Musings on Philosophy

It was in 1985 that I began philosophy in Rome, at the Angelicum University. Each morning, I would walk about two miles up from the Lateran, through a narrow street towards the north and past the Colosseum, to the Piazza Venezia, along past the Gregorian University and up a narrow street to reach the renaissance building of the Angelicum. There, we were initiated into the arcanes of logic, epistemology and cosmology – all in the incomprehensible language of badly shaven Dominicans who seemed to have got out of bed the wrong side. We quickly nicknamed our philosophy classrooms as the paralyzation chambers. All philosophy classes were given in Italian, and my regret is that Fr Galli who lectured on Fisica e Filosophia was totally incomprehensible. Fr Russo who taught cosmology had a distinct Sicilian accent. Many others have lapsed into the mists of forgetfulness. A kind seminarian at our College tried to teach some of us freshmen a smattering of Italian, but this remained a big problem. It took several months to acquire a little Italian, since we were speaking English at seminary.

Most of the professors were totally cynical about teaching philosophy to those who hardly understood Italian, so they entered good marks into our libelli despite knowing very little about the subject at the summary oral examinations. A year later in Fribourg, we had to work and know our stuff, and I could understand the lectures because they were in French. But the Angelicum was quite a weird experience for me. Some professors made the effort of giving us notes in English and some extra courses were arranged by American Dominicans. They gave us something of more value.

In the 1980’s, philosophy was taught in much the same way as for centuries by the Dominicans, the only difference being the use of Italian instead of Latin! It was strict Aristotelian Thomism with only the exception of Fr Galli’s incomprehensible lectures based on the work of Max Planck, the reason for which I regretted the language barrier. I have no scientific knowledge of quantum physics, but it appeals to me as a philosophical notion that bases all existence and reality on consciousness rather than matter. I would find medieval metaphysics materialistic to the point that I wondered whether modern atheism had its roots in it! I found epistemology and logic dry and boring, but I did seek out books on metaphysics, the question of the Universal between the extreme realism of Plato to the Nominalism of Occam and many others of the Franciscan schools. Reality was conceived as something entirely exterior to the observing subject, which quantum physics would compromise with its theory of consciousness. If consciousness is independent from matter, there would be a much better case for life after death.

It was when I went to Fribourg that I became much more aware of the need for a philosophical formation to study theology. The Fathers of the Church were influenced by Hellenism and this is a vital component to our understanding and use of language. Fribourg had become less Aristotelian from the Modernist era of the early twentieth century and more Platonic, more neo-Patristic and more open to modern science. I felt at home intellectually, and various characters I met gently guided me towards an “orthodox” Gnosticsm through Jungian psychology and early twentieth century Russian philosophy, which was to some extent born of German Idealism, a brainchild of the Romantic movement.

My exposure to the cynical routine of the “Lazy A” (nickname among some American students of the Angelicum) gave me some taste for thought, discovery and the very meaning of the word philosophyφιλοσοφία in Greek meaning “love of wisdom”. It is the study of issues concerning existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, language and many of the issues now covered by the sciences of chemistry, physics and biology. It enables our minds to attempt to some extent to grasp the meaning of life and notions that lie beyond reason such as revealed mysteries. The Trinity and the Hypostatic Union of Christ are mysteries, but so are the universe, multiverses, the notion of the infinity of space. The earth belongs to our solar system, which belongs to a galaxy of millions of solar systems like ours. Beyond our galaxy, you can see many of the other galaxies if your telescope is powerful enough. Entering the realm of theory, those galaxies would form a universe from a single big bang, but there may be other universes too – all totally different with different laws of physics, or all exactly the same with different sets of probabilities. Don’t tell me that there are no mysteries!

I was thinking in this kind of way since when I was a little boy, obsessed with science and a quest for understanding. I lacked the application at school or the social skills to do well in the system. My love of science competed with my love of music and language, and the latter won out. Philosophy for me would to some extent fill in the gap between art and science. One unfortunate tendency of aspies is to amass a phenomenal amount of facts but often with little overall understanding. Platonism has done a lot to help me seek a big picture view to give justification for the details and parts of the mechanism.

Some say that 99% of humanity is made for breeding and 1% for advancing knowledge and technology. That is certainly an exaggeration, because scientists and inventors are not always quirky eccentrics! Many geniuses, philosophers and “mad scientists” seem to have had Asperger-like qualities, just like Asperger himself. I have not achieved anything scientific myself. I am not teaching in a university. I just churn out translated texts from French into English. Sometimes I learn new things from the texts I have to read and re-write in my own language. What enables me to earn my living is intellectual work, the comprehension of language and its re-expression in English to convey the same concepts. It keeps my mind sharp, and it keeps my curiosity alive.

Do aspies make better philosophers than “neurotypicals”? I have no idea, but aspies care much less about the opinions of other people and are more independent spiritually, less afraid of coming up with ideas that might seem crazy at first. Most people labour with preconceived ideas, prejudice and “What will others say?“. Many cultural givens are taken for granted, but the high-functioning autistic mind sees right through it. We will isolate the things of which we are aware, ask questions, analyse and compare them with things outside our culture.

Philosophy can also be a part of that body of knowledge for which we thirst. Aspie children notice things others would take for granted. Another one of my “obsessions” as a child was noticing things on buildings, architectural details like the design of roofs, windows, chimneys and decorations. I still notice details that attract my attention on buildings in different parts of Europe or even a single region in countries like England or France. That being said, I would not have been a successful architect, because I detest the modern styles would have been what brings the money in. In the same way, I have been reading about German Idealism and Romanticism, because I do believe that they have insights that are less evident for the more rationalistic and “realist” systems of thought. In so many ways, we create our own reality and experience life differently in inexplicable ways.

Though I went to university, much of my interest in philosophy has been from my own reading and curiosity. I also felt repelled “pseudo-intellectualism”, what a friend of mine in Fribourg called “intellectual masturbation” an exercise in narcissism by deliberately expressing oneself incomprehensibly. This is what one will find with a certain mindset that does not seek wisdom and meaning, but one’s own self-importance. An aspie will notice this in a flash! If our thought is to mean anything, it needs to be expressed in language that can be understood. For example, many people might be foxed by the word “hermeneutics”, but will readily understand “interpretation” or one’s take on what something means through that person’s perspective of mind. Not everything has reality outside the observing and thinking subject, but that is no excuse for talking gobbledegook! Academia has its limits. We can learn something from it, but life teaches us the rest, and we go on learning all the way through life.

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3 Responses to Musings on Philosophy

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for such vivid (and saddening – especially where ‘language of instruction’ was concerned) glimpses and musings!

    I know young people today who have been persuaded by looking at the curricula that studying philosophy at a Dutch university is probably not the best way to learn worthwhile things about philosophy – with extra-curricular self-study as a more profitable option.

    Meanwhile, my friend, Arend Smilde, has been reading with great interest Etienne Gilson’s 1931-32 Gifford Lectures in what seems the original French, which may lead to an interesting English post on his bilingual (Dutch & English) Lewisiana website. He tells me the English version, The Spirit Of Mediaeval Philosophy, handily available in the Internet Archive, disappointingly leaves all sorts of interesting things out of the footnotes:

    This may finally get me to try Gilson, of whom I have long heard good things… I see there are other interesting-looking things of his in the Internet Archive, such as La Philosophie au Moyen Âge (1922), which you and other Francophones might enjoy:

    and a 1947 lecture, History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education:

    I am currently enjoying the attention to the contributions of both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in combination with Biblical studies to both French and our literature in J.A.W. Bennett’s volume of the Oxford History of English Literature (completed by Douglas Gray: 1986).

  2. Thank you, Fr. Chadwick, for this illuminating view of RC attempts at the teaching of philosophy in the 1980s. In reading through the old VII document on the education of priests, Optatam Totius, I note that the Council Fathers authorized a total revision in the teaching of both philosophy and theology, starting with ensuring that students had the necessary prerequisites for such study (i.e., linguistic, humanistic, mathematical, and scientific); that philosophical studies, while they would emphasize the so-called ‘philosophia perennis’, would also provide a pan-chronic study of the history and development of philosophy; and that the study of theology would begin with an in-depth study of the primary data of Christian theology: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.

    It would appear that just about all RC seminaries minor and major have signally failed to accomplish any of that mandated revision. I doubt that such reform will happen in my lifetime on its own.

    I have therefore decided to undertake a course of self-tuition to accomplish that reform, at least in me. I have begun with the study of languages and of mathematics. My immediate goal is to gain the rudiments of a modern Trivium (i.e., grammar, logic, and rhetoric) to be able to use the tools of memory, reason, and imagination in the languages of Scripture, Tradition, and modern scholarship. My intermediate goal is to develop a modern Quadrivium of Physics, Number Theory, Geometry/Topology, and Music, and to become knowledgeable in all four. My ultimate goal is to review ancient, mediaeval and modern philosophy, and the data of Scripture, Tradition, and Church Authority (in both East and West), being first informed by history, literary theory, physical science, and political theory.

    I have between twenty to thirty more years of life, Barring misfortune, illness, or accident, I think that if I put my mind to it, I might be able to accomplish all this before I die. And I think it worth while to do so.

    • Many thanks for these thoughts. When I was a small boy, the most important thing at school was the “Three R’s”: reading, writing and arithmetic. We all need to learn our own and other languages and know how to calculate at least things we have to deal with in practical life. I am hopeless at abstract mathematics, but I can cope with money, geometry applied to making things in the workshop or sea navigation, that sort of thing. We never had rhetoric, not even at seminary for preaching. Perhaps only actors get training in rhetoric. I have always been very careful and fussy about grammar, and that helped with learning French and Latin. Bad as I am with mathematics, I enjoy physics and watching documentaries about new discoveries and feats of engineering. I seem to have a good sense of spatial perception for coastal navigation (for example judging whether I am making headway against a tidal current by watching the landmarks), and recognising landmarks on the chart. I enjoy plotting courses or finding where the boat is by taking measurements of fixes with a bearing compass. Music is something vast to study: singing, playing an instrument and sight-reading. Then there are composition techniques like harmony, counterpoint and melody and working with rhythm.

      We all have a lot to do in life. We can’t learn everything, but do few things and do them well.

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