Theology And Philosophical Method

We have touched already on the question of the use theologians felt it proper to make of the methods developed by classical philosophers. There were fundamental problems here to do with the ways in which human understanding comes by what it knows, and conveys it to others. Christians recognised two gifts which did not come into the philosophers' reckoning: revelation in Holy Scripture; and the gift of faith which is inseparable from trust on the part of the believer. 'I believe' is not identical with 'I know.' But there was also a substantial common heritage of epistemology and methodology, with which both philosophy and theology had to deal.

A doctrine of divine illumination was acceptable to both philosophers and Christians in the first Christian centuries. Thought was regarded by Plato as a kind of 'seeing' in the light thrown from above upon the mind. Gregory the Great was fond of speaking of 'the mind's eye' (oculus mentis), and the expression passed into common Western usage. This illumination was understood in several ways in mediaeval Western Christian thought.1 First and foremost, it was the light of faith, shed on men and women so that they might believe. Sometimes (Anselm, Proslogion, 1) it was a blinding light, into which one must go in trust and trembling. But it showed where to look, and it was the means by which God's people were to know him. Secondly, it was the insight by which truth is recognised, and which we make use of when we say that something is 'self-evident'.2 William of Auxerre (d. 1231) thought illumination was needed before it was possible to 'see' first principles in this way.3 Thirdly, it provided a means of assessing and identifying the evidence brought into the mind through the senses. This was an area explored by Augustine at the end of his Confessions, and we find the theme recurring throughout the Middle Ages as scholars debated the problem of universals.


This third area in which divine illumination might be deemed to play a part was not characteristically discussed in the Middle Ages in connection with a theory of language and signs which Augustine set out in the De Doctrina Christiana and which it was necessary to harmonise with the accounts given by Aristotle in the De Interpretatione and by the Roman grammarians. Augustine begins from the natural signs which are to be found in the world (smoke which tells us that there is a fire), and signs which are accepted by convention, such as gestures which convey an attitude or a response. Words are conventional signs too, which are necessary like gestures because as sinful beings we cannot see clearly into one another's minds. Augustine argues in the De Magistro (VIII.21) that this system of signs depends on God's gift of the ideas to which they refer; God puts the ideas into our heads and illuminates them for us so that we can see them; we learn to associate with them certain signs, so that when the sign is perceived the idea is brought to mind. Thus we do not learn from signs, not even from words. We can only convey and receive by signs what we already 'know', in the sense that when presented with it we are able to recognise it. Inner knowledge is all-important, God's help indispensable and signs, linguistic or otherwise, mere servants.

They serve by signifying. It was the signifying function of words in particular which preoccupied mediaeval scholarship more consistently than perhaps any other topic in the study of the artes of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Augustine looked into the matter briefly in his De Magistro. There, in a dialogue, he and his son Adeodatus discuss a line of the Aeneid (II.659) word by word, asking what each word signifies. Their purpose is to discover whether it is true that every word must signify in order to be a word at all, as was Aristotle's view. In the De Interpretatione he distinguishes words from mere sounds by their power of signi36fying. A true word is a vox significativa. Augustine and his son proceed comfortably enough until they come to the word nihil. How can nihil signify something if what it signifies is 'nothing'? (This nice little puzzle was taken up again by the Carolingian scholar Fredegisus.)4 The Roman grammarians also held that it is the function of words to signify. There was an important disagreement between Priscian, who thought nouns signify both substance and quality (K II.55.6) and Aristotle-Boethius, for whom paronyms such as albus, 'white', signify only quality (PL 64.194). Both the problem about the signification of nihil and the discrepancy between Priscian and Aristotle-Boethius over denominatives interested Anselm, who touched on the first in his De Casu Diaboli (S 1.249) and wrote a treatise on the second (the De Grammatico). It was at this level of small misfits in the piecing together of the Augustinian, grammarian and

KNOWING AND LANGUAGE Aristotle-Boethian traditions that discussion about signification was generated up to the twelfth century. Then, with the greater availability of the textbooks and the heightening of interest in the study of the artes in the burgeoning schools, there were significant developments in both epistemology in general and signification theory in particular.

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