Medieval “Reductio” versus Modern Reductivism



When, after a series of disputes, the great medieval doctor of the Church, Saint Bonaventure, was finally appointed regent master of theology at the University of Paris, he delivered as one of his two required introductory speeches: a text now known as The reduction of the arts to theology. This title can however be misleading, because what Bonaventure means by the Latin word reduction and what we mean by “reduction” are two very different things.

For us, “reduction” means making things smaller. Literally, however, the Latin word reduction means “bring back”. Thus, Bonaventure’s “reduction” of other disciplines to theology does not imply reducing them to theology. No way. Rather, it was to show how all the other disciplines, operating according to their own methods, can take us back goodbye.

It’s not that we expect chemistry, biology or physics teachers do theology in their classes. Quite the contrary. On the Christian conception of creation as an expression of the divine Logos and an embodiment of God’s love, when natural science teachers teach students the truths about the world or about the human person, they are in this very act lead people to the Creator God. They help students “read” what medieval scholars called “the Book of Nature”, written by the same hand that wrote “the Book of Scripture”.

If these teachers add a prayer to begin the lesson, or if they remind students that “everything we study helps us understand how God writes in the Book of Nature,” so much the better. But that should be the assumption that everyone brings to class; that’s not the point of the class. There is no additional requirement to do social justice things to prove that you are “Catholic”. Charity begins in the classroom, teaching with generosity and excellence.

Chemistry, biology, and physics teachers help foster a Catholic education when they teach chemistry, biology, and physics. Theology professors should not tell them how to teach in these classes any more than a theologian should tell a mason how to build a solid brick wall. The Catholic tradition has long understood that each discipline has its own methodology.

And yet there will also be certain guidelines – or perhaps we could call them “safeguards” – that will help Catholic institutions to protect the disciplines from outside forces, from each other and sometimes from themselves- same.


A Catholic university will remind every discipline that it should not submit to the temptations of pride, wealth, or power and should not bow to the coercion of governments or other state agencies. Their primary devotion must be to truth.

So, for example, the economy in a Catholic university can never be just about profit; politics can never be limited to power; scholarship in other disciplines (including philosophy and theology) should never be used solely for purposes of professional prestige or personal pride. We serve our students, not ourselves and our own ego. Nor do we serve ideology; we serve the truth because when we serve the truth, we serve God who is Truth.

The Catholic institution will also remind each discipline that it must respect its disciplinary boundaries. Biologists, chemists and physicists should not make philosophical claims not supported by the methods of their discipline, such as “evolution proves that God does not exist”. (It does no such thing.) Likewise, philosophers and theologians should not make claims about “science” ignoring the latest developments in science.

In all its efforts, a Catholic university should engage in reduction, but should resist all unwarranted forms of “reductivism”. What is the character of these “unjustified” forms?

For present purposes, we can identify three forms of “reductivism”.

First, “methodological reductivismby which scientists seek to “reduce” phenomena to their constituent elements. We “reduce” material things to their atomic structures. We “reduce” physical traits to genetic causes. This “methodological reduction” is common to the natural sciences and specific to their methodology.

The problem is that scientists, or more often the public, especially those in the media, will also engage in “epistemological reduction– the assertion that once we have reduced things to the building blocks, there is nothing else to to know about them. Sometimes, more radically, they even indulge in “ontological reduction», the assertion that things are nothing more than their constituent parts.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has always resisted these last two forms of reductivism. To ask naturalists not to drift into these forms of reductivism is to ask them to stay true to their own discipline and not to drift into epistemology or metaphysics.

The Catholic institution will also insist that all disciplines remain open to the fuller vision of the human person and of human fulfillment which is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition. All those who seriously seek the truth belong to a Catholic university.

Those who hate the Catholic faith or who find any faith ridiculous or who believe that the Catholic view of the human person is hateful and hateful, or who want the Catholic university to seek money and prestige from other schools, should not probably not make it miserable at a Catholic university and get a job somewhere else.

Thus, Bonaventure reduction and the desire of Catholic academia to view all truth, whatever its discipline, as “leading us back” to God has nothing to do with modern “scientism”‘s assertion that the only form of knowledge is scientific knowledge and that all reality, including humans, is nothing more than a collection of atoms. The Catholic intellectual tradition asserts that every shred of truth we get about the world gives us a glimpse of God’s creative love and wisdom.

But no discipline tells us everything we need to know, because the realities that God created, especially human beings, are much more than what we can grasp by reducing them to something small, something we can dominate and control.

*Image: Saint Bonaventure holding the Tree of Redemption by Vittorio Crivelli, 15th century [Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris]

You can also enjoy:

Helen Freeh Seek the truth, find it, then do something

by Michael Pakaluk Newman’s three ideas about a university

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