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PARTICIPATION AND EXISTENCE IN THE INTERPRETATION OF ST. THOMAS AQUINAS1 The primary purpose of the following examination of what are probably the two favorite themes of contemporary writers on St. Thomas is to showthat a participationist understanding of his thought constitutes an alternative to a certain type ofexistentialinterpretation. In order to do this I have found it helpful to develop a classification of different ways of viewing the Thomistic doctrine of existence. This is found in the second section of this article. However, my main concern has been to argue that from the point of view of historians who are not influenced by philosophical commitments to a certain type of Thomism it is more enlightening to characterize the philosophy of being of Aquinas as basically participationist, rather than existential. More precisely, the metaphysical doctrine of the actus essendi is best viewed as resulting from a combination of participationist, creationist and Aristotelian presuppositions. It therefore does not have the systematically primary place attributed to it by a whole school of modern interpreters. This is important not only for the historical understanding of Aquinas but also for the history of thought in general, and especially for that of the middle ages. On this continent at least, most students of medieval thought are "inclined to narrow philosophical conflicts down to a fundamental one between Thomistic existential philosophy of being and various degrees of de-existentialized metaphysics."2 It is thus that James Collins describes Gilson's procedure, but his words apply equally well to his own able studies in the history of modern philosophy,3 and to a host of other writers who have been influenced by the existential interpretation of St. Thomas developed by Gilson and others. What is perhaps not clearly recognized, however, is that this interpretation is 1 The present article is an adaptation of a portion of a dissertation entitled, Is Duns Scotus an Essentiahst?, presented in 1955 to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Yale University in Candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. It lays the ground-work for a comparison of the participationist motifs in the writings of Duns Scotus and Aquinas. 2 James Collins, "History in the Service of Metaphysics," Rev. of Met., II (1949) 107. 3 E. g., The Mind of Kierkegaard, Chicago, Regnery, 1953; A History of Modern European Philosophy, Milwaukee, Bruce, 1954. 1 Franciscan Studies, 1957I 2 G. LINDBECK in part dependent on philosophical considerations, and that therefore the effort to understand past intellectual developments in terms of it is not a purely historical enterprise. This is true, for instance, of Gilson's brilliant and in many respects valuable attempt to represent such diverse thinkers as Augustine and Avicenna, Scotus, Leibniz and Kierkegaard as agreeing in at least one decisive respect, namely, their essentialism.4 It will become apparent that this essentialist-existentialist dichotomy is not comparable to a philosophically neutral one such as that between epistemological idealists and realists. Those who are not adherents of a certain variety of Thomism should — and do — find it objectionable, and are likely to consider the vast amount of research which uses this distinction as presenting a seriously distorted picture of the course of philosophical thought. The present study supports this criticism by showing that, from a non-Thomistic perspective, original Thomism is not existential in such a way as to generate an historically meaningful contrast with "various degrees of de-existentialized metaphysics." The first point to establish is that it is not enough, in order for the thought of Aquinas to qualify as uniquely existential, for esse to be the name of a fundamentally important metaphysical principle. The doctrine of existence must also have a certain systematic primacy; it must not be a derívate of prior ontological principles. Then, in the second section, comes the survey of the various Thomistic interpretations of existence. We shall find that of those which can reasonably claim to be historical, only that of Gilson and his followers accords systematic primacy to existence. Finally, the last section argues that it is more faithful to St. Thomas to give this sort of priority to ontological participation , and that therefore his thought is not basically existential. I There...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 1-22
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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