Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Walker Percy's Twentieth-Century Thomism

Peter Augustine Lawler, in his book, Postmodernism Rightly Understood: the Return to Realism in American Thought, has a chapter on Percy's retrieval and application of the thought of Thomas Aquinas to the twentieth century. In the first two chapters of the book Lawler analysed the thought of Francis Fukuyama and Richard Rorty. I found these two chapters difficult to understand. Chapters three and four which covers the thought of Walker Percy I found more understandable.

Percy was influenced by many influential thinkers: Kierkegaard, Marcel, Pierce, Heidegger, Voegelin, and others. Shelby Foote, however, noted that Percy never borrowed wholesale from these thinkers. He drew from what helped his purposes and made it his own. Percy admired Thomas Aquinas and was influenced by his thought. He thought he could not use Aquinas in his engagement with modernity. The modern world would not accept it he thought.

So it is interesting that Lawler has written a chapter on Percy's "Twentieth-Century Thomism." This is another common interest that Percy shared with Flannery O'Connor. She read from Aquinas's work every night before going to bed. I have read off and on from the works of Aquinas for the last twenty years. Aquinas's thought has shaped my own Christian worldview.

Lawler asserts that Percy shared the scholastic view of man: "Percy defends the 'Scholastic view' that human beings 'share certain characteristics with other creatures' but also 'are capable of higher perfections peculiar to themselves.' For the Thomist, the human being is 'distinguished from the beast in being endowed with soul, intellect, free will, reason, and the gift of language.' The gift of language is the fundamental natural human capacity, the one responsible for the development of others. With that gift, human being can name things, think about them, convey thoughts with words that can be understood by others, come to know much of the truth about nature and something about themselves, and exercise their freedom well or badly" (77). This view of man is evident in Percy's writings. For example, Percy spent most of his life showing how man is different than animals because of their use of language. Percy notes, "the transformation of the responding organism into the languaged human . . . is undoubtedly the most extraordinary natural phenomenon in all of biological behavior, if not in the entire cosmos, and yet the most commonplace of events, one that occurs every day under our noses" (78). Percy spent most of his life making that fact known.


As already been mentioned, Percy was influenced by the thought of C. S. Peirce. Peirce states, "there are real things out there whose characters are independent of our opinion of them" (78). Percy explains Peirce's meaning: "there is a real world and it is possible in a degree to know it and talk about it and be understood" (78). Percy's belief that the world is knowable is evident in his writing.

Percy identified himself as a thief of Peirce in interviews. Percy "took what he needed and let the rest go." Lawler describes Percy's method: "Percy was interested in Peirce only insofar as he could use 'his attack on nominalism and his rehabilitation of Scholastic realism.' He employed the thought and authority of Peirce to make realism credible as a philosophy and science to contemporary scholarly audiences" (78). I do not think Percy's handling of Peirce's thought is different from the way he used other key thinkers who influenced him.

Percy and Peirce both believed that "the human being is the being with language" (79). Percy used Peirce's thought as the "foundation of a semiotic as a natural science of signs" (79). Percy thought his semiotic would provide a theory of man. He thought the sciences had failed to come up with a rational, theory of man. Percy's semiotic also showed that man is a social being. He thought humans were capable of knowing, objective, truth. Lawler notes, "Percy and Peirce take the side of science against all those who deny human beings have a natural capacity to know. Percy agrees with Aristotle and Saint Thomas that discovering the truth and communicating it to others may be the greatest of the human pleasures" (79-80).

Percy thought the human differed from the animal in kind, not degree. Percy thought the human was unique and he "has the . . . capacity for making himself unhappy for no good reason, for existing as a lonely and fretful consciousness which never quite knows who he is or where he belongs" (80). As Percy said in one of his books, man is Lost in the Cosmos. He is an alien in his own world. The more he knows about the objects of the world, the lest he knows his own self. The languaged, social being cannot be known through a "dyadic" or "stimulus-response explanation" (80). Humans are triadic creatures. Lawler notes, "Man experiences himself as an alien because he cannot, through language or thought, formulate or locate his own place in a cosmos that is otherwise dyadic" (80).

Percy believed that "human beings can know, objectively, the truth about nature or the cosmos and even love the truth" (81). Percy thought that science is a valid method to know the truth. But he thought art was also a way of knowing truth. Percy states, "these sentences of art, poetry, and the novel ought to be taken very seriously indeed since these are the cognitive, scientific, if you will, statements that we have about what it is to be human" (81). Percy thinks science and art, faith and reason, are compatible. They are complementary ways of knowing truth.


  1. I really appreciate these two lucid posts on 20th c. Thomism. I will comment on them as soon as I can. Peter Lawler

  2. Thanks, I hope I am doing justice to your chapter. I loved both chapters in your book on Percy.