Summa Philosophica Hardcover – 10 Jun 2012
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Kreeft breaks his Summa into ten subject areas - Logic and Methodology, Metaphysics, Natural Theology, Cosmology, Philosophical Anthropology, Epistemology, General Ethics, Applied Ethics, Political Philosophy and Aesthetics. He then breaks these areas down into specific questions covering the great controversies in each area, usually going from general to specific, as he lays the foundation for a later question in a prior answer. In the area of Logic, for example, Kreeft starts with whether philosophy is "still rightly defined as the love of wisdom" and ends with "whether symbolic logic is superior to Aristotelian logic for philosophizing?"
The great thing about Kreeft's book is that it is pure philosophy. What Kreeft provides are the "naked" arguments on the key questions of the important topics. Rather than offering a historical retrospective, which follows the evolution of a controversy through time and which relies on tying particular positions to particular philosophers, Kreeft goes directly to the arguments. There is no historical retrospective here; very few philosophers are identified by name, except in passing. Instead the focus is on the clash of ideas, which, for beginners, and for apologists, and lovers of wisdom, is where philosophy ought to begin.
The philosophical positions staked out are very much those of Peter Kreeft. Consequently, we get very pragmatic answers to pragmatically phrased questions. For example, in responding to the argument that the order in the cosmos is not teleological since "simpler explanations are to be preferred to more complex ones," i.e., Ockham's Razor or the principle of parsimony (Q.IV, a.1), Kreeft writes: "Ockham's Razor is a good methodological principle for modern science, but it is not a good ontological principle; for the real universe, as distinct from scientific explanations, is much fuller than it needs to be. There is no need for ostriches. Yet they exist." (Q. IV, a.1.)
Perfect Kreeft - simple, succinct and with a startling zing.
Kreeft's Summa is decidedly not academic; there are no footnotes and few references. But it does provide a way of entering into the key philosophical topics from Kreeft's Thomistic perspective. It makes for good, casual reading that one can dip into on specific topics, and is a pretty good manual for a survey of the arguments for and against a broad variety of positions. I think that it would make for a good discussion starting tool, whether in the school or a philosophy club. (Or for that matter, for anyone who wants a good source for pragmatic, Thomistic apologetic arguments.)
Clearly, the reader's satisfaction with the substance of Kreeft's arguments may vary depending on how much they "buy into" Kreeft's pragmatic, Thomistic approach to philosophy. However, I don't think that Kreeft's philosophical perspective should dissuade anyone from reading or using the book. Rather, it ought to challenge them to respond to Kreeft's arguments in as rational, logical and lucid a way as Kreeft outlines his position.
This one not only compiles a career of acquired wisdom, and contains many of Kreeft's favorite quotes that are commonly given in his many audio lectures, it also contains some totally novel quotes and arguments. I should know- I have read most of his 60 books and listened to every lecture available online. (twice). It is humbling to have to go back again and again to a writer who seems to offer so much. It's so much easier to say, I've already read a few books by so and so, what else could he possibly say? Kreeft it seems has so much to say because he allows the classics to speak through him. He has humbled himself before the masters, and adroit in quoting them.
The best overview of philosophy I've ever seen. Puts any intro philosophy text to shame. A true work of erudition. And a syllogistic workout. (Reading the Objections before reading the 'I answer that' is especially a workout.)
Right up there with his best books: in my opinion, Christianity for Modern Pagans, Socratic Logic, The Best Things in Life, Handbook of Christian Apologetics.
Benefitting from a book like this takes a bit of patience. My strongest reactions to the substance of Kreeft's Philosophica would be fairly harsh criticism. However, if the reader agrees with Kreeft on his first quaestio, that philosophy is still rightly defined as a `love of wisdom', then all technical nitpicking can be excused, as this book is a rousing success at making the reader think deeply about fascinating questions from new angles. The type of person who really fell in love with philosophy because of a Socratic dialogue (Either those of Plato or of Kreeft, who has written several), as did I, won't be let down.
I regularly found myself both surprised and in disagreement with Kreeft's fairly unorthodox positions. It's certainly bizarre to find a Thomist arguing against the validity of the ontological argument, or for both a strong, social conservatism, and then a question or two later, for a one-world-government styled like the United Nations. In fact, nearly every philosopher Kreeft quotes on one page, he denounces on another. Taken outside of the body of the rest of his work, coupled with the recommended reading list in the back, it wouldn't be difficult for Kreeft to label himself a Neo-Platonic Kantian existentialist Buddhist, plus however many more suffixes one may want to tack on. Whether this unsystematic "anything goes" defense of each Summa Article is an abuse of the format, the reader can decide for themselves, but it undoubtedly leaves Kreeft contradicting himself in plenty of areas, even as he refers to previous articles to remind readers that he's already proven certain points.
Kreeft's multiple-worldview-personality-disorder can be a bit frustrating, but not nearly as much as the absence of any technical vigor to the various Articles, most frequently resulting from straw man fallacies and equivocations. The straw men particularly, I was driven nearly mad at the frequency in which objections present for any given article were formulated poorly, didn't represent the best case against his position, or seemed present simply to pad content for an appropriate rebuttal. What really bothered me, though, was not that this is simply a book for the layman, but that there are too many areas where he simply isn't at his sharpest. I was lucky enough to see Kreeft speak for several hours at a recent conference, and was fairly impressed to see him whip up interesting responses off the cuff regarding topics from Aristotelian Hylomorphism to Van Tillian Presuppositionalism. He's a deep thinker with a robust technical understanding of philosophy, and I wish a bit more of that came out in Philosophica.
Frustrations with simplistic arguments and slippery logic aside, his clarity of thought and approachability invites the reader to engage with the questions and work out your own solutions in each of his articles. I spent a surprisingly long amount of time with pen and highlighter, either angrily crossing out silly statements he injected into his arguments, or reformulating (probably poorly) stronger versions of his positions I aligned with, or trying to justify a position he took that I liked, without all of the Catholic mysticism. I may even have changed my mind on a few things while wandering off in thought, after realizing that taking certain positions on different articles lead me towards contradictions, or into places I didn't want to be.
Kreeft hints in the introduction that this was his goal for the reader, and on this level he was quite successful. The prose is anything but stuffy and heady, filled with unexpected jokes and a certain welcome lightness. It's regrettable he didn't do a thorough examination of just 30-40 questions, instead of a rushed overview of 110. Overall, Philosophica is a readable, worthwhile foray into interesting and unique philosophical dilemmas, but to really get value out of it, the reader must show up with a notepad and be prepared to do the philosophizing themselves.
Perhaps I don't quite get some of the subtleties surrounding the particular questions, but one thing I found extremely odd was Kreeft's use of "common sense" and "popular opinion." Multiple times in the text, both of these are used as objections AND to bolster Kreeft's claims. In other words, sometimes the objection would be "common sense tells us that..." and Kreeft's response would be "common sense can be wrong." Other times, he would write something like "On the contrary, common sense tells us..." e.g. p. 80 when he tells us that common sense tells us that human free will and divine predestination are not logically contradictory. Really? Common sense tells us this? The reconciliation of free will and divine foreknowledge is one of the deepest mysteries of teh faith, and to blow it off by claiming it's just "common sense" that they aren't contradictory is frankly an insult to those like Aquinas who have spent so much time pondering this question as well as an insult to the intellects of skeptics who find these two things to be a problem for Christianity. I do not see the difference in uses of appeals to common sense. The same held for popular opinion. When it didn't agree with his answer, Kreeft would (correctly) scoff at the idea that "the majority of philosophers believe X, so X must be true." On the other hand, when it was consistent with one of his points, Kreeft was happy to embrace the fact that "the majority of people throughout history have believed X, so X." Again, perhaps I am missing something more subtle, but I don't see why it works in one case but not the other.
On page 179, the very last sentence of Objection 3, Kreeft seems to imply that an unjust aggressor "forfeits his right to truth and may be deceived, to save lives." Yet two articles later in Article 7 he (correctly) claims that it is never alright to lie. Perhaps he has in mind the distinction he makes in Article 7 reply to objection 3 that not all deception is lying. Unfortunately Kreeft has defended lying before, most notably the Live Action case against Planned Parenthood. Read uncritically, the above quote could easily be used to justify consequentuialist philosophy, which I am sure Kreeft rejects. Yet his defense of lying in very special circumstances seems to imply this. It is a dangerous can of worms he opens here, and one, I would argue, inconsistent with the thought of Thomas.
Finally, and this is somewhat of a small point, but I find Kreeft's attempts to be super cute and clever not only distracting, but it seems to me that they are sometimes used in place of an actual argument. In fact, he sets this up this precedent early on in article 1 objection 1 on page 38 when his "objection" has to do with California bookstores. And we wonder why skeptics don't take this seriously?
I think this book is way too surface level, and it attempts to bite off more than it can chew. It does not seem carefully thought out. I simply cannot recommend this book.