Coaching Students to Engage Knowledge with Aquinas’ Scholastic Method (Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Continued)

In the last few posts, I’ve explored more of Aquinas’ philosophical and theoretical relevance to knowledge seeking for epistemology (theory of knowing) in his time and ours. In this post, I explore some student-learning applications of Thomas Aquinas’ approach to argumentation via his thoughtful questioning and charitable disputation method as modeled in The Summa Theologiae. (Also often referred to as part of “the scholastic method.”) Aquinas’ method serves well as a way to coach students to more thoughtfully summarize, analyze, and argue knowledge claims. Modern argumentation approaches, such as the Toulmin model of argument, can also be integrated. 

A Process for Educators 

As noted last time, I believe that we educators can fruitfully adapt Aquinas’ method for thinking about our teaching and public discourse. (My current contender would be a question along the lines of, “Whether a knowledge-rich education is essential for the 21st-century pursuit of long-term flourishing?”

In contrast to the common antagonistic and disordered modes of argument found in public discourse, Aquinas’ approach is much more systematic, knowledge-focused, and flexible for our most pressing questions. Imagine educators using such an approach for educational policies, theories, and practices! (What we do, I believe, is typically a hodgepodge approach for many reasons that I will have to address elsewhere.) 

In the previous post, I shared his topic  OF THOSE THINGS THAT ARE REQUIRED FOR HAPPINESS (EIGHT ARTICLES) In that reference to The Summa Theologiae, Aquinas takes each article question under the topic and processes it in his thoughtful, disputation approach, considering objections, making a general refutation, and making specific replies to each objection.

Thomas Aquinas practices a much-needed approach to knowledge, argument, and relationships that I believe is best labeled as deliberative–as in deliberate work and deliberating over knowledge or decisions. That emphasis can serve us well personally, professionally, and publicly. 

A Process for Students

Any knowledge-rich, debatable topic in most disciplines can work well with students. Applications of mathematics and statistics in epidemiology or economics come to mind right now, as well as issues of justice and liberty. Additionally, all students should be required to process the following question: Whether post-secondary education and training is essential to long-term flourishing? Such a question should occupy some sort of exploration that they revisit each semester through their high school years. 

In my high school English teaching context, I was thinking about how useful Aquinas’ method can be for working with students while studying Henry V and the essential question of “Whether Henry V pursues a just war?” (Notice the interdisciplinary connection potential with social studies.)

Right from the start of Shakespeare’s Henry V, readers may be rightly concerned that young King Henry’s discussion with the archbishop and bishop reflects unreliable reasoning on their part. Basically, they seek the favor of the king concerning issues of the church’s land and money, and these interests are likely to influence their advice to Henry concerning his right to the throne. 

Throughout the play, Shakespeare provides audiences with contrasting details and perspectives that may support or undermine the rightness of Henry’s claim to the French throne and his endeavor to war against France in order to gain that throne. In the past, I’ve used a resource such as a “Just War Theory” for students to work through with references to different thinkers over time, but I think it would also be good for students to work through Aquinas’ method. 

Relevant to Henry V, Aquinas tackles the question Whether some kind of war is lawful? in his thorough manner (much of which I will shorten for this post):

  “Objection 1: It would seem that it is always sinful to wage war. Because punishment is not inflicted except for sin. Now those who wage war are threatened by Our Lord with punishment, according to Mt. 26:52: “All that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Therefore all wars are unlawful.

  Objection 2: Further, whatever is contrary to a Divine precept is a sin. But war is contrary to a Divine precept, for it is written (Mt. 5:39): “But I say to you not to resist evil”; and (Rm. 12:19): “Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath.” Therefore war is always sinful.

[Objections 3 & 4 are omitted…] 

  On the contrary, Augustine says in a sermon on the son of the centurion [*Ep. ad Marcel. cxxxviii]: “If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counselled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: ‘Do violence to no man . . . and be content with your pay’ [*Lk. 3:14]. If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering.”

  I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary….[a three-point general defense follows…] 

  Reply to Objection 1: As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 70): “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority.” On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to “take the sword,” but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment.

  Reply to Objection 2: Such like precepts, as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense….

[Replies to Objections #3 and #4 follow]


Mixing in Ancient and Modern Argument Elements and Support

Aquinas’ scholastic method was central for a liberal arts education during Aquinas’ time. For Henry V and other works, I can provide students with a Google form or table for them to work through these notes as they go. Gregory L. Roper about the advantages of leading with thoughtful objections to one’s position often has the effect of “making students into much more rhetorically aware essay writers” (The Writer’s Workshop xxiv). 

Aquinas’ method also connects well to thinking through logical relationships (as in Aristotle six categorical topics): 

  • Definition: What are we considering? What is its essential definition? 
  • Division: What are its parts or sub-categories? 
  • Comparison: How do the different definitions, divisions, and other features similar or different? 
  • Relationships: What correlations, cause/effect, contraries, & contradictions are noticeable?
  • Context: What is true about this topic or area of knowledge in different times, places, and purposes? 
  • Authority: What is the most convincing and true version of the knowledge, claims, details, and related connections? How so?

Reading through the articles, one can infer how Aquinas applies these categorical thinking moves to develop his disputations. (e.g., Whose definitions of a “Just War” or “post-secondary education” are most authoritative and relevant?) Students will benefit from this process if it is recursive and progressive so that it has an interleaving effect on the students, which will likely help make the knowledge and skills stick and connect to other learning.    

The scholastic method also invites the integration of elements of Toulmin’s model of argument as we process. In general, I’ll want students to think of strong objections as opposed to “straw men” and other forms of weak arguments. 

Educators who are familiar with Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing can find additional sentence form patterns to help scaffold student work with their disputations. 

This approach can be a bit heady, but one could easily modify it for students concerning less intense subjects, ranging from great products to great athletes and other popular culture topics (e.g., Whether Star Trek is superior to Star Wars for its educational and long-term flourishing insights?

Next week, I plan on exploring claims about how early modern epistemology becomes problematic as it becomes fractured with the thinking of Rene Descartes. Did western philosophy mistakenly get the subjective epistemology of Descartes before the commonsense horses of Aristotle and Aquinas? 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider:

  1. What would it be like if more debates and arguments followed something like the method of Aquinas? (e.g. Presidential candidate debates?)
  2. What are some serious and not-so-serious topics that might be good to run through a scholastic disputation method in the high school (or middle school) classroom? 
  3. How might the approaches to argument explored in this and previous posts work for progressions and scaffolding in teaching students to understand arguments and argue well? 
  4. How might these argument strategies be used across the disciplines?  

For Further Study and Reflection: 

Thomas Aquinas: thesis / antithesis,” from Oregon State University

Summa Philosophica, by Peter Kreeft (Kreeft imitates Aquinas’ approach for modern questions about philosophy and theology.)

“Chapter 5: Voices of Logic: Making Sense,” in The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing, by Gregory L. Roper 

They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein

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