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Philosophers, Intuitive and Scientific

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. By Etienne Gilson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $1.50. Humanism and Imagination. By G. R. Elliott. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $2.50.

The most striking phenomenon of our present civilization is a far-reaching assault on the scientific method. Consider for a moment what the employment of this method involves, and it becomes clear why the struggle against it is of such magnitude: Every statement, every opinion that concerns matter of fact—and from this class are not exempt social, political, and theological assertions—is baseless and void of significance if it cannot be substantiated by evidence. And the evidence must be of a very definite kind. It must consist of materials which are public. This does not mean that complex physical theories lose their meaning if they are unintelligible to the common man. It does mean that all such theories must have consequences relating to experiences which the common man is capable of having, and the import of which he would grasp if endowed with the necessary training. Small wonder that political movements which serve interests contrary to those of the masses should appeal in their ideologies to mystical, mythological, and generally obscure canons or beliefs. The non-academic clergy, like the academic theologians, have always been divided on their attitude toward the scientific method. Ironically, it is in the pronouncements of certain scientists that the anti-scientific rebellion finds its chief nourishment. We incline to forget that the obiter dicta of these men are one thing and their procedure as scientists another, and that it is just as possible for a given scientist to be incompetent in the account of his own scientific method as it is for a skilled swimmer to be ignorant of the principles of hydrodynamics. Etienne Gilson’s “Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages” and G. R. Elliott’s “Humanism and Imagination” are not explicitly anti-scientific. Only the latter makes any incidental statements that can be so called, as when it dubs the “submission of philosophy during the past three centuries to the concepts and methods of physical science” an “outstanding episode in the history of human superstition.” It is the implications of the positive attitudes of these writers that interest us here.

M. Gilson, long distinguished as a scholar in the field of medieval and early modern philosophical studies, chose as his purpose in this charming little book, to define the characteristics of the dominant intellectual trends in the Middle Ages. The groups responsible for these trends comprise that which emphasizes the primacy of faith in revelation as the source of truth, that which emphasizes the primacy of reason or philosophical speculation (these groups subdivide into moderate and extreme positions), and that which, dominated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, affirms the harmony of reason and revelation. Gilson is one of a rather large group of writers (not all of them scholars) who have re-awakened interest in the philosophical significance of the Middle Ages, and who, moreover, counsel return to the teachings of Aquinas. The merits of this viewpoint cannot be decided here. But that the spirit of its proponents is anti-scientific cannot very well be doubted. In craving a return to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they are unworthy successors of their idols, who more truly represented their age, despite the fact that, methodologically speaking, they in turn were unworthy of the independent spirit of Aristotle.

The “faith” which M. Gilson calls a “safe guide to rational truth” is anti-scientific in the sense that by its very definition it excludes the relevancy of evidence. That too little known American philosopher Charles Peirce, himself a profound student of medieval thought, classified “faith” as an instance of what he called the “method of tenacity.” The adoption of the body of our beliefs by this method boils down essentially to exercising ourselves in believing what we want to believe. On the other hand the method of science—certainly a less comfortable method of inquiry—attempts to establish conviction, not by the exclusion of evidence or resistance to it, but rather on the basis of an “external permanency,” the world of universal experience. As for the return to “reason” in the sense connoted by medieval practice, this is nothing less (or more) than the advocacy of a priori speculation in the settlement of factual questions — anti-scientific in the chaos of disagreement which it engenders and sanctions. The medievalists cling to “first principles” and “self-evident truths” long after these notions have been discredited by a host of modern students. The proponents of the scientific method point ahead to the cumulative growth of scientific knowledge; the medievalists, seeking to recover spirituality at whatever price, point to the thirteenth century. M. Gil-son speaks of the “magnificent development of logic” from the second to the twelfth century, quite unaware that, compared with the growth of logic in the last hundred years, this “development” represents a barren multiplication of minutiae, not equal in its total theoretical significance to a single work by Aristotle. This lack of awareness, if it can politely be so called, appears to be shared by M. Maritain, whose introduction to logic, published in English two years ago, belongs to the Middle Ages.

Mr. Elliott’s thesis, in “Humanism and Imagination,” is that the humanism of Irving Babbitt and P. E. More, to which he in the main subscribes, suffers from neglect of the poetic imagination and from indifference to the meaning of Christianity. Christianity, in fact, is the loftiest subject of the poetic imagination, for it is the bedrock of religious faith. “We must beware of the religion of poetry” as expressed by Santayana, and turn to the “poetry of religion.” Christianity is symbolic and anthropomorphic at the same time. “Our faith must be that these [religious symbols] are not merely symbols, that their essence is reality.” Mr. Elliott prefers to regard himself as a catholic with the small “c.” He would like our civilization to regain the spirit of the Middle Ages but not to lose the spirit of the Renaissance. He has considerable intellectual affinity to men like Christopher Dawson, N. Berdyaev, A. E. Taylor, Von Hugel, and Maritain, particularly the first two. He believes Mr. Dawson to be the most “social-minded” of the medievalists. Perhaps he is thinking of some such utterance by Mr. Dawson as this: “War is not only the work of man. It is also willed by God as the punishment of sin and as the instrument by which the Divine Justice performs its inscrutable judgments.” For Mr. Elliott, too, holding that the status of the altar had been “obscured” for the past four centuries, informs us that “the thunder of the Great War clarified the air,” so that at present the altar emerges terrible and austere, as a symbol and a truth. And consider another of Mr. Elliott’s vital symbols:

The swastika, an ancient sign of solar vitality, takes on new life when adopted by a strong national and personal cult: the Germans, in awarding to their present leader an exceptional measure of personal devotion, have felt all the more constrained to lift above him and above themselves an old enduring emblem.

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” How well this applies to the professors of Christianity! What counts, after all, is the use to which they put their intellectual tools. Mr. Elliott is eminently consistent. He must avoid the method of science at all costs. Its light blinds him.


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