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Woodbury’s Exposition of the Nature of Knowledge

by John Ziegler

The old philosophical problem of Knowledge is one which no-one who does not elevate the mind, as Cajetan required, will see into. That alone has precluded certain crass philosophies from penetrating it. To begin with, one who is not fully in accord with Aristotle’s solution of the problem of Heraclitus and Parmenides, those ancient extremists, cannot share the insight of Aquinas and his commentators, particularly Cajetan, into its inner character.

That is, the theory of the nature of Potency and Act is fundamental to it. So, too, is the theory of Analogy, as it is to so much in philosophy, and even science in general.

Having said that, and perhaps having ‘scared off’ some people, I propose to say something about the fundamentals of understanding the nature of knowledge, as put forward by my old teacher and mentor, Austin Woodbury. His way of teaching this admittedly difficult topic has, I think, successfully led many to an understanding of it. Let us see.

He would begin by showing that to know is to have form. Now, the elementary notion of potency is of that which is determinable, and of act or form that which is its determinant. It is clear enough that a power of knowledge is determinable, as sight is insofar as visibles are concerned. When I see something, my sight is determined to that. Hence, the power of sight is a potency (we will say later that it differs from a potency like that of water for heat by being active). And clearly, what determines it, that which is visible, is its corresponding form. To know, then, in general, is to have form; it is for a power of knowledge to be in-formed.

Very well. Now, form is had commonly by matter, material things. Thus, water has a potency for, a capability of having, heat. Or again, this wall has a potency to be yellow. The heat, or the yellowness, determine those potencies. It will thus be of great value to compare the having of form by a material thing with the having of form by a knower, if we wish to discover how they differ.

How is form had by matter?

Consider the having of heat by the water. Suppose I start with some cold water, and heat it up by dropping a hot stone into it. The heat, some of it, begins by being in the stone, and ends by being in the water. It was confined to the stone, now it is confined to the water. It is confined by the very dimensions of the water to being the heat of the water, and of nothing else. Or again, this wall can be painted yellow. Suppose I get a tanker of yellow paint, enough to paint the wall many times over, and paint it. What I end with is one wall coloured yellow, and no more. The wall has a certain capacity to be painted yellow, and one can only fill that capacity, for all that one has surplus paint. That very potency of the wall for yellow, insofar as it is together a limit, ensures that the yellow is the yellow of the wall. That is to say, in the case of material things, form is appropriated by the matter, so that the form in a sense belongs exclusively to that matter. Matter appropriates form.

Think again of the wall. When I apply the yellow paint, obviously something happens to the wall. It is yellowed, physically yellowed. Moreover, something happens to the yellow paint. It is physically altered to take on the dimensions of the wall. Or again, think of heating the water. The water is physically determined to be hot; not metaphorically but really and physically. And likewise the heat ‘takes on’ the physical conditions of the water: its time and place, its dimensions. That is to say, in the having of form by matter, both the matter and the form are physically affected. Matter has form physically.

And again. Because matter has form physically, because the matter and the form physically alter each other, it happens that each imposes itself on the other until there is a certain equilibrium. Thus, the heat takes on certain characteristics of the water, and the water likewise those of the heat. What results from this mutual adjustment is not two, matter and form, water and heat, wall and yellow colour; what results is a certain unity, a compound unity. That is to say, in the in-forming of matter, what results is a compound of matter and form: hot-water, yellow-wall. Matter has form compositively.

So, then, stemming from the passive character of matter, in which the matter has nothing but what it receives from the agent impressing the form, we have the triple character of the having of form by matter: that matter appropriates form, that it is had physically and that it is had compositively.

Let us compare this having of form by matter with the having of form by a knower.

First, does the knower appropriate the form? At this point, we should take as evidence the common consent of mankind. For, do we believe that in seeing something, that I appropriate what I see? If that were so, it were futile to call your attention to a beautiful sight; for if that were so, the vision of it could only be private to me. And yet, we are, all of us, convinced that it is there for all to see. Even so, it is not that we rely on a mere popular notion, as if the mass of mankind could be deceived. For, to maintain the opposite, to say that the knower appropriates the form, so that it becomes the knower’s form to the exclusion of all others, is the intellectual suicide of solipsism.

Secondly, it is obvious that the knower is not physically affected by the form had. Knowing yellow does not render me physically yellow; contemplation of the high or the wide does not make me high- or broad- minded. Furthermore, whereas when matter has form, the form is affected by the matter – the heat takes on the conditions of the water – clearly, what I know, the view I see, remains unaffected utterly by my knowledge of it.

Thirdly, it is not true, either, that the knower and the known unite to compose a third thing, as is the case in the compound of matter and form. To see this fully, we need to divert briefly to the doctrine that holds that there is such a compound in knowledge: the doctrine historically taught by Immanuel Kant.

Kant holds that there exists the thing-in-itself, and there is the knower having its own conditions, so that the knower necessarily alters the thing-in-itself; so that what is known is what Kant called the Phenomenon, a compound of knower and known (the thing-in-itself with the ‘a priori forms’ of the knower). Well, we ask, what follows? It follows that knowledge necessarily distorts reality, so that I never know something for what it is. I can never pronounce on the nature of anything. And that applies equally to the nature of knowledge. Yet, here is Kant pronouncing on the nature of knowledge! And with admittedly faulty insight! It won’t wash. Or, to put it otherwise, his contention lacks consistency. So, since the very contention of Kant, in effect that knower and known enter into compositive union, is what brings about the inconsistency, we have every justification in rejecting it.

Let us say this again: matter has form by appropriating it, physically, and compositively; the knower has form not by appropriating it, not physically, not compositively. What this means is that the knower, not appropriating the form that determines its knowledge, has the form of another thing, besides having as its own appropriated form that which determines it to be what it is. While remaining what I am, I can know the beauty of the sunset. In this way, remarks St Thomas, there is found a remedy for the fact that a thing has only its own form, since through knowledge it is possible that in one thing be the perfection of the whole universe.

Indeed, this notion, that besides its own (appropriated) form, the knower has also the form of another, while it remains the form of that other, is the fundamental insight into the nature of knowledge.

We are therefore constrained to admit: that there is another manner of having form than the manner in which matter has form. Clearly, they are opposites. We may then refer to the manner of having form by matter as the material manner. In that case, it is reasonable to call the knower’s manner of having form an immaterial manner, in that clearly it is a more noble manner (this is not at all to claim that sense, for example, is not a material power: just that sense, or any knower, acts better than matter acts). Referring, then, to the manner of having form, there are material havers, matter and material things generally, and immaterial havers, knowers (even if the knower is material). In this context, ‘material’ simply means ‘like matter’.

At this point, I would like to make an aside on terminology. If I were speaking of the verb ‘to run’, and wished to distinguish one way of running from another, I could speak of this or that sort of ‘run’; it would in English be unintelligible to speak of this or that sort of ‘to run’. However, in Latin (and French, etc.) one would use ‘to run’, the infinitive of the verb. Now, in treating of the verb ‘to be’ in matters of knowledge, St Thomas and his commentators, using Latin, use ‘esse’, ‘to be’, as necessary. This has given English translators something of a problem. When they have had to translate reference to "this sort of esse", they have usually avoided saying "this sort of to be", because it is not English, and also avoided saying "this sort of be" similarly to that usage of ‘run’, because it is unfamiliar. With ‘run’ you can substitute ‘running’, but in the case of ‘being’, it is ambiguous. It might be a participle, like ‘running’, or it might be a noun, equivalent to ‘thing’. Many then fall back on expressions like ‘existence’, which is not only not the infinitive, but misses the opportunity to drive home a point about form. What Woodbury did was to wade straight in and use ‘be’. You soon get used to it.

Now, let us reflect on what has been said. To know is to have form, but in a way radically opposite to the way passive potency has form. Yet it is to have form. What does it mean to have form? It means to be-determined. To have the form of heat is to be-hot. For form entails a certain be (esse). If the water is-hot, then it exists in that determinate way. This already makes us think that it will be necessary to say that, in knowing the sunset, I am it, identified with it. Does that seem scandalous? Let us go back to what we have already seen. We have already seen that the union of knower and known is not compositive, constitutive of a third thing, as is the case with matter. We have rejected the contention of Kant. Very well, then, let us consider the possibilities, as it were on the fingers of a hand. In the union of two, A and B, there are three possibilities, since a unity means exercise of a single existence. Either A becomes B, or B becomes A, or they compose to a third, C. The third is rejected. In other words, in the union of knowledge, either the knower becomes, and is, the known; or the known becomes the knower, which is obviously not so, since there is no change in the known. What, then, do we have? That the knower is identified with the known! Let us hasten to explain: we have another manner of having form, which is to say, another manner of be. There is the be of physical existence, and there is the be of cognoscitive existence. To know is to become the known, in another order of be.

So, finally, we arrive at a summing-up, a formula if you like, given by that most subtle of commentators of St Thomas, Cajetan. In knowledge, he says, "you have what I endeavour to instil into those who philosophise, that knowledge is nothing other than a certain be".

As many know, Woodbury’s treatment of the nature of knowledge goes on far from here, and in great detail. But here we have the core of the doctrine: that knowledge is "nothing other than a certain be".


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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