Thomas on intellect

In this broad, undifferentiated, sense Thomas Aquinas is undoubtedly an 'Augustinian', but what is distinctive about how Thomas places himself within this tradition is the precise point at which he departs from it in one crucial respect. In Confessions 7.17 Augustine recounts his discovery of the presence within his mind of the 'divine light of truth' as having been the outcome of an upward surge of the mind from its lowest sensory perceptions, through imagination, to reason in its discursive capacities, into the awe-inspired encounter with that 'eternity of truth' on which reason, in that discursive capacity, must depend. And for sure what Augustine is here recalling is a pre-conversion experience, one which, at face value, he was able to encounter before his baptism; and so it might appear as if he represents that experience rather as one which led him to accept a broadly Platonist epistemology - moreover, rather on broadly Platonist and philosophical grounds than on any which depended upon the insights of his Christian faith to which he later came to adhere. But I think it wrong to read even this passage recounting a pre-conversion event as being told in pre-conversion terms, thinking it on the whole better to read the entire narrative of Augustine's intellectual autobiography as having been written, of course chronologically after his conversion, but also hermeneutically in the light of the Christian understanding of faith to which that narrative led as outcome. Put more simply, I do not think that it follows from the fact that in Confessions 7.17 Augustine tells of his discovery of intellectus as having occurred before his conversion, that he was supposing this discovery to be the outcome of an unaided, pre-baptismal, ungraced reason. On the contrary, it is Augustine's opinion, persistent throughout his theological writings from the first to the last, that the presence of the divine light of truth in the soul is a discovery made only through the downward irruption of grace in the soul, which illuminates human reason in its upward striving towards it. For Augustine, therefore, we could not know by reason alone that 'true eternity of truth' on which the exercise of our rational powers depends, without the irruption of grace into the mind - at any rate 'unaided' reason could have no experience of its own source of truth without that grace. What Augustine is describing in Confessions 7.17, is, therefore, already a graced experience; what is 'pre-conversion' about it is simply that he was not, at that stage, in possession of the explicit faith by which he could recognise it as such.

One way of situating Thomas's account of reason in its relation to this Augustinian tradition is by placing it at a point of differentiation between the 'radical Augustinianism' of Henry of Ghent (1217-93) and the 'minimalist Augustinianism' of Duns Scotus (1265-1308). The radicalism of Henry's 'Augustinianism' pushes the doctrine of divine illumination to a point at which, in Scotus' view, no natural cognitive activity productive of universal, scientifically necessary truths is left to the human mind itself. Scotus' criticism of Henry's extreme Augustinianism is that it leaves the human mind with no strictly intellectual capacities of its own, since, on Henry's account, Augustine's emphasis on the 'mutability' and 'contingency' of our rational power of judgement is so stressed as to remove any possibility of a universal and necessary truth being present in the mind, except as produced in it by the divine light itself. As Scotus puts it, for Henry, the mind possesses no created 'exemplar' - or, as we might say, no universal concept - of its own making by which contingent, mutable objects may be known, but only the uncreated 'exemplar' in the mind of God by which our human minds are illuminated. Hence, the universals in the human mind are not the product of our created rationality as such, being received in them from their source in the divine light itself. In that case, Scotus reasonably asks, in what sense can the human mind itself be said to know anything at all, if it has no properly intellectual activity of its own capable of appropriating the divine light by means of its native capacity for universal and necessary truth?20 He adds (just as reasonably) that there is no justification for any appeal to Augustine's authority in support of a view which entailed so extreme a conclusion. The sense in which we do 'properly speaking' see and judge of the mutable world of objects 'in the Light [of eternal truth]' is that in which 'it could be said that. . . the Light is the cause of the object[s]'21 which move the intellect to its knowledge of universal and necessary truths. But that transaction itself between the mutable thing known and the necessary character of the certain judgement concerning it is one which falls within our own human natural capacities. Were this not so, were Henry's reading of Augustine to be permitted, this 'would imply the impossibility of any certain natural knowledge'.22

20 Duns Scotus, Ordinatio 1, d3 q4 a4, Opera Omnia III, pp. 164-5. Otherwise known as the Opus Oxoniense, this work is Scotus' first commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, begun at Oxford in the last years of the thirteenth century and completed, perhaps by 1304, in Paris. The edition of the text used for translations is found in Doctoris Subtilis et Mariani: Joannis Duns Scoti Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Opera Omnia, Civitas Vaticana: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1950 - . Except where noted as being mine, the translations are taken from William A. Frank and Allan B. Wolter, Duns Scotus: Metaphysician, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1995.

21 'Proprie posset dici intellectum nostrum videre in luce, quia lux est causa obiecti.' Ordi-natio 1, d3 q4 a5, Opera Omnia III, pp. 162-3, my translation.

22 'Istae rationes [Henrici] videntur concludere impossibilitatem certae cognitionis naturalis.' Ordinatio 1, d3 q4 a1, Opera Omnia III, p. 133.

For Scotus himself, however, the natural knowledge of God by inference from creatures is possible, but only (as we shall see in chapter 7) on the basis that the understanding of God thus obtained is obtained through at least some concepts univocally related to our understanding of creatures themselves. In that sense at least, what reason can achieve by way of an understanding of God remains closed within a circle circumscribed by reason's natural inferential capacity, where that capacity is itself limited by the necessarily univocal character of the relationship between the creaturely conditions which serve as premises and the divine nature which is the conclusion inferred. Intellect, therefore, demonstrates nothing to exist which transcends its own natural powers - we can perhaps say that Scotus' 'reason' is never, within its own discursive nature, 'stretched beyond itself and can demonstrate the existence only of a God whose 'transcendence' is contained within the ambit of its univocally discursive reach. In short, in Scotus, the Augustinian intellectus has been effectively excised.

Speaking in general terms, therefore, Thomas's account of ratio and intellectus seems to lie somewhere between the position of Henry of Ghent and that of Scotus. On the one hand, like Scotus and unlike Henry, for Thomas human reason is able to construct for itself, through its own natural powers, its own access to universal and necessary truths,23 even if, of course, such access is itself a form of participation in the divine light of truth,24 here also sharing common ground with Scotus, who, like Thomas, is quite happy to concede to the moderate 'Augustinian' view of the matter, that 'the active intellect . . . [is] a participation of the Uncreated Light'.25 For reason could not attain to any universal truths by its own means of reasoning if it did not know without those means the fundamental principles which govern speculative reasoning as such-the principle of contradiction and 'other like principles' - and, as governing its practical reasoning, the principle that 'the good is to be done and evil avoided'.26 Though governing discursive reasoning, whether theoretical or practical, these principles cannot be known discursively, for of course you could not demonstrate to be true the principles on which the validity of all demonstration itself depends. Hence, as to the source of reason's power of judgement, this lies in intellect's grasp of truths beyond the power of reason as such to know. But even if that intellectual grasp

23 'Oportet virtutem quae est principium huius actionis esse aliquid in anima.' ST 1a q79

a4 corp.

24 ST 1a q79 a4 corp.

25 '[Intellectus agens] qui est participatio lucis increatae'. Ordinatio 1, d3 q4 a5, Opera

Omnia III, p. 61, my translation.

26 ST 1-2ae q94 a2 corp.

of reason's fundamental governing principles may fairly be described as a form of participation in 'the divine light of truth', this, for Thomas, is little more than to say that their truth is in some way a reflection in the human mind of the divine self-knowledge: to say which is not to say, and nowhere does Thomas say it, that it is in some human knowledge of the divine mind itself in which they participate that you know their participation. For we can know that the principles of reasoning hold without knowing even that they so participate in the divine mind, still less knowing them in the divine mind. And thus far, Thomas and Scotus would be in broad agreement: as to the source of its reasoning power, human reasoning outreaches itself in its intellectual grasp of first principles and thus far participates in the 'divine light of truth'.

Nonetheless, Thomas and Scotus part company in that they cannot be said to have the same view of what the participation of the human mind in the divine mind entails for reason's natural capacity in respect of its destination. For Thomas, reason so participates in the divine self-knowledge that it can, by the exercise of its distinctively natural capacity of reasoning - that is to say, of properly constructed inference - attain to a conclusion the meaning of which lies beyond any which could stand in a relation of univocity with the created order, which, of itself, is the ambit of reason's own, natural, objects. For Thomas, that is to say, reason's powers, pushed to their limit, open up into the territory of intellectus: and they do so, as I shall argue, precisely in the proofs of the existence of God. In those proofs, we could say, reason sel/-transcends, and by its self-transcendence, becomes 'intellect'.

Now although we must concede that Scotus in no way intends any scaling down of the divine transcendence as such - which, as we shall see, he thinks is sufficiently secured by his careful distinctions between 'finite' and 'infinite' being - and although, like Thomas, he wishes to place the demonstration of the existence of God within the scope of natural reason, there is little doubt that the implications of Scotus' having diminished the scope of reason to a 'closed' circle of univocity are, in the terms of Heidegger, 'onto-theological' in effect, and in medieval terms, amount to a severing of reason from intellectus. In Thomas, rational demonstration of the existence of God is reason stretched to the end of its tether; and though reason reaches the end of its tether by its own means of discursive inference and argument, what it reaches there, where its tether ends, is the territory of 'intellect', a territory altogether beyond reason's scope - which is another way of stating the paradox, oft-repeated in this essay, that what the 'proofs' prove is at one and the same time the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of 'exists'. Reason, to adapt a phrase of Hegel's, realises itself as 'intellect' in its abolition as 'reason', and abolishes itself as knowledge in its realisation as unknowing.

If, for Thomas, as for Scotus, there are some truths which reason alone cannot know - indeed, all the truths, strictly, of faith - such limitations of reason's scope are, for Thomas, wrongly conceived as a determinate boundary-line prescribing reason's scope, as if consisting in some final truth-claim to which reason attains and at which it must stop. To suppose that there could be some such way of determining a fixed perimeter to reason's power would be rather like supposing that there is some boundary-line at the limit of space, a ne plus ultra, as if you could stand there at the limit, but could not put a foot across it into the beyond: such is a conceptually incoherent, merely imagined, possibility. For Thomas, what lies at the end of reason's tether is a demonstrated unknowability, an opening up of possibilities of knowing, not a closing down of those possibilities, not a final truth - for how could a truth be known to be 'final' except from a standpoint which is already on the other side of it? On this side of its limits reason knows only the existence of a mystery whose depths it knows - demonstrates - it cannot know, for its character as mystery consists in its lying beyond reason's reach. In that 'unknowing' lies reason's self-transcendence as intellect. And the act by which it thus self-transcends is proof of the existence of God.

By the end of this essay I hope to have shown that on Thomas's account, what drives reason to the limit of its powers is a certain kind of questioning, a strategy of rational exploration and explanation, a strategy whose 'end-point' is not an answer, but, on the contrary, is an unanswerable question - a question, moreover, which it knows to be unanswerable: there, where it knows that it does not know, 'reason' becomes 'intellect' and depletes itself in its fulfilment. To understand the nature of that questioning is to understand the 'argument strategy' of Thomas's proofs of the existence of God, as eventually we shall see in chapter 12.

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