Transcendental Thomism: Reflections upon a legacy of Descartes.

Topica, Number 1, September 2001

by John Ziegler

Part 1: Legacy of Descartes

Much has lately been made among some admirers of St Thomas of the difference between the origins of the concept and the judgment.

Of course, the concept and the judgment differ in this: that the concept expresses a nature, but the judgment expresses a truth about reality. Thus, 'golden mountain' is a nature, but from that it is not evident that it really exists.

Some, however, have opposed their origins as though to say that the concept does not properly attain reality as a sort of proto-truth; but that on the contrary it is only in judgment - assertion that something is - that a special leap is made by the mind from its own world out to reality. After all, to claim to be Thomist one must hold that judgment attains real truth. This seems to be the principal point of agreement between those who have come to be called Transcendental Thomists. As has been noted by several, this leap of judgment to reality from a concept which is not of reality has theological consequences in the theological teaching of Rahner and others.

Furthermore, this opinion is at the root of what has come to be called Pluralism in theology. As a recent book review has, touching this: "Pluralism is the notion that theological truth can be expressed in more than one philosophical 'conceptual framework'. Since, however, a philosophical 'conceptual framework' goes down to fundamentals concerning truth, the outcome of pluralism must be the acceptance that truth is not absolute, but relative to the knower. One might remark that pluralism is reminiscent of the doctrine of the Two Truths raised during St. Thomas's time, and against which he wrote." The doctrine of the Two Truths held that something could be false philosophically, but true in theology, and vice versa.

Pluralism arises once the realism of the concept is abandoned; for to say that means that one concept, and so 'conceptual framework', is as good as, not its reality, but its usefulness. This opinion has as its genesis an attempt in the first third of the last century by Maréchal, who always claimed to be a Thomist, to reconcile the then pervasive philosophy of Immanuel Kant with that of Thomas Aquinas. (See review of "Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?", Universitas No. 5, (1999)) Because Kant called his method 'transcendental critique', those following Maréchal have been called Transcendental Thomists.

To understand the attempt, and its significance today, it is necessary briefly to review the principles of what Kant had to say about knowledge.

Kant: Heir of Descartes

According to Kant, reality is to be admitted, but our knowledge is incapable of attaining it. Speaking of how we come to have a concept, he says that reality (what he called the noumenon, the thing-in-itself) is something to which our mind attaches its own construct (what he called an 'a priori' form) so that what we know is a compound of the two (what he called, in language special to him, the phenomenon). It has something of the real in it, inasmuch as it is generated from the noumenon, but nothing of its known content is real: that content is entirely from the 'knowing subject'. Hence its general name of Subjectivism.

Now, clearly, this means that we do not know reality as it really is: we do not know, as to anything of its content, the noumenon. It is interesting, though, that Kant does admit that there is a reality.

In turn, Kant had inherited from Descartes the principle which prompted this theory of knowledge. Descartes had wished to institute a critically established basis from which to proceed in philosophy, and declared that one must therefore begin by doubting everything. Indeed, in a certain sense, one should. But what Descartes meant to do was to abandon all certitude and then critically to re-establish it from the beginning.

The trouble is, thus to abandon certitude before critically justifying its abandonment is already uncritically to give a verdict, so that the project as he would have it is has already defeated itself from the start. Such a procedure, of really abandoning certitude at the start, cannot succeed. His project seeks to derive certitudes from something, and this can only be from something already certain, certain from itself, and therefore whose certitude can be questioned and defended but not abandoned. Descartes, finding this to be so, sought that of which we might first be certain.

It was the misfortune of philosophy that he hit upon thought - his famous 'I think' - as his very first certitude. (Whereas, since thought must be about something, then is not rather the 'something' prior in some way to the thought?)

Such a starting point next raised the question of how to justify the existence of reality, what later became famously described as a 'bridge from ideas to things'. Descartes, from his famous 'I think' had purported to conclude to 'I am', but indeed it does not properly show the existence of a real 'I', only a thought 'I'.

This Cartesian attempt imbued a whole line of philosophy with the notion that we are enclosed in a world of thought, and that thought is the proper 'place' from which to begin to philosophise.

But long before Descartes, St Anselm had attempted to prove the existence of God from the idea of God. This is how he proceeded:

God is that than which there cannot be a greater.
But 'that than which there cannot be a greater' exists.
Therefore God exists.

The fallacy lies in the two 'exists'. That in the conclusion wishes to say 'exists in reality'. That in what seeks to be the major premiss means 'exists as a concept'. What at first seems to be a syllogism does not conclude. There is not found here a 'bridge' from idea to thing.

The Legacy

Mankind has an invincible persuasion that we do indeed know reality as it really is (even if far from totally what it is). Because that persuasion does not square with Kant's Subjectivism, the notion that we are in some degree enclosed in our own thought, the problem arises for one holding that of how one can then assert reality.

Some, Hegel among them, sought to retain Kant's notion but deny that the noumenon exists at all (what evidence would we have?): that our idea of reality is nothing but an idea to which nothing real corresponds, and thus was born the denial of reality, Idealism.

Others, in an attempt to save reality, simply denied that we have ideas properly speaking in intellect at all, and thus by way of reaction was impetus given to a movement towards materialism - sensism, positivism, and the rest.

Yet again there were others who wished to be realists, and theists, and indeed Thomists; but seeing that Kant's Subjectivism does not permit the reasoned assertion of a real God, and that a sensism contradicts assertion of an immateriall God, sought somehow to reconcile Kant's subjectivism with realist philosophy. They sought to find - in spite of the failure of others - the real somehow already implicit in the activity of our intellect and judgment.

Now, Maréchal thought to have discovered the true foundation of objectivity. Inspired by a great respect for Aquinas, but accepting in principle the position of Kant, he set out to reconcile the two. He seeks the reason for the Kantian 'phenomenon' by enquiring into its 'a priori' conditions. He claims to find the reality of the object, not - nor had Kant - in what is usually called the concept or 'idea', but in what Maréchal calls the dynamism of the intellect in the judgment. For, had not Aquinas said that truth - truth of reality - is attained in the judgment? (Aquinas, however, does not deny reality to the concept: rather, that it reaches reality is fundamental to his doctrine of the judgment3.)

Thus, Maréchal, denying with Kant that reality enters our thought with the concept, held that there was a certain 'striving' of the intellect in judging, which striving in itself attained reality and truth. For, he noted, do we not necessarily in judgment distinguish between subject and object? To which one can only reply: given the subjectivist principle, on what grounds can one assert that it is a real object and not merely a 'thought' one?

Part 2: Knowledge and Truth

Aquinas observes that 'things stand between two intellects: between the divine intellect which causes them, and our intellect, which they cause.'

This ringing declaration of realism implies that truth is to be distinguished into: truth of thing (conformity of thing to the intellect which measures it - the divine intellect or that of the artifex); and truth of knowledge (conformity to thing of intellect).

This fundamental truth of knowledge is not to be confused with formal truth of knowledge, which means knowing that the knowledge is true. It is this formal truth of knowledge which Aquinas ascribes to the judgment.

But that is not to exclude fundamental truth of knowledge from that simple act of knowing from which we have the concept.

Far from it.

Let us review the elements of the doctrine of Aquinas regarding knowledge.

It depends first on the doctrine of potency and act, first expounded by Aristotle, and adopted and extended by Thomas. The knower (whether by sense or by intellect), before knowing, is only potentially knowing, or is indeterminate with regard to the known. To be 'in potency' to a determination means both to lack the determination and to be capable of acquiring it. Note carefully: this means that the knower was not, by some infusion, constituted already knowing: as Aristotle had already famously said, the mind is at the beginning a 'clean slate'. (Had he said otherwise, as did Plato, where could the evidence have come from?) Hence, in knowing, the knower is rendered determinate with regard to the known. In the language of Aristotle and Thomas, that is to say that the knower acquires form.

But how acquire it?

The knower does not have form as matter has form.

Let us quote from an unpublished work on the having of form by the knower:

"......the manner wherein the knower has the form of the known must be said to be other than (the) material manner of having form. for:

"First, the knower receives the form of the known NOT SUBJECTIVELY: for it receives it indeed not as its own form, that is, not as appropriated or limited to itself, but as the form of another, to wit, of the known; so that the received form neither loses its 'belongedness?to?another', nor loses its identity with the form of the other (of the known) outside the recipient (the knower). And the reason of this is that the form received in the knower is the form OF ANOTHER, to wit, OF THE KNOWN, for what is known is not something of the knower, but is something of another, to wit, the known.

"Thus, for example, when a knower knows the heat of some steel, the heat which is in the knower is not the heat of the knower, but is the heat of the steel: for what is known is not a heat of the knower, but is the heat of the steel;........ Accordingly St Thomas writes: "Non?knowers have nothing save their own form only, but a knower is naturally apt to have the form also of another thing." (I, q.14, a.1). And elsewhere he says: "In those things which participate knowledge, form is found in a higher manner than in those which lack it. For in those things which lack knowledge there is found only form determining each thing to one be of their own, which is the natural be of each thing........ But in things having knowledge each thing is thus determined to its own natural be by natural form, which, however, is receptive of the forms of other things: just as sense receives the forms of all sensibles, and intellect of all understandables. Thus forms exist in a higher manner in things having knowledge, above the manner of natural forms" (1, q.80, a.1).

"Secondly, the knower receives the form of the known NOT PHYSICALLY: for through the received form neither is the knower physically determined, so as to undergo some physical change or acquire some physical constitution other than it previously had, nor is any physical corruption in the knower entailed. And the reason of this is the same, to wit, that the form received in the knower is the form OF ANOTHER, to wit, OF THE KNOWN; for if this form produced its physical formal effects in the knower, then it would not be the form of another, but would be the form of the knower: for then the knower would be subjected to it (i.e. to its determining influence), and therefore would be its subject, and accordingly would be receiving it subjectively, or as its own form.

"Thus, for example, when a knower knows the heat of some steel, neither does the knower become physically hot, (so that, v.g. there would be had a hot sense or a hot intellect), nor is there any corruption in the knower through the heat received....... Accordingly, St Thomas writes, speaking of form received in intellect: "Intelligible form united to intellect does not constitute some nature, but perfects it to understand." (Con. Gent. III, c.51). And similarly he always excludes the opinion of the "ancient philosophers", such as Empedocles, who "thought that the similitude of the thing known must be in the knower according to natural be, that is, according to the same be which it has in itself, for they said that it must needs be that like is known by like; wherefore, if the soul were to know all things, it must have the similitude of all things in itself according to natural be, as they asserted. For they did not know how to distinguish that manner in which a thing is in intellect, or in eye, or imagination, and in which it is in itself." (In I de Anima, lect.4, ed. Pirotta, n.43; cf. I, q.84, a.2; Con. Gent. II, c.50).

"Thirdly, the knower receives the form of the known NOT COMPOSITIVELY: for from the union of the received form with the receiving knower there results no compound from knower and form which would be some third, to wit: neither the recipient or knower, nor the received form or the known. And the reason of this is the same, to wit, that the form received in the knower remains the form OF ANOTHER, to wit, OF THE KNOWN; but if it were received compositively, it would not remain the form of the known or of another thing: for composition of recipient and received form unto a compound or third cannot arise save through this, that the recipient is subjected to the form, ? so receiving it subjectively, and undergoes its formal effects, ? so receiving it physically; wherefore if the reception is compositive, it is necessarily likewise subjective; but if the reception is subjective, then the form does not remain the form of another. Which reason may be otherwise stated thus: What through knowledge is in the knower is the form of another thing, but not some compound which is already other than this form. For what is known, since knowledge is OBJECTIVE or REALIST, is another thing, i.e. a thing "which is outside the knower" (cf. n.617, B, a1b), but not something which is already other than this exterior thing, to wit, some compound from knower and received form.

"Thus, for example, when a knower knows the heat of some steel: what it knows is the heat of the steel outside the knower, the 'heat' known not being some compound from knower and a received impression; and therefore what is in the knower is the heat of the steel outside the knower, and not some compound from knower and some received impression........ Accordingly, St Thomas writes: "The form of another thing cannot be (in knower) according to its natural be, for it would follow that united together with something it would constitute one nature........ which cannot be. But the intelligible species (form) united to intellect does not constitute some nature, but perfects it to understand." (Con. Gent. III, c.51). And elsewhere he says: "Matter receives form that, according to it, it be constituted in the be of some species, bronze, or fire, or any other such. But not thus does intellect receive form; otherwise would be verified the opinion of Empedocles,.... who asserted that by earth we know earth, and by fire we know fire. But understandable form is in intellect according to the very essential character of form; for thus is it known by intellect. Therefore, such reception is not the reception of matter, but the reception of immaterial substance." (I, q.50, a.2, ad 2).

"Wherefrom it is clear that the 0BJECTIVITY of knowledge cannot be saved if it be said that the knower, inasmuch as it is a knower, has forms materially (i.e. subjectively?physically?compositively); but the objectivity of knowledge requires that in the knower there be had the form of the known immaterially, that is non?subjectively, non?physically, incompositively. And that by this doctrine of immaterial reception of forms, the objectivity of knowledge IS SAVED and explained: for then the known is in the knower as remaining other than the knower, that is, as objected (set over against) to the knower."

A.M. Woodbury, Psychology, n.625 (unpublished work), circa 1955: emphases Woodbury's.

The knower uses the known to pefect itself

That is, the knower, in knowing, has form. But it is, and remains, the form of the known, not of the knower. Now, form had physically-subjectively-compositively, is necessarily had passively, and vice versa: for those signs are of form had in matter, act appropriated by subjective potency. Since this is not the manner in which the knower has form, then the knower can know not by reason of its passivity to another, but only by reason of its own activity.(1)

That is, the knower in knowing is self perfective.

That is, 'know' is ordered to perfection of the knower, not to perfecting of a product. As St Thomas says in that passage quoted above: "But the intelligible species (form) united to intellect does not constitute some nature, but perfects it to understand." According to him, human 'know' is an activity of the knower which presupposes 'undergo'.

By what it is, self perfective activity perfects the agent. But the form by which the knower perfects itself cannot come from the knower itself, for nothing can perfect itself (transit from imperfect to perfect, from lack to have) from itself alone. Therefore the knower, in knowing, can perfect itself only from another (the known). In every knowledge, and including even self-knowledge, what the knower knows is known as object.

Which is to say that knowledge requires an object with which the knower determines itself.

To put this another way: the knower does not produce the object: it supposes it. Or, again, the knower knows the object as it is in itself, not merely as it is in the knower. Or again, knowledge is of reality. Or again, fundamental truth of knowledge - although not yet formal truth of knowledge - is found in the act of the mind conceiving.

Further: as Thomists are at pains to point out, a form, which determines that which had been indeterminate, has as its necessary effect that something be such. That is, to the exact extent that it makes that something be such, it makes it be. Thus, by heat the (hot) water is hot. Likewise, by the form of the known, and because the union is not compositive, the knower is the known (according to its form) - although not physically. The knower is the known - knowledge cannot be other than realist.

One cannot justify reality by abandoning reality at the beginning of philosophizing - as did Descartes and those taking his principle, from Kant to Maréchal and beyond - without paying the price of losing it also in the end.

Critical Justification

Now consider the judgment. Maréchal seems to say that judgment produces the distinction between the knowing subject and the object known. It is here that he seeks to place his 'bridge from ideas to things': a bridge, as we have already noted, which he needs only because he denies reality, that is objectivity, to the concept.

We have seen that such a bridge is not necessary.

Recall here the distinction between truth of knowledge (conformity of intellect to thing) and what we called formal truth of knowledge (knowledge of the conformity). It is in the judgment that the mind, already conformed to thing in the concept, comes to declare the conformity in saying that what it conceives, is.(2)

It would seem that some have taken it that to declare conformity is to produce it.(3)


Observe that all this takes it to be already evident, and self-evident, that reality is prior to thought. It is this which is disdainfully called 'naive realism' by some of those in the line of Descartes. Should realism not, they say, be critically justified?

To which one replies: Descartes, who uncritically rejected objectivity and realism of knowledge at the start, gave us the modern pseudo-problem. Does not that very rejection, because it fails its own requirement, form part of that same critical justification of realism?


1 ".... there are TWO modes of activity:

"One, indeed, which is productive of some effect upon some patient which it perfects through that effect; which activity accordingly formally consists in the production of a term distinct from itself:

"But another, which does not perfect some patient, but perfects the agent itself, and indeed, not through some effect produced, but immediately through itself; which activity accordingly does not formally consist in the production of an effect distinct from itself".

A.M. Woodbury, Defensive Metaphysics, n.249 (unpublished work), circa 1950: emphases Woodbury's.

2 " judgment not only are found two known terms, but a known adequation of the relation between subject and predicate with the thing.

"For the character of formal or logical truth, is required indeed

as a necessary condition of the known adequation between the formal concepts and the thing, the knowledge of both terms of this adequation; but formal truth ........consists in the very known adequation.

"But in judgment this adequation is found as known. For in judgment this adequation is affirmed. But the affirmation of judgment is done in the very act of judgment. For the affirmation of judgment is together the production and diction of the mental word itself. But the production and diction are done IN THE VERY ACT OF JUDGMENT: for knowledge is an immanent act virtually productive. But in the very act of judgment, AS IT IS KNOWLEDGE, not as it is production, the intellect becomes objectively, intentionally, that which is represented in the term produced and said, THAT IS, IT KNOWS THAT. Therefore judgment, when it affirms this adequation of the formal concepts with the thing, knows this adequation.

"Therefore in judgment is found formal or logical truth."

Woodbury, ibid., n.433

3 ".... truth resides, in its primary aspect, in the intellect. Now since everything is true according as it has the form proper to its nature, the intellect, in so far as it is knowing, must be true, so far as it has the likeness of the thing known, this being its form, as knowing. For this reason truth is defined by the conformity of intellect and thing; and hence to know this conformity is to know truth. ....... But the intellect can know its own conformity with the intelligible thing; yet it does not apprehend it by knowing of a thing what a thing is. When, however, it judges that a thing corresponds to the form which it apprehends about that thing, then first it knows and expresses truth. This it does by composing and dividing: for in every proposition it either applies to, or removes from the thing signified by the subject, some form signified by the predicate: and this clearly shows that sense is true of anything, as is also the intellect when it knows what a thing is; but it does not thereby know or affirm truth. (ST I, q.16, a.2)

by John Ziegler

Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Topica, No. 1 (2001).
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