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June-July 2003

The Great Divide

MICHAEL McGRADE

In epistemology, or the philosophical account of knowledge, there is a great divide.

The basic question is: What is the direct object of knowledge as we experience it?

  1. For Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson et. al., who are sometimes called Neo-Thomists, it is the res – the extra-mental reality, known as existing objectively and distinct from the knower. This view is called Natural Realism.
  2. Rene Descartes (d. 1650) and the majority of modern philosophers who followed him, hold that it is the representation or likeness of the reality which the mind forms of the reality known. This Descartes called the idea. The system is called Representationism and sometimes Idealism. For Descartes, my fundamental certitude is that I am thinking (cogito). I can doubt everything else, even the real existence of the visible world, but I cannot doubt that I am a thinking subject, endowed with a number of innate ideas such as that of an Infinite being.

This second (Cartesian) system has two main weaknesses.

  • It is not a true account of knowledge as we experience it – that is, an act by means of which we know something e.g. that the tree before me is in fact a tree - an existent reality distinct from myself.

  • Representationism leads inevitably to total scepticism. For we have no means of bridging the gap between the idea and the reality it purports to represent, to ascertain whether it represents it correctly, that is, as it is in reality. As Mascall writes in The Openness of Being: "Once you have refused to assume the reliability of your apprehension of beings other than yourself and have postulated that the objects of your perception are prima facie states of your mind, you are launched on the endless process of trying ineffectually to escape from the prison of your own subjectivity." That this subjective Representationism leads inevitably to total scepticism was demonstrated historically by David Hume (d. 1776), for this was the position that Hume was compelled to adopt as the conclusion that follows inevitably from the principle laid down by Descartes.

In his encyclical Faith and Reason, Pope John Paul II certainly upheld the doctrine defined by the First Vatican Council, that God, the Creator of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 1:20. But he also praised those modern philosophers who, beginning with immanence, go on to affirm that from this beginning we can proceed, logically, to assert the real existence of an objective universe that transcends our consciousness. Moreover, the Holy Father himself has acknowledged that in epistemology he has adopted the philosophical theory of Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl known as phenomenology. George Weigel, in his biography of John Paul II, has described how, when the Pope was a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy in the Catholic University of Lublin, he, together with some other teachers of the same mind, developed a synthesis which combined the phenomenology of Husserl and Scheler with the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. They held that this is superior to the synthesis of Aquinas, because it makes more allowance for the peculiarities of the individual person, in the sphere of morals. (Indeed, the Holy Father has said that the Church is not committed to the thought of Aquinas, a comment with which one must disagree, since several dozen popes - listed in Maritainís short study of St. Thomas - have said the opposite, notably Leo XIII and Pius XI.)

It is clear, however, that this synthesis of the Polish philosophers is not intellectually viable, because phenomenology incorporates the Cartesian notion of knowledge with its subjectivism. The same must be said of the system known as Transcendental Thomism developed in the 1920s by Joseph Marechal, a Belgian Jesuit philosopher-psychologist-biologist, and adopted by Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Marechal maintained that one could start with the subjectivist epistemology of Kant (a disciple of Descartes), and, without any fallacy in the reasoning process, arrive at the realist metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. But as Hume had clearly seen, if you start with the Cartesian account of knowledge, you end inevitably in total scepticism.

Those critical of John Paul IIís philosophical stance in this regard are in good company. They need only point to Pius XIís damning contrast between the realist account of knowledge of St. Thomas and the Cartesian subjectivism of most modern philosophers in Studiorum Ducem, as quoted elsewhere in this edition by James Larson. Pius states that the "irrefragable" (indisputable) doctrine of St. Thomas "goes to the root of the errors and opinions of those modern philosophers who maintain that it is not being in itself which is perceived in the act of intellection, but some modification of the percipient; the logical consequence of such errors is agnosticism, which was so vigorously condemned in the Encyclical Pascendi (#15)."