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Aquinas and Teleology: A Naturalist Reconstruction

When initially reading Aquinas on the philosophy of mind, one is almost overwhelmed with the teleology running through the discussion. Propositions like ‘The knowing faculty is made for the act of knowing, which in turn is made for the object of knowing’ evoke a quandary. A first response is often ‘How quaint!’ quickly followed by a dismissal, especially by philosophers who cut their philosophical teeth on modern issues in the philosophy of mind and who have a deep distrust of any suggestion of teleology.

Historians of philosophy need to offer Aquinas a little breathing room on this kind of talk. Aquinas is, one might argue, a type of ‘naturalist epistemologist’ who would be comfortable theoretically with the position that through evolution, homines sapiententes (rational animals) adapted to the environment so that these complex knowing organisms could develop and relate cognitively to the external world in the best possible manner. Twentieth-century psychologist James Gibson articulated a similar theory, often referred to as an ‘ecological perspective to perception theory’.[1] Aquinas would fit into this category of contemporary cognitive theorists speculating on why human knowers developed in certain ways. Of course, like Augustine with his evolutionary theory of Rationes Seminales, Aquinas had God hovering in the background. Nonetheless, Aquinas would in principle agree with the theoretical position affirming that a human’s knowing capacities have adapted to the objects in the external world. It follows that neither the criterial question nor the foundational- ist issue pursued by modern philosophers is paramount in Aquinas’s discussion. Aquinas assumes that human persons acquire knowledge; his question, like Gibson’s, is: how is this awareness or knowing situation possible? How can this human phenomenal experience be explained? Haldane suggests that what Aquinas undertakes in developing his philosophy of mind is to ‘explain’ how knowledge is possible and not to ‘justify’ the knowing process. The general thrust of this book is in agreement with Haldane’s suggestions.[2]

  • [1] The author credits his understanding of Gibson’s ecological perception theory to conversations withhis Denison colleague Harry Heft, who knows the work of Gibson as well as any person around. Heft’spublished work develops several Aristotelian themes common with Gibson’s analysis. Cf. James Gibson,‘The Perceiving of Hidden Surfaces’, in Peter K. Machamer and Robert G. Turnbull (eds), Studies inPerception (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978), 422-34. Both Edward Mahoney and James Rossappreciated this structural similarity.
  • [2] James South kindly reminded the author that Gilson in his discussion of Thomist Realism holds asimilar position.
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