Two Difficulties in Knowing

There are two reasons why acquiring true knowledge of the world is difficult. If we remember that human knowledge involves both the intellect and the object thereof, we see two potentials for failure. One is that the object itself is difficult to know; the other is that there is some failing on the part of our knowing power, i.e. our intellect.

Difficulty from the object itself: Plato and many of the pre-socratics agreed that the sensible world was composed of things that were constantly changing. Matter, motion, time, etc. all contribute to the indeterminacy of an object. The more that an object is indeterminate, the less it is knowable. The mind knows being, and being is opposed to becoming. Therefore, inasmuch as an object is becoming something else, a state all material substances share, it cannot be perfectly known.

Difficulty from the intellect: Conversely, it is not the case that we know the immaterial and insensible perfectly merely because they lack matter and motion. We know this because if this were true than that which is most knowable in itself would be most knowable to us; we would have direct knowledge of the immaterial. Humans do not possess this.

Between these, the second difficulty is the chief one. The human soul is the act of a body, it cannot know without the body, meaning without sensation. Therefore we are limited to direct knowledge only of the sensible and bodily. These things are the least knowable things (see the first difficulty), so we are naturally inclined to have knowledge of the least knowable and cannot have direct knowledge of that which is most knowable in itself. The human intellect, therefore, is the lowest of intellects.

The nature of our knowledge of immaterial and sensible things cannot be identical the the nature of our knowledge of the bodily and sensible.


Formal Apologies

Plato posited the Forms, the immaterial ideas of which the things we encounter in our terrestrial existence are mere instances. It is because of Forms that we are able to acquire true knowledge, for true knowledge is knowledge of the Forms. As perfectly separate and immaterial, the Forms are that which we define when we seek to give definition. No sensible object can fulfill this role because all material things are changing and imperfect. Our knowledge of things cannot be like this, so our knowledge cannot, properly speaking, be of such things.

St. Thomas sees this argument as reliant upon a premise which is not, in fact, true. The premise is this:

Something has the same mode of being as actually existing and as an object of knowledge.

What does this premise imply, logically speaking? Only this, that as we know, so things are. The intellect abstracts the universal from the particular and the mathematical from the sensible, therefore there are actual separate and abstract forms of particular things and actually existing mathematical entities which are independent from sensible reality.

St. Thomas does not think that this is a justified inference. Yes, the intellect knows by abstraction, but it is not necessary that this reflect reality as it is, meaning as it is apart from knowing beings. The way we know things does not correspond to the way in which they exist. The intellect understands universals and mathematical objects apart from singular and sensible things, but the separateness, universality, and immateriality that constitute this knowledge are modes of our understanding. They are not the modes under which the objects of our knowledge actually exist.

This argument is predicated upon a different assumption than Plato's:

Everything that exists in something else exists there according to the mode of the recipient.

St. Thomas Aquinas, ora pro nobis.


The Objection from Progress

A very common objection to the philosophical enterprise among contemporary critics is what I will tentatively call the Objection from Progress. The objection is that if philosophy were truly a science, then its history would at least partially resemble the history of other sciences, meaning that it would begin crudely as men were first exploring its existence and implications, and with the passage of time it would develop through breakthrough, discovery, paradigm shifts, etc. Now philosophy's history does not look like this at all, therefore it is not a science or even a source of meaningful knowledge.

But is this true? Before the revolution that is modern philosophy came about, beginning officially with Descartes, many philosophers did see philosophical history in a way similar to the way men view sciences like physics today.

The first philosopher to give a comprehensive history of the development of philosophy was Aristotle, who considered himself as progressing beyond what came before. His history of philosophy began with Thales, who posited water as the ultimate principle of all things. Then Anaximenes and Diogenes posited air as the more fundamental principle. Hippasus and Heraclitus thought fire to be the cause of all things. Following these, Empedocles said that all three were principles of being, along with earth, and that it is through the unification and separation of these four elements that the things of our world come to be. After Empedocles come the atomists Democritus and Leucippus. They thought that the world was composed of atoms, or indivisible bodies, and empty space (so as not to make the world one continuous whole being) and that these atoms were arranged differently according to shape and position, The last school before Plato is that of the Pythagoreans who offered number as the source of all things. There is a relation between the teachings of the Pythagoreans  and Plato inasmuch as number approaches formal causality, which Plato was the first to fully articulate.

This is a very rough introduction to the history of western philosophy given by Aristotle. Putting aside monists like Parmenides who denied coming-to-be altogether, there is one theme that runs through this crude, embryonic, underdeveloped beginning to philosophical speculation: until Plato it is all materialist.


Two Motions in Change

Both the material and efficient cause relate the formal and final cause as potency relates to act. Material generation seeks to achieve some formal determination, which just means that it seeks to actually become something. The final cause stands at the end of a process began by the efficient cause, and is that for which the efficient cause acts.


Goddness Itself II

A thing acts in virtue of its nature, and it acts for the sake of its own perfection. Perfection, then, is what is desirable, and something is only desired inasmuch as it grants some end or perfection. However, some ends can only be had to the exclusion of others, meaning that one form entails the privation of another form. This is how a creature may desire evil, not in itself but inasmuch as it is related to some good. In other words, evil is only a principle of action and desire per accidens. Only good can be a principle per se.

Evil cannot be a first principle.


Goodness Itself I

Potency, or that which can be, is the subject of both form, or act, and privation.

Evil is essentially the privation of some perfection belonging to a nature.

Therefore, potency is the proper subject of evil.

That which lacks potency, then, cannot be the subject of any evil.

God is Pure Act, meaning he does not contain any potency within Himself.

Therefore, God cannot be the subject of any evil.  


Unnatural Relations VII

"The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organizational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available, finds its internalization, its inner representation in the relation of the individual self to the roles and characters of social life.

This bifurcation is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies and one which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their own internal political debates. Those debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live in one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists."

- Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue pp. 34-35