Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.


Gilson and Maritain: Still Worth Reading

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Jacques Maritain

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Aside from the Thomistic community and scholars of medieval philosophy, the names of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973; his photo is the one posted) may not be familiar to contemporary philosophers. Perhaps their names were mentioned in graduate school a few times, or perhaps students encountered them when studying for comprehensive exams. Yet despite a philosophical climate in the United States largely divided along analytic/Continental lines, Gilson and Maritain are well worth reading even if they are out of current philosophical fashion.

Gilson was one of the great historians of medieval philosophy; his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages and his classic book on Aquinas’ philosophy, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, are well worth reading today. Readers will not only find writing of beautiful clarity, something missing from so much philosophy, both analytic and Continental, today, but also an excellent survey of both medieval philosophy as a whole and of Aquinas’ philosophy in particular. Gilson’s greatest contribution to general philosophy is probably his book on epistemology, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which, in attacking Transcendental Thomism, presents a strong case for direct realism. He also wrote books on St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, aesthetics, and the relationship between Abelard and Heloise. Whether or not a person accepts his arguments, reading Gilson’s writings is a pleasure, something to be done over a cup of Earl Gray on a rainy day. His arguments may not be in symbolic form, but they are careful, thorough, and beautiful—I know of no other word that is fitting. If truth and beauty are Transcendentals that ultimately have the same extension in God, this may bode well for the soundness of Gilson’s arguments. Gilson also has a book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, that is relevant to contemporary debates over whether there is teleology in the evolutionary process.

Maritain is less clear, but he is a deep thinker who will reward the patience of the reader. His classic work on epistemology is The Degrees of Knowledge, a book that argues for different epistemological approaches to science, philosophy, art, and revealed religion. Although I disagree with his (and Gilson’s) sharp separation between metaphysics and the physical and social sciences (both were, ironically, close to positivism in their philosophy of science), the idea that different disciplines require different ways of knowing preserves the ability of science, metaphysics, art, and religion to present different aspects of the truth about reality.

Maritain’s work on metaphysics focuses on the “intuition of being,” the sense of utter contingency when we realize that we are held out of nothingness as if by a thread. This intuition of our radical contingency and of the radical contingency of all things is the beginning of the road toward the noncontingent, necessary being, God.

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is the finest book on aesthetics I have ever read. Maritain’s connection of Aquinas’ notion of “connaturality,” a “knowledge by love” (person-person, person-animal, person-plant, person-thing) with the artist’s intuition of the fullness of reality is profound. It is similar to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” and “instress” as well as with Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. Maritain was also more open than Gilson to abstraction in art.

Maritain’s ethics and political philosophy were based on natural law theory, which puts it in tension with both classical liberalism and social democratic liberalism in contemporary American. Some forms of classical liberalism would accept “natural rights”—how close that idea is to “natural law” is widely disputed among political philosophers. Maritain used natural law to defend the inherent dignity and worth of the individual (rather than use rationality alone, as Kant did). He helped draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Good philosophy is never out of date. Although the works of Gilson and Maritain are older works, philosophers should be open to reading them. Better yet, they should read and study them—both philosophers leave much food for thought.

The Warren-Flew Debate: Thirty-Five Years Later


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The Warren-Flew debate on the existence of God took place from September 20-23, 1976, on the campus of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. Affirming the existence of God was Dr. Thomas B. Warren of the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee. Denying the existence of God was Dr. Antony G. N. Flew of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Both men have passed on now, but to this day that debate has influenced me–and is one of the main reasons I am a philosopher today.

Even as a child I was tormented by doubts about my Christian faith, doubts that continue to haunt me today. In junior high and in high school I wanted to defend the existence of God against atheists, at the time focusing on science. Although I do not agree with my position then, I fell in love with the young earth creationism of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and the members of the Institute for Creation Research in California. I wanted to get a degree in one of the sciences–my childhood dream was to do what Hugo Ross is doing today–get a Ph.D. in astronomy and defend the Christian faith. Thank God I later recognized that young earth creationism is false–but by then I had an alternative field–philosophy. And it was the book on the Warren-Flew debate that led me into the field.

Memory fails me regarding when I received the book–perhaps it was a Christmas present. I was in the middle of the ninth grade. The first thing that impressed me about the book was its dedication by the publishers–“To all who love truth and are willing to make the search to find it.” It was truth I had always sought–what was and is important is that God exists in truth, in extramental reality. As I read on, I believed (and still do) that Dr. Warren got the better of Dr. Flew in the debate. Perhaps Dr. Flew was not ready for an American style of all-out debate rather than a quiet discussion of the issues. In any case, I admired Warren’s chart of “Chinese Boxes,” each of which Flew had to know to know that God does not exist.  The idea of consciousness arising from that which has no consciousness or intelligence from the non-intelligent still seems fantastic to me today.

This is not to say that Dr. Warren did not equivocate–many of his arguments are vulnerable to attack. Warren’s pseudo-dilemma about which came first, a human mother or a human baby, and how it is impossible for a nonhuman mother to bear a human baby misses the point of evolution. Flew noted this weakness but did not do an adequate job of refuting Warren’s point. Later, Wallace Matson in his debate with Warren offered an effective argument from an analogy with language: “When did Latin become French.” Just as it is impossible to say at what exact point Vulgar Latin ended and Old French began, so it may not be possible to determine when an ape-like primate ended and a human being was born. Despite these flaws, I admire Dr. Warren’s use of logic, his consistent evidential apologetic position, and his willingness to stick to his guns and debate the leading atheists of his day. Reading that book first gave me a love for philosophy that remained in the back of my mind and finally came to fruition when I took some philosophy classes at David Lipscomb University (although my major was Biblical languages) and especially when I took Dr. Harold Hazelip’s classes in the philosophy of religion at Harding Graduate School of Religion, Dr. Warren’s old school. By the time I entered Vanderbilt University for an M.A. in Religion, most of my courses were in philosophy as well as my thesis. By then the course was set, and I thought of Dr. Warren and his debate the day I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Georgia.

If Dr. Warren were alive today, he would be disappointed in me–he was an old-fashioned believer in the New Testament as a constitution-like document with a set pattern for doctrine and practice that he believed was only fulfilled in the present day through Churches of Christ. In 1983 the paper The Firm Foundation published Warren’s article, “The Only Christians” that argued that the only Christians were members of the Churches of Christ. The article contained a great deal of equivocation on the term “Church of Christ.” Sadly, Dr. Warren would think, if he were still living, that I am on the road to hell. He was man consistent with his convictions to the end of his life, and I admire that. But I believe that it was proper to offer a tribute to Dr. Warren for being, unknowingly, a major inspiration for my decision to go into the field of philosophy–and I thank him.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Analytic Philosophy


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Like most philosophers in the United States, I was trained in a department that had a majority of philosophers in the analytic, or Anglo-American, tradition. This tradition focuses on careful breaking down (analysis) of philosophical problems, and originally focused on problems stemming from language. Either it tried to clarify language in terms of some ideal language based on the language of symbolic logic (e.g., the early Bertrand Russell), or else it focused on the ways we use language in ordinary contexts (e.g., the later Ludwig Wittgenstein). But after World War II, the analytic tradition has returned to traditional problems in philosophy: the existence and nature of God, the nature of cause and effect, the ultimate structure of reality. But its approach is careful, often using the tools of symbolic logic as an aid in clarifying reasoning.

The chief strength of the analytic tradition is its emphasis on careful reasoning. This pushes out a great deal of b.s. and avoids the worst pitfalls of the Continental tradition. One big advantage is that most analytic philosophers avoid the moral and epistemological relativism of some Continental philosophers such as the postmodernists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. While there are exceptions such as Richard Rorty, the fact that the name of an exception has to be mentioned shows how firmly the analytic tradition has opposed incoherence. The tradition has increased in philosophical breadth, especially since the 1970s, and is now dealing with the issues traditional philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas tackled.

The chief strength of the analytic tradition today is also its chief drawback–it tries too much to model its methodology on physical science, especially mathematical physics. Many articles by analytic philosophers make use of so much symbolic logic that they look more like mathematical treatises than philosophical articles. It is doubtful that such articles will have any lasting effect on philosophy in the future–they certainly have no impact on the general public. Mathematical logic has its uses, and some articles are helped insofar as the logic clarifies reasoning. But logic can also be used to obscure faulty premisses–a deductive argument can be valid but unsound due to unsound assumptions. Mathematical logic can also be used to show off. Some analytic philosophers do not respect any philosopher whose paper does not contain “alphabet soup.” Great philosophers such as William James are mocked for being sloppy by people whose intellect pales in comparison with James’. The analytic tradition has an arrogance about it that is disconcerting. But insofar as it protect philosophy from the poison of postmodern relativism that has infected the other humanities, I prefer it to remain the majority school of philosophy in the U.S., the U.K., and Scandinavia.