Lesson 3: The Love of Wisdom

 

The Goal of Philosophy

Philosophy has had a long history but that history begins with the Greeks and it is from the Greeks that we have its name. The love of wisdom. It was because he wished to distinguish himself from the sophists, who claimed to be wise, that Protagoras said that he would prefer to be one is love with, in quest of, wisdom rather than to suggest he was already in possession of it. Wanting to be wise seems a pretty vague description of what it is to be a philosopher and of course many explanations of what this desire consists of might be given. Thomas Aquinas was concerned to grasp what this could mean for Aristotle.

In the opening two chapters of the Metaphysics, which Thomas describes as Aristotle's proemium or introduction to the treatise, we find a remarkable account of the pursuit of wisdom and thus of what philosophy is.

"All men by nature desire to know," Aristotle begins, and we may mistakenly think that he is speaking of himself and certain close friends. But as the immediate sequel makes clear, Aristotle intends the full universality of that opening sentence. "A sign of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight." How disarming. Aristotle illustrates his initial claim by pointing out that sense perception delights us, we love it, especially the sense of sight. "For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things."

As rational animals we are endowed with senses, which are ways of knowing, and thus our desire to know can be illustrated by appeal to our delight in the senses. But Aristotle is far from through anchoring his generalization in what we share with the animals. He goes on to discuss a hierarchy that can be distinguished among mere animals on the basis of the presence in them of one or more senses. Some animals only sense whereas others have memory besides, whereby they retain impressions received. This makes the latter capable of learning. For the animal to move himself from place to place requires the retention of images or he would never get to where he is going. A first way in which man is set off from the other animals is by his capacity for experience. Experience is a product of memory "for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience." Experience in turn is the presupposition of art. "Now art arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgment about a class of objects is produced." The difference between experience and art is illustrated by healing. One might provide a given remedy, say, tar water, because it had helped Ramona when she was similarly afflicted. As to why it helps, the experienced person does not know. To know why is to have art.

This is a crucial point in the discussion. Knowing why, grasping the cause, emerges as preferable to mere experience. Of course, one with experience may seem in practical matters better to consult than another who has art without experience. This is true in practical matters but now 'art' begins to function differently. At the outset, in discussing sight, a distinction had been adumbrated between seeing with a view to action and just seeing, looking, for its own sake. So too now 'art' is transferred to knowledge of causes which has no practical end in view. And wisdom is linked to knowledge of the cause. But even in the practical order, we can recognize a hierarchy among those who have art and thus grasp why something occurs. The laborers on a building site know why they do what they do but there is a master builder (architect) who directs the actions of bricklayers and electricians and the like to the overall goal of building the pyramid. The latter is considered wiser than those he directs.

But back to the theoretical. Games involve know-how and are fairly self-contained. They are not ordered to something else. More pertinently, the study of mathematics is sought for its own sake. Aristotle now stops using 'art' in a commodious way and distinguishes art from science. In this narrow sense, art is practical and science is theoretical. Theoretical knowledge makes one wiser than he who does not have it.

But the comparative use of 'wisdom' and 'wiser' now gives way to a discussion of wisdom as such. Knowledge has been linked with the grasp of the cause, and the grasp of a comprehensive cause -- like the end of all the crafts that go into building -- makes one wiser. What are the causes knowledge which will make one wise in the fullest sense? The answer, in short, is the first and principal causes, the causes of all things. Knowledge of such causes is divine in two senses. One, this is the kind of knowledge God is thought to have. Second, because the human attainment of it makes one most godlike. Moreover, the first causes and the divine are synonymous. Thus it is that the common human desire to know is said to reach its fulfillment in such knowledge of the divine as we can achieve. Theology is the goal of philosophy.

The Divisions of Philosophy

Philosophy emerges as an umbrella term that covers a plurality of sciences insofar as the sciences other than wisdom are ordered to it as to their ultimate goal. Thomas arranges the various philosophical sciences in two ways, one pedagogical, the other formal.

In several places, Thomas states what he takes to be the natural order in which the philosophical sciences should be learned. First logic, then mathematics, then natural philosophy, then morals and finally metaphysics.

With the exception of logic, this order is based on ease and accessibility. Logic is difficult but since it treats the method of science, it is profitably studied first. Mathematics deals with things easily accessible and independent of any wide experience of the world and life. Thomas holds an abstractive view of mathematical objects. Mathematics considers substance as quantified -- quanta -- without the sensible qualities such as color and weight that physical substances have as they exist. Because quantity is presupposed to sensible qualities (color is of a surface), it is possible to consider surface without sensible qualities, without however suggesting that there actually exist merely quantified substances. Natural philosophy is the study of the changeable things around us that we perceive with our senses. The procedure within natural philosophy is from the most general, to the progressively less general, to the specific study of things that come to be as the result of a change and will cease to be as the result of a change. Aristotle's Physics is the study of common properties of mobile things -- their composition of matter and form, motion, time, place. It ends with a proof of a prime mover, an unmoved mover, without which none of the movers and moved things studied in natural philosophy could exist. Subsequent works of natural philosophy deal with the principle of living things -- soul -- generation and corruption, sense and its object, the cosmos... Moral philosophy deals with the human good, Ethics, which focuses on the integral good of the individual, bringing emotions under the sway of reason so that one acts moderately and courageously. The good shared by members of a family and the common good of the political community give raise to the moral sciences. Finally, the quest from wisdom takes the form of metaphysics where physical things are considered anew with an eye to developing what substance could mean if applied to things which exist immaterially, what act and potency, one and many, could mean. The subject of metaphysics is being as being, being in general, and since being is analogically common to the things that are, and substance is the principal sort of being, reference to which is made in describing other things that are, the metaphysician concentrates on substance. In analyzing anew physical substance, he sees that form is paramount and thus immaterial things can be thought of as subsistent forms. By thus analyzing physical substance, the metaphysian seeks meanings for term which permits their application to the causes of the subject of the science.

This view of metaphysics indicates that the principal object of our desire to know -- the divine -- can only be gotten at obliquely, not as the subject of the science, but as causes of the subject of the science.

The formal division of philosophy is implied by these remarks. Sometimes it is the perfection of knowing itself that is the goal, truth, and sometimes truth is sought for purposes of action or making. That is, sometimes knowledge is theoretical and sometimes practical.

Theoretical philosophy comprises three sciences.

Natural philosophy which considers things into whose definitions matter and motion must enter; mathematics which considers things which can be defined without sensible matter though with no implication that they could exist in the world that way; metaphysics which considers what is and which exists without matter or motion. Thomas will add that some things are such that they sometimes exist in matter and sometimes do not, and exemplifies this with being, act, potency and the like. Other things, like God and the angels, never exist in matter. Metaphysics is concerned with the first as with its subject, and with the second as with the causes of its subject. Much of the task of the metaphysician is to establish senses of being, substance, act, potency, etc. which enable us to extend these terms to immaterial instances of them. This extension is by way of analogy.

Practical philosophy also comprises three sciences: ethics, economics, politics. These differ because of the different ends they pursue -- the good of the individual, one's good as the member of a family which is shared with others, one's good as a member of the city, a good common to all citizens.

And logic? It is the method of the sciences.

Theology

The divine is considered by the philosopher only as the cause of being as being. God is known through his effects and named from them. God or immaterial substance could not be the subject of a philosophical science since we have no direct knowledge of Him or of angels. The fact of revelation opens up the possibility of a theology that can meaningfully be said to have God as its subject matter. Such a science is based on what God has told us of himself, what we otherwise would never know. Since we cannot know what God thus reveals, we accept it as true on the basis of faith, trusting the authority of the revealer. This theology, supernatural as opposed to natural theology, is based on the truth of what has been revealed as accepted by faith.

The most general way of contrasting philosophy -- and the theology in which it terminates -- with supernatural theology is as follows. The starting points or principles of philosophy are unarguable truths that everyone naturally knows. Philosophy presupposes the naturally and commonly known truths and its arguments will be persuasive to the degree that they build upon such truths. This is not to say that everyone has in mind an explicitly formulate list of self-evident truths. Nor of course is it to say that anything commonly said or thought is true. One of the tasks of the philosopher is to uncover these basic presuppositions, to clarify them, not by proving them, but by laying them bare in such a way that we realize that we always knew them, they are implicit in anything we might think, much as we have been speaking prose all along without being reflectively aware of this. However distant from the ordinary philosophical discussions may become there must always be this Ariadne's thread connecting them with truths knowable by everyone.

How different philosophy has been in this regard since the fateful turn taken by Descartes. The Cartesian assumption is that everything we think might be false, that we do not at the outset have any warrant to claim we know something. Rather, candidates for knowledge must be subjected to scrutiny, passed through the acid bath of a method, and only if they emerge successfully do we have the right to say we know them. This approach has the unsettling implication that no one who is innocent of critical philosophy really knows anything. Real knowledge is the product of philosophy and prior to philosophizing knowledge is an illusion.

Which assumption is the right one? On the first view, there are truths presupposed to philosophy from which philosophy begins: they are not as true the products of philosophizing. The second view is the opposite. Do we simply choose one approach or the other and go on from there? That would make the whole enterprise depend on a random choice, arbitrary, relative. But the initial truths assumed by the first view cannot be proved. What can be done is to show that the second view is incoherent. There are several standard arguments that show that, despite his claims, Descartes does not and cannot doubt everything. Doubt can never be universal, anymore than falsity could be. The arguments to which I refer show that Descartes smuggles into his procedure what he professes to reject. For example, in order to hold meaningfully that his senses deceive him it must be the case that sometimes they do not. Everyone's senses sometimes deceive him but if this were taken always to be the case the very notion of deception is emptied of meaning. This is shorthand for a long discussion, but at least a gesture toward it is necessary lest we think that being an Aristotelian or being a Cartesian are two plausible choices and that we simply opt for one or the other. The Cartesian choice is impossible. That is all the proof the other, the right, approach can get, and that is all that it needs.

Supernatural theology differs from theology in this: that its starting points or principles are not what everybody naturally knows. Rather, its starting points are the mysteries of the faith, what is taken to be true not because it is understood but because God has told us it is true. The theology based on faith is a science which seeks to understand, or approximate understanding, of what has been revealed. But is it reasonable to believe to be true what we cannot in this life understand, truths such as the trinity of persons in God, the union of human and divine nature in Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharists, etc.?

The Preambles of Faith

Revelation has been described as God's telling us things about himself that we cannot know in this life. Of course we can know that he has told us this or that, but accepting what is revealed as true is a matter of faith, not knowledge. The object of faith is what is incomprehensible to us in this life. Why do I hold that there are three persons in God? Because he has revealed it and it is taught by the Church he founded. The theologian can show that this claim is not nonsense, but he cannot demonstrate that it is true. But not being nonsense is no motive for belief. I believe what has been revealed, hold it in a way that is humbling for my intellect, because I have been promised that this acceptance is the way to eternal life. That is the ultimate motive. That by accepting the darkness of faith in this life we will eventually see God even as we are seen.

Something Thomas draws attention to again and again is that not everything God has revealed is beyond our ken. That revelation in the broad sense includes those truths about God that philosophers can know to be true -- that God is one, that there cannot be more than one God, that God is the cause of all else. Thomas calls this the Preambles of Faith. These make up a small, largely implicit subset of what has been revealed. And they are important because they provide the basis for an argument that it is reasonable to accept the mysteries of the faith, those truths we cannot understand.

If some of the things that have been revealed are knowable -- the preambles of faith -- then it is reasonable to accept the mysteries of faith as true. This is an argument for the reasonableness of belief, not of the truth of the mysteries.

This makes it clear that the goal of philosophy is to know those truths which the theologian calls preambles of faith.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Jacques Maritain, Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1956. 

Selected Writings Thomas Aquinas. London: Penguin, 1998, pp. 109-141. 

Jacques Maritain, The Dream of Descartes. Philosophical Library: New York, 1944.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write a paper of at least five pages on the difference between the Thomistic view of philosophy and that of Descartes.

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