Thomist realism and the hermeneutic turn: A study of intentionality, signs, and language

Stephen B Chamberlain, Fordham University


This project defends Jacques Maritain's traditional Thomistic ontology of human understanding, knowledge, and truth as a direct but mediated form of philosophical realism In making this argument there are two primary fronts that are engaged. The first front is the representationalist interpretation of human understanding, particularly as it is presented in the various idealisms of modern thought. This debate, in fact, was a primary focus of twentieth-century Neothomistic thought in the defense of a classical realism against modern idealism. Parts I and II of this work, then, are devoted to Maritain's analysis of intentional being (esse intentionale) and the concept (as a formal sign). Through these primary notions Maritain defends a direct, mediate realism against a more representationalist reading of the traditional Thomistic noetic structure. The second front that I engage is what can be called a hermeneutic realism. For there is an aspect of the problem of knowledge that Maritain leaves underdeveloped: namely, the specific role of language within human understanding. Although Maritain holds to the basic Aristotelian-Thomistic triadic structure of objective knowledge that involves thing, concept, and word, he focuses primarily upon the formal identity between the concept and the thing. Given this seeming lacuna in Maritain's account, I bring his ontological realism into conversation with the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer. For Gadamer's elaboration of the word as incarnate meaning helps to respond to criticisms made against Maritain's account of intentionality and the concept or inner word (verbum). At the same time, however, I address some of the challenges to Maritain's realism that emerge from Gadamer's hermeneutic realism. I conclude this project, then, by addressing Gadamer's critique of objectivity, science, and propositional truth. In doing this, I show that Maritain's account can acknowledge certain aspects of Gadamer's critique while at the same time defending a classical, scientific conception of philosophical objectivity and propositional truth. Such an account, in turn, defends the possibility of metaphysics.

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Recommended Citation

Chamberlain, Stephen B, "Thomist realism and the hermeneutic turn: A study of intentionality, signs, and language" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3415997.