22 November 2006

Elementa Philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae

Thus the title of a two volume work by Josef Gredt, O.S.B..

I recently acquired the 7th edition (1937). A little research on OCLC indicates that it was first published in 1899 in Freiburg. First editions are relatively rare, yet the University of Pittsburgh owns a copy.

I first encountered this book on the shelves of the Robbins Library in the philosophy department of Harvard University. What was it doing there? Someone told me that John Wild used to use the book when he taught his seminar on Metaphysics.

Now this would have been between 1927 and 1961, the years when Wild was on the Harvard faculty. A little background: Wild was born in Chicago in 1902. He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago and then his Ph.D from Harvard in 1926. After a year as an instructor at Michigan, he returned to Harvard, where he wrote George Berkeley (1936); Plato's Theory of Man (1946); Introduction to Realist Philosophy (1948); Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law (1953); and The Challenge of Existentialism (1955).

As those titles indicate, Wild's interests changed from an initial focus on empiricism, to studies on Plato, to "realism", and then finally to existentialism. After a kind of philosophical conversion to existentialism he moved to Northwestern, then went to Yale, and then Florida. He died in 1972. His seminars using Gredt as the text probably date from his "realist" phase in the '40s.

(By the way, I've never seen so much as a reference to Wild's Plato books. I haven't a clue whether they are valuable.)

But now imagine a Harvard faculty with Wild and Demos, as well as C.I. Lewis, Donald Williams, and Quine on the faculty. That was an interesting time. (Williams "took the full breadth of the philosophical tradition in his stride"--observe Quine, Nozick, and Firth in their APA Memorial Minute for him--"writing on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and the philosophy of history. Scholarship in the philosophical classics, early and late, informed and disciplined his work. The breadth of his writing, moreover, was reflected in that of the courses he gave at Harvard." N.B. Are you able, dear reader, to draw a contrast at this point with what I have previously referred to as the current, narrow professionalism of philosophy?)

I was interested in Gredt because I wondered what it would be to teach metaphysics as if it constituted knowledge. And does it make sense, in contrast, to study metaphysics from within a tradition in philosophy that, as a matter of historical fact, takes its start from denying the possibility of any significant metaphysics at all? (Won't that only give us: the metaphysics that can be made to seem plausible on these unpromising principles?) To be sure, one might conclude that the whole thing was nonsense, but shouldn't one do so only after giving it the best try on its own terms? (And by all means use Wolff, or someone else, if that seems better to you: the point would be to use some text written by someone who believes metaphysics is knowledge.)

Gredt is bracing. I open a page at random:

THESIS XV: In omni ente creato essentia actualis et existentia eius distinguuntur distinctione reali positiva.
Then follows a description of the state of the question, under five distinct points. I quote from the first:
704. St. qu. 1. Ens creatum distinguimus contra ens increatum seu ens a se. Hoc exsistit vi essentiae suae, ac proinde necessario exsistit; essentia eius non recipit exsistentiam, sed est ipsa exsistencia. (Etc.)
After which follow several 'proofs':
705. Prob. th. Arg. I (ex limitatione entis creati). Actus non limitatur nisi per potentiam a se realiter distinctam. Atqui in omni ente creato existentia est actus per essentiam actualem limitatus. Ergo.
There then follow 'corollaries' (e.g. essentia creata se habet ad existantiam, sicut materia prima se habet ad formam), 'scholia' (Diversa substantiarum composito et simplicitas), and 'objections' with replies.

Now here is the amazing thing: Wild was teaching Gredt in a metaphysics seminar in Emerson Hall, Harvard University, at roughly the same time that Quine in an office down the hall was writing "On What There Is" and (with Goodman) "Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism"!


David said...

In an "ideal" classroom would it not be best to teach metaphysics as if it were a question ala Metaphysics Book Gamma? In other words, to teach the difficulty and the promise of metaphysics?

Michael Pakaluk said...


Perhaps that would be best, for most purposes.

I should also say that even on Gredt's approach metaphysics needs to be motivated. His Elementa contains a 'logic' and 'philosophy of nature' that come before metaphysics.

Also, I don't mean to suggest that it would be good to teach metaphysics (or any area of philosophy) dogmatically. One might still inquire aporetically, even using Gredt.


Thornton said...


Your post and David's question make me wonder: is teaching Metaphysics Gamma "metaphysics" or history of philosophy? Of course it's the latter, but would a contemporary metaphysician look upon it as a quaint exercise (I pick Gamma, since I think it might have more timeless value than say Zeta)? Just curious.

David said...


I'm sure that no small number of contemporary instructors would regard teaching Gamma as a quaint exercise in the history of philosophy but, it would seem to me, that anyone possessed of that attitude has already dispensed with the notion that philosophy is involved with the most fundamental questioning. If we rid ourselves of that understanding of philosophy then we've already cut ourselves off from its vital roots.

Michael Pakaluk said...


It surely is history at least, but so should be a reading of Russell's Principles of Mathematics (a work in metaphysics), or even Quine's "On What There Is".

Is it also doing metaphysics? Why should it not be? You can bet that to sit with Anscombe and read Met. Gamma would be to do metaphysics. I think this depends solely on the talents and inclinations of the 'teacher'.

My fascination with Gredt comes not from his doing something other than history, but rather that Aristotle is messy and entirely provisional, whereas in something like Gredt one finds drawn together centuries of reflection aimed at throwing that into a more structured form.


Anonymous said...

Strauss wrote a long critique of Wild's Plato book in 1946 in Social Research. It was a pan of course.

shulamite said...

Holy Smokes! I was just reading Gredt this morning!

(this, of corse, adds nothing to the post- but it should be cler why I had to say... something.)

Gredt is wonderful supplemental reading for thise who are already trained in the principles of ancient and Medieval philosophical science, but the thought of trying to have him replace it or set the foundation himself is frightening. Besides, one can only get so much from reading anyway. To learn Aristotle well you have to be a part of a community that reveres him.

And I liked your comment on Rhoda's blog, by the way.

Ocham said...

"... we even hesitate to call the logic of such textbooks
[i.e. Maritain, Gredt &c] "neo-scholastic", at least if this term be
taken in its literal meaning. For this "logic" is in such a state as to
provoke the criticism not only of modern non-scholastic logicians, but
also of any neo-scholastic versed in the history of his own tradition."
(p. xi)

Ocham said...

Oops, I cut and pasted the wrong bit. Here was the whole comment:

Suarez: ' si existentia in re non distinguitur ab essentia actuali, existentia formae non potest proprie dici conditio necessaria ad causandum; conditio enim requisita, si proprie loquamur, distinguitur ab ipsa ratione causandi; existentia autem non potest sic distingui iuxta illam opinonem, quia forma causat per suam entitatem actualem, quia non potest intelligi actu causare nisi ut habens entitatem suam actualem et extra causas; ergo ut habens existentiam.'

But I confess I don't understand a word of it. I was 'brought up' by the late C.J.F.Williams, who was very Catholic, very keen on Aquinas, but of the 'analytical Thomist' persuasion, i.e. very keen on Frege. Also v. nominalist. I can't see much dialogue between Quine and Gredt, at any rate.

Of Gredt, I'm fascinated by someone writing a metaphysics textbook in Latin, well into the 20c. All I know of him is a contemptuous passage from Boehner, who says "... we even hesitate to call the logic of such textbooks ([i.e. of Maritain, Gredt and others) "neo-scholastic", at least if this term be taken in its literal meaning. For this "logic" is in such a state as to provoke the criticism not only of modern non-scholastic logicians, but also of any neo-scholastic versed in the history of his own tradition." (p. xi).

I would very much like to see the book. Sadly I am in London, you are across the water.

"... we even hesitate to call the logic of such textbooks
[i.e. Maritain, Gredt &c] "neo-scholastic", at least if this term be
taken in its literal meaning. For this "logic" is in such a state as to
provoke the criticism not only of modern non-scholastic logicians, but
also of any neo-scholastic versed in the history of his own tradition."
(p. xi)

Alan Aversa said...

Go here for an online version of the latest edition of Gredt:
Elementa philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae vol. 1 (logica & philosophia naturalis) and vol. 2 (metaphysica, theologia naturalis, ethica).

There's a "full screen" option, and you can even download a PDF if you register for free with Gloria.tv.

Another manual-style series similar to Gredt's is Édouard Hugon's:
Cursus Philosophiæ Thomisticæ I (PDF)
Cursus Philosophiæ Thomisticæ II (PDF)
Cursus Philosophiæ Thomisticæ III (PDF)

Alan Aversa said...

Click here for a review of Gredt's work.