The Psychology of Natural and Supernatural Knowledge according to St. Thomas Aquinas

1476 --- St. Thomas Aquinas from by Carlo Crivelli --- Image by © National Gallery Collection; By kind permission of the Trustees of the National Gallery, London/CORBISThe Psychology of Natural and Supernatural Knowledge according to St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Riplinger

University of Tübingen (2003)


1. My approach to Aquinas theory of cognition

For some 50 years now, I have been studying the texts of St. Thomas on cognition. Over the years periods of intensive study of the texts have alternated with periods of reflection without reference to concrete texts and long periods in which the topic lay fallow, because I was occupied with other concerns. These long periods of gestation gave me a distance to the texts, thus enabling me to grasp the big picture more clearly than I did when working strictly with the texts themselves. Thus each time I return to the texts, I am surprised to find that I understand them better than the last time I looked at them. In what follows, I proposed to synthesize my current understanding of St. Thomas thinking on cognition without reference to specific texts, hoping that when I retire in four years I will have the strength and ability to rewrite my Dubuque masters thesis on Thomas theory of knowledge to provide the textual basis for what I describe here.

2. Heuristic principles

From Ashley and Weisheipl I learned to read the texts of St. Thomas in the historical context of Aquinas natural science. At the same time I learned, however, that to understand Aristotles and Thomas natural science, one must attempt to transpose it into the natural science of our own day. Thus, when Thomas speaks of lumen, it is not enough to simply translate it as light; we must then also call up our own knowledge of visible light as a specific portion of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation emitted by or absorbed by molecules constituting the emitter or receiver of this light. Similarly, when Thomas talks about sound, we must think of compression waves in a medium. Again what is audible sound is only a small segment of the spectrum of such waves. The same holds true for the other proper sensibles and for the sense organs that perceive them. In each case, we must translate Aquinas remarks into our own science, because this is what he would do if he were talking to us today. In the text that follows, I will not attempt to analyse texts or to reconstruct Thomass own natural science background. This work I did some 30 years ago when I wrote and partially reworked my lectorate thesis on Experiential conceptual and intuitive moments in the knowledge of faith, This was a close textual study of Aquinas theory of natural human cognition and its application to theological cognition. This is the text I hope to rework in the years to come. Instead I shall present here only my own interpretation of Thomas positions as transposed into the natural and social science of our own day.


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