Medieval Philosophy Mid-Term

I’ve been pretty busy with school lately, and it has eaten up much of my blogging time. However, I thought perhaps I could just post some of my short essay answers to some exams I’ve been doing. I think the only interesting exam I did recently was one for a class in Medieval Philosophy, so I’ll post my six short answers for that one.

“Among numbers by the laws of nature the most suitable for productivity is 6…”
~Philo Judæus of Alexandria

1. A) Three claims of Judeo-Christian theology which seem incompatible with Greek Philosophy.

Among features of Judeo-Christian theology seeming incompatible with Greek philosophy, at least three are noteworthy: i) creation out of nothing (Creatio Ex Nihilo), ii) the doctrine of the fall, and iii) the notion of the resurrection of the body. Taking these in turn, we can say that creatio ex nihilo, which was the doctrine that God created the world out of no pre-existent matter (no pre-existent element(s) or ingredient(s) which was/were potentially reducible to the state of the actuality of the world – therefore that the world had no material cause), was considered intellectually unconscionable since, as Parmenides stated, ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes). Even Plato’s Demiurge was only thought to have imposed the forms which already existed as necessary beings onto matter which also already pre-existed but had not yet been formally reduced. However, in the Judeo-Christian tradition this idea of God creating the world out of nothing (neither matter nor the ingredients for any substances) was an absolutely central notion propounded in Hebrew Scriptures in such places as the creation account in the book of Genesis, and also in Jewish writings such as 2 Maccabees.[1] This same idea carries over into the New Testament[2] as well. The doctrine of the Fall of man represented a feature of Judeo-Christian belief, perhaps particularly highlighted in the Christian tradition, which proposed a cosmogony according to which creation began in a pristine condition and fell into a cosmic catastrophe shortly thereafter. According to typical Greek cosmogonies the world was either thought of as going through cyclical phases of gradual process of an undeveloped state and eschatological calamity reducing everything back to an undeveloped state, as for instance Aristotle or Empedocles thought, or else consisted in a straightforward narrative of progress out of an undeveloped state. The doctrine of the Fall, therefore, was entirely alien to the Greek philosopher. However, of all the features of the Judeo-Christian tradition which were unconscionable for Greek philosophy, none was more reviled and perplexing to the Greek philosopher than the notion of the resurrection of the body unto everlasting life. This tradition, however, was clearly expressed in the standard pharisaic eschatological anticipation of the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world,[3] and was also part of Christian belief, at the center of which was the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had risen bodily from the dead.[4]  Greek philosophers maintained that only such things as were immaterial were incorruptible and therefore could exist forever. For instance, Plato’s forms were indestructible and eternal, and many Greek philosophers argued that the same was true of the soul insofar as the soul was both immaterial and simple (non-composite), but none argued that the body could exist forever.

2. A) How successful is Philo’s explanation of creation by referring to the image in an artisan’s mind?

Philo of Alexandria, a Middle-Platonist, is well known for having moved Plato’s forms, with which Plato’s Demiurge was faced as beings other than himself, and beings which existed of necessity, into the eternal Logos (λόγος) or mind of God. He thus offers a cosmogony which is radically different from Plato’s. First Philo identifies the principle element or ingredient of the created world as the intelligible world (world of the forms). “So when He [God] willed to create this visible world He first fully formed the intelligible world, in order that He might have the use of a pattern wholly God-like and incorporeal in producing the material world.” In order to illustrate his point Philo uses the analogy of an artisan, like a painter, who, before painting, must have the formal cause of the painting in mind, so that she can paint according to a pattern. He says “There comes forward now and again some trained architect who, observing the favourable climate and convenient position of the site, first sketches in his own mind wellnigh all the parts of the city.” So “the image of the city… is the creation of his mind.” Similarly, Philo suggests, God created the world by first creating the blueprint for it, which is just to say that God created the whole template of platonic forms.

The analogy, though brilliant, may be admitted to be ‘not without its problems’. For example one can note the qualitative difference between what the artisan does when seeking for a formal cause, and what God did in creating forms themselves. Indeed, if God created the ideas themselves, we might credulously ask, where did he get the idea to do so, and if he created forms because he wanted to create a world then did he not thereby already have a formal cause of his creating forms? Such difficulties may admit of answers, but they certainly don’t admit of easy answers. For example, perhaps one could adopt the view that forms are necessary beings, but supervene on God’s very nature (though this would be unorthodox by Roman Catholic canons today). Alternatively we could argue that nowhere in Philo’s account does he have to explain how it is possible for God to be motivated to create ideas in the absence of ideas, anymore than he has to explain what makes it possible for the artist to be motivated in the first place (presumably these would both require formal causes of their own). Finally, we could also say that it is logically possible that God chose to create something analogous to himself (being a Trinity) without having had any other idea in mind than his own essence, and that the world of ideas/forms derives from his essence (itself a ‘Form’ of a different order), not necessarily but by consequence of his choosing to create something analogous to himself. It may seem like the problem is residual, for there is at least one Form which God could not have created, which is his own Form, but the seminal point is this: Philo’s analogy did not aim to explain the origin of form itself, so much as forms generally along with explaining how God created the world which exists by first (logically, not chronologically) creating that world formally (the forms), just as the painter first conceived a formal painting, and to this extent his analogy is, it seems to me, very clever and successful.

3.B) How does Augustine’s Refutation by Disjunctive opposites point to what is most knowable, according to Neo-Platonists?

Augustine says: “There are two types of things one can know; one comprises what the mind perceives with the aid of the bodily senses, the other what it perceives on its own. While the bablings of these philosophers [Skeptics like Carneades] have some relevancy in regard to the former, they are completely powerless to cast doubt on what the mind on its own perceives to be most certainly true.

Where Aristotle proposed that there was nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses, Plato and the platonic tradition affirmed instead that there was a sharp contrast between the world of the senses and the world of ideas, forms, or what today are called universals. True knowledge was found in universals, in the world of the forms, and true knowing consisted, therefore, in that which could be known by the mind/soul alone, without the aid (or contamination) of the senses, since the senses perceived only matter and not form. Knowledge which is mutable, such as what time it presently is, is not true knowledge, but knowledge of what is immutably true is truly knowledge. Augustine’s refutation of skepticism, in step with this platonic juxtaposition, advances by way of proposing that disjunctive opposites provide true knowledge (knowledge of forms) entirely independent of the aid of the senses, and therefore that the skeptic who claims that true knowledge is impossible is easily refuted (for example, because Augustine knows that either true knowledge is possible or it is not possible). First, Augustine proves by disjunctive opposites (generally reducible to the logical form ‘Pv~P’) that there are at least some things we can know: “For I am sure there is either only one world or more than one. I am also certain that if there is more than one, the number of worlds is either finite or infinite… For such statements are true in disjunction,” and again Show me then how sleep or insanity or sense deception make… the aforesaid disjunctions false.” ‘Knowledge’ imported into the mind by the senses is not only mutable but possibly falsely believed. It is in distinguishing knowledge which is most certainly true (about universals) from knowledge which can be attained with the aid of the senses (about the ‘world’) that Augustine’s argument finds its force, since by sanitizing (or rather quarantining) the first kind of knowledge from the fallibilism introduced by the senses Augustine finds no grounds to doubt the truth of that which is known by the mind alone. Insofar as disjunctive opposites obviate universal truths known by the mind alone they provide ways by which the mind can come to know with certainty that which is most knowable, according to Neo-Platonists.

But in the meantime even I, stupid and slow of mind though I be, can know this much about this good in which life’s happiness abides. Either it is to be found in the mind or the body or both or there is no such thing. Convince me, if you can, that I don’t know this.

4.B) Why is Commonness, according to Augustine, the standard for existence? How is the existence of God shown by using it?

Augustine presents a very long, and somewhat disappointing, argument for the existence of God which he takes to be shown in part by distinguishing between the private and public property of the soul. For the purposes of his argument he defines God as that than which nothing is greater in reality (which makes the existence of God practically tautological, so long as there are not two or more things of equal value than which nothing is in reality greater, and so long as things are more or less great). Augustine defines commonness in the following words: “By “common” and, as it were, “public” I mean what is perceived by everyone who perceives, without its being changed or destroyed.” He then argues “It is, therefore, clear that objects we do not change when we perceive them with our bodily senses do not become part of the nature of our senses and so are common to us, since they are not changed or turned into our own, as it were, personal property.” Examples may include objects we perceive by sight (insofar as they are seen), numbers, the highest good itself, and truth. The reason the standard for existence is a thing’s commonness, for Augustine, is that a thing’s commonness is (especially in the cases of ideas/forms rather than substances) something whose existence is objective, which is to say it is entirely independent of the mind. For example, a taste may not be independent of the mind of the taster, but a true proposition (like a disjunctive opposite) is a reality which must exist independent of the particular minds which may entertain it; it exists as public property, and its existence is therefore objective (i.e., does not depend on what anybody perceives or believes).

As Augustine’s argument advances he distinguishes lesser things from greater things by arguing that obviously there is one greatest thing, and this is the highest good (for nobody would disagree that the highest good must be greater than any lesser good). However, the Truth, being the canon of Wisdom which looks to the highest good as its object/end, must be that which exists objectively and is therefore greatest of all.

You granted, moreover, that if I showed you something higher than our minds, you would admit, assuming that nothing existed which was still higher, that God exists… Whether or not truth is God, you cannot deny that God exists, and this was the question with which we agreed to deal. If it disturbs you that we accept on faith that God is the “Father of Wisdom” in the Sacred Teaching of Christ, remember that we also accept on faith that wisdom born of the eternal is equal to the Father.

5. B) How does the principle that whatever is received is received according to the capacity of the receiver function in Philosophy’s argument [in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy]?

Philosophy states: “For just as knowledge of things happening now does not imply necessity in their outcomes, so foreknowledge of future things imposes no necessity on their outcomes in the future… The cause of this error lies in your assumption that whatever is known, is known only by the force and nature of the things which are known; but the opposite is true. Everything which is known is known not according to its own power but rather according to the capacity of the knower

Thus, Philosophy identifies what she takes to be the underlying presumption which leads Boethius and others into error in the matter of foreknowledge and freedom of the will. She suggests that if some event were to be known (with necessity/certainty) to occur in the future, and if it were known according to its nature rather than known according to the capacity of the knower, then the event in the future would be by nature necessary (since it is ‘necessarily‘ known). To illustrate this egregious mistake Philosophy offers an analogy. She distinguishes in Boethius different kinds of knowing such as knowing by the senses, by the imagination, by reason, and by the vision of intelligence. She explains that in the case of an object of perception such as a ball, the senses know the ball with the matter, but that the intelligence knows the ball without the matter, (i.e., with the form alone). Even though it is the same object being perceived, it is known according to the capacity of the knower with the faculty to know it. Reason, likewise, knows even without acquiring the form of a particular by simply knowing the form of its genus (thus knowing the same as species rather than determinative substance). The vision of intelligence goes beyond even the species and see’s the “pure form itself” (the essence or definition).

Do you see, then,” says She, “how all these use their own power in knowing rather than the powers of the objects which are known?

Finally, Philosophy, having settled the point about how that which is known is known according to the capacity of the knower, turns her attention to the capacity of the divine knower (God) to know all things, and argues that his knowledge is necessary, but that the objects of his knowledge are not themselves, by their own nature, necessary. Therefore, though He (God) knows as necessary all truths about the future, those truths are not themselves by nature necessary truths.

6. A) What is the consequence for Anselm’s proof of God’s existence of adopting a realist position on predicables?

Anselm famously offered an ontological argument for the existence of God which aims to demonstrate that the mind alone can come to know with certainty that God exists without any appeal whatsoever to the senses. Anselm’s argument can be abbreviated roughly as follows:

  1. God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality (and in the mind) than to exist only in the mind.
  3. If God does not exist in reality then God exists only in the mind.
  4. If God exists only in the mind then there exists something which could be conceived to be greater than God, namely a God who exists also in reality.
  5. However, if there exists something which could be conceived to be greater than God and God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived, then a contradiction is admitted.
  6. Therefore one must either admit that God exists in reality, or admit a contradiction.

One must distinguish between two senses in which one can interpret Anselm’s argument, and it will become clear, upon analysis, that while one can (perhaps) deny Anselm’s argument in speech, one cannot deny Anselm’s argument in thought. However, to the degree that Anselm’s argument intends to be probative, not only in the arena of thought but also in the real world, it must also presume the reality of the Aristotelian predicable of ὅρος (definition or ‘essence’). For example, the reality of essence must be presumed as existing not only in the mind determinatively but also in reality actually if one is to prove from the fact that some essence involves existence that that of which this is the essence exists. Thus even if a predicable like ‘essence’ were nomologically necessary (even to the extent of being logically necessary) that would not thereby license the claim that what is necessary in thought is necessary in reality. It may be necessary dialectically given the constitution of our cognitive faculties but not so in mind-independent reality. Therefore, we might say that Anselm’s argument hangs, in some sense, on whether one adopts a realist position on predicables. It is not enough to prove that one cannot predicate non-existence of God without semantic contradiction, or even to prove that one cannot in thought conceive of God without conceiving of God as existing, but one must prove that the presumption of the reality of predicables, according to which our thought dialectically operates, accurately reflects the fabric of the mind-independent world (the world must be thought to have a conceptual structure inherently, and not one merely imposed).

It may be possible to formulate the ontological argument differently, but it seems at least clear that if one accepts the reality of predicables then, short of arguing that the notion of God is unintelligible to the mind (for example if it itself involved a contradiction – which would be an interesting antinomy), Anselm’s argument, as here discussed, would establish that God exists in reality.


[1] 2 Maccabees 7:28 (See also Psalm 33:6; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 44:24, etc.)

[2] John 1:3; Romans 4:17; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3; Revelation 4:11

[3] Isaiah 26:19; 2 Maccabees 7:14; 12:43

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:13-17

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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