Augustine of Hippo/Augustine's Theory of Knowledge

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Introduction[edit]

In his poem, Take Something Like a Star, Robert Frost envisions an entity that becomes known in the obscurity of dark, something that will only say to us, “I burn.”[1] It is a marvelous image for the hiddenness of being itself that remains mystery, even when revealed to our lack of knowing. Yet, the urge to move beyond poetic metaphor drives us to the perennial attempt of reason to know the things that are important to us, including how we know that we know anything. In this endeavor Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) stands out as a brave example. His theory of knowledge remains a tribute to the power of human reason to wrest something intelligible from our situation.

Augustine's Theory of Knowledge[edit]

A Rejection of Skepticism[edit]

Augustine's theory of knowledge begins with the conviction that there is such a thing as truth and that it is accessible to human reason.[2] Such conviction stood over against a major component in the philosophical milieu of the day called skepticism. Augustine had flirted with skepticism after repudiating Manichaeism and before embracing Christianity , so he knew the position well and understood the intellectual despair to which it led. To know that truth exists and is discoverable was for him a matter of the utmost seriousness, “one relating to life itself and, in some way, to the hope of a happy soul.”[3]

In Contra Academicos[edit]

Augustine's rejection of radical skepticism is set forth primarily in Contra Academicos (Against the Academicians, 386-387 C.E.), a dialogue among several of his friends that takes place in a villa shortly after their conversion to Christianity. The Skeptics with which he took issue in the dialogue were the “New Academy,” the successors to Plato's Academy. Their particular position, represented by Carneades and mediated to Augustine through Cicero's Academica, was actually a defense against the Stoic empiricism of Zeno of Citium.[4] These Academicians, however, had committed themselves to Zeno's definition of truth in order to deny the Stoic contention that there is nothing but empirical reality.

Stated variously throughout Augustine's dialogue, this definition of truth holds that a self-evident intuition is true which is free from any sign of error.[5] To such a definition, Carneades added the conclusion that since no intuition can be found that is totally free from any sign of error, no certitude is possible. As Arcesilaus, another of the Academicians, said, “Nothing is apprehended [because] no such thing [i.e., no certitude,] can be discovered.”[6] The Skeptics answered Zeno by affirming non-empirical reality, but then removing it from the realm of the knowable.
Based on this position, the philosophers of the New Academy advocated suspension of assent in every instance, refusing either to affirm or to deny any statement of fact. Their agnosticism opened them to the charge of creating a moral paralysis in which people would not do their duty because they could not be certain what that duty was. The Academics sought to avoid this charge by granting probability , i.e., by granting that something can resemble truth enough to inform moral action. Thus, their ideal person, their “wise man,” was the one who always sought after truth while never finding it.[7]


Augustine used several arguments against skepticism in Contra Academicos, such as the argument of common sense.

Regarding probability, he claimed it is just as ridiculous to say, “We do not know truth, but this which we see is like that which we do not know,” as it is to say, “that man resembles his father,” when one does not know what the father looks like.[8] Common sense indicates that comparison, even of probabilities, implies knowledge as its basis.
Regarding their definition of a wise man, then, Augustine asserts that such a one must know wisdom in order to know what he is seeking. That knowledge itself - the fact that a wise man knows enough about what he is looking for to be able to look - cannot be false, even though its object - one's actual definition of wisdom - could be a false statement. He thus concludes that either wisdom is nothing or the Academics must admit that the wise man knows truth.[9] They trapped themselves when they asserted with equal force “both that man can be wise and yet that knowledge cannot fall to the lot of man.”[10]

He also used Reductio ad absurdem arguments.

The Academics suspended assent on the basis of Zeno’s definition. Augustine challenged them to attempt to refute that definition. Failure to do so would be to apprehend the definition with certitude, while success would free one to apprehend other things with certitude. Further, there exists a disjunction, “Either the definition is true or it is false,” which itself is something to apprehend with certitude. “For we know that it is either true or false; we do not therefore know nothing.”[11]

In Other Works[edit]

While Augustine certainly considered his arguments in Contra Academicos to be a sufficient refutation, his strongest argument, that of si fallor, sum appears in a number of works, such as his Soliloquies [12] and De libero arbitrio.[13] He gave it classical expression in Civitate Dei: “I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, ‘What if you are deceived?’ For if I am deceived, I am.”[14] Augustine, then, refuted the radical skepticism of the Academics and established the possibility of certitude. Etienne Gilson indicates the importance of this accomplishment for all that followed by saying, “the Contra Academicos cleared the threshold of philosophy and set its door ajar.”[15]

His Use of Neo-platonism[edit]

Augustine framed his Christianity in terms of Neo-platonic thought. Nowhere is this as evident as in his theory of knowledge. According to Plato, levels of knowledge correspond to levels of being. In Book VI of The Republic, this correspondence is described using the simile of a line divided into two parts: one representing the visible world and the other the intelligible. As each part is again divided into the two sections of shadow and object, we see a progression of increasing reality. For each of the four levels, Plato describes a type of knowledge that alone pertains.[16] Also in the parable of the cave, Plato is concerned to show that an increase in knowledge occurs as one moves toward that which is more real.[17]

Knowing Reflects Being[edit]

In Augustine as in Plato, levels of knowledge correspond to levels of being. His ontological levels, however, had a specifically Christian orientation. At the apex of being is the God revealed in Jesus Christ as attested to by scripture, i.e., God as personal, Trinitarian, and both absolutely transcendent, and completely immanent.[18] This highest level of being is associated with a set of principles, rationes aeternae, which, while equivalent to Plato’s forms, nevertheless exist in the mind of God. At the lowest level of being are material bodies, associated with rationes seminales, “seed-like principles that exist in the nature of the world’s elements.”[19] In between lies the world of souls, specifically the ratio hominis, the rational soul of humanity.

Levels of Knowing Match Levels of Being[edit]
These epistemological levels trace a three-fold trajectory for reason, i.e., three types of vision which perceive the increasingly real. The corporal vision humans share in common with other animals is based on sense perception augmented by unsophisticated memory, i.e., the experiential memory that motivates one to seek what is pleasant and to avoid what is not.[20] This vision produces sententia,[21] the knowledge which occurs when the realm of bodies with their rationes seminales “inform” the sense organs.[22] Sensations for Augustine is always an act of the soul peering through the senses at what interests it. This is why he did not think there could be corporeal vision separate from spiritual vision.[23]
Spiritual vision is the result of rational functions unique to human beings. This includes the ability for deliberate memorization and intentional reinforcement of memories, as well as the capacity to rearrange physical reality in the imagination.[24] Spiritual vision relies on what Augustine calls ratio inferior, the capacity to judge physical reality in terms of supersensible reality. This level of perception is the basis for scientia, the kind of knowledge that “enables man to harvest better crops, construct better buildings, or wage war more effectively.” [25]
The highest vision, however, is the intellectual. This vision yields the knowledge Augustine calls sapientia or wisdom, the knowledge of supersensible reality. It is a vision made possible by the ratio superior, which is not a separate function of the human mind, but a turning of that mind in a different direction. While the ratio inferior uses the senses to look outward on the world of sense objects, ratio superior discerns ideal reality in and through the human soul. Only a very few see the rationes aeternae with the “eye of the mind,” and even they do not behold these realities without blinking and turning the eye away. Yet, that brief vision leaves traces in the memory that can guide reason back to the really real again and again.[26]

Theory of Illumination[edit]

There is some confusion in Augustine concerning where the ideas reside, i.e., their ontological status, in relation to the human intellect. Along with Plato and Plotinus, Augustine locates the forms in the mind of God, thus making them eternal and immutable.[27] Yet, he also says, “unless something of our own were subjoined to them, we should not be able to employ them as standards.”[28] As Ronald Nash points out so clearly, this is one of the several paradoxes in Augustine’s theory of knowledge, that “the forms are distinct from and not distinct from the human mind.” [29]
Indeed, this points to the crucial problem for Augustine’s theory of knowledge considered on its own Platonic terms, namely, how to connect the human mind with the divine forms. How could Augustine hold that the ideas are ontologically higher than the human intellect and yet accessible to it? If the ideas were on a par with mutable human intellect, there would be access, but the ideas would not be immutable. Likewise, if the ideas were lower than our minds, there would be no question of how we know them, but then they would not be standards of judgment for us. So, if the ideas are above mind, ontologically removed from it by a gulf fixed and uncrossable, how do we know eternal and immutable truth? The answer is that God illumines the human intellect.
This theory of illumination was evident as early as the dialogue in Contra Academicos where Augustine’s character affirms “that only some divinity can show man what is true.”[30] The theory appears throughout his writings, though he never sets out to articulate an epistemology for its own sake. There is a particularly interesting formulation of it in connection with his discussion of Plato’s reminiscence:

But we ought rather to believe that the nature of the intellectual mind is so formed as to see those things which, according to the disposition of the Creator, are subjoined to intelligible things in the natural order, in a sort of incorporeal light of its own kind, as the eye of the flesh sees the things that lie about it in this corporeal light, of which light it is made to be receptive and to which it is adapted.[31]

This metaphor of light, perhaps more than a metaphor for Augustine, points to divine activity in bridging the gulf between the ideas residing in the mind of God and human intellect. This activity, like physical sunshine, is bestowed on the just and the unjust[32] and is alone responsible for knowledge involving rationes aeternae, both scientia and sapientia.
Its Various Interpretations[edit]
The Thomistic[edit]

Just how does this illumination take place? Thomas Aquinas, interpreting the above reference to “incorporeal light of its own kind” (sui generis), considered this light to be the agent intellect inherent in humans which takes a phantasm from the passive intellect and abstracts from it universal elements.[33] This position is rejected by everyone except the Thomists who want to make Augustine and Aquinas agree. In Augustinian terms, no part of the human intellect, mutable as it is, can access the ideas by itself.[34] Gilson adds that a more natural translation of sui generis would be “of a particular kind,” i.e., the light which illumines intellect is incorporeal as opposed to the light which illumines the body’s eye.[35]

The Franciscan[edit]

Another interpretation of this theory holds that God is an ontologically separate agent intellect infusing the ideas directly into a human mind. Copleston rejects this as an “extreme ideogenetic view,” arguing that Augustine’s analogy thought of sunlight as illuminating objects, not creating images of them in the human subject. He also objects that this view makes Augustine’s concept of human intellect totally passive.[36] Nash, who refers to this interpretation as the Franciscan theory, is much more inclined to be sympathetic to it, contending only that it does not say enough about how the ideas are produced.[37]

The Formal[edit]

Copleston and Gilson represent the Formal interpretation of illumination[38] in which the divine activity only conveys certainty and necessity to human judgments. Thus, for example, the idea of Beauty does not consist of content infused into our intellect, but is a regulative principle evident only in the moment of making a comparison. This interpretation commends itself to us moderns who hold to the regulative function of ideas, but it requires us to stipulate that Augustine used an implicit doctrine of abstraction to explain universals in the human mind. As Copleston himself admits, “whether Augustine explicitly says so or not, his view, as interpreted above, would at least demand abstraction in some form.”[39] Such a stipulation is hard to accept, however, in view of the fact that Augustine was a Platonist, not an Aristotelian, “and there is no room in [Plato’s] thought for any theory of abstraction.”[40] [Wesley Wildman’s comment: Not in Aristotle’s reading of Plato, anyway – but cf. Neville and Kaufmann on Plato; there the forms can be abstractions in a limited sense, as refractions of the form of the Good in things.]

Ontologism[edit]

Nash presents a strong case for an interpretation of illumination that might be called Qualified Ontologism. Ontologism states that the soul somehow apprehends ideas in the very mind of God. Qualified Ontologism rejects the extreme position of Malebranche that even knowledge of sensibles must be attributed to divine activity. Through a defense of the “ontologistic” texts, Nash shows that Augustine actually held to two intelligible lights – the created and the uncreated – and that the forms reside derivatively in the rational structure of human intellect as well as in the mind of God.[41] The created intelligible light of human reason, however, remains dependent on continuous divine activity in order to attain knowledge, and the forms, as derivative, are apprehended in the divine intellect.[42] This is a modified Ontologism which distinguishes between the mystical vision of the spiritually prepared and the vision human reason uses continually, regardless of moral character. “The vision of God is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the beatific vision, but is nonetheless a vision of God.”[43]

An Indirect Dependence[edit]

In Augustine’s theory of illumination, we see an indirect, but unmistakable dependence on Plato quite apart from his own testimony that “none come nearer to us than the Platonists.”[44] This concept of incorporeal light comes straight out of Plato’s metaphor of the sun as the visible image of the highest reality, the Good.[45] Just as sunlight both illuminates objects in the world and enters the eye to provide sight of those objects, the form of the Good both gives ideas their truth and empowers the intellect to discern that truth. The Good “is the ontological basis of truth and the epistemological basis of the knowledge of truth.”[46] In the same way, Augustine says God gives everything both the power to be and to be known.

This dependence on Plato is also evident in certain shared assumptions concerning knowledge, e.g., that the only valid object of knowledge is true being, immutable and necessary.[47] There is a common attitude toward sense experience, namely, wary acceptance.[48] Practical knowledge is valued in both their writings as being necessary for life, but is not nearly as important to them as theoretic contemplation. Also, for both Augustine and Plato, the purification of the soul is a prerequisite to epistemological ascent.[49]

Where Augustine Begs to Differ[edit]

Distinctively Christian[edit]

Yet, when we examine their respective goals, we see Augustine’s distinctively Christian emphasis. In Plato, one strives to attain the Good, that impersonal form of the forms which Plotinus calls the One. This means that “the true disciple of philosophy... is ever pursuing death and dying.”[50] The true philosopher studies to release the soul from its bondage to the world of becoming that it might return to the world of being. The aim of knowledge is also to bring about human well-being in a socio-political sense as The Republic was concerned to show. Augustine’s goal, on the other hand, is that the individual should attain communion with a personal God. “As a creature drawn from nothingness, man inherits a radical insufficiency,”[51] and this insufficiency drives us to pursue God. “Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”[52]

Dueling Dualisms[edit]

A further difference is found when we examine Plato’s levels of being and becoming which for him belong to two, completely separate worlds. Although Augustine initially used language like Plato’s in De ordine, by the time he wrote his Retractions, he felt such language was probably ill-advised.[53] The intelligible, insofar as it is not identical with the divine essence, is for Augustine merely another mode of created reality alongside the physical.[54] Augustine also breaks from Platonic dualism by affirming from a scriptural point of view that the body is good[55] and that human being is a unity, “a rational substance consisting of soul and body.”[56]

And Don't Forget Memory[edit]

The most characteristic epistemological difference between these two philosophers, however, is in their respective positions on memory. Plato’s doctrine of reminiscence explains that human reason is able to connect with the forms because of experience in a prior existence. He defends this doctrine in Phaedo by pointing out how questions put to a person can evoke true answers which the person did not “know” prior to the questioning. Further, the judgment of some quality in terms of a perfection not found in the sensible world infers knowledge of perfection from the supersensible world. In this way, Plato supports his claim that learning is just a process of recovering knowledge, i.e., remembering.[57]

Although Augustine used terms like “forgetfulness” and “recollection,” e.g., in his doctrine that learning is remembering, he explicitly denied the preexistence of the soul. When he relates the example from Plato’s Meno of a boy questioned about geometry who “replied in such a way as if he were proficient in this branch of learning,”[58] he claims the example proves nothing since it could hardly be a universal experience given the scarcity of geometricians. Further, such knowledge from prior existence would not account for things learned through the senses.[59] What, then, did Augustine mean by “learning is remembering”?

While granting the point of the example in Plato that “the mind discovers the intelligible rather than creates it,”[60] Augustine says recollection is a remembering not of the past, but of the present. The soul discovers truth within itself because there the inner master[61] presents it to us, stored in a memory of the present. Memory for Augustine is a warehouse of which our inventory is never complete, a sort of “secret knowledge”[62] that is latent until called for. In the “profound depth of memory, … we find those contents which we think of for the first time.”[63] Gilson calls it “a sort of metaphysical background to the soul,” in which we become aware that the omnipresence of God in all things is also God’s presence in us.[64]

Conclusion[edit]

How do we know any truth, including the truth that we know some truth? Augustine's answer is that we can only know we know because we are always in a relationship with Truth itself, whether we realize it or not. Returning to Frost's poetic image, truth is like a star suspended in the heavens that "asks of us a certain height."[65] All we can really know, as it beckons us to reach out and grasp it, is that truth exists and is a rewarder of those who seek it.[66]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Robert Frost, Take Something Like a Star in The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969), 403, line 11.
  2. Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1969), 12.
  3. Aurelius Augustine, Against the Academicians, trans. Mary Patricia Garvey (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1942), 62.
  4. Ibid., 40.
  5. Ibid., 38.
  6. Ibid., 64.
  7. Ibid., 39.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Ibid., 52f.
  10. Ibid., 56.
  11. Ibid., 64.
  12. Aurelius Augustine, Soliloquies, trans. Thomas F. Gilligan in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 5 (New York: Cima Publishing Co., 1948), 381-383.
  13. Aurelius Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, trans. Mark Pontifex (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955), 80.
  14. Aurelius Augustine, The City of God, trans. M. Dods assisted by G. Wilson and J.J. Smith in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 2, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), 168.
  15. Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L.E.M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), 38.
  16. Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted, eds., Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 7-9.
  17. Ibid., 9-13.
  18. Aurelius Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Rex Warner (New York: New American Library, 1963), 19; 260-261.
  19. Nash, 6.
  20. Aurelius Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Stephan McKenna in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 45 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 344.
  21. Ibid., 337f.
  22. Nash, 10.
  23. Ibid., 39.
  24. Augustine, The Trinity, 344.
  25. Nash, 8.
  26. Augustine, The Trinity, 364f.
  27. Aurelius Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, trans. David L. Mosher in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 70 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 79f.
  28. Augustine, The Trinity, 344.
  29. Nash, 104.
  30. Augustine, Against the Academicians, 58.
  31. Augustine, The Trinity, 366.
  32. Gilson, 79f.
  33. Nash, 94.
  34. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1962), II:63.
  35. Gilson, 290.
  36. Copleston, I:64f.
  37. Nash, 97.
  38. Ibid., 98.
  39. Copleston, I:65.
  40. Nash, 96.
  41. Ibid., 112-121.
  42. Ibid., 110f.
  43. Ibid., 121.
  44. Augustine, The City of God, 105.
  45. Allen and Springsted, 4-7.
  46. Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 47.
  47. Copleston, I:149.
  48. Plato, Theatetus, trans. Benjamin Jowett in The Works of Plato, ed. Irwin Erdman (New York: The Modern Library, 1956), 494.
  49. Allen and Springsted, 13.
  50. Gilson, 105.
  51. Gilson, 105.
  52. Augustine, Confessions, 17.
  53. Augustine, Eighty-Three Questions, 81f.
  54. Nash, 76.
  55. Augustine, The City of God, 222f.
  56. Augustine, The Trinity, 464f.
  57. Plato, Phaedo, 5a-6a.
  58. Augustine, The Trinity, 366.
  59. Nash, 83.
  60. Gilson, 75.
  61. Aurelius Augustine, Concerning the Teacher, trans. A.H. Newman in Basic Writing of St. Augustine, vol. 1, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), 394f.
  62. Augustine, The Trinity, 421.
  63. Ibid., 507.
  64. Gilson, 103f.
  65. Frost, line 21.
  66. Hebrews 11:6