Apologetic Method & Intellectual Neutrality

Saint BonaventureOver the years I have grown skeptical of claims stating that there exists a completely neutral methodology when inquiring into any field of thought. We can strive to be as objective as we possibly can, but at the end of the day there will never be a purely neutral framework from which we do our thinking.

Consider these passages from Peter Dillard’s book, A Way Into Scholasticism,

“It could even be argued that Descartes’ project of radical doubt is recklessly verging on insanity. Descartes countenances the legitimate possibility of an evil genius who deceives him into thinking that there is an external world. He then proposes to discover something about which the evil genius could not deceive him and to derive the existence of a benevolent God, mathematics, and the essence of matter as extension. Yet at the outset of his project, Descartes, who is willing to entertain the evil deceiver as a legitimate possibility, oddly doesn’t countenance the equally legitimate possibility of there being a jealous and wrathful God who will damn him eternally should he try to rule out the evil genius possibility all by himself without first seeking divine grace through humble prayer! Neither does Descartes entertain the equally legitimate counter-possibility of an alien entelechy that will obliterate him if he tries to rule out the evil genius possibility or the jealous God possibility, nor does Descartes consider other alterative but equally legitimate counter-possibilities that can be described. Taking any one of these counter-possibilities seriously and trying to rule it out means not ruling out the others. The result is a kind of intellectual paralysis where the philosopher is left isolated on an island of bare reckoning, unable to advance while remaining dismally dissatisfied.” (Pg. 4-5)

There seems to be an array of endless logical possibilities that Descartes does not consider while claiming to have discovered the truest path to knowledge. I find myself in total agreement with Dillard’s first sentence in this paragraph, that the Cartesian method is verging on insanity.

Now, compare the method described above with the approach to doing critical thought offered by Saint Bonaventure,

“Bonaventure is recommending a radically different conception of critical inquiry. He fully recognizes that we are emotional creatures. We have hopes, fears, and desires; and we feel strongly about a number of different topics. It is because we are emotionally and even viscerally attracted to certain positions and repelled by others that we argue the way we do, a fact that applies no less to the atheist than it does to the Catholic philosopher-theologian. So, Bonaventure suggests, start there. Start with what you strongly believe and try to find the best reasons you can for it and the best reasons you can against contrary positions. Does that mean everything is subordinated to our feelings? No. Bonaventure emphasizes the importance of being a man or woman of desires. I may desire to associate myself with certain views and to dissociate myself from others. I might desire to make a name for myself by devising clever arguments or to discredit those thinkers with whom I disagree. Fortunately, I can also have a deeper desire that orders and disciplines what would otherwise be an unruly, emotional subjectivism: the desire to find the truth.” (Pg. 5, Emphasis Added)

I contend that this brief description for doing philosophy and theology as a Catholic is what we ought to emulate in our classical methodology. The use of natural theology and natural philosophy are important for the task of rational demonstration, but human beings are more than their rational agency. There are also aesthetic and imaginative appeals that might be made to those who are outside of the salvific ark of the Church.


– Lucas G. Westman

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