[Essay] Tradition of Questioning

A challenge to Thomists at the Digital Crossroads

Brian Kemple, PhD
Executive Editor

Nearly a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century, we Thomists and those of similar intellectual pedigree find ourselves facing a challenge, and in that challenge, an opportunity: an opportunity for philosophy and a revitalization of real education, if we—those philosophers and educators who love the truth and see its essentiality for the good of human beings—can understand, and meet, that challenge, and thereby seize that opportunity.

Oft-quoted (and seldom understood), Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)[1] once wrote to Jacques Maritain that, “There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved.  Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions.”[2]  Does this repugnance sit also in the breast of the Thomist?  Indeed, it does; and today, I would like to challenge everyone who considers him- or herself a Thomist to re-examine the “processes in which we are involved”—and accordingly to take responsibility. 

What are we teaching?  To whom?  Where—in what intellectual, cultural, sociological place—does Thomism exist in the twenty-first century?  Is Thomism today, or can it be, anything more than a fragmented, disordered, disoriented, internecine club more concerned with debating scholarly minutia than with providing the truths desperately wanted in our culture?  Do we know what those truths are—truths about the human person, the human soul and all its faculties, the nature of nature, the nature of knowledge, the importance of habit—and what obstacles prevent their being received?

We strive to explain and defend various Thomistic doctrines in books and articles, and lately in YouTube videos, on Twitter, Facebook, and in the ever-dangerous comments section.  But is Thomism itself nothing more than a body of doctrines to be explained and defended? Or is it not, more fundamentally, a way of thinking, of studying, of writing, of engaging questions? In sum, is Thomism a way of living an inquiry?  As Maritain writes in Existence and the Existent:[3] 

Thomist peace and unity bear no relation to the facile balancings and the dialectical conciliations practiced by a reason installed in the security of an apparatus of ready-made answers that come forth at the click of every imaginable question.  They call for never-ending triumphs over ceaselessly recurring conflicts.  They require involvement in the thick of new questions in order to bring forth a fresh intuition of new truths, or cause old truths newly penetrated to gush forth from the rock of acquired knowing.  They demand communion with all the strivings of research and discovery to release into the light that truth which those strivings ordinarily attain only with the help of the ferments of error, or in ill-fated conceptualisations.

We have lived, in the past century, in an era of centralized media and, thereby, of a de facto narrative authority—not that we have necessarily accepted or swallowed what was said by that authority, but it is  within this paradigm that we have lived nonetheless—in which the knowledge of the university professor was culturally superseded by the charisma of the television personality, whose chief merit lay in delivering cocksure rapid-fire ready-made answers or affectation of powerful emotion: the late-night television host, the witty repartee of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Dick Dawson and Gene Rayburn; or the news anchor and commentator, as Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, Larry King and Anderson Cooper.  The television paradigm broadly habituated minds away from questioning what reality is in truth. The prominence of narrative authority promoted by the centralized personas of television encouraged us, realizing it or not, to hold all authorities—not only those on television, but those in the classroom, in the books we read, the voices we all hear—at a distance, as though we could not engage them in a meaningful discourse.

But what comes with the digital paradigm?  For one, a fragmentation of the centralized narratives of the television age—a diaspora from the global village, to play off another phrase of McLuhan’s—and with that, an opening to turn the mind away from fantasy and back towards questioning.  Given our tradition, therefore, the Thomist operating in this new technological paradigm, more than the adherents of any other philosophical approach, must take up the practice of questioning yet again.

I will proceed in this essay in three parts: first, discussing the challenge of the digital paradigm and the opportunity it affords; second, explaining what I mean by the tradition or practice of questioning, and showing how this tradition grants Thomism the ability to seize the digital opportunity; and third, I will conclude by reflecting on the unknowns of the future.

1. The Digital Paradigm

It was the cornerstone of McLuhan’s career to speak about technologies as extensions of the human person.  Most especially, he was concerned with how each technology altered the ratio of the exterior sense powers and the sensus communis: that is, their relative proportioning of each to the other and of all to the whole of sensation.[4]  While there is something to this question of how a media paradigm affects the external sense ratios,[5] the more pressing issue, I think, is its alteration of habits of the interior sense faculties—those faculties by which mere receptive sensation is turned into active, objectivizing perception, where the objects of perception are evaluated and incorporated into the context of distinctly human actions.  For the sake of brevity, I am here going to assume a lot of the background in this dimension of the discussion:[6] that is, that technologies do influence our faculties in an important way, and that the dominant technological environment of the latter half of the 20th century—the televisual environment, we might call it—urged upon our psychological faculties habits of fictive imagination: that is, habits of forming phantasmata[7] in accord with fantasies rather than in accord with reality.  By fantasies I don’t mean in the genre sense of, say, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but something more general: fantasies, meaning idealized or romanticized forms of life, whether in the tension of the romance film, the levity and resolution of the romantic comedy, or even the formulaic simplicity of the television sitcom.

This effect on the interior sense faculties—where the ratio is less a distortion of the  faculties themselves and more a distortion of their operations—has a domino effect on intellectual procession as well, given the complete reliance of the intellect on the interior senses for forming phantasmata, which phantasms are needed first in order for any actual discovery of the intelligible and subsequently for any actual understanding to occur.

Against the televisual paradigm’s habituation of minds toward fantasy, the digital has irrupted violently into both the psyche and the society.  Ostensibly, the digital has simply extended continuous with previous electrical technological progress, but in truth its arrival is a psychological anacoluthon the consequences of which are only just now being realized, and dimly.  The age of television was described by McLuhan as ushering in a global village, and initially it was thought that the networked digital technologies—that is, the digital devices we all own which are enabled to a greatly-expanded utility by the internet, which comprises a far more complex integration of servers and devices than most of us can fathom—would take the global village to the next step: one world, one understanding, with everyone learning about everyone else and becoming peaceful and tolerant of all divergences.[8]  This ideal of peace, love, and understanding is still blindly clung to, desperately, by the founders, for instance, of Twitter and Facebook: places for all ideas to be shared, for communities to form.  The reality is that the global village—which was a village not because everyone knew everyone, but because everyone heard the same myths from the same mouths—has been almost entirely abandoned, and certainly by the younger generations.  The myths and the mythmakers—the newsmen and the corporate media executives—have been exposed, and roving nomads now search the wider world looking for ideologies to which they may pledge allegiance.

This disorder of the digital irruption, the initial shockwaves of which are still rippling through society, are but the first stage of the new paradigm.  To quote McLuhan again:[9]

…the initial shock gradually dissipates as the entire community absorbs the new habit of perception into all of its areas of work and association.  But the real revolution is in this later and prolonged phase of “adjustment” of all personal and social life to the new model of perception set up by the new technology.

What are the new habits of perception being formed by networked digital technology?   Looking at how it has disrupted the old paradigm, the knee-jerk reaction may be to think it is strictly a fragmentary habit—a habit of distraction from distraction by distraction beyond T.S. Eliot’s wildest dreams.  And so it will continue to appear for as long as we treat the digital as only a mere elaboration of the televisual.

But treating it as such is to ignore the fundamental reality of what digital technology is and what it does: the essence of digital technology consists in its ability to store increasingly large amounts of data which may be variously configured for retrieval and representation.  In other words, I cannot carry the Smithsonian nor the Met in my pocket, but I can carry a kind of representation of it. I can access photographs and descriptions of all its works in a matter of moments, much faster, in fact, than I could walk it.  Likewise I cannot carry the rare books archive or incunabula of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven on a thumb drive; but I might be able to store a digital facsimile of all contained therein.  Or I might place that facsimile in the networked cloud, and not only allow myself access to it from here, and from home, but also access to someone in Romania, or Estonia, or Sao Paulo, or Hong Kong or anywhere the internet can be accessed.

Digital technology is essentially archival, and it always has been; but, with the advent of internet networks and, especially, of mobile networked devices, we have more and more gateways to that archive, through which data may enter and persons may access it.  As anyone having searched through large archives with any regularity will know—whether digital like JSTOR or physical like the stacks of KU Leuven—the successful use of that archive requires its materials be well good categorized; and the larger the archive, the better and more thorough a categorization is needed.  Conversely, a good use[10] of the archive demands that we know how to query it: to ask the right questions within the right categories to find the right answers—or sometimes, even, to discover what the right questions really are.

What digital technology demands of us, therefore, is the habit of thinking categorically—figuring out what to do with all the data being thrown at us all the time (and that we ourselves are contributing all the time as well)—and the habit of thinking inquisitively—knowing how to ask questions intelligently and how to pursue them doggedly.

2. The Practice of Questioning

It is just this archival, categorical, and inquisitive nature of the digital paradigm that brings us, I believe, to the practice of questioning.  Far too often and for far too long, the discipline of philosophy—including Thomism—has practiced its science declaratively, rather than inquisitively.  I do not mean that we do not ask questions; of course we do.  But we ask them quietly, sitting at our desks in our offices or sitting in our chairs at home; we ask them of the papers in front of us and the long tradition inherited through our books.  We ask them, in other words and as it seems to me, in an-ever-narrowing spiral.  The relative rarity of Thomists in academia, rather than pushing us out into the world, has led to an even-greater insularity.  We are talking only to one another, at best; very often, we are talking only to ourselves.

I do not know who needs to hear this, but no one outside of a niche within a niche cares about the starting point of metaphysics, and I for one do not judge the common apathy to be unjust.   It is important that we continue studying the natural law.  But what is the end for which we continue studying it?  Is it not to teach it?  To demonstrate its applicability in the world to the living of a good and moral life?  How successful has that endeavor been for the past fifty or seventy years?  Are we, with our study of natural law, doing well enough at answering the questions—resolving the dubia—which are posed by people today?   It is good in its own right to understand, best we can, the nature of the relations between divine persons; but is it not better still, understanding those divine relations, to help live out better human relations, too?  Are we at times so preoccupied with “pre-motion” that we forget to move?  What good do we provide by writing a not-exhaustive yet nevertheless exhausting analysis on the personhood of the separated soul that we hope “contributes an advance over the limitations” of a debate the importance of which we have not first demonstrated?  It is not that these issues lack all importance: but only that we become so obsessed with proving our conclusions that we ourselves forget how to explain their importance to others.

Put simply: we are burying our talents.  I think many Thomists have developed a complacency in the wisdom of Thomism: thinking that all the questions have been sufficiently answered—even worse, perhaps, that all the questions have been sufficiently asked—and that all that is left is, indeed, to sort out whose Thomism, or which tradition.

Aquinas says that there are two instances where, in human actions, we encounter no doubt and therefore have no need of counsel: first, where it makes little-to-no difference which means we employ and, second, where, to proceed to certain determinate ends, we have certain determinate ways—as in those arts where the means for attaining the ends are fixed by convention and efficiency.[11]  I do not think that the practice of philosophy is one of those arts; and yet, so it is practiced.  Are we practicing philosophy well by debating Existential versus River Forest Thomism?  Does the position of Transcendental Thomism deserve any of our attention?  Should we care at all about analytic philosophy?  I think that the answer to each of these questions, to be painfully blunt, is “no”.  It is not that these traditions have not unveiled meaningful and important philosophical truths, or that we should ignore the work of their proponents; but, as traditions, they are largely unimportant and perhaps do more harm than good.  Does a continued obsession with arguing over which Thomism or whose tradition we should follow fit with the good practice of philosophy?

Does continually looking inwards truly fit the technological environment in which we live, the psychological shift consequent to networked digital abilities, the seeking of our students’, wandering as they are in post-televisual exile—or, is it the case that by a deep-seated repugnance, are we striving blindly after the wrong thing?

To answer that question thoroughly, we would have to discuss the influence of technological media on our psychological capacities far beyond the limits of such an essay.[12]  As a hortatory essay, rather than an explanatory article, I will limit myself here only to raising the challenge.

In addition to the habit of categorical thinking—that is, a thinking adept at managing the massive archives of information and knowledge to which we all have ready access—the digital paradigm calls out for a particular kind of wisdom: the kind of wisdom with which the world attempted to dispense in the Enlightenment and in the televisual age, that is sought in the recognition that mere archival information storage and retrieval capacities are insufficient to rightly-direct our lives; that knows what it does not know, and seeks to ask the right questions to discover that which it does not know.  This is the kind of wisdom Thomism is uniquely positioned today to deliver, given the deep roots of the Thomistic tradition. The Thomistic tradition can, and should, be in the thick of new questions and research and discovery.  All too often, instead it seeks merely to discover foils against which we may rest on the security of ready-made answers, or to fashion them into new skins for old wine.  By seeking familiarity with those new questions, research, and discovers, we may discover and re-discover truths through which we triumph over the ceaselessly recurring and always-evolving conflicts of our worse natures.  Thus, the wisdom of a rightly-practiced Thomism is, now as always it has been, the wisdom of first principles and the ordering therefrom; the wisdom of metaphysics.  It is the wisdom of understanding the complexity of naturally-occurring causality, and discerning the order ubiquitous, if obscured, therein.  It is the wisdom of a faculty psychology which can incorporate the truths discovered in other disciplines and traditions to explain what really is going on with our minds, not only perennially but here and now in the unfolding digital paradigm.

3. The Future Unknown

Indeed, the intrinsic properties of an authentic Thomism enable it to respond to that digital paradigm with an unparalleled aptitude.  For the habit of formulating, thinking through, and answering good questions permeates the work of Aquinas himself and thus a habit with which we are familiar.  The last centuries have seen us striving to write monographs and articles that, ultimately, are read by few other than our own cliques.  We teach classes at Catholic universities, because they will hire us.  What else can we do?  Do we throw up our hands and wither with the shrinking world we inhabit?

Or should we bring the challenge to the public as digital media enables us: not by trying to extend televisual modalities with so many “channels” of monological proclamation—social media celebrity, that is—but personally, directly, dialogically?  Should we write monographs—or quaestiones disputatae?  Should we teach in the increasingly consumerist university, expending enormous effort to reach often no more than 20% of our students—or should we find ways to bring our discourse digitally to those willing to engage, to be challenged?

The acceleration of a media technology’s paradigmatic dominance, Marshall McLuhan said,[13] could be characterized by a kind of chiasmus: a reversal without repetition, through which ultimately is affected a retrieval: not of a past moment, but of a past way of living that had been previously obsolesced by other technologies, not simply re-vitalized but as brought to a new form of life altogether.  Thus it is that the acceleration of electric communication technology, such that information becomes nigh-instantaneously available around the globe, not only affects but demands a retrieval of the thoughtfully-categorizing, archival, and inquisitive habits of the High Middle Ages.

By way of conclusion, let me say that I do not know, nor profess any forecasting ability, what particulars the digital paradigm will bring in the next ten, fifteen, or twenty years—or beyond.  We are faced with contingencies both alike and unlike those that have come before, and the unlike are also unknowns.  Elsewhere, I have stated that our ideological situation today is as fragmented as the world after the fall of Rome but our intellectual situation more like the time of sophists, of Athens before Plato and Aristotle: and that, thus, tribal sophistry has made our world a dangerous place to think.

I do not know what the future holds.  But I do know, I am confident, that if Thomism is to have a prominent place in it—if Thomism is to seize the opportunity afforded by the new digital paradigm, to take its place as it always rightly should have during the first scholastic era—it must be an inquisitive Thomism, one which explodes the errors of its day not by being merely another declarative voice in the nomadic wasteland of ideologies, but by honestly, actively, and publicly seeking the truth through a creative inquiry.

[1] I should note that I am not a McLuhan scholar, despite taking some inspiration from the insights in his work.

[2] 1969: Letter to Jacques Maritain of 6 May 1969, in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, 72 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010).

[3] Existence and the Existent, 149.

[4] E.g., 1964: Understanding Media, 66: “Sensation is always 100 per cent, and a color is always 100 per cent color.  But the ratio among the components in the sensation or the color can differ infinitely.  Yet if sound, for example, is intensified, touch and taste and sight are affected at once.”

[5] A recurrent issue in Understanding Media.

[6] Succinctly, this is drawing upon some unpublished work of my own concerning the nature of technological environments understood in terms of a Thomistic faculty psychology, which is laid out in the 1266-68: Summa theologiae, prima pars (ST Ia) q.75-89; 1269-70: ST, Ia-IIae, q.11-18; and 1270-71: ST IIa-IIae, q.23-59, among other scattered texts and developed by John Poinsot in his 1632-34: Cursus Philosophicus.  An abbreviated presentation of this faculty psychology is presented in Kemple 2019: Introduction to Philosophical Principles.  The notion of the technological environment is based upon thoughts found in McLuhan, but also in Martin Heidegger—especially his 1929-30: Fundamentals of Metaphysics and 1935/53: Question Concerning Technology, among other works.

[7] That is, where concepts are the specifically-intellectual means whereby we are cognitively attuned to the in-itself intelligible meaning of objects, phantasmata are the perceptual means whereby we are cognitively attuned to the referentially-contextual significance of objects for our own pragmatic environmental navigation.

[8] As said by, for instance, one-time head of the MIT Media Laboratory, Nicholas Negroponte [link], founder of Mediate.com, John Helie [link], and facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg [link].

[9] 1962: The Gutenberg Galaxy, 27.

[10] A use, that is, which not only finds a specific resource but which finds our objective even when we are unsure of what that objective is precisely.

[11] 1271: ST Ia-IIae, q.14, a.4, c.

[12] Most especially, we would have to discuss the concept of the obiectum movens, the motive or stimulating sense of the object—as that which specifies the cognitive faculties to which it is related (as opposed to the obiectum terminans, the object as the end or as desired by an already-specified appetitive power). This exact phrase (obiectum movens) appears in Aquinas 6 times: i.1256-59: De veritate, q.6, a.2, ad.3; i.1266-70: 1259/65: SCG, lib.2, c.73, n36; De malo, q.6, c. and q.14, a.3, c.6; and 1271-72: ST IIa-IIae, q.145, a.2, ad.1.  Aquinas also says that obiectum movet in i.1256-59: DV q.5, a.10, c. and q.27, a.3, c., as well as 1271: ST Ia-IIae, q.9, a.1, c. and q.10, a.2, c.  A handful of other examples exist in different and less clear formulations.

[13] See 1973: “The Argument: Causality in the Electric World” in Technology and Culture, 14.1: 1-18.