03 August 2002

I’ve been expositing some of Thomas Aquinas’ theological thought in order to provide a backdrop for the shifts that were introduced by later philosophers, particularly nominalism and the effects for modern thought. In this post I will continue by explaining some of the implications of what we’ve already considered for how Thomas thinks about language, knowledge, and related matters.

In terms of epistemology and language, given Thomas' overall perspective, language itself must also obviously be analogical and thus intrinsically involves a metaphysical component, assuming analogical relations among things. Knowledge, moreover, arises in the reception of and action upon the real, mediated through language, in which what is real reveals itself to us and any illusion can be unmasked as such within such interaction. Indeed for Thomas, part of the potentiality of things is to be knowable and thus, e.g., our coming to know a chair is as much an event in the life of the chair unveiling itself to us as it is an event within us. In knowing the chair, there is a real sense in which the chair itself is within me. Therefore, for Thomas, there is no subject-object dichotomy nor the spectre of brute factuality; since all facts are interpreted, event-mediated facts.

Since the meaning of creation is its constitution as a loving gift from God directed to a further graciously given end, this same order is present within the creation, for instance, in knowledge, which requires the loving and receptive perception of the knower in order for the real to be truly known as it gives itself over to the knower. This is the very antithesis of a Cartestian model of knowledge, which presupposes a distance and rupture between subject and object that simultaneously reduces the world to a set of externally related, atomistic, and mechanized objects (contrary to Thomas’ doctrine of creation) and theorizes our knowledge of those objects primarily in terms of control. Moreover, the question of whether or not I might be massively deceived about what I think I know cannot arise for Thomas as it does for Descartes since the metaphysical foundations of their theories of knowledge are different. For Thomas, "seeing a paper on my desk" where that "seeing" is a hallucination or dream is not even univocal with actual "seeing" any more than a drawing of an eye is an actual eye, though both may be called such. Where Thomas' epistemology is supported by a basic trust borne in love, Descartes' is built upon suspicion.

It further follows that, on Thomas’ doctrine, all of created being thereby (in light of the previous paragraphs and posts) symbolically discloses the divine, pointing to transcendent reality, not just as some undifferentiated “God of the Philosophers” but as the Triune God of Scripture. This is the case, in part, because all of the perfections of God (truth, being, goodness,
beauty, etc.) are only manifest in the generation of the Logos in the Spirit. Thus our knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world is an analogous manifestation in us of God’s own Trinitarian knowledge of these things and thereby, as it were, our thinking God’s thoughts after him. Part of our participation in God, then, is our incorporation into the very inner life of the Trinity, which we have and grow in by grace.

Thus Thomas’ theories of truth and knowledge are thoroughly Trinitarian. So, for example, in De Veritate (q 4, art 4, resp) Thomas writes, “…for the divine Word to be perfect, it must express whatever is contained in that from which it had its origin…Consequently, whatever is contained in the Father’s knowledge is necessarily and entirely expressed by his only Word and in the very same manner in which all things are contained in his knowledge…Through his knowledge, moreover, the Father knowledge himself, and by knowing himself, he knows all other things. Hence his Word chiefly expresses the Father and, as a result, all other things which the Father knows by knowing himself. Therefore, because the Son is a word that perfectly expresses the Father, the Son expresses all creatures.” (Incidentally, it easily follows from this and the overall contours of Thomas’ epistemology that he would readily agree that the “presupposition of the ontological Trinity is the only basis for predication.”)

Thomas writes earlier in De Veritate (Q 1, art 4) that “...a thing is said to be true principally because of its order to the truth of the divine intellect [as that trinitarian divine intellect is explained above] rather than because of its relation to the truth of a human intellect.” Indeed Thomas goes on to insist that all knowledge ultimately comes from God, De Veritate (Q 1, art 8): “All [truth and knowledge] is entirely from God, because both [a] the very form of a thing, through which it is conformed, is from God, and [b] the truth itself insofar as it is the good of the intellect [is from God]...Hence, since every good and every form is from God, one must say, without any qualification, that every truth is from God.” This is not merely to say that “all truth is God’s truth” in some superficial sense, but that truth itself is only constituted and understood in relation to God and, indeed, as Thomas says elsewhere, “In every act of thought and will, God is also thought and willed implicitly” (De Veritate Q 12, art 2, ad 1).

Therefore, for Thomas, theology and ontology, faith and reason, grace and nature, are coordinate ways of knowing and participation in the mind of God. There can be no philosophy independent of theology, for Thomas, since we can’t even raise the most basic of philosophical question—talk about “Being,” basic ontology—without raising the question of created or uncreated being and the ratio and participation between them. Even Thomas’ famous “Five Ways” (as I noted previously in a post on Fergus Kerr), function in a thoroughly theological context, not as neutral “proofs” of God’s existence, but presupposing various theological concepts: divine simplicity, that God’s essence cannot be known in itself, the nature of divine causation, and so on. Moreover, even when Thomas comes to Trinitarian doctrine, which for him is a matter of revelation more than reason, he begins by noting various "traces" of the Trinity that are apparent even to reason within the created order.

Faith and reason, therefore, cannot be seen in Thomas as strictly distinct, but are coordinate ways of knowing that represent different degrees of intensity of participation in the single reality of divine illumination in which all rational creatures participate. They are not utterly incommensurate kinds of understaning. Reason, moreover, requires faith because the use of reason is always-already graced by God and faith needs reason as its discursive explication.

Thus, contrary to many popular presentations, Thomas is no advocate of “natural theology.” On the other hand, he is does not push the sufficiency of Scripture beyond its proper sphere in such a way so as to entirely negate the role of reason. Nevertheless, revelatio for Thomas is not radically discontinuous with other human knowing, but is simply a higher form of that same illumination that enlightens all men, intrinsically and inseparably conjoined with a created event that symbolically discloses the truth of God in a new and even unexpected and startling way, though it is also true that every created event always-already points to that truth. Thus “revelation” for Thomas (as it later became for Catholics like Suarez and much of Protestantism) is not merely some kind of depositing of propositional content into the world with certain externally imposed guarantees of infallibility. Rather a true analogy exists between the knowledge granted in revelation and all other human knowing so that the two are mutually interpretive, even if a certain priority is given to revelation due to its greater participation in and manifestation of the Spirit’s illumination.

This completes, then, my basic presentation of the contours of Thomas Aquinas’ thought. By no means should these posts be taken to provide a complete sketch of his thought (e.g., ethics is largely ignored). Rather they are an overview that focuses upon those aspects of Thomas that are most relevant to such later developments that grew into nominalism. And so, in future posts, I will finally get around to talking about nominalist thought and its (often ill) effects upon subsequent theology.