Scholastic Retrieve [1] – Philosophical Science: Congruence

In the first part of a new on-going series—a project of retrieval which brings Scholasticism to a living import for today—I am going to ask about the relationship between distinction and understanding.   This falls into a broader consideration of philosophical method.  Because philosophy is a science of “common reason”—i.e., it needs no other instrument than that which all human beings possess and hence is called “cenoscopic” science as opposed to “idioscopic”[1]—it is often assumed, wrongly, that philosophy needs no particular method, approach, or distinguishing characteristics.  “Any thinking is a kind of philosophy!”  This sort of attitude strips away philosophy’s distinctive “scientific” character.

Over the next several entries, I am going to build up a picture of philosophy’s scientific nature and show that it does possess a specific method.  To start, I want to look at a text from Thomas Aquinas’ Super Boetium De Trinitate, namely from the tertia pars, frequently referenced in recent Thomistic thought as the “Division and Method of the Sciences” (in large part due to a translation by Armand Maurer by that title).  Given the topic I am considering, this seems an obvious starting place; the text in question is from the proemium to the tertia pars and includes poignant statements that will help us greatly understand the nature of philosophical science.  Below is the text in parallel Latin and English (translation my own).

Latin English
Dicit ergo… age, adverbium exhortandi, ingrediamur, id est interius inquiramus ipsa intima rerum principia considerantes et veritatem quasi velatam et absconditam perscrutantes, et hoc modo convenienti; unde subdit: et unumquodque dicendorum discutiamus, ut potest intelligi atqua capi, id est per modum quo possit intelligi et capi.

Et dicit haec duo, quia modus, quo aliqua discutiuntur, debet congruere et rebus et nobis.  Nisi enim rebus congrueret, res intelligi non possent; nisi vero congrueret nobis, nos capere non possemus, utpote res divinae ex natura sua habent quod non cognoscantur nisi intellectu.  Unde si aliquis vellet sequi imaginationem in consideratione earum, non posset intelligere, quia ipsae res non sunt sic intelligibiles.  Si autem aliquis vellet res divinas per se ipsas videre ea certitudine et comprehendere, sicut comprehenduntur sensibila et demonstrationes mathematicae, non posset hoc modo capere propter defectum intellectus sui, quantumvis ipsae res sint secundum se hoc modo intelligibiles.  Et quod modus congruous sit in inquisitione qualibet observandus, probat inducendo auctoritatem philosophi in principio Ethicorum, et hoc est quod subiungit: nam sicut optime dictum videtur, scilicet ab Aristotele in principio Ethicorum: eruditi hominis est ut unumquodque ipsum est, id est per modum congruum ipsi rei, ita de eo fidem capere temptare.  Non enim de omnibus rebus potest aequalis certitudo et evidentia demonstrationis servari.  Et sunt haec verba philosophi in I Ethicorum: disciplinati enim est in tantum certitudinem inquirere secundum unumquodque genus, in quantum natura rei recipit.

Therefore [Boethius] says… “come”, an adverb of exhortation, “let us enter in”, that is, let us inquire within the very intimate principles of things, considering and thoroughly examining them as though both veiled and hidden, and [conducting] this [inquiry] in a fitting mode; for which reason he adds, “and carefully distinguishing each thing” being discussed, “insofar as it is able to be grasped and understood”, that is, through the mode by which it is able to be understood and grasped.

And he says these two [“carefully distinguishing each thing” and “insofar as it is able to be grasped and understood”],[2] because the mode by which the things are distinguished ought to congrue both to things and to us.  Unless the mode of distinguishing congrue to things, the things would not be able to be understood; and unless the mode congrue to us, we would not be able to grasp them, since divine things [including those of “natural theology” or metaphysics] by nature cannot be cognized except by the intellect.  If one wished to follow the imagination in consideration of them, he would not be able to understand, because those things are not thus intelligible.  If someone wished to see and comprehend divine things through themselves with certitude, as sensible things and mathematical demonstrations are comprehended, that someone would not be able to seize on them in this way on account of the defect of the intellect, although these things are through themselves intelligible in this way.  And that a congruent mode ought to be observed in any inquiry, he proves by invoking the authority of the Philosopher in the beginning of the Ethics, and this is what Boethius adds when he says, “for as it seems to have been best said”, namely by Aristotle in the beginning of the Ethics, “that it belongs to erudite humans concerned with whatever something is”—that is, through the mode congruent to a thing itself—“accordingly to attempt to grasp that thing with accuracy [or ‘fidelity’].”  For it is not possible to preserve equal certitude and demonstrative evidence for everything.  And these are the words of the Philosopher in I Ethics: “The well-educated inquires only after as much certitude in each genus as may be received from the nature of the thing.”

The exhortation of Boethius, on which Aquinas expounds, clearly demonstrates that this is no casual or pragmatic questioning, but a careful and theoretical inquiry—inquiring “within the very intimate principles of things”.  These are the principles that make things to be what they are: their fundamental causes.  These causes are not immediately evident; certainly not to the senses.  Consequently, to unveil these principles the things themselves must be “carefully distinguished”.  The Latin verb here, discutio, used in a post-classical meaning, is often found in the texts of Thomas (mostly Biblical commentaries, but found sparingly in other texts) to signify extreme precision.  This follows in derivation from the term’s classical use, which signifies an extreme fragmentation or dissipation into many parts.  Discutio, therefore, signifies that we distinguish until we cannot distinguish any further.

But this distinguishing is not something we can artificially manufacture and thereby improve our knowledge of the object in question.  Rather, the distinctions depend upon the nature of the object itself and the mode by which, through which, it is disclosed to us.  This mode has a twofold demand upon it: one, that it congrue[3] to things and, two, that it congrue to us.   On the one hand, this seems obvious.  On the other, a great many philosophical theories have missed the necessity of distinctions congruing to things: every idealism and every nominalism, for instance, has held for some kind of validity in knowledge which may not accurately correspond to the reality independent of its relation to the mind.  Likewise, every mysticism which claims any direct knowledge of the divine—or the strictly, positively immaterial, considered separately from the corporeal reality we inhabit—misses the necessity of distinctions congruing to us, albeit usually by a mistake concerning the nature of human beings and specifically the nature of human cognition; making us embodied intellects or spirits, a kind of angelism.

Thus, for our inquiry into the “very intimate principles of things”, we can have neither pure intellect nor pure imagination, but need both: for these objects can only be understood with the intellect—since they are of such a nature that we must understand them as things in themselves, i.e., independently of their relation to us as objects of strictly practical significance—but not with the intellect alone; because everything the intellect knows it knows from what is originally in the senses, it cannot grasp these “intimate principles”, these metaphysical objects, through a direct and immediate comprehension.  Because of the objects’ nature and because of the nature of human cognition, we need to pursue a genuinely congruent mode of understanding; not one which attempts to force together some pairing.

It is for this reason that Boethius invokes the words of Aristotle.  In the cited text from the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is saying that, since ethics is a matter concerned with particular variables, one should not hope to find absolute and universal laws to govern all ethical situations.  Thus, while there are certain inviolable laws governing human behavior—murder, rape, etc.—nevertheless more often than not, determining the precise right thing to do in a given situation of moral difficulty will require prudence to sort through the various contingencies.  In a similar manner, metaphysics deals with issues beyond the ken of human capacity to perceive with perfect clarity or comprehension—as even those things we may comprehend well are nevertheless grasped through analogical relations.

Now, while Boethius and as consequently Aquinas are here concerned particularly with how to conduct a metaphysical study, there are important lessons contained within for the whole of philosophical method.  The twofold congruence—which carefully distinguishes what it is we are discussing and the mode through which we approach it—is essential to every serious inquiry or study.  A failure to carefully distinguish one’s object leads to myriad confusions.  If one does not specify in an inquiry concerning derivations of positive law from the natural law, for instance, whether those derivations are as a conclusion from a premise or as the determination of a generality, grave error can follow.  The first such derivation has the same force as natural law, where the latter does not.  Hence, conflating or failing to distinguish in what sense a human precept is claimed to be derived from the natural law may obscure the necessity of obedience to that law, or whether it is one among many options and might be better replaced by a different law which better suits the current circumstances.  Likewise if one fails to use the proper means of disclosure—say, leaving discourse fully in the abstract without affecting a return to sensory perception—ambiguities about what is meant, or an implication that there is some direct knowledge of what in itself cannot be known directly, will undermine one’s study.

In the next entry, we are going to look more closely at the instrument whereby we make our distinctions: namely, logic.

[1] Though I am no fan of Jeremy Bentham on the whole, he astutely divided the then-emerging sciences of specified, extended means from the philosophical or common-reason sciences into “idioscopic” (or “ideoscopic” as some spell it) and “cenoscopic”, respectively, from the Greek roots meaning “specific” and “common”.  Charles Peirce took up this division and furthered it in his own attempts at classifying the sciences.

[2] Maurer editorializes by reading haec duo to signify intelligi et capi; but given the ensuing context, this does not make sense.

[3] The English word “congrue”, now considered obsolete, is not only a transliteration of its Latin cognate congruere, but imports the etymological significance of this Latin root: ruere, meaning to rush or fall upon (“falling” being a frequent image of Thomas’ language about cognition (e.g., 1270: ST Ia-IIae, q.94, a.2, c.: “Illud primo cadit in apprehensione…”, cadit having “fall” for one of its specifically-Medieval meanings).  Thus, to congrue means to fall (or rush) upon ___ together with falling (or rushing) upon ___.  This, I think, a more accurate translation therefore than “conform” (as Maurer uses), for to conform suggests a kind of forcing of that which conforms—a making it fit—rather than a prior fittingness.

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