“There is also a general tendency to think that human failings can be righted by introducing structures and regulations, but while these have a role they cannot of themselves produce understanding, and often they are the enemy of it,” says Scottish philosopher and First Things contributor John Haldane, is a long interview in 3AM: Magazine called Aquinas Among the Analytics .

Secularists, in the modern sense, tend to depict religious believers as dumb and angry; while believers incline to the view that atheists are shallow and bullying. This kind of opposition feeds on itself and leads to deeper animosity. One way of halting the process is to engage in discussion, recognising that there may be reasonable disagreements, I mean possibly intractable differences expressing reasonable outlooks.

This is not to endorse relativism but to recognize that our takes on things tend to be partial and it is very difficult to get to a comprehensive understanding. That is not impossible but it takes the full resources of philosophy, and goodness of heart and will besides.


He is a frequent participant in debates with people like the late Christopher Hitchens and new atheists in general. The interviewer says that he’s presented an attractive version of Thomism but that [recitation of cultural leftist cliches about “extreme rightwing Christianity” being “bullying” and hateful etc.] and then asks “Haven’t you been hijacked by a very different agenda?”

Through this kind of exchange, Haldane replies, “Catholics learn to draw distinctions.” The distinctions, for example,

between the value of an office and the quality of its occupants; the content of the message and the character of the messengers; the dignity of persons and the wrongfulness of human actions; adherence to truth and tolerance of disagreement among truth-seekers; and between what is attainable naturally and what requires grace. I would add a further threefold distinction: between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (which pertain to religious belief and practice); traditionalism and progressivism (which relate to broadly cultural matters); and conservatism and liberalism (which operate in the sphere of secular politics).

I am critical of the politicisation of religion and of the assumption that these three distinctions line-up so that orthodoxy goes with traditionalism and with conservatism, while liberalism and progressivism go with heterodoxy. There are various possible permutations and the failure to see this, or to explore issues individually and not as a total package is a marked fault on both sides of the political/cultural/religion wars.


It is an illuminating and engaging interview, of interest to philosophers and to the rest of us, though there are places the latter will  have to run a little to keep up. The interview also includes a long discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas, including his use by philosophers like Wittgenstein, other philosophical traditions and their effect on Christian metaphysics, philosophy of mind, Elizabeth Anscombe (of whom he says “I think there was something of the existentialist or spiritual writer about her in the sense that she thought that the significance of a fact would only be evident to someone who was looking to find or to escape from it”), the problems with Hume, the value of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Thanks to Ed Feser for the lead. Here is a list of Professor Haldane’s First Things essays.

Articles by David Mills

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