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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to split hairs, to quibble over unimportant differences

The Thomists were the followers of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century Italian scholastic thinker and theologian best known for writing the Summa Theologica, a lengthy instructional treatise on all the theological tenets of the Catholic Church.

The Thomists were known for their disputatious, endlessly incisive reasoning, which often saw them discuss a point under contention by dissecting it down to its absolute minutiae. Aquinas’s Summa Theologica set the brief for this king of reasoning: written in the nine years leading up to his death in 1274, it includes whole chapters discussing ostensibly inane issues like “whether an angel is composed of matter and form?”, “whether an angel can be in several places at once?” and “whether the angels differ in species?” (Aquinas’ style of arguing over what others saw as pointless issues even came to be parodied in an old expression, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?, which has been used since the seventeenth century to refer to an utterly pointless and time-wasting debate or point of research.)

Among Aquinas’ followers, however, this kind of reasoning was the only serviceable route to true understanding—and as a result, they continued his work in disputing and dissecting subjects down to their most fundamental components. And it’s from there that the verb thomisticate emerged in the eighteenth century.

Seemingly coined by the English clergyman and academic John Lewis in 1730, to thomisticate is to quibble over issues that prove ultimately pointless, or waste your time splitting hairs.

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