Seat of Faith or Seat of Reason? James Jacobs’ “Seat of Wisdom”
James M. Jacobs. Seat of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy in the Catholic Tradition. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.   When analyzing any philosophical argument, examining foundational assumptions can be a help or a hindrance. Sometimes it is a waste of time, as we often engage with other thinkers’ claims within a… The post Seat of Faith or Seat of Reason? James Jacobs’ “Seat of Wisdom” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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James M. Jacobs. Seat of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy in the Catholic Tradition. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.

 

When analyzing any philosophical argument, examining foundational assumptions can be a help or a hindrance. Sometimes it is a waste of time, as we often engage with other thinkers’ claims within a given framework of working presuppositions. For instance, when I attend a conference say, with the Hildebrand Project, I can safely assume that most of the participants will understand me if I analyze an argument through a Christian phenomenological lens. By contrast, if I try to discuss St. Thomas Aquinas’s moral philosophy with a neighbor, I have to be sure I begin with some foundational presuppositions that will make the rest of the conversation intelligible for him.
The second example is particularly apposite for present purposes: when introducing others to Thomistic thought, it is necessary to lay out certain foundations before fully fleshing out the rest of the philosophy. James M. Jacobs attempts to do that for the Thomistic tradition in his new book, Seat of Wisdom. This excellent introductory text is clearly written and targeted to appeal to a younger audience new to philosophy. He does an admirable job of covering a host of philosophical topics in clear and easy-to-follow prose. For general readers who are coming to the analytic Thomist tradition without a background in philosophy I can’t think of a better place to start.
The book is so broadly constructed and covers so many important subjects that would be worthy of discussion or debate, that I had to choose just one to focus on for the sake of this review. Given this, I selected one that seemed like it would be of interest to those familiar with Eric Voegelin’s thought and do justice to the aforementioned importance of foundational concepts for newcomers: the nature and role of reason in life and knowledge (epistemology).
Unfortunately, these days the meaning of reason is often taken for granted. The Greek word νους (nous) is often translated uncritically as “reason” or “mind” which causes problems as those terms are laden with historical and philosophical meaning often at odds with what the original authors meant. What do we mean today when we ask someone to “listen to the voice of reason” or to “be reasonable”? In its current usage, reason often means to be more “logical,” or at least less “emotional.” It means to avoid taking the extreme view, to look at the data, to check the science, as it were. When I ask someone to be reasonable, I’m asking them to step back and look at the “facts,” to do whatever it is that someone who isn’t personally involved with the situation would do. When we speak of reason or mind today in the West, we do so with post-Enlightenment ideas of rationality that are not the same as the rationality spoken of by Greek philosophy or Christian scholasticism.
One weakness of this book is that Jacobs seems to continue in this tradition of reflexively associating reason with dispassionate logical principles. As the book progresses, his deeper understanding of the relation of faith and reason unfolds, but it is never quite made explicit in ways that would be helpful to new readers.
So what exactly is Jacobs’ view of reason? He argues that there are three sorts of truths: the core dogmatic truths of the Christian faith that reason can never reach (hence Christian dogma is taken on the rule of faith), truths that have nothing to do with faith which are reached solely by reason that largely apply to natural science (like those of chemistry or geology), and truths that can be reached by either or both, like knowledge about God in the natural theological sense:
Since the truths about God are the hardest things to know, the last truths philosophy attains, they will be known by very few people and even then will not be perfectly correct. . . . But most people have to work for a living; they cannot spend their days in contemplation. Therefore, as Thomas concludes, ‘in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.
Unaided reason is also capable of reaching absolute moral truths: “because moral truth is knowable by reason, it is included in revelation only to persuade those who have difficulty accepting the guidance of reason.” Elsewhere, Jacobs asserts that “adults know that there is a logical explanation for everything.”
Jacobs also presents a rather unreflective view on the mythos/logos dichotomy:
Prior to [the] awakening of reason, when faced with the awesome mysteries of the universe, the Greeks would have constructed stories or myths to explain their experience. Why did the tide rise? Because Poseidon moved the waters … This monumental turn from mythos (myths) to logos (logic or reason) would prove to be a seminal innovation for the entire human race.
On Jacobs’ reading of Aquinas and the tradition of the philosophie pérenne, it may be easy to fall into the aforementioned commonplace understanding of reason. While Jacobs makes it explicit that believing revealed truths is not strictly irrational, his presentation of the meaning of reason may leave some students using this text open to the “God of the gaps” fallacy or worse, unable to argue against the increasingly dominant scientistic world view of the New Science.
Now we are in a position to contrast Voegelin’s opinion on reason with that presented by Jacobs.  In an interview Voegelin gave at the Thomas More institute in 1967, he makes it abundantly clear how he conceives of reason:
The consciousness of being caused by the Divine ground and being in search of the Divine ground—that is reason. Period. … That is why I always insist on speaking of “noetic” and use the term nous: in order not to get into the problems of the ideological concept of reason of the eighteenth century. The word nous is applied by Plato and Aristotle to the consciousness of being in search of the ground of one’s existence, of the meaning of one’s existence.
Now, of course, there is a lot to unpack here and not enough room to do it in this review. But it suffices to say that there is a unity of truth here: regardless of the form reason takes, reason is consciousness of being caused by the divine. Reason and the Divine are tied to each other (this is also a core anthropological insight in Christian theology – per Augustine, reason is the image of God in man). This touches on a problem raised by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics: “It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or a carpenter will be benefited in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’” (1097a8-9). But there is a sense in which knowing the good in some way is essential for each person, and particularly for the scientist, because there is no way to simply “do geology” or chemistry or whatever other hard science without first having a higher for-the-sake-of-which. The greatest scientific problems always become personal as Michael Polanyi has shown. It is a misunderstanding of this precise principle which leads people to proclaim “we believe in science” and unreflectively assent to the problematic implications to which this slogan can lead. Again, it must be emphasized that I think that Jacobs does provide many useful philosophical tools for combatting this sort of thing; however, I am simply arguing that he could have made this more explicit to avoid reason’s conflation with our deracinated scientistic monopolization of that term.
Returning to Voegelin, he often highlighted the “equivalencies of experience” between sages and philosophers from across historical epochs, all of whom were moved by this same divine ground, albeit in different ways, as Justin Martyr attests in his Apologia. For Voegelin, those who told stories of Poseidon moving the waters were, in a sense, not totally wrong. They were discerning in a less “differentiated” manner a truth with which Aquinas would have agreed: that the divine somehow moves in creation.
It is worth pointing out here that Aquinas himself acknowledges certain aspects the meaning of reason akin to that of Voegelin in his discussion of prophets in the Summa Theologiae II-II q.171:
Prophecy first and chiefly consists in knowledge, because, to wit, prophets know things that are far removed from man’s knowledge. Wherefore they may be said to take their name from phanos, “apparition,” because things appear to them from afar. … Since, however, it is written: ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit,’ and further on: ‘Seek to abound unto the edification of the Church,’ it follows that prophecy consists secondarily in speech, in so far as the prophets declare for the instruction of others, the things they know through being taught of God, according to the saying of Isaiah: ‘That which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, I have declared unto you.’
Thus reason, i.e., that which leads to knowledge of the truth, comes in different forms that cannot always be reduced to logic or dispassionate examination of data. Fostering what Voegelin calls the 18th Century “ideological concept of reason” is simply bad policy—something that we need to move beyond. Debates over the long-supposed opposition between faith and reason ought to be transcended rather than won.
To be sure, Jacobs is assuredly aware of all this, as a closer reading of his text eventually reveals (indeed, even some of the quotes I’ve provided here motion toward it). Taken on his own terms, Aquinas himself certainly helps in this regard. Jacobs may have had concerns about connecting with his target audience: those young seminarians who live and move in a scientistic world which has little patience for traditional (or, more properly speaking, ancient) understandings of reason. But in the end, it would have been helpful if it was made more explicit.
That aside complete, this is a great text for undergraduates and newcomers to the analytic Thomistic tradition of Catholic thought who seek to gain a deeper understanding of the Catholic unity of faith and reason, even if reason, sometimes, seems to overweigh faith. James Jacobs has provided a useful starting point for those embarking on the philosophical ascent to truth, but we should never forget that in the Catholic faith, reason points to faith and not vice-versa. The reasonableness of Christianity is ultimately the reasonableness of its faith. The seat of reason guides you to the greater seat—the seat of faith.

The post Seat of Faith or Seat of Reason? James Jacobs’ “Seat of Wisdom” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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