Having masters

Here is a fun little article by Ralph McInerny on how the best thought begins by thinking with someone else.  He mocks (rightly I think) the Enlightenment notion that to ‘accept anything on anyone else’s say-so’ is practially ‘immoral’.  

For my part, I have no trouble accepting things because other people think them (I am Catholic after all!).  In fact, as I grow older and less and less sure of my own capabilities, I am coming to see my thinking as more and more dependent on the masters from whom I have learned (both my ‘local masters’ like Kreeft, Schrag, and Lawrence but also my real masters like Aquinas, Heidegger, Aristotle, and Plato).  I am more and more concerned about thinking with them rather than thinking for myself.  This is why I suggested, in PHIL 3180 the other day, that I have moved almost completely past any notions of ‘authenticity’, a category that is suspiciously adolescent in its requirement that one says ‘no’ to both those whom have come before and to common sense.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

6 thoughts on “Having masters”

  1. I’m not sure what you and McInerny are railing against. Certainly no enlightenment philosopher said “Don’t read.” (Well, Emerson did practically say that, but he’s exceptional.) Descartes pretended not to have read, but he certainly studied his Aquinas and Suarez. Kant read tons. And so on. But they demanded that you don’t believe something merely because someone special has said it: you should examine their arguments and evidence and think through them for yourself.

    As McInerny himself says, “Needless to say, if one relied at the end as well as at the beginning on ipse dixit [= “HE said it”], one would rightly be thought to be parroting, rather than philosophizing.”

    I wonder if one of two things may be going on. First, Mc might be worried that the ancient masters are not sufficiently read and venerated. I’m with him on that: nobody, and not me either, reads enough. Second, Mc might be wondering how he’s supposed to believe all the hogswallop he’s busy translating, and setting up his own safety net!


  2. I think we are saying more than just ‘people should read more’. And everyone thinks one must appropriate for themself whatever wisdom they happen upon. But it is how one reads and how one approaches their tradition that makes all the difference.

    Modernity is marked by suspicion. Even if one reads the tradition, it is only to move past it or to deconstruct it. In no way is the tradition considered authoritative. Rather, originality is considered the mark of greatness and the tradition (and frankly common sense) are things to be undermined. Rousseau’ lauding of the ‘noble savage’ who is unencumbered by civilization (tradition) is a prime example of this bankrupt and highly adolescent understanding of ‘authenticity’.

    There is little appreciation for the sense in which our questions, even the very horizons of our thought, are always already shaped by those that have come before us (see Gadamer on this). I recall Huenemann telling me that he never even read Aristotle in graduate school – it simply wasn’t a part of his graduate school curriculum! This is not just ‘not reading enough’ – this is a complete failure to appreciate the tradition. That failure is inspired by a modern tendency toward (a) chronological snobbery and (b) enlightenment-inspired notions of authenticity.

    Against those tendencies, I think (following Heidegger) that thinking might just turn out to be thanking. That thinking might be marked principally by obedience and fidelity, not novelty and authenticity.
    To borrow Strauss’ line, are we docile listeners or lion tamers?


  3. The enllightenment call to ‘think them through for oneself’ is also, I am sometimes inclined to think, somewhat fanciful. If the wisest men of old (say, Plato and Aristotle) disagreed about the most important things, who are we to sit in the judgment seat? This notion that I, a 4th rate thinker at best, could somehow carefully weigh the arguments and in so doing come to some conclusion presumes incredible hubris. Students interested in these questions should read Leo Strauss’s ‘What is Liberal Education?’.

    It also presumes that the mind can somehow remove itself from its tradition. This is Heidegger’s beef with Descartes – he leaves unthought the profound temporality and historicity of man. But this is not man’s lot – we cannot treat our own tradition and the questions we inherit from her with any kind of timeless objectivity. Indeed, the very way in which Descartes thinks of man is always already shaped by the tradition which he inherits. His alleged Archimedean starting point is pure fancy. Moderns tend to diminish this radical dependence. Medievals, for example, do not.
    The more radical way of putting this – what if there is no ‘I’ to think through these questions? What if it is always already the Other?


  4. By the way, I want to apologize for the “hogswallop” comment — totally out of line. I thought I was being funny, but it now occurs to me that I wasn’t. I’m sorry.

    I’m still confused, though. I understand reading Aquinas (or whomever) deeply, and thinking through the issues with them. But suppose you come to a case where the argument is obscure or plainly invalid. Are you supposed to say, “Well, I don’t get it, but he was Aquinas, so surely he’s right, and we’re just too dumb to see it”? Why not say: “Looks like Aquinas may have goofed here”?


  5. I didn’t take the hogswallop as too out of line. How could I, or he, since we are both essentially calling modernity ‘hogswallop’!! :)

    I don’t think what I am suggesting requires fidelity to the point of embracing the false. Even the most ardent Thomists will admit that Aquinas missed the mark on one or two things! :)
    I think we can have some trust in following our own lights, though I will confess that I am always uneasy when I think I have found something wrong in any great thinker. Again, not that they got nothing wrong – but would they have missed something so obvious that a dumbass like me could pick it up? What might I be missing? What truth is buried in what appears to my dim lights as false?
    All of this to say, my first response to a perceived error is humility and deference. I read Aquinas with the presumption that he is wise and that I should listen to him (not just read him, but listen to him).
    That said, Plato (or any other great thinker) may have just goofed sometimes. Our fidelity is not slavish, but it is humble. There is very little humble about romantic enlightenment authenticity. It presumes precisely the opposite of what I have presumed. It presumes that the tradition (civilization) is wrong and has made you unhappy. Even if it reads, it presumes that what it reads will be counter-productive to the ordering of a good life.


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