Hierarchy and Independence among the Sciences, Especially Philosophy and Theology

Written by on September 30th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Aquinas

|||Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Lander, Wyo: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012.|||

The School of Athens An instrument has two actions. One is instrumental, according to which it does not work by its proper power but by the power of a principal agent. The other is its proper action, which belongs to it in accordance with its proper form. Thus it belongs to an axe to cut by reason of its own sharpness; but to make a bed inasmuch as it is the instrument of art. The axe only accomplishes the instrumental action, however, by exercising its proper action, for it is by cutting that it makes a bed.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.62, a. 1, ad 2

There is a famous adage often attributed to the medieval conception of philosophy and often attributed to Aquinas, namely, that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Actually, the remark comes from St. Peter Damian’s evaluation of philosophy, an expression meant to be derisive or at least to place strict limits on the independent worth of philosophy in comparison with theological knowledge and the contemplative life. Peter Damian’s remark was expressed in the 11th century, an age still dominated in many ways by the culture of monasticism–indeed, a century directly preceding the great Cistercian reforms of the early 12th century. By the late 12th and early 13th century, such seeming disdain would be more problematic, if not less tempting. The 12th and 13th centuries mark a significant turning point in the West from which we have really never recovered in our basic conceptions–a fact that is attest to in expressions like “faith and reason”, “science and religion”, “church and state”, and so forth. My considerations here will only take up one aspect (and at a rather high level at that), namely the problem of providing a specifying object for theology and philosophy as distinct sciences. I propose to call the crisis of the 13th century the “Crisis of Infravalence” or, perhaps more dramatically, “The War of Instrumental and Infravalent Ends.”

With the advent of Aristotelian texts into the Latin West in the 12th century, it became quite clear that there was an entire system of thought able to discuss physical questions in a way quite different from those hitherto undertaken. Moreover, an entire logical, scientific, and metaphysical vocabulary was here exposited with a real aspiration to scientific validity, even to the point of speaking of the First Cause in a scientific manner separate from revealed theology.

The nature of this relationship comes to the fore when we ask, “What is an instrumental cause?” The question is pertinent, for philosophy would heretofore have been understood as something “instrumental” to the ratiocination of the theologians. An everyday example can be taken from the case of writing a note on a piece of paper. We can ask, “What/who wrote the note?” In answer, we doubly answer: “The pen wrote the note,” and, “John wrote the note.” Implicitly, we know that the second response is closer to the truth, but the action of the writing is not explicable without including some notion of the pen. Without it, the act would not be possible, but likewise, without an agent, no pen will write intelligent sentences.

Things get a bit more “hairy” when religious belief bears down on the notion of instrumental causality. In particular, revealed Monotheism has a particular tendency to weight the notion of causality so heavily on the “Divine Side” of the scales that all causality is reduced to being a form of Divine causality, generally arising from a desire to preserve Divine Omnipotence. Although we often associate this form of thinking with Double-Predestination doctrines in certain forms of Calvinism, the phenomenon has played out in many contexts. The early Islamic battles between the Mu’tazilites and Asharites in part struggled with this question, particularly in the context of the freedom of the human will. Likewise, even within papally recognized circles of Catholicism, one must not forget the raging battles between the Jesuits and the Dominicans in the 16th century. As Frederick Copelston amusingly remarks in the third volume of his A History of Philosophy: “Both Parties had full opportunity to state their respective cases [to the Papacy]; but the end of the matter was that both opinions were permitted. At the same time the Jesuits were forbidden to call the Dominicans Calvinists, while the Dominicans were told that they must not call the Jesuits Pelagians”1. These were heated matters, as Jacques Maritain reflected at the end of his life: “How pleased I am with that Dominican–his name, I think, was Thomas of Lemos–who, in the course of the celebrated debates de auxiliis held in the presence of the Pope, so ardently flung his arms about scientia media that he had to be shut up in a glass cage.”2

Recalling Thomas’ remarks above, the case of a pure instrument is really difficult to fathom. Every instrument acts in accord with its own line of causality. We do not paint with birds’ beaks but instead with brushes. Likewise, we might use music in order to promote a cause, but forms of music (admittedly in various ways) have a certain excellence that is specific to their given genera. In the 13th century, the question that became acute was: “Does philosophy have its own end?” If the question were answered affirmatively, it would then be followed: “In what manner is it separate from theology? How are they related?” The question really is not pressing when the instrument is a brush. There is an art to making brushes, but such an art is rarely pursued for its own sake. Philosophy–as a form of wisdom answering questions even about the Divine–is a far more complex affair, as attested to by the ensuing debates between “Radical Aristotelians” and “Augustinians” (let alone many, many similar disputes among other groups). But at least the gauntlet has been thrown down: If not every lower science is instrumental, how are we to understand its place in the hierarchy of knowledge? That is, if it is not instrumental, how is it to be understood in its infravalence?

Ultimately, traditional Thomism would explicitly frame these issues, though the formulation was not a simple affair. If philosophical wisdom is used instrumentally in theology, how does it function on its own? What is a science of “natural theology” in comparison with revealed theological wisdom? By what principles do each progress? What is the relation between the theological virtue of faith and the science of theology? If they are not reducible, how are they distinct? In parallel, these theological concerns were recapitulated in the context of the physical sciences, though it was here that the Aristotelians particularly found themselves to be a bit too hidebound, leading to a popular rejection of Aristotelianism–one with which any reader of 16th-18th century thinkers is quite familiar. Nevertheless, what was bequeathed to modernity was a project that was in a somewhat confused state, namely, an undertaking to understand the exact independence and hierarchy among the sciences. This is quite contrasted to a practical model of life–as that which would be the directing star of monastic life–which could unwaveringly subordinate all finalities to the practical guidance of a life devoted to the love of God. In the practical ordering of life, man can have only one master, and everything becomes subordinated (if only remotely) to life devoted to that master.

While there is an incipient hierarchical pluralism found within the views that were beginning to emerge at this period, much of the discussion became relegated very quickly to the sidelines, particularly finding itself most rigorously discussed only among the commentators on Aquinas. These discussions were fruitful and wide-ranging, but they did little to alter the course of modern thought–directly at least, though one could speak much of significant indirect influences.3 Modern epistemology has advanced under a very telescoped view of reason, matching its univocal notion of being with a unicity in its conception of human reason–or, the often-stated quasi-deity “Reason”. Descartes’ desire for a universal mathematicism–at least at the level of discussion of material reality–is of the same breed of mentality as that of the positivists of the late 19th and 20th centuries, with the latter bringing in sense data in the perplexing (and in many ways noble) attempt to understanding nature in a non-ontological fashion. Nevertheless, there is well attested in our university culture a shattered pluralism that yearns for a certain unity, one often to be accomplished at the cost of some (implicit or explicit) form of universal mathematicism.

Wherever such a unified vision of science exists, it is not surprising to find a corresponding attitude of “replacement” with each era. Therefore, when August Comte interpreted history as a progression of “three ages” (the “theological”, “metaphysical”, and “positive”), he did so by framing each within what he took to be the mode of explication in each age: divine causes, abstract causes, or experimental/”scientific” causes. Although on some topics I am hesitant to agree with Fr. De Lubac, I think he was extremely perspicacious when he wrote, “Where Comte saw three successive states, it is actually a case of ‘three coexistent modes of thought’, corresponding to three different aspects of things; thus progress consists in an increasingly clear distinction between these three aspects, at first perceived in a kind of chaotic unity. If, then, it is true to say that ‘physics’ (in the sense of the whole of science) began by being theological, it would be just as true to say that theology began by being physical, and the law of evolution does not tend to expel theology any more than science, but to ‘purify’ both by differentiating them.”4

Of course, we cannot deal with the whole breadth of this problem. However, I hope that I have shown you the initial outlines of how the 12th and 13th century are exceedingly important for understanding the crises of the hierarchy of sciences. The Renaissance would greatly exacerbate this crisis as the number of classical texts increased, the problems of statecraft became more independent in their secular finalities, and, of course, in the spiritual crisis heralded by the many events of the long period so-often simply called the “Reformation and Counter-Reformation.”

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. Frederick Copleson, A History of Philosophy, Volume III: Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy (New York: Image, 1993), 344. 

  2. Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself About the Present Time, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), 148. 

  3. Among such influences, one can consider not only the Jesuit scholasticism that was a (rejected) source for Descartes but likewise the more positive reflections found in (e.g.) Leibniz and Franz Brentano. 

  4. Henri De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Reiley et al., 7th ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 144-145