Roots of modern epistemology

A few days ago I asked the very philosophical question, “how do we know what we know?,” just touching on a topic that I happen to find extremely interesting.  I’m not an expert, by any means – if I were, I could be making a lot of money doing what I am doing here for free – and neither am I an expert on the history of epistemology.

What I do understand is that the origins of Western thought with regard to these matters dates back to ancient Greece, to Plato and his student Aristotle. For the first thousand years of the Church’s existence, Plato was of no little influence in both the Eastern and Western churches; Augustine was heavily influenced by Plato. At that time very little of Aristotle’s writings were even available in the West. It was not until Abelard came along around the year 1100 that an Aristotle-based philosophy began to develop. Abelard’s mentor was a realist, as you would expect. Abelard began to dismantle his professor’s arguments using Aristotelian logic and soon gathered a considerable following. His most famous quote is perhaps, “For by doubting we come to inquire, and by inquiring we perceive the truth.” While challenging Augustine’s position on original sin, he remained essentially orthodox in his theology. His logic, however, was no match for his love for Heloise, which nearly lost him is private parts.

The real shift toward what would become the “Age of Reason” came 30-40 years later with the appearance of Thomas Aquinas, the first medieval Christian to have access to all of the translated works of Aristotle. While having somewhat limited influence while he was alive, his writings eventually impacted most of the Western Christian world. His primitive thoughts on the essential nature of things – asking the question, “what can we know?” – set the stage for what would become modern science.  Aquinas proposed that all human knowledge – even that of God – came through our five senses, essentially establishing the concept of modern natural theology (Plato as well as Augustine also referred to natural theology, but did not limit “experience” to the 5 senses).

Thomas Cahill writes about the impact of Aquinas’ teaching on the western church:

Not even God’s revelation, filtered through scripture and church, could replace reason’s role in tackling and settling questions – since even God’s revelation must be approached, absorbed, and digested by human reason. … Such a philosophy must necessarily reduce the role of revelation and of church in the lives of those who subscribe to it, for it is the human mind, and it alone, that ultimately sits in judgment on the meanings of the scriptures and the pronouncements of the church, as on all else. (Mysteries of the Middle Ages, p. 215)

Cahill goes on to explain that in spite of this rationalistic approach to knowledge, Aquinas remained an orthodox believer, writing, “Three things are necessary for a human being’s salvation: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” He also wrote, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Obviously, Aquinas did not see any conflict between faith and reason.

Aquinas wasn’t universally accepted, however. While he was sainted about 50 years after his death, his teachings were still being debated. It wasn’t until 1879 that his teachings became the “official” teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, due to Pope Leo XIII. Cahill questions the basis for this decision, stating that Pope Leo “viewed Thomism principally as a weapon to be used against the rising political and social liberalism of nineteenth-century Europe.”

Regardless of the RCC’s official position, it would seem that the success of modernism is largely owing to Aquinas, whose influence is seen everywhere.  This is especially true within Western Christianity, as even most non-Catholics have succumbed to the prevailing worldview of modernism, as evidenced in the area of apologetics and the reliance upon reason in interpreting the Scriptures.  Most in the church would probably agree with Thomas when he says, “The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

But, what if he was wrong?  (hint: I tend to think he was.)

2 thoughts on “Roots of modern epistemology”

  1. I Kant say that I disagree with you…

    Augustine’s thinking, as you state above, is interesting in light of Godel’s Theorem – that we can only objectively understand a system from outside the system. Godel was thinking mathematically, but I think most philosophers agree that this argument is applicable to the analysis of systems in general. If true objectivity is therefore impossible, Kant would seem to be right (as would Kierkegaard). The leap to faith would then not only be reasonable, but necessary.

  2. Epistemology is a notoriously knotty subject. The more I read on the subject, the more I come to appreciate the essential mystery of how we know what we know — or at least what we think we know. Augustine recognized that because we “know” with our minds we are unable to objectively consider the process from “outside” our mental system. For him, and many others, this is the realm of faith. Faith is, according to Augustine, the only way we can move “above our minds.”

    I have always been intrigued by Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” with its a priori mental categories. The human mind is hardwired to contextualize the raw data of experience but human reason has definite limitations. In this way Kant reemphasizes the necessity of faith within the framework of Enlightenment assumptions.

    But then again, what do I know?

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