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Dr. Jason West

Interview with Dr. Jason West - 23-5-2005

 

1. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am J.L.A. West.  I am Assistant Professor of philosophy at Newman Theological College.  My College provides the intellectual formation for seminarians studying at St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  We also provide education to lay people who are preparing to serve the Church throughout western Canada in a variety of roles.  I have also taught at St. Jerome's University, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, all of which are in Waterloo, Ontario. I am married and have four children.

2. What research are you doing at this moment and/or what courses are you teaching?

As the only full-time philosopher at the College I teach Ancient, Medieval and Modern Philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Nature, Epistemology, and Philosophy of the Person and some other occassional courses on a two-year cycle.

My major research project has been studying Aquinas' use of philosophy within revealed theology.  I argue that Aquinas follows the Aristotelian method of understanding the unknown in terms of the known.  I argue for this view in light of a close study of Aquinas' use of philosophical concepts and arguments in contexts like Christology, Trinitarian theology, etc.   This is an on-going long term project.

Currently, I am writing a brief book "What is Philosophy?" intended to introduce people to the discipline in a Thomistic manner.  Unlike other introductory books, this is not a textbook.  It is not written for full-time students who will have a lecturer to pick and choose what to read and provide background.  Rather, it is written for a general non-academic audience.  I am trying to imitate Ralph McInerny's clarity and wit to some small degree in this work.

Finally, I am putting together material for a book "Beyond Civil Society" which will critique leading liberal philosophers (E.g. Rawls, Dworkin, Barry, etc.), while developing a communitarian alternative.  I am interested in using Aristotle, Aquinas and Maritain to develop a philosophical basis for work being done by communitarian social scientists such as Amitai Etzioni in the U.S.

3. What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

Begin with what you know! All new knowledge is acquired on the basis of  what is already known.  Accordingly, if being is not the first and formal object of the intellect, then the intellect will never attain it.  If you look for certainty in epistemology, language or logic, while rejecting the possibility of coming to grips with being, then the battle is lost.  There is no half-way house between Berkeley and Thomas.

4. In which way were you introduced to the thought of Thomas and whom do you consider to be your teacher in Aquinas?

My encounter with St. Thomas was entirely coincidental.  I completed an entire B.A. in Philosophy without ever reading the Angelic Doctor!  I did, however, get a good grounding in Aristotle.  An Atheist at the time, I went to Grad school at the University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada, writing an M.A. thesis on Aristotle's Ethics and intending to do a doctoral thesis on his Metaphysics.

During my M.A. I took a course with E.J. Ashworth on the Summa I, q. 13 in which I compared Augustine and Aquinas on religious language.  I signed up for the course due to Professor Ashworth's great reputation as a scholar rather than out of any interest in the subject matter.  But, the experience raised my curiosity and I began my Doctorate with what became a year and a half long intensive study of Augustine, Aquinas and the other major medievals, which led to my conversion from atheism to Catholicism.   So my first teacher in Aquinas is undoubtedly Professor Ashworth, who supervised my thesis Aquinas' Use of Metaphysics.  However, her approach is quite different from my own, as she has has always focussed on the historical context and influence of texts, whereas I have been concerned to use historical study for philosophical and theological ends.  In this respect, I must note how kind she has been in assisting me to find my own way, even when it differed from hers.

I have also  been deeply influenced by Fr. Dewan's writings and through his generous informal teaching, in conversations and correspondence with him. Additionally, those who have taught me through their writings include MacIntyre, Maritain, Garrigou-Lagrange and Wippel.

5. What is the importance of Aquinas for our times, especially in relationship to your field of research?

Aquinas is especially important for overcoming the false antinomies that plague philosophy in any age.  For instance, most  contemporary forms of political philosophy arise from a false dichotomy between rights and the good.  Aquinas points the way to seeing that the dignity and rights of the person are only assured in a community ordered to the good.  Liberals would have us believe that being concerned for the good of others impinges upon their freedom, as though one could really be concerned with the good of others while riding roughshod over their legitimate freedom and rights. Another general example is the move towards irrationalism in contemporary "continental" thought, and the tendency to scientific reductionism in "Anglo-American" circles.  Aquinas' account of being and knowing provide the antidote to much of this intellectual malaise.  Of course, in this forum it is hard to address such examples adequately.

Finally, Thomas' integration of philosophy into revealed theology has never been more need than it is today.  The attempt to engage in theological research and debate without any clear philosophy is, in my view, the central problem with the theology of our time.  Matthew Levering 's fine work on Aquinas' theology has much to teach in this respect.

6. How would you describe the current status of Thomism in your country and/or in general?

I think the situation in Canada is serious, as there are only a handful of committed Thomists.  I might mention Louis Groarke at St. Francis Xavier University, whose work deserves a much wider audience.  Although not an Aquinas scholar, he has applied Thomistic thinking while engaging in contemporary debates.  (See especially his book The Good Rebel: Understanding Morality and Freedom).

As in matters of economics, so too in philosophy Canada tends to follow in the footsteps of the United States.  So the revival of Thomism in the United States through the work of a diverse group of scholars, e.g. Wippel, Stump, Kretzmann, McInerny, etc. has repurcussions in Canada as well. The general renaissance in the study of philosophy of religion and metaphysics ensures that Thomism will be increasingly relevant on the contemporary scene.

I have also been very encouraged through meeting other young Thomists at the Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo and by the ongoing success of the Jacques Maritain Associations both in Canada and the United States. Yet, it would be a mistake to be overly concerned with numbers and institutions. One saint with deep knowledge of Thomas will do more for Thomism than a thousand scholars and institutes. It has always been the case that the work is great and the labourers are few, but the Lord provides.

7. Which publications of yourself do you consider to be the most important for Aquinas' researchers to read?

My most important article is "The Functioning of Philosophy in Aquinas" which is forthcoming in "The Journal for the History of Philosophy", 2007.  Others of interest are "The Metaphysics of esse in Christ" in the Thomist, No. 2, Vol. 66, 2002; "The Existence and Nature of Christian Philosophy,"  The Modern Schoolman, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, 1999.  On political philosophy I would mention an article I wrote with Paul Groarke "Reconciling Individual Rights and the Common Good: Aquinas and Contemporary Canadian Law,"  in Philosophical Theory and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ed. William Sweet, University of Ottawa Press, 2003.

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