Lesson 4: From Confusion to Clarity

We now have a rough sense of the meaning that 'philosophy' has for Thomas Aquinas and a schematic outline of the disciplines that make it up. Philosophy, that is, is the term under which we gather a plurality of sciences of disciplines insofar as, over and above their particular aims, they are ordered to the acquisition of wisdom. Knowledge in general is the quest for the why of things, wisdom is the pursuit of the ultimate and comprehensive causes of the things that are. That is why philosophical wisdom is, for all practical -- or theoretical -- purposes, theology. It is such knowledge as human beings can acquire of God using their natural powers. This effort comes last for a number of reasons, most obviously because it depends on all the other disciplines either "for its being or for its well-being" as Thomas puts it.

The Way to Go

The various topics and arguments that make up the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas hang together because of his firm views on the order in which we come to know. And, since we name things as we know them, the seemingly limited vocabulary of Thomas will reflect this order providing a kind of Ariadne's thread which enables us to see how later and extremely demanding discussions are anchored in the knowledge that is the common possession of mankind.

Man is a rational animal whose bodily senses provide his entry into the realm of knowledge. Sensations are gathered in images and in those images the mind discerns and abstracts the nature or essence of the things sensed. All our knowledge is grounded in this grasp of the material objects which surround us, so much so that it will become a question whether we can know anything that is not sensible and material.

Much more will be said of this, but for now we must concentrate on the things we first know and how we know them. Any discipline or science will bear on certain things as its subject matter and will seek to understand them by discovering the causes or principles of their being the way they are. And so it is with the quest for a science of the things of nature.

The natural way of doing this is to start from the things which are more knowable and clear to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature; for the same things are not knowable relatively to us and knowable without qualification. So we must follow this method and advice from what is more obscure by nature, but clearer to us, towards what is more clear and more knowable by nature. [ Physics, I, 1 ]

The opening paragraphs of Aristotle's Physics allude to certain methodological requirements and thus show the primacy of logic over other disciplines, including this most basic of disciplines, the science of natural things. Natural things. That is a latinazation of 'physical objects.' Far from being technical terms, they mean simply: things that have come to be as the result of a change and are subject to change. The etymology both of the Greek and the Latin is obstetric: things that are born, things given birth. Mother Nature is very much in the wings.

Now, to say we want to study changeable things, things that come into and pass out of being as the result of a change, and while they undergo seemingly ceaseless change, does not seem to pick out a limited set of objects. Indeed, the range of the phrase is so sweeping that it is difficult to know how one might begin. Aristotle continues the above passage by suggesting that what is more knowable by us are

rather confused masses, the elements and principles of which become known to us later by analysis. Thus we must advance from universals to particulars; for it is the whole that is more knowable to sense-perception, and a universal is a kind of whole, comprehending many things within in, like parts.
That is, just as we first see an object without discerning its distinguishing characteristics, but as some thing, so the mind first understands things through the most general and universal descriptions and then proceeds gradually toward specific knowledge of them. "Similarly a child begins by calling all men father, and all women mother, but later on distinguishes each of them."

This illustration makes clear that what will end up being a term which discriminates among males and females is first used by the child in a generic way insofar as other women are like the mother and other men are like the father. Of course this does not entail distinct knowledge on the child's part of what a father or mother is.

The great methodological point involved is this. Our understanding of the things around us, the things that come and go and constantly change, begins with the most generic description of them, and an account of them on that generic level, after which we proceed to ever less generic analyses until, with luck, we grasp the specific essence. From first to last, what we are talking and thinking about are the singular things grasped by our senses. If we think and speak of them generically, there is no suggestion that there is a realm of things answering just as such to those generic descriptions. What answers to them are the singular things around us. Thomas will often point out that it was Aristotle's criticism of Plato that he thought there must be levels of reality answering to the progressively less general grasp of singular things.

That is, if we gather all human beings under the name and concept 'man', there must be some ideal entity answering to Man as such, over and above the individual men of our sense experience. We will return to this issue which is traditionally known as the Problem of Universals.

This fundamental rule of procedure is the key to the arrangement of Aristotle's natural writings, as Thomas makes clear in the proemium he wrote to the little work On sense and the sensed object. In the Physics, the initial or threshold inquiry of natural science, the whole realm of nature is considered in terms of its most general characteristics. Then, since some natural things are living and some are not, the inquiry branches off into the one or the other. Most of Aristotle's natural writings are concerned with the life-word and with vital operations. Of course, the idea is that, in turning to living things, one presupposes what has already been established about the characteristics they share with the non-living, and goes on from there.

At this point, it might be well to address the astonishment you may be feeling. While there is little doubt that Thomas took the natural science of Aristotle quite seriously -- without however engaging in it as such, in the manner of his mentor Albertus Magnus -- you and I will find somewhat embarrassing the suggestion that all this has more than merely historical significance. If there is any received opinion of our time it is that advances in natural science have rendered such efforts as Aristotle's ludicrously irrelevant. Indeed, the standard accounts of Copernicus and Galileo portray them as freeing themselves from the a priori limitations of Aristotelianism. Modern science represents a radical breach with everything that has gone before.

Such accounts are not without foundation. Aristotle's cosmos and not just his account of projectile motion might strike us as a little cosy -- but then the universe of Copernicus and Galileo is claustrophobic compared with our own expanding universe. The history of science is a vast subject, of course, and this is not the place to enter into a discussion of possible corrections to received opinion. There is, however, a way in which we can see that something of what Aristotle accomplished in natural science can survive. Before turning to that, let me emphasize the importance for Thomism that this be the case. The vocabulary that emerges from the analysis of physical objects will be extended through a whole series of later philosophical discussions. If this initial analysis is nonsense, that would affect the totality of Thomas's philosophy. So it is no small matter to ask whether the analysis we are about to summarize has only historical interest.

Perhaps the best way to approach the question is through a distinction, often made, between pre-scientific and scientific knowledge. Some of the more exuberant celebrations of science suggest that its accounts completely replace the ordinary talk about the world that precedes it, the kind of talk we engage in before undertaking the study of science. All this commonsense talk about the world is set aside and replaced by scientific accounts.

A moment's reflection makes it clear that this is impossible. Some of the greatest scientists have been most concerned to relate the somewhat abstruse activities in which they engage with those that you and I -- and they themselves -- engage when they are not doing science. My favorite in this regard is the British scientist Arthur Eddington. He puts before us what may seem to be the choice we must make. On the one hand, he writes, there is the table on which he is writing the pages we read. It is there in his study, stable, solid, impenetrable -- when he leans on it, his elbow does not go through it. Its coordinates are fixed, it faces north northwest. And so on. On the other hand, there is the scientific account of the table. Suddenly its solidity seems to evanesce, to be replaced by a swarm of electrons. Its size and shape alter under the gravitational pull of other bodies, It is porous and does not seem a promising support for a sheet of paper. And so on.

Eddington's question is then: which table is the true one? Or which description of the table is the true one? But we can see that an exclusive choice here is impossible. We need that everyday table as a point of reference for the scientific account. And the everyday table received and receives a true descriptive account which differs from the scientific account of that same table. Eddington's point can be put thus: far from supplanting and replacing our ordinary experience and talk of the world, science presupposes it.

On the basis of this, I suggest the following. The approach to the world involved in the analysis of physical objects that Thomas learns from Aristotle can be called, in our terms, pre-scientific. By scientific we are likely to mean the application of mathematics to physical objects, so that the account of them is quantitative -- how much, how fast, how long, how short, etc. etc. If Eddington is right, that quantitative approach presupposes and never wholly replace a familiar and qualitative knowledge and talk about the things of the world. The analysis of physical objects we are about to give is not quantitative. It relies on ordinary experience, easily duplicated. That is why, I suggest, that analysis and the terminology that arises from it is as good today as it ever was -- and I think it is pretty good.

It is not meant to be a rival to our chemistry or physics. It is a first and most comprehensive analysis of changeable things. It is true, of course, that Aristotle and Thomas had no notion of the development of a quantitative science of the sort that has swamped all previous efforts, eclipsing them and seeming to render them in all their aspects obsolete. There is a lot that is obsolete in Aristotle's natural doctrine. But it is not obsolete through and through. Its opening analyses remain what they were, preliminary but illuminating accounts of what it means to come to be as the result of a change.

Suggested Reading Assignment

William Wallace, The Modeling of Nature. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top