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The Danger of Labels – Learning to be a Student of Truth, and Nothing Less

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“One’s attitude towards a philosopher and his theses is often prejudiced by the tendency to classify prematurely.  Sometimes such a classification has a historical character, as when one automatically approaches every philosophical work with the disposition of characterizing the author as a Thomist, an Augustinian, a Kantian, a Spinozist, a Hegelian, and so forth.  Instead of giving the author credit for some originality, one assumes quite arbitrarily that, after all, he must be a commentator or at least a formal disciple of some other well-known philosopher.  From the start one looks at his ideas and theses from this point of view, under this uncalled-for expectation, and consequently bars oneself from a real understanding of his ideas.”
– Dietrich von Hildebrand, Prolegomena to Christian Ethics
Thomist.  Aristotelian.  Platonist.  Kantian.  Hildebrandian.  Modern.  Personalist.  Phenomonlogist.  Skeptic…
See where I’m going here?
The world of philosophy is ripe with labels. And to be completely honest, sometimes it bothers me.  As a theology and philosophy student at a very devout Catholic University, I’ve noticed an overwhelming enthusiasm for students finally “finding their label” – and trust me, I’ve fallen into the tradition of identifying exclusively with one school of thought or another at times, too.  Many students seem to feel intimidated by others (or mistakenly believe that they are academically inferior to other students) if one hasn’t “found their fit” quite yet.  Intellectually, it’s as if we begin to root for these “teams” of thinkers and ideas, and we hope to receive the victor’s crown.  But what game is it that we are trying to win by condescendingly criticizing other people who are seeking after truth simply because, “They’re Thomists and I’m just not into that anymore.
At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that the intellectual life isn’t some sort of sports rivalry where we can zealously root for our team while bashing another simply because they don’t wear the same colored jersey we do.  The intellectual life is about zealously uncovering the truth; unwavering in our pursuit of it.  Any “school” of thought is only valuable to the degree that it serves as an avenue for us to come to the truth.
I would argue that the same timeless truths can be expressed differently in various schools of thought.  Really, there are as many different ways of doing philosophy as there are different personality types in the human race – each individual thinker is going to have their own personal likings and natural ways of thinking through complicated questions or concepts.
For any of you who have followed my posts throughout this past year, it is clear (I hope!) that I have a grown immensely as a thinker in my own right and as a philosopher.  I came into the Hildebrand Project a year ago with little knowledge of philosophy, but a great love of reading the Summa and St. Thomas.  And guess what?  Just because I wouldn’t label myself a “Thomist” does not mean that I can’t appreciate his gifted mind and incredible contributions to the treasury of history and philosophy.  On a rainy day when I’m in a bad mood, I’ll still pick up the Summa to read and lift my spirits.  There’s truly nothing like it.  But – and this is a big “but” – that does not mean that I have to see the entire world of thought through this very particular lens.
As a student and a thinker who is still trying to intellectually discern my own leanings, I find it helpful and responsible to “try on different pairs of glasses.”  What I mean by this is that we are most epistemically responsible for our belief systems and ways of thinking if we learn to practice the discipline of “thinking in” a particular system of thought for the sake of stretching ourselves while trying to think in a new way.  My fear is that sometimes, people can be so blindly loyal to their “label” of thinking that they are not truly open to the truth.  We must ask ourselves, what is it that I want?: to be a good Phenomenologist (or Thomist, or Skeptic, etc.) or to be the best version of “me” that I can possibly be?
Sometimes listening to ourselves means being open to traversing the boundaries we have set for ourselves.  Boxes can be helpful.  But when it comes to something as vastly beautiful and complicated as the human mind, I find it very suffocating and restricting to limit myself to only one box.


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This past semester, I was blessed beyond measure to have an incredible philosophy professor who taught me the importance of such a practice.  She herself is a rabid intellectual – utterly relentless in her quest for more knowledge that will lead her to the truth.  She seems to be an academic chameleon of sorts –  a declared Platonist for a time, she went on to be intrigued by the language of phenomenologist thinkers.  However, despite her intellectual leanings towards Plato, she is extremely knowledgeable in regards to both Aristotle and Aquinas.  While she personally doesn’t care for the Thomist system of thinking as much as she cares for other systems, she still expresses the utmost respect for those thinkers and has an incredible ability to put herself in their shoes when trying to teach a class from their perspective.  Rather than try to sway me (or anyone else in the class) into adopting her own personal system of philosophizing, she highly encouraged me to pursue whatever piqued my interest.
Be yourself.  Think for yourself.  Believe in your own ability as a thinker.  And always, always be responsible for what you believe.  These are the lessons she taught me.  They are lessons that are valuable beyond words.
So, where do I find myself intellectually?
On rainy days I read the Summa.  But Aristotle is collecting dust on my shelf.  I love Hildebrand and his poetic language and his musings on beauty.  I love the phenomenologist thinkers.  I’m hoping to read more Scheler in this coming year.  I think reading Kant is super fascinating.  And I don’t feel guilty about it.  At the end of the day, I couldn’t really tell you what that (seemingly random) combination of likes and dislikes “makes me.”  All I know is that my God gave me the gift of a mind.  And I intend to use it to get closer to Him – now and forever.
I just want the Truth.  And if there’s a label for that, I’ll let you know if I find it.


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