Lesson 1: The Degrees of Knowledge

You are already acquainted with the six taped lectures which constitute the heart of this International Catholic University course in metaphysics. This is the first of twelve lessons that will supplement the lectures and provide reading and writing assignments for those registered to take the course for credit. The lessons are accessible to all and everyone is welcome to read and study the materials laid out here.

The title of this lecture is taken from Jacques Maritain's masterpiece -- actually this is its subtitle; Maritain called it Distinguer pour unir: Distinguish in order to Unite. You can see why the English translation preferred the subtitle:

The Degrees of Wisdom.

The Big Questions

The etymology of "philosophy" tells us that it is a search for wisdom. Wisdom is a form of knowledge, and knowledge is had when we grasp the causes of a thing or event. Wisdom is the grasp of the highest or ultimate causes of things. This is the kind of knowledge God has, and thus philosophy can be said to be an undertaking which seems ultimately to mimic, to the degree possible for a human intellect, the knowledge God has. Divine science.

But philosophy aims at a divine science in another sense as well -- not just an imitation of God's knowledge, but a knowledge which has God as its principle object. A theology.

Theology was the aim of Greek philosophy: its telos or aim or completion, not something that might be taken up after philosophy had reached its goal. Divine science is the defining aim of philosophy.

I speak of classical philosophy, of course. Present-day Anglo-American philosophy would scarcely so define itself. Far more modest tasks are undertaken. It has been said that with Descartes, philosophy turned from being to thinking and with Analytic Philosophy the linguistic turn was made: now language is the subject matter of philosophy. This has been the case even when something akin to classical philosophical theology seems to be in view. Philosophy of religion dwelt almost exclusively on the status of religious language. There seems to be little confidence that one could prove that God exists -- au contraire; it is more or less received opinion that the classical proofs fail.

That there is something decidedly counter-cultural about doing philosophy in the way we will be doing it in this course, and indeed in all the courses offered by ICU, is clear from John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio. The Holy Father recalls that the Church relies on philosophy to come to know fundamental truths about human life. Why does he feel it necessary to take up the question of the activity of human reason? "I judge it necessary to do so because, at the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected..." [5] Whatever its achievements, modern philosophy seems a "one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity" that "seems to have forgotten that men are always called to direct their steps towards a truth that transcends them." [5] The human mind seeks the answers to big questions. "Does life have meaning? Where is it going?"

The classical understanding of philosophy, that adopted and extended by Thomas Aquinas, seeks to answer the big questions. What is the purpose of human life? Is there a cause of all the things that are? In what does human happiness consist? Is death the end? What can I know about God? Philosophy as practiced by Thomas Aquinas addresses each of these questions, although some of them come only when the culminating science, metaphysics, is undertaken.

As explained in the taped lectures, "philosophy" once functioned as a synonym for the totality of knowledge. We called it an umbrella term because it covered any intellectual pursuit. Not, however, pell-mell or any which way. The term suggests a direction, a quest, an aim -- the pursuit of wisdom. Any science or art that is necessary to or useful for the pursuit of wisdom is to that degree philosophical. One might of course study plane geometry without any thought of its forming a stage in a curriculum. The knowledge gained would perfect the mind. However, seen as one science among others with the science of things in their highest causes as the telos in terms of which all the others take on a meaning beyond their isolated merits, geometry becomes philosophical.

The pursuit of wisdom is a human activity and as such is sought as all other things are sought, for the sake of happiness, fulfillment, perfection. Man's ultimate end, the point of doing anything at all, is the starting point of ethical inquiry; as such we are likely to think of it as the practice of the virtues. But when Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics brings the discussion back to where it began, taking up again in the tenth book what had been broached in the first, our ultimate end is depicted as contemplation. The ultimate point of action is not an action in the first and obvious sense of the term. It is the mind's dwelling on the divine as the source and cause of all else. The ultimate aim of life is the knowledge of the highest causes gained in metaphysics.

Many have been surprised by this and find in it evidence of Aristotle's elitism. Perhaps. But recall the surprising turns his reflections on "All men by nature desire to know" took. Perhaps we undervalue the implications of our more modest engagements. Rather than set apart those who had the time and talent to study metaphysics, Aristotle could be said to be eager to relate what they are doing to what others are doing. He thereby sees a kinship and linkage between the arts and sciences such that it is not fanciful to say that what some seek in mathematics or natural science can only fully be found in metaphysics.

In any case, it is important to see the way in which the theoretical and the practical sides of philosophy relate to one another. It is not simply that the moral virtues dispose us for the kind of activity contemplation is. The pursuit of knowledge, the quest for contemplation, involves moral action. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas in the moral part of the Summa theologiae draws attention to the moral virtues of the intellectual life. In that part of the Summa, he compares the active and contemplative as lives -- that is, as moral.

The Degrees of Wisdom

Science is knowledge through causes; wisdom is knowledge through the highest or ultimate causes. Insofar as we can think of any science as wisdom within its domain -- it considered the highest relevant causes in its domain -- it is possible to do as Maritain does and speak of a hierarchy of wisdoms or of degrees of wisdom.

In comparing philosophy of nature to the empirical sciences, Maritain argues that the former has a greater claim on the term 'wisdom.' Not every reason he gives for this priority will be persuasive for all, but surely in some obvious sense it is true. However wide-ranging and non-specific the analysis of physical being into the fundamental constituents of matter and form, it has the merit of saying something true of things as they are. On the other hand, at least in some scientific efforts, we first devise a model and then seek to match it to the world via various experiments. Are the elements of the explanatory model elements of the things explained? If not, the explanations so far forth differ from those of philosophy of nature, even as we concede that such models are efforts to give us a far more detailed knowledge of natural things.

In any case, the order that Maritain suggests is first of all the science of nature, then the philosophy of nature and then wisdom in the sense we are interested in now, metaphysics. But Maritain does not stop there, any more than Thomas Aquinas did. Beyond the divine science of the philosophers is another, that based on Sacred Scripture. Thus theology is a wisdom beyond and superior to that of the philosophers. But there is a wisdom superior to that of the theologians, namely, the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the first question of his Summa theologiae, when he is asking whether sacra doctrina is a wisdom, Thomas contrasts the wisdom of the holy person with the wisdom of the learned theologian. He illustrates the different in the moral order. If you should ask the theologian about chastity and its demands, he will reply with definitions, distinctions, arguments and advice at a level of generality. A holy but unlearned person would probably respond to your question by putting herself in your shoes and saying that she would do in such circumstances. Thomas expresses this contrast by the phrases per modum cognitionis and per modum connaturalitatis.

Ad tertium dicendum quod, cum iudicium ad sapientem pertineat, secundum duplicem modum iudicandi, dupliciter sapientiae accipitur. Contingit enim aliquem iudicare uno modo per modum inclinationis: sicut qui habet habitum virtutis, recte iudicat de his quae sunt secundum virtutem agenda, inquantum ad illa inclinatur: unde et in X Ethic. dicitur quod virtuosus est mensura et regula actuum humanorum. Alio modo, per modum cognitionis; sicut aliquis instructus in scientia morali, posset iudicare de actibus virtutis, etiam si virtutem non haberet. Primus igitur modus iudicandi de rebus divinis, pertinet ad sapientiam quae ponitur donum Spiritus Sancti....Secundus autem modus iudicandi pertinet ad hanc doctrinam, secundum quod per studium habetur, licet eius principia ex revelatione habeantur.

ST, 1.1, 6, ad 3

In response to the third objection it should be said that since it is for the wise man to judge, there are two kinds of wisdom insofar as there are two ways of judging. For it happens that someone judges in one way in the manner of inclination, as one having the habit of virtue judges rightly what is to be done according to that virtue insofar as he is inclined to it. That is why in Ethics 10 it is said that the virtuous person is the measure and rule of human acts. In another way, in the manner of knowledge, as one instructed in moral science can judge of the acts of virtue even if he does not have virtue. To judge of divine things in the first way belongs to the wisdom that is a gift of the Holy Spirit...The second kind of judging belongs to this doctrine insofar as it is had through study, although its principles are held on the basis of revelation.

The wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Spirit is higher than the learned wisdom of theology. It is true that theology derives from principles whose truth is accepted on faith, but in its mode it is an intellectual assimilation of the implications of those truths. Thanks to such learning, one is made capable of judgments in keeping with those principles. The gift of wisdom is more a matter of being than of knowing: one has affinity with divine things and judges of them in the way in which the virtuous person can rightly judge of things to be done according to this inclination to the good. Such judgments by inclination Thomas elsewhere calls judgments by connaturality. The one judging has been made similar in nature -- connatural -- with the things of which he judges and it is out of that affinity and connaturality that he judges them.

Saintly theologians are capable of both kinds of judgment, but a simple holy person can be wise with the gift of the Holy Spirit while remaining illiterate so far as theology goes. And, alas, one can become adept in theology, moving on a level of abstraction and disengagement, without exhibiting in one's life the supernatural life being spoken of. Of course this is an unstable state. It is highly unlikely that a theologian or moralist whose life is at odds with the science he professes will long judge correctly even per modum cognitionis.

The Dismissal of Metaphysics

David Hume in a famous passage commends selective book burning. Take any treatise or book, he says, and if it contain any metaphysics consign it straightaway to the flames. For him, metaphysics is a bogus science, a pretense of knowledge, the search in an unlit room for a black cat who is not there. Immanuel Kant dismisses metaphysics as it has hitherto existed but wrote a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics. The great fault of metaphysics, according to Kant, is that it projects into reality features of our knowing, confusing the phenomenal and the noumenal.

For example, metaphysics speaks of cause and effect; indeed, it famously moves from knowledge of effects to knowledge of their causes, from sensible things as effects to God as their cause. Furthermore, it speaks of substance and the other categories, applying them to things. This is radically wrongheaded, however, according to Kant, because cause and effect, substance and other categories, are aspects of our knowledge, not of real things. Of course our knowledge has to be expressed in terms of cause and effect, but we must beware like sin the suggestion that there is cause and effect anywhere but in our knowledge.

The phenomenal order consists of things-as-known; it is opposed to the noumenal order, things-in-themselves. The thing about the noumenal order is that we cannot know it as it is. We can only know it as we know it, that is, as phenomenal. As phenomenal, the objects of our knowledge are related as cause and effect, substance and accident, and so on, but none of this is true of the noumenal order. The great mistake of metaphysics, then, is a confusion of the phenomenal and noumenal order, assuming that things as we know them are identical with things as they exist.

If Kant is right, it is of course silly to think that we can move from cause and effect to truths about the noumenal order, to knowledge of God, for example.

A student of Thomas will be struck by the similarity of Kant's account with Thomas's explanation of Aristotle's fundamental disagreement with Plato. Plato's great fault was to confuse the order of human knowing with the order of existing, the real order. That is, since in knowing things we first grasp them under such comprehensive concepts as being, then substance, then living substance, then living substance endowed with senses, and so on, producing a hierarchy of concepts in which the first or higher concepts have more predicable universality than those below them: that is, they can be said of more things. Animal is true of more things than man is; animal can be predicated of man and beast. What Plato did, so runs the Aristotelian critique, was to project this hierarchy which is formed by us as we know onto the real order and assume that there was a one-to-one correspondence between the levels of the predicable hierarchy and levels of being.

We can imagine Plato or the target of Kant's criticism objecting that since we can only know things as we know them, the supposed contrast cannot be made. And indeed it does seem that in Kant the "noumenal order", by definition unknown, has to carry a lot of explanatory weight. It seems to be a requirement of the theory rather than anything Kant could possible know. What if the contrast phenemon/noumenon has the same status as, according to Kant, the relation cause/effect has. Absolute idealism is just around the corner. To be = to be known. Far from being a restriction on knowledge, this identification amounts to a definition of knowledge. It is no longer taken to be a flaw or failure, but simply the achievement knowing is.

Perhaps there is a simple fallacy at work in this large claim that all metaphysics has been based on the fallacious transition from the phenomenal to the noumenal. What is the fallacy grounding Kant's fallacious critique?

The distinction between things-as-we-know-them and things-as-they-are is as important as Aristotle thought it was, and it would be fatal to confuse the two orders. But the two orders do not compare, pace Kant, as what is known to what is not known. The distinction between them can be captured by comparing

    [1] Man is a two-legged animal, Swift's poor forked beast.

    [2] Man is a species.

You should be reminded of our discussion of universals in the lectures. How did we show the difference between [1] and [2]?

Consider the sequence: Man is a two-legged animal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a two-legged animal. That inference moves right on through without any problem. However, were we to proceed thus: Man is a species, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is a species, we would sense that something has gone wrong. How to put it? What we mean by "two-legged animal" applies to animal and it applies to Socrates, expressing something essential to what we are talking of. What we mean by "species" prevents it from traveling in that way. A species is something that is predicated of many numerically different things. Socrates is a numerical thing: he is not predicated of many numerically different things. To be predicated is something that happens to the nature as it is known by us: the predicate does not express some feature or component of the nature to which it attaches. To be a species is incidental to human nature, not part of its definition. It is true of human nature because of the way we know and speak of it.

But in order for this to make any sense, there must be a contrast between what is incidentally true of the nature -- as known by us -- and what is constitutive of the nature, what belongs to it as such. Thus things as they are, and the features of them, are not merely a foil for things-as-they-are-known. It is because we first know things as they are that we can, on reflection, notice that we do things to natures as we know them. But this does not mean that we create the content of the concepts expressive of the things that are.

Did Kant make some such inference as this: We can only know things as we know them, therefore we cannot know them as they are? But knowing things is first of all knowing them as they are; this is the presupposition for noticing what is true of them as we know them.

Like so many of the grand gestures in modern philosophy whereby centuries of reflection were dismissively swept away, Kant's critique can be swept away by drawing attention to its incoherence. If we can only know things as we know them, that is the end of the story. There is no possible appeal to things as we do not know them. That is, Kant is deprived of making the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal on which his whole critique depends. He would have been better advised to write a docile retrospect on classical metaphysics than his prolegomenon to an impossible future metaphysics.

Suggested Reading Assignment

 Read the opening two chapters of the Metaphysics and Thomas's commentary on them = Book One, lessons 1-3.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write a two page essay on: metaphysics is divine science.


You will eventually want to read the whole of Aristotle's Metaphysics, as well as Thomas's commentary on it. You might want to acquaint yourself with the work, paging through it, noting its divisions, getting the lay of the land. Jacques Maritain's Degrees of Wisdom is a volume in the twenty volume Maritain in English being published by the Jacques Maritain Center and the University of Notre Dame Press. Selection 6 in the Penguin Selected Readings provides a contrast between the theology of the philosophers and the theology based on Sacred Scripture.


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