... on Metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas - an answer with my replies (quora) · ... on Bishop Tempier and the Late Brother Thomas · ... on Mystical Experience of Saint Thomas
- What are some flaws in Thomas Aquinas' thinking?
- Erik Norvelle
Many years of academic philosophy, also serial entrepreneur.
Ex punk rocker, ex conservative Catholic, ex philosophy student, I have recently discovered that dating strippers is the answer to the meaning of life. I also speak native-level Spanish and am very opinionated.
- 1 Answer
- so far, namely :
- Erik Norvelle
- Many years of academic philosophy, also serial entrepreneur.
- Answered 3h ago
- He was a rationalist and not an empiricist. Those are terms that don’t strictly apply, because they were invented to describe philosophers from the modern era, but the general idea fits Aquinas.
When I began doctoral studies in Aquinas, what I was especially interested in was Aristotle’s theory of “physis” or “nature”, and how Aquinas might have made use of it. Physis, in Aristotle, is his solution to the ancient question of how something might “move” (read change) without ceasing to be what it is. It has to do with the notion that a physical “substance” (being) can move because it is a composite of matter and form, where form is the principle of identity (what-it-isness) and matter is the principle of possibility (what-it-can-beness), and motion is the passage from potency (possibility) to act (isness). This theory is one of the unknown glories of Aristotle, ultimately wrong, but a serious and deep attempt to understand the natural world.
At the time I wanted to know what Aquinas did with this concept, and so I told my thesis director I wanted to study “nature” in Thomas Aquinas. Simple enough, no? Well, no… my thesis director said “yes” because he thought I wanted to study the “notion” of nature and not the “concept” of nature (yes, in Thomism there is a difference). A “notion” is essentially a way of talking about being (“ens”), i.e. it is being conceived of under the light of its whatness (essentia), with a specific focus on the interior origin and expression of that whatness (basically a metaphorical way of using the term “nature” to refer to something that doesn’t actually change, like being qua being). Don’t ask me why Aquinas needed yet another transcendental term for “ens” (there are many in medieval philosophy) but he used “nature” in this way. So instead of talking about dynamic, changing, real beings, when Aquinas talks about “nature” he is talking about something unchanging and metaphysical.
This follows on his general utter lack of interest in the natural world. The only things he seems to know about are general, sometimes unusual, ideas that he takes from various places, such as the occasional metaphor from Aristotle, or a tidbit from Albertus Magnus, or somewhere else (it’s not always clear where he gets his ideas about nature from). He discusses “nature” in the sense I was interested most fully in the Summa Contra Gentiles, but his ideas were so unoriginal and frankly silly that it kind of shocked me… here is this giant intellect saying things that were frankly stupid, and that nobody with anybody with any sense would say if they thought twice about it. And that was the problem, Aquinas said these stupid things precisely because he never actually thought about the issue. Aquinas loved metaphysics, he didn’t love physics (to use the Aristotelian distinction).
His whole metaphysics was taken whole-hog from Aristotle (as filtered through Averroes), but not because that metaphysics was a difficult prize attained only through years of inquiry into the physical, as with Aristotle, but because Aquinas thought it was elegant, even beautiful, and that it solved lots of metaphysical problems that otherwise were insoluble. Aquinas liked puzzles relating to being, and I believe that his famous esse/essentia distinction was, in good part, an attempt by him to understand how angels could exist and be numerically distinct despite not having matter (see De substantiis separatis for more on that issue).
So for Aquinas, in a sense, the world was to be understood upside-down… you start with metaphysical notions (not concepts, as stated above), and you view the world in light of them. And you never need to go anywhere near the actual creatures of the world (in the way that Aristotle did) because you have already got Aristotle’s solution in hand. Real, existing, changeable creatures have no interest for the metaphysician, who is occupied with greater questions, like the existence of God. So while Aquinas certainly knew (and knew well) Aristotle’s physics, it didn’t really matter to him, because unlike Aristotle Aquinas had no interest in the material, physical, real world.
And ultimately this is why Aquinas’s metaphysics fails: it was a slavish imitation of Aristotle’s, extended to deal with things like angels that were important for Christians, and adapted to deal with a triune God, also very Christian, but without any interest in what had so interested Aristotle, i.e. the natural world. And while for Aristotle the failure of his metaphysics would only have been an annoyance, because Aristotle never dogmatically proclaimed his metaphysics to be the final solution to anything, for Aquinas it is fatal, since really he has nothing else to fall back on. Aquinas is a very, very good interpreter of Aristotle, but as a metaphysician he is fatally uncreative.
So you can imagine my dismay when, after more than a year of searching the sources of Aquinas’s theory of nature, I discovered that there weren’t actually any. I had to go back to my thesis director and explain the problem, and he said “Oh, you mean that nature, well of course not, Aquinas is interested in nature as a metaphysical transcendental notion”. So I had to leave Aquinas behind, lose a year of my graduate program, and study Aristotle instead.
Aquinas may have been a genius, but as his biographers point out, he spent his entire life more or less in the clouds, thinking metaphysical and theological things, with scant time for real people, real things, real life. And this is why Thomism is ultimately such an unsuccessful philosophy, despite having been the more or less official Catholic philosophy for centuries: it just doesn’t give a shit about anything that’s actually real, it prefers to glory in its ideas and then try to make real beings fit those (rationalism), not the other way around (empiricism).
- Hans-Georg Lundahl
- 34m ago
- “He was a rationalist and not an empiricist.”
If you mean he appealed to pure thought while ignoring experience, and experiments, you are historically simply wrong.
- Hans-Georg Lundahl
- 12m ago
- "So instead of talking about dynamic, changing, real beings, when Aquinas talks about “nature” he is talking about something unchanging and metaphysical."
A wolf changes several times over its life, but its lupine nature does not change. It is indeed metaphysically fixed.
"This follows on his general utter lack of interest in the natural world."
If so, why would his teacher St Albert the Great have praised him so much?
"The only things he seems to know about are general, sometimes unusual, ideas that he takes from various places, such as the occasional metaphor from Aristotle, or a tidbit from Albertus Magnus, or somewhere else (it’s not always clear where he gets his ideas about nature from)."
Any student will show up tidbits from his teacher. And if he's showing them on occasions where nature is NOT the topic per se, it seems to show rather a very intense interest in nature, since he brings in nature studies into other matters.
"He discusses “nature” in the sense I was interested most fully in the Summa Contra Gentiles, but his ideas were so unoriginal and frankly silly that it kind of shocked me…"
I don't know why "unoriginal" should shock anyone. Any philosopher worth his salt, from Socrates to presumably myself, takes glory in being unoriginal - in making points so obvious that someone has seen it before.
As to "stupid", I would really like to know what you are talking about and what you judge it by. Perhaps you are the more stupid of the two?
As for "silly", I relish the fact that much Medieval thought, whether Alcuin or St Thomas, is expressed in ways so simplistic as to seem silly to an oversophisticated culture where many terms are reused and misused by taking so much, on my view often too much, for granted as a thing anyone would understand. Or as a thing "of course I understand that", but which you perhaps was not putting your understanding to use when expressing this other thing.
A Scholastic can't hide the structure of his thought behind smokescreens or façades, he is obliged to show them forth as clearly as if he were building with Lego.
"His whole metaphysics was taken whole-hog from Aristotle (as filtered through Averroes),"
Simply false. St Thomas, like Bishop Tempier, rejected much of the metaphysics of Averroes, and while Tempier expressed himself in condemnations of 1277, St Thomas expressed himself in arguments against Averroism.
See for instance "de unitate intellectus adversus Averroistas" an undisputed opus or opusculum of his.
"but not because that metaphysics was a difficult prize attained only through years of inquiry into the physical, as with Aristotle,"
I am not sure either why it should in general be so, or where you get it from it was so with Aristotle. While Aristotle's metaphysics differ from those of Plato, he had studied under Plato and had conducted his years of study of nature with metaphysics in mind - as had obviously this other great naturalist St Albert, the very teacher of St Thomas.
"Aquinas liked puzzles relating to being, and I believe that his famous esse/essentia distinction was, in good part, an attempt by him to understand how angels could exist and be numerically distinct despite not having matter (see De substantiis separatis for more on that issue)."
Why? He for his part solved that one by saying the essence of each angel is distinct be a differentia specifica from that of each other angel.
And why would esse and essence NOT be distinct outside God? Are you claiming each of us has from all eternity been a necessity, so that our esse is just an expression of our essence? You would have a hard time arguing that one out, and especially to do so from a long study of nature!
"So for Aquinas, in a sense, the world was to be understood upside-down… you start with metaphysical notions (not concepts, as stated above), and you view the world in light of them. ... Real, existing, changeable creatures have no interest for the metaphysician, who is occupied with greater questions, like the existence of God."
You might want to explain that claim in somewhat simpler terms, like the wooden clearcut terminology of St Thomas. You might want to ask yourself how you would show a child of four, not that you thought so, BUT how you knew this.
"So while Aquinas certainly knew (and knew well) Aristotle’s physics, it didn’t really matter to him, because unlike Aristotle Aquinas had no interest in the material, physical, real world."
This seems to imply a kind of thought reading?
You are very obviously not analysing a single sentence of his in which he claimed or strictly implied that, you are imputing to him a motive which on your view explains what he wrote and what he did not write.
"And ultimately this is why Aquinas’s metaphysics fails:"
You are eager to show you understand WHY his metaphysics fail before taking the trouble to logically show THAT they do so.
"it was a slavish imitation of Aristotle’s,"
Supposing this to be true - it was in fact false, his proofs for God's existence are taken from Aristotle's Physica and he rejects some solutions by the Stagyrite in Metaphysica - but supposing this had been true, this would either imply that St Thomas was successful as Aristotle (on your view?), because Aristotle was so, or that Aristotle failed, like St Thomas did (on your view), even though you did not say one critical word of Aristotle IN THIS PASSAGE ... except of course "ultimately wrong".
I'd like to know why you are more interested (or seem to be so) in "serious and deep" than in ultimately wrong or ultimately right.
I would also know on what grounds you consider that Aristotle's theory of natura was ultimately wrong and what grounds you have for saying St Thomas was also wrong.
Could it so happen that you are simply presuming the metaphysics (as yet not even fixed, since contradictory between one theory and the other) of "modern science" as "ultimately right", and therefore as a good standard to study whether Aristotle and Aquinas are ultimately right, or ultimately wrong, and therefore reducing the interest of reading them to verifying who of them contributed most to the modern "success" (on your view) through their "failures" (on your view)?
That is not an attitude worthy of a philosopher!
"So you can imagine my dismay when, after more than a year of searching the sources of Aquinas’s theory of nature, I discovered that there weren’t actually any. I had to go back to my thesis director and explain the problem, and he said “Oh, you mean that nature, well of course not, Aquinas is interested in nature as a metaphysical transcendental notion”. So I had to leave Aquinas behind, lose a year of my graduate program, and study Aristotle instead."
If you mean that nature, Saint Thomas' theory of it is God created it. See for instance Prima Pars, after discussion of the Holy Trinity. And God keeps it in existence. That is Saint Thomas' theory of nature in the modern sense of the word, precisely as it is any Christian's theory of nature in this sense. As to how he used natura, he used it exactly as Aristotle used physis, and I can't see why you are so much more interested in Aristotle than in Saint Thomas. Unless perhaps you have un as yet unstated bias, but since not wanting to play thought reader, I think I had better ask you about it.
- Hans-Georg Lundahl
- Just now
- "Aquinas may have been a genius, but as his biographers point out, he spent his entire life more or less in the clouds,"
I don't know what biographers you are thinking of. Not Chesterton, at least.
Or were you thinking of when he forgot the company he was dining with and remembered the Averroists he was arguing against?
Well, unlike royal courts, monastic table manners don’t depend on taking interest in the company.
"thinking metaphysical and theological things,"
That he spent a lot of time on that - but let's not forget prayer, of which he was not writing autobiographically, but which is very welldocumented from daily routines of Dominicans. That he spent a lot of time on that is actually true. It is also what one would expect from a philosopher.
And chores. And preaching.
"with scant time for real people,"
Oh, both the fellow Dominicans and the people he preached to and heard confessions of are of course fake people ... I'd like to hear you argue that one out metaphysically!
Right. He never enjoyed real beans, unlike Father Mendel.
He never fought against nocturnal pollutions (not even before that episode in which he was promised chastity by the angel), unlike St Francis of Assisi.
He never noted real prayer involves real alpha state, despite using that example to prove that Down's syndromers can pray.
He never .... < /sarcastic mode off >
Wait, he never lived a real life < ok, sarcastic mode on again > but he is a fictional character, like Susan and Lucy Pevensie, and yet somehow managed to write such a lot?
If so, like Lemony Snicket, he ought to have a ghost writer.
But in that case, you might want to disclose what the metaphysics of the ghost writer was as opposed to the one attributed to him ....
Or ... < / irony off > were you simply presuming on some modern prejudice about what "real life" and "real people" mean?
[I looked at his profile after asking this.]
- Alberto Martín
- 16h ago
- Of course, only empiricists are interested in ‘real beings’, that is, taken as (external) objects to the mind, and not in the harder fathoming of ‘being as being’, which is what interested St. Thomas and is the terrain of metaphysics. You seem to lean to empiricism as your preferred philosophical stance, which is unobjectionable, of course, and what you say about St. Thomas Aquinas is essentially true. He was too much of an Aristotelian (unlike St. Albert the Great, who was a Platonist), which is the key. In the context of St. Thomas’ ides I understand what you say: “changeable creatures have no interest for the metaphysician”, but I am sure you will not hold that view when speaking of metaphysics (non-duality or spirituality) in general.
I believe that the distinction essence- accident, and substance-form are still important in the realm of metaphysics – equivalent to purusha-prakriti of (Indian) Shankya philosophy and consciousness-phenomena or (either external or internal) ‘objects’ of Shankarian Advaita Vedanta – or being-becoming more generally.
- Erik Norvelle
- 8h ago
- Thank you for your comment Alberto. Personally I am more Wittgensteinian, and tend to believe that metaphysical discourse is meaningless. However, in this case I tried to avoid any bias and make it clear that the rationalist-empiricist distinction is not truly applicable to the case of medieval philosophers. I just think it is a handy analogy.
Albertus Magnus could not have properly been a Platonist, since the works of Plato himself were unknown to the medieval world, except (I believe) for the Timaeus, which was not extremely influential. However, as with many, many high medieval philosophers up until the coming of Aristotle, he was strongly Neoplatonic, since Neoplatonism had been the predominant philosophy in the Church ever since the patristic years. What is interesting to me is that Albertus did in fact have a great interest in nature… nothing that he says is of particular interest, but he had a certain interest in botany, and tried his hand at optics, perhaps influenced by Ibn Haytham. Neoplatonists, as opposed to Plato himself, had a much greater interest in the natural world because of their doctrine of exitus-reditus (leaving-returning), which meant that the divine/One, in its progress back to itself, is manifested in nature in a more direct way than in classical or medieval Aristotelianism.
I would just note that the distinctions to be drawn in Thomas are usually made as: substance-accident, form-material, essence-existence. If you are ever interested in pursuing the subject more, I suggest Etienne Gilson´s “Being and Some Philosophers”, which is quite enjoyable to read.
- Hans-Georg Lundahl
- Just now
- I second the endorsement of Gilson.
I do not second the endorsement of Witty.
While we are at it, here is what came to my blog:
... on Metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas - an answer with my replies (quora)
And as you mentioned Witty, if you know French:
Quand Witty ne l'était pas
I see you updated your answer, but did not detect where you had changed it.
What changes should I take into account?