Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge

Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge The richness and originality of Thomas Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge has been underappreciated no less by his admirers than his critics. The former consider it secondary to his teaching on cognition in general, and the latter dismiss it as scholastic triviality. Cory wishes to restore Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge to its rightful place, and to do so she must provide both its historical context and the theoretical implications it has for Aquinas’ anthropology and epistemology. Cory's basic premise is that Aquinas needed to maintain both that the intellect can know itself only by cognizing something else and that it has no explicit awareness of anything outside itself without implicit awareness of itself. To elaborate this ‘fundamental duality’ of conscious thought, Aquinas had to carefully consider the teaching of his predecessors and the debates of the day. The former included Augustine and the pseudo-Dionysius no less than Aristotle, and the latter were waged by Jean de la Rochelle and William of Auvergne in addition to Albert the Great and Bonaventure. Cory traces the debate on self-knowledge and the historical development of Aquinas's doctrine in part I of the book before entering into speculative considerations in part II. In part I, Cory shows that Aquinas took seriously the various levels of the mind's ‘self-opacity’ and their connection to his theory of self-knowledge. Some things are known in or through themselves, while other things are only reached through a process of reasoning. Aquinas pays close attention to the way the ‘I’ knows itself as a subject through agency; that is, not as a pure mind, but as a thinking, deliberating, and acting ‘I’. Similarly, selfhood is always linked to intentional, conscious thought or rather the intellect initially knows itself only as an agent constantly engaged with the extramental world. Cory is one of the few scholars who bring to the fore the subtlety of Aquinas’ thinking about how the intellect knows itself. She rightly acknowledges—and stays clear of—the sticky problems that arise if one conflates Aquinas’ teaching on the soul's status before death with its status after death. Moreover, Aquinas' disciples insist that knowledge of material entities through sensation and conceptualization is the primary mode of human cognition. Yet Aquinas also has a sophisticated teaching on how immaterial singulars such as God and angels are known apart from abstraction. In the case of self-knowledge, the trick is bringing together the fact that all human thought originates in the senses and that the immaterial human mind is inaccessible to the senses. Although other immaterial things are known to the intellect by reasoning from sensory effects, the mind is itself and should therefore be known to itself it a way distinct from—but grounded in—the way it knows material things and immaterial things other than itself. To spell out how this is possible, Aquinas carefully considered the positions of other scholars. On the one hand, there was the Augustinian legacy stemming from the De Trinitate, according to which the mind knows itself per se ipsam precisely because it is incorporeal. On the other hand, the Arabic tradition embedded self-knowledge into the soul's nature: there is an actual, non-conscious self-knowledge within the very nature of the soul. Moreover, there were the Aristotelians who insisted that the intellect is intelligible like other intelligibles: because the object and the mind are one in the act of understanding, the mind's own intelligibility depends on its reception of intelligible forms. Cory is convinced that Aquinas was able to glean a fresh approach from these traditions. He maintained that because the soul is more present to itself than it is to anything else, it cognizes itself by its essence or by itself. At the same time, he insists that all actual human self-knowledge depends on the cognition of extramental objects. The novelty of the way he reconciles these two phenomena lies in the content of self-knowledge: something, perhaps, to which his predecessors paid insufficient attention. Although somewhat elusive, the content amounts to the first-person subject-in-action knowing itself through itself as thinking x, doing y, or willing z. Part II of the book expands on the theoretical implications of Aquinas’ theory. There are different kinds of self-knowledge and each has something to tell us about the nature of the intellect. One can perceive one's own existence or perceive oneself in act. Self-knowledge can be implicit or explicit. It can be transformed into quidditive knowledge by overcoming self-opacity through philosophical inquiry. It has implications on how we view human personhood through subjectivity, agency, and memory. Cory handles all these in turn against the historical and doctrinal background she has given in part I. Throughout her discussion, Cory emphasizes that Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge cascades from the key claim that the human soul exists within a hylomorphic reality and is ‘habitually self-present and only potentially intellecting’ (p. 172). Only on this foundation can we understand the distinction between habitual self-awareness and actual self-awareness, and self-knowledge as entitative and quidditative. The soul is disposed to know all things and exists as such even apart from knowing things. But by knowing things it actualizes them as cognized entities immaterially united with the principle that cognizes them. For all the emphasis Cory places on the originality of Aquinas’ theory, she detracts from it by claiming that it ‘carves out a middle ground between Descartes and Hume’ (p. 216). The very foundations on which Aquinas’ theory is built differ from Hume's, so it can be misleading to state that ‘certain aspects of his theory resonate with Humean intuitions’ (p. 216). It would be better to dwell on the point—which Cory makes—that Aquinas takes the neo-Platonic tradition quite seriously, shaping and molding it around his own Aristotelian intuitions. Although Aquinas would certainly have had sympathy for what Descartes and Hume were trying to do, the crucial aspect of cognition's intentionality was outside the purview of Descartes, and the metaphysical identification of knower and thing known would have seemed absurd to Hume. This is not to deny that Aquinas’ theory of knowledge must be repondered and recapitulated if it is to enter into dialogue with modern and postmodern epistemology. But when it comes to self-knowledge, that dialogue will be thwarted without first repondering and recapitulating the historical context outlined in part 1 of Cory's book. In other words, if we want to explain how self-knowledge is possible according to Aquinas, we first have to clear the metaphysical ground that makes any knowledge possible and show how that ground is different from those of modern philosophy. That said, Cory's book is an outstanding contribution to one of the most difficult topics in Thomistic philosophy. Even though Cory does not convince me that Aquinas himself was clear on the matter of self-knowledge, she does convince me that Aquinas was a master of knowing how to navigate between fundamental claims once he has established them. Those claims include the immateriality of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge via the senses, and precisely the claim that Cory has admirably restored to its rightful place: ‘Insofar as it is a potential cognizer by nature, the human intellect must likewise be a habitual self-cognizer by nature’ (p. 217). © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Philosophical Quarterly Oxford University Press

Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge

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Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St. Andrews
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© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
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0031-8094
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10.1093/pq/pqw078
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Abstract

The richness and originality of Thomas Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge has been underappreciated no less by his admirers than his critics. The former consider it secondary to his teaching on cognition in general, and the latter dismiss it as scholastic triviality. Cory wishes to restore Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge to its rightful place, and to do so she must provide both its historical context and the theoretical implications it has for Aquinas’ anthropology and epistemology. Cory's basic premise is that Aquinas needed to maintain both that the intellect can know itself only by cognizing something else and that it has no explicit awareness of anything outside itself without implicit awareness of itself. To elaborate this ‘fundamental duality’ of conscious thought, Aquinas had to carefully consider the teaching of his predecessors and the debates of the day. The former included Augustine and the pseudo-Dionysius no less than Aristotle, and the latter were waged by Jean de la Rochelle and William of Auvergne in addition to Albert the Great and Bonaventure. Cory traces the debate on self-knowledge and the historical development of Aquinas's doctrine in part I of the book before entering into speculative considerations in part II. In part I, Cory shows that Aquinas took seriously the various levels of the mind's ‘self-opacity’ and their connection to his theory of self-knowledge. Some things are known in or through themselves, while other things are only reached through a process of reasoning. Aquinas pays close attention to the way the ‘I’ knows itself as a subject through agency; that is, not as a pure mind, but as a thinking, deliberating, and acting ‘I’. Similarly, selfhood is always linked to intentional, conscious thought or rather the intellect initially knows itself only as an agent constantly engaged with the extramental world. Cory is one of the few scholars who bring to the fore the subtlety of Aquinas’ thinking about how the intellect knows itself. She rightly acknowledges—and stays clear of—the sticky problems that arise if one conflates Aquinas’ teaching on the soul's status before death with its status after death. Moreover, Aquinas' disciples insist that knowledge of material entities through sensation and conceptualization is the primary mode of human cognition. Yet Aquinas also has a sophisticated teaching on how immaterial singulars such as God and angels are known apart from abstraction. In the case of self-knowledge, the trick is bringing together the fact that all human thought originates in the senses and that the immaterial human mind is inaccessible to the senses. Although other immaterial things are known to the intellect by reasoning from sensory effects, the mind is itself and should therefore be known to itself it a way distinct from—but grounded in—the way it knows material things and immaterial things other than itself. To spell out how this is possible, Aquinas carefully considered the positions of other scholars. On the one hand, there was the Augustinian legacy stemming from the De Trinitate, according to which the mind knows itself per se ipsam precisely because it is incorporeal. On the other hand, the Arabic tradition embedded self-knowledge into the soul's nature: there is an actual, non-conscious self-knowledge within the very nature of the soul. Moreover, there were the Aristotelians who insisted that the intellect is intelligible like other intelligibles: because the object and the mind are one in the act of understanding, the mind's own intelligibility depends on its reception of intelligible forms. Cory is convinced that Aquinas was able to glean a fresh approach from these traditions. He maintained that because the soul is more present to itself than it is to anything else, it cognizes itself by its essence or by itself. At the same time, he insists that all actual human self-knowledge depends on the cognition of extramental objects. The novelty of the way he reconciles these two phenomena lies in the content of self-knowledge: something, perhaps, to which his predecessors paid insufficient attention. Although somewhat elusive, the content amounts to the first-person subject-in-action knowing itself through itself as thinking x, doing y, or willing z. Part II of the book expands on the theoretical implications of Aquinas’ theory. There are different kinds of self-knowledge and each has something to tell us about the nature of the intellect. One can perceive one's own existence or perceive oneself in act. Self-knowledge can be implicit or explicit. It can be transformed into quidditive knowledge by overcoming self-opacity through philosophical inquiry. It has implications on how we view human personhood through subjectivity, agency, and memory. Cory handles all these in turn against the historical and doctrinal background she has given in part I. Throughout her discussion, Cory emphasizes that Aquinas’ theory of self-knowledge cascades from the key claim that the human soul exists within a hylomorphic reality and is ‘habitually self-present and only potentially intellecting’ (p. 172). Only on this foundation can we understand the distinction between habitual self-awareness and actual self-awareness, and self-knowledge as entitative and quidditative. The soul is disposed to know all things and exists as such even apart from knowing things. But by knowing things it actualizes them as cognized entities immaterially united with the principle that cognizes them. For all the emphasis Cory places on the originality of Aquinas’ theory, she detracts from it by claiming that it ‘carves out a middle ground between Descartes and Hume’ (p. 216). The very foundations on which Aquinas’ theory is built differ from Hume's, so it can be misleading to state that ‘certain aspects of his theory resonate with Humean intuitions’ (p. 216). It would be better to dwell on the point—which Cory makes—that Aquinas takes the neo-Platonic tradition quite seriously, shaping and molding it around his own Aristotelian intuitions. Although Aquinas would certainly have had sympathy for what Descartes and Hume were trying to do, the crucial aspect of cognition's intentionality was outside the purview of Descartes, and the metaphysical identification of knower and thing known would have seemed absurd to Hume. This is not to deny that Aquinas’ theory of knowledge must be repondered and recapitulated if it is to enter into dialogue with modern and postmodern epistemology. But when it comes to self-knowledge, that dialogue will be thwarted without first repondering and recapitulating the historical context outlined in part 1 of Cory's book. In other words, if we want to explain how self-knowledge is possible according to Aquinas, we first have to clear the metaphysical ground that makes any knowledge possible and show how that ground is different from those of modern philosophy. That said, Cory's book is an outstanding contribution to one of the most difficult topics in Thomistic philosophy. Even though Cory does not convince me that Aquinas himself was clear on the matter of self-knowledge, she does convince me that Aquinas was a master of knowing how to navigate between fundamental claims once he has established them. Those claims include the immateriality of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge via the senses, and precisely the claim that Cory has admirably restored to its rightful place: ‘Insofar as it is a potential cognizer by nature, the human intellect must likewise be a habitual self-cognizer by nature’ (p. 217). © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

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Philosophical QuarterlyOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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