Schopenhauer on “Scholastic Philosophy”

Schopenhauer makes a good point in his “Critique of Kantian Philosophy,” which is an appendix to his great Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. He observes that “den dritten” service Kant performed for philosophy was “den völligen Umsturz der Scholastischen Philosophie, mit welchem Namen ich hier im Allgemeinen die ganze vom Kirchenvater Augustinus anfangende und dicht vor Kant schließende Periode bezeichnen möchte” (518). That’s an astonishing way of characterizing the history of Western thought (and Schopenhauer knows this, as we’ll see below), particularly today, when the history of ideas is so driven by accounts of rupture and radical transformation, not least at the origins of “modernity.” Whether the key figure is Descartes, Ockham, or Scotus, the landscape of philosophy is supposed to have changed radically with the dethroning of Aristotelian physics, the rise of experimental science, and the turn to the “subject” as the starting point for inquiry. (Whether the last of these has much to do with the first two is an open question for me.) And the rise of the modern isn’t the only apparently deep fissure in the period that Schopenhauer defines as “scholastic” — after all, the rise of scholasticism, in the 13th century, is often regarded as emerging from the church’s wracking confrontation with and eventual assimilation of the rediscovered Aristotle.

So what could Schopenhauer have in mind? He goes on to explain: “Denn der Hauptcharakter der Scholastik ist doch wohl der von Tennemann sehr richtig angegebene, die Vormundschaft der herrschenden Landesreligion über die Philosophie, welcher eigentlich nichts übrig blieb, als die ihr von jener vorgeschriebenen Hauptdogmen zu beweisen und auszuschmücken” (518). From Augustine to (say) Wolff, the great philosophers nearly all seek to confirm the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and in particular the existence and classical perfections of God. There is deep continuity in this respect among Augustine, Anselm, or Bonaventure, and Descartes, Locke, or Leibniz, in some ways more continuity than any of those philosophers share with a more unreconstructed Aristotelian such as Aquinas — but even then, there’s deep continuity between his thought and that of Augustine or Descartes as well. (As Lloyd Gerson points out in Aristotle and Other Platonists, Aquinas repeatedly rediscovers standard Neo-Platonist readings of Aristotle (e.g., that the God of Metaphysics Lamba thinks all possible creaturely forms in thinking himself), with an eye to demonstrating his compatibility with this or that element of Christian doctrine. The great exception in Aquinas’s case is epistemology, where he is much more of a “naturalist” and an empiricist than Augustine or Bonaventure.) Certainly some great early-modern philosophers don’t fit this bill — Spinoza, for instance, despite his deep theism (it’s the world he denies, not God), or even Hobbes, despite his efforts to maintain an appearance of Christian orthodoxy. But in general, the  “modern” philosophers attempt to integrate the insights of the new sciences with an old, Christian picture of the world as God’s creation.

As I said above, Schopenhauer of course grants the presence of discontinuity — he simply thinks it’s mostly superficial. “Die eigentlichen Scholastiker, bis Suarez,” he proposes,

gestehn dies unverhohlen: die folgenden Philosophen thun es mehr unbewußt, oder doch nicht eingeständlich. Man läßt die Scholastische Philosophie nur bis etwan hundert Jahre vor Cartesius gehn und dann mit diesem eine ganz neue Epoche des freien, von aller positiven Glaubenslehre unabhängigen Forschens anfangen; allein ein solches ist in der That dem Cartesius und seinen Nachfolgern nicht beizulegen, sondern nur ein Schein davon und allenfalls ein Streben danach. Cartesius war ein höchst ausgezeichneter Geist, und hat, wenn man seine Zeit berücksichtigt, sehr viel geleistet. Setzt man aber diese Rücksicht bei Seite, und mißt ihn nach der ihm nachgerühmten Befreiung des Denkens von allen Fesseln und Anhebung einer neuen Periode des unbefangenen eigenen Forschens; so muß man finden, daß er mit seiner des rechten Ernstes noch entbehrenden und daher so schnell und so schlecht sich wiedergebenden Skepsis, zwar die Miene macht, als ob er alle Fesseln früh eingeimpfter, der Zelt und der Nation angehörender Meinungen, mit einem Male abwerfen wollte, es aber bloß zum Schein auf einen Augenblick thut, um sie sogleich wieder aufzunehmen und desto fester zu halten; und eben so alle seine Nachfolger bis auf Kant (519-20).

As Etienne Gilson noted in his introduction to The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, despite his loud protests on behalf of the totally presuppositionless character of his philosophy, Descartes in fact develops (in his Principia Philosophiae, for instance) an account of the divine nature that’s deeply shaped by the church’s struggle to articulate the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (cf. e.g., PP I, 21).

This line of thought is of interest to me principally because I’m writing a dissertation that traces the continuity between the accounts of creation offered by Augustine, Bonaventure, and (esp. the late) Berkeley, and I’ve found that I have to deal with a deep, visceral aversion on the part of theologians to saying anything favorable about an “Enlightenment philosopher,” no matter how much continuity between his account of creation as divine language and the theology of Bonaventure I can put on the table. The fact is that Berkeley is engaged in an apologetic theological project that Augustine or Bonaventure would’ve recognized as their own, and that it’s this project that Kant more than anyone else sought to rule out of court and so banish from the world of intellectual inquiry. All “dogmatic” thinkers now find themselves in the trenches, allied against the “critical” turn…

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