WHAT HAPPENED TO PHILOSOPHY

BETWEEN AQUINAS AND DESCARTES?

JOHN DEELY

Loras College

Dubuque, lowa

INTRODUCTION

a. Pondering the Imponderable

THE NEO-THOMISTIC revival launched by Leo XIII seems to have run its main course with an almost exclusive look at the works of Thomas himself without taking much into serious consideration the work of his Latin commentators. At this moment, we find that a hook translated from the work of the last of the Latin commentators, the Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot, while receiving no significant treatment within the Catholic intellectual world,1 is seriously discussed within the international intellectual movement that has grown up in the last quarter century around the study of signs and reviewed in such mass media as the Times of New York, Los Angeles, and London.2

Such a situation participates in improbability. My own view is that The Semiotic of John Poinsot (as the work in question is subtitled in its contemporary edition) is a harbinger of what


1 For details, see footnote 2 of the article by James Bernard Murphy, "Language, Communication, and Representation in the Semiotic of John Poinsot," in this issue.

2 Thomas A. Sebeok, A Signifying Man," feature review of Tractatus de

Signis in The New York Times Book Review for Easter Sunday 30 March

1986, pp. 14-15, also in German translation by Jeff Bernard in Semiotische

Berichte Jg. 11 2/1987: 234-239, with translator's Anmerkung " p. 240;

Richard 3. Morris, The Book Review of The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 11

May 1986, p. 8; and Desmond Paul Henry, "The Way to Awareness," The

Times Literary Supplement no. 4,413 (October 30-November 5,1987), p. 1201.

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544 JOHN DEELY

the postmodern development may prove to be. Postmodernism, in my view, is not to be, as initially appears, a kind of literary/ sophistic attempt to eviscerate rational discourse in philosophy through a forced control of signifiers made rather to dismantle (under the mantra of "deconstruction") than to constitute some text taken precisely as severed from any vestige of authorial intention. Postmodernism in the long run will be seen rather as the term inevitably employed through juxtaposition with the internal dimensions of the classical modern paradigm so as to establish thereby a philosophical sense of a change of age and temper of thought defined historically but able to link contemporary requirements of speculative understanding with late Latin themes omitted from the repertoire of analytic tools developed by modernity.3

b. Naming the names

Several names here bear explaining, not the least of which is "semiotic." Suffice it to say that this is the name coined by John Locke in 1690 to designate the field of investigation that would result from thematic inquiry into the role of signs in human affairs wherever there is a question of experience or knowledge. This study, or " doctrine of signs," as Locke also called it, turns out to be extensive, since it embraces the whole of human knowledge from its origins in sense to its most refined intellectual forays in whatever field, and the realms of social interaction and cultural development as well.4 Sacramental theology has its foundations in the sign, and experimental study depends on the interpretation of signs throughout its ambit. Whether we look to communication as between God and human beings, between human beings among themselves, between human beings with


3 This is the argument of my work, New Beginnings: Early Modern Philosophy and Postmodern Thought (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

4" Sommaire: c'est dans Ia tradition de Peirce, Locke, et Jean de Saint-Thomas que la logique pent devenir une se'miotique qui absorberait 1'e'piste' mologie et me^me Ia philosophie de la nature" (Eleuth`ere Winance, Revue Thomiste, LXXX [juillet-ao^ut 1983], 514-516.


BETWEEN AQUINAS AND DESCARTES 545

other species, or between human beings and the physical world, we find ourselves caught up in a web of sign relations. It is hardly without interest to discover that the first thinker who was able to systematize the unity of the object of inquiry the action of signs provides was a thinker from the end of the Latin Age who also was a principal commentator on and developer of the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

For centuries the Morning Star and the Evening Star were not known to be hut a single planetary entity seen in two different contexts. So for those few over the last three and a half centuries who have known of or studied at all the thought of the Latin author called Joannes a Sancto Thoma, he has always appeared to be an Evening Star of Latin Scholasticism and even of the Latin Age itself which began with Augustine (the first thinker to go on record with the view that the notion of sign has the capacity to unite in a single object of inquiry the otherwise disparate domains of nature and culture). It comes as something of a shock and sometimes--to judge by the resistance of some to the discovery--a rude awakening to discover that this Evening Star of scholasticism is at the same time a Morning Star of the post-modern age. Such is the identity of Joannes a Sancto Thoma with John Poinsot. He was author in 1632 of the first systematic treatise to establish the foundations of semiotic inquiry as a unified subject matter, proclaiming on his deathbed in June of 1644 that he had taught and written nothing over the last thirty years of his life that did not seem to him consonant with truth and conformed to the thought of Aquinas.5


5 The Solesmes editors of Poinsot's Cursus Theologicus give this description of Poinsot's deathbed in their Introduction to the first volume (1931 xii, 39) " Generali praemunitus confessione, religionis habitus indutus, sacram Eucharistiam humi genuflexus adorare voluit atque in conspectu Dei sui magua voce protestatus 'numquam triginta annorum spatio ant scripsisse ant docuisse quad veritati consonum, atque Angelico Doctori conforme non judicaret . .

numquam regi quidquam consuluisse quad non in majus Dei obsequium, reipublicae commodum et Principio beneficium credidisset,' laetus in pace Domini exspiravit, die 17 junii 1644, quinquagesimo quinto aetatis anno nondum plene exacto."


546 JOHN DEELY

A third name that bears explaining beside that of semiotic and the name of Poinsot himself is "postmodernism." Like Protestantism, postmodernity is a term and idea which has its meaning from an opposition. In this case the opposition is to the classical modern development of philosophy as it occurred between Descartes and Kant and dominated philosophy even into the early and middle years of the twentieth century. This development isolated reason not only from its contact with the physical being of nature hut also from the subjective resources of reason in the affective life and social being of the knower. Both ruptures are rejected by thinkers called accordingly "postmodern." The work in semiotic of John Poinsot best establishes the framework in which it becomes possible to heal such ruptures and to attain a philosophical synthesis beyond the modern opposition of idealism to realism.

Let this overview suffice to introduce this first of the me'lange of three essays offered in this issue of The Thomist in honor of an author dead now exactly three-hundred and fifty years. Each of the essays looks to a different aspect of the thought of Poinsot, and together they will barely scratch the surface of the treasures his writings offer to the postmodern age. I devote the principal thrust of my essay to establishing Poinsot's value as a point of recuperation of the lost centuries closing the Latin Age in their bearing on the contemporary situation in philosophy.

1. Posing the Problem

The standard answer to the question of what happened in philosophy between Aquinas and Descartes is "Not much, apart from Occam." Even the recent recrudescense of interest in the specifically early phase of the modern period has so far done little to change this standard answer, because the principal scholars investigating the period look almost exclusively to the classical modern sources and the nascent classical mainstream development those sources gave rise to as eventually culminating in the work of Immanuel Kant.


BETWEEN AQUINAS AND DESCARTES 547

This train of investigation is unfortunate, because the standard story of early modern philosophy is as much a record of prejudices and narrow preoccupations (especially methodological ones) as it is a record of a properly philosophical development. Until the classical modern sources are viewed in a new light, it is not likely they will contribute much to the telling of a different story.

A different story about the early modern development is not only possible but demanded as soon as we take the trouble to view the situation of early modern philosophy less in terms of its classical mainstream development than in terms of the actual relations obtaining in the age of Descartes between the choices which led to the mainstream modern development and the wider possibilities for choice which the speculative Latin context of that period provided. But these possibilities were destined to fall between the cracks of history until Charles Peirce, inspired by Locke's anomalous conclusion to his Essay concerning Humane Understanding (otherwise launching modern empiricism) gave them life again in our time as an inevitable trajectory along which post-modern thought must rise and eventually achieve definition of itself in positive terms.

The history of early modern philosophy can be recounted in ways much more interesting and relevant to postmodern developments than the standard studies narrowly focussed on Descartes and Leihniz, or Locke and Hume, would have us believe. But we have to be willing to abandon the established academic pattern of approaching the early modern period only in order to study over again, in ever greater detail, the classical modern sources as giving rise to the mainstream modern development with its culmination in the Kantian synthesis. For to see a live alternative to this standard approach, it is necessary to look in the other direction, so to speak, and to investigate not the classical modern sources in relation to one another, but the horizon itself of Latinity against which the classical modern authors set themselves. Once we consider the ideas of Descartes and Locke in relation to the then-current Latin speculations as developments of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Latin horizon proves


548 JOHN DEELY

to be a context wider and more subtle than either the father of rationalism or the father of empiricism actually drew upon in fixing the direction for the future of philosophy in its classical modern guise.

Not only does the late Latin milieu provide a wider context of speculative possibility than either Descartes, Locke, or their classical modern successors realized, but, as we can now see regarding it from the advantage of a nascent postmodernism, the Latin milieu provides a richer context as well, one which arguably adumbrates the full requirements of a philosophy which has experience integrally understood for its center of gravity.6

The opportunity a backward glance from the early modern period affords us today, it needs to be said, is by no means one easily exploited. Approached from its Latin side rather than from the side of its emergence out of Latin into the national language traditions of classical modern thought, early modern philosophy becomes a dismaying maze of the greatest difficulty to navigate. Without some sort of compass and guide providing an initial orientation, the whole landscape dissolves into a morass of material repetitions of terms and multiplication of abstruse distinctions leaving the visitor practically without a clue beyond the engrained modern prejudices toward the later Latins which every contemporary has imbibed with the air we breath. Needless to say, the orientation more or less unconsciously provided by such prejudices is not particularly helpful if it is to be a question of attaining a new understanding of the possibilities inherent in the late Latin matrix of early modern philosophy (whether retrospectively or prospectively considered), and eventually seeing those possibilities with rinsed eyes in their bearing on the future of thought and, hence, postmodernism.

A familiar guide, one who orients us in terms of the classical modern development as it actually came about, is perforce the


6 See my essay on "Philosophy and Experience," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXVI.3 (Summer, 1992), 299-319. For a more systematic

and purely theoretical or speculative discussion, see The Human Use of Signs (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994).


BETWEEN AQUINAS AND DESCARTES 549

least useful one. What is called for rather is a guide or, indeed, any number of guides, unfamiliar in terms of the actual modern development after Descartes, but intimately familiar with the Latin development up to the time of Descartes which provided the surrounding context of Descartes's work. That there could be some such " neglected figure" or " figures" capable of orienting us in terms of the intrinsic possibilities of the Latin development and proving that those possibilities are not what Descartes and the mainstream moderns have heretofore led us to believe they were is clearly a research hypothesis of some heuristic value, and insofar worth investigating. For even though, as far as the history of early modern philosophy goes, it is impossible to study it while leaving out the standard figures, it is equally impossible to enlarge the early modern context through the Latin sources if we regard those sources solely from the standpoint to which the standard figures have accustomed us. We need non-standard figures as guides, ones who knew the whole early modern Latin context, and therefore who knew the Latin development better than Descartes himself. In particular, with a view to the post-modern development, we need a guide who is able to show within the late Latin context an orientation toward a notion within experience of being understood as prior to the categories and to any division of being into what is mind-independent and mind-dependent.

Recent investigations have revealed several such figures,7 but my own research has come to rely particularly on the early 17th century synthesis of late Latin thought made by Joa~o Poinsot (1589-1644), a man born seven years earlier than Descartes and deceased six years earlier. A man in his own right squarely of the early modern period, familiar with its Zeitgeist and subject to its demands, Poinsot was yet oriented to the Latin past rather


7 See in particular the studies of the Dominican philosopher Mauricio Beuchot, Significado y Discurso. La filosofia del lenguaje en algunos escola'- sticos espan~oles post-medievales (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Auto'noma de Me'xico, 1988) ; and Aspectos histo'ricos de la semio'tica y la filosofia

del lenguaje (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Auto'noma de Me'xico, 1987).


550 JOHN DEELY

than to the national language future of philosophical development. A contemporary of Descartes neglected in the standard histories of the modern period, to say the least, Poinsot was nonetheless a central figure of the large Latin matrix within which early modern philosophy gestated. He was also, as we noted in the Introduction, writing under his Latin religious name "Joannes a Sancto Thoma," a principal commentator on the work of Thomas Aquinas, a role which one would expect to have recommended him to the 19th and 20th century decades of Thomistic revival, though this did not in fact prove to be the case, for reasons some of which I want to propose for consideration here.

Hence my concern in this essay is with the question of why the late Latin development as a whole (for which the writings of Poinsot may be regarded as a synecdoche, as we shall see), the work, that is, of the Latin centuries following Aquinas and Occam (who died seventy-five years apart), has been so consistently neglected and, indeed, summarily dismissed as a wasteland despite the fact that, almost without exception, contemporary professors passing along this received opinion can lay no claim to familiarity with writings of the period consigned to oblivion. In other words, my concern in this essay is with the exposure of a web--a semiotic web--of historical prejudices continuing at work today and presenting a deadly obstacle to a just assessment of the contemporary situation in philosophy as regards its speculative links with the philosophical past.

2. Outlining Latinity with Rinsed Eyes

It needs to be said that the absence of a proper outline for the Latin Age in philosophy as a whole is a major obstacle to appreciating the work of the late Latin figures in general, including such a figure as Poinsot whose work exists in particular precisely as a final detail on the capstone of such an outline. The standard treatment of the Latin Age to begin with, is misleadingly labelled "medieval philosophy," and extends, in the standard coverage (in a hodge-podge selection of writings), from Augustine (354-430) to William of Occam (c.1285-1347).


BETWEEN AQUINAS AND DESCARTES 551

Despite Tachau's work establishing Scotus's distinction between so-called intuitive and abstractive awareness (notitia intuitiva/ notitia abstractiva) as the initial frame for the shift of emphasis from being to discourse in the closing Latin centuries,8 Latin authors after Occam are given only the most superficial treatment or are ignored entirely in the standard coverage. Philosophy is supposed to " begin anew" with Descartes or, shortly before, with Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who shared Descartes's passion for a new beginning and a jettisoning of Latin tradition. Time may be a good partner in advancing the development of a subject-matter that has once been well-outlined, as Aristotle claimed (c.335-334BC: Ethics 1098a20-25); but the situation of teaching medieval philosophy in modern times bears witness rather to Aristotle's inverse point (ibid.) that, in the absence of such an outline, progress in the area tends towards a standstill.

Yet for all its conspicuous absence in today's academy, a proper outline of the Latin age is not difficult to draw. In fact, the development of philosophy in Latin after the fall of the Roman empire is an indigenous, multi-faceted, and highly organic development which falls naturally into two main periods or phases. The first period extends from Augustine in the fifth century to Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and John of Salisbury (1115-1180) in the twelfth. In this interval, the logical treatises of Aristotle and such related Greek writings as Porphyry's Quinque Verba (the Isagoge) were the only works of Greek philosophy surviv-


8 "Despite the difficulties presented by his innovation in grafting intuition

onto the process induced by species, the dichotomy of intuitive and abstractive cognition was rapidly and widely adopted by Parisian trained theologians. Within a decade of the Subtle Doctor's death, its acceptance on the other side of the English Channel was also ensured. That is not to say that his understanding was uniformly employed; nor, indeed, that all who employed the terminology of intuitive and abstractive cognition considered Scotus's an adequate delineation of the modes of cognition; nevertheless, the history of medieval theories of knowledge from ca. 1310 can be traced as the development of this dichotomy." Katherine H. Tachau, Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham: Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundations of Semantics 1250-1345 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), pp. 80-81.


552 JOHN DEELY

ing in translation from the Greek, whence philosophy in its own right (that is, as relatively unmixed with theology) developed around mainly logical and methodological questions. The second period extends from Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Roger Bacon (c.1224-1292) to Francis Sua'rez (1548-1617) and John Poinsot (1589-1644), when the full range of Aristotle's writings, along with such influential Arabic commentaries as those of Avicenna and Averroes, provided the newly emerging universities with the substance of their curriculum across the full range of philosophical subject matter--including those areas we now see as specifically scientific, hence the great emphasis placed in this second phase, along with the growing interest in epistemological inquiries, on philosophy of nature, an emphasis which developed into a special focus on the place in nature of the human species.9

In the Italian peninsula, this focus led to advances in medicine and to a preparation of the ground for the framing of nature's details in mathematically calculable terms which climaxed in the work of Galileo and the establishment of sciences in the modern sense, as the many works of William Wallace in recent years have shown in particular. In the Iberian peninsula, the focus led rather to a concentration on social, political, and religious questions more in direct continuity with the theological emphases of the central European "high middle ages," though in logic and psychology breakthrough developments took place especially in the areas we now recognize generically as epistemological and specifically as semiotic.'0

Thus just as the first period of the Latin Age was concentrated especially on methodological tools (the "liberal arts") and concepts of logic, so the second period was concentrated initially on


9 Of this development the "philosophy of human nature" courses in curricula today are one of the principal vestiges.

10 An excellent brief summary of the general historical context, based on the many words of Vicente Mun~oz Delgado (esp. Lo'gica formal y filosofia en Domingo de Soto [Madrid, 1964]) and Earline 3. Ashworth (esp. "Multiple Quantification and the Use of Special Quantifiers in Early Sixteenth Century Logic," Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic XIX [1978], 599-613), is provided by Iguacio Angelelli in "Logic in the Iberian Age of Discovery: Scho


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the substantive matters of natural philosophy so broadly treated as to provide also the foundations for ethics and metaphysics-- matters treated thematically according to the customs and Weltanschauung of the late Latin period more within theology than within philosophy itself--and on the expansion of logical questions to include the whole of what is called today philosophy of science, epistemology, and criteriology, as well as much of ontology.11 Worthy of special mention is the fact that, in the last two Latin centuries (the period of coalescence of what Gracia has recently successfully characterized as " Hispanic philosophy 12) intellectual foundations were laid in the university world of the Iberian peninsula for the development of interna-


lasticism, Humanism, Reformed Scholasticism," presented October 15, 1992, at

the "Hispanic Philosophy in the Age of Discovery" conference (see note 13 below), esp. Section 3, "From Montaigu to Alcala' and Salamanca." See the "History of Semiotics " in my Basics of Semiotics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 108-124.

11 B. Reiser, in his "Editor's Praefatio" to Ioannes a Sancto Thoma (Poinsot), Ars Logica (1631-1632), nova editio a Reiser (Turin: Marietti, 1930), p. XII, writes: "Titulis demonstrantibus agit de Logica et de Philosophia naturali. Ex professo neque Metaphysicam neque Ethicam tractat, quare obiter inspicienti de his rebus nihil vel prope nihil dixisse facile videtur. Qui quidem non tantum indicem quaestionum et articulorum, sed ipsum textum eumque totum attente perlegerit, inveniet paene omnia, quae a recentioribus in Ontologia exponuntur, apud ipsum in Logica totum tractatum de causis et de prima motore in Philosophia haberi. Imo et fundamenta Criteriologiae in secunda parte Logicae, in quaestionibus de praecognitis et praemissis, de demonstratione et scientia tangit. Quad auctor de Metaphysica et praesertim de Ethica intra ambitum Cursus philosophici propriis dissertationibus non egit, quamvis dolendum sit, nemini tamen persuadere licet ipsum nihil vel pauca solummodo de his materiis aliis locis scripsisse. Quae ad Theologiam naturalem et ad Ethicam spectant, ad morem illius aetatis ad Cursum theologicum ex professo tractanda remittit, et quidem quae sunt Theologiae naturalis ad primam [Poinsot 1637, 1643 (= CT Tomus Primus, Secundus et Tertius, Solesmes ed. Vols. I-IV, Paris: Descle'e, 1931, 1934, 1937)], quae sunt Ethicae ad secundam partem Summae theologicae [= CT Tomus Quartus, Solesmes ed. Vol. V, Paris: Descle'e, 1953; CT Tomus Quintus et Sextus, Viv`es ed. Vol. VI, Paris, 1885) and 1649 (=CT Tomes Sextus, Viv`es ed. Vol. VII, Paris 1885], ubi haec omnia plene evoluta inveniuntur."

12 Jorge Gracia, "Hispanic Philosophy: Its Beginning and Golden Age," The Review of Metaphysics 46.3 (March, 1993), 475-502. I consider this essay to be of breakthrough siguificance, particularly as concerns the recovery of the


554 JOHN DEELY

tional law and for dealing with the general problems of cultural conflict and assimilation. The work of Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1536), who helped frame the imperial legislation for Spain's New World territories, comes to mind, as does the figure of Francisco Sua'rez (1548-1617), with his rethinking of natural law. In the area of social and political philosophy, as well as in the areas of ontology and theory of knowledge, the scholastic faculties of the principal universities of Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries left behind a vein of pure philosophical gold, which has only begun to be mined as the prejudices of contemporary scholarship in Anglo-American and Continental philosophy have begun to crumble in the face of historical facts at first grtidgingly, now with increasing exuberance, brought to light in the academy.13

To this later, substantive period belongs the work of Poinsot as "the author of one of the two great seventeenth-century summations of medieval philosophy," counterposed thus by Jack Miles: " Francis Sua'rez, who wrote the other summation, remained the textbook philosopher of Europe long after Descartes had given philosophy a new point de de'part. Poinsot, by contrast, was nearly without intellectual issue until he was rediscovered in this century by Jacques Maritain."14

Again we are faced with an ironic situation. Not only was Sua'.rez the textbook philosopher through whose Disputationes Metaphysicac almost alone was the thought of the Latin Age filtered into modern European learning, but Sua'rez was also generally taken to be, in this regard, a faithful expositor of


speculative value of the lost centuries separating Occam from Descartes and the moderns. See my "Vindication of Hispanic Philosophy," forthcoming in the Proceedings of the 1er Con greso Mundial de Semio'tica y Comunicacio'n:

La Dimensio'n Educativa, held in Monterrey, Nuevo Leo'n, Mexico on June 16-18, 1993.

13 The October 14-17, 1992 "Hispanic Philosophy in the Age of Discovery" conference organized by Jude Dougherty at the Catholic University of America was an outstanding augur of developments in this area.

14 From the text of the original announcement of the publication of Tractatus de Sign is: The Semiotic of John Poinsot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). See my "Semiotic in the Thought of Jacques Maritain," Recherche Se'miotique/Semiotic Inquiry 6.2 (1986), 1-30, for details.


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Thomas Aquinas.15 In the early decades of the late nineteenth century Thomistic revival, many and heated debates arose over the question of Sua'rez's reliability as a guide to the views of Thomas Aquinas. These debates were generally and decisively decided in the negative. But fidelity to St. Thomas was not Sua'rez's principal concern, and his contribution to philosophy on other grounds is equally beyond question. By contrast, as far as concerns the question of what is and is not consistent with the views of Aquinas in philosophy, as Nuchelmans well put it, the Cursus Philosophicus of John Poinsot presents itself as an exemplar "of the powerful tradition to which he belonged and wholeheartedly wanted to belong." 16

This problem of properly outlining the Latin Age appears further as related to a fact which, in my estimation, has not been taken note of to the extent that it needs to be. I have in mind the fact that the major changes in philosophical epochs happen to correspond in general with the major linguistic changes in Western civilization. Without trying to set forth the reasons here, let me simply remark that there is more than coincidence to the fact that the natural macro-units for the study of philosophy coincide with the major changes in the situation of the natural languages.


15"Thomism as formulated by the Jesuit Suarez was universally taught and finally supplanted the doctrine of Melanchthon, even in the universities of Protestant countries " (E'mile Bre'hier, Histoire de la philosophie: La Philosophie moderne. I: Le dix-septie'me si`ecle [Presses Universitaires de France, 1938], trans. as The Seventeenth Century by Wade Baskin [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19661, p. 1).

16 Gabriel Nuchelmans, "Review" of John Poinsot: Tractatus de Signis:

The Semiotic of John Poinsot, ed. John N. Deely with Ralph A. Powell, in Renaissance Quarterly XL.1 (Spring, 1987) 146-149.

Thomas Merton, in The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), p. 334, goes so far as to say that Poinsot's "most admirable characteristic is the completeness with which he proposed to submerge his own talents and personality in the thought of the Angelic Doctor. . . . John of St. Thomas sought only the pure doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he opposed to the 'eclectic' Thomism of those who, though they may have acquired great names for themselves, never rivalled the Angelic Doctor himself." We see, thus, on several grounds, that the work of Poinsot occupies a heuristically unique position respecting contemporary efforts to rediscover and understand the Latin Age in its integrity.


556 JOHN DEELY

Thus, the period of Greek philosophy extends from the preSocratics to the end of the dominance of Greek as the language of learning at the end of the Roman empire in the fifth century. At that moment the Latin-speaking peoples were thrown back on their own resources, and the indigenous development of philosophy from a Latin linguistic base began.17 This development would dominate until the seventeenth century, when again a linguistic sea-change occurs with the emergence of the European national languages as the principal medium of mainstream philosophical discourse. Modern philosophy, not coincidentally, rises against Latin scholasticism on the tide of the emerging natural languages. The post-modern period, again, coincides with a breakdown of the modern national linguistic compartmentalizations, as a new global perspective begins to emerge beyond national differences of language. This emerging perspective is based not on a unity of natural language, as in the previous three epochs, but on the achievement of an epistemological paradigm capable of taking into account the very mechanisms of linguistic difference and change as part of the framework of philosophy itself. By developing in this way, postmodernism takes up again themes in logic and epistemology that developed strongly in the last two centuries particularly of Latin thought.

Here, however, we can do no more than examine some of the prejudices which have served so far to obscure this fact.

3. The Historical Prejudices

A. The Cartesian Heritage

If we except the powerful filter of Anglo-American bias against things Hispanic in general, so well documented today in the work of Philip W. Powell 18 and so far best defined historically for


17 See "The Indigenous Latin Development," in my Introducing Semiotic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 23-41.

18 Notably his classic study, Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudices Affecting United States' Relations with the Hispanic World (New York:

Basic Books, 1971; reprinted, with a new "Introduction" by the author, Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1985).


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philosophy by Jorge Gracia (a bias which I am not equipped to discuss in the full scholarly manner required for its diminution and eventual dissolution), no doubt the most effective obstacle in contemporary consciousness to the appreciation of the late Latin work in philosophy is the heritage of Rene' Descartes (1596-1650). By this I mean the general prejudice Descartes engendered against the importance of history for the philosopher, fancied by Descartes to be a man rightly concerned only with the book of the world in its present state of existence as open directly to personal experience, and especially with what can be found within himself.19 Philosophy in its historical dimension Descartes saw as the very paradigm case for dismissal in the search for philosophical truth. Whereas Aristotle's meditations on first philosophy (c.348-330BC) led Aristotle first to consider the views of his predecessors, the meditations of Descartes (1641) led Descartes first to dismiss his predecessors, as he had so frankly told us his meditations would.20

Of course, historicity as an irreducible condition of human knowledge was no less a part of the human situation in Descartes's day than in our own. If Descartes had merely been an-


19 Descartes, to be sure, did not see himself as engendering a general prejudice against history of the sort most harmful to the human mind in its search for truth in matters philosophical. The very opposite! He saw himself as opening the way to wisdom and truth itself in philosophy. "Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world," he tells us in 1637, "I have had much more success, I think, than I would have had if I had never left my country or my books" (Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in. the Sciences, trans. Robert Stoothoff, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch [Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985], Vol. I, p. 115).

20 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Vol. II, pp. 114-115: "Regarding philosophy, I shall say only this: seeing that it has been cultivated for many centuries by the most excellent minds and yet there is still no point in it which is not disputed and hence doubtful, . . . And, considering how many diverse opinions learned men may maintain on a single question--even though it is impossible for more than one to be true--I held as well-nigh false everything that was merely probable."


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ticipating the contemporary insight that all history is present history, or that present experience inevitably colors our understanding of the past and evaluation of its sources, his heritage in this area would be anything but pernicious. Yet Descartes promotes, in his Discourse on Method (loc. cit., p. 112), lack of insight rather than insight regarding tradition: "when I cast a philosophical eye upon the various activities and undertakings of mankind," he tells us, "there are almost none which I do not consider vain and useless."

Descartes's illusion that he was beginning philosophy anew with his own experience and consciousness free from any dependence on history was no less an illusion for his commitment to it as true. All the work accomplished in this area beginning with Gibson has not yet been enough to free most of our contemporaries from the crippling assumption that the history of philosophy is essentially peripheral to whatever philosophy's main task may be.

Poinsot, although of the same generation as Descartes, could not have stood in fuller contrast in his attitude toward history. He was irrevocably committed to the importance of tradition in philosophy at the very historical moment when the exuberance of modern discoveries in areas we now call science, in contrast to philosophy, was encouraging men to dismiss tradition as an obstacle to the adoption of new methods and concentration on problems framed in a way alien to traditional concerns. At just the moment that Poinsot, as Simonin rightly said,21 was determined "to remain a man of the past and to arrange his work in its totality according to the pattern and methods of long-standing tradition," Descartes--and with him, modernity--was determined to jettison the patterns and methods of Latin tradition in favor of a new pattern and new methods better suited to the interests of understanding the world in its empirical guise as accessible to present experience and to control through experimental designs.


21 H.-D. Simonin, review of the 1930 Reiser edition of Poinsot's Ars Logica of 1631-1632, Bulletin Thomiste [September 1930], p. 145.


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There is great irony in this situation. For while it is true that these two emphases are clearly opposed as attitudes of mind, it is equally true that the opposition, philosophically considered, is a superficial one, reducible to the difference between philosophical doctrine and scientific theory as complementary theoretical enterprises, as the latter cannot develop except on assumptions whose validity can be adjudicated only with recourse to the former. The principles for resolving the conflict of attitudes were equally available to Descartes and to Poinsot in the traditional writings Descartes chose to turn away from, even if the differing attitudes themselves were too little understood to allow for such application in detail. P rise de conscience always requires some reflective distance, and this was not available to the men caught up in the present of that time.

Today we see clearly that the object of science, while transcending perception, always concerns and essentially depends upon what can be directly sensed within perception, whereas the object of philosophy concerns rather the framework as such of understanding according to which whatever is sensed and perceived is interpreted. This object is not reducible to language, but is nonetheless accessible only through language. Debating whether the atom can be split, the scientist can ultimately resort to an experiment demonstrando ad senses. Debating whether God exists, or what are the nature of signs such that they can be used to debate about objects such as atoms (which depend upon material conditions) or spirits (which by nature would not depend upon matter, especially in the case of God), the philosopher never has the privilege of falling back upon such a "crucial experiment." From first to last, philosophy has only a demonstratio ad intellectum whereon to rest its case. Science is the domain of experiments. Intellectual doctrine as irreducible to what can be manifested as decisive in an empirical frame is the domain of philosophy. There are many areas in the development of hypotheses and the elaboration of frameworks for the testing of hypotheses where, to be sure, philosophy and science overlap. But ultimately there is always the difference between scientia as what can occasionally be


560 JOHN DEELY

negatively reduced to a crucial experiment demonstrando ad sensus, and doctrina as a body of thought sensitive to its own implications and striving for consistency throughout, while achieving explanations (however provisional) at a level beyond what can be empirically circumscribed in unambiguous ways.22

Today, we would be more inclined to admire Poinsot's attempt "to let no new achievements be lost, and to profit from the final developments of a scholasticism which has exhausted itself in the plenitude of its refinements " (Simonin, ibid.) and less inclined to be taken in by Descartes's denigration of " the various activities and undertakings of mankind" as "vain and useless" (Meditations, ed. cit., p. 112). But habits which have taken hold for three centuries die hard. In our classrooms today and for the foreseeable--but perhaps not indefinite--future, the meditations of Descartes are still likely to be read and discussed rather than the tractates of Poinsot, for two principal reasons.

First, the comparative poverty of Descartes's texts makes them much easier to grasp: on the surface at least, no more is required of the reader than conversance with the language in which the text itself is presented. By contrast, in the case of Poinsot's work, even on the surface, "the reader is not granted dispensation from knowledge of the dialogue, implicit in the work, with the centuries-old strata of commentaries and discussions of the Aristotelian corpus." 23

Second, the style of the Cartesian texts better suits the modern frame of mind, though this may be changing. D. P. Henry remarks that " the supremely professional character of Poinsot's extensive text, along with the dazzling scope revealed by the huge synoptic table of the work, are, one feels, immensely superior to


22 On the contrast of doctrina with scientia in the modern sense, see the terminological entry " Doctrine" in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, ed. T. A. Sebeok et al., and Appendix I "On the Notion 'Doctrine of Signs'" in my Introducing Semiotic (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 127-130.

23 Maria Lu'cia Santaella-Braga, "John Poinsot's Doctrine of Signs: The Recovery of a Missing Link," The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, 5.2 (1991), p. 156.


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the rather chatty tone of his contemporary Descartes--a tone symptomatic of philosophy's decline towards the drawing-rooms of 'well-bred company and polite conversation' favored by Locke." 24 We are already in a postmodern period, to be sure, but we have not been there long enough to achieve the reflective distance presupposed for a general prise de conscience appropriate to this change of age.

Descartes and Poinsot, contemporaries in the glorious seventeenth century, are alike doorways to the past. The past into which Poinsot's work gives entry spans the full twelve-hundred years of the Latin age, but brings into particular focus its last three centuries as seen from Iberia. The past into which Descartes's work gives entry spans, by contrast, no more than an anticipation and launching of the three centuries of modernity's determined 'effort to present itself as the once and for all truth owing nothing to history.

B. Extensions of the Cartesian Heritage: Scholarly, Religious, and Ideological Prejudices

A substantive point about ideology needs to be made concerning the last three centuries of the Latin development, which are (ab)normally neglected in the standard presentations to date of so-called "medieval philosophy" in relation to so-called "early modern philosophy." In the standard discussions of Latin thought, serious presentation ends with William of Occam (c.1285-1347), and takes up again with Descartes (1596-1650), whence follows the discussion of the classical modern development as culminating in Kant's work. Though seldom so nakedly stated, the common attitude of scholars for decades has been that of Matson: "William of Ockham was the last of the great creative scholastics. The three centuries following his death are a philosophical desert." 25 Desmond FitzGerald has rightly char-


24" The Way to Awareness," review of Deely edition of Poinsot's Tractatus

de Signis in The Times Literary Supplement no. 4,413 (October 30-November 5, 1987), p. 1201.

25 Wallace I. Matson, A New History of Philosophy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), vol. 2, p. 253.


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acterized this remark as "an absurd comment." 26 Yet its absurdity does not gainsay its accuracy as a summation of the standardized attitude toward and treatment of Latin thought of the late fourteenth to early seventeenth century.

When a prejudice is so naked, how does it manage to take root in the first place, let alone survive and thrive even in the most learned circles of academe? The answer to this question lies in the details of the history of the period, no doubt, and in the political, social, and economic dimensions even more than in the intellectual dimensions, as Powell (note 18 above) has made clear. Intellectual history pertains to culture as such; yet culture as such depends upon and develops through--in a word, lives by--the sociological realities of social interaction. Hence it is often only long after the passions and occupations of sociological life have faded and altered in their basic constellation that intellectual history is able successfully to double back on itself and to recover what had always been available to it just beyond the gulf created by passions of the historical moment.

Such is decidedly the case with the missing period in philosophy's history between Occam and Descartes. Appropriate categories for understanding this gap in the standard general histories are only beginning to be developed by scholars. The most important recent work in this problem area, in my estimation, is Jorge Gracia's above-mentioned establishment of the category of " Hispanic philosophy" as " a general category [essential] to bring out the philosophical reality encompassed by the Iberian peninsula and Latin America," and to "do justice not only to the historical relations between Iberian and Latin American philosophers, but also to the philosophy of Spain, Catalonia, Portugal, and Latin America." 27 The diverse elements which make up the philosophy of Spain, Catalonia, Portugal, and Latin America, and which uniquely bind the Iberian peninsula and Latin America, have either been ignored completely in standard


26 Desmond J. FitzGerald, "John Poinsot's Tractatus de Signis," Journal of the History of Philosophy XXVI.1 (January 1986), p. 430.

27 Gracia, art. cit., p. 480.


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histories of philosophy, or have been inappropriately parcelled out along political, territorial, racial, or national linguistic lines which do not convey the cluster of historical ties which constitute the universe of Hispanic philosophy. Yet just these are the elements which, properly arranged and understood, make up, as Gracia puts it (art. cit. p. 486), "the thought of the world created by the European discovery of America."

From this forgotten late Latin Iberian or Hispanic universe, in fact, the work of Poinsot comes, and it belongs to this universe as a boundary point relative to the classical early modern period. This situation of Poinsot's work becomes clear from the following list of the principal figures definitive of "the first period of philosophical development that properly merits being called Hispanic" (Gracia, art. cit., pp. 486-487):

Its first notable figure is Juan de Zuma'rraga (1468?-1548) and its last is Juan de Santo Tomba's (John Poinsot) (1589-1644). In between are Bartolome' de las Casas (1484-1566), Vasco de Quiroga (1487?-1568), Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), Francisco de Vitoria (1492/3-1546), Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), Alonso de Castro (1459-1558), Alonso de la Vera Cruz (1504?-1584), Francisco de Salazar (1505-1575), Melchior Cano (1509-1560), Pedro da Fonseca (1528-1599), Domingo Ban~ez (1528-1604), Toma's de Mercado (1530-1575), Francisco Toletus (1532-1596), Luis de Molina (1535-1600), Benito Pereira (1535 ?-1610), Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), Antonio Rubio (1548-1615), Francisco Sua'rez (1548-1617), Gabriel Vazquez (1549-1604), Antonio Arias (1564-1603), and Alfonso Bricen~o (1587-1699), among many others. Territorially, it covers the Iberian peninsula and the Iberian colonies in the New World. In the Iberian peninsula certain universities stand out, such as Salamanca and Coimbra, hut others, like Valladolid, Segovia, Alcala', and Evora, follow closely. In the New World, the most important centers of activity are found in Mexico and Peru, particularly in the capital cities of Mexico City and Lima, although there are also developments in other areas.

Thus, while the neglect of these figures and their period, as Gracia says (ibid., pp. 478-479) "makes no historical sense" intellectually speaking, it makes all too much sense when we consider ideology and religious prejudice as stemming precisely from


564 JOHN DEELY

that period and pervading later centuries. In particular, ideological religious prejudices on both sides of the " Reformation" have independently conspired in modern times to consign the period in question to oblivion, both in the English-speaking world and in cultural zones dominated by central European civilization. On one side, Protestant scholars have tended to neglect this period because it was dominated by thinkers associated with the Roman Catholic Church. On the other side, Catholic scholars have neglected this period because it does not fit at all with a general preoccupation to find ways of disentangling the concerns of Church and State in secular political life.

On top of this general preoccupation, the nineteenth century revival of the study of St. Thomas Aquinas mandated by Leo XIII translated into a concern--more or less narrow-minded as it actually developed in the contemporary period--to demonstrate the thought of Thomas Aquinas by using his actual vocabulary as a criterion of purity. Such practice excluded from serious consideration work of later Latins who departed from the vocabulary, perforce, in applying philosophical principles to new questions (and new emphases on old questions) generated within their own social and cultural contexts. My description of this practice might seem exaggerated, but it is attested to by the greatest historian of the revival, Etienne Gilson. " I myself, who have lived in the familiarity of St. Thomas Aquinas," Gilson wrote me (letter of 10 July 1974), "have not continued reading [John of St. Thomas] when I realized that he was not using the same language as that of our common master."

I suspect that we find in this attitude of linguistic limitation an evidence of the Cartesian influence even across the divide of religious scholars agreeing for different reasons to neglect the closing centuries of Latinity. Surely it is a notable example of self-referential inconsistency that the Thomists of Gilson's school have applied to the matter of interpreting Aquinas a method in effect Cartesian: there is but a single optic, discovered only in our day, which allows for a correct reading of the Aquinian corpus. Viewed through this optic, each of the commentators of


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the period of Classical Thomism 28--Capreolus (c.1380-1444), Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1468-1534), Ferrariensis (c.14741528), Francisco Vitoria (1492/3-1546), Dominic Soto (1494-1560), Melchior Cano (1509-1560), Domingo Ban~ez (1528-1604), and John Poinsot (1589-1644)--appears to be an unreliable interpreter, either for failure to stress enough the centrality of esse as became the fashion of the Thomistic revival (limited exception on this point is made for Ban~ez), or because, as has been said, the commentator, in dealing with problems beyond the purview of Aquinas's focal concerns in any given text, perforce introduces terminology not to be found in the master and therefore suspect. In a letter of 28 August 1968, Gilson wrote to me in this regard that "'A thomist' of whatever brand should find it superfluous to develop a question which Thomas was content to pass over with a few words," because "it is very difficult to develop such a question with any certitude of doing so along the very line he himself would have followed, had he developed it. If we develop it in the wrong way, we engage his doctrine in some no thoroughfare [i.e., a dead end], instead of keeping it on the threshold his own thought has refused to cross, and which, to him, was still an assured truth."

Years later, when I was charged with the organization of the 1994 Special Issue of The New Scholasticism 29 in honor of John Poinsot, I again encountered this attitude. A distinguished alumnus of the Toronto school Gilson founded, a fellow Dominican with Poinsot, declined invitation to participate in the Special Issue on the ground that his own approach to all questions "is not through John Poinsot but through Thomas Aquinas," and therefore, he felt, it would take him too far afield from his con-


28 I have explained the designation " Classical Thomism" in an article titled "Metaphysics, Modern Thought, and 'Thomism'" written for Notes et Documents 8 (juillet-septembre 1977), which unfortunately was published from uncorrected proofs, but provides nonetheless a sound outline of what is at issue.

29 The name of this journal was subsequently changed to the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, a change difficult to understand after sixtythree years of publication.


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cern with the thought of Aquinas to delve deeply into the texts of Poinsot. That Poinsot himself is among the historical handful who had developed an intimate acquaintance with the complete range of Aquinas's writings and made this acquaintance his own reference point, along with reason itself, in the evaluation of theoretical issues in philosophy is to count for nothing.30 Only the author's own reading of Aquinas, solipsistically undertaken and maintained, is to count. Of course, the solipsism is an illusion insofar as the reader thinks himself to he a pristine interpreter of whatever truth Aquinas has to convey, just as the presumption of Descartes to shrive his mind of all influence from society and history was an illusion (a transcendental one at that, inasmuch as it contained within itself the clues of previous--by definition historical--influences, as Gilson was to demonstrate in his doctoral work published in 1913).31

Bergson used to speak of the "natural geometry of the human intellect " in order to explain its resistance to time and to seeing the development of things in time. Perhaps the Cartesian prejudice with its various ramifications, more or less unconscious, is nothing more than the formalization and explicitation among philosophers of a resistance to history that is engrained in human understanding according to its natural proclivity for seeing parts as wholes and present phenomena as eternal species.

However that may be, there is resistance among philosophers and scientists alike to recognizing the historicity of human thought in all particulars. This resistance--powerfully reinforced by the belief Descartes fostered as the father of modern philosophy that Latin tradition is a nest of errors that can be safely ignored in beginning philosophy anew on the basis of individual experience and modern scientific methods--has had a twofold baneful influence on work in philosophy. On the one hand, it has given us secular historians of philosophy who look back to the Latin Age only insofar as it can be made to reflect the narrow


30 See the remark of Thomas Merton on this point in note 16 above.

31 Index Scolastico-Carte'sien (thesis at the Universite' de Paris; Paris:Alcan).


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linguistic and logical concerns of recent Anglo-American philosophy. On the other hand, it has given us religious historians of philosophy who look back to the Latin Age only insofar as it can be made to reflect either the strict terms of their papal mandate (in the case of Catholics) or their sectarian preferences overall (in the case of Protestants). Among other things, this bias has led to a natural focus on William of Occam as the reputed father of Nominalism in modern thought, particularly as late modern thought, in assuming a mantle of logicism after Frege and Whitehead-Russell, came more and more to fancy itself nominalistic.

4. Conclusion

By a curious confluence of independent reasons, those scholars interested in philosophy's history, both secular and religious, have unwittingly conspired to neglect the key figures important to the development of thought in the last centuries of the Latin age. This neglect has been unfortunate for two reasons. First, speculative thought in the closing Latin centuries saw powerful developments in epistemological theory which resonate with the central developments of postmodern contemporary thought. Second, there is the truth of Gilson's analogy,32 according to which history provides for the philosopher what the laboratory provides for the scientist, namely, the arena in which the consequences of ideas are played out.

Miller describes this idea that the work of philosophy must proceed through a study of history in order to achieve its best results as among "the most lasting lessons Foucault learned from his teacher," Jean Hyppolite.33 In any event, it is one of the defining ideas of postmodernism, and certainly an idea that makes incumbent on us the proper investigation of philosophy's past, in particular the late centuries of the Latin Age whose intellectual


32 In Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York:

Scribner's, 1937).

33 James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 41.


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treasures have too long been lost to our contemplation. In the work of this investigation, the work of John Poinsot provides the contemporary researcher with a heuristic tool of incomparable value, both for guessing where to look and for assaying the results of what is found--even, as Jeffrey Coombs has recently demonstrated,34 for adjudicating claims of contemporary expositors to have divined the true thought of St. Thomas on this or that special question.


34 See Jeffrey S. Coombs, "John Poinsot on How To Be, Know, and Love a Nonexistent Possible," in American. Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. LXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1994), 333-346.