In which I stayed up too late

In which I stayed up too late citing Aquinas and Locke,

and could really have used the sleep,

and some dinner.


In the sections of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that are dedicated to empirical science, Locke shows at length how the whole scholastic method of philosophy is intrinsically hostile to empirical science. He was no fool; he knew at whose works he was really aiming. And while I, like you, have made the journey from nominalism to realism, I think we can have realism without the scholastic method of philosophy, and if we value empirical science we must do so.

In short, you seem to think the only really important fight is between Aquinas and Augustine, who occupies the more militantly anti-rationalist space on Aquinas’ metaphysical “Right,” to use a political metaphor. But there is also space on Aquinas’ metaphysical “Left,” and the question between you and I is whether the golden mean lies where Aquinas is, or further to his Left.

(source: Et Seq. | Hang Together)

I’m just struggling to understand your stake in all of this, Greg.  I do understand that Locke had to make choices in a pretty highly charged environment, and we both have friends who have to do the same, but I really don’t see how that figures into a general understanding of their place in the history of ideas.

More to the point, I’m not sure why we’re discussing this when the salient fact remains that there is no significant difference between “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act” and “Kicking Unborn Child Act” to discuss; it makes no difference what level of medical knowledge you have, if you are committed to ignoring it to save a false principle.

From my perspective, Augustine and Aquinas are high points in an unfolding of Christian understanding of all things; Augustine’s work was perhaps the most developed expression of the relationship of divine revelation to all human knowing available, and the most tightly integrated with the period from Christ through the great Councils recognized by all Christians, and the most capable in using secular/pagan categories of understanding and rhetoric to relate revelation to all areas of thought and life.

There is a vulnerability in the tradition after Augustine, as there always is after a seminal thinker achieves a durable synthesis:  reduction to a flawed, less-than-the-reality-discussed, syllabus of rote points.  In the case of Augustine, the achievement and limitations of Boethius in transmitting the Platonic elements of the tradition combined with Augustine’s own Platonic antecedents and stylistic preferences.  (We also have to include the popularity of Dionysius the Aeropagite [pseudo-Dionysius] and the constant inroads of Gnostic/Manichaean/Paulician/Bogomil/Cathar heresy, as well.)  The difficulty in tying the Platonic tradition down–of recapturing the synthesis that seemed possible when reading Augustine–was the lack of articulation with reality.  As a result, unbalanced secularization or spiritualization threatened the effort to articulate divine truth with human lived experience in every area of life–politics, medicine, cosmology, sanctification, agriculture, etc.

What Aquinas achieved, I am convinced, was to recover Augustine from that reduction–to defend against that vulnerability to dualistic misinterpretation–by judicious application of Aristotle.  Aristotle had improved on Plato precisely by better articulating the junctures of world/mind, matter/form, real/ideal; he made it “philosophical” to build up an understanding of real things from observations of their properties.

Aquinas was not a scientist, himself, nor primarily concerned with such knowledge.  Nobody would claim that he was.  Albert the Great, his mentor, was profoundly interested in such knowledge, and defends empirical study, but spent his career bringing all the knowledge already recorded in Aristotle forward to a Western Europe that had been groping about for some sufficiently rich understanding of the world.

I see no reason to conclude that Aquinas believed himself to have advanced a best or final method of primary research, either.  He proposed his greatest synthesis, the Summa, as a guide for the education of those who were being sent to preach down heresy and bring Christian teaching out of confusion.  In it, he clearly makes room for significant bodies of learning which, though not so finally significant as theology, were nonetheless each possessed of their own integral principles, and not to be merely vandalized by ill-considered proofs.

What Aquinas did, though, was to set out the synthesis that preserved and enlarged the Augustinian synthesis, and in so doing he bequeathed Western thought a functioning framework for using human reason (including observation) as an efficient tool of understanding without disconnecting it from revelation in a way that makes revealed truth become private/irrelevant, anti-realistically “higher,” or subject to endless deferral of meaning.  To the extent that empirical method is a means of achieving that end, I can see no evidence that Aquinas would oppose it.  More to the point, even if by his own personal and political circumstances he would be goaded into suspicion by this or that, I can look at the Summa and say that he definitely should not oppose it.

Put differently:  would you prefer the spirituality of Joachim of Fiore or the early judgments of Stephen Tempier had carried the day, or Aquinas?  Because until Aquinas successfully defended the mendicants and an orthodox application of Aristotle, those were the live options.  Christian understanding of truth hangs by slender threads over and over in church history.  And after that defense, you have Siger arguing “double truth” from Averroes, and sending us all the way to the extremes of the upper/lower story division; and this is all in the lifetime of Aquinas.

Now, to the extent that subsequent empirical method was able to refine our understanding because we could understand that knowledge of things and knowledge of words together integrated with reasoning in general and moved toward the end while revelation assists, crowns, and hastens us toward that same end, it is doing something that Aquinas labored to define and defend.  And to the extent that subsequent empirical method takes short-cuts by dismissing metaphysical and moral consequences out of hand, it damns souls while sometimes healing bodies.  I don’t know that we have yet figured out how to draw that line, but I know that we do have to draw it–and Aquinas will help (and Locke may, too).

Resurrection means new eyes.

If thine eye offend thee…

I think Locke wanted much that Aquinas wanted, insofar as concord is concerned; and I think that Locke did a remarkable job of excavating many of the same insights from beneath several centuries of decadent theorizing and political turmoil.  I think that it is profoundly regrettable that metaphysics had decayed so badly from Aquinas to Locke that Locke has to dig himself out from under so much rationalism to one side, Platonism to the other, with materialism poised to swoop.  I think it’s unfortunate that Locke’s method (which you lay out in your book) is so vulnerable to abuse by the likes of Hume, and that we can heal that by reaffirming that things–focal among them the body of the Incarnate Son–are the proper objects of the understanding, even though “for the intellect to understand actually its proper object, it must of necessity turn to the phantasms [IDEAS] in order to perceive the universal nature existing in the individual. But if the proper object of our intellect were a separate form; or if, as the Platonists say, the natures of sensible things subsisted apart from the individual; there would be no need for the intellect to turn to the phantasms whenever it understands.”  (What do you think of Ashworth on this articulation?  I’m scrambling to fill in my Locke gaps, and wish I had time to annotate the Essay with Aquinas parallels.)

But I think I can be more specific, still.  Take this passage from the Essay about “essence” for an example, edited and with emphasis added:

Secondly, the learning and disputes of the schools having been much busied about genus and species, the word essence has almost lost its primary signification: and instead of the real constitution of things, has been almost wholly applied to the artificial constitution of genus and species. It is true, there is ordinarily supposed a real constitution of the sorts of things; and it is past doubt, there must be some real constitution, on which any collection of simple ideas co-existing must depend. But it being evident, that things are ranked under names into sorts or species, only as they agree to certain abstract ideas, to which we have annexed those names: the essence of each genus, or sort, comes to be nothing but that abstract idea, which the general, or sortal (if I may have leave so to call it from sort, as I do general from genus) name stands for. And this we shall find to be that which the word essence imports in its most familiar use. These two sorts of essences, I suppose, may not unfitly be termed, the one the real, the other nominal essence.


§ 17. Concerning the real essences of corporeal substances, (to mention these only) there are, if I mistake not, two opinions. The one is of those, who using the word essence for they know not what, suppose a certain number of those essences, according to which all natural things are made, and wherein they do exactly every one of them partake, and so become of this or that species. [i.e., Platonists] The other, and more rational opinion, is of those who look on all natural things to have a real, but unknown constitution of their insensible parts; from which flow those sensible qualities, which serve us to distinguish them one from another, according as we have occasion to rank them into sorts under common denominations.

(source: The Works of John Locke, vol. 1 (An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 1) – Online Library of Liberty)

I would argue that here Locke tacks directly back toward Aquinas from his contemporaries and the High Scholastics.  Assuming that we do not take “essence” to mean “recipe,” we either mean “whatever is most precisely named by this name” or “whatever this thing named is in the most final analysis.”  The latter is the sense in which Aquinas uses “essence,” the sense seriously muddled by the later Scholastics (many of whom were his opponents, and wrote rival commentaries on Aristotle as the means of their opposition, among whom some like Scotus were more widely used down to Locke’s time).

For Aquinas, form inheres in matter (see this extended discussion from one of his lesser works, as always noting the objection/sed contra/respondeo form), so that “this man” is the indicated matter correctly identified as having (male) human form, where “what makes a man a man” is the form of a man [whatever that turns out to be upon inquiry], and “what makes this thing this thing” is the matter of this [supposed] man, and “what makes this man this man” is the essence of this man (always assuming this man exists).  Now, what we know is “this man,” but from knowledge of many men we may build up a mental picture of “what makes a man a man,” or we may be given authoritative information or divine revelation about “what makes a man a man,” such that we may (should) conclude that for every man “what makes this man this man” is some actuality in which they all participate; if God created every human being “in His image” and willed to make them “partakers of the divine nature,” and if Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” then it is hardly surprising to think that there is more to the Creator’s final determination of “what makes this man this man” than the sensible properties of matter and form in the individual.  (And it is just this analysis that goes haywire after Scotus.)

Empirical inquiry looks at the matter (or at least sifts the sensuous manifold) in individuals whose appearance suggests commonalities of form, and undertakes to unfold formal principles from that examination.  Unless matter has formal principles such that various “this thing” clusters of matter can yield them to human minds on such examination, and unless some formal principles prove useful in some analysis more final than “this thing,” there is no significance or direction or scope for this activity.  Bacon and Locke are champions of this method of inquiry; Aquinas, even more than Locke, is the champion of the significance of their work, able to offer perduring suggestions for its direction and scope.

Locke may be understandably impatient with his Schoolmen, and I cannot prove but that he may have had historical and political reasons as well as personal ones for treating all thought from Boethius to the Cambridge Platonists as all of a piece, but on the plane of ideas he is certainly not squaring off against Aquinas in any sense that would not undermine the basic principles of the Essay itself.  Locke’s objection to his Schoolmen, here, is that to order our knowledge of things by their “unknown constitution” is malarky, and the argument seems well taken when we consider only the objects of empirical experience:

But were there no other reason against it, yet the supposition of essences that cannot be known, and the making of them nevertheless to be that which distinguishes the species of things, is so wholly useless, and unserviceable to any part of our knowledge, that that alone were sufficient to make us lay it by, and content ourselves with such essences of the sorts or species of things as come within the reach of our knowledge: which, when seriously considered, will be found, as I have said, to be nothing else but those abstract complex ideas, to which we have annexed distinct general names.

(source: The Works of John Locke, vol. 1 (An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 1) – Online Library of Liberty)

[[ N.B. Beside the present point, I also object to this passage directly:  if we accept the equivocation of “known” that turns this into a categorical dismissal, then it presupposes against authentic revelation, which could quite definitely tell us that “what makes this man this man” is, in the Creator’s final analysis or even in an analysis much more final than we are now capable of, something more than we suppose, or could correct our present understanding in ways we could later understand more fully than we have yet known–a thing which must have happened many times, or we are still very seriously confused about that “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” we thought had unfolded Himself “at sundry times and in divers manners.” ]]

Now, of course, Locke here adopts the nominalist posture, but the suppleness of his understanding is still in evidence:  he has, so to speak, smuggled a functional replica of knowledge of essences in by the back door!  Locke’s “abstract complex ideas” are themselves easily resituated in the Summa, so tidily that I have longed to make a passage-by-passage comparison of the structures Aquinas and Locke build around human knowing.  Quoth Aquinas:

Our intellect cannot know the singular in material things directly and primarily. The reason of this is that the principle of singularity in material things is individual matter, whereas our intellect, as have said above (Q[85], A[1]), understands by abstracting the intelligible species from such matter. Now what is abstracted from individual matter is the universal. Hence our intellect knows directly the universal only. But indirectly, and as it were by a kind of reflection, it can know the singular, because, as we have said above (Q[85], A[7]), even after abstracting the intelligible species, the intellect, in order to understand, needs to turn to the phantasms in which it understands the species, as is said De Anima iii, 7. Therefore it understands the universal directly through the intelligible species, and indirectly the singular represented by the phantasm.  And thus it forms the proposition “Socrates is a man.”

(source: Summa Theologica – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Thus the same colour being observed to-day in chalk or snow, which the mind yesterday received from milk, it considers that appearance alone, makes it a representative of all of that kind; and having given it the name whiteness, it by that sound signifies the same quality, wheresoever to be imagined or met with: and thus universals, whether ideas or terms, are made.

(source: The Works of John Locke, vol. 1 (An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 1) – Online Library of Liberty)

Note that Locke’s method involves no less artificiality, no less imputation of teleological agency, in Locke’s “makes it … having given it,” and that in the Essay Locke consistently involves naming and arguments from the social utility of language in his explanation of the operations of the mind.  Precisely because his goal is realistic and humane, and I think also because he has a theistic formation, Locke’s most productive explanations (as opposed to his most intense protestations) all seem to swerve nominalist reasoning back toward Aquinas from Descartes or the Platonists.  For Aquinas, though, this mediate knowledge is still knowledge of that thing (albeit the kind of knowledge we can have, being fallible and capable of willful perversion of our intellect); Locke keeps us trying to figure out whether Ideas are what we know, or what we think with, or named mental states [however they occurred]. Locke’s approach still works, however, because at bottom he insists on an inevitable correspondence of world and mind (though all Western philosophy since has pointed out how overdetermined this result is):

For the objects of our senses do, many of them, obtrude their particular ideas upon our minds whether we will or no; and the operations of our minds will not let us be without, at least, some obscure notions of them. No man can be wholly ignorant of what he does when he thinks. These simple ideas, when offered to the mind, the understanding can no more refuse to have, nor alter, when they are imprinted, nor blot them out, and make new ones itself, than a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects set before it do therein produce. As the bodies that surround us do diversely affect our organs, the mind is forced to receive the impressions, and cannot avoid the perception of those ideas that are annexed to them.

(source: The Works of John Locke, vol. 1 (An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 1) – Online Library of Liberty)

If it were not for the negations and limitations imposed by the nominalism inherited precisely from his Schoolmen, the ones who so frustrated him, he would be able to plug his correct insight back into the matrix it would more richly inhabit.  In that matrix, the fitness of world and mind natural to human creatures follows from the presumption of teleology warranted by the self-revelation of the Creator, and the fallibility and perversity that has come to be natural to fallen human creatures is neither essential nor irremediable, so that we need not insist that the environment infallibly produces impressions in the mind to understand that the world is intelligible.

It seems abundantly clear to me that, over against both the decadence of his Schoolmen and his own milieu, Locke’s effort to defend empirical method pushes his philosophy back in the direction of Aquinas, whose defense of the efficacy of reasoning from particulars is at the very least hospitable to empirical science (but not at all to bifurcating irrationalism, materialism, secularism, etc).

Which is why I don’t see the need to set Locke and Aquinas at odds at all, and I’m puzzled that you seem to think we should.

As far as I can see, we either want concord between reason and revelation, in which case we want empirical science to frame its insights in a manner appropriate to its actual scope and efficacy; or we want confrontation, in which case by all means let us use the Psalms as guides to oceanography and tell Joshua he didn’t see the sun stand still because we couldn’t do that without destroying the planet.

The problem is that we want concord in a culture that wants unconditional surrender, a culture manipulated by powers that charge us with their hostilities when we don’t capitulate in advance!