Since we had so much fun pulling apart Ed Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (start here), I thought we’d do the same for Peter Kreeft’s brand new Summa Philosophica, a book I’m delighted to report which has emerged unburdened of a subtitle.
St Thomas Aquinas’s—a Doctor of the Church, and stalwart physician ready with cure for what ails us Moderns—most famous work is the Summa Theologica. It is a primer for readers like you and me; that is, people who can parse a syllogism without developing a headache, have opinions about philosophical and theological matters, and want a précis to all the Big Questions.
The Summa, like many another Medieval philosophy book, is as rigidly structured as a symphony. It is divided by distinct movements called Questions, the answer of each handled by several themes, or Articles. For example, “Question 2. The existence of God” is answered by “Article 1. Whether the existence of God is self-evident?” (No), “Article 2. Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?” (Yes) and “Article 3. Whether God exists?” (Yes).
The Articles are divided into two parts: nay and yea. The “nay” methodically lists Objections to the Articles, the lead Objection starting with “It seems that the answer is the opposite of what is truth.” Only the most pertinent and strongest Objections are shown.
The “yea” follows sonata form. Immediately after the Objections, the exposition “On the contrary” appears as introduction to a pithy dismissal. Development begins with an “I answer that“, the meat of the serious case for truth. Finally, recapitulation where the theme is used to rebut each Objection.
Throughout, economy of words rules. It is a dry form, a mere skeleton to which fuller arguments can be later attached. But this format is easy to read, as long as one does not, as PG Wodehouse warned of his collection of Jeeves stories, attempt too much at once. Words blur and blend together after the second Question. It is best to think of the Summa as philosophical poetry: read snatches, then digest.
Now, this over-long introduction was necessary because Kreeft wrote Summa Philosophica in the Medieval manner. Like Aquinas’s work, it is thus difficult to summarize, since the original is a summary. Nevertheless, we’ll do our best and hit every Question, but not every Article. Away we go. These posts won’t be contiguous.
Logic & Methodology
It might have been true that philosophy begins as the love of wisdom, and in his first Article Kreeft argues that it still must, but he is clever to separate small-p philosophy from its academic step-cousin, where love of anything besides grants, tenure, and paper count is largely absent. “Philosophy was not a ‘department’ to its founders. They would have regarded the expression ‘philosophy department’ as absurd as ‘love department.'” Our first Amen.
Every department, every person, has a philosophy: even the materialist scientist who boasts, “I have no philosophy!” espouses one. Which brings us to scientism, which is dealt the first of many blows. The assumption that “the scientific method is the only valid or legitimate method” for uncovering truth
is self-contradictory and self-eliminating because it cannot be proved by the scientific method. If the objection [we are past philosophy and onto science] assumes that only verifiable or falsifiable ideas are legitimate, and that only empirically or mathematically verifiable or falsifiable ideas are verifiable or falsifiable, that very assumption is self-contradictory and self-eliminating because it is not empirically or mathematically verifiable or falsifiable.
No matter how many times this (simple, really) argument is presented, it never seems to sink in; the dedicated empiricist just can’t admit to having an ultimately unverifiable philosophy. Stubbornness? Something worse? Let it pass.
Similarly, philosophy cannot use the “method of universal doubt” for “one must first believe something in order to then doubt it.” Skepticism is a theory only ever entertained, but never believed, by mischievous academics. Try increasing a skeptic’s class load and you will soon hear from him all about Truth.
Article 5 asks “whether philosophy should be a required subject in schools?” Objection 1 begins: “It seems that it should not, for 95% of American colleges and universities have decided this question in the negative.” Perhaps an underestimate. Logic (Art. 6) too should be required even though it is “dull and empty of content, like mathematics.” Our second Amen.
Article 8: Whether deductive arguments (e.g. syllogisms) really prove anything?
Objection 1: It seems that they do not, for as the ancient Greek skeptics pointed out, every syllogism depends on its premises, which it assumes rather than proves. In order to be certain of the syllogism’s conclusion, these premises must be proved by other syllogisms, whose premises in turn depend on still other syllogisms and other premises, et cetera ad infinitum, so that nothing is ever proved with certainty…
Reply to Objection 1: Aristotle answered this objection very simply: the infinite regress of proving the premises of premises stops at two points: direct and indubitable sense experience and the direct and indubitable intellectual experience, so to speak, of logically self-evident first principles such as “Do good, not evil” in practical reasoning and the laws of identity [X is X], non-contradiction, and excluded middle (either p is true or not true) in theoretical reasoning.
Regular readers will be on solid ground here (e.g., this is why I argue probability is part of logic). The pun is apropos: on a foundation of axioms, simple logical truths for which there is no evidence but which we know, via faith or revelation or however you want to phrase it, and direct sense experience (we know we exist and have experiences), every truth is built. Further, every argument is a finite (and usually short) chain of earlier arguments, all of which must end at this axiomatic, experiential base. Those who doubt this are invited to pick up any fundamental mathematical text and see it for themselves in its simplest form.
Consider that any objection to this argument must be itself an argument, which will have premises, which themselves must be proved true by earlier arguments and so forth, all ending upon axioms which we each of us know are true. There is just no escaping this—or any, really—truth.
Deconstructionism, or rather its corpse, is displayed in Article 9 for its pathological curiosities, after which it is re-interred. And then comes our final Amen, Article 10, which asks whether symbolic logic is superior to Aristotelian logic. The answer, for most people and most purposes, is a resounding No.
Symbolic logic, and in mathematics symbolic equations, are just the thing for anxious logicians and mathematicians who want to focus on a narrow subject and calculate. But they are a positive menace and bar to clear understanding for the rest of us (particularly beginners) who want to understand. There are many who have memorized statistical equations, for example, but few who understand what they mean. Excessive symbols are the cause of reification, a terrible disease epidemic in the academy, causing people to actually prefer their abstractions over reality (cf. climatology). The cure is obvious: remove the source of the infection until one’s reasoning powers are sufficiently strong to have built up an immunity.
Next time: metaphysics.
Reminder: civilized discourse rigidly enforced.