Lesson 6: Implicit Philosophy and Principles

It should be clear even from what we have said thus far that Thomas Aquinas's view of philosophy and philosophizing is very different from that which came into vogue with Descartes and still lingers on in contemporary thought where some confidence that knowledge of some basis or another is possible. Descartes' methodic doubt is put forward on the assumption that the claims to know that people make prior to employing the method, that is, prior to the formal engagement in philosophy, are dubitable.

By contrast, Thomas's view is that everyone knows things for certain prior to the study of philosophy, that these pre-philosophical certainties are the principles from which philosophy begins and which function as touchstones of all further knowledge claims.

We should not think of these contrasting views on how philosophy begins as a choice one makes, after which he proceeds in the one way or the other. The admonition to begin with universal doubt is one that cannot possibly be followed. It is not that some are severely critical and others hopelessly credulous. One of the long-established criticisms of Descartes is that he smuggles into his supposed universal doubt all sorts of undoubted knowledge claims without which the very notion of doubt would be voided of meaning. I can doubt if something is true only if I have knowledge of some truths. The stick bent in water is contrasted with the presumed standard view of it outside the glass. I am deceived into thinking it bent because I know it is straight -- this recognition may come later and correct the false impression. But if I doubt the straightness of the stick as well I cannot explain what I mean by being deceived into thinking it bent.

There is only one way to start philosophy, then, and that is on the basis of things already known.

Common Sense

But surely it is an alarming suggestion that everybody already knows all sorts of things when we consider some of the things people think they know. Some people think they know men evolved from apes, others think they know we are a species of computer programmed to do the things we do, such that talk about free choices is really unwarranted. Some people think that people used to think the earth was flat. Some people think Galileo proved scientifically that the earth moves around the sun. Others think that gender is a sociological effect rather than a biological fact. And so on.

Reading letters to the editor, listening to talk shows on television or radio, overhearing others on airplanes can produce an astounding number of such items.

Does the view I am attributing to Thomas Aquinas entail endorsing claims like this, many of which contradict one another? What is so nonsensical, we might ask, that it could not become received opinion? Surely, we have to be critical before this mass of opinion, so Descartes seems to be recommending exactly what is needed. People think they know so many things which can be shown to be false.

Exactly. And the way we show them to be false is by appeal to other claims that no one can deny. If a given claim violates the principle of contradiction, out it goes as incoherent. There are criteria for appraising common sense claims that are embedded in them, presupposed by them. These principles pop to the surface as needed. We don't start life by inscribing on the top of p. 1 of our diary "-(p.-p)" and then go on to comment on the weather, perhaps, noting that either it is raining or it isn't.

This suggests that one of the tasks of formal philosophizing with respect to these principles latent in all human thinking, because they are grounded in the things that are, is to articulate them, defend them against attack -- by showing the incoherence of such attacks: they presuppose what they would reject -- and the like.

Implicit Philosophy

These matters come up in a most interesting way in Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio. The Pope begins with the remark that in wishing to discuss philosophy and its relation to the faith, he is not addressing professional philosophers alone. To be a human being at all is to put certain questions to oneself, large questions, unavoidable questions. What are they? "'Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? [n. 1]'" He goes on to note that a variety of philosophies have arisen over time and the vexed question arises as to what to make of this diversity. Conflicts between philosophical systems are obvious, sometimes fundamental differences as to starting point, as already mentioned. Still, there is a useful variety as well and different approaches can contribute to a cumulative effect impossible without the different systems.

This recognition of the plurality of philosophical systems and the need on occasion to judge among them, raises the question as to the criteria according to which such judgments are made. If the tenets of one system are used to appraise another, the reverse might almost be done and we would be left with such stand-offs as "To the Platonist, Aristotle is wrong on this that and the other thing" and "To the Aristotelian, Plato is wrong about this than and the other thing." From which one might conclude that Plato was a Platonist and Aristotle an Aristotelian. So what?

What the Pope next does is thus of crucial importance. Not only does he remind us that there are certain questions no one can fail to ask, the fundamental questions, there are also answers to these questions that are common held! "'Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. [n. 4]'"

If people hold these principles in a general and unreflective way, implicitly, then formal philosophy will articulate and clarify such principles. In doing so it will be uncovering what we already know, not conferring new knowledge on us. These principles do not belong to one philosophical system or another; that is why they are reference points for them all. This means that when a proposed system runs afoul of these principles, it is the system that is at fault, not the world that has to be reconstructed. This indicates that the pluralism the Pope speaks of is not due to some unprincipled syncretism, an unwillingness to make serious judgments. There are philosophical approaches that are different and complementary. But there are philosophical approaches which are radically flawed because they violate the principles of implicit philosophy.

A knowledgeable reader might find the paragraphs quoted disingenuous, particularly the second. It will occur to him that he or the Pope could give references to texts of St. Thomas which would make the point about the principle of contradiction, the freedom of human action, finality and causality. As for the moral norms, surely the Pope has in mind texts in the IaIIae of the Summa theologiae. The implicit philosophy can thus seem to be explicit Thomism and, despite what is being said, one system is being used to appraise others.

It is of course true that Thomas, like Aristotle, spends a lot of time reflecting on the principles of philosophy, those truths implicitly known by all which are the starting points of any further inquiry. The principle of contradiction, causality, finality, freedom, certain moral norms are starting points because, Thomas holds, they are self-evidently true -- per se notae. That means they don't have to be proved. They do however have to be defended.

From the beginning human beings have a perverse tendency to wish to deny the obvious, to claim, for example, that contradictory claims can be simultaneously true. The dilemma we face here is that the position attacked is taken to be self-evidently true. That means it cannot be proved by something more evident -- it is so evident in itself that no proof is required. But it is attacked. What can one do?

Such principles are defended by showing that the attack on them is incoherent. Denials of the principle of contradiction surreptitiously invoke the principle they would reject, thus rendering the rejection unserious.

Do we prove that we are free? Rather we show that the denial flies in the face of assumption the objector must make.

And so on. The act that a philosopher thus defends the first principles of the theoretical and practical order does not make these principles his in some proprietary sense. They are common. They belong to everything because they are grounded in the way things are.


Such considerations as these underlie the somewhat surprising claim that Thomism is not a kind of philosophy. The reference is to its principles, its starting points, and its long association with the defense of self-evident principles in the theoretical and practical order, that is, of natural law. As the passages from Fides et Ratio make clear, however, these principles are in the common domain, the implicit philosophy possessed by all.

No doubt there are distinctive characteristics of Thomas's thought as it moves away from these first principles, but it is the fact that it is so manifestly anchored in them that gives it a universality that shares in and participates in the community of the principles themselves.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, London: Penguin, pp. 643-645 (IaIIae.94.2).

Suggested Writing Assignment

Present and comment on paragraphs 1-5 of Fides et Ratio.


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