The Seven Liberal Arts are Speculative Sciences

Written by on October 17th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Liberal Arts Aquinas

|||Aquinas, Thomas. The Division and Methods of the Sciences. Translated by Armand Maurer. Fourth Rev. Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 1986.|||

The Seven Liberal Arts The seven liberal arts do not adequately divide theoretical philosophy; but, as Hugh of St. Victor says, seven arts are grouped together (leaving out certain other ones), because those who wanted to learn philosophy were first instructed in them. And the reason why they are divided into the trivium and quadrivium is that ‘they are as it were paths (viae) introducing the quick mind to the secrets of philosophy.’ This is also in harmony with the Philosopher’s statement in the Metaphysics that we must investigate the method of scientific thinking before the sciences themselves. And the Commentator says in the same place that before all the other sciences a person should learn logic, which teaches the method of all the sciences; and the trivium concerns logic. The Philosopher also says in the Ethics that the young can know mathematics but not physics, because it requires experience. So we are given to understand that after logic we should learn mathematics, which the quadrivium concerns. These, then, are like paths leading the mind to the other philosophical disciplines. We may add that among the other sciences these are called arts because they involve not only knowledge but also a work that is directly a product of reason itself; for example, producing a composition, syllogism or discourse, numbering, measuring, composing melodies, and reckoning the course of the stars. Other sciences (such as divine and natural science) either do not involve a work produced but only knowledge, and so we cannot call them arts, because, as the Metaphysics says, art is “productive reason”; or they involve some bodily activity, as in the case of medicine, alchemy, and other sciences of this kind. These latter, then, cannot be called liberal arts because such activity belongs to man on the side of his nature in which he is not free, namely, on the side of his body. And although moral science is directed to action, still that action is not the act of the science but rather of virtue, as is clear in the Ethics. So we cannot call moral science an art; but rather in these actions virtue takes the place of art. Thus, as Augustine says, the ancients defined virtue as the art of noble and well-ordered living. pp. 17-18

In this article, I want to consider how the alterations in Western science and curricula has bequeathed a particularly problematic issue with regard to the nature of the “liberal arts.” Allow me to be clear that my remarks are something of a Thomist’s musings. I do not think that this perspective is distorting (otherwise I would have little desire to be a Thomist), but it will color my approach, particularly epistemologically. Likewise, it is not my intention to start a polemic on a profound and important topic in our culture, which so desperately needs an increase in appreciation for the perennially human value of the classical curriculum and the liberal arts.

For our reflections is helpful to consider the liberal arts in their classical division according to the “trivium” and “quadrivium.” The “trivium” are so-called because they have three subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Note that Thomas states that these three subjects pertain to logic. The claim might seem strange at first sight, given that logic has its own place in the list of “trivial arts.” Are we not thus positing a given term as its own genus—logic thus being in the broader genus containing logic? This perplexity is salutary, for it helps to realize something about these first three subjects of the liberal arts curriculum and the curriculum more broadly.

Before we undertake studies in any particular body of knowledge, we must be clear on how we use language and organize concepts. This remark is perhaps a bit anodyne, but how we have forgotten this—or at least so it seems! Often, logic is at best relegated to some undergraduate collage class, and even organized Catholic seminary programs will sometimes (due to schedule constraints) have students taking logic at the very end of their two years of philosophical studies. (Sadly, this was the case for me during that period of my life—what absurdity indeed!) The logic of the trivium, however, is not meant to be a full treatment of the Posterior Analytics or the entirety of advanced symbolic logic. In the medieval university, the trivium was meant to be an introduction to grammar, to rhetoric, and to logic, functioning as a propaedeutic cursus of studies before one enters the other faculties (theology, law, or medicine).

In reality, the arts were closer to being an advanced high school education than they are to being a full college curriculum. This is not meant to demean the liberal arts. (Nay, if anything it is likely a chiding of the current state of education.) However, what I would note is that the Faculty of Arts never totally differentiated itself well from the Aristotelian cursus when it entered the West in the 13th century. Separated from theology, the cursus of the philosophical sciences (e.g. natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics) became part of the Arts faculty. This does create a significant ambiguity, for these subjects thus take up habitation in a faculty that had been heretofore propaedeutic. In reality, philosophical wisdom really concerns subjects that deserve their own separate faculty—for which the liberal arts would play a propaedeutic role similar to that which it played for the other faculties.

Regarding the “quadrivium,” I would like to say a great deal but must be limited to one brief observation. We actually should be more struck than we likely are regarding the hefty role played by mathematics in all four subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Clearly arithmetic and geometry are mathematical. The case of the other two subjects might not appear to be such at first. However, both music (in the sense of “harmonics”) and astronomy consider their subject matters from a formally mathematical perspective—harmonics in terms of ratios and astronomy being akin to the mathematical view of planetary motion that would be so powerfully developed in modernity.

Let us note, however, that these branches of knowledge are in a rather paradoxical situation. It is very likely that one who is engrossed in their study can quickly forget their limitations. Let us merely take the first two cases of mathematics: arithmetic and geometry. Mathematical abstraction is quite a mysterious and often confounding affair: Is it constructive or is it real? The practical ends to which these things have been employed attest to the reality of mathematical physics. (We have indeed travelled to the moon, born upon the wings of significant mathematical calculations.) However, a number of the epistemological crises of early 20th century physics arose precisely because physics reflectively became aware that it had been floating above the ground for quite some time. The old Newtonian ontology could no longer hold in an absolute sense, though it did still function well for measurements in the “middle dimensions.” Nevertheless, the formal mathematicism had to be acknowledged for what it was: an semi-idealized construction that should not be grafted on to reality with a crude sort of geometrical realism.

Let us be more bold, however: All of the liberal arts are not about reality. I hear the angry shouts: “Now wait!” Let me explain what I mean. When we consider not only the quadrivium courses but likewise the courses of the trivium, the formal object of these disciplines is some sort of concept that is directly tied with human cognition as such. In the case of the quadrivium, this bond is formed by the mathematical. Kant is correct after a fashion when he says that mathematics proceeds through the construction of concepts.1 His account is quite thin in the final analysis, but it does capture well the role of construction in human intellection of mathematical realities. In the case of the trivium, logic is the best example of a science of second intentions—“words about words” or “concepts about concepts.” As Aquinas notes in the selection above: “We may add that among the other sciences these are called arts because they involve not only knowledge but also a work that is directly a product of reason itself.”

My conclusion, of course, is not that we should make the liberal arts pure viae. Indeed not! They have their own speculative value and cannot be reduced to purely practical arts—for their ends remain immanent in intellection. Since they are integrally tied to intellection they are (pace any idealistic pretenses on the matter) grounded on reality. In his Ars Logica, John of St. Thomas defends the position that logic is primarily speculative and that it has its own intrinsic worth as a subject to be studied.2 The point clearly transfers to the other liberal arts. Nevertheless, I would like to sound a word of caution: Do not forget that these speculative arts are still not as noble as the sciences that grapple with reality as such—above all philosophy and theology, though we sorely need to place the other disciplines vis-a-vis such an outline. In any case, let us elevate the liberal arts appropriately—for they are liberal indeed. However, more magnanimous still are the sciences that grapple with reality in a purely speculative (and hence, quasi-contemplative) manner—and here, I say “metaphysics” and “theology” with the unabashed candor of a Thomist. The liberal arts are ways, viae—indeed, important viae—to wisdom, but they are not that beautiful queen sophia or that “sapientia quae ex ore altissimi prodivit.3

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. William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (New York: Holt, 1905), 365. 

  2. See (e.g.)Aquinas, De veritate q.15 a.1, ST I q.79 a.8. 

  3. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.54 aa.1-3. 

  4. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.58 a.1. 

  5. Jacques Maritain, Réflexions sur l’Intelligence et sur sa Vie Propre (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer), 25 (my translation). 

  6. ibid. 

  7. Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles 1.46 

  8. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.55 a.1