Skip to main content

What it means to be a Human Person – Part 2 – Where to start

In order to understand what it means to be human we must begin by studying humans. We need to see what they are. The approach that I am suggesting is an empirical approach to knowledge.  For example, in the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas waits until Question 12 to discuss how it is that mankind comes to knowledge, albeit imperfect knowledge, of God.[1] He has already discussed Gods unity, eternity, immutability, immanence, infinity, goodness, perfection, simplicity, and existence. Having discussed these issues he then looks back upon the knowledge that we acquired, and asks the question, "How did we attain this knowledge?" To many philosophers, and theologians, this order may seem counter-intuitive. Those who might think so are tempted to say, “How can you even talk about what God is like until you have established that you can know what God is like and how it is that you come to such knowledge?” This type of thinking is exactly why many contemporary theology books begin with Bibliology and Methodology. They wish to set down the basis for our knowledge of God, to prove that we can in fact know him and how we come to knowledge of him, before they begin talking about what God is like.
This philosophical attitude, by which the philosopher or theologian feels that they must prove the possibility of, and manner of, attaining knowledge in theology, is paralleled (and most likely inspired) by a similar attitude in most philosophical endeavors since Descartes. In his book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Etienne Gilson shows that Descartes, seeking a sure foundation for knowledge, over against the skeptical problems, decided to begin with the skeptical problems. That is, before he began discussing reality he decided that it was necessary to proof that we could know reality. He answered the skeptical problems with an argument reminiscent of Augustine’s argument against the skeptics, and then built his entire philosophical system on that foundation. If I doubt that I exist, I at least know that I doubt; if I know that I doubt then I know. If I know, then I exist. However, as Gilson points out, “Every one is free to decide whether he shall begin to philosophize as a pure mind; if he should elect to do so the difficulty will be not how to get into the mind, but how to get out of it.”[2] 
The skeptical problems of Descartes, and his methods of getting around them, have influenced philosophers, in one way or another, since Descartes first began philosophizing with the skeptical problems. In fact, if you look at most contemporary textbooks for epistemology you find just this order: either you begin with the skeptical problems or you begin by seeking justification for knowledge. Both of these methods begin with knowledge, and then try to prove that we can know some sort of mind-independent reality, in some way.[3]
A comment by Étienne Gilson in his book, Réalisme Thomiste et Critique de la Connaissance, is particularly a propos at this point, “Ou bien on partira de l’être en réaliste, et l’on aura aussi la connaissance, ou l’on partira de la connaissance en idéaliste critique, et l’on ne rejoindra jamais l’être.”[4] Descartes' problem, and the problem of any philosopher who wants to begin with the critique of knowledge, is that he is unable to get from the existence of his own intellect to the existence of the real world. As Gilson attempts to show, in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience, ever since the time of Descartes philosophers have been trying to get back to the real world, however it seems that they have been relatively unsuccessful. Gilson suggests a different approach to knowledge, “Ce qu’il faut, c’est qu’au lieu d’être une condition de l’ontologie, l’épistémologie croisse en elle et avec elle, étant à la fois explicatrice et expliquée, la soutenant et soutenue par elle, comme se soutiennent mutuellement les parties d’une philosophie vraie.”[5]
As we have seen, the thinking of contemporary theologians and many philosophers of epistemology is clearly inspired by the critical philosophers who think that we must establish the fact that we can possess knowledge before we can talk about what we think that we know, and how we know it. One of the problems with such an approach is that there is no such thing as "knowledge in a vacuum". Knowledge, in order to be knowledge, must have an object. Which is to say, you have knowledge of something. “The critical philosophers—following the program of Descartes—attempt to subject the instruments of knowing to a searching analysis in order that they might establish (if possible the reliability of human knowledge itself; once they have established this reliability to their own satisfaction, they turn to other philosophical issues; they begin with the evidence of thought; they terminate (perhaps) in the evidence of being.”[6] These philosophers set out on a journey that can only end in skepticism. 
We, however, will begin by studying the human person. Afterwards we will be able to ask how it is that we came to knowledge of the human person; then we will be able to tweak the method, and use it to come to even deeper knowledge of what it means to be a human person. 

[1]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1948; repr., Notre Dame, IN: 1981), 1:48-59.

[2]Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937; repr., San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 156-57.

[3]See for example: Louis P. Pojman, What Can We Know?, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadworth/Thomson Learning, 2001), v. Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, 2nd ed. (2003; repr., New York: Routledge, 2004), contents, vii.

[4]Étienne Gilson, Réalisme Thomiste et Critique de la Connaissance (Paris : Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1947), 156. “Either we begin with being as a realist, and we will also get knowledge, or we begin with knowledge and we will never arrive at being.” [Translation is mine.]

[5]Étienne Gilson, Le Réalisme Méthodique (Paris : Pierre Téqui, 1936), 15. “What must happen, is that instead of being a condition for ontology, epistemology must grow in it and with it, at the same time explaining and being explained, supporting it and being supported by it, just as the parts of a real philosophy are mutually supportive.” [translation is mine]

[6]Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality: An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956), 17-18.

Popular posts from this blog

How Kant’s Synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism resulted in Agnosticism

Immanuel Kant, presented with the extreme empiricism of Hume and the extreme rationalism of Liebniz, which he discovered through the writings Wolff, sought to take a middle road between these two extreme philosophical positions. I would submit that Kant’s synthesis of these two views leads to an agnosticism about what Kant called “the thing-in-itself”, and ultimately to the philosophical positions known as Atheism, determinism, and nihilism.

Kant’s Sources
First of all, Kant was influenced by Hume’s empiricism and Newton’s physics. He saw that the physical sciences, in contrast to rationalistic metaphysics, were actually making advances. They were making discoveries, and building a system of knowledge that accurately described the world of our sense perceptions. Rationalistic metaphysics, on the other hand, was floundering amidst the combating systems that the philosophers were erecting. It did not provide new knowledge, and only led to unacceptable conclusions, such as the Absolute Mon…


Leisure: The Basis of Culture & the Philosophical Act. Josef Pieper. Translated by Alexander Dru. 1963. Reprint, Ignatius Press, 2009. 143 pp. $12.99. ISBN 978-1-58617-256-5.
            This book is composed of two articles written by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. Though the two articles are intimately connected, they form two distinct works; as such, this book review will begin by giving a brief introduction to the works in question, followed by and exposition of each of the works individually. The two articles that are included in this book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture and The Philosophical Act, were both published in 1947, and, as such, were written during the cultural crisis in Germany that followed the Second World War. Not only did Pieper have the cultural crisis in mind when he wrote these articles, but he was also writing in light of the works of the most well-known German philosopher of the time – Martin Heidegger. As such, any reader who is familiar with Heidegg…


I don’t propose to attempt any sort of reply to Martin Heidegger in this article. The purpose of this article is to explain Martin Heidegger’s thoughts, as they are found in the book, Identity and Difference. Martin Heidegger is a difficult thinker to understand, and requires a lot of work to fully appreciate his arguments. My primary goal in this article is to introduce the reader to two very important articles written by Heidegger, and, I hope, to properly explain Heidegger’s views on Being and beings.
            This book is composed of two articles written by Martin Heidegger and translated with an introduction by Joan Stambaugh. The first article, The Principle of Identity, is “the unchanged text of a lecture given on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, for the faculty day on June 27, 1957.”[1] The second article The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics, is “the explication that concluded a seminar during the wint…