"The Raising Interest On Saint Thomas Aquinas In China"

“Although it may seem strange to many people in the West, contemporary Chinese scholars find Thomas’s thought not simply fascinating, but of enduring relevance”. William Carroll, converses with HUMANITAS REVIEW about his impressions of the positive reception of academics in some Chinese universities of the Thomistic philosophy.


Portrait of Matteo Ricci s.j. Anonimous, 1552 - 1610

Portrait of Matteo Ricci s.j. Anonimous, 1552 - 1610

Thomas Aquinas’s commitment to the importance of reason and its universal role in defining what it means to be human makes him an attractive thinker for contemporary Chinese scholars. Speaking of the ways in which Thomas’ understanding of the relation-ship between philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences, he dis-cusses how these can be used to disentangle contemporary confusion about the philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary biology and cosmology.

After your three trips to China (2013, 2014 and 2015) and one to Taiwan, what is it that has raised the interest of Chinese Scholars on St. Thomas’s philosophy?

- So far I have spent over ten weeks in mainland China, plus two weeks in Taiwan, where I have invited by Chinese universities to speak at Thomas Aquinas’ Creation and Contemporary Science.

At the school of philosophy at the University of Wuhan they have a Thomas Aquinas Study Centre, which has been in existence for about twelve years, and among other things they are doing translations of Thomas, from Latin into Chinese. Their first work was a very small philosophical treatise by Thomas called “On Being and Essence”, a me-taphysical treatise. I was surprised to discover that a number of graduate students were concentrating on what they call Western Philosophy.

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- How did St. Thomas's reach China? Are there any records to tell us how long his philosophy has been in the East?

- In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit missionaries trained in Thomistic philosophy and theology went to China. It was them, that introduced the thought of Thomas both implicitly and explicitly. They entered into some kind of dialogue with Chinese scholars, but not so much about philosophy, that was important initially, but about science. They brought with them some western scientific advances, the telescope among them.

The Chinese calendar was crucial for establishing all the rituals; political, economic, social, of the year in China, and it was important to get the calendar right, when eclipses would occur, and so forth. The Chinese Emperor was particularly upset with his own scholars not being able to get the calendar straight. The Jesuits brought with them a better way of understanding the calendar and used their astronomical knowledge to work on the reform of the Chinese calendar. 

They learnt Chinese and wrote an elaborate catechism for Chinese scholars, explaining Christian beliefs, and in this catechism he uses Thomistic theology and philosophy. However, there was much tension within the Chinese imperial court with these foreigners, so although initially they were reasonably accepted, then there was a backlash. In the 18th century, with the suppression of the Jesuits by the Pope throughout the world, their missions nearly ended. It was not until the late 19th century that you begin having Christian missionaries coming again.

-  If it was science that first introduced these scholars into their western culture, how was it that they moved on to Aquinas metaphysical thought?

- Their interest was not so much in metaphysics, but on ethics. The Chinese intellectual traditions emphasize ethics more than any other area, so Thomas and Confucius share important notions of natural law. It was the Thomistic understanding of natural law in particular and ethics in general that raised the interest of these scholars.

- Considering the much longer Eastern cultural and philosophical tradition what has attracted their interest in the Western philosophy, which is very recent and is nested in a Christian tradition?

- Well, once again, it is the notion of superiority of ethics, that Chinese philosophical writers have been thinking, writing about ethics in a sophisticated way longer than the West. But I think, philosophically, we have a lot to learn from the rich Chinese tradition in ethics. I think, similarly, they have a lot to learn about metaphysics, and my Chinese colleagues recognize that. For some time, there has been some kind of prejudice in China against Western thinkers who were religious but now there is more openness about Thomas Aquinas in many of these departments of philosophy and other departments in Chinese universities than is often the case in the West.

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- To what extent is Western philosophy something they can relate to their philosophies?

- There are different views about it. But on both sides, there is a belief that Western philosophy has its own principles and procedures, while the Chinese one has its own principles and traditions, and that therefore we really should not mix them. The philosophical reason why they cannot be mixed, and is that the philosophical systems or ways of thinking are embedded in long, cultural traditions.

There is that general notion that you study Western philosophy as it were at a distance, and this is not so unusual for Western thinkers; we often have the same kind of view. Historically, the first interest in western philosophy was in German philosophy, German idealism, again, Marx, Engels, etc. And then, by studying Marx and Engels, discovering Immanuel Kant, and then after that coming forward Heidegger, and so forth. The first example of Western philosophical traditions in contemporary China comes from the German academic world, and any of these scholars, who are trained in the West, have gone to German universities to study German philosophy. But now, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, for example, or Plato, are relatively new areas. New areas including primarily Anglo-American analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of the mind. So that is another area of interest in China. 

- When we think of St. Thomas’ philosophy, we are talking about a metaphysical explanation of Man, of nature and of the universe. How does Aquinas’ metaphysics relate to the Chinese philosophies in these respects?

- The notion of human nature in the Chinese and the Western philosophical traditions can only be compared and contras-ted if we have a good understanding of human nature. The example that I use when I am confronted with this question in China is geometry; this science has its origins in the West with Euclid, but we do not have Western geometry and Chinese geometry. We do not have western physics and Chinese physics. Now, it might very well be the case that in the natural sciences and the natural mathematics you are abstracting yourself from a lot of different features of the world, but I think that in principle, there should be no reason why we cannot talk about metaphysics in an analogous way to be talking about physics or mathematics. In fact, that is what I am now working on with Chinese scholars. I am trying to find points of contact between Aquinas’ and their philosophies, which are not ethics. This is relatively easy since a fair amount of work has been done about it, but not in metaphysics. This is much harder since there is not a strong tradition in metaphysics within Chinese philosophy. What is crucial here is that I am working on the notion of creation.

Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between creation understood philosophically -in the discipline of metaphysics- and creation understood theologically. As he develops his philosophical account of creation, which he will use in his theology, but which has an autonomy on its own, he employs philosophical categories from Aristotle, the Greeks and the Platonic tradition. So, because there is for him a concept of creation which does not depend upon faith, Thomas is able to find in ancient Greek philosophy resources of considerable value. 

My argument is that if Thomas’ thought can cross centuries and cultures, it should also be able to cross into Chinese culture and Chinese philosophical traditions, and just as Thomas learns from Aristotle, so he could learn, from Taoism and Confucianism.

Therefore contemporary Chinese scholars trained in their Chinese philosophical traditions could find in Thomas Aquinas a dialogue partner because he is not speaking, first of all, as a Christian. He is a theologian, but he is a philosopher too, and one can distinguish his philosophy from his theology. His philosophy can speak to Muslims and Jews, so it should also speak to Confucians and neo-Confucians, etc. That is what I am trying to do now in China; to find entrance points in Chinese philosophy, by means of questions about the ultimate origins.
  Many people think that Chinese metaphysics only deals with big cosmological questions, and cosmology is not crea-tion; cosmology deals with natural science, the questions of the physical origins. But creation deals with origins in a more ultimate sense and whether or not that more ultimate sense, can make sense in the Chinese intellectual context is what I have been working with Chinese scholars to try to find.

- Can we say then, that their ancient traditions have a philosophy of nature and of creation?

- No. That is the point. The problem is that the word ‘creation’ is used in so many different ways. People think that the Big Bang is the creation; it is not creation. Because, for Thomas Aquinas, creation does not mean temporal begin-ning, it means ontological dependence. So whether or not the universe is eternal or has a beginning concerns the kind of universe we have, not whether or not it is created. That sense of ultimate origin is simply not explicit anywhere that I can find, anywhere within Chinese philosophical traditions. And of course some people say you will not find it anywhere in ancient Greek philosophy either; that is a uniquely monotheistic notion, or at least it has its inspirations from the monotheistic religions.

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And Thomas approaches the question of ultimate origin philosophically, open to reason alone, that in principle should be able to be communicated in different cultures, in different times, in different places. The way we approach these questions does differ by culture, time and place and language, and you have to take all those conditions into consideration. But that does not mean that in principle we cannot get at the truth of things. Some Chinese and Western scholars say that the Chinese language is unable to express the notion of Being and Existence, and this has to do with how radically ‘othered’ Chinese language is. I mean, Greek and Latin and modern languages differ, but they do not differ in such a radical way as, say, Chinese or Japanese differ from Western languages. So, how can you capture in the Chinese language something like the notion of cause of existence?

And then, even the notion of Nothing. Then, there is the question: is there a kind of absolute nothing which creation talks about? One of my books on creation and science has been translated into Chinese, and it has been published, but there are still problems with words. We had an intense a debate among the four or five people, graduate students I got to work with, all well-versed in Western philosophy, about what Chinese words to use. Largely, because there is no tradition of talking about this and therefore no words that could be used.

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- Then you mean that, in addition to the conceptual approach to the issue of the ultimate cause, there is a linguistic barrier as well?

- Well, there are already some words about Lord, about God, which are translated as creational, but I think a neologism would not really help. Matteo Ricci had the same problem, and he said “this notion of Lord of heaven in ancient Confucian thought, this is what we mean by God”. So that gets fixed, at least for the Chinese in the Christian tradition. But there are fundamental linguistic issues about how language captures these concepts. I mean, if you just take Hebrew, how two verb tenses in Hebrew compare to 21 or so verb tenses in Greek, what does that tell us about Hebrew and Greek thinking? I do not know much about the problems of the Chinese language, but I do know that there are such problems. And the very notion of ‘cause’ is a problem.

For example, I was talking with a professor from Peking University, which is probably the N°1 university in China, when trying to explain the cause of existence, the many different senses of cause, I said “why is it that you people here in China do not have an adequate sense of cause?”, and he told me “why are you in the West so concerned about cause?”

- If their explanation for the universe is purely scientific, is there any room for a philosophical theory about creation, non-creation, finitude, beginning or end? Can they take up the notion of something that transcends the mere matter?

- When you talk to Chinese well-versed scientists in contemporary cosmological speculations, they are intrigued by this. There is a sense of wonder whether the notion of an absolute beginning to the universe makes much sense in ancient Chinese traditions. And that is similar, of course, to contemporary cosmological theories. They are intrigued by the fact that, for Thomas Aquinas, whether the world has a beginning or not, does not change the fact that it is created.

Thomas thinks an eternal universe is just as much a created universe as a universe which has a beginning; he distinguishes the question of beginning from the question of being created. Now, he believes that the universe has a beginning, because that is the traditional interpretation of the Genesis, but he knows that the universe could be eternal and created. In fact, he thinks the universe is not eternal. So, separating questions of temporality from what it means to be created makes it particularly attractive, I would think, to anyone who were to think that the universe does not have a beginning.

All kinds of theories about cosmological beginnings or lack of, for Thomas are not yet creation, that is like theories about the Big Bang. Theories about the Big Bang have nothing to do with creation, because there might very well be something before the Big Bang. The Big Bang might be the beginning of the universe we experience, but we cannot know and we could not assume that it is the absolute beginning, and that is Thomas’ point. I call this sometimes, when I give lectures, ‘the error of beginnings’. It is the beginning of all sorts of errors. Once you make creation and temporal finitude necessarily connected to one another, you get into lots of problems, and it is the genius of Thomas to distinguish between the two. And again, I think we must go out against any kind of view of Chinese philosophical traditions other than ‘traditions’ with a wide variety of differences. If a Chinese scholar was to say “but what does Western philosophy say about this subject?” Well, which Western philosophy? So, similarly, we are talking about a longer history of philosophy in China than philosophy in the West.

- In this regard, can these Chinese philosophers, and scientists, see this difference St. Thomas makes? That a scientific approach is compatible with a philosophical one?

- We live in a culture, both East and West, which is heavily scientific. So there is a view that the only access to reality is through the natural sciences, not through philosophy or theology, etc. And that is a view which is a long-standing power in the west and to some degree in China as well. I have met some Chinese scientists, but they function in their own world, not unlike scientists in the West.   I gave a lecture on contemporary cosmology and the metaphysics of origin at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Then, they were much intrigued about my point that philosophy students should study the natural sciences. Because not to know the natural sciences is to cut yourself off from a kind of philosophy of the concrete reality. And analogously that natural scientists should study philosophy, because if they do not, they have a narrow view of their discipline.

I was asked to go back to give a lecture to their medical students. I spoke to about 100 medical students about philosophy of nature and the study of Medicine, and the extent to which, if they are committed to a mechanistic and materialist view of nature, they are not going to be good doctors. I said that I do not want my doctor to be a materialist who thinks that I am nothing but a complex machine, and I said “I hope none of you think that either”. I found that the medical students were not particularly different in their attitude and their knowledge from students of the sciences in Oxford or anywhere.

- These scholars seem to be open to Thomistic philosophy, but not so much as to take a step the Western thought, specifically Christianity?

- I think Thomas Aquinas is, in a way, off the radar. He is a medieval Western thinker, so I think that for the people who make the political decisions, who are different from those who make the academic decisions, this does not seem particularly challenging.

It is also important to remember the distinction Thomas draws between philosophical and theological analyses. Although he is a theologian, he does grant an appropriate autonomy to exclusively philosophical thinking. It is Thomas’s philosophy, not his theology, that I discuss in China. 

When talking about Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics of creation and contemporary biology I raise the rhetorical question “Why should we look to Thomas Aquinas on the questions of creation and science?” and say that the principal reason is that what Thomas Aquinas says is true, and that is a pretty good reason.


Interviewed by Paula Jullian.