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Thomas International Center
December 2005


Ralph McInerny


The Desire and Pursuit
of the Whole



“I was that narrowest of specialists, the well-rounded man.” Thus speaks Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The remark has a special significance in the novel, but it can be considered as a free-floating epigram and then we all know what it means. A friend of mine once described someone as “shallow, all the way down,” not meant as a compliment, of course. No wonder philosophy has become its own kind of specialization with, at least in Anglo-American circles, a narrowing that can only be called a fault. One ‘does’ logic or epistemology or medieval philosophy or ontology and gives a blank stare to those who work outside one’s chosen domain.

Is it mere nostalgia to recall that once ‘philosophy was a collective noun that covered learning in general? After all, doctorates in physics are still called Ph. D.’s so one doesn’t have to go back to Newton’s title for a reminder that science was once part of philosophy. And poetry – infima doctrina – too was part of the package, viz. Aristotle’s Poetics. Of course philosophers like Hans Reichenbach considered the balkanization of what had once been philosophy as progress, the turning of the unscientific into the scientific.

If ‘philosophy’ were merely a collective noun, an omnium gatherum of unrelated specialties, Nick Carraway’s lament would apply. After all, who can really be well versed in everything?  In the more commodious sense, philosophy is teleological, aimed at wisdom, and wisdom consists of such knowledge as we can attain of the divine. The quest is not just to be generally knowledgeable, to have a smattering of everything, but to undertake any study with a sense of its relevance to the ultimate telos. Consider the prologues to commentaries, e.g. those of Boethius or of Aquinas, and you will be reminded of the way in which particular topics were sapientially located before they were undertaken.


Ralph McInerny