The Impact of the Real: Holloway?s Realignment of Thomism

The Impact of the Real: Holloway?s Realignment of Thomism


Gregory Farrelly and Fr Hugh MacKenzie explore the phenomenological foundations of Edward Holloway’s realist philosophy.

Fr. Edward Holloway produced a wealth of theological writings concerning a new syn- thesis of orthodox Catholic theology and modern scientific/philosophical thought[1]. In later life, he was able to develop his philosophical ideas. These were published in three slim volumes entitled Perspectives in Philosophy (available from These later works develop the ideas presented in his earlier, primarily theological, work, Matter and Mind, which serves as an excellent introduction to the central theological ideas underlying the Faith movement.

Philosophy is 'the handmaid of theology' and is essential for theological explanation, in a way that is analogous to the use of mathematics in physics. John Paul II understood this relationship when he made use of Phenomenology to gain a clearer, deeper understanding of reality, and Holloway did likewise. It is this approach that enabled Holloway to fine-tune many traditional points of theology, such as the description of human nature, the proofs of the existence of God, and, ultimately, the idea that all reality is centred upon Jesus Christ - a per­spective which we believe is urgently needed for the re-evangelisation of our culture.

New Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) built his theolog­ical synthesis on the basis of Aristotelian phi­losophy. The key works of Aristotle had been rediscovered in the West through translations from Arabic texts commissioned by Muslims in the tenth century. At the time Aristotle was considered the 'latest word' in physics. Aquinas successfully showed that Aristotle could be used to underpin the intel­lectual credibility of Christianity. Aquinas’ theolo­gy and philosophy (known subsequently as Thomism) became the bedrock of the Church's explanations of the faith, bearing great fruit in medieval culture. Until very recently it was taken for granted as the best philosophical basis for Catholic Theology.

The early 17th century, however, witnessed the birth of experimental science which was to bring about a major change in the worldview that was familiar in the middle ages. Experi­mental science used an inductive, rather than deductive, method drawing data from care­fully repeated observations. New philosoph­ical approaches also arose from this. Francis Bacon, one of the pioneers of the scientific method, showed that the scholastic notion that we identify things by "abstraction" of the universal "form" from our sensation of them, is not correct. We discern a “Pyramid” of Forms by repeated observation. Nominalism gained impetus from this rejection of static, abstracted ‘universal’ Forms. For them universal Forms are just general ideas, mere names (hence nominalism from the Latin nomen/name) without any corresponding reality. The implications of this epistemological rev­olution provoked a reaction among Catholic thinkers, notably Descartes (1596-1650). He proposed that we innately attain to the most universal ideas (like the concepts of “substantiality” and “unity”) before we actually sense physical objects.

Descartes therefore, triggered a switch of methodological starting point of philosophy, from the sensed world as observed, to the human subject as observer. This “Turn to the Subject” was worked out in the philosophy of Hume, Kant (both 18th century), Hegel (19th century), Husserl, Heidegger and other 20th century Existentialists. A positive aspect of this movement for Holloway is that it referred the significance (or “meaning”) of the objective to its impact upon the subjective mind. Einstein illustrated this when he was asked to describe his theory of Relativity in one sentence. He replied, “If you sit on a hot stove for one minute it seems like an hour. If you sit with your beloved for one hour, it seems like one minute.” The meaning of objective time is far from exhausted by counting it. But a negative feature of this line of philosophical development is the dep­recation of the idea that things have objective "natures". This concept is, however, crucial for the understanding of human nature and thus of Man's salvation in Christ. Its rejection by the broad, influential school of nominalism, we would contend, has resulted both in the pervasive individualism and relativism of today's secular culture and in the fideism of many modern believers.

The 1960s

In the 1960s, the Nouvelle Théologie started to take root. In some ways this took account of the newly discovered dynamism of physical things it didn’t update the notion of ‘Form’ and so failed effectively challenge nominalism. Its synthesis of modern philoso­phy and Catholic theology failed to provide the fruitful and orthodox realign­ment of the Catholic vision that was needed. We have, in fact, seen an acceleration of indifference towards the truths of Catholic doctrine in popular culture and its dismissal as irrelevant in the eyes of influential atheist scientists and philosophers. At the heart of this intellectual maelstrom is the question of the nature of "the real" and of its relationship to the human subject.

Recent Decades

Somewhat inspired by the unchecked rise of nominalistic philosophy of science more recent times have seen influential proponents of scientific atheism. They argue that the philosophical implications of modern science preclude the existence of God and the spiritual soul. This view is not only prevalent among intellectuals and scien­tists of the Western world, such as Lawrence Kraus, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, but is also highly influential among sincere and enquiring young people. But there has also been an academic reaction to this de-natured world-view among anglophone philosophers of science, even a new respect for aspects of Aristotle’s metaphysics[2]. Somewhat encouraged by this, neo-scholastic Catholics, such as Edward Feser[3] and David Oderberg[4] have attempted to save the old concept of knowable, universal “Form”, as something metaphysically distinct from individuating matter[5].

Holloway’s Contribution

Edward Holloway had a great respect for the achievement of Scholasticism in making philosophy the handmaid of a theology which reverenced Revelation. But he also acknowledged, with the Second Vatican Council, that, “the human race is passing from a rather static concept of the order of things to a more dynamic, evolutionary one … calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis.”[6] So, he respected developments of the Nouvelle Théologie, not least the work of Henri de Lubac. He was also interested in Henri Bergson’s attempt to synthesise modern philosophy’s ‘turn to the subject’ with the reality of evolution[7]. Holloway refused to cede to Existentialism the idea that human language, and therefore the human mind, cannot connect with what is objectively real. For the Existentialists, meaning[8] is rooted in the pre-conceptual realm of purely subjective experi­ence. This is seen as "transcendent” of the objects of concepts. We would argue that this view is what undermines Karl Rahner's attempts at a new synthe­sis of such continental philosophy and Christian revelation.

Holloway, however, in like manner to Aquinas, sought, above all, to provide a modern philo­sophical defence of realism and of human nature[9]. He wanted to give full weight on the one hand to the insights of modern philosophy and the resultant "turn to the subject", and on the other hand to the truths of revelation and the Magisterium re­garding the place of human nature in God's divine plan. The fact that Jesus shares our human nature is a key point for a synthesis of philosophy and theology, because Catholic ex­planations of the Paschal Mystery are neces­sarily founded upon the fact that Jesus Christ shares the same nature as us.

Mind and Matter

Crucially, Holloway roots his vision in the neo-phenomenological insight that as human beings we affirm our own existence in a distinct environment[10] – akin to Bergson’s “method of intuition” of distinct things. It is this which grounds his concept of spiritual mind as controlling and di­recting matter, and of matter as controlled and directed into layered unities, through physics, chemistry, biology, the life sciences, ecosys­tems, planets, etc[11]. These material unities, at whatever level, are in their very being that which is related to and simultaneously intel­ligible to mind. In his latter writings Holloway develops this basic intuition to affirm matter as a mediation between the Mind of God and mind of Man[12].


Kant (in the standard interpretation) affirmed that the object of our experience (the ‘phenomenon’) is conceptually intelligible but not actually distinct from the subject, at least as it is understood by the subject. The phenomenon, that which the human subject per­ceives by sensation and intellect using a priori 'categories' of thought, was transcended by the noumenon — the 'thing-in-itself’ (das Ding-an-sich) -- which he thought was unknowable. Holloway combines these two concepts into a single act of insight. Although broadly accepting Kant's ‘turn to the subject’, Holloway rejects his view of the noumenon as unknowable and transcendent of normal, phenomenal intelligibility. Yet he maintains the distinction of the knowing subject from the (now intrinsically intelligible) thing-in-itself. After all, if the noumenon (the ultimate reality of a thing) is truly unknowable, how could its existence be affirmed in Kant’s own theory of knowledge? Holloway offers an integrat­ed “noumenal phenomenology”, based on a realist existential grounding of the content of the observer's experience, what he calls "the impact of the real"[13]. This also means that the real distinction between subjective ex­perience and experienced objects is main­tained, thereby avoiding philosophical Ideal­ism[14]. The mind’s act of thinking is a term of a real relationship with that which is thought[15]. The knower and the known form a unity. Consciousness is of self as well as of the other. The two are distinct and inter-defined. Holloway's collapsing of Kant's epistemological analysis into a single noume­nal-phenomenal experience means that the relationship of intelligibility and distinction between subject and object is fundamental and existential. As is the resultant unity between them.

Getting Things the Right Way Round

For Holloway, human self-consciousness does not passively receive "impacts", or even concepts, from reality. Human perception is a developmental and existential orientation towards the real surrounding world within which we find ourselves. Descartes' famous "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am) might equally be turned around the other way, "Sum, ergo cogito" (I am, therefore I think). The human person, who can certainly say “Cogito”, is simply 'being’ in relation to everything else. The 'Sum' [I am] is simply affirmed by self-consciousness together with its present environment, requir­ing no deduction.

As Holloway writes:

"Everything starts with the perception of our own existence, our own reality... The affirmation of self-identity is that I am, I perceive, reflect, think, feel, and know: from birth and before birth the affirma­tion of self is dynamic, and never, never 'agnostic' in any way whatever. Beyond this dynamic self-intuition and fulfilling it, is the question who I am, and what I am ... the appraisal of the real. [… This] speaks and recognises co-relationship. ... (the] affirmation of entitative unity between the self and "the other"— "I am" is actually the very root of the idea of truth and also of the concept of nature." [16]


Holloway affirms the relationship between spiritual mind and observed physical objects as foundational not only to our perception of reality, but also to the nature of the cosmos in which we find ourselves. No metaphysics can be developed without the centrality of "the impact of the real" upon the human observ­er's mind. The categories we use are rooted in the phenomenon of mind, but they also accurately refer to existence, because all created existence is in its very nature, ultimately that which is known by mind. So, in effect, he rejects the idea of Husserl and the Phenomenologists that it is possible to 'bracket off’ the actual existence of an entity from our perception of it[17], along with the Heideggerian development of this which proposes that we do experience the actual existence of things but only in a non-categorical (pre-conceptual) fashion[18].

The problem for all these post-Enlightenment schools of thought is that they keep the static view of what Aristotle calls 'essence' and so make the basic dyna­mism and particularity of subjective experience a priori to abstract conceptualisation. Holloway agrees that the subject-object dynamism is foundational to any account of meaning, but for him it is also inherent to conceptualisation since particular objects make sense (are ‘meaningful’) dynamically, not statically. They are fundamentally part of the "other" without which "I am" has no meaning (and vice versa).

The Ability to Act

Grasping meaning, seeing the significance of what is around us, enables that other key charac­teristic of the human subject: action. Intellect leads to will. If intelligibility is dynamic and particular (not just abstract and ‘universal’) then it is possible to affirm (with many of the Pragmatist school) that knowledge is a capacity to act. The significance of the object of our perception is, at its fullest, an invitation to act and, through our con­science, to act well. We experience our mind as a meaning-recogniser and, through our in­telligent actions, we are meaning-enhancers. The content of what we know enables us to be creators upon it. Making sense leads to making the sense I want. A striking, if particular, example of this seems to be at the lowest physical level. Most interpretations of quantum mechanics (the physical theory of matter at the atomic and subatomic levels with applicability higher up) hold that the human 'observer' is necessary in any intelligible evaluation of the measurable parameters being considered[19].


One distinction between Holloway and some contemporary exponents of Aristotelian phi­losophy is that Holloway regards scientific truths as always having metaphysical implica­tions. This partly follows from the phenomenological insight that all perceived meaning is meaning for a subject, as per the Einstein quote above. Mathematical patterns are an intrinsic aspect (but only an aspect) of the intelligible ‘invitation’ to act well. Because of Holloway’s collapse of the noumenon - phenomenon distinction, there are not for him, as for some Christian theologians and existentialist philosophers, two ultimately independent orders of legiti­mate thought about reality: metaphysics and natural science. For Holloway, the intuition of an object's existence is simultaneous with its intelligibility, mathematical or otherwise. This is in tenson with the scholastic Essence-Existence ‘real distinction’. He claims to follow the Scholastic dictum lex mentis, lex entis more closely than they did themselves. Grasping existence always involves the intelligibility of the object as a really existent individ­ual entity. (We will discuss the "universal term" in a forthcoming article). This insight is what makes re­ductionism a non-starter, and it enables Holloway to affirm realism in our perception of the holistic, hierarchical layers of the cosmos. For Hollo­way, the human mind is in an intrinsic and intelligible mutually defining relation­ship with objective matter. This is a key philo­sophical idea, holding together the insights of Phenomenology regarding the human mind's part in reality, the basic concerns of Scholas­tic Realism, and modern empirical science regarding the objective material universe.

An Underlying Unity-Law

The unity of anything physical arises not only through its being a part of a physical environ­ment that is built upon nested layers of organ­ised systems, but also from the mind which is the ultimate context for the unity’s definitive and dynamic functionality. Function needs context. Unities need environments. For example, the identity of a hydrogen atom when it is bonded within a molecule of water, certainly arises from the structure of that particular atom, but also comes from the molecule and its higher unity-function. And more deeply, if that water molecule is drunk by some creature, it now contributes to, and receives its definitive functionality from, the characteristic unity-struc­ture and constructive activity of the physical body of which it has become an organic constituent. This identity through meaningful unity speaks of a fundamental relationship to mind. It is not any less real and defining for being rooted in the non-physical, for that is being phenomenological (as per Einstein again).

We can see this is true when humans create an artefact from existing components. We give a new holistic identity and relational function to a unity of parts by controlling and directing the parts into a new unity. It is the Mind of God that does this for the cosmos as a whole. So, for Hol­loway "the environment" which determines the identity of material things is both their holis­tic physical unity within the cosmos and the mind which is in the relationship of conferring identity. This nested conferring of identity is a top-down “control and direction”. It is according to the underlying 'Unity-Law of Control and Direction’ which frames all reality.

A personal relationship

The cosmos is a unity created and held in being by the mind of God. The human mind perceives and develops the hier­archical dovetailing of functions which the Mind of God creates. God is the ul­timate, transcendent Mind. Holloway uses the phrase "God is the Environer" of humankind to express the level at which this Unity Law becomes a personal relation­ship. The physical environment is the medi­ator of identity, of "control and direction", but its source is the non-material "Environer", the Mind of God.

It is this foundational mediation of unify­ing control and direction through evolution that allows Holloway to explain two central moments of his vision, when, at key points of the development of God's plan, spiritual mind takes over immediate control and di­rection of physical unities. Firstly, when the infusion of the spiritual soul is needed to control the human brain-body at the first moment of the mutation of that first human brain-body, that of ‘Adam’, which was beyond the power of the environment to mediate control and direction – and then at the fertilization of each member of that human brain-body. Secondly, when the ‘womb of woman’ is directly determined by the Mind of God at the Incarnation, in she who was called to give her fiat on behalf of the whole of creation.  In the conceiving of God-made-flesh, His eternal identity cannot be mediated by matter. In fact, it is His Mind and His Body that gives identity to everything else.

A Basic Realism

Holloway's philosophical starting point re-vindicates a basic realism about our knowledge of a world that is always holis­tic and relational, without denying the re­ductionist discovery of modern science that the parts can predict the whole[20]. For him, it is the dovetailing of lower, defining functions that enables us to infer the character of the higher unities, which are also definitive. They are all (relatively[21]) intelligible to mind, and thus real. For instance, the ability of some plants to photosynthesize is an irreducibly real aspect of their natures, notwithstanding the fact that the plant's structure, and the nature of light too, can be given a bottom-up explanation from the laws of physics and chemistry[22]. This approach, as we will attempt to demon­strate in a forthcoming article, can perhaps offer a better solution to the problem of "the universal" and of "natures", than a Thomist "moderate realism" with its Aristotelian concepts of matter and form.

Holloway has a clear belief in the reality of objective entities which exist through their relationships with each other, as do most scientists. His dynamic metaphysics forms the basis of his proofs of the transcendent human mind in the spiritual soul, and of God's existence as Supreme Mind and loving Environer. The matter-spirit distinction is ex­istential, not merely metaphorical. In fact, it is basic to all meaning in the cosmos.

This is the first of a number of articles on the thought of Edward Holloway. Gregory Farrelly is a science teacher. Fr Hugh Mackenzie is currently working at Westminster Cathedral.


[1] Fr. Roger Nesbitt, co-founder with Fr. Holloway of the Faith movement, drew this out in recent issues of this magazine [Sep/Oct and Nov/Dec 2020]

[2] For example, Cartwright, Nancy. The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press, 1999; R. Harré, “Powers”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science,  Volume 21, Issue 1, Feb 1970, pp 81–101;

[3] Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Editiones Scholasticae, 2019).

[4] Oderberg, Real essentialism. Routledge, 2007.

[5] But this doesn’t cohere with Cartwright et al, as we hope to show in a future piece, yet still defending the reality of universality and singularity. In PiP, Vol 1, Holloway repeatedly bemoans that the this hylomorphic distinction did not respect their own saying “lex mentis, lex entis”, “for I perceive in my mind that I know only the determinate, the real, the singular … this man, not ‘humanitas’ or ‘homo’ ( p.22).

[6] Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 1965, n.5

[7] H. Bergson, The Creative Mind, tr., Mabelle L. Andison, New York: The Citadel Press, 1946, p.175-187

[8] The fact that things ‘make sense’ to the mind of a subject, thereby (for Pragmatists and Holloway) enabling them to act. And Cf. n. 10.

[9] PiP Vol. II, p. 3 claims to be presenting a philosophy that is a “new, existential rethinking of the cosmic unity ... It is usually said that systems of Existentialism of their very perspective, deny the recognition of essence or ‘nature’. We can show this to be scientifically, as well as philosophically, untrue.”

[10] Ibid., p.70: “All our philosophizing if it is going to be true, i.e. measured as an equational harmony with the real, must begin from, and reverence, the initial existential experience of ‘being’."

[11] For Holloway, the spiritual order of being is simply made up of personal minds. Mind is a controller and director, whether through the human soul, the angelic being, or the very Being of God – in the latter case we capitalise the ‘M’. There are no metaphysically distinct “Forms” in Holloway’s metaphysics. PiP Vol. 2, p.70: “the analogy of being in the order of the ‘soul’ between God and Man or Angel, does pass beyond the essential into the existential order, the conscious order of the self”. Bacon’s above mentioned discernment of a “Pyramid of Forms” was not a million miles from the truth.

[12] His is an ontological enrichment of Newman’s moral evaluation of the “nature of things”. As Holloway said, “As far as ‘I’ am concerned, even God exists unto me because first of all I exist myself”. Newman said, “From a boy I had been led to consider that my Maker and I, His creature, were the two beings, luminously such, in rerum natura …I believe in a God … because I believe in myself … I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence … without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience” (Apologia, 1993, Everyman, Ch.IV, sec.2, pp. 238; 241)

[13] This theme is introduced in “The Impact of the Real”, Chapter 2 of the second volume of Perspectives in Philosophy, and developed in the third volume, which has the subtitle  “Noumenon and Phenomenon in the Age of Modern Science”.

[14] PiP Vol. II, p. 71 has, “The philosopher must beware of establishing his methodology from too cerebral, too a prioristic a pitch.”

[15] “We postulate the other as ‘other’ only in an existential polarity to the ‘self’… The awareness of the myself consists in that which I sense, think, feel, and above all control with self-determination … There are so many existential impacts upon my existence … which I do not con-trol and over which I do not exercise this unity-in-existentiality which is myself. These ‘so many’ impacts I call ‘the other’". (PiP, Vol. II, p.71)

[16] PiP, Vol. II, pp. 6-7

[17] “In phenomenological reflection, we need not concern ourselves with whether the tree exists: my experience is of a tree whether or not such a tree exists.”,, 8/1/21

[18] The existential phenomenologist Heidegger was a huge influence on the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, whose theology influenced directly or indirectly much of the ‘new’ approach to catechetics that, one might claim, played down the irreformability of Christian linguistic statements of revelation.

[19] Technically, this may be considered the ‘cause’ of ‘quantum decoherence’ or ‘collapse of the wavefunction’.

[20] This turns out to be a phenomenological development of the contemporary “Powers” philosophy of modern science which we hope to explain in a further article.

[21] Holloway believed in an ‘analogy of being’ concerning physical things. He saw the chased rabbit’s relation with escape routes as ‘higher’ than water molecules (cf. Edward Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis, Faith-Keyway, 1976, pp.42; 54): “If the reinstatement of the notion of potency, of tendency to become, is proving of help in the philosophy of science, so too the restoration of the concept of the analogy of being will prove to be of service. The concept of analogy means that the existent real is more or less intelligible in its very self, according to the degree of intelligibility in which its existence is actualised … The rabbit … is itself being in a sense deeper than an electron in as much as it is less potential.”

[22] PiP II, p.6-8 has, “There is in judgment … an affirmation of entitative unity between the self and the ‘other’. [More generally] entitative relationship means … the basic relationship of communion in being and becoming between ‘things’ whatever things may be … “I am” as self-identity exists in different degrees of intrinsic proportion in all things: in sentient life lower than man, in matter below life, matter in the first formulation of the universe ... All created being intuits itself in its identity principle as co-relative. It moves and is itself a mover. It is changed and it causes change”