Dr. Sean O'Connell

Reflection on the Dominican Pillar of Study

by Sean P. O'Connell, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty

Near the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas experienced a revelation which led him to stop writing, saying that all of his works now appeared to him to be made of straw. During my many years of teaching philosophy at Albertus, I frequently have met students who were reluctant to take up philosophy's big questions, such as what is the meaning of life, why is there being rather than nothing, and are there moral absolutes, either because they thought these were matters of opinion that could never be settled, or because they thought these had been settled through faith and therefore not subject to discussion. Aquinas' testimony, coming from someone who spent his life committed to the life of the mind, committed to the proposition that the intellectual pursuit of truth could bring one closer to the truth and therefore closer to God, seems to offer these students powerful support. In the context of a Dominican Catholic college, it forces us to confront seriously the question of whether the path of study can bring us to the truth. What must we think about ourselves to think that it does? What must we believe about truth? What justifies this journey, and what would it mean to carry it through faithfully?

As Socrates reminds us in the Apology, questioning begins with the recognition that we do not know. Study calls us to move outside of ourselves, to move beyond our limited, finite horizons, our prejudices and unexamined opinions, to discover the unknown. To become a student, one must first recognize that one has something to learn. The journey on the road begins through an act of humility. But there has to be an impetus for the journey as well. If I recognize my ignorance, why should I think it can be overcome by study? At least one source of hope can be found in the inborn desire to question, in the thirst to know, a desire and thirst that make sense in the context of a conviction that we were created by God with an ability to pursue the truth that matches our desire to gain it. The Constitutions of the Dominican order root study in "...humanity's natural inclination to truth."

It is the dual recognition of the finitude and affirmation of the capacity of human beings to pursue the truth that informs the Dominican practice of disputatio and supports the Dominican commitment to the university. For those not familiar with it, disputatio, disputation, is not the same as argument, a contest in which one tries to win over or to best one's opponent. Rather, in disputation, one engages the other to examine a position to seek what is true and what is missing in it so that everyone can gain insight. Ideally, a university engenders dialogue among varied individuals with multiple but limited insights into the truth so that they might together, in the words of the philosopher Hans George Gadamer, produce a fusion of horizons. Their collaborative study enables them to discover what is both true and not true about their truths and in so doing transform themselves. The great Dominican scholar, Timothy Radcliff, captures this well when he says that the "...primary function of the university is to teach us to be social beings, able to talk, to listen, and to learn from those who are different." ("Talking to Strangers," http://dimensionesperanza.it/english-articles/item/6400-talking-to-strangers-timothy-radcliffe-op.html)

Complementing this vision of the person as finite but capable of growing in insight through dialogue with the other is the Dominican commitment to Truth as one. As Aquinas maintained, Truth is disclosed in the two great books of Nature and of Revelation. In the last analysis, study begins as an act of faith born of an experience of Truth as not fully realized but rather as a present and guiding force. It is a journey, and to be faithful to it is to be faithful to the process of opening oneself to the other. Radcliff shows what this looks like when he describes how to seek truth in sacred texts: "You cannot go in and claim their meaning with some grand theory. Study is much more like sneaking up on a text, trying this approach and then another..." ("Talking to Strangers," http://dimensionesperanza.it/english-articles/item/6400-talking-to-strangers-timothy-radcliffe-op.html)

This journey is not justified through the discovery of truth if truth is viewed as a finite object we can possess. The journey is justified through the experience of living in the truth, the experience of continually growing in wisdom. This is why the testimony of those who have led a life of the mind is so important. Socrates tells us at the end of a long life of inquiry that his greatest insight was the recognition of his own ignorance. Aquinas tells us that his works appear to him at the end of his journey to be made of straw. What are we to make of this? Neither Socrates nor Aquinas repudiates their lives or their work. Instead, they give us a gift. They show us through lives lived in fidelity to the truth that we can, indeed, transcend our limited horizons. It is only through a life of study that one can gain the transformative insights of a Socrates or an Aquinas that enable them to achieve such an extraordinary perspective on the limitedness of their own visions.

Central to the Dominican mission is to engage in study to benefit others. This is what great thinkers like Aquinas did through the witness of their lives of study. This is what the faculty here at Albertus do by enacting a curriculum that has as its goal to enable students to engage the other, whoever the other might be, in dialogue, that is, to pursue the truth in all of its dimensions.