A report from Br. Philip Neri, O.P.
From the 23rd to the 26th of June, The Catholic and Dominican Institute of Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, in collaboration with our own Thomistic Institute, hosted an inaugural philosophy workshop on the subject of “Aquinas and Contemporary Philosophy.” The conference's official description announced that it would “bring together scholars and students interested in philosophy, especially the work of Thomas Aquinas.” This it did in spades, both in terms of the quality of the papers presented and the collaborative tone of the workshop as a whole.
The papers of Fr. Charles Morerod, O.P. (the rector of the Angelicum in Rome and this year's Keynote Speaker) and Fr. James Brent, O.P. (Catholic University of America) served as the perfect bookends for the conference, giving inspiration and impetus to the work of Thomistic philosophy. Fr. Morerod spoke of both the service that faith provides to philosophy by acting as a negative norm, and the role that Christian friendship must play in providing the context for fruitful philosophy. Fr. Brent discussed six different sets of relations between “creature-knowledge” and “sacred knowledge.” These six relations in turn provided conference-goers with six different tasks for philosophy to perform in its mediation between the Christian faith and the secular world, and so worked to send forth those who attended with a renewed mission and zeal.
Dr. John O'Callaghan (University of Notre Dame) and Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. (Fordham University) each took contemporary philosophy as the “matter” of their papers. Agreeing that analytic philosophy is not a set of doctrines, but rejecting the claim that it is simply a method, Dr. O'Callaghan concluded that it is a sociological term covering both the logicist reformers and the ordinary language philosophers. It is with the latter that he sees the most potential for Thomistic-Analytic dialogue, and the participants of the conference were given a glimpse of what this might look like vis-a-vis Aquinas' Third Way. Fr. Koterski, taking a step back, considered both Analytic and Continental philosophy insofar as they suffer from an inattention to and an over-emphasis of history, respectively, and showed how Aquinas' moral philosophy is safeguarded from both errors.
In contrast, the papers of Dr. Gyula Klima (Fordham University) and Dr. Alfred Freddoso (University of Notre Dame) each incorporated aspects of contemporary philosophy into the “form” of their argumentation. Dr. Klima put the symbolic tools of analytic philosophy to use in articulating Thomas' metaphysical distinction between essence and existence, while Dr. Freddoso used the debates between materialists and dualists in contemporary philosophy of mind to dialectically establish questions regarding the soul to which Thomism can give the demonstrative answer
Fr. Lawrence Dewan, O.P. (Dominican University College) and Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (Thomistic Institute) each gave papers whose themes, central to Thomism, have much to say to contemporary philosophy. Fr. Dewan gave a brilliant commentary on the internal ordering of Aquinas' Five Ways in light of Book IX of the Metaphysics. Fr. White discussed how Aquinas' doctrine of analogy and divine naming – developed in dialogue with both Aristotle and Proclus – can overcome the inadequacies of Maimonides' theory (and, incidentally, that of many contemporary schools of theology).
Dr. Joshua Hochschild (Mount Saint Mary's University), discussing virtue ethics in an age of relativism, pointed out the fundamentally sapiential character of Thomism, arguing that even something as important as virtue has its proper place and must be seen within the broader context of St. Thomas' comprehensive vision. Only this perspective of wisdom will be able to speak to the relativism – or, better, positivism – of our contemporary world.
The collaborative and informal tone of the conference manifested a unity amongst those attending the conference that can only come from the shared desire to grow in this wisdom. It was to nourish such a desire that the conference was hosted and – it is hoped – will be hosted again.
Br. Philip Neri, O.P. is a student brother with the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, currently studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.