Disappearing Sciences

The second of two wished-for sciences has just disappeared. It vanished, as did the first, under textual scrutiny. Thomas's scattered remarks on medicine say too little to found a medieval science, but thus invite a contemporary one to be inserted. On Kingship is no charter for Catholic politics, and Thomas's other treatment of political questions suggest that he would be suspicious of a free-standing political theory. He conceives political discourse as the education of rulers in virtue, and he comes to understand that education to require the integral discourse of a Christian theology.

Someone might well say, even if Thomas provides no separable discourse of politics, we contemporary Thomists can construct one on Thomistic principles. The suggestion is worth rebutting - and not just by pointing out that it begs the question of what principles should be counted "Thomistic" when Thomas had little original to say about a body of knowledge. It is important to reverse the question and to ask back, what makes you so certain that Thomas wants to lend principles for new sciences that he considered either incidental to discourses he did pursue or else inseparable from them? So far as I can tell, the confidence of some Thomists before this question rests on a tacit model for Thomas's authorship. The model is that of the (modern) "system." It supposes that the thought of any "great" thinker is actually or virtually an encyclopedic whole. This is one view of human thought, but hardly the only one. It is a distinctively modern notion of intellectual coherence and completeness, much indebted to the Enlightenment (as I will show below).

Enlightened models of mind determine wishes for Thomistic sciences in other ways. They encourage the conviction that disciplines are stable across time — more, that the idea of discipline itself, of "disciplinarity," remains the same. A little intellectual history will show otherwise. The alignments and relations of disciplines change rapidly. The idea of discipline changes more slowly — but also more consequentially. Even if Thomas had wanted to offer a self-contained medical or political science, why should a reader think that it could survive retrieval into a modern disciplinary regime in which a historically specific alliance of medicine and law plots comprehensive management? Why trust that his authorship could function within our dispositions of epistemic power?

Thomas held other notions about philosophic and theological authorship. As a superb dialectician and astute interpreter of intellectual succession, he would have found it untrue and unhelpful to imagine that any human author (or authors) could settle every important question once for all, even by way of principles. As a believer in a rule of faith passed down through a sacramental community in anticipation of heavenly vision, Thomas would have judged it outrageous to claim that any philosopher or theologian could possess complete truth in this life. To assert that Thomas wanted a system in the modern sense is to confuse Thomas with his philosophical and theological opposites. Wishing for Thomistic sciences denies Thomas's practices of knowing, teaching, and writing.

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