Part II: The Theoretical Disciplines

Lesson 4: The Liberal, Hermeneutic Arts of Learning and Communication

1) Recent philosophy tends to be restricted either to an effort to clarify the language of the natural sciences (Logical Positivism) or more broadly to clarify ordinary language (Analytic Philosophy) or to be limited to the problems of the interpretation and exegesis of the various kinds of literature (Hermeneutic Philosophy, Semiotics, Critical Theory, Structuralism, Communication Theory, Deconstruction, etc.). This concern for the unavoidable ambiguity of human communication is not new in Christian theology and is especially important for ecumenical and multicultural dialogue.

2) This concern for hermeneutics (exegesis) was always very important for Christian theologians since they had to interpret the many different kinds of pre-philosophical literature found in the Bible in a more philosophical manner suited to the cultures, including our contemporary culture, that had Greek origins. St. Augustine recognized this in his important work De Doctrina Christiana in which he recommended that Christian theologians become skilled in the liberal arts that formed the basis of Greek and Roman education.

3) The traditional Seven Liberal Arts were divided into two groups: the logical Trivium (three ways) (1) arts of grammar (linguistics), (2) rhetoric (the art of persuasion or salesmanship), and (3) poetics (poetry, fiction, drama) and the mathematical Quadrivium (four ways) of (1) geometry, (2) arithmetic, (3) music (acoustics), and (4) optics. Thus the logical arts of learning and communication prepared a student to read and communicate; while the mathematical arts gave students tools for the study of natural science. These are still the basis of modern education, but are often very badly taught. Without the Trivium it is not easy to form a systematic theology based on a scholarly interpretation of the Bible or without the Quadrivium to relate theology to modern science and scholarship.

4) Aristotle developed a more exact theory of the logical arts that has become common in the theology of Aquinas. He first distinguishes the study of language ("grammar" in the traditional Trivium) from logic that deals not with language but with forms of thought. Then he distinguishes logic in this broad sense into two types of thought and expression:

(a) Poetics and rhetoric that make much use of imagery and appeal to our emotions as well as to our thoughts, such as the Psalms in the Bible. Poetics aims simply at entertainment or contemplation of the interesting and beautiful as in a poem, novel, or drama. Rhetoric, however, aims at persuasion to action as in Proverbs or the Epistles of St. Paul.

(b) Logic in the stricter sense is thought that deliberately seeks to be objective and free of emotion. This is either dialectics, that is, the logic of debate and research among various opinions and hypotheses, or demonstrative logic that seeks to prove a conclusion with certitude.

5) Aristotle denied that mathematics, as Plato thought, is a way to innate ideas of the spiritual world. He would also have denied that it is identical with logic, as Bertrand Russell tried to prove it was. Instead Aristotle considered pure mathematics a theoretical science that considers the quantity of material things but in an abstract way. He agreed, however, with Pythagoras, Plato, and modern science, that applied mathematics is a very useful tool in forming hypothetical models, but would have insisted that these models must be interpreted in concrete, physical ways to tell us about material reality.


Pierre H. Conway, O. P. and B. M. Ashley, O.P., "The Liberal Arts in St. Thomas Aquinas," The Thomist vol. 22, no. 4, 1959; also see on Internet, Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication, or Ashley, article in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967): "Education, II (Philosophy of) Historical Development, Ancient and Medieval" (5: 162-166 and "Liberal Arts," (8:646-99).


1) Explain why "fundamentalist" interpretations of the Bible or any other text run the danger of misunderstanding the author's real thought?

2) Why does rhetorical moralizing ruin a novel or drama?

3) What is the difference between a "discussion" and a "demonstration"?

4) Illustrate how a theologian uses dialectical and demonstrative modes of discourse in systematic theology?

5) Do you think theologians need to know mathematics?


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