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Contemporary Anti-Intellectualism: Dr. Raphael Waters

Contemporary Anti-Intellectualism

by Dr. Raphael Waters, D.Ph., L.Ph., Ph.C.

Editor’s note: This brilliant article by the Thomistic philosopher Dr. Waters summarizes many of the main points he taught his students in his classes on metaphysics, philosophical psychology and ethics. Because of the condensed nature of this short piece, it may take some effort on the part of the reader. Yet he who takes the time not only to read this work, but to study and ponder it, will find his efforts richly rewarded.

All through human history, man has been recognized as radically intellectual. His intellective soul informs his matter right down to the tip of his toes and this rationality is the cause of his metaphysical properties. Hence, man’s risibillity, sociality, and scientific ability flow from his rationality in some particular situation. For example, ‘sociality’ manifests rationality in the context of the group.

The marvelous development of the science of logic by Aristotle brought the study of order in reasoning to fruition with his brilliant logical treatises. St. Thomas Aquinas, using that logic, raised the philosophical truths inherited from Aristotle and Thomas’ predecessors to a new and higher synthesis. However, since the so-called Enlightenment, there has been greater development of an anti-intellectualist spirit in the Western world, resulting in confusion of many issues.

History of Anti-Intellectualism

The foundation for the anti-intellectual tendency goes back to the early Greeks. The first great philosophical dispute arose between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Both saw the difficulty of change taking place in the world around them. Their senses saw change in every sphere but their intellects seemed to tell them that it was not possible for a being to become a being; it is already a being. Parmenides, not wanting to leave the intellectual order, rejected sensitive knowledge.[1] Heraclitus; not wanting to doubt his senses, ignored the evidence of his intellect; all is in a state of flux (he called it “fire”) and the senses alone were the source of human knowledge.[2] Thus arose the first doctrinal rejection of the intellectual order, albeit implicit.

There has been a development of anti-intellectualism in the past 300 years. Thomas Neill claims that “The whole course of modem intellectual history has been away from reason. Luther” for example, “began by attacking it”[3]

Descartes, largely ignoring the philosophizing of his predecessors, was followed by Locke’s oversimplification of the metaphysical order, and Hume’s skepticism. Their ignorance of the
proper activity of the human intellect, and its power to abstract the universal natures of things, led the modem world into philosophical chaos with disastrous consequences.

Kant[4] set the stage for Modernism,[5] which laid the foundations for many contemporary errors. According to Kant, the human intellect cannot know external reality in itself, since
what we know is the idea of a tree (assumed by most modem philosophers), not the tree itself. That idea is a composite of the human intellect (the a priori form) and the tree; how much comes from the tree itself is unknown to us. Hence, since our intellects tamper with all of our judgments, therefore, what applies to the judgment may not apply to the tree.[6]

Kant’s struggle for certitude in knowledge ushered in the great uncertainties of our age. For Kant and his intellectual offspring, the Modernists, the supernatural world becomes unknown or rather, at best, is reduced to a purely natural knowledge.

The Church rejected the inane conclusions of Kantianism by introducing the syllabus of errors [against Modernism].[7] The reduction of the supernatural to what man can attain with reason alone was utterly rejected by Catholic teaching and sound philosophical reasoning. Kant, like most modem philosophers, makes some unjustified assumptions from which he deduces a metaphysical system. Others
assume an absurd metaphysics.

It has taken the twentieth century to bring the apparent opposition to the proper use of the intellectual order to its fulfillment. It should be noted that it has been said that only about one in twelve human persons can think abstractly. Most tend to think with their imagination, and when this proves to be unsuccessful in a particular situation, the will influences judgments. The unreasonable clinging to a desired good brings the subject to a
desired conclusion.

This spirit has taken its course in our day[8] for many uphold the validity of sense knowledge (e.g. empiricists), ignoring the proper activity of the intellect, reducing it to the level of a higher sense. Subjectivists and Idealists (e.g. Hegel) uphold the validity of intellective knowledge, exaggerating it at the expense of sense knowledge.

We are now left with a legacy of anti-intellectualism. Modem man has drifted further and further from the intellectualism of past centuries in spite of great advances in the mathematico-physical sciences. It is simply a lack of metaphysics. Our contemporaries fear to uphold that we can know the natures of things. For example, note the struggle the courts have with a definition of ‘obscenity.’ The refusal to acknowledge the intellect’s formation of the universal concept has led us into some difficult situations at the level of the individual, and the family. The disastrous organization and operation in the body economic, the body politic, and the body cultural have all resulted from a denial of the natural moral law (discoverable by human reason), which is the very basis of the whole moral order.

Contemporary Consequences: A Confused Culture

This decline of sound reasoning has left man intellectually confused and on that account, somewhat denatured. But he still has his rationality, which demands control over his other faculties. But this control is taken over by the will, the voluntaristic tendency of our age.[9] Now each appetitive function (passion and affect of the will), is perfected by one of the moral virtues, namely;
justice in the will, temperance in the pleasurable appetites, and fortitude in the aggressive appetites. Each of these in turn requires the direction of the intellect perfected by the key moral virtue. namely, prudence.[10] One cannot have virtue without prudence; if one is imprudent in one of the virtues. he will imprudent in the others. Prudence puts reason into the other virtues. It links the moral life to the rational life. It is easy to see that, if there is transcendence of the will, poorly informed by reason, we could expect a disordered moral life.

This disorder develops in the personal life, as well as in the family and political life. Will is the master and this leads to political struggles among men, ushering in the totalitarian state.

The will, informed by vice developed in the absence of virtue, increases the deformation of the person. Hence. man, lacking the virtue of prudence and distorted with vices opposed to prudence, chooses questionable means to achieve defective ends. However, nature will rear up from within the depths of the soul, which seeks what it naturally desires, causing anguish to the person. For our
elicited appetites often run counter to our natural appetites since some men will grasp at anything, which appears to satisfy them.[11] Aristotle said, ‘Of what sort someone is, such is the end, which seems good to him:, thus stating the principle for all time. [12]

Students suffering from the generally admitted mediocrity of our educational system, are motivated more by pragmatic decisions than by intellectual and moral formation. Schooling tends to incline towards useful goods rather than worthy or honest goods. “Why should I have to study philosophy or theology when I could be adding electives to my transcript?” is an attitude frequently encountered by professors. The ready disposal of their books of perennial value is always revealing.

The demand for better grades, notwithstanding lack of study, preoccupies many students, for whom grades are more important than understanding. Moreover, erudition replaces insight, the understanding of principles and formation of the appropriate scientific habit, so necessary for philosophy and theology.[13] Now, of course. we suffer from the tyranny of the shifting sands of political’ correctness, expressed in popular clichés, such as ‘homophobia’ and ‘pro-choice.’ A recent example found in a student essay declared that “this racism has got to stop.” referring to objections to homosexuality.

Many ethics textbooks today, contain practically nothing of the
science of ethics.[14] Casuistry fills their pages with many abnormal case histories from which it is hoped to deduce what is normal.

Often, the will, unfettered by the intellect, has full rein and eventually subordinates the soul to lower powers. The sensitive appetite takes control and once unleashed becomes a monster. But with the misuse of reason, man can be worse than a beast, as the ancients have indicated.[15] Witness, for example, the contemporary degrading of man with homosexuality, and its brutal exhibitionism as seen in Gay parades with metal clothing, glistening bodies, defiant, hard faces and vulgar kissing.

False ideas can produce disastrous results, as we have seen in recent years. We find ourselves in a culture, which tolerates emotional charismatic ceremonies, as if they constituted a newly established sacrament within the Church with its so-called “gift of tongues”– some uttering garbled pseudo-Latin words without meaning. The claim that they understand it is hardly persuasive.

Many discoveries in modem empirical sciences turn out to be false leads. Hence, some scientist can claim that we can be certain of nothing, for there is always change. This is said in ignorance of the certitude gained in the philosophical sciences as reasoning is based upon infallible truths, the principles of reason, which lead to infallibly true conclusions, defended by the philosopher.[16] Moreover, the tendency to accept what is common, characteristic of the empirical sciences, for what is
normal, characteristic of the philosophical sciences, appears as a key to contemporary thought. Closely related is the failure to distinguish what is controverted from what is controversial.

The Social Order

The domestic society has suffered perhaps more than any other social organism. “Marriage is what you make it,” said a teacher of science, a judgment she would not make of chemistry or mathematics. The failure of educators to see the systematic, scientific reasoning concerning marriage is disastrous.[17] As for matters concerning reproduction, the ruination of the conjugal society defies all attempts to explain rationally how such widespread abuse proceeds from the voluntary order. Contraception, abortion – especially partial-birth abortion – and surrogate motherhood can only result from a complete denial of reason and the illegitimate ascent of the will. “It is what I want,” becomes the ultimate principle, not what I
ought to want, as dictated by reason; thus, psychological freedom is confused with moral freedom.

The confrontations we experience in the political life of a nation manifest most clearly the lack of understanding of the due order based on the rational, scientific determination of how civil society functions. Television interviewers, like students, flock to political scientists, social scientists, psychologists and even historians in the hope of discovering some panacea for social ills. Little do they realize that these sciences are based upon what
is rather that what ought to be. Sadly, within the student mind, all is a matter of opinion, and moreover, one opinion is as good as another. Here popular culture becomes the determining principle. Political correctness, which has infected campuses, gives final approval so that when the master speaks, it matters little whether he is a philosopher, theologian, or political scientist; each opinion is on an equal footing even though the topic properly belongs to philosophy or theology.

Our Cultural Climate

One notable result of improper intellectual formation is the gross ignorance infecting our contemporaries concerning ultimate questions. The existence of God; the possibility of life after death; man’s free will and his personal responsibility for the conduct of his life; and all that follows these questions, such as human dignity, human rights, the nature and function of government; limits to taxation and power of the government; public morality and sense of values: the truth concerning all of these can be deduced using rational principles applied in the appropriate philosophical science.

Today, social science has replaced social philosophy in the universities both in esteemed value and utility according to popular mentality. One only has to consider the various issues concerning
life to appreciate this; for example, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, assisted suicide, alleged ‘death with dignity’ and now cloning.

That curse of modern civilization, which, in the right circumstances, could be its greatest asset, namely the various media, especially television, has given rise to all kinds of intellectual alterations. The new clergy, as one reporter expressed it, is the reporter. Oprah Winfrey seems to have the role of psychologist, philosopher, therapists of many kinds, economist, and theologian – in fact, a savior of mankind.

Signs of the degradation of our culture can be seen in its low water marks:
morally, the horrendous contempt for human life, especially abortion; in theology, Fideism; in political life, the steady march towards State Absolutism.

Principles of Reason, Foundation of Truth

Learning demands humility and a respect for the various sciences, and, above all, a complete submission to reality, allowing our minds to be instructed by being. From that knowledge, we discover the
principles of reason so jealously guarded by the philosopher. The latter specializes in the natures of things, not only the appearances of the natures, as in the empirical sciences.[18] Thus he seeks what necessarily follows from his understanding of those natures, first the utter certitude of the principles of reason, and second, the certitude of the conclusions discovered with the aid of the principles. Hence, certitude results from his grasp of being, defended in that part of metaphysics entitled ‘epistemology.’ Here we find the epitome of intellectualism wherein many diverse philosophies are critically examined, allowing the philosopher to distinguish the true from the false, and to arrive at certitude in the bosom of being. One philosophy. Aristotelian-Thomism, survives – and the rest, weakened by half-truths infected by an insufficiency to explain reality, crumble. We have today, at one end of the scale, the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis, splendidly unique in the history of civilization, while at the other end lies a pseudo-philosophy entitled ‘linguistic analysis’, which has been described as mere ‘words about words.’

Although the philosopher is above all a guardian of the principles of reason, other sciences employ them. Yet, it is left to the philosopher to manifest their truth and to defend them. Without the principles. no reasoning is possible for they express our comprehension of being, our grasp of the natures of things, and enable us to arrive at the most important conclusions necessary for mankind.[19] This is perhaps the least known aspect of all human learning in the current medley of sciences and floundering attempts to understand man’s position in our world.

One example demonstrates clearly the failure to employ proper principles. Many fail to recognize that contraception and abortion are subject to the same principle, namely, that “the end is principal in practical matters.”[20] Hence, it is false to claim that we should oppose abortion but leave contraception to individual choice, as many do, for both have the same end – new human life.

If for Kant, what we know is the idea, and we do not know the world in itself, then. since principles of reason apply to ideas, we cannot know if they apply to things in extra-mental reality. Thus, principles fell into disrepute and became neglected. They are neglected today in favor of the analysis of language-or perhaps analysis of the phenomena (phenomenology). The immediate conclusion, which Kant himself saw, was that we cannot use the principles to answer the most important questions for man: for example, is there a God? Is there life after death? The answers to these questions today are considered as being a matter of
belief without rational foundation. Indeed, all certainty in any of these questions frequently receives the comment that no one has the truth – and that is the truth. They claim utter certitude that we can be certain of nothing.

The epidemic fear of the truth permits many to arrive at absurd conclusions and practices in the economic and political orders with consequent economic enslavement and growing dependence on the state. I suspect that Socrates had less to fear from the tyrannical thirty ruling Athens than we do of our self-proclaimed “democratic” governments today. At least they had Socrates who brought a clear rational process into the disorder as a cure. Ours fail to grasp the certitude of the solutions obtained by philosophical reasoning, both in the speculative and practical sciences. Rational sciences without principles become dilettantism and/or eclecticism. Thus, economic. political, and cultural orders reflect the errors founded in the basic sciences.

Even in the science of ethics, many do not progress beyond the analytic way and consequently make little progress in the synthetic way, wherein these problems are solved.

Every science has its counterpart in philosophy where certitude is attained: botany, zoology, and empirical psychology in
philosophical psychology; law, political science, sociology. and economics in the superior science of ethics wherefrom they can discover what is certain in their own fields.[21] All is not merely a matter of opinion, for there are principles, which lie at the basis of even that statement.

With complete defiance of the scientific certitude found in ethical science – and common sense, some can accept the killing of an unborn child in the name of sexual freedom and personal autonomy. while claiming that it is not human, or it is a woman’s right. Some can claim a right to die with utter ignorance of the nature of a right; others announce a right to kill the innocent giving it the euphemistic term of euthanasia while rejecting our right to execute the gravely guilty criminal. Thus they assume a right to kill, a right to be killed, and a right not to be killed; to hell with logic and ethics! Tragically, millions are being spent on these absurd applications of irrational ethical teachings.

One thing is certain: it would take a massive effort to return to truth and justice for all men; the Church could bring mankind back to peace and happiness but prejudiced wills will not allow it [22]

Originally published in 2001. For more of Dr. Waters, go to

Republished in the March 2011 issue of Catholic Family News


1. F. J. Thonnard, A
Short History of Philosophy (trans. E.A. Maziarz, Paris: Desclee, 1956) 20-22; F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, (London: Burns, Oates & Washburn, 1947), ch. VI; John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, London, 4th ed (Adam and Charles Black, 1930) 179.

2. F. J. Thonnard,, ibid. ch. V; F. Copleston. ibid. ch.VI; J. Burnet, ibid. 146.

3. Thomas P. Neill, Makers of the Modern Mind (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1949) 9, 16, 21, 27-28, 378; Jacques Maritain,
Three Reformers Luther-Descartes-Rouseau (London: Sheed and Word, 1950), 28-31.

4. T. Nelli. ibid. 207-211,218-220: Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason. abridged., (trans. N. Kemp Smith, New York: Modem Library, 1958) Intro. 16-25.

5. See Encyclical Letters of Pope Pius X:
On the Doctrine of the Modernists (1907) and Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists (1907).

6. T. Neill, ibid., 210, 218-220.

7. Pius X, ibid.

8. T. Neill, Ibid. 378.

9. Michel Schooyaus,
Power over Life Leads to Domination of Mankind (trans. J. Miller, Saint Louis, MO
Ceentral Bureau CCUA, 1996) 55-60. T. Neill, Ibid, 221; J. Maritain, op. cit., 34-35.

10. Thomas Higgins, Man as Man, The Science of Art and Ethics, rev. ed. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1958) 154-155: Milton A. Gonsalves,
Fagothey’s Right and Read, Ethics in Theory and Practice, 9th ed. (Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1989) 204-210.

11. M. Gonsalves. ibid. 33-35.

Nicomacheon Ethics, III, 5, 1114a, 34; cf. T. Higgins. 73.

13. T. Higgins,
op. cit. 147-148; 152-153.

14. Ibid. 6-11; M. Gonsalves,
op. cit. 6-8; cf. 179-183.

IS. Aristotle,
Politics, 1,2; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, III, 146; Frank Sheed, Society and Sanity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1953) 91-92; cfn. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, 9, 2, and 10, 3.

16. Jacques Maritain,
The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. G. Phelan (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1859) 46-50.

17. Michel Schooyans’ small work develops this theme excellently (see note 9 above).

18. J. Maritain,
The Degrees of Knowledge, 46-50, 66-67

19. Aristotle,
Posterior Analytics I, 6.

20. Aristotle,
N. Ethics, I, 1; Aristotle, Politics. I; St.. Thomas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 1. I-n, I.

21. T. Higgins,
op. cit. 7-9.

22. Crane Brinton,
Ideas and Men, The Story of Western Thought (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1950), general treatment of anti-intellectualism, see esp. 503-526..

Republished in the March 2011 issue of Catholic Family News

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