Lesson 3: The Order of Learning

Man's happiness consists in the activity of his highest faculty, namely, his intellect, as it bears on the most intelligible. What does it mean to say that one thing is more intelligible than another? Well, since the effect is known by means of its cause, a cause is more intelligible than its effect. It is true that some effects are more easily known by us than their causes and we must move laboriously from knowledge of effects to knowledge of their causes. Here, what is objectively less knowable, the effect, becomes the cause of our knowledge of the objectively more knowable, its cause. Simply speaking, the first and ultimate causes of things are most intelligible and the most worthy object of knowledge. They are highest both in being and in truth since they are the cause of the being and truth of other things. We first know what is objectively less knowable because our mind's are to the objectively most intelligible as the eye of a night bird to the light of the sun. Nonetheless, the highest happiness we can achieve in this life will consist in the admittedly imperfect knowledge we can gain of the first causes from their effects. Other sciences have objects more proportioned to our intellectual capacity and thus yield knowledge which is more complete and exact. But even the little knowledge we can attain of the objectively most perfect is preferable to the knowledge gained in these other sciences. But Thomas does not suggest an option, as if we might choose sciences of more manageable objects or the science of first causes. We arrive at the latter by way of the former. This is the basis for Thomas's teaching on the order of learning the sciences.

Et inde est quod philosophorum intentio ad hoc principaliter erat ut, per omnia quae in rebus considerabant, ad cognitionem primarum causarum pervenirent. Unde scientiam de primis causis ultimo ordinabant, cuius considerationi ultimum tempus suae vitae deputarent: primo quidem incipientes a logica quae modum scientiarum tradit, secundo procedentes ad mathematicam cuius etiam pueri possunt esse capaces, tertio ad naturalem philosophiam quae propter experientiam tempore indiget, quarto autem ad moralem philosophiam cuius iuvenis esse conveniens auditor non potest, ultimo autem scientiae divinae insistebant quae considerat primas entium causas.

In libum de causis, proemium

So it is that philosophers chiefly intended that the consideration of things should lead on to knowledge of the first causes. Hence they placed the science of first causes last, putting off its study until the final stage of life, beginning first with logic, which teaches the mode of the sciences, second, going on to mathematics, which even children are able to master, third, natural philosophy which, requires time for the sake of experience, fourth, to moral philosophy, a subject the youthful cannot profitably study, arriving finally at divine science which considers the first causes of being.

This pedagogical order is based on the availability of the objects of the different sciences as well as on the subjective disposition of the student. Without a vast experience of the natural world, it is impossible to develop a science of it. Better then to begin with logic, highly abstract to be sure but, like mathematics, requiring little experience in order to be grasped. The adolescent is not yet ready for calm reflection on the nature and appraisal of human action. The aim of moral philosophy, since it is a practical enterprise, is not knowledge but rather the moral improvement of the student. The acquisition of moral virtues, the integration of the emotions and their ready response to reasoned direction, disposes one for the intellectual virtues and for the ultimate ascent to wisdom by providing an existential affinity with immaterial reality.

We find a similar pedagogical order in Plato, in the middle books of The Republic, where he is developing the analogy of the sun and analyzing the divided line. In his discussion of virtue, Plato links the overcoming of the tug of the passions with the lifting of the cloud from the mind, permitting the remembrance of ideal reality. One who aspires to the ultimate goal of philosophy, must put in an apprenticeship of ten years of mathematics, a study which both sharpens the mind and orders the passions.

This pedagogical order of learning the sciences captures the upward ascent traced by Aristotle in those remarkable opening chapters of the first book of his Metaphysics. Indeed, the lead-in to the text cited just above from Thomas's exposition of the Book of Causes, clearly evokes that passage. Metaphysics, as another name for the wisdom that is the telos of philosophy, is ultimate in several senses. Both in terms of the ultimacy and perfection of its objects and chronologically, as being the last and culmination study undertaken by the aspiring philosopher.

We may note parenthetically that since metaphysics is the telos which gathers into an ordered whole all of the sciences, the learning of the other sciences is conducted under the guidance of metaphysics. That is, one who would teach us the earlier and presupposes sciences as philosophical must himself already followed the route to the desired end. Teaching any constitutive science of philosophy is thus a sapiential task with the teacher mindful of the ultimate orientation of the particular science to metaphysics. This is why Thomas Aquinas, in the course of his commentaries on the natural writings of Aristotle will introduce asides about the further metaphysical import of a particular doctrine. A portion, in the prefaces or proemia to his commentaries, he will explicitly relate and compare the study about to being with the culminating goal of inquiry.

Schematic Division of Philosophy

We often find the constitutive sciences of philosophy displayed without reference to the order in which they are learned. Here the principal division is between theoretical and practical sciences. The distinction between the theoretical and practical uses of our mind, as well as the classic statement of it in On the soul, III, 10, will be familiar to you from earlier courses. These two uses of the mind differ in their ends or aims, Aristotle observes. The theoretical use of the mind aims at the perfection of mental activity as such, that is, it aims at truth. The practical use of the mind seeks truth but in order to direct and perfect activities other than thinking. The knowledge of the artisan is not sought for its own sake, but in order to direct his activities with an eye to the production of the artifact. The artifact, not the thinking that goes into producing it, is the perfection of such productive or practical thinking.

Practical sciences are the reflective and general knowledge about things to be made or done, more remote from their actual use or application but for all that having such application as their raison d'etre. The aim of moral action is the good and just as the degrees of community of the regulative good is productive of a threefold distinction of practical wisdom or prudence, so it is productive of a threefold division of practical or moral philosophy.

1199. -- Agit de prudentia. Et primo ostendit quae dicatur prudentia. ... Dicit ergo primo, quod quamvis politica tam legis positiva quam executiva sit prudentia, tamen maxime videtur esse prudentia quae est circa unum tantum, scilicet circa seipsum. Et talis ratio suiipsius gubernativa retinet sibi commune nomen prudentiae; quia aliae partes prudentiae habent propria nomina, quibus nominantur. Earum enim quaedam dicitur oeconomica, idest prudentia dispensitiva domus; quaedam vero dicitur legis positio, idest prudentia ponendi leges; quaedam vero est politica, idest prudentia exequendi leges. Et quaelibet earum dividitur in consiliativum et judicativam. Oportet enim in agibilibus, primo per inquisitionem consilii aliquid invenire, secundo de inventis inventis iudicare.

In VI Ethic., lect. 7

1199. -- He treats of prudence. And first he shows what is called prudence. So first he says that although political prudence involves both enactment and execution, that is chiefly called prudence which deal with one alone, namely with oneself. And this self-governing reason retains the common name of prudence because the other kinds have their own proper names which designate them. One of these is called economics, that is, the prudence governing a household; another is called legislative, that is, the prudence involved in enacting laws; another is called political which executes the laws. Each of them is divided into the deliberative and judicative. For in things to be done, something is first hit upon by the inquiry of deliberation and then what has been found is judged.

Practical wisdom, that takes counsel and judges what a person should do, lays special claim to the common term prudence because the other kinds of it have special names of their own. Economic prudence, the wisdom that goes into running a household, looks not to the private good, but to the good shared by members of the household. Political prudence, which judges in the light of a good shared by all members of the city is higher simply because its good is more common, more comprehensive. One who can rule a city is wiser than one who can rule only a household whereas one whose governance extends only to his own good is wise only to that degree. Thomas adds an important distinction between these practical virtues and the corresponding practical sciences.

1200. -- Est autem considerandum, quod sicut supra dictum est, prudentia non est in ratione solum, sed habet aliquid de appetitu. Omnia ergo de quibus hic fit mentio, in tantum sunt species prudentiae, inquantum non in ratione sola consistunt, sed habent aliquid in appetitu. Inquantum enim sunt in sola ratione, dicuntur quaedam scientiae practicae, scilicet ethica, economica et politica.

1200. -- It should be noticed that, as has been said above, prudence is not only in reason, but has it in something of appetite. Therefore, all the things mentioned here are species of prudence insofar as they have something of appetite. But insofar as they are in reason alone, they are called practical sciences, namely, ethics, economics, and politics.

The practical judgments made with reference to the good of the individual, of the common good of the household, or of the common good of the city, will be true insofar as the one judging is appetitively ordered to those goods. The judgments of practical reason are true when there is a conformity of mind with rectified appetite. Thus, prudence presupposes the corresponding moral virtues or it simply cannot truly appraise what is to be done. After all, the judgment is that this action is what the good demands here and now and only one whose mind is guided by an appetitive orientation to that good can bring it off with any ease or certainty. Practical science operates on a general and universal level and their discourse is correspondingly abstract and less constitutively affected by the condition of the thinker's appetite.

The schematic upshot of this is:

    Practical philosophy:

As for the division of speculative philosophy, this emerges as we seek to describe a possible science between the special sciences, that is, a science of being as being. The special sciences are then seen as bearing on a kind of being, e.g. being that comes about as the result of a change = physical or natural being, and being as quantified = mathematical, whether discrete as in arithmetic or continuous as in geometry.

The object of theoretical or speculative thinking, the theoretical or speculable object, has two constitutive characteristics, one which belongs to it as the object of intellect, namely, immateriality, and another which belongs to it because of the demands of science, namely, necessity. A scientific or demonstrative argument is one which derives a property of a thing from the essence of that thing. A thing having that essence cannot not have that property; it has it necessarily.

If immateriality and necessity are the formally constitutive notes of the theoretical object, formal variations in these constituents will be productive of different sciences. That is, insofar as the theoretical object is differently related to matter and motion, there will be different theoretical sciences. The necessary is that which cannot be otherwise and thus cannot change. That is why, motion is given along with matter as that from which the theoretical object must be removed, abstracted, distinguished, separated. [Thomas uses each of these verbs]. How will such degrees of removal be discerned?

We look to the mode of definition. Where there are formally different manners of defining, with respect to removal or abstraction from matter and motion, there will be formally different sciences. Why should definition exercise so crucial a role in typifying the discursive movement of a science? Because the essence or nature of the subject is captured in the definition that figures as middle term in the argument establishing that something is a property of that subject.

There are some things, Thomas observes -- and here he is following Aristotle as well as Boethius -- which require sensible matter not only in order to exist but also in order to be defined. Natural or physical things have matter as an essential component of them; they could not be what they are without it. But how then can we say what they are without including matter and then what becomes of separation or abstraction from matter as a condition of intellectual knowing? Individual things are made up of this singular matter. This man has this flesh and these bones. But when we say what a man is, while we must mention matter -- flesh and bones -- in order to accurately state what he is, it is not this flesh and these bones, but flesh and bones that we mention. That is, what is common to the singular. We remember that the immateriality of intellection was established in precisely this way, that the human mind knows physical things in an immaterial manner, universally. The definitions of physical objects, in summary, contain common or universal sensible matter, but not of course singular matter.

There are other things which, though they exist only in sensible matter, can be considered apart from and defined without sensible matter. Thus the line, the circle and the number 7 are defined without any mention of weight, temperature, color or any of the other notes of sensible matter. To consider a triangle without sensible properties does not commit us to the view that there exist triangles in the way in which they are defined and studied in plane geometry. They enjoy an abstract or ideal existence but do not increase the inventory of substantive things in the world. [Some have thought that there are counterparts outside of the mind of triangles, lines and numbers, but insofar as they do this because we so define them, Thomas thinks Aristotle was quite right to see this as a confusion of the way we think of things and the way they exist.]

Metaphysics, as we have seen, will be distinguishable from natural science and mathematics insofar as there are things which are both defined without any sensible matter and which exist apart from sensible matter. These are the so-called separate substances. Can we say that the subject of metaphysics is separate substance? Not quite. For reasons touched on in the lectures and to which we shall return, metaphysics needs a subject which permits the slow and careful attainment of clarity separate substance. Separate subject may be called the great object of metaphysics in the sense of that we principally and chiefly wish to know. After all, separate substance is a synonym for the divine, and the whole of philosophy is ordered to such knowledge as we can achieve of the divine. The subject of metaphysics, accordingly, is said to be those things which exist without matter and thus can be defined without matter, with the hurried addition that this is ambiguous and covers [a] that which sometimes but not always exist apart from matter, e.g. being, substance, cause, etc., and [b] things which always exist apart from sensible matter, e.g. God and the angels. It is [a] that is the subject of metaphysics and [b] that is the cause of the subject of metaphysics.

For now, we can complete our schematic presentation of philosophy thus:



      Natural philosophy



Suggested Reading Assignment

One of the lessons in my course on the Introduction to Moral Philosophy [Lesson 2] is based on a close reading of a text from the Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 14, 1. 16. You can gain access to that on the web site or, if not, find it in a copy of the Summa.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write a few pages on the way in which the speculative is divided from the practical and the way in which practical sciences are distinguished from moral virtues.


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