Problems in Thomistic Epistemology
May 13, 2010 17 Comments
Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Dionysius, Augustine, Basil, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, John Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and many others all profess a doctrine of divine exemplarism. This is Plato’s forms or universals or logoi as located in the divine mind or essence (depending on whether it’s Eastern or Western). The problem will be, however, whether this can work as an epistemic foundation in Thomism.
It should go without saying that both Aristotle and Aquinas’ epistemology is basically an empirical method. A certain Thomist fussed to me about this, since “epistemology” and “empiricism” are anachronisms. As if we cannot use modern terms that accurately describe an ancient belief or system. No one says we cannot say “Post-Apostolic theology” because that term wasn’t used in the Post-Apostolic era. But it’s quite simple to show Aristotle and Thomas’ method is empirical.
Aristotle says in De Anima 12:8:
“Since according to common agreement there is nothing outside and separate in existence from sensible spatial magnitudes, the objects of thought are in the sensible forms, viz. both the abstract objects and all the states and affections of sensible things. Hence (1) no one can learn or understand anything in the absence of sense, and (when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images are like sensuous contents except in that they contain no matter. “
Aquinas writes in De Veritate, Article III:
“19. Nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in sense. But in God there is no sensitive cognition, because this is material. Therefore, He does not know created things, since they were not previously in His sense.
19. That axiom is to be understood as applying only to our intellect, which receives its knowledge from things. For a thing is led by gradual steps from its own material conditions to the immateriality of the intellect through the mediation of the immateriality of sense. Consequently, whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses. This, however, does not take place in the divine intellect.”
And in the Summa Theologica Ia Q101, Art. 1:
“On the contrary, The human soul is naturally “like a blank tablet on which nothing is written,” as the Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 4). But the nature of the soul is the same now as it would have been in the state of innocence. Therefore the souls of children would have been without knowledge at birth.”
That’s pretty much an empirical method. Note that I didn’t say he was an empiricist. I said this is a basically empirical method. Going further, Thomas says that the way humans have knowledge is the active intellect abstracting the universal from the phantasm in our mind, created by the sensuous faculties. For Aquinas, even incorporeal objects, though not from sense, are known by comparison to things of sense. He explains:
“Reply to Objection 3. Incorporeal things, of which there are no phantasms, are known to us by comparison with sensible bodies of which there are phantasms. Thus we understand truth by considering a thing of which we possess the truth; and God, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i), we know as cause, by way of excess and by way of remotion. Other incorporeal substances we know, in the present state of life, only by way of remotion or by some comparison to corporeal things. And, therefore, when we understand something about these things, we need to turn to phantasms of bodies, although there are no phantasms of the things themselves.”
Good so far. And what is the locale of these forms that we abstract from the objects of sense? It is the divine exemplars, that exist in the essence of God. Thomas explains this lucidly in many places:
“And therefore we must say that in the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas–i.e. exemplar forms existing in the divine mind (15, 1). And these ideas, though multiplied by their relations to things, in reality are not apart from the divine essence, according as the likeness to that essence can be shared diversely by different things. In this manner therefore God Himself is the first exemplar of all things. Moreover, in things created one may be called the exemplar of another by the reason of its likeness thereto, either in species, or by the analogy of some kind of imitation.”
As he said above:
1. All human knowledge is based on universals or forms.
2. These forms are unified in God – they subsist in His essence.
However, Thomas’ view of simplicity appears to mean:
3. The human mind never touches or accesses these in this life.