technical training and a university might be the appropriate place for that.

Because the servile arts provide for the material well-being of a culture, they also, to some extent, make liberal arts education possible. What I mean is this: if you are just struggling to survive, you won’t have time for serious intellectual pursuits. For that you need an ample amount of leisure. Aristotle’s famous statement in the Metaphysics about the development of mathematics in Egypt is relevant here. Aristotle tells us that it was only after the servile arts were developed that people first began to have leisure, and so, he adds, “this is why the mathematical arts were developed in Egypt, for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.” Aristotle appears to be speaking historically, but, of course, there is also a philosophical reflection going on here about material and formal causes (and about moving and final causes as well in the surrounding text).

Let me pass now to the liberal arts. The canonical list of seven liberal arts that has come down to us from Martianus Capella and others came to be divided up in the Middle Ages between the verbal arts of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic – and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The liberal arts were, thus, understood as “paths”: a trivium is the intersection of three paths and a quadrivium is the intersection of four paths. What is the point on which these paths converge? In the Didascalicon, his treatise on the liberal arts, Hugh of St. Victor contends that they are paths “to the mind’s complete knowledge of philosophical truth” – ad plenam philosophicae veritatis notitiam. There is not enough space here for me to discuss the precise way that the liberal arts’ function as paths to philosophy, so let’s just stipulate that they do (but for a pretty good account of the liberal arts propaedeutic relation to philosophy I would recommend Benedict Ashley and Pierre Conway’s excellent article “The Liberal Arts in St. Thomas Aquinas,” The Thomist 22 (1959), 460-532).

How does Hugh understand philosophy? It is simply the pursuit of wisdom, as the name suggests. And, for Hugh, this ultimately means seeking God as the principle from which everything else flows. Aquinas agrees with Hugh (who he cites) on the telos of the liberal arts; they prepare us for philosophy, but more specifically for metaphysics, the discipline of philosophy that studies the first principles of things and the first principle, i.e., God. Aquinas says that, metaphysics is, in this sense, a theology or divine science (scientia divina). Because God is the first principle of things, knowledge of him qua first principle is, to Aquinas’s mind, wisdom par excellence since wisdom is (on an Aristotelian understanding) knowledge of the first principle or principles. So, you could say that Aquinas takes the liberal arts to have, in the end, a sapiential or theological purpose (both coming out to the same thing). Aquinas’s vision is (if I might play on a title of Catherine Pickstock) of a sapiential or theological “consummation” of the liberal arts.

This isn’t our contemporary understanding of the liberal arts; it’s not, for example, the way that Martha Nussbaum thinks of them. It’s pretty mediaeval. The salient question, however, is whether it’s the right way to think about the liberal arts. Obviously, I believe it is. Defending it would require a general defense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is not something that can even be begun to be done in the present forum.

The reason why Aristotle and Aquinas take the liberal arts (Aristotle implicitly, Aquinas explicitly) to be preparatory for philosophy (as divine science), is that they hold human happiness to be a life organized in view of contemplation of the divine as the highest good/truth. All our undertakings, then, from the servile arts to the liberal arts have contemplation of the divine as their ultimate purpose. This contemplation, they suppose, is most perfectly realized – as far as our natural powers are concerned – in metaphysics. This doesn’t mean that only metaphysicians can be happy. Contemplation of the divine admits of various levels from highest to lowest. And, for Aquinas, there is much more to the story than I have the space to tell here since Christian revelation adds a whole new dimension to our consideration of contemplation and happiness. But, let’s not forget that, on the Thomistic view – well summarized by Cajetan – grace doesn’t replace or destroy nature but presupposes and perfects it (gratia praesupponit et perficit naturam). Everything that I have said so far would continue to hold, then; it would simply have to be recontextualized when we take revelation into account.

I can now come back to the question I have been asked to respond to: “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” I explained my understanding of philosophy of religion in an earlier post here at What I’m going to say now will assume some of what I said there. Philosophy of religion, as I do it, ranges over what Aristotle and Aquinas take to be distinct disciplines within philosophy, i.e., philosophy of nature, moral philosophy, and metaphysics. The unity of my version of philosophy of religion is constituted by its formal object, i.e., God. Everything is thought in its relation to the divine.

The modern university, as we know it in Western culture, seems more often than not to be driven by practical rather than contemplative purposes. Its dominant orientations are technological, medical, political, social, and professional. In this respect, I would say that in the modern university we are still subjects of the Cartesian empire. Put differently: the modern university is truly modern. Remember that an essential part of Descartes’s project is the overthrow of Aristotelianism (and with it, Thomism); this is among the founding gestures of modernity as I (and many others) interpret it. What this overthrow means for education Descartes spells out, albeit briefly, in the Discourse on Method. There he dreams of “speculative philosophy” (philosophie spéculative) being replaced by a “practical one” (une practique) in the “schools” (écoles). Descartes seems to be thinking, above all, of progress in technology and medicine, but that is an inconsequential detail; the practical turn – and, by it, the overthrow of the hegemony of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition – is taken.

Bruno Latour tells us that “we have never been modern.” Setting my sights on a different target, I would say that we have never been postmodern, not, that is, so long as we continue to carry out the Cartesian project as I have just described it. To be sure, I am radically simplifying a complex history, but I can’t indulge in a more fine-grained analysis here.

What philosophy of religion can offer the modern university is help in thinking rightly about God, human beings, and human happiness (as located in God). If this is done along Aristotelian-Thomistic lines – as I would argue it should be – then this kind of philosophy of religion will at the same time necessarily become a point of subversion and resistance in the modern university insofar as the latter is still in thrall to the Cartesian project.

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