Lesson 9: The Historical and Ontological Unification of Modern Knowledge

1) Today human knowledge is highly fragmented and we seek some way "to get in all together" in order to have a unified world view and value-system that gives meaning to our lives and guides us to live better and more realistically. This is what is meant by wisdom, the intellectual virtue that combines both insight and systematic scientific thinking into a whole view of reality. In the Platonic and idealistic epistemologies this was sought by reducing all truth to one supreme idea, the Idea of the One or Good. In the epistemology of materialism and empiricism, so dominant today, this unification of knowledge is sought by reducing all knowledge to natural science. However, since modern science with its confusedly materialist foundations is claimed to be "value-free," our value systems become various cultural constructions (Romanticism, cultural relativism) that are arbitrary. Aristotle, however, argued that knowledge cannot be reduced to a single master idea, since in fact there are many sciences and arts each with its own autonomy of principles, method, and value. Nor can it be reduced to natural science, although natural science is the first science in the epistemological order, since all our knowledge depends on sense observation because natural science demonstrates its own limits by proving that the material world has a first Immaterial Cause and that the abstract intelligence of the scientist itself cannot be merely the work of the material brain. Hence we need a First (in the sense of epistemologically ultimate, but inclusive of the other special sciences that it presupposes) Science or Theology (because it studies both material and spiritual realities as related to the God, their First Cause). Such a First Science preserves the autonomy of the special sciences but coordinates them by comparing their basic principles and concepts according to their similarities and differences (analogy). This ultimate science came to be called metaphysics (after physics or natural science). For the Platonic tradition this metaphysics was always a reduction of all disciplines to the idea of the One or Good, but for Aristotelianism it was the coordination of all the other sciences whose autonomy it defends and presupposes..

2) The Muslims such as Avicenna and Averroes and the early medieval Christians understood Aristotle's Metaphysics in a Platonizing way and in the high medieval universities the Franciscan School, especially Duns Scotus, continued this interpretation. For Scotus metaphysics is epistemologically prior to the special sciences and treats of Being as a univocal concept that includes both the finite being of creatures and the infinite being which is God. Hence the special sciences became simply applications of metaphysics that concerns Being as a genus to particular kinds of being. This was the opposite of Aristotle's view, defended by St. Thomas Aquinas, according to which metaphysics is epistemologically last and presupposes the special sciences that it coordinates under an analogical concept of Being that does not include God, who is treated in metaphysics as the first Cause or principle of Being, thus saving this view from the modern charge of Heidegger that metaphysics is an "onto-theology" that would reduce God to merely the highest degree of Being. After Scotus, William of Ockham, leader of Nominalism, drew the conclusion from this Platonizing approach to metaphysics that the existence of God as Creator cannot be proved by reason. Both Scotus and Ockham so emphasized the freedom of God that only a voluntaristic, deontological ethics was possible. This Scotistic conception of metaphysics was supported (with modifications) by the Jesuit Francisco Suarez whose work on metaphysics had wide influence. Its acceptance by Descartes and by Leibnitz has thus dominated modern philosophy among the Idealists such as Schelling and Hegel and today among Transcendental Thomists such as Karl Rahner, although it had led Kant to reject the validity of metaphysics altogether, a position then followed by the Empiricists and most Analytic Philosophers at present. In the twentieth century Thomist metaphysics was also somewhat colored by this conception of metaphysics and only now has begun to fully recover the authentic Aristotelian metaphysics as further advanced by Aquinas in regard to a more explicit understanding of God as Creator and the immortality of the human soul.

3) Since so many modern philosophers, because they are either Kantian idealists or empiricists who doubt the possibility of reason proving the existence of God, reject the possibility of a metaphysics, how do they unify our fragmented "knowledge explosion"?

The Logical Positivists thought they could do this by inventing a formal logical language that would embrace all disciplines until this was proved to be impossible by the mathematician Kurt Gödel. Consequently, the only way this unification of knowledge can be achieved without a metaphysics is by historicism. Thus Martin Heidegger tried to show that the essence of man is to be open to Being in the sense of an understanding of reality as this unfolds or is obscured by history. Following Darwin's theory of biological evolution, natural science explained all life forms as the result of a historical scenario of the "survival of the fittest." Recently quantum physics has developed a cosmology of the whole universe as a blind evolution from an initial Big Bang. Since (contrary to the idealist philosophy of Hegel and Marx) there are no laws of history as such, since natural laws only have a probabilistic working out in evolution the outcome of which is ultimately due to chance, historicism, as Heidegger realized, ultimately denies the possibility of a rational unification of knowledge and results in a kind of anti-rational mysticism similar to that of Hindu and Buddhist thought in which all finite reality is unintelligible and illusory. If we are to escape this kind of skepticism and cultural relativism we must return to a metaphysics grounded in a natural science built on the kind of foundation that Aristotle and Aquinas proposed.


Read Bonsor, Athens to Jerusalem, Chapters 10-15, pp. 101-172.


1) What is "historicism"? Illustrate the unification of knowledge by history.

2) What is the difference between an Aristotelian metaphysics and a Scotistic metaphysics?

3) Why have many modern philosophers rejected the validity of metaphysics and claim that metaphysical concepts are meaningless?

4) What is "onto-theology"?

5) How does an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics unify knowledge without a reduction of the autonomy of the special sciences and without falling into onto-theology?


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