Problems in Thomistic Epistemology

By: Jay Dyer 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 thus we must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. Whence it is written (Psalm 4:6-7), “Many say Who showeth us good things?” which question the Psalmist answers, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,” as though he were to say: By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us.”
“Reply to Objection 1. Although creatures do not attain to a natural likeness to God according to similitude of species, as a man begotten is like to the man begetting, still they do attain to likeness to Him, forasmuch as they represent the divine idea, as a material house is like to the house in the architect’s mind.”

“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.”

“On the contrary, Augustine says (Confess. xii, 25): “If we both see that what you say is true, and if we both see that what I say is true, where do we see this, I pray? Neither do I see it in you, nor do you see it in me: but we both see it in the unchangeable truth which is above our minds.” Now the unchangeable truth is contained in the eternal types. Therefore the intellectual soul knows all true things in the eternal types.”
Even incorporeal things are understood by us abstracting from the phantasm. This is done by sensible objects affecting our intellect, which abstracts from the phantasm. All human knowledge then, whether of material things or of intellectual things, is based on the ideas or archetypes in the divine mind. The problem is that the created light of the human intellect never accesses these ideas because they are “in the divine essence” as Thomas says in many places.

As he said above:

And thus we must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. Whence it is written (Psalm 4:6-7), “Many say Who showeth us good things?” which question the Psalmist answers, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,” as though he were to say: By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us.”
It is incontestable that Thomas believes that no one sees God in this life (other than a few saints caught in rapture).  Since the beatific vision is something reserved for the eschaton alone, the question arises how anyone’s mind accesses the forms.  The created light of your intellect is not the light of the divine Essence.  It’s a created light. And even if you want to hold that it does actually see all things in God, it doesn’t do it in this life.
We can state the problem this way:

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.

If we could question Aquinas on this, it ironically seems that if we asked him how he knows that divine exemplarism is true, it looks like he would have to say Divine Revelation.   But exemplarism, it turns out, is also the basis of purely natural knowledge.  But this means natural knowledge has its foundation in revelation.  This is not what  Thomists want to say, however.

16 Comments on Problems in Thomistic Epistemology

  1. It seems to me one of the chief problems of Metaphysics is the problem of connection. How does the immaterial soul induce motion in materiality? How do the transcendent universal forms connect to time bound material objects? How does man interact with God? When I call it a problem I’m not saying this as a denial of the existence of metaphysical realities, just that it’s proved a bit of a head-scratcher for some very smart men. It caused Aristotle to deny the theory of Forms outright. Plontinus proposed that forms interface via the intermediary, semi-pantheistic Animus Mundi, emanating from the world soul. Ockham dreamed up his parsimony. De Carte proposed a radical bifurcation of the physical and metaphysical, where no contact was possible and any appearance to the contrary was essentially coincidental. Spinoza attempted to solve De Carte’s problem with Pantheism. Even a radical materialist like Hume was forced to recognize that causality itself, even on the material plane, is ultimately a metaphysical issue and thus unintelligible to empiricism. I would think a simple answer would be that connection is a problem of physical objects and a non-issue for metaphysical realities but this doesn’t seem to satisfy the more curious minds.

    Would you say the Eastern idea of God’s uncreated light is a sort of metaphysical “unified field theory,” explaining how there can be interface between man and God without succumbing to the blasphemy that man is entirely one in the same with the Godhead?

    In Eastern theology is it through these uncreated energies that Christ the man is connected to Christ the eternal Logos?

    Also if God’s energies are uncreated does that mean they are an emanated hypostasis of God but just one that lacks Personhood and thus is not considered part of the Godhead?

    Would you say that the West’s apparent denial of uncreated energies is comparable to Ockham’s denial of Universals? Another example of parsimony?

    I think the problem some Westerns might have with the uncreated energies is it seems to suggest something other than God being co-eternal with the Godhead but doesn’t the West believe in resurrection through God’s uncreated Grace? Is this not the same thing as energies?

    Or am I even right that the West believes this? Or is this changed by ADS, which claims God’s Grace is one in the same with God?

    I was thinking, even if God has certain co-eternal metaphysical projections such as Grace or Mercy, that are distinct from him, since Mercy and Grace are dependent on his Personhood (ie they wouldn’t be invested with such meaning without God’s intention behind them) doesn’t that in some sense mean that these things find their ultimate source in God? If they weren’t invested with their respective qualities by his intellect wouldn’t they merely be impersonal forces devoid of the very meanings that allow them to be called Grace or Mercy?

    To convey my meaning by way of analogy: Let’s say, I write a love note to my wife, the meaning is not immanent in the words I write themselves (the ink and paper) but finds it’s origin my mind. If Grace is received through a co-eternal intermediary that is itself not one and the same with the Godhead (as the Easterners say), then that intermediary’s very classification as Grace is predicated on the very meaning of Grace finding its origins in the Godhead (Which is sort of what the Westerners say… sort of). Even though, on the one hand these things are not one in the same with God, the very meaning behind them that makes them what they are, ultimately stems from the same source (God). I’m not proposing any new dogma here, I’m just thinking aloud. Do you think something like what I’m trying to feel out here could serve as some kind of mid-way between uncreated energies and ADS, or am I just reiterating what one camp or the other has already said.

    Is it even clear what I’m saying? I’m not always the most coherent guy. If not I can try and draw some diagrams or something. Though that might just make matters worse.

    • That is one of the problems, for sure. Aristotle did not deny the forms, but located them in the object, contrary to Plato. Plato thought there was an ideal realm and Aristotle thought this unnecessary and problematic. Aquinas, following many of his predecessors, located them in the divine mind, which, for him, is the divine essence. For Thomas, all in God is simple essence.

      I’m not sure where you are going with the physical objects, but the concern of all these fellows is the notion of the truth or true meaning, we might say, of each thing. The true meaning has to be the meaning God intended for the object. The problem then arises how does the human mind access that meaning. I think Aristotle is right that the essence of a thing is in the thing in some way. Some more eastern writers have called this a kind of panenthiesm, where all things manifest truth about God, as opposed to pantheism, where all is god. On this *epistemic point Augustine is actually closer to the east (though on the general ontological point, he and Thomas hold to strict ADS).

      No doubt there are tough head scratchers any way you go, but the Eastern position is unique and distinguished from the west on this in that the divine ideas are not the essence of God and by real theosis, man can know these truths. But that’s not to say there are zero problems in this direction. But it seems less problematic than the ones that keep popping up in Thomism due to the radical ADS.

      The west is all for universals, so long as they are located in the divine essence. Ockham’s denial of the universals is what appears to be the standard western dialectic in regards to the playing out of ADS. You get Descartes and Malebranche being ‘ontologists’ and Malebranche is a pantheist. You get Ockham and his sons like Hume, being skeptics. I tend to think this relates in all cases to the doctrine of God proposed in the respective systems.

      The uncreated energies of God are God’s operations. They are not some other being or entity or Person, but the operations of God. One of the other ways this has been proposed in rebuttal to Thomism is in regard to creation. Thomism says:

      1. God is His essence and His essence is eternal.
      2. All actions of God (energies) are essence.

      Those being the case, it seems difficult to understand how Thomas can avoid creation then being a necessary eternal action of Gods essence. But we know creation was a free act.

      The operations of God, then, can be eternal or for a certain duration. The manifestation at Sinai was temporary, but was really God.

      In the Eastern view, all the logoi (the archetypes) are one in the Logos, yes. Since all things are made through the Logos, they all bear His stamp and the meaning He intended, from all eternity, though creation was a free act.

      • God’s energies are natural to God – they are proper to His divinity and thus really divine. However, they are not the divine essence, which is unknowable. Love and mercy are not hypostases, they are operations of God.

        Check out this fellow’s paper on Maximus and the logoi:

      • Love is not an action of God, but of divine essence, it is permanent in God. Hence the Holy Ghost.

        Mercy is however circa creaturam. But mercy as of God is a manifestation of his love which, according to Trinitarian Theology, is in God independent of Creatures.

        However, loving or hating a creatuire, as in makinb Jacob share and Esau not share this uncreated and essential love, is an action God took about Jacob and Esau. But the love itself is not.

      • If the essence of God is love and is a Person, then Person is essence, and you’re a modalist.

  2. Yeah, I should have been more clear with my Aristotle statement. I meant to say that he denied “transcendent” forms. The problem with Aristotle’s forms being immanent in objects is this doesn’t account of the universality of principles. Seeing that the shape of a specific object was something different than the material from which it was made, he acknowledged that individual objects have their own individual “forms”, but he was unable to wrap his head around the necessity of “forms” that aren’t immanent within particular objects but transcendent of them. The many examples of two point to “twoness” as an underline principle of reality, square to squareness, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Aristotle is wrong that particular objects having their own particular immanent form, that’s clearly true too, but I’d argue that the uniformity of given phenomenon throughout the universe proves that their must also be transcendent forms too.

    I have a certain odd theory I’ve been considering concerning forms or logoi or divine ideas or whatever we want to call them, being “in” the Godhead. I suppose one of the dangers in saying that the blueprints for this universe are eternal in God, is that it seems to suggest that it was necessary that God create this specific universe. If circle and square and the law of non-contradiction are all eternally existent ideas in the divine mind, then some might argue it was beyond God’s power to create a universe in which something could be a circle and a square at the same time. This of course would be a blasphemous contradiction of the assertions that God’s powers are unlimited and that this universe was not created out of necessity.

    So here’s my attempt at a solution, that I think allows us to say divine ideas are co-eternal in God and yet God is not restricted by them. If God is infinite, then the various divine ideas that exist “within his mind” are infinite in number. Vast as it is, our universe is still finite in size, operating in relation to only a finite number of universal principles (or logoi). It is possible that within God there exist an infinity of different logoi that hold no relation to this universe. We can’t in anyway comprehend what these might be since we can only comprehend the various logoi on which our creation was “modeled.” We can understand, justice, squareness, equality, greeness and so on, but we can’t understand “Fllarzgness” or “Mxyzptlkness” or other such totality alien concepts that weren’t used when creating our universe.

    In theory (I only say in theory mind you) God could have created other universes modeled on logoi we have no experience with. These universes, in turn, might lack some or all of the logoi our universe was modeled on. Universes where number, length, depth, width and time don’t exist, but zargon, blimnar and wonkadeewonka do exist. Just what are those things? I have no idea. I’m just using stupid names to illustrate how utterly incomprehensible such a reality would be to us. We can only infer Universals from Particulars. Since there are no particulars in this universe modeled on the divine ideas God didn’t use, we can’t even begin to understand what those divine ideas might be. It is completely beyond our capacity as created beings. As such it’s entirely pointless for us to speculate about such purely theoretical universe which God may or may not have created also. There existence or lack thereof isn’t even necessary to this infinity of logoi argument. (Personally I assume this is the only creation)

    Anyway, the point of this seemingly ridiculous theorizing is this: just because a specific logoi is eternal in God, doesn’t mean God was obligated to use it for this specific creation of ours. Of his own free will he selected which of his infinite divine ideas would be expressed in this universe and which would be excluded. Anyway, just a thought as to how we might have our philosophical cake and eat it too. Believe it or not, even though I’m writing this at 3 in the morning, alcohol wasn’t involved. Ah, the joys of unemployment!

    PS: Could you post the Maximus essay as an article. For some reason my PC won’t open certain PDF files. I’d love to give it a read.

    • Well, that doesn’t answer the epistemic challenge posed here. Also, Dr. Blosser’s response leaves much to be desired in regard to ADS itself.

  3. O boy … St Thomas is not saying that the exemplars are in sense identically. He says if you read all he says instead of construing a contradiction from quotes taken out of context, something quite intelligible.

    Anything that exists has so to speak three forms that are identical as to content but not ontologically: the exemplaric form, which ontologically is in God, the inherent form, in the thing itself, and thirdly only, the abstracted form, which exists in man after his sense perception of similar things. And from which Plato rightly concluded and a man rightly considering may conclude, the existence of exemplar forms. For otherwise, how do you explain that the abstracted form is verified as existing inherently every time we look at the kind of object? That could not be, unless the objects really shared a form, and each object, whether stone or water or star or air has only its own form as inherent, so it cannot be the merely inherent form they are sharing either.

    • “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.”

      No. The active intellect does the abstracting part so as to pass on the universal to be known by the passive intellect. But it is correct that the active intellect bases its work on the phantasm. This is at first in a kind of “common sense” piecing together the informations from the five exterior senses or as many as relavant. The phantasm also is in “phantasy”/”imagination” and “memory” and “reminiscence”. All of these being interior senses, distinct from but bases for active and passive intellect.

      “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.”

      The locale for the abstracted forms is the intellect, the mind. BUT they coincide in characteristics with both exemplar form in God’s eternal Wisdom and with the forms as inherent (sometimes in incomplete/damaged version) in material things. In extension they coincide not with individual object but – ideally – with God’s exemplar idea about the kind of object we talk about. However the human mind itself, through human created nature is an image of the divine mind, and that is why it can attain abstractions similar to the exemplars.

      “But exemplarism, it turns out, is also the basis of purely natural knowledge. But this means natural knowledge has its foundation in revelation.”

      Not exemplarism as a philosophy, but exemplars as really in God are the basis of even purely natural knowledge in man. And natural means – independent of revelation. But they are not the theoretic premisses of natural knowledge, they are the ontological basis of the ability we have for natural knowledge. Two things not to be confused, please!

    • I don’t disagree with anything in this comment. So what?

  4. And no, love can be both the essence of God – God is love – and one particular person having the essence of God – the love with which the Father loves the Son and with which the Son loves the Father. I am not a modalist.

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