- A Contemporary Thomist. An unsigned review of Epistemology; or, the Theory of Knowledge, by P. Coffey
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 623 A Contemporary Thomist An unsigned review of Epistemology; or the Theory of Knowledge, by P. Coffey. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1917.1 Pp. xiv +374; vii +376. The New Statesman, 10 (29 Dec 1917) 312, 314 The library of the New Scholasticism becomes voluminous and formidable , and Father Coffey has written the longest and most detailed treatise of the Theory of Knowledge that has yet come out of his school. It is a handsome and impressive book; it is thorough; and so far as an outsider can judge, quite sound in its interpretation of the tradition. The Theory of Knowledge has been now pretty well covered, so far as English readers are concerned, by the writings of Rickaby, the manuals of Cardinal Mercier, both the longer and the shorter, and by this work of Father Coffey.2 The present book shows less familiarity with non-scholastic contemporary philosophy than Father Rickaby’s; it is not garnished, like Cardinal Mercier’s, with physiologicalplates ;buttherearecertainsidesoftheproblem,suchastheKantian criticism, which are here treated more fully than by either of the other works mentioned. And the productions of the three men together afford some basis for an attempt to determine the value and significance of modern Catholic thought. The non-Catholic reader will be unable to avoid a tribute of grave respect to the only Church which can even pretend to maintain a philosophy of its own, a philosophy, as we are increasingly aware, which is succeeding in establishing a claim to be taken quite seriously; on the other hand, the nonCatholic reader of philosophy will by his previous reading be ill prepared for the Scholastic philosophic ideals. Those who have read philosophy with complete detachment from any schools have trained themselves to look for just those aspects of any author which are most personal; have followed with keenest interest his doubts, his prejudices, his hesitations, his confessions , here and there, of failure; have sought always for the peculiar flavour of the man’s thought in the man’s own words. Every significant philosopher is a man who has had one insight, or two or three, which no one before him has had; one new insight which excuses a hundred new errors. In reading 1917: Journalism 624 ] Aristotle, for instance, we are in touch with a mind that regarded the world quite freshly and independently; when we read him carefully, we discover the world again with him, and find him halting, stumbling, too intent on the truth, at any moment, to be always consistent; sometimes at a dead stop in the face of insuperable difficulties. In the work of the School (and this seems far more true of the modern school than of the mediaeval), we are not conscious of the pioneer spirit. The wilderness is already conquered; it remains only to make the conquest secure, to render the country habitable and fortify it against attack. Father Coffey’s chief enemy is Kant; and against Kant he erects a very powerful barricade.3 When he turns from this discredited philosopher to deal with contemporaries, he is much less successful. His references to contemporaries are infrequent; he overlooks Russell who has insisted that philosophy must proceed from the simple, if it can be found, to the complex; and Bradley, who has insisted that the simple cannot be found. These two writers between them have nearly laid metaphysics in the grave; but there is no reference to either of them in these pages.4 Father Coffey handles Pragmatism boldly, and with effect. Pragmatism is perhaps the school of thought which has paid least attention to its defences; and Father Coffey takes full advantage of its difficulties; yet it is possible that he has missed the point. This is not to accuse him of having approached Pragmatism “unsympathetically ”–sympathy has been much overrated–it is that he has attacked itsweakersidesratherthanthecentralideawhichiswhatmakesPragmatism possible at all. The conception of “utility” has been very loosely used by pragmatists. And of course we can always accuse the pragmatist of believing his own doctrine in a sense which is not pragmatic but absolute–in other words, of eating his cake and having it too. But the essential doctrine of Pragmatism is that Truth is not a simple idea; that the “truth” of any particular proposition means a number of other things, its consistency with other “truths,” its influence upon our behaviour, its success in leading to a desired end. The error of Pragmatism has often been to treat certain other concepts, like...