Thomas sees no gap between mind and world, thought and things, that needs to be bridged, either by idealist/empiricist representations or (as with Barth) by divine intervention.  His view of how our minds are related to the world is interwoven with his doctrine of God:  no epistemology without theology.  But his (perhaps naive) confidence that things are indeed as they seem, that there is no veil between the world and our minds, springs from, indeed is identical with, his belief in the world’s belonging to God. (Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas, pp. 30, 31)

4 responses to “No Epistemology Without Theology”

  1. Jacob Aitken Avatar

    Can one call Thomas a realist, or is it more complex than that?

  2. Eric Parker Avatar


    He’s usually called a “moderate realist.” Of course it is more complex with the particular man than the general category. He considered the intellect to have only direct knowledge of universals – particulars are known indirectly. The senses receive data passively through simple apprehension because the soul can’t be affected by matter. The generic being of a thing is abstracted from particulars. We know “man” because of this man or these men. This is sometimes termed an epistemology of participation rather than a Cartesian subjectivism. Because matter can’t enter into our minds it must be abstracted from material things. Because matter is the individualizing principle only the universal can be known by the intellect. But it is known through sensation and abstraction not divine illumination. Of course the universals are real in the sense that they exist as ideas in God’s mind.

    Copleston expounds on Aquinas’s thought:

    “As embodied intellect, as tabula rasa, the natural object of which is the material essence, the intellect does not and cannot by its own power apprehend God directly; but sensible objects, as finite and contingent, reveal their relation to God, so that the intellect can know that God exists.” (History of Philosophy, Vol: 2, Augustine to Scotus, p. 393)

    Hence his disagreement with Anselm’s “ontological argument.” The soul is naturally directed to being but when embodied it is directed toward sensible being without losing any previous faculty. The whole Medieval problem with “ultra-realism” was related to the problem of the transmission of original sin. Odo of Tornai used realist arguments to defend traducianism. Copleston mentions this, so does Kerr. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. Eric Parker Avatar

    In his own words:

    “Now we apprehend the individual through the senses and the imagination. And, therefore, for the intellect to understand actually its proper object, it must of necessity turn to the phantasms 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.” (Aquinas, ST. I, Q. 84, a. 7 )

    The “moderate” nature of his thought lies in the fact that forms are not known through reminiscence but by abstracting the universal principle from the particular thing.

  4. Jacob Aitken Avatar

    Cool. Thank you.

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