Contemporary Thomism:
An Interview with J.L.A. West

1. Please tell us something about yourself.

 I am a Canadian philosopher.  I have recently finished my PhD at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario.   My supervisor was E.J. Ashworth, a well-known expert on late medieval logic and philosophy of language.  I also completed an MA at Waterloo with Joseph Novak on Aristotle’s conception of the ideal human life and a BA in history and philosophy at the Jesuit University of Sudbury which is part of Laurentian University.  I have taught at the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and I am currently teaching at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.  I am married and have three children (ages 5, 2 and 1).

2. How did you get interested in St. Thomas?

When I began graduate school I was an atheist and had not read any medieval philosophy at all; not even the five ways!  At that time I intended to specialize in Aristotle.   During my M.A. degree I took a course concerning Aquinas on divine names (S.T. I, q. 13 and related texts) with Professor Ashworth, not out of interest in the subject matter, but simply because she was a well known scholar.  I found the material to be challenging but interesting.  It was really at the start my Doctoral studies that I began to deal with medieval philosophy in more depth, working through the most significant books of about 10 medieval writers from Augustine to Scotus.  My main interests were in the metaphysics of being, essence, substance and God.  Through my studies of Augustine and Aquinas I became convinced of the fundamental principles of Aquinas’ philosophy and theology.  This, amongst a number of other things of course, led to my conversion to Thomism and more importantly to the Church.

3. Tell us more about your work.

Most of my present work is focused on trying to articulate how philosophy, especially metaphysics, is used in the context of revealed theology.  Many scholars have looked at the scope of our philosophical knowledge of God and at the difference between this natural knowledge and theology; but to my knowledge hardly anyone has addressed the problem of the functions of philosophy within theology itself.   The heart of my view is that philosophical concepts and arguments are not changed or transformed by their contact with revelation in the way that some writers have suggested (e.g. Gilson, Jordan, Owens, Clarke, Milbank, etc.)  I think that this would, ironically, amount to turning theology or even revelation itself into a handmaid of metaphysics. 

I argue that Aquinas’ approach is, rather, the reverse; he makes use of metaphysics because it is better known to us.  Thus, his procedure reflects Aristotle’s view that we always understand what is unknown, in this case the revealed mysteries, in terms of what is better known to us.  I have found this method to be operative throughout Aquinas’ use of metaphysics in the context of Christology.  Some of these studies appear in my articles in The Thomist and Nova et Vetera (the latter will be published in the English edition shortly) and I expect that more of them will be appearing soon.  I am planning to develop this into a book which will study Aquinas’ use of metaphysics in dealing with the Trinity, Grace, the Sacraments and Christology.  But, obviously this is a long term project.

I have also written a few things on political philosophy, notably on the need to give priority to the good in order to have an adequate account of justice and rights.    This work is considerably influenced by Jacques Maritain and Alasdair MacIntyre.  My articles in Philosophical Forum, Polis and William Sweet’s collection Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are representative of this interest.

4. Thomism has suffered a certain decline from the time of the Second Vatican Council. What do you think the present state of Thomism is? What do you see as its future? Are there any particular problems that the Church faces today that you think the work of Maritain can help address?

I think that there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Thomism.   The best work done by Thomists in recent decades has been historical.  The writings of Fr. Dewan, O.P., Fr. Torrell, O.P. and Fr. Wippel come to mind.  These studies and those of many others have laid a wonderful foundation for future, for which we should be grateful.  It seems to me that the challenge we now face is to insure that this new historical rigour will not lie fallow, but bear philosophical and theological fruit.  There is a certain danger of our work becoming merely scholarship for scholarship’s sake -  this would be, in my view, a tragedy.  Don’t get me wrong, we need historical and exegetical studies of Aquinas which meet the highest scholarly standards, this is essential and I hope that my work is not lacking in this respect.  However, my point is that this is not enough;  it is necessary that Thomism also be a living philosophy, a living theology, a perennial wisdom that may be old, but is always new.  I think that many Thomists fully recognize this; In this respect I have been very impressed with many of the Thomists I have met at the annual Medieval Studies Congress at Kalamazoo, especially those who, like myself, are still near the beginning of their academic careers.  I am also very grateful to well established philosophers such as Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann and Ralph McInerny who in different ways treat Aquinas philosophically, even though I may not always agree with all of the details of their studies.

Jacques Maritain is certainly a stellar example of the integration of historical erudition and philosophical insight which is needed at the present time.  He is a model of wisdom and sanctity who deserves to be studied much more widely.  In particular, I think his political and cultural philosophy still has a great deal to teach us.  His account of the person and his explanation of how people with different speculative philosophical and religious positions can work together to achieve common practical ends are of central importance in laying the philosophical foundation for the Church’s work in Latin America, Africa and with respect to the New Evangelization which John Paul II has called for, especially in North America and Western Europe.  Of course, Degrees of Knowledge, especially in its account of the concept, remains fundamentally important if we are to respond adequately to many of the philosophical problems posed by our secular  colleagues on many different fronts.

Jason West has written the following articles:

1) "Nature, Specific Difference and Degrees of Being in Aquinas,"Nova et Vetera (English edition), accepted for publication.

2) "Aquinas on the Metaphysics of Esse in Christ." The Thomist, Vol. 66, No. 2, 2002: pp. 131-150.

3) "St. Augustine on Divine Eternity and Human Temporality."Faith & Reason, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, 2001: pp. 143-155.

4) "Gilson, Maritain, and Garrigou-Lagrange on the Possibility of Critical Realism,"Études maritainiennes, Vol. XVII: pp. 49-69.

5) "The Thomistic Debate Concerning the Existence and Nature of Christian Philosophy: Towards a Synthesis,"The Modern Schoolman. Volume LXXVII, 1999: pp. 49-72.

6) "Kant's Attack on the Cosmological Argument," in God and Argument/Dieu et argumentation philosophique, Volume I. Edited by William Sweet. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999, pp. 175-187.

7) "Thomas Aquinas on Human Rights, the Common Good and Contemporary Canadian Law," (with Paul Groarke). Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Edited by William Sweet. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2003: pp. 155-170.

8) "Impartiality and the Good: Brian Barry or Alasdair MacIntyre?,"The Philosophical Forum, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring, 2000: pp. 29-45.

9) "Distorted Souls: The Role of Banausics in Aristotle's Politics," in Polis, Volume 13, 1994: pp. 77-95.