I have seen discussions, especially at Edward Feser’s blog, that basically implied that Thomistic circles online are an elitist, snobby boys’ club that exhibits a great deal of groupthink (I won’t link to the discussion – if you were there you know what I’m talking about). Now I personally think the “groupthink” part is incredibly unfair, given that right now Thomism is ascendant but still not the raving throng that surrounds William Lane Craig, for instance. However, there is something to the charge that there is a bit of elitism involved with Thomism. I don’t really consider myself a Thomist, but I’ve made a few observations of that club that might help clarify why they give off such a snooty attitude sometimes:
1. Aristotelian-Thomistic thought is a very difficult, complete metaphysical system, with an esoteric language that differs from our everyday speech. It is also so different from the dominant metaphysics that science uses these days, that very frequently two people who are trying to discuss it talk past each other for a long, long time. One side keeps talking about efficient causes, intentionality, potency, forms, etc. and the other side has completely different definitions of these terms. What I’ve gathered from Aristotelian-Thomism is that it’s not enough to just know about act and potency, or the four causes, or matter and form. You have to know how all these different parts work together as a complete system, and how they manifest themselves in different situations (for instance, a final cause for a car is the man-given purpose of the car, and the final cause for an acorn is an oak tree, but it’s not immediately clear in what sense both of these final causes are the same). This also means that when one asks an A/T philosopher a simple question, there is not a brief and complete answer – often the philosopher has to pull back and start at the beginning.
Thus, it takes a bit of a “Gestalt switch,” in Kuhn’s words, to understand A/T philosophy. (For those of you unfamiliar with Gestalt psychology, think of an optical illusion that could be two different things if you look at it in two different ways – if you concentrate one way, it’s a rabbit, and another way, it’s a duck. However, typical humans can’t see it both ways simultaneously. The mental flip between seeing a rabbit and seeing a duck is a Gestalt switch.)
2. This complexity means that most people who really understand Thomism are philosophers or heavy-duty philosophy lovers. For the record, I am in neither camp, but I also don’t claim to really understand Thomism. Just a little bit.
3. Thomists these days feel a bit persecuted. The New Atheists present a large, popular threat to religion (whether or not this is justified), and the new Protestant philosophies presented by people like William Lane Craig (and the Intelligent Design movement) have really missed the mark, according to the Thomists. Furthermore, scandals in the Catholic Church have turned a large segment of the popular opinion against Roman Catholicism (again, whether or not this is justified I won’t say). As such, some Thomists have a chip on their shoulder.
4. The Internet is a really bad marketplace for ideas. Let’s face it, most of the people who sit around on the Internet all day are idiots. If you don’t agree, check the comments section of any YouTube video. Something about the anonymity of the Internet, the emotional volatility of the subject matter (religion, ethics, social issues, etc.), and the polarization of society creates this large mob of angry one-liner generators. Secondly, the Internet is dehumanizing, as we can’t really see the people behind the posts we read, and a lot of important emotional context and nuance is lost. That is not to say there isn’t a lot of good stuff on the Internet, too, but it’s just very hard to find.
Combine these four factors, and the result is a lot of testy, impatient, yet brilliant Thomists who give you the impression that they don’t have time to deal with your stupid questions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, some of these Thomists take this quite overboard, and actively contribute to hostile, name-calling environments. While I greatly respect Edward Feser for his arguments, just reading the first chapter of The Last Superstition left me with an icky feeling. You don’t need to call your opponents jackasses to make the point that they’re jackasses. Feser tries to justify such harsh polemical language by arguing that one, the New Atheists started it, and two, Thomism is such a great system backed up by thousands of years of good philosophy, that it has earned the right to be arrogant.
Well, I politely disagree. I don’t think that sinking to the level of a few loud-mouthed rhetoricians makes you look any better than them, and I also think that taking the high road shows not only that your philosophy is right, but also that it produces the best people (something that is important to average people like myself).
So, for you readers who are interested in Thomism but are feeling a bit repulsed/turned away/discouraged by the discourse, just stick it out, like me. There are reasons why Thomism seems like a tightly knit, esoteric club that you’re not really invited to. However, I feel like I’m almost getting there, and if I can, you can too. This is partly why I created the message board, so there can be a bit of a safer space for simpletons like me to get answers from Thomists without feeling attacked from both sides.