Living Thomism & Synechistic Semiotics

The overall architecture of my philosophical project is twofold: first is to follow what Jacques Maritain called a “Living Thomism”, which he saw as dealing not only with the perennial wisdom of Thomas Aquinas but as engaging the dynamic unfolding of time and the issues contained therein.  The second is to embed both semiotics, the study of the action of signs, and what Charles Peirce called “synechism”–the essential continuity of all things in the universe, of a universe without gaps–into a systematic philosophical program.

What is Thomism?

Having been steeped in the thought of Thomas Aquinas since 2006–with six years in graduate school at the Center for Thomistic Studies–I can only imagine what the external perception of Thomism is.  Based on my interactions with non-Thomist philosophers, I imagine it to be: Thomists are mostly religious ideologues hellbent upon smashing square metaphysical realist pegs into round, natural, materialist holes, just the way God intended.

From the inside, the not-so-public self-perception(s) of Thomism are perhaps not so different from the public, though certainly put in a more positive light: that is, Thomists tend to see their commitment to metaphysical realism as a commitment to the correct way of viewing the nature of the universe, and as therefore something of a proudly-held principle; which makes Thomists the defenders of an immutable truth, the keyholders to a timeless tradition of ancient wisdom, the followers, protectors, and expositors of the rightly-vaunted intellect of St. Thomas Aquinas.  It can be a pretty haughty group (of course, that’s true of all philosophers).  The often-unspoken attitude is that while other traditions may have some truth, little “t”, Thomism has priority access to Truth, big “T”–eternal, universal, end-all-be-all, “Only Truth that Really Matters” Truth.  It is little wonder that, as a group, Thomists come off as smug.  This is not aided by the fact that many Thomists, most especially its casual adherents, are adamantly “traditionalists” who demand a return to monarchy, traditional divisions of familial labor, dressing like Victorian dandies, and other such anachronistic revivals, and who perhaps doubt evolution or the non-Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological models.

The reality of Thomism varies widely from Thomist to Thomist.  Some are better, some are worse.  I have heard it joked that there are as many varieties of Thomism as there are Thomists.  I doubt this makes Thomism any different from most other schools of philosophy.  However, I do think that Thomism is perhaps a bit more arrogant as a tradition (not necessarily as individuals) than others, due the aforementioned attitude about having the Truth; but also I think Thomism is perhaps a bit more coherent, from principles to conclusions, than most other traditions, for at least some of the principles it holds are true and lead to more truth.

These key principles are the distinctions between existence and essence, a mastery of the Aristotelian doctrine of act and potency and understanding that doctrine’s relation to the cosmos at large, the doctrines of ens primum cognitum and the duplex viae of inventionis and resolutionis, and the outlines of a faculty psychology explaining species-specifically human life.

Ens Primum Cognitum

Cover-LippiStThomas-Text_DarkMy first foray in this venture is the publication of my doctoral dissertation, Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition: The Philosophy of Being as First Known.  This book explores the meaning of Aquinas’ claim, oft stated (e.g., De veritate q.1, a.1, c.; ST Ia-IIae, q.94, a.2, c.) that beingens, is the first object which the human intellect apprehends.  From the publisher’s description:

Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition presents a reading of Thomas Aquinas’ claim that “being” is the first object of the human intellect. Blending the insights of both the early Thomistic tradition (c.1380—1637AD) and the Leonine Thomistic revival (1879—present), Brian Kemple examines how this claim of Aquinas has been traditionally understood, and what is lacking in that understanding.

While the recent tradition has emphasized the primacy of the real (so-called ens reale) in human recognition of the primum cognitum, Kemple argues that this misinterprets Aquinas, thereby closing off Thomistic philosophy to the broader perspective needed to face the philosophical challenges of today, and proposes an alternative interpretation with dramatic epistemological and metaphysical consequences.

Synechistic Semiotics

The idea of synechism emerged in contrast to other architectonic theories concerning the order of the universe: idealism, materialism, and dualism.  The first makes all things or at least all knowledge to be abstract and separate from the corporeal; the second reduces all things, even knowledge, to either the corporeal or to a “function” of the corporeal (a meaningless and vague phrase, given the primacy of corporeality) and the third “performs its analyses with an axe, leaving, as the ultimate elements, unrelated chunks of being” (cf. Peirce 1893: “Immortality in the Light of Synechism”).  Both idealists and materialists frequently end up adopting a dualist presupposition by default, even if they are not conscious of it; or, being made conscious, deny it.

Synechism, by contrast, sees the “material” and the “ideal” as distinct aspects of a nevertheless continuous being.  At its root is a universal principle of coherence: not only that truth cannot contradict truth, but that the truths we discover are all part of one intelligible truth.  There are in existence no unintelligible “leaps” between forms of being, no gaps in the intelligibility of the universe–even if our intellects, at least here and now, are too feeble to discover what exists or to grasp the nature of what exists in some of those gaps.

But it is that not only the things that we may discover which exhibit a fundmanetal continuity; so, too, our means of discovery.  This may seem somewhat counterintuitive given the current fragmentary nature not only of education and the university in general (the “two cultures” problem of C. P. Snow, between what is now called STEM and the humanities) but also within each field and subfield, from individual to individual.  There may be some vague trust in the overall direction of science–or what Peirce, following Jeremy Bentham, termed “idioscopy”–by great trial and error and challenge, to eventually discover the truths of particular facts; but at present, there is a lack of philosophical understanding (the product of “cenoscopy”), leaving the true meaning of the discoveries of science mired in muddled interpretations.

The synechistic view resolves this tension, however, by its insistence upon the universal application of semiotics: the study of the action of signs.  For signs, studied in a fundamental branch of cenoscopy, are common to every inquiry, to every discipline.

Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology

For much of the past century, the study of cenoscopy has been cast adrift; that is, while humanities programs have remained in the university, they have become either increasingly envious of scientific rigor or decreasingly rigorous in the founding of their theories on solid grounds.  As cenoscopic inquiry has slackened, so too has understanding of the nature of human experience–especially the cognitive dimensions of this experience.

These problems with cenoscopic education led to my second book, The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology: Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue (final title being a matter still of some discussion), which I hope to see published sometime in early 2019.  Most especially do their philosophical endeavors correspond in explaining the nature of human experience.  From the website description:

Cover-Semiotics_Phenomenology-1Many contemporary explanations of conscious human experience, relying either upon neuroscience or appealing to a spiritual soul, fail to provide a complete and coherent theory. These explanations, the author argues, fall short because the underlying explanatory constituent for all experience are not entities, such as the brain or a spiritual soul, but rather relation and the unique way in which human beings form relations. This alternative frontier is developed through examining the phenomenological method of Martin Heidegger and the semiotic theory of Charles S. Peirce. While both of these thinkers independently provide great insight into the difficulty of accounting for human experience, this volume brings these insights into a new complementary synthesis. This synthesis opens new doors for understanding all aspects of conscious human experience, not just those that can be quantified, and without appealing to a mysterious spiritual principle.

Future plans: Thomism and Semiotics, Phenomenology and Thomism

Though I have no concrete plans to do so at the time, I hope in the future to write two further volumes in this vein: an Intersection of Thomism and Semiotics and an Intersection of Phenomenology and Thomism.  All three traditions (phenomenology in the tradition of Heidegger and semiotics in the tradition of Peirce, at least) begin from an understanding of “being as first known” (albeit in different terminology) which stands prior to any division; not coincidentally, they share other features in their pursuit of truth and even perhaps the grounds of a common approach to ethics.

Center for the Study of Digital Life

In addition to my independent research work, I consult as a Research Fellow for the Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL), a non-partisan, non-advocacy research group which is–as the name suggests–studying the effects of digital technology on human life.  Specifically, I bring my expertise in Latin Thomism (as well as Latin Age philosophy in general) and Peircean semiotics into conversation with the efforts of the rest of the eclectic group.  At present, my primary project with the CSDL centers around an investigation into the human psyche, philosophically understood, as it develops within technological environments.  This research is shaping into a lengthy white paper, presently stripped down to its barebone essentials, which I hope someday to publish into a book–containing not only the presentation of the content but the dialectic through which it was reached.