‘Scholasticism’ as a derogation

For some, scholasticism appeals to the good old days of religious philosophy, or philosophy proper; for others, scholasticism is a derogatory term whereby system building and a rational attempt at ordered understanding is the project of philosophy and theology.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the great philosophers who have been remembered took place outside the institutional scholarly circles of academic philosophy. The great amateurs were also the great polymaths.

In the current industry of academic philosophy; I wonder if the term of scholasticism would apt apply. I think an examination of this question requires a prior understanding of what it means to be a scholastic, in both the negative and positive lights.

During the time of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, the institutions of learning like the University of Paris; and the Sourbonne were physical towers that upheld the metaphorically towering figures of Aristotle and biblical authority.

The negative aspect of scholasticism pertains to the dogmatic and institutionalised universality of the agenda of philosophical enquiry. It is as if to understand all things that ‘the philosopher’ or ‘the angelic doctor’ to consider as philosophy, and nothing else counts.

Surely this is limiting. However, is this not what we do when we consider the areas of metaphysics and epistemology to have the true ancestral heritage of philosophies from previous centuries, compared to say the likes of mongrel subjects like social philosophy or critical theory?

On the other hand, there was a great reason why Aquinas was considered the angelic Doctor of the church; many of the issues that the medievals had considered are, perhaps to the surprise or prejudice of the reader; things which are very much still acknowledged today, at least afer a resurgence of metaphysics in the mid-late 20thC.

Issues like mereology (the relation between wholes and parts); logic; the nature of knowledge or universals have, have resurfaced. Today, despite, or in spite of, the destructive anti-metaphysical tendencies of the early 20thC philosophers; we still have debates between realists and nominalists, we still speak of mereological relata and we still consider the role of reason, although in different terms to the medieval terms of debate.

I am quite pleasantly surprised by the ‘medieval’ character of metaphysics today. I saw this becase this seems to me a somewhat recent resurgence in interest following the likes of Lewis and Kripke. There are some aspects of metaphysics where I think the old empiricist critique still holds, such as the complete nonsense of some metaphysical reasoning (consider the issue of haccceiticity – the most unspellable and unpronounceable word in European philosophy).

I think that there is a sign that systematic philosophy is slowly gettting back in fashion. These days, however, there are no ‘heroes’ or systematic figureheads of philosophy; metaphysicians work their little way in issues, where they have some familiarity with other relevant issues. If we were to do a map of how the interests in metaphysics, langauge, epistemology and mind link together, I’m sure we sould come up with some notion of a system. I note that the particular structure is not so relevant so much as that there is any system at all.

Lets consider the other side. Why don’t some people like systematic philosophy? Well I suppose you’d need to ask them. Some reasons offered are part of anti-hegelian/anti-metaphysics tendencies which come from two different and opposing routes; you firstly have the anti-system continental philosophers who prefer to muse on freedom and autonomy and other flowery and french subjects while embedding a political critique.

The obsession with uniqueness and overthrowing orthodoxy has turned into an obsession with being ‘revolutionary’. If you proffer too many revolutions you have no heroes, nor stability; but tyrants asserting their will and access to truth; one after another.

The ideal of philosophy should be the work within an academic community where a distinct division of labour is employed; there are those working in obscure areas, some in systematic areas; and they all contribute by reacting to each other in the body of accessible literature. Scholasticism, in the sense of ordered and communicated work distributed through networks of journal articles, books and electronically accessible work, assists in constructing a community effort in philosophy.


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