Many contemporary philosophers are unsure how to read Thomas. He was in his primary and official profession a theologian. Nonetheless, we find among his writings works anyone would recognize as philosophical and the dozen commentaries on Aristotle increasingly enjoy the respect and interest of Aristotelian scholars.
Through an examination of Aquinas, the question of the relationship between philosophy and theology is raised. The authors of this encyclopedia entry offer a clear distinction between philosophy and theology. Before getting to Aquinas, it is worth taking this slight detour:
The first and major formal difference between philosophy and theology is found in their principles, that is, starting points.
Each, apparently, is built on a different foundation.
The presuppositions of the philosopher, that to which his discussions and arguments are ultimately driven back, are in the public domain, as it were. They are things that everyone in principle can know upon reflection; they are where disagreement between us must come to an end.
OK so far.
By contrast, the discourse of the theologian is ultimately driven back to starting points or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith, that is, the truths that are authoritatively conveyed by Revelation as revealed by God.
My initial reaction to this is that I see little difference. Now, if we are living in a universe of random atoms smashing together randomly…well then, I wonder: what is the point of philosophy? But if in humans we find Plato’s Form of the Good – as Aristotle suggests – and that “Good” is God, then what everyone can know upon reflection (philosophy) is also revealed to them by God (theology).
It seems this is not quite what the authors are getting at. The authors are considering things like salvation through Jesus, the nature of Jesus, etc. They offer an excerpt from Thomas on this, where he concludes:
“Thus there is nothing to prevent another science from treating in the light of divine revelation what the philosophical disciplines treat as knowable in the light of human reason.”
Again, through Plato and Aristotle, perhaps they are the same thing. The authors summarize:
…Aquinas suggests here that there are in fact elements of what God has revealed that are formally speaking philosophical and subject to philosophical discussion—though revealed they can be known and investigated without the precondition of faith. In other words, even something that is as a matter of fact revealed is subject to philosophical analysis, if religious faith is not necessary to know it and accept it as true.
Thomas offers that such matters include the nature of God, the nature of the human person, what is necessary for a human being to be good and to fulfill his destiny, etc.
…there can be both a theological and a philosophical discussion of those subjects, providing for a fruitful engagement between the theological and the philosophical.
This is the region that Thomas occupies, and – according to the encyclopedia’s authors – where he “provide[s] some of his very best philosophical reflection.”
So what of Christian philosophers? Can such an individual come to the field untainted by his beliefs of faith? The authors address this as well:
The proper philosopher may be thought to be someone—perhaps merely some mind—without antecedents or history who first comes to consciousness posing a philosophical question the answer to which is pursued without prejudice.
The authors offer that no philosopher comes into Philosophy 101 without a couple of decades of baggage of some sort. Yet modern philosophy since Descartes expects this:
Only after appropriate epistemological cleansing is the mind equipped to make its first warranted knowledge claim. Knowledge thus becomes a deliverance of philosophy, a product of philosophizing. Outside of philosophy there is no knowledge.
But it just doesn’t happen – despite the insistence by those who believe they are the keepers of pure, unadulterated reason. Consider the question of the immortality of the soul as taken up by the non-believing philosopher:
Let us imagine that he holds in a more or less unexamined way that all events, including thinking, are physical events. If as a philosopher he should happen take up the question of the immortality of the soul, he is going to regard with suspicion those classical proofs which rely on an analysis of thinking as a non-physical process.
In other words, philosophers of both stripes – believers and non-believers – carry the same baggage:
The importance of this is that a believer runs the risk of accepting bad proofs of the non-physical character of thinking and thus of the human soul. On the other hand, a committed physicalist may be too quick to accept a bad proof that thinking is just a physical process.
Does this make agreement impossible? According to the authors, theoretically, no. Both sides should be able to agree on what constitutes a good proof.
But the important point is that antecedent dispositions and expectations are the common condition of philosophers, believers and unbelievers alike.
Ultimately, though, believers hold the upper hand: they at least have revelation on which to hang their hats; non-believers have (in my words) “because I said so.” At least the believers admit their pre-existing baggage.
Where does this leave Thomas? Does he count in the ranks of philosophers, or is he to be dismissed?
As a philosopher Thomas is emphatically Aristotelian. … He adopted Aristotle's analysis of physical objects, his view of place, time and motion, his proof of the prime mover, his cosmology. He made his own Aristotle's account of sense perception and intellectual knowledge. His moral philosophy is closely based on what he learned from Aristotle…
Yet Thomas was not merely building on a foundation of Aristotle. He came to an understanding of Neo-Platonism through the works of other early philosophers. The authors present a philosopher that – while grounded in Aristotle – is not building solely on Aristotle, and one who is not afraid to confront Aristotle if deemed appropriate.
Thus far, what the authors present is a picture of Thomas as a serious philosopher, one both building on and critical of Aristotle, one who is well read regarding many philosophers and schools.
In the next chapter, we will examine Thomas’s metaphysics.