Thomas Instituut te Utrecht (Tilburg University)

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Thomas as a counter point - An interview with Rudi te Velde

Rudi te Velde is a university lecturer of Philosophy at the Theological Faculty of Tilburg University and he is Radboud Foundation Professor at the University of Amsterdam.
He read philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where he obtained his PhD degree under professor Jan Aertsen on his thesis Participation and Substantiality in Thomas Aquinas (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1995). Until recently he lectured medieval philosophy at that university.
Rudi te Velde is a member of the board of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht and of the editorial board of the Publications of the Thomas Instituut series.
Which subjects do you currently teach?

As Radboud Professor at the University of Amsterdam I lecture on the topics of love, friendship and charity. I discuss works by, among others, Augustin, Aristotle and Thomas. Contemporary discussions on charity play an important role during these lectures.
In Tilburg I always do the introductory course on the history of Philosophy. During the past few years I also lectured on the issue of evil and the theodicy. Augustin and Thomas, who I like to discuss anyway, were important authors for these series of lectures.
During the past few years I also lectured on Thomas' doctrines of passion and of virtue and metaphysical themes such as proofs for God's existence and the concept of truth.

What do you currently do in your research on Thomas?

In Tilburg I participate in the department's official research programme entitled 'Transcendence and Transcendentals'. I myself study the history of the concept of truth. A central issue is today's secularisation. Characteristically, pre-modern philosophy argues that truth is theologically founded in divine being, which is eternal and unchangeable. The absoluteness of truth refers to something which is beyond Man's understanding. Modern philosophy includes an increased secularisation and a scientific understanding of truth. I am interested in what this approach means for the transcendental nature of truth. Will anything be lost if 'truth' coincides with the content of positive science?
Moreover, I currently work on a large project: a monography on Aquinas' doctrine of God (Aquinas on God).

Do you also discuss analogy in your book, the topic you selected for the next day of study of the Thomas Instituut?

Yes, analogy will be amply discussed in this book. Analogy has grown into an infamous topic, and yet it's one of Thomas' central lines of thought. In a certain sense, Thomas is a truly 'analogous' thinker. Look, analogy in Thomas' work has assumed its place in typically metaphysical thinking from the finite to the eternal. You can't talk about God without talking about his creatures and, hence, in terminology derived from the worldly context of those creatures. And yet in speaking about God you want to do justice to the fact that God is no creature, but, on the contrary, as the Creator is distinguished from all creatures. This distinction is such that it includes a relationship, the relation of the Creator-creature. A creature is something made by the Creator, it has an intelligible relationship with its cause. Analogy wants to express this metaphysical causal relationship between distinction and relationship. However 'different' God may be and may escape the categorical structure of our way of thinking and speaking (God is not in a genus), finite objects of experience are, on the basis of their being, a reference to God. Analogy aims at explaining the dynamic structure of that reference. You can also approach this through the so called 'via triplex', which Thomas found in Pseudo-Dionysius' work: the approach of causality, negation, and eminence - the approach which enables us to understand God lies parallel with the approach in which creatures can name God by way of analogy.
I am particularly interested in the specific form of metaphysics in Thomas. Metaphysics concentrates on 'trans-physics', which transcends physics and the still limited cognitive perspective of physics. One can argue that Thomas justifies the universal approach of metaphysics through the dialectics of philosophical experience, which demonstrates the necessity to go beyond each limited relationship to reality. The knowledge that the relationship of physics to reality is limited, demonstrates, as it were, the unlimitedness of metaphysics, although that doesn't mean that Man can leave all physics and experience behind.

How did you get to know Thomas?

My brother read Theology at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht and it was professor Ferdinand de Grijs who introduced him to Thomas. Thus I also heard about Thomas and later, when I started to read philosophy with professor Van Velthoven at the University of Amsterdam, this introduction to Thomas and scholasticism grew into a profound love for this field of study.

Could you argue that Van Velthoven has been your mentor in this respect?

Yes, certainly. He was a very knowledgeable and able expert, who also introduced me to the professional aspects of medieval thinking. I particularly remember a colloquium he organized on the metaphysics of being, in which we read texts by Dutch neo-thomists, such as De Petter, Barendse and Peters. Through their texts I got a feeling for Thomas' philosophical relevance. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies I started to do research into Thomas' commentaries on De divinis nominibus by Pseudo-Dionysius. Particularly in the fifth chapter, Thomas shows he is a great thinker on participation. This also resulted in the topic for my PhD thesis. In retrospect, I have to admit that the current philosophy, in particular the way in which the thomist authors included Thomas' thought in topical philosophical thinking, drew me to Thomas's work. My interest for Thomas has never been of a mere historical nature, something which actually is also very difficult with Thomas.

What is the most important thing you learnt from Thomas?

A particular way of thinking about God and how you must think the relationship between the world and God. But also philosophical thinking as such. Thomas forces you to think in terms of precision and reflection. At the same time, you also learn how to adopt a certain freedom.
Furthermore, I learnt how to work with philosophical concepts. Concepts and ideas are often flexible and depend on the context. One must keep an eye on the actual subject matter, which can never be reduced to its conceptual expression. In other words: thinking shows a certain surplus in relation to the abstract concept. Also, attention for linguistic rationality, incorporated in a certain manner of speaking. Philosophy does not invent something new, but sharpens your opinion for the way in which language and speaking always incorporate a certain understanding or interpretation, and how you can make that transparent.
Thomas teaches you to think systematically, strictly and precisely, without harming content. Contemporary philosophy is often burdened by contradictions of, on the one hand, the riches of human experience, which need to be expressed and, on the other, fixation on scientific methodology, strictness of logic, which tends to ban the fullness of life to the spheres of poetry. It is important to open up philosophy through the questions posed by life it self, without turning it into an exclusively ideological reflection.
Theologically Thomas taught me not to regard the relationship between Man (creation) and God in terms of competition. God and the world do not represent two different entities, which are joined together. I personally appreciate the formula found in Thomas' work: Deus est omnia ut causa omnium. God is everything, but in such a way that he is the cause of everything, and not just one aspect of everything. God is everything, not by denying the other, but by (substantially) setting things free in their own existence as the cause of everything else. This is also the red thread of my thesis: substance and participation, self-being and being-of-God. In actual fact, these two are not opposed.

Which works of Thomas do you know best?

I'd better say which works I don't know much about: the Commentary on the Sentences. I know most of Thomas' works, and in particular the Summa Theologiae. This has become my bedside-table literature. I treasure this work because of its conciseness and its transparent structure. It is a work of incredible richness.

What is the relevance of Thomas and Thomistic research for this day and age?

In contemporary philosophy he doesn't play a role, whereas in theological philosophy he can be applied better. If you want to regard him as a partner, he needs to be 'translated'. On the one hand, you donīt want to isolate him, but you run the risk of becoming apologetic. You need to find a certain balance if you want Thomas to be a kind of mirror, without identifying with him. He easily drags you into his thinking, since he is so convincing and overpowering. Thomas measures his thinking in such a way that he immediately points you at the key issue. It is difficult to stay aloof and to retain your own position and to look at the areas which he didn't tread.
I don't consider myself a Thomist who is convinced that Thomas provides the best answers to contemporary philosophical issues. It is much more interesting to regard Thomas as a counter point, in order to get better insight into both positive aspects and the blind spots of modern thinking. Thomas is an instructive partner, also in relation to the question why we aren't and don't want to be medieval men and women anymore

You are a member of the board of the Thomas Instituut and hence you know the institute from inside. What do you expect from the institute? Which activities should be a priority?

The Thomas Instituut is an important means to promote research into Thomas Aquinas in the academic and theological world. It is therefore important to bring scholars in this field together. As a result, you can make research into Thomas more explicit and keep this field of research on the theological agenda.

What do you think of internet and what is your opinion on the website of the Thomas Instituut?

Internet is handy in a relative sense, as for instance certain websites on philosophy, particularly when you can download texts. I therefore use internet moderately.
The website of the Thomas Instituut is interesting for those who are interested in Thomasī work and who do research in this field. Hence the links and tools are very practical.

Which publications would you recommend to get acquainted to your work?

Participation and Substantiality in Thomas Aquinas. Leiden [etc.]: Brill, 1995.

Natural Reason in the Summa contra Gentiles, in: Medieval Philosophy and Theology 4 (1994), pp. 42-70.

Thank you very much!

Cristina Pumplun