Richard Taylor: Aquinas and 'the Arabs' on Happiness

Richard Taylor: Aquinas and 'the Arabs' on Happiness

Dr. Richard Taylor, Distinguished Visiting Scholar from Marquette University, spoke at Ave Maria University last week. The event, which took place on January 29th, marked the Philosophy Department’s fifth annual Aquinas Lecture in Philosophy. In previous years, the Philosophy Department has hosted AMU alumna Therese Scarpelli Cory (University of Notre Dame), Fr. Ron Tacelli (Boston College), John Rist (Catholic University of America) and Ed Feser (Pasadena City College).

Taylor’s lecture, “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Classical Philosophers of Islam on Ultimate Human Happiness,” was an illustration of the insights to be gained by an intense study of Aquinas’ writings in context. Taylor co-founded, with Dr. David B. Twetten, the Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ International Working Group at Marquette University in 2005. He and his colleagues coined the term “source based contextualism” to refer to their project of understanding Aquinas by studying the works which Aquinas himself studied. At Aquinas and ‘the Arabs,’ Taylor said, they follow “a new methodological approach to unearthing the very positive way that philosophy from the lands of Islam influenced the philosophical thinking of Thomas and even played a key role in his theological analyses of central Christian doctrines.”

Dr. Taylor began by offering two instances in which the methodology of source based contexutalism yielded fruitful insights. In a 2007 article, “The Real Distinction and the Principles of Metaphysics,” R. E. Houser showed how Aquinas’ intellectus essentiae argument in De Ente must be understood within the context of Aquinas’ reading of works by Avicenna and al-Ghazali. Likewise, in a 2012 paper he delivered at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Dr. Taylor demonstrated that Aquinas’ teachings on the epistemology of intellectual understanding in his Commentary on the Sentences can be traced to his teacher’s, Albert the Great, misreading of Averroes. “Those are two examples,” Taylor said, “of important discoveries regarding central issues in the thought of Thomas that were made possible only by intensive study of his sources in context.”

Taylor closed his address by turning to the main subject of his talk, Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ on ultimate human happiness, as a third instance of the value of source based contextualism. From his research Taylor has found that, in dealing with the epistemological mechanisms for knowing God, Aquinas “reaches into the Arabic tradition.” When Aquinas first gives an account of the mechanisms of ultimate human happiness in Summa Contra Gentiles, he draws upon “a rationalist model from Averroes” which he had earlier rejected as regards natural human knowing. “In the context of supernatural knowing of God,” Taylor said, “and the vision of God’s essence, Aquinas explicitly adopts the model of Averroes.”

“So what we see here with regards to Thomas,” he went on to explain, “is a use of a philosophical model from the Arabic tradition, a model which he rejected for natural philosophy, but found perfect for his understanding of the nature of seeing God face to face, or ultimate human beatitude.”

He concluded with the words: “I don’t know how much closer one can come to showing that philosophical issues of the Arabic-Islamic tradition made their way into Europe. Those who would… try to push so hard that Islam has nothing to do with the West… sadly pervert the reality of historical understanding. Thomas knew the material very well, he made use of it, and he had no problems rejecting what was not appropriate.”

Dr. Richard C. Taylor is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. His translation of Averroes’ Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle was published in 2009. Taylor has co-edited, with Prof. Luis Xavier López-Farjeat, the Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy, forthcoming in May 2015. He is also editor of History of Philosophy Quarterly.