Aquinas, Schaeffer, Nominalism & the Demise of the Western World

images-5I just finished reading Francis Schaeffer’s classic book How Should We Then Live? The book has been recently republished by Crossway in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Schaeffer’s founding of L’Abri. There is much to like about this book. Schaeffer’s knowledge of the history of ideas, music, and art is impressive. His ability to discern key trends and to put his finger on many of the causes of the fragmentation of modern society and modern man is commendable. His prophetic voice, at the end of the book, where he lays out the challenge to the church as he saw it in 1976 was spot on (and still is with slight adjustments).

Many familiar with Schaeffer’s book as well as the discipline of philosophy rightly cry foul in his treatment of Aquinas. Schaeffer is notorious for claiming that Aquinas held that the will but not the intellect was corrupted due to the fall of man. This claim is simply not true (see e.g., S.T. 1a qu. 85. A. 3). For Aquinas, “nature” and “grace” were not separate (contra Schaeffer’s claim), rather, Aquinas made the (very helpful) distinction between the ways of knowing the domains of nature and grace. But a distinction is not the same as a separation. Aquinas, contra Schaeffer, was a champion of the unity of truth and an enemy of relativism.

If any blame for western man’s woes can be laid at the feet of Aquinas, perhaps it is Schaeffer’s other claim about him. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas “brought [the] Aristotelian emphasis on individual things—the particulars—into the philosophy of the late Middle Ages, and this set the stage for the humanistic elements of the Renaissance and the basic problem they created.”[1]

How is this a problem exactly? Well, says Schaeffer, “the problem is how to find any ultimate and adequate meaning for the individual things.”[2] Perhaps, Schaeffer has something like this in mind (trying to read in between the lines, he is not always so clear). Let’s call it Argument A:

(1) If there are only individual things—particulars—there is no unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

(2) There are only individual things—particulars.

(3) Therefore, there is no unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

Aquinas would reject Argument A. As a nominalist, he would agree with premise (2). Fair enough. But, he would reject premise (1). For there is one particular—God—who is the source of unity and meaning in the world. So, perhaps Schaeffer means to argue as follows. Let’s call this Argument B:

(1*) If there are only individual things located within the physical (space-time) universe—particulars—then there is no unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

(2*) There are only individual things located within the physical (space-time) universe—particulars.

(3) Therefore, there is no unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

Here we seem to have an argument that Aquinas would accept. But that is only because it removes God from our ontology. As Aquinas argued in the fourth of his Five Ways, we can make sense of the diversity of good, true, and beautiful things because “there is something that is truest, best, noblest, and consequently greatest in being….the cause of everything else in the genus….and this we call God.” (S.T. 1 qu. 2 A. 3). No God, no unity and meaning in the world. Hence, Argument B.

Perhaps Aquinas is guilty of western man’s woes because he started us down the (wrong) path of the particular. That is, perhaps there is some Rule R such that

R: If (i) one starts with particulars and (ii) the autonomy of human reason, he/she will end with autonomous human particulars.

And perhaps, with the aid of a few auxiliary assumptions, “ there are autonomous human particulars” entails “there are only individual things located in space and time.” Well then, since Rule R is true, and since Aquinas endorsed (i) and (ii), he is blameworthy for the sorry state of western man.

What to say about all of this? I’ve already stated that Aquinas doesn’t accept (ii) of Rule R. So, even if something like Rule R was the logical (or merely factual) bridge from “an infinite personal God grounds unity and meaning” to Argument B, it wouldn’t be Aquinas’ fault that modern man now thinks there is no meaning and unity to be found in the world.

There is some interesting conceptual mapping going on here. Start by noticing:

NA: nominalism + atheism = no unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

And (as odd as such a position would be in reality):

PA: Platonism + atheism  = unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

So, as stated, it seems that relevant issue with respect to meaning/unity is not God’s existence, but the reality of Platonic abstracta. But then, Aquinas (and those following in his steps would argue) not only is PA false, it doesn’t do as good a job as TN in grounding unity and ultimate meaning in the world:

 TN: nominalism + God  = unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

TN, is much simpler that PA, and, it is argued, grounds unity and meaning in the right place—God and not some Platonic form. Finally, other theist (myself included) argue that the best theory to ground the unity and meaning in our world is:

PT: Platonism + God  = unity or ultimate meaning in the world.

I’ll just report that I am skeptical that TN is true. Even if God exists, I think that there must be universals—abstract objects—to ground the unity of the natural classes we find in the world and the give meaning to the story that is our lives. But, these abstract objects, on my view, are not independently existing entities, rather they are either created by God (in the case of properties and relations) or identical to some mental entity in the mind of God (in the case of propositions, concepts, possible worlds, sets, and numbers). For more on the debate over God’s relationship to Abstract Objects, see my forthcoming book Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects.

What is the moral to this story? If we want to blame Aquinas for anything, it would be his endorsement of nominalism. To me, it is an open question that, at the end of the day, nominalism + God can deliver what Aquinas and those who follow in his steps want: unity and meaning in a world bereft of universals and other abstracta.






























[1] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 52.

[2] Ibid., 55.

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