Lesson 2: Choosing an Epistemological Approach to Human Experience

1) Ours is a pluralistic culture in which there are many approaches to reality even among scientists. Hence it is helpful to make at least a broad classification of such approaches so as to be able to identify their different assumptions. This applies especially to reading works in theology, since different approaches to secular knowledge will affect the author's way of interpreting Gospel revelation. The most basic way to classify such approaches is by the criteria of truth that is used in each, since this affects the value of every conclusion an author makes. To identify and classify such criteria is the work of what its commonly called "epistemology." Every art and science has its own epistemology, since obviously its way of verifying its conclusions (or falsifying other hypotheses) must be part of its own foundations. It pertains to what is called "metaphysics," however, to compare and give a general critique of all these special epistemologies.

2) On the basis of difference in general epistemology three major traditions can be identified in the history not only of western but of world thought. (a) There is the difference between materialist and spiritualist worldviews. For materialists all truth must reduce to what can be observed by our senses or inferred from such observations to be material. Hence usually materialists recognize natural science as the ultimate science and the most reliably true form of human knowledge. Among the Greeks, the Stoics and Epicureans were materialists and in India also the Carvaka School. Today materialism is supported by the success of modern science and widely accepted by secularists. At the other extreme is (b) the spiritualist world that defends the existence of non-material or spiritual reality and either denies the reality of the sensible, material world or reduces it to an illusory or shadowy existence or at least puts no trust in the certainty of knowledge based on the senses. This was the position taken among the Greeks by Parmenides and by Plato. Plato's views were systematized by the Neo-Platonists such as Plotinus (third century AD) and strongly influenced Christian theology. Neo-Platonism holds that certain knowledge can be derived only from innate ideas recovered by introspection.

3) The middle position (c) between the extremes of materialism and spiritualism was taken by a pupil of Plato, Aristotle. He rejected Plato's innate ideas and agreed with the materialists that all valid human knowledge must be derived from and be tested by sense experience. On the other hand he also rejected the materialists denial of the existence of spiritual reality, because he argued that natural science based on sense experience demonstrates the existence of a First Cause that is spiritual and of a human intelligence that is also spiritual, although it depends on the First Cause for its existence and requires the body and its senses to arrive at truth. Thus for Aristotle natural science is basic to all human knowledge but it establishes its own limits by showing that reality includes both material and spiritual beings. Hence he developed metaphysics as the study of both material and spiritual beings and their relationships, while recognizing that our knowledge of spiritual reality is only analogical, since it is based on reasoning from sensible effects to their ultimate immaterial causes.

4) When Christianity moved from its Jewish, Old Testament origins into Greco-Roman (Hellenistic) culture, Christian theologians had to interpret the Bible in terms of Greek thought. Since they could not accept the materialism of the Stoics and Epicureans, and since at that time the middle-of-the-road thought of Aristotle was little known (his major works were lost for many years) Christian theologians had to work with Platonism and Neo-Platonism. They could not, of course, deny the Biblical teaching that the Creator had made the material world "very good" (Gn 1:31) nor the bodily Incarnation and the Resurrection nor could they accept the Platonic belief in the cycle of "reincarnation of the soul." Yet the negative Platonic attitude to the body and the notion that truth can be arrived at only by introspection had a distorting tendency on Christian thought throughout Patristic (to about 600 AD) and Monastic (600 to 1200 AD) theology.

5) In the West in the medieval universities (1200 AD and after) Aristotle first became known through the Islamic Arab theologians who were Neo-Platonic in tendency. Due to the major influence of St. Augustine this Platonized use of Aristotle persisted in the Franciscan school with Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, and Ockham. The Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas first broke with Platonic epistemology. Aquinas' use of Aristotle's philosophy made it possible for him to give a more adequate account of certain essential Christian convictions: (a) God as creator and the reality of creation (the real distinction of essence and existence in creatures, their identity in God); (b) a non-dualistic anthropology; (c) "Grace perfects nature." In the Late Medieval period the Franciscan William of Ockham introduced Nominalism rooted in a Platonic epistemology and a radical Aristotelian logicism that had a fideistic tendency, that is, a gap between philosophy and revealed theology. This prepared the way for a radical Neo-Platonism (the Dominican Meister Eckhart) and the Protestant Reformation and religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and among Protestant sects. Protestantism generally rejected the use of philosophy in theology and returned to a radical and usually fundamentalist Biblicism. In the Catholic Counter-Reformation led by the Jesuits, Francisco Suarez, SJ, proposed a reconciliation of Thomist Aristotelianism and Scotistic Platonism, but one that was epistemology and metaphysically more Platonic. In this conception metaphysics becomes all of philosophy and is prior to all the other sciences that simply are its applications. With the Cartesian Leibnitz this Scotistic conception of metaphysics prevailed until attacked by Kant, but tended to color the Neo-Scholastic revival of Thomism.


Read: Bonsor, Athens and Jerusalem, pp. 3-100. Note diagram on p. 2.


1) What is meant by the "epistemologies of the special sciences" and "metaphysical epistemology?"

2) What are the extremes of materialist and Platonic epistemologies?

3) What was Aristotle's "middle ground" between these extremes?

4) Why was Christian theology Platonic until the rise of the medieval universities?

5) How has Platonism served Christian theology? How has it distorted it?


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