It was in 1985 that I began philosophy in Rome, at the Angelicum University. Each morning, I would walk about two miles up from the Lateran, through a narrow street towards the north and past the Colosseum, to the Piazza Venezia, along past the Gregorian University and up a narrow street to reach the renaissance building of the Angelicum. There, we were initiated into the arcanes of logic, epistemology and cosmology – all in the incomprehensible language of badly shaven Dominicans who seemed to have got out of bed the wrong side. We quickly nicknamed our philosophy classrooms as the paralyzation chambers. All philosophy classes were given in Italian, and my regret is that Fr Galli who lectured on Fisica e Filosophia was totally incomprehensible. Fr Russo who taught cosmology had a distinct Sicilian accent. Many others have lapsed into the mists of forgetfulness. A kind seminarian at our College tried to teach some of us freshmen a smattering of Italian, but this remained a big problem. It took several months to acquire a little Italian, since we were speaking English at seminary.
Most of the professors were totally cynical about teaching philosophy to those who hardly understood Italian, so they entered good marks into our libelli despite knowing very little about the subject at the summary oral examinations. A year later in Fribourg, we had to work and know our stuff, and I could understand the lectures because they were in French. But the Angelicum was quite a weird experience for me. Some professors made the effort of giving us notes in English and some extra courses were arranged by American Dominicans. They gave us something of more value.
In the 1980’s, philosophy was taught in much the same way as for centuries by the Dominicans, the only difference being the use of Italian instead of Latin! It was strict Aristotelian Thomism with only the exception of Fr Galli’s incomprehensible lectures based on the work of Max Planck, the reason for which I regretted the language barrier. I have no scientific knowledge of quantum physics, but it appeals to me as a philosophical notion that bases all existence and reality on consciousness rather than matter. I would find medieval metaphysics materialistic to the point that I wondered whether modern atheism had its roots in it! I found epistemology and logic dry and boring, but I did seek out books on metaphysics, the question of the Universal between the extreme realism of Plato to the Nominalism of Occam and many others of the Franciscan schools. Reality was conceived as something entirely exterior to the observing subject, which quantum physics would compromise with its theory of consciousness. If consciousness is independent from matter, there would be a much better case for life after death.
It was when I went to Fribourg that I became much more aware of the need for a philosophical formation to study theology. The Fathers of the Church were influenced by Hellenism and this is a vital component to our understanding and use of language. Fribourg had become less Aristotelian from the Modernist era of the early twentieth century and more Platonic, more neo-Patristic and more open to modern science. I felt at home intellectually, and various characters I met gently guided me towards an “orthodox” Gnosticsm through Jungian psychology and early twentieth century Russian philosophy, which was to some extent born of German Idealism, a brainchild of the Romantic movement.
My exposure to the cynical routine of the “Lazy A” (nickname among some American students of the Angelicum) gave me some taste for thought, discovery and the very meaning of the word philosophy – φιλοσοφία in Greek meaning “love of wisdom”. It is the study of issues concerning existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, language and many of the issues now covered by the sciences of chemistry, physics and biology. It enables our minds to attempt to some extent to grasp the meaning of life and notions that lie beyond reason such as revealed mysteries. The Trinity and the Hypostatic Union of Christ are mysteries, but so are the universe, multiverses, the notion of the infinity of space. The earth belongs to our solar system, which belongs to a galaxy of millions of solar systems like ours. Beyond our galaxy, you can see many of the other galaxies if your telescope is powerful enough. Entering the realm of theory, those galaxies would form a universe from a single big bang, but there may be other universes too – all totally different with different laws of physics, or all exactly the same with different sets of probabilities. Don’t tell me that there are no mysteries!
I was thinking in this kind of way since when I was a little boy, obsessed with science and a quest for understanding. I lacked the application at school or the social skills to do well in the system. My love of science competed with my love of music and language, and the latter won out. Philosophy for me would to some extent fill in the gap between art and science. One unfortunate tendency of aspies is to amass a phenomenal amount of facts but often with little overall understanding. Platonism has done a lot to help me seek a big picture view to give justification for the details and parts of the mechanism.
Some say that 99% of humanity is made for breeding and 1% for advancing knowledge and technology. That is certainly an exaggeration, because scientists and inventors are not always quirky eccentrics! Many geniuses, philosophers and “mad scientists” seem to have had Asperger-like qualities, just like Asperger himself. I have not achieved anything scientific myself. I am not teaching in a university. I just churn out translated texts from French into English. Sometimes I learn new things from the texts I have to read and re-write in my own language. What enables me to earn my living is intellectual work, the comprehension of language and its re-expression in English to convey the same concepts. It keeps my mind sharp, and it keeps my curiosity alive.
Do aspies make better philosophers than “neurotypicals”? I have no idea, but aspies care much less about the opinions of other people and are more independent spiritually, less afraid of coming up with ideas that might seem crazy at first. Most people labour with preconceived ideas, prejudice and “What will others say?“. Many cultural givens are taken for granted, but the high-functioning autistic mind sees right through it. We will isolate the things of which we are aware, ask questions, analyse and compare them with things outside our culture.
Philosophy can also be a part of that body of knowledge for which we thirst. Aspie children notice things others would take for granted. Another one of my “obsessions” as a child was noticing things on buildings, architectural details like the design of roofs, windows, chimneys and decorations. I still notice details that attract my attention on buildings in different parts of Europe or even a single region in countries like England or France. That being said, I would not have been a successful architect, because I detest the modern styles would have been what brings the money in. In the same way, I have been reading about German Idealism and Romanticism, because I do believe that they have insights that are less evident for the more rationalistic and “realist” systems of thought. In so many ways, we create our own reality and experience life differently in inexplicable ways.
Though I went to university, much of my interest in philosophy has been from my own reading and curiosity. I also felt repelled “pseudo-intellectualism”, what a friend of mine in Fribourg called “intellectual masturbation” an exercise in narcissism by deliberately expressing oneself incomprehensibly. This is what one will find with a certain mindset that does not seek wisdom and meaning, but one’s own self-importance. An aspie will notice this in a flash! If our thought is to mean anything, it needs to be expressed in language that can be understood. For example, many people might be foxed by the word “hermeneutics”, but will readily understand “interpretation” or one’s take on what something means through that person’s perspective of mind. Not everything has reality outside the observing and thinking subject, but that is no excuse for talking gobbledegook! Academia has its limits. We can learn something from it, but life teaches us the rest, and we go on learning all the way through life.