Aquinas: Central Position of the Theory of Knowledge

The Philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas, by Jonathan Dolhenty

II. Different Kinds of Knowledge. A. Central Position of the Theory of Knowledge.

The Schoolmen of the thirteenth century paid special attention to the functions of knowing and willing. They regarded these as the peculiar and privileged possession of the human race, situated as it is at the boundary where and matter and spirit meet. For, the dignity of man results from a certain way of knowing which is peculiar to him, and which is called intelligence. This we must define more closely, in order to understand in what sense scholasticism can be described as an intellectualist system of philosophy.

What is knowing? An object is known when it is present in a certain way in the knowing consciousness. When I see a stone lying in a road, the stone is present in me, but not indeed in the material way in which it is present outside of me in the external world. For it is perfectly clear that “the stone is not in me so far as its own peculiar existence is concerned” [1]. In the same way, when I grasp mentally the constituent nature of the molecule of water, and the law which governs its decomposition (H2O), the material existence of the molecule does not in any way enter into or form part of me; but there is produced in me a kind of reflection of a non-ego. The privilege of a being which knows consists precisely in this ability of being enriched by something which belongs to something else.

Knowing beings are differentiated from non-knowing beings by this characteristic; non-knowing beings have only their own reality, but knowing beings are capable of possessing also the reality of something else. For in the knowing being there is a presence of the thing known produced by this thing. [2]
In what does this presence or reflection of the object in me consist? The Schoolmen do not pretend to fathom the mystery of knowledge; their explanation is a mere analysis of facts revealed by introspection.

Knowing, they observe, is a particular kind of being, a modification, or a vital action of the knowing subject. “The thing known is present in the knowing subject according to the mode of being of the knowing subject”; it bears its mark. “All knowledge results from a similitude of the thing known in the subject knowing” [3]. These two quotations, which were common sayings, sum up well the views of the thirteenth century psychologists. In consequence, knowledge does not result merely from the thing; but rather, the thing known and the subject knowing cooperate in the production of the phenomenon. This intervention of the knowing subject shows us why scholasticism rejected ‘naive realism,’ which disregards the action of the knowing subject, and considers the object known as projected in our minds like an image in a lifeless and passive mirror. On the other hand, since there is an activity of the thing known upon the knowing subject, our representations of reality will be to some extent faithful and correspond to that reality.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.