One of the major considerations to bear in mind when one is engaged upon the task of the evaluation of Thomas of Aquinas’s contribution to the Scholastic tradition of theorising in the 13th century is the nature of the relation between Faith based Theology and Rationalist Philosophy.
Aquinas was largely educated by the Church in what was referred to as the liberal arts, a tradition of training reaching back to the sixth century, a period in which Aristotelian ideas were conspicuous by their absence. The closing of the philosophical schools during the sixth century was the end of a process of the eclipsing of the sun of classical knowledge. Monastic education did, however, realize that there was a need for the supplementation of Scriptural studies with other areas of study such as logic, rhetoric, and grammar(the trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music(the quadrivium). This proliferation of subjects originally taught in monastic and cathedral schools eventually contributed to the establishment of the institution of the university. This development was probably aided and abetted by the historical conditions of the twelfth century outlined in Bertrand Russel’s work “History of Western Philosophy”:
“Four aspects of the twelfth century are especially interesting to us:
- The continued conflict of empire and papacy.
- The rise of the Lombard cities.
- The Crusades, and
- The growth of scholasticism. All these four continued into the following century.”(p422)
Secularism continued to grow in influence and although the scholastic philosophers were all involved in one way or another with the Church and subject to regulation by ecclesiastically constituted committees, the works of Aristotle were increasingly being favoured over the works of Plato. By the time we arrive at the establishment of the Universities which would be partially modelled on the secular guild system we encounter a reformation of the liberal arts program in the light of Aristotelian ideas. When Aquinas began to study at the Universities of Naples and Paris Aristotle was referred to as “The Philosopher” and the spirit of his work would dominate university curricular for hundreds of years.
Russell points out that the scholars of the twelfth century were very active and creative when the conditions allowed them to be. During these times one was witnessing the birth of globalization forces of empire building and international trade. Political and economic forces struggled for power with the churches’ global ambitions sometimes in the form of military conflict. There was also resistance to the forces of globalization in the form of a re-emergence of city-state systems(the Lombard cities).
The scholastic atmosphere of the twelfth century was dialectical: debate and disputation were encouraged by the emerging system of the universities. Indeed, the first European University, the University of Bologna, embodied this scholastic dialectical spirit of it being a secular Legal Institution devoted to defending the rights of the people against both Empire and Church. It was most famous for its Constitutia Habita a decree which guaranteed the right of the traveling scholar to academic freedom(within certain limits). Bologna shared with the Universities of Paris and Oxford a commitment to a belief in the principle of apprenticeship as the road to mastery of an area of study: a principle that was partly examined and tested by disputations with opponents(a residue of the Greek dialogue?) Successful completions of a course of study of the trivium and quadrivium were conditions of entry into these largely secular humanistic knowledge driven institutions.
As mentioned earlier Aristotle was “The Philosopher” in the thirteenth century and the dominance of his ideas would over hundreds of years into the future intensify activity in all the subject areas of his writings, but probably the greatest interest was taken in restoring the validity of natural science: an area that had largely been discarded by the classical theologically inclined Platonists. Aquinas found himself at the beginning of this cycle of development and his interest in Aristotle was probably strictly regulated by the Dominican brotherhood that he had joined. As we have noted in previous chapters previous thinkers had attempted to elevate the power of reasoning to the same level as the power of faith in a supernatural power but these thinkers did not dare to embrace Aristotle’s philosophy in the way in which Aquinas attempted to do. It was far too early in the cycle of development of Aristotle’s influence for Reason and Understanding to replace Faith and Belief in certain areas of philosophical investigation.
According to A Kenny in his work “A New History of Western Philosophy”, the thirteenth century:
“…was a time of uncommon intellectual energy and excitement. The context for this ferment was created by two innovations that had occurred early in the century. The new universities and the new religious orders. Bologna and Salemo have claims to be the oldest universities in Europe. But Bologna had no permanent university buildings until 1565 and Salemo’s academic glory quickly faded: moreover, both were specialised schools, concentrating on law and medicine respectively. It was at Paris and Oxford that the institution really took root.” (Vol. 2 p.55)
Kenny maintains that both universities and parliaments came into existence at the same time: if by university we mean:
“a corporation of people engaged professionally, full time, in the teaching and expansion of a corpus of knowledge in various subjects, handing it on to their pupils with an agreed syllabus, agreed methods of teaching, and agreed professional standards.”
Medieval Universities quickly developed into hybrid organisations in which the Humanities were taught in the spirit of the Socratic examined life and the Aristotelian Contemplative life but at the same time the subjects of theology, law, and medicine were taught in a more instrumental spirit.
The thirteenth century was clearly a time for synthesis. One interesting fact to note , however, is that the five great scholars of the century were all members of the religious orders of the Dominicans or Franciscans. Add to this the fact that despite the increasing attitude of tolerance toward the pagan Philosophy of Aristotle in the University of Paris in 1210, lectures on Aristotle’s natural philosophy were forbidden and orders were issued in the form of papal bulls for these texts to be burned. Under such circumstance,s it was highly unlikely that any interpreter of Aristotle could commit themselves to “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in any attempted synthesis of Philosophy and Religion. Aristotle was in a sense persona non grata in the instrumental world of Theology where truth and knowledge were communicated in a utilitarian spirit. Yet it is important to note that were it not for this utilitarian spirit of teaching in three out of the four faculties, Modern Science might never have emerged a few centuries later. Also, interestingly one can speculate that if Medicine which was also being taught in a utilitarian spirit , had followed a more principled Aristotelian path, it may have become the Queen of the Sciences and the Prince of the Humanities.
Aquinas perhaps has earned the right to be called the great synthesizer in one of the great ages of Synthesis. His synthesis was an attempt to bring about an integration of Aristotelian ideas with Christianity, each of which could in its turn claim to be the synthesis of positions in their respective ages. Had the conditions been different, one might argue, the Aquinian synthesis might have been more in favour of Aristotelian principles rather than being in favour of the standard Neoplatonic and theological “interpretation” of Aristotle. This state of affairs haunted the Universities up to the time of Kant and the Enlightenment. Kant, as we know was the first philosopher to publish works in his mother tongue German rather than the prescribed language of Academia, namely Latin. It is worth noting that the so-called father of Modern Philosophy, Descartes, wrote in Latin that only God could guarantee that his life was not a dream. It is also worth noting that Descartes inherited the antipathy of the theologians toward the rational principles of Aristotle. One interpretation of the Aquinian synthesis was that its purpose was to put Aristotle in his place, and subordinate reason to Faith and revelation. D W Hamlyn has the following to say on this topic:
“Aquinas was the great synthesizer, able to use the newly discovered Aristotle to produce a philosophical system by which reason could be set alongside faith. There are for Aquinas revealed truths, and where philosophical considerations conflict with revelation–as is the case, for example, when Aristotelian principles lead to a denial of a first creation–Aquinas has no hesitation in siding with faith.”
Hamlyn goes on to point out that with respect to certain less sensitive issues of what he calls “natural theology” Aquinas felt confident enough to explain and justify such phenomena by means of Aristotelian principles:
“Aquinas’ account of the natural world is almost strictly Aristotelian, based o the reciprocal principles of matter and form, things occupying various degrees between the extremes of prime matter and pure form.”
In this context certain analytical scholastic issues surfaced in his writings, for example the question of what it is that makes a thing one and what is is that individuates things from each other. Here Aquinas appealed to quantities of stuff occupying different spaces(one of the lodestar principles of modern science) as being the major principle of individuation in the material world(materia signata quantitate).
Hamlyn also suggests that Aquinas might be guilty of projecting an idea of God as a supernatural being onto the writings of Aristotle which actually pleaded for the notions of form, principle or pure act above that of any being. But even if this is the case Aquinas was careful to point out that he rejected the Ontological argument of Anselm which in his view conflated existence in thought with existence in reality. We can, he argued, only use attributes which are used to describe the external world to analogously describe God. In other words, positive properties such as God’s goodness, omniscience, omnipotence etc, can only be known by analogy. But we also find Aquinas using standard Aristotelian arguments such as the proof that there by necessity must be a prime mover behind the actualization process that actualizes potentialities: i.e. movement or change in the world has to have an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer. It is in this realm that we encounter the possible metaphysical conflicts between Aristotle and Aquinas for whom the creation of the world is not similar to the Aristotelian teleological designer of the world(or the demiurge of Plato) who is working within the framework of the other three types of cause(efficient, material and formal): The Aquinian God, on the contrary, creates the world from nothing. No proof of the existence of God could ever suffice here because it is a parts of Gods essence that he possesses such an incomprehensible power which only the religious attitude of faith is able to “understand”. Reason and its arguments could only ever analogously or symbolically represent what it is that we “understand” in accordance with this attitude. Attitudes are related to beliefs in that they are ways of believing whatever it is we believe. At some level, of course, Aquinas “believed” Gods essence and existence to be identical and given what an attitude is this is not something that we can believe in the way we believe it to be true that man is a rational animal capable of discourse. “Man” in this proposition is a name for some kind of thing in the world which can be differentiated from other kinds of things by the definition of his essence in terms of the 4 kinds of change, the 4 causes of change and the three principles of change. God cannot be a name in this sense but if “God” is not a name for something how do we designate his presence? Aquinas turns to the Bible to answer this question and abandons philosophical investigation into the matter. A burning bush on Mount Sinai tells Moses that the name of his God is Yahweh and explains the grammar of the term with the words “I am that I am”. What can Moses have “understood” in this experience? What attitude of mind was created by this experience? Initially his state of mind was probably fearful and if Heidegger in his work “Being and Time” was correct in his assumption that every state of mind is accompanied by an understanding or comprehension of its object this state must have been transfigured or transformed into a faith state with its understanding: an understanding to be unpacked in terms of an enigmatic character of “Being-in-the-world” which involves active projection of one’s own possibilities as well as an interpretation or appropriation of what it is that is to be understood. What we are concerned with, in other words, is a work of interpretation aimed at understanding a mode of Being-in-the world.
We know that Aquinas was studying and interpreting texts as part of his University training and in so doing would have reflected upon the grammar of the language for God many times. The question to raise here is whether these reflections were engaging at all with the metaphysical/hylemorphic theory of change of Aristotle. What has been said above is indicative of the fact that the answer to this question is that Aristotelian ideas probably played a minimal role in his interpretative reflections. In order to illuminate the reason for such a state of affairs let us turn to the writings of a modern Aquinian, Paul Ricoeur, in the hope that we can provide ourselves with a more nuanced perspective of the dilemma Aquinas faced in his attempts to integrate the powers of faith and reason.
Ricoeur began his excursion into the territory of religion or the “realm of the sacred” with an examination of the language involved in what he called “The Symbolism of Evil”. In this work, he noted that the logic of the analytic philosophers could not satisfactorily give an account of the kind of meaning involved in the confession of our sins or faults. This, Ricoeur argues, is clearly a meaningful activity. The words make sense but it is not at all clear what they refer to. In the most primitive case of the confession of sins we feel, as Ricoeur put the matter, “defiled” and this attitude involves our viewing our relation to the sacred as analogous or symbolic of the spot or stain that spoils the surface it affects: we are, that is, seeing this evil act of ours as a stain on our good character. But why one might wonder, cannot one merely say “I am evil?” This impossibility reaches right to the heart of the meaning of the “Good” and its relation to our human essence. Could it be, one may wonder, that we are dealing with the same kind of problem when, according to Aquinas, we cannot directly attribute the quality of “goodness” to God. We are, after all, according to the Bible and Aquinas created in the image of God which of course eventually raises the question of Original Sin. If God could never, in accordance with his essence, will any evil act then on this account neither could man. Adam in the Garden of Eden, on an Aristotelian account, wishes for knowledge as a stage on the path to greater understanding for man, the rational animal capable of discourse. Indeed one can wonder whether if Adam had not disobeyed the divine commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, would he have been considered the first man, i.e. the first rational animal capable of discourse? This myth is clearly paradoxical if we believe with Plato and Aristotle that Knowledge of the good is divine. God, of course, does not know the good in the way that is possible for us–he is the good(“I am that I am”). We, the image, can only “understand” the good via the route of understanding ourselves, and we can only do this via the Scriptures and the Myths of the poets who only speak of the sacred indirectly in a symbolic language that only those capable of the attitude of faith can decipher. It is the power of the symbol that “reveals” the truth (Aletheia). We moderns may well have lost the ability to, as many commentators have put it, naively believe in “The Good” and therefore respond to this state of affairs by requiring proof if we are to believe in its existence. We can, that is, no longer innocently believe but must take a critical route, perhaps via the hermeneutical philosophy of Ricoeur or the hylemorphic philosophy of Aristotle if we are to restore the possibility of once again living in the realm of the sacred. For Ricoeur, this possibility requires the work of the imagination and its projection of these “possibilities” and it also requires a view of language as the source of the meaning we are projecting and interpreting. We need, in Aristotelian terms, to be “capable of (this kind of) discourse”.
On an Aristotelian view of the Garden of Eden drama it is an interesting observation to make that were Adam and Eve to be guided by “the discourse”(?) with the serpent to consider eating the apple it would call into question their humanity insofar as this must be evidence that they do not appear to understand the discourse of God as superior to that of the serpent. But, also on an Aristotelian view of the operation of the emotions in the sphere of voluntary actions, could we not consider an intermediate case of Adam and Eve both being, as it were, “drunk” with curiosity and subsequently eating the apple in a state of delirious consciousness, not fully aware of what it was they were doing? If this tale were to replace the original, would it carry any symbolic significance: universal significance? What would be required to universalize the new Aristotelian account.? Some means would have to be found to represent not merely what is happening in the environment of the Garden of Eden but the reason why whatever is happening is happening ( the reason for the actions of Adam and Eve): that is why what was done is either a good or an evil act. Being drunk with an emotion is of course not necessarily a positive state of mind on the Aristotelian view of incontinent behaviour: curiosity, that is, is not always positive and this may be a cautionary tale. Animals are sometimes killed by their curiosity and sometimes this occurs in situations where if they knew the reason(explanation/justification) for the phenomenon(and its consequences) that is arousing their curiosity, they might engage in a behaviour of repulsion instead of a behaviour of attraction. So, to take a concrete example, even if the apple on the tree that is eaten is poisoned and Adam and Eve die as a consequence of eating it, this story would be merely a juxtaposition of a number of facts unless knowledge of the Good was somehow imparted to give it deeper meaning: knowledge, for example, that for humans, (rational animals capable of discourse, passing laws, worshiping the sacred, doing philosophy) a premature death is an evil. But this would be a humanist’s tale and not carry the kind of universal significance related to the sacred that the religious attitude requires. Somehow the religious lesson to be learned is in another realm, the realm of the universal sinfulness of man(in comparison with the universal goodness of God?) so drunk with curiosity that he cannot or will not heed the words of God. Perhaps the message from the realm of the sacred to modern man obsessed with his material possessions, technological inventions, and facts is that there is a lack of clarity over the nature of his desires and the beliefs involved in “the facts”, i.e a lack of clarity concerning the kind of world we live in which is sometimes symbolically described as “the valley of the shadow of death”, without knowledge of why we dwell in such a world. The ancient Greeks provided us with prophecy’s of doom about this world: “everything created is doomed to ruin and destruction”, and perhaps the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden is providing us with an extension of this prophecy with the more optimistic message “unless we worship in the realm of the sacred”. Plato in his work “The Republic” tried to sugar coat this ancient prophecy by claiming that we could at least save our cities, if not ourselves if philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers. For Aristotle, this political message may have been wishful thinking and on his account, it appears that the best we can do in the face of a doomsday scenario is to live a life of contemplation and cultivate the virtues via the use of reason. This kind of engagement with the world is a contrast to the religious life of medieval times which is characterized by a kind of melancholic withdrawal from the life of curiosity and all its consequences. Aquinas himself aspired to this religious form of life, perhaps satisfying the curious spark within by exploring the hinterland of his psyche with the millions of words he wrote. The end for both Aquinas and Aristotle was not evil as such because for the former the soul would outlive at least the death of the body and the day of judgment would determine whether the soul had actualized its full potential or not. For Aristotle, my world ends with the death of my body and even if the principles of the powers of my soul continue to exist in some sense there is no longer any concrete connection between these principles, powers and “me”. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Aristotle would accept the thesis that Eudaimonia was only possible in “the next “Life” “. For Aristotle, an individual’s very natural life comes to an end with his very natural death. Aristotle would have defended this position by reference to the principle of non-contradiction which applied to this form of reasoning would conclude that it cannot be true that there is another life after the death that defines the life that has come to an end.
Insofar as the nature of the soul is concerned Aquinas relies on a complex interpretation of the Aristotelian claim that thought and reason require no organ for their activity. Aristotle’s intention were anti-Platonic, designed not to prevent the spiritualization of the soul and emphasize is qualities as a principle or power. Brett in his work “history of Psychology” suspects that Aquinas is sometimes Platonising Aristotle:
“The soul is defined as both form and substance of the body. The idea of form is drawn from Aristotle but the medievalists believed that form is dependent on its substance and is annihilated when the substance is resolved into its elements: in other words, that a form is an attribute. Consequently, to save the soul from such dependence, the scholastic doctrine makes it a substance that gives form. As such the soul is, for immediate observation, the organic principle of life which cannot be divided from the organism: but it is also at the same time separable as substance and Aristotle gives place to Plato when we pass from the organism to the soul in and for itself. Meanwhile this much is gained: the soul and the body, in other words, the organism may be taken as the object of independent inquiry. In this way, philosophy and religion acquire independent spheres or subject matters: and this is important because the sphere of Philosophy, is thus segregated and comes, in practice, to be a true science separable from theology.”
A substance in Aristotle’s work “The Categories” was tied to particulars that later on in his full-blown hylemorphic theory became combinations of form and matter and form which formerly related to the shape of the particular now relates to the principle of the particulars essence and existence. It is clear that “substance” can be logically related to the principle of a thing but then the art of maintaining this position resides in not sliding into a dualism which spiritualizes the soul(if the particular we are talking about is an organism) and this substance dualism differentiates it significantly from the way in which two principles might differ from one another. This point has implication for the subject of study insofar as both Philosophy and Theology are concerned. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that Aquinas described the relation between Philosophy and Theology thus:
“The first and major formal difference between philosophy and theology is found in their principles, that is starting points. The presupposition of the philosopher: that to which his discussions and arguments are ultimately driven back to are located in the public domain as it were. They are things that everyone in principle can know upon reflection: they are where disagreement between us must come to an end. These principles are not themselves the products of deductive proof which does not, of course, mean that they are immune to rational analysis and inquiry–and thus they are said to be known by themselves(per se as opposed to per alia). This is proportionately true of each of the sciences where the most common principles just alluded to are in the background and the proper principles that are the starting points of the particular science functional regionally as the common principles do across the whole terrain of thought and being…..By contrast, the discourse of the Theologian is ultimately driven back to starting points or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith, that is, the truths that are authoritatively conveyed by Revelation as revealed by God. Theological discourse and inquiry…is characterized formally by the fact that its arguments and analyses are taken to be truth bearing only for those who accept Scriptural revelation as true.”
This position is supported and confirmed by Aquinas in his work “Exposition of Boethius’ On the Trinity”(q5,a4) in which it is claimed that there is in addition to the Theology of faith a Philosophical Theology in which the focus of attention is the metaphysics of a subject or its first principles. Aristotle, that is, would claim that the world can be traced back to first principles via the methods and theories of the Philosophers and also independently of any putative revelatory experience of the kind Aquinas maintains happened to him. In this discussion there does appear to be space for the position that maintains that “revelation” may be an independent avenue of access to first principles but that fact may be merely a consequence of the actualizing process involving reasoning processes operating over long periods of time. If this position is sound then there does appear to be grounds for insisting that both kinds of Theology mat be merely different aspects of the study of first principles.
Martin Heidegger in his work on Kant claims that that Metaphysics in Kant’s work is divisible into Metaphysics Generalis and Metaphysics Specialis and that Theology is part of the latter, making it in some sense dependent upon the Philosophical account of Metaphysics. Kant in this respect is following Aristotle in insisting that (Pure) Reason is the source of our finite understanding of the first principles of Metaphysics. This raises the question : What faculty or power of mind supports or connects to our faith in a superior being? Paul Ricoeur argues that the route of revelation requires symbolic language and the operation of the imagination.
One of the advantages of Philosophical Theology over Scriptural Theology is that in the former case one can know what one is talking about when one is talking about first principles. In Scriptural Theology it appears that we can somehow apprehend the essence of God but yet not know this essence because of the fact that we are not God, we are merely images of God. The way in which we apprehend the essence of God is via knowing that the proposition “God exists” is true in virtue of the knowledge that the predicate of the proposition is included in the essence of the subject. This appeal to language is unsurprising given the commitment to the symbolic language of the Scriptures where God is referred to symbolically. Formally, Gods essence implies his existence in both thought and reality. Spinoza in his work characterized this essence as a substance containing an infinite number of modes. A mode, for Spinoza, reveals an aspect of the substance of God. This is not an Aquinian position but rather a refinement or evolution which actually diminishes the importance of the Aristotelian view of God as a pure form or pure first principle which Aristotle characterizes in terms of a thinking contemplative being engaged in essential thought about himself. In the Scriptures, on the other hand, God appears to be concerned about us. This evident in his appearing as a burning speaking bush to Moses, in his sending his son Jesus to save us from ourselves. The chosen channel of communication of the Scriptural message is the symbolic language of the Bible understood by those whose Faith, Hope and Love enable them to interpret its messages correctly. This God is what he is. But what is that? Adopt the religious attitudes of Faith, Hope, and Love and presumably one will find out. How does one acquire such attitudes? They are according to Aquinas theological virtues and all virtues are acquired via the Aristotelian process of finding a golden mean between various extreme forms of conduct. Here we encounter two different accounts, one theoretical and one practical and it appears to be the case that Aquinas places more importance on the theoretical when he attempts to demonstrate the existence of God in his work “Summa Theologiae”. Referring directly to Aristotle’s “Posterior Analytics” Aquinas claims that there are two phases of demonstration: demonstrating the existence of the subject matter and demonstrating its essential properties. He then argues, somewhat paradoxically that philosophy can demonstrate the existence of God but not his essential properties which can only be attributed symbolically or analogically. This is paradoxical because in the Metaphysics Aristotle clearly argues that Theology is a theoretical science whose subject matter(God) is separate from nature. Aristotle in this work also clearly identifies the primary being with a primary good, namely rational thought thinking about itself(thinking about thinking). One cannot here but be reminded of the characterization of God in the Old Testament of the Bible, “I am that I am”. We are clearly in the realm of what Aquinas would call “logic” which deals with what he terms “second intentions”(concepts or ideas and the relations between them). Were Aristotle to have been confronted with this Biblical characterization he may claim that understanding here may hinge upon how one interprets the statement “I am that I am”. It could be interpreted as a factual physical albeit eternal presence(and not therefore subject to the prophecy that “all created things are doomed to ruin and destruction” in virtue of possessing the status of “creator”. Or alternatively the statement “I am that I am” could be interpreted in terms of a rational thinking presence that explains and justifies itself. On this latter interpretation, he is what he is, good, rational and causa sui (something that causes himself in all the causal forms Aristotle proposes). He is also eternally present and the cause of all change in accordance with the Aristotelian schema of 4 kinds of change and 3 principles of change. All of this Aquinas must in a sense deny because we are speaking here of the essential attributes of God which, according to his account cannot be characterized rationally but can only be given via the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love in the context of the theological symbolical language of the Bible.
Perhaps it could be argued that the Aristotelian account of God and the Biblical account are two “aspects” of the same “Being” and that the logical reasoning of Aristotle in the “Metaphysics” actually presents God in terms of the “second intention”(as rational thought) far more clearly than the symbolic language of the burning bush or the symbolic language of the New Testaments description of the life and death of the son of God (requiring for their full understanding the religious attitudes of faith, hope and love).
Paul Ricoeur maintains interestingly that Biblical texts have referential intent and are world revealing in the sense that Heidegger claimed great works of art are revealing–“aletheia“. This is only so, Ricoeur argues, if they are read in a critical spirit. He does not mean by critical what Aristotle or Kant would have meant, however. The world is not revealed through rational thought, Ricoeur maintains, but rather via the use of a productive imagination which through the lens of a symbolic language and a process of interpretation can project a possible future good life. The texts disclose to the interpreting subject a new mode of Being-in-the World and along with this a new understanding in a reader that may as a consequence be conscious of being reborn or “converted” in the process. Ricoeur also takes up in this context the fact that normal consciousness is in a sense a false consciousness that is in need of displacement: it is a wounded ego that is in need of teleological reform. To fully comprehend this state of affairs we must risk, Ricoeur argues, entering what he calls the hermeneutic circle: be, that is prepared to abandon rational thought in favour of a form of thought that is more dialectical. We need that is to use faith hope and love in order to understand and to understand in order to have faith hope and love. This complex form of understanding is practically oriented towards one’s life and engages with our conceptual world via intuitive imaginative content.
We also encounter the above teleological “conversion” in Kant’s account of religion and its role in the categorical imperative. For Kant our moral understanding is guided by imperatively structured thought(mirrored in an imperative language structure) that also displays a symbolic dual layer of reference corresponding to what we ought to do and why. This however only covers one aspect of a categorical imperative that also refers to a hoped-for cosmopolitan kingdom of ends in some distant future where the wills of ethical agents will communally follow the moral law. For Kant, however, this is not a consequence of the imagination but rather a consequence of the use of practical reason.
Ricoeur argues in a work entitled “Figuring the sacred” that religious language operates in a manner very similar to the way in which poetic language operates, namely by refiguring the world in terms of the possibilities connected with the good. The language used in this poetic way operates much as psychoanalytic therapy does by disorienting a wounded cogito and reorienting it towards a new world of possibilities. It is the performative nature of the language–its imperative mode–that is here revelatory. The language is, in other words, active and cathartic and its “second intention” is to introduce the listener/reader into the realm of the contemplative sacred world. Symbolic language of all forms, argues Ricoeur testifies to what he calls a “logic of superabundance” rather than a logic of rigid univocal meanings where the truth no longer as the Bible prophesies “sets you free”. It is this logic that for Ricoeur, also sets dialogue free and allows what he calls “open dialogue”. We find this logic not just in poetry but also in our myths: myths that analytical logic finds to contain merely sedimentations of falsities and a world estranged from analytical reality. Myths, according to Ricoeur use the linguistic devices of stories and narratives to enable the imagination and its expressive language to communicate its messages and morals. Such stories need, however, as they were in Greek times, to be submitted to a critical discipline if they are to become “instruments” of rationality. This critical discipline is not, however, the same as that proposed by analytical logic or science. In the latter, we are often persuaded to discard the products of the imagination(and practical reason) in favour of a theoretical commitment to a method and a world conceived of as a totality of facts without philosophical principles. Hypothetical, provisional theories awaiting the next best revision, is, no one will doubt, an excellent inductive process which with a dialectical twist can probably help us to reconfigure new concepts but such theories remain at the level of what Aquinas would call the “first intention” and will because of these facts forever remain in the realm of the context of exploration and discovery. Such a view of the world leaves the context of knowledgable explanation and justification hanging in a metaphysical limbo: a limbo that for the scientists are filled with the ghosts of myth, poetry, and ethics.
The above account contains the elements of what Neo-Kantians would call the transcendental imagination, pure intuition, pure reason, and understanding: an account made possible by Aristotelian critical philosophy. Aristotle was rehabilitated as an authority figure by Aquinas in an act of reinterpretation which perhaps was not entirely true to the spirit of Aristotle’s legacy but it did manage to keep the legacy alive long enough for a new and better reinterpretation by Kant whose critical philosophy was rapidly overshadowed by the challenge of the Hegelians in the spirit of something new and different(something “sensational”). Just as Science and analytical logic were to move into the cultural vacuum created by Aquinas in the name of Theology, history was to repeat itself after the Hegelian deconstruction of Kant’s Critical Philosophy and create a Philosophical vacuum based on an inadequate reinterpretation of both Aristotle and Kant. This state of affairs allowed Science and analytical logic to “colonize” all the realms of culture. Now whilst it would be unfair to characterize Aquinas’ position as “modern”, one can still maintain that it shared with modernism a Philosophical Psychology that did not engage as significantly as it should have with Aristotelian Metaphysics and Aristotelian writings on the soul. This was perhaps nowhere so apparent as in his treatment of the role of perception and imagination and their relation to reason and the understanding. According to Kenny the mistake of Aquinas was to regard the imagination as an “inner sense”:
“Many philosophers besides Aquinas have classified memory and imagination as inner senses. They have regarded these faculties as senses because they saw their function as the production of imagery: they regarded them as inner because their activity unlike that of the outer senses was not controlled by external stimuli. Aquinas indeed thought that the inner senses like the outer ones, had organs–organs that were located in different parts of the brain. It seems to be a mistake to regard the imagination as an inner sense. It has no organs in the sense in which sight has an organ: there is no part of the body that can be voluntarily moved so that we can imagine better, in the way in which the eyes can be voluntarily moved so that we can see better. Moreover, it is not possible to be mistaken about what one imagines in the way that can be mistaken about what one sees: others cannot check up on what I say I imagine as they can check up on what I claim to see.”( “A New History of Western Philosophy”, p.235)
All this can be granted without hesitation but where then is the correct positive characterization of the imagination? Kant’s philosophy may provide an answer to this question. He referred to the Transcendental Imagination and the process of schematizing our concepts independently of experience. In the Critique of Judgment Kant also refers to the way in which the imagination works in aesthetic contexts, where it is the form(the principle) of the object which is the focus of our activity. This activity resembles to some extent the activity of conceptualization. Aesthetic experience, however, is disinterested and only directed to the form of an object. If this is the case then it would seem to follow that we cannot regard the imagination as in any sense sensuous. It is also interesting to note that the imagination in practical ethical contexts may not be object directed but be focussed on whether an action can be universalized or not. This issue is decided in the realm of thought where the first step, for example, of ethical reflection, is to find the principle( or form) of the action before being processed by reason in terms of the logic of universalization.
Aquinas’ view of the intellect includes the power of the mind that earlier thinkers(excluding Aristotle) referred to specifically as the will. For Aquinas it is the will that separates the animal psuche from the human psuche. Animals, we know, eat instinctively but humans sublimate this activity with the help of a will, an intellectual faculty that uses the power of an interior command to achieve external actualisation of activities or actions. It is most importantly the connection of this activity to contemplation and rationality and linguistic characterisation that constitutes its voluntariness. Aquinas’ account of practical reasoning otherwise is Aristotelian: an action is a conclusion of practical reasoning which begins with a universal ought premise. Only if we can give reasons for the goodness of the act will it be perfectly voluntary and rational. Aquinas thus subscribes to a theory postulating a logical relationship between the will and the act, between a command and its execution. There are also echoes of Kant in his account of deciding what we ought to do:
“In contingent matters, reason can go either way… and what to do in particular situations is a contingent matter. So, in such cases, the judgment of reason is open to alternatives and is not determined to any one course. hence humans enjoy free decision, from the very fact of being rational”. (“Summa Theologiae 1a 83 1c)
Brett believes that this step of the individualisation of the intellect was necessary to overcome the influence of Arab philosophy which thought of the intellect as ” a universal superhuman intelligence in which all human beings partake”. Brett continues:
“From the given definition it follows that intellect is individual: each persons intellect is no more than the individuals actual intelligence. After this cosmic dualism is cleared away there remains the dualism within the individual. The Aristotelian treatment of the soul is not satisfactory to the Christian philosopher. For him, the soul must both be separable from the body and immortal. the proof of these points is not a part of psychology: the assertion of them affects psychological theory in the consequent difficulty of uniting that kind of soul to a body. The difficulty is obscured by speaking of the soul as the form of the body, with the added qualification that the form is, in this case, substantial. That is the point at which the Theologian forsakes Aristotle…we ultimately come to the question, “How is the unity possible?” For the powers of the senses and of the imagination are organic, but the intellectual powers are not organic: there is, therefore, a dualism to be overcome and since explanation must be given of the way in which the sense experience is taken up in the higher work of the intellect.”
Jonathan Lear in is work “Aristotle: the desire to understand” points out that Aristotle abandoned the view of soul as substance that was presented in the work “Categories”:
“However when Aristotle wrote the Categories he had not yet developed the concepts that would enable him to conceive of a particular like Socrates as a composite of form and matter. He knew that Socrates had an essence but he had not yet come up with the idea that the essence was the formed aspect of Socrates, his body being the matter. Indeed, Aristotle had not yet developed his technical concept of matter which he developed only when he came to explain how change was possible…. He was able to regard particular animals and plants as composites of a potentially living body(the matter) and a soul(the form or first actuality of a potentially living body)(p.270-1)
There is therefore no reason for the Theologian to forsake Aristotle if the ultimate goal is to ascertain the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There may, however, be reason for the philosopher to suspect Aquinas of a form of dualism that Aristotle might have been guilty of in his earlier work, the Categories.
It would not be appropriate in a discussion of Aquinas to omit a discussion of Natural Law theory which is normally attributed to the Dominican scholar. D W Hamlyn characterises Aquinas’ view thus:(p112)
“Aquinas is also notable for a theory of natural law. Aristotle’s moral theory is naturalistic in the sense that it sees the good for man in terms of what is part of human nature, and of what is natural for man to aim at, as rational beings. Men, as political animals and in society are governed by human laws, which are, in a sense, a sort of image of the divine law that governs the universe. But individuals can be regarded in themselves as an analogous system subject to laws which govern the relationship between their parts. The law that governs this is natural law, and it lays down what must be done to further the ends of man. As such, this law, as is the case with human laws, is prescriptive but the basis of what is prescribed is to be sought in what is natural(or supposed to be natural) for human beings. Aquinas thus attempts to derive the moral laws that govern human conduct from a conception of human beings and what is natural for them. Whether this sort of “ought” can be derived in any way from this sort of “is” is still the subject of debate among philosophers.”
Among philosophers of analytical persuasion ought to have been added to this characterization. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have claimed that the initial premise of the premises of a practical syllogism should be an “is-premise”. The Good by definition is a teleological concept and thereby future-oriented. This essential feature is registered in a practical syllogism by the initial premise being a universal ought premise, e.g.
“Everything sweet ought to be tasted
This is sweet
This ought to be tasted.”
And the final action gives rise to an action that must necessarily be done unless as Aristotle points out one suddenly becomes physically unable or drunk with emotions of strong anger or appetites for something else. Emotions shut this rational forward looking faculty down. The point to note in the above practical syllogism is the universal (Everything) oughtpremise which in this case prescribes a good for the body(sugar = energy?) but such a universal premise could equally well aim at a good for the soul or the human being as a whole, e.g.
“Promises ought to be kept
Jack promised Jill he would return the money he borrowed from her
Jack ought to pay the money back”
The action here too ought to follow the reasoning process and we know from the writings of Aristotle that there is in any particular case a possibility of incontinence if the body or the soul is overwhelmed with emotion. Analytical philosophers have been prone to argue that if Jack does become overwhelmed with the desire to gamble all his money away, this suffices to compromise the universal validity of “Promises ought to be kept”. This position fails however to understand the role that facts play in this kind of reasoning. The fallacy of confusing an is fact statement with an ought founding ground is the same fallacy that Socrates encountered in his dispute with Thrasymachus in book one of Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus was asked to define Justice and he did so by appealing to a principle, namely that strong rulers rule cities in their own interests, and appealing to a number of observational facts(this is and has been done in present and past democracies, tyrannies, oligarchies etc). Rulers passed laws that were in their own interests and thereby protected their power. socrates rightly objected that without knowledge of the Good(A Universal ought-premise such as “All rulers ought to pass laws in the interests of the common good”) the lawmakers would probably mistakenly pass laws that were not in their interests. This law together with the individual-related law “Promises ought to be kept” are the kind of natural laws Aristotle(who saw society and the city-state as a natural organic extension of human nature)and Aquinas was referring to. Man is for both of them a rational lawmaking, promise-keeping animal capable of discourse.
Aquinas understood the above complexities and might have objected to Hamlyn’s words: “This law as is the case with human laws, is prescriptive, but the basis of what is prescribed is to be sought in what is natural (or supposed to be natural) for human beings”. Such a formulation Aquinas would argue, opens the flood gates of logical descriptivism and enables one to argue on the basis of the assumption that “Everything natural is good” the following:
Everyman is naturally irreligious
Therefore being irreligious is good
Being religious is unnatural
Therefore being religious is not good.
The Fransiscan logicians who followed Aquinas would of course be seeking to undermine Aristotle because they despised the so-called pagan Greek Philosophy and to the extent that Aquinas was an Aristotelian was the extent to which he too was pagan.
Indeed, these forces were to prove overwhelmingly powerful because Aquinas may have been the last standard bearer of the Philosophy of Aristotle until the philosophy of Kant several hundreds of years later.