Why Some Consider Aquinas’s Use of Reason Autonomous

The ambience of faith within which the believer engages in philosophy has seemed to some to entail that the believer cannot truly engage in philosophy at all.  This criticism is rooted in quite modern notions of how philosophy begins.  Unlike the assumptions … that the philosopher begins with truths everyone already knows – since Descartes the initial task of the philosopher has been taken to be the rinsing from his mind of all prior knowledge claims.  Various methods were devised to carry this out, such as methodic doubt, and the suggestion is that philosophizing is presuppositionless.  The philosopher ideally is uninfluenced by his upbringing and culture; he is an isolated mind, and little else, to which somehow questions occur.  (Ralph McInerny, Aquinas, p. 32)

McInerny’s point, that since Descartes “Philosophy” has come to mean something much different, is an idea that modern Christians need to keep in mind when traversing Aquinas’s thought for neat ideas on apologetics and evangelism.  Those who see Aquinas as forsaking God’s authority for autonomous reason are reading, anachronistically, a modern definition of Philosophy back into St. Thomas.  As I mentioned in the last post, Aristotle did not believe that he was reasoning autonomously.  Aquinas, in agreeing with certain of Aristotle’s first principles was not giving up his own but was recognizing that even the natural man can get some things right.  He was not doing Philosophy as we know it but “divine science.”

Good Article on Aquinas’s Theory of Knowledge

In a previous post I quoted Fergus Kerr who noted that Aquinas’s epistemology presupposed theology. Because the Christian God created the world and creatures in order for them both to interact on an essential level the world can be known by man.  Norman Kretzmann’s article “Infallibility, Error, and Ignorance” (in the 1992 Supplementary Volume 17 of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy) is the most thorough and clear treatment of Aquinas’s epistemology that I have come across. He places the Thomistic theory of knowledge within the camp of reliabilism – that the mind is a reliable tool for discovering truth outside of the mind.  He notes that Aquinas did not cease to follow Aristotle in his philosophy of knowledge but:

For Aquinas, the theological component of his theistic reliabilism naturally comes first […] The component of cognitive reliability in theistic reliabilism could reasonably be said to be implied by a few basic theological doctrines which Aquinas of course argued for, quite independently of their implications for epistemology:  God, the creator, is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good; and part of his purpose in creating is the manifestation of himself to rational creatures. From those central doctrines alone it seems to follow that skepticism is frivolous – that human beings must have been created with reliable access to created reality and with reliable faculties for the processing of the reliably acquired data. (Kretzmann, pp. 162, 163)

These assertions on Kretzmann’s part are immediately backed up by Aquinas’s own language:

The immediate purpose of the human body is the rational soul and its operations, since matter is for the sake of the form, and instruments are for the sake of the agent’s operations.  I maintain, therefore, that God designed the human body in the pattern best suited to that form and those operations. (ST Ia.91.3c)

Therefore, because God designed the human body with the rational soul as an instrument for comprehension then truths outside of the mind can be known, and thus man can have infallible knowledge. Coming from a Reformed perspective, and Van Tilian at that, this relationship between theology and epistemology in St. Thomas, as a friend of mine responded to me the other day, sounds “presuppositional”. I’d recommend this article (although it may be hard to find) by Kretzmann to anyone interested, especially newbies like myself.