"Thomersonalism," or Thomistic Personalism (or Personalistic Thomism)
A Marriage Made in Heaven, Hell, or Harvard?
by Peter Kreeft
30th annual Aquinas Lecture
Center for Thomistic Studies
University of St. Thomas
Jan. 27, 2011
I. Introduction: the question
II. Four possible answers
III. The argument for the synthesis
IV. The metaphysical link: esse
V. Connecting sanctity with ontology
VI. What makes an individual person?
VII. Objections to the synthesis
"Thomersonalism" (Thomistic Personalism or Personalistic Thomism):
a Marriage Made in Heaven, Hell, or Harvard?
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments," writes
Shakespeare, sagely. On the other hand, if you marry a horse to a jackass you only
produce a mule, which in tum is sterile and produces no offspring. When you marry
Thomism with personalism, when you marry a premodern, objective and metaphysical
philosophy with a modem, subjective, and phenomenological one, do you get a marriage
of true minds made in Heaven or a mule made in Hell or Harvard? (In my spiritual
geography I locate Harvard about 2/3 of the way from Heaven to Hell.)
Pope Benedict says it's made in Heaven. (Of course this is his personal
philosophical opinion, at most a "theologoumenon," not a dogma.) In Introduction to
Christianity he said that in the notion of the person developed in the Church's theology of
the Trinity, "lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world." But he is also a
Thomist, as well as an Augustinian (which is one of the things Thomas himself was), and
as pope he has called St. Thomas indispensable.
Another great pope, John Paul II, agrees. On the one hand his encyclical "Fides et
Ratio" is pure Thomism, and on the other hand his two great philosophical volumes, The
Acting Person and Love and Responsibility, are classic examples of personalism and
phenomenology. And he was not a schizophrenic.
Fr. Norris Clarke argues for the "made in Heaven" option in his little classic
Person and Being, which he calls a "creative retrieval and completion" ofThomism. In
other words, Fr. Clarke claims to be not a father with a shotgun but an ontological
obstetrician who delivers the personalistic baby from the metaphysical mother by natural
delivery. His argument in a nutshell is that personalism and Thomism are eminently
marriable philosophically because Person and Being are already married metaphysicallly.
The book is an extended metaphysical riff on Thomas's pregnant statement that "person
is that which is highest in all of nature" (ST 1,29,3). As Fr. Clarke says, "The person is
not some special mode of being, added on from the outside so to speak. It is really
nothing but the fullness of being itself. .. when not restricted by the limitations proper to
the material mode of being ... To be fully, without restriction, is to be personal."
That is the philosophical argument for the marriage. There is also a powerful
theological argument implicit in the self-revealed divine name "I AM." Historically,
Thomistic metaphysics revealed the deepest depths of the "AM" half of the divine name,
but personalism reveals the deepest depths of the "I" half, and the unity of the two in
God's being is the ultimate foundation for their unity in man's thinking.
Four Possible Answers
There are four possible answers to our question: Yes, Yes But, Maybe, or No; in
other words accepting the marriage proposal, a conditional marriage with a signed pre-
nuptial agreement, a trial engagement, or a refusal, polite or impolite. We must say to the
proposal of marriage by the matchmakers either a hearty and enthusiastic "Yes," or a
"Yes" with qualifications and warnings; or a "Perhaps, but it's too early to tell," or a
"Sorry but this just won't work," which in turn may be either "Let us amicably agree to
disagree," or a "Get thee behind me, Satan," or a "Frankly, my dear, I just don't give a
Since lecturing falls under the species of interpersonal dialog; since in this lecture
you are not simply eavesdroppers on my private conversation with God, but the objects
for whom the lecture is intended, I will address only Thomists rather than personalists,
and evaluate personalism Thomistically rather than evaluating Thomism
personalistically. I think everyone here already agrees that Personalism needs Thomism;
what we wonder about is whether Thomism needs Personalism.
To be more specific, we all know that Persomalism specializes in the first half of
each of the following 10 dualities or polarities and is unfortunately usually suspicious of
the second half, which is the speciality of Thomism, and which we know is
--the concrete vs. the abstract
--the individual vs. the universal
--phenomenological description vs. causal explanation
--relation vs. substance
--experience vs. reason
--becoming vs. being
--epistemology vs. metaphysics
--psychology vs. ethics
--anthropology vs. theology
--the subjective vs. the objective
We know that any philosophy that treats the second half of any of these pairs with
disdain, suspicion, forgetfulness, or rej ection is radically incomplete. What we are less
sure of is, first, whether any philosophy that treats the first half of these pairs negatively
or neglects that half is also radically incomplete, and secondly, if so, whether Thomism
has been guilty of that neglect, and thirdly, if so, whether that neglect can be ended on the
basis of Thomistic principles themselves, thus completing Thomism from within. That is
my main question in this investigation. The answer of Thomistic personalism is "yes" to
all three questions; that because of the first two answers the marriage is necessary and
because of the third answer the marriage is possible, and will be fruitful, not mulish.
Of the ten polarities, the most fundamental is the last: the relation between
objectivity and subjectivity, between the objective orientation of premodern philosophy
and the famous "turn to the subject" that made Descartes the father of all typically
I will take John Paul II and Fr. Clarke as the two best defenders of the positive
answer to our question, John Paul in anthropology and Clarke in metaphysics. First, a
few general quotations from John Paul about the need for the marriage. (Since the
quotations are all pre-1978, I will call him 'Woytyla.' I mean no disrespect; Jesus often
called Peter 'Simon' even after changing his name.)
As far back as 1961 Wojtyla presented a prophetic little IO-page paper entitled
"Thomistic Personalism" at the Catholic University of Lublin, calling for a synthesis of
the insights of these two philosophies in particular and of classical and modern
philosophy in general. The main reason he gave for the synthesis was strategic: the need
for a fuller answer to what he consistently maintained was the critical question of our
time, "What is man?" For the crises in both the Church and the world today are not about
theology and its metaphysical foundations, as they were in the early Christian centuries,
but about ethics and its anthropological foundations.
The premise of this argument is certainly true. Does the conclusion follow that
the marriage is necessary, or even desirable, or even possible? Should we add this
synthesis to the already-existing Thomistic synthesis, or should we pray "Forgive us our
syntheses?" and ask "who can forgive syntheses but God alone?"
The Argument for the Synthesis
The most basic argument for the synthesis of the metaphysical and the
phenomenological is metaphysical, not phenomenological: it is that we are, in ontological
fact, both subjects and objects and therefore must explore both dimensions and unite
them, as they are in fact united in ourselves. This is the argument from the nature of the
A second, equally primordial, argument comes from the nature of being: that, as
Aquinas says, personhood is "that which is most perfect in all of nature." (ST I, 29, 3)
The ultimate reason for this, known to theologians through divine revelation but not
known to philosophers through reason alone, is that God, the Creator and archetype of all
being, is personal: that ultimate reality's name is "I AM," and therefore we must
investigate the "I," as modem personalism does, as well as the "AM," as Aquinas did,
because they are equally primordial and absolute.
If this marriage is made in Heaven, both of the parties will benefit profoundly
from it, as both faith and reason, supernatural theology and natural philosophy, benefited
profoundly by the medieval marriage between the two. If Christians instead had chosen
fideistic spinsterhood and had adopted the faith-versus-reason dualism of Tatian,
TertuIlian, Averroes, Siger of Brabant, Scotus, Ockham, Luther, or Kierkegaard, then
Justin Martyr, Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Newman,
and even C.S. Lewis would all be out of work. (By the way, I wonder: Is it significant
that each of the "synthesizers" was a saint? I know Lewis has not yet been canonized on
earth, but I take a patient, Heavenly point of view on that.)
Because I am both a Thomist and a male, I think of the Thomist as the groom and
the Personalist as the bride, and I wonder: Should I marry this woman? Good friends like
Woytyla and Clarke say Yes. But I must test their advice. And since I am both a
Thomist and a man, I will use abstract, objective reasoning rather than concrete personal
experience, and I will explore a few key specific issues in metaphysics to see whether the
marriage would benefit me as well as my potential spouse, that is, to see whether I
receive additional metaphysical light by cozying up to Miss Personality.
The Metaphyhsical Link: Esse
Let us begin at the very center and sununit of being: the act of existing.
Both Woytyla and Clarke take the Gilsonian-Maritainian "existential Thomism"
point of view, which emphasizes the centrality of the "to be," the act of existing, what
Gilson calls "the Ultima Thule of metaphysics." Gilsonisn Thomism also insists on a
firm epistemological realism rather than the semi-Kantian, semi-idealist "transcendental
Thomism", even though the latter at first seems much more akin to the phenomelological
method and the personalist themes which naturally leap into focus when we use that
method, the viewpoint of immanent, individual, concrete, personal, subjective
consciousness, rather than transcendent, universal, abstract, impersonal, objective reason.
At the heart of Gilsonian "existential Thomism" is the primacy of the
metaphysical principle of esse, to-be, the act of existing. To call it "the act of existence"
instead of "the act of existing" is misleading because it is an act, not a state. It is the
supreme actuality, and even essences are only potential with respect to it. It is 'first act,"
and is always followed by, and revealed by, "second act," action, operation, or activity.
In all beings, "operatio sequitur esse," action follows existence. We know something is
real by its activity. Even a rock acts, to stop a hammer. Mere beings of reason, mere
concepts, don't do that. Existence is the supreme perfection because it is actual with
respect to everything else.
This primacy of existence entails some shocking consequences. One of them is
that essences are negative, not positive. (Plato would be scandalized by that.) Another is
that God is existence, not essence. (Rationalists are scandalized by that.) A third is that
God is totally, literally, and actually present at the heart of every existing being. (Deists
are scandalized by that.)
Let us explore these three consequences just a little further.
Essences are negative because they limit existence to this kind of existence.
Existence of itself is unlimited.
And therefore it is correct to identify God with existence. This sounds like a
reduction of the personal to the impersonal, but it is not, because existing is not an
impersonal thing, state, concept, or universal abstracted from all things. It is the
supreme actuality, dynamic and concrete. That is what God is. The crucial tum in
understanding this signature theme of Thomistic metaphysics, the sudden light that comes
when the road of thought reaches the summit of the mountain, is the realization that
"esse" is not just an abstract fact but a concrete act, not just the state of being there but
the dynamic EVENT that creates that state (though not necessarily a temporal act or
event). It is more like energy than like matter. It is more like light than like a lit object.
It is not an essence. It cannot be defined. It does not sit still for a portrait. This all the
mystics know, and Thomas was a mystic as well as a theologian. And in the end his
mysticism trumped even his theology: he could not finish the "straw" of the Summa. I
think that was his supreme achievement: that single word. But beware: you have a right
to be silent and call all your work "straw" only after you have written 9/1 0 of a Summa.
A third startling consequence is what Gilson calls "the great syllogism": Major
premise: Esse is "that which is most intimate in each thing and that which is most
profound in it, because the act of being is actual with respect to all that there is in it."
Minor premise: God is esse. Conclusion: "therefore God is the in all things, and that most
What is God doing? He is be-ing. It's what bees do. God is really and totally
and personally present at the energizing center of every being, actualizing it from
within---even the Devil, who must rage eternally in hopeless ontological resentment
against his dependency on God for his very existence.
This is not pantheism because the very thing that makes God totally present also
makes Him totally transcendent: the fact that He is infinite existence, transcending all
finite essence. As light actualizes all colors because it transcends all colors; as the
surface of a mirror reflects all opaque objects because it is not an opaque object; as
thought makes present all forms, represents or re-presents all forms, because it is itself
formless, so God actualizes all essences, all potentialities because He transcends them by
being pure actuality.
And therefore the essence of theological sanity and the essence of sanctity are
identical: the practice of the presence of God. For the God oftme theology is the God
who is always present, not absent; and the practice oftme philosophy is the conformity of
thought to reality. Although sanity and sanctity are not identical by abstract logical and
philosophical definition or by concrete phenomenological and psychological description,
their ontological basis is identical.
Thomas is above all a theologian and a metaphysician, and the supreme signature
theme of Thomism is the primacy of the act of existence in metaphysics, and the
identification of God with existence in theology. Only God's essence is existence; in all
creatures essence and existence are really distinct.
And the connection of this absolutely central Thomistic theme with personalism is
that God is personal. God is three Persons. Thus existence, when infinite, is personal;
nothing can be less than a person unless it is limited by a finite essence. Personality is
not an accidental addition to existence; it is what existence is of itself, when let alone, so
to speak. "Person is what is most perfect in all of nature."
Connecting Sanctity with Ontology
Gabriel Marcel, in his essay "On the Ontological Mystery," made one of the most
startling statements in the history of philosophy. He said that the true introduction to
ontology was the study of sanctity. (Imagine the rage and scandal that statement would
provoke in an atheist ontologist like Nietzsche, who was really an atheist oncologist,
diagnosing the death of being as well as the death of God!) But Marcel's startling
identification is not a confusion but logically follows from just two premises: first, that
the saint is the human person at his most human, in his perfection as he was meant to be,
freed from the dehumanizing of sin; and second, that personhood is the perfection of
being just as sanctity is the perfection of personhood. Like existence, personhood is not an essence. We all know this instinctively.
Ordinary language distinguishes the pronouns who and what, person and essence. We
ask human beings whose essence is obviously only human who they are, assuming we
know their what, their species, their essence; but we ask Jesus, Buddha, and Mr. Spock
what they are: are they only human or something else? Thus ordinary language implicitly
teaches us that personhood, or who-ness, is not merely species-being, or essence or whiteness. There are only two other possibilities: if it is not essence, it is existence or it is nothing. In other words, Thomism or materialism.
That is the most central metaphyhsical theme uniting Thomism and personalism,
the Thomistic hook that holds the personalistic fish. A second, related, and corollary
theme in Thomistic metaphysics is that (in Thomas' own words (De potentia 2,1) "It is
the nature of every actuality to communicate itself insofar as it is possible. Hence every
agent acts insofar as it exists in actuality." Second act follows first act, activity follows
actuality. It is the very nature of being to communicate itself to another, to relate to the
other, to give itself to the other. Maritain calls this "ontological generosity": fire ignites
the other, light illumines the other, thought knows the other, love seeks the good of the
other. This is the Thomistic vision that inspired Dante to write the greatest line in the
greatest poem in the world, about the love that moves the sun and all the stars. That's not
just gravity; it's God.
Thomistic personalism unifies the three philosophically profoundest predicates we
can predicate of God. The first of these is being: the burning bush's I AM, God naming
himself not this or that being but being itself. And remember that being, for Thomas, is
first of all existence.
The second name, from the same source, is the "I": God is Person-three Persons.
This name, implied in the same name spoken in the burning bush, was explicated,
unpacked, so to speak, some 2000 years later by the Holy Spirit to the Church in her
Trinitarian and Christological creeds, with their key distinction between person and
The third name, incarnated and acted on by Christ and enunciated by St. John's
first epistle, is love. Because God is not just one Person but three, He is not just a lover
but complete love itself, lover, beloved and loving.
God is being, God is person, God is love. Nothing profounder can be said of God.
But the three are one because of the prior revelation to Moses, the shema: "Hear, 0
Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God is ONE." Since it is the one and the same God who is
being (existence) and who is person, and who is love, therefore these three are one in
God, that is, in their perfection. These are three names for the same reality. There is in
God a kind of philosophical circumincession or mututal indewelling of names, somewhat
like the circumincession of Persons in the Trinity.
And this oneness is shown by the following circular equation.
It is a seven-step equation.
First, God is being.
Second, being is the act of existing.
Third, the act of existing is the supreme actuality, "first act," the moxie or
chutzpah to stand outside nothingness.
Fourth, actuality is also always activity, whether temporal or eternal. "Operatio
sequitur esse." Real being, unlike merely mental being, always does something, always
makes a difference.
Fifth, this difference is always made to some other being; therefore activity also
implies relationality, relationship. And always this relationship is self-communication,
self-giving. Everything diffuses itself., gives itself in "ontological generosity."
Sixth, that is what love is. So all be-ing is a form ofloving.
Seventh, love is the essence of personal sanctity. Love is every person's telos and
fulfillment. Love is the purpose of personhood.
Finally, this seventh element is equated with the first one: God is love.
I know that the equations are not mathematical and simply reversible. "God is
love" does not mean the same thing as "Love is God." But love, unlimited by time or
finite essence, IS God just as existence not limited by finite essence is God. Both
personhood and love are not external additions to being but that which being is of itself
when freed from all external restrictions.
So Marcel is right when he says that the secret to ontology is sanctity. Scratch the
suface of being and you eventually find love at its heart. Do some metaphysical
spelunking, explore the depths ofthe cave of being, and you find there a saint, a little
Christ. The center of the universe is neither the earth nor the sun; it is the Son. (capital
Ever since Nominalism and the end of the Middle Ages, there has been an
unfortunate division between speculative and practical theology, between metaphysics
and spirituality, between ontology and sanctity. It is time for the estranged siblings to
return home and reconcile. It is time to write books like Augustine's Confessions again.
For metaphysics at its profoundest depth or highest summit can and should coincide with
sanctity, spirituality, even mysticism. Metaphyhsics should take on a personal dimension
and challenge, if the search for the depths of being is seen as the work not merely of
disinterested impersonal curiosity but also of the desire for personal fulfillment and
salvation, as the response to the personal pull from the source of all existence. As the
ultimate Alpha and Omega are one, as our first cause and last end are one, so our ultimate
causal explanation and our ultimate personal fulfillment are one. Thus, as Fr. Clarke says
at the end of his great metaphysics text, The One and the Many, "metaphysics turns out to
be not just the (abstract, intellectual) quest for the fullness of truth but also a hidden
existential encounter with the transcendent source Himself." Metaphysics, like life, is not
"the flight of the alone to the Alone" but a dialog with the God who is a Trinity of
persons in love.
What Makes an Individual Person?
In addition to this central theme, there are a number of satellite themes that are
essential to the union of Thomism and personalism, but because Thomas himself never
explicitly developed them, the traditional Thomist may well balk at them. One of the
most important of these is the notion of the individual person as (l) not merely an
Aristotelian substance with form and matter, whose principle of individuation is matter
(though this is true and a necessary foundation for subsequent higher definitions of the
person), or even (2) merely the richer Boethian notion of an individual substance of a
rational nature, whose individuality consists in being undivided in itself but divided from
everything else (which is also true and foundational, but insufficient), or even (3) the still
richer Thomistic notion of a substantial rational soul with powers of intellect and will
substantially united to an animal body (which is also true and foundational but also
insufficient), but (4) one whose individuality is interior-the whole dimension of the
inner life-and which is also essentially relational. The I is just as relative to the I-Thou
relation as that relation is to the I, in us as in God. The interiority or inner life of the
individual is relational because it is a life of self-consciousness and self-mastery or
freedom, "dominus sui" as Aquinas calls it (SCG III, 155; ST I-II, 6, 2)
When we explore the dimension of subjectivity, we find that the principle of
personal individuation, as distinct from the individuation of nonpersonal substances, is
more than matter, and more than substantiality; we find the notion of person as
essentially relational as well as substantial. We find this essential relationality in three
dimensions: to others, to self, and to God. First, we actualize our self-identity only in
relation to others. Individuality and relationality are actualized together, not apart.
Neither exists without the other. Second, the self becomes a self only by relation to itself
(by self-consciousness and self-mastery or freedom). Third, we become selves only in
relation to God, which is also not an addition but an aspect of the very essence of the
person. We become a self only by being created by our Alpha in His image and by
attaining our final end by union with our Omega. Until Heaven, we are broken,
incomplete persons, embryonic persons, and this little universe is only our womb.
The need to explore the reality of personal subjectivity and its three relationships
(which Aquinas rarely does explicitly) is the reason for personalism. For subjectivity is
the dimension of human personhood which is irreducible to objectivity just as much as
objectivity is irreducible to sUbjectivity. Woytyla says in his essay "Subjectivity and the
Irreducible in the Human Being" that "The personalistic type of understanding the human
being is not the antinomy of the cosmological type but its complement." And the reason
for the need of a personalistic type of understanding is, he says, that "we must pause at
the irreducible, at that which is unique and unrepeatable in each human being, by virtue
of which he or she is not just a particular human being-an individual of a certain
species-but apersonal subject. Only then do we get a true and complete picture of the
human being." We have a subjective inner life as well as an objective life, and a
complete philosophy cannot neglect either one.
But to do this, we need also a different method than the objective or cosmological
one, which is based on abstraction of universal forms from particular substances.
Woytyla criticizes those Thomists who would reject the need for this additional method
"The traditions of philosophical anthropology would have us believe that we can,
so to speak, pass right over this (interior, irreducibly subjective) dimension, that we can
cognitively omit it by means of an abstraction that provides us with a species definition
of the human being as a being, or in other words, with a cosmological type of reduction:
homo equals animal rationale}. (But) the irreducible signifies that which is essentially
incapable of reduction, that which cannot be reduced but can only be disclosed or
revealed. Lived experience essentially defies reduction. This does not mean, however,
that it eludes our knowledge; it only means that we must arrive at the knowledge of it
differently, namely by a method or means of analysis that merely reveals and discloses its
essence. The method of phenomenological analysis allows us to pause at lived
experience as the irreducible."
These two methods are joined by their common object: the human self. The
personal subject and the ontological subject are the same. In fact, the substantiality of the
metaphysical subject is the necessary ontological foundation for the relationality of the
phenomenological subject, because only substances can be in relation. Just as many
Thomists resist the personalists' point about relation, most personalists and
phenomenologists resist the Thomistic point about substance, and, indeed, the broader
point about the need for metaphysics and abstraction. The two families of Romeo and
Juliet try to keep them apart. But they are destined for each other.
A corollary of this vision is a metaphysical foundation for John Paul's Theology
ofthe Body, the Church's response to the most life-changing revolution in 2000 years,
namely the sexual revolution. The ontological ground for John Paul's philosophy of
sexuality are the double nature of the person as both substance and relation, both in-itself
and toward-others, both introverted and extroverted, plus the equiprimordiality and equal
dignity of receptivity and activity, and thus of femininity and masculinity, grounded in
the Trinity itself. Jesus was the most perfectly masculine man who ever lived, yet also
the most totally receptive to His Father's mind and will. He was the most cosmically
"feminine," the total conformist-and yet the most active, creative, and original man who
ever lived. It's not either/or but both/and.
What we have explored, sketchy as it was, should convince us, I think, that of the
four possible answers to the proposal of marriage between Thomism and personalism, a
simple No is not the right one. But we must look at the objections to the marriage before
we decide whether to say Yes, Maybe, or Yes But, i.e. Yes but only with a prenuptial
agreement. There are at least ten such objections.
Objection 1: There is no need for a further synthesis. Thomism is complete.
Reply: First, no philosophical system is complete in this world. And Thomism
does not claim to be a complete system. It is an open system, not a closed one, like that
ofthe modem rationalists. It is essentially a dialog with all philosophies: this is
manifested in the very form of the Summa article, which is a systematized dialog, and in
the fact that Aquinas almost always answers objections not by simple denials but by
distinctions and tries to affirm and preserve the true aspect of every objection.
Second, Thomism is not incompatible with further synthesis because Thomism
itself is a synthesis: of Plato and Aristotle, of theology and philosophy. In fact, Thomas
is history's greatest synthesizer, rivaled only by Hegel (the paragon of brilliant but insane
absent mindedness as Aquinas is the paragon of sane common sense). Selected chickens
from all previous philosophical chicken coops, except that of the Sophists, come to roost
in Thomas' bam and lay eggs for his omelet. As Thomas assimilated and synthesized as
many pre-Thomistic truths as possible, Thomists should assimilate and synthesize as
many post-Thomistic truths as possible, for all truth is compatible with all other truth,
since all truth is ultimately both from and to a single divine source and end.
Objection 2: But historically, every attempt to synthesize Thomism with any
other philosophy has always failed. Gilson has refuted both early modem rationalistic,
essentialistic Thomism and 20th century transcendental Thomism by returning from all
neo-Thomisms to authentic, original paleo-Thomism. All neo-Thomist syntheses in
history have deformed, misunderstood, and misinterpreted Thomas.
Reply: First, it is not any neo-Thomism but precisely Gilsonian paleo-Thomism
that the Thomistic personalists want to synthesize with personalism.
Second, the historical failure of past syntheses in fact does not prove the failure of
synthesis in principle.
Objection 3: Perhaps some synthesis is acceptable, but this synthesis is not
because it is alien. It is an imposition, not a growth, not an organic completion of
Thomism from within. The two philosophies are too different to meld; the old body will
not accept the new organ. The marriage is a monster, half man half beast, like a centaur,
not a hypostatic unity like Christ, fully divine and fully human. It is a fundamentalist
Muslim marriage rather than a Christian one, a subjugation of one partner, a slavery of
the object to the subject. Phenomenology is not a friend but a foreign spy.
Phenomenological Thomism is really Kantian Thomism, "transcendental Thomism" in
Reply #1: No it is not. Gilson, Maritain, Ratzinger, Woytyla and Clarke are all
firmly Gilsonian "existential" Thomists and realists. Woytyla criticizes not only
Husserl's later tum toward idealism but even his initial "epoche" as tending to idealism
(cf. The Acting Person: Subject and Community, in Person and Community: Selected
Essays (1993), p. 226.)
Reply # 2: The two philosophies are indeed very different, but difference does not
preclude marriage, but makes it possible. That is why there is no such thing as a
marriage between two men or two women.
Objection 4: Some differences are synthesizable but others are not. A synthesis
between premodern objectivism and modem subjectivism is not. All truth is compatible
with all other truth, but subjectivism and objectivism are contradictory, not compatible.
Truth is either subjective or objective; either dependent on consciousness or independent
of consciousness-unless the law of non-contradiction has been abrogated.
Reply: Of course truth is objective. Neither personalism nor phenomenology are
necessarily subjectivistic. To explore subjectivity is not to be a subjectivist. Subject and
object are joined in all experience; why should they not be joined in a complete
Woytyla agues that it is phenomenology itself which discovers the falsehood of
subjectivism. I discover by experience that I am not simply pure consciousness but rather
an individual substance.
Objection 5: The two philosophies are not synthesizeable because one is based on
abstraction and the other rejects abstraction. You can't be both abstract and concrete at
the same time. The abstract is universal, the concrete is individual. Because its method
is concrete rather than abstract, phenomenology deliberately refuses metaphysical
presuppositions and starts with the conscious lived experience of the individual self
Reply: First, The fact that you can't do both at the same time does not mean you
can't do both.
Second, phenomenology need not reject abstract metaphysics, any more than
science needs to reject religion or religion needs to reject science.
Third, Thomism is itself concrete, though objectively rather than subjectively. It
is an Aristotelian "soft empiricism", not a Platonic essentialism or a Spinozisic
rationalism. And phenomenology is itself abstract because it is reflective: we do not
directly experience the reflection on experience.
Objection 6: Phenomenology begins with self, with consciousness, with man.
Thomsim begins with being and with God. The modem anthropocentrism is a kind of
philosophical idolatry. Descartes begins with the human I AM instead of the divine I
AM. This is implicitly humanism. Reality is not anthropocentric but theocentric.
Reply: Thomistic personalism does do not begin with Descartes, it begin with
Thomas, or rather with God. It agrees with the Southern Baptist preacher who said that
everything God revealed to us can be summarized in two points, in four words: One: I'm
God. Two: You're not.
The starting point and point of view of Thomistic personalists are Thomistic, not
modem. It is not from a modem point of view that they tum to Thomism; it is from a
Thomistic point of view that they tum to modem personalism in metaphysics and
phenomenology in method, because they want to synthesize all valid post-Thomas
insights as Thomas himself synthesized all valid pre-Thomas insights. They want to
cannibalize parts of Descartes or Pascal or Hegel or Kierkegaard or Husser! or Heidegger
or Scheler to feed to Thomas, to complete Thomas, not vice versa.
Objection 7: Does this synthesis claim to solve the puzzle of the gnoseo-
ontological circle or does it stay endlessly within it? The puzzle is this: Whenever we
think of being, being is the object of thought, is surrounded by thought, is an example of
But whenever thought exists, thought is an example of
objective reality, of being. Being is encompassed by thinking and thinking is
encompassed by being. This gnoseo-ontological circle must be broken somewhere; we
must begin either with the objective, as pre-Cartesian philosophy does, or with the
subject, as Descartes and his successors do. One of the two must be prior to the other.
Reply: True, and in objective reality the subject is relative to the object, not vice
versa. The truths about subjectivity are objective truths, not subjective truths. Thomistic
personalism is realism, not idealism. But since "what is first in intention is last in
execution," since we think about ends before we think about means, and since what is
first in objective reality is usually last in human thought, since human thought naturally
moves backward rather than forward, from effect to cause, it is therefore natural and
legitimate to begin with subjectivity in our method, even though it is not legitimate to
posit the priority of subjectivity in reality.
Objection 8: The synthesis is a confusion of categories. We may indeed need an
exploration of subjectivity, but this is not philosophy, it is psychology
Reply: There is philosophical psychology as well as empirical psychology, just as
there is philosophical cosmology as well as scientific cosmology, and philosophical
theology as well as Biblical theology, and a philosophy of history as well as a history of
philosophy. Neither one excludes the other.
Objection 9: Even though subjective methods do not necessarily replace or deny
objectivity in principle, in practice they usually do. Most personalists hate and fear
metaphysics, abstraction, causal explanations, and the very idea of substance. It is like
technology: in principle it is good and human, but in practice it almost always destroys its
Reply: The parallel with technology is instructive. After the technological
alternative to nature was developed, nature was more deeply appreciated. The ancients
did not love but feared mountains, storms, oceans, comets, and lions. Technology offers
us the opportunity to forget and destroy nature, but it also offers us the opportunity to
appreciate it better, as death offers us the opportunity to appreciate life. We appreciate
most things best by contrast. Masculinity and femininity are an obvious example. The
fact that some men hate and fear women and some women hate and fear men is an
aberration, not a necessity. The same can be true of these two philosophies.
Objection 10: Phenomenology and personalism are both vague and dull. No
phenomenologist or personalist has ever written clearly. This is no accident. Not writing
clearly is always caused by not thinking clearly.
Reply # 1: Then perhaps it's time to change that. And no one could change it
better than a Thomist. Let someone write a personalist Summa.
Reply #2: There's reason for that obscurity: the same reason the Holy Spirit
seems more vague and dull to us than the other two Persons of the Trinity-until we
actually experience His reality and presence. We naturally and not wholly mistakenly
think of the Father as outside us, the Son as beside us, and the Spirit as inside us, and the
indwelling of the Spirit makes God what Marcel calls a mystery rather than a problem to
us. We can't get it clear because we can't objectify it. And that is preeminently true of
subjectivity itself. Mysteries are not capable of clear or definitive solutions because they
all include subjectivity, they "encroach on their own data," as Marcel puts it; they are
questions we cannot abstract ourselves from. We ARE the problem of evil, and the
psychosomatic unity, and the freedom of the will. The Copenhagen interpretation of the
Heisenberg indeterminacy principle may have been wrong about atoms but it was right
about us: the act of observing this object interferes with any clear perception of a
determinate position or velocity of the object.
And that is as it must be, because our I is the image of the divine I, which is the
eternal mystery. In both, the subject can never be wholly objectified. That cow can
never be milked dry. How threatening and boring that would be. In fact, that is almost
the definition of Hell.
I have presented my thesis, defined it, defended it, and answered objections to it.
What is my conclusion, my response to the marriage proposal?
My answer is not that we should marry Thomism and personalism, nor that we
should not, but that our image of the marriage was wrong; that it should have been the
image of a pregnant woman. We can find personalism already hiddenly present in
Thomism, like an unborn baby, and it is now advent in the calendar of philosophical
kairos, and high time for a nativity and an epiphany.
So my answer to the original question is an ecstatic Yes, and a prediction that this
marriage, or rather this pregnancy, is not only made in Heaven but is destined to be so
fruitful on earth that it will be the greatest piece of philosophical progress since the 13th
In previewing and forecasting this birth, Fr. Clarke and John Paul II have both
been like Albert the Great; I pray that one of you who hears or reads this lecture will be
the new Aquinas.