Philosophia Perennis Vol. I: An Introduction to Philosophy as Wisdom

When philosophy was still taught in our colleges, there was always one course on epistemology. It is of great value in our pursuit of wisdom to study epistemology at this juncture in our course. And the most logical way to begin this study is to define the word:

In Greek, the word Episteme means knowledge. Two of the books we refer to in the preparation of this course are Epistemology, by Father A.C. Cotter (who was the teacher of Father Leonard Feeney), and Criteriology, by Monsignor Paul J. Glenn, whose books we have found to be of great value. The two books are named for the subject they treat, but they treat the same subject: epistemology and criteriology are the same thing. Criteriology, as it is used here, means the study of the criteria for truth. Another name for the study is major logic. The very first subject in our series, and the second chapter in this book, is logic; and by this we mean minor logic. In some curricula, epistemology is the second subject after minor logic (so that in those curricula, major logic comes immediately after minor logic.) But we have reasons why we do not present it immediately after minor logic.

We should explain our ordering of the subjects as we present them in this series. One reason is that epistemology begins with the proposition, “Universal skepticism is theoretically absurd and practically impossible.” After going through the course of minor logic, which teaches the correct method of reasoning, it turns out that this thesis is the first sentence the student in philosophy is given. It is a proposition which cannot really be strictly proved. All too many times, the teacher fails to convince the student of the point of this proposition, and the student loses grasp of it, lapsing into skepticism. (The students of our time do not mind being theoretically absurd and practically impossible.)

And so, we place the study of epistemology immediately before ontology, (which can also be called general metaphysics, or the science of the immaterial). In this series, we use epistemology as a kind of apologetics for metaphysics1 (just as we study apologetics before studying theology). When we attempt to move into the order of the sheer immaterial — to consider God and the attributes of God as a pure spirit — and consider those attributes of all reality which, even though they apply also to material reality, are really in themselves immaterial (attributes like beauty, truth, goodness, and oneness), we must encourage the mind to be confident and realize the abilities that God has put into it. It is then that epistemology is needed.

What should come after minor logic? In what field of philosophy do the processes of reason cooperate with man’s experience in objective and concrete reality? Cosmology is the obvious answer. In cosmology, we study the material world in which we live, and we draw some very important conclusions about it. (One conclusion, for example, is that it manifests order. The order of the universe is both a conclusion of reason and a vivid fact of observation.) But when we leave the whole material order behind to study values that are purely immaterial, the mind has to be more confident. It has to have a certain appreciation of its own abilities. In our system, that is where the science of epistemology belongs.

Since we have just contrasted minor logic with major logic, we should explain how they differ. We know by now that there are three types of philosophy: physical, logical and ethical. Every philosopher who ever existed eventually had to move into these three territories and take a stand. Different philosophies — as a matter of fact, different epochs in philosophy — place greater emphasis on one or the other, but eventually, all three have to be treated.2

What does minor logic do? It merely studies the laws of consistency. All logic is interested in knowledge, and all knowledge is about truth. (That is the irony in the observation noted in the last chapter, “He knows a lot that ain’t.”) To know is to know things as they are. Minor logic only treats how we go from one truth to another; it never raises the question of how we can start with truth in the first place. One of the things minor logic studies is the syllogism. A syllogism consists of two truths already known that will lead to a third truth not previously known. But somewhere we have to make a start. In minor logic, we do not probe so deeply as to question that there is truth; we simply work on the assumption that there is. Minor logic can be called, then, the science of consistency. One characteristic of modern philosophical thought is to strive for consistency without any regard for the truth. A man can stay scrupulously consistent with a thought progression, never contradicting himself; but if he starts with a lie, his whole thinking is wrong. Many gifted thinkers have done great harm in the world (and nobody does great harm unless he really has great gifts) by being terribly wrong, but very consistent. Because of this, the philosophers of modern times are, on the whole, sophists rather than truly wise men. They begin with some tremendous falsehood, then go on working day in and day out to keep it a consistent system.

In epistemology (or major logic), we are still interested in consistency, but we add to that an interest in truth and certitude. What is taken for granted in minor logic, is an integral part of the subject of major logic.

Now we will come back to our trinities: Every fundamental reality somehow reflects the majesty of the Holy Trinity. Let us remember the three denials of Gorgias: There is nothing; even if there is something, nobody can know it; and even if somebody knew it, he could never tell it to anybody else. These three denials also correspond to the three branches of thought that we are discussing here. These three concepts are found even in our literature. They are the three fundamental problems that all literature revolves around: the problem of being, the problem of knowledge, and the problem of good and evil (or simply, the problem of evil).

What about the problem of being? Our very existence is a problem. One could make himself insane trying to understand this one problem: Here I am. I cannot deny that this is a fact. I exist. But suppose my father had missed the party where he met my mother and fell in love with her. What if he had married another girl? And not just my father and my mother; centuries of such meetings had to take place so I could be here. How many coincidences had to happen just right, before I could come into existence?

Philosophically, the answers to these baffling questions are not to be found in the study of statistics or any empirical science. We must consider the contingency of being. The fundamental problem of being is the fact that a contingent being (like man) could not exist without an infinite being (God) who is not contingent. The order and hierarchy that we see in nature indicates this, and it forms the basis of one of St. Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God. Once we realize that there exist these categories of contingent and non-contingent being, we achieve a great deal of wisdom. However, it also makes us ask more questions. The moment we realize the reality of the infinite it is very hard to see how the finite can have any real existence. This problem is at the basis of many other problems, not only in speculative philosophy, but also in ethics. For example, there is the question of how to reconcile the freedom of the will with the omnipotence of God. There have been enormous controversies over this in the history of the Church; and each one of us has probably raised this question from our youth. The problem of being is proper to the study of ontology; thus it will be addressed in that chapter.

The problem of good and evil is one with which we all occupy ourselves. For instance, one of the biggest problems in apologetics is the problem of evil. Why does evil exist? It is one of the objections to the existence of God that St. Thomas addresses in the Summa Theologica. It is usually stated, “If there is a good God who is all-powerful, then why is there so much suffering in the world?”

From the dawn of pagan philosophy, good and evil occupied the minds of thinkers. Even before that, men thought about good and evil, because every single human who ever existed after Adam and Eve was a descendant of those first humans. Because of this, every religion contains some notion of the fall of man and the consequent need of redemption, which we find in the Genesis account. The first book ever written, the book of Genesis, contains an explanation of good and evil. Pagan philosophers, with nothing more than the natural law written on their hearts and a faint glimmer of the primitive revelation to Adam and Eve, wrote volumes on ethics and had concrete notions of good and evil.

And finally we come to the third problem. What is at the basis of the problem of knowledge? By knowledge the whole universe is in one’s mind. One grasps the whole universe by knowledge; and the act of knowing is entirely in his mind. Does that mean that the whole universe is just in my mind, as if it were all a dream? As we will see, the answer to this is “no,” but it is a little beyond the scope of this introduction to go into detail on this question.

These problems have been with us since the days of Adam. But in modern times, they have dominated the thoughts of men more than ever. So much so, that in the modern world epistemology is not just a branch of philosophy, it has almost usurped the whole field by itself. It is safe to say that from the days of Descartes until our time, almost all the philosophers are more epistemologians than anything else. Their one concern above all else is the problem of knowledge: “I think, therefore I am.” So much can be said about that short sentence to explain why it is revolutionary. For now, let us simply say that Descartes failed to distinguish between substance (that which exists per se) and accident (that which exists in alio). Descartes inferred his own existence (something substantial) from his own thought (something accidental). One question immediately comes to mind: If he doubts the existence of a substance (himself), how can he be so sure of an accident (his thought), which is contingent on the very substance he doubts? This failure to distinguish substance and accident is a mark of all modern philosophy. In fact, one of the main tendencies of all modern thought is the outright denial of the concept of substance. They want a dance without a dancer, a thought without a thinker, a change without anything changing; and they force their language into a pattern which destroys the first metaphysical realization. If the concept of substance is lost, there is hardly anything in our Faith that can be expressed. The word substance is an important part of the Church’s theological vocabulary. The whole heresy of Arianism was crushed by the concept “consubstantial with the Father.”

Let us reflect further on this matter of knowledge. Obviously, the focus of our study of knowledge is human knowledge. But to put this knowledge in its perspective, we should go up the chain of being. Knowledge does not occur on the mineral plane. Two grains of sand can be sitting next to each other for thousands of years without ever knowing each other. A rock can fall in a thousand avalanches without ever learning the laws of gravity, or even what up or down is. The same holds true for all mineral creatures: there is no knowledge. Even at the level of vegetable life, where life begins and where some order can be manifest, there is no knowledge. What is one rose to another rose? Everything in a plant is a matter of physical and chemical reaction. When a potted plant moves itself so that its leaves face the sun, it is all a matter of chemistry.

Knowledge first begins on the animal level. A rabbit must know when to run away from danger. God gave it the powers necessary for its survival. One of these powers is a tremendous emotion of fear. If rabbits were to lose that emotion, there would be no more rabbits. But this fear has to be guided by knowledge. There has to be something which makes the rabbit suspicious: some noise, sight or smell. Then for its own protection it runs. Every animal, from the smallest little bug to the biggest elephant, has powers for knowledge. Man has these same powers. The difference is that animal knowledge never goes above sense knowledge. Man has, in addition to these powers, the powers of abstraction, which only a creature endowed with reason can have. This is another thing that we will study in epistemology: the distinction between the sense life and the intellectual life, and why the two have to be absolutely and clearly distinguished.

One of the fallacies of modern philosophy (especially in the Anglo-Saxon world) is sensism. This philosophical error reduces all know-ledge to sense knowledge, and in effect denies the spiritual faculty: the intellect. In man there is indeed sense knowledge, which we have in common with all animals, but man also has spiritual knowledge above and beyond the senses. Sense knowledge requires material organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc., for the external senses and the brain for the internal senses), and it also requires a material object. In other words, sense knowledge occurs in the material order. But the intellect is a supra-material or spiritual power, and can know immaterial reality. These distinctions will be explained more fully in two volumes that will be a part of this series: psychology and epistemology. For now, it is enough to say that sensism is tantamount to denying the whole spiritual order, and inevitably leads to materialism and to hedonism.

We stated above that our senses require a material object. We should dwell on this truth a little longer. We have five external senses and four internal ones. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are all external senses. The four internal senses are common sense, the estimative sense, the memory and the imagination (These will be thoroughly explained in the volume on psychology). None of our senses can perceive anything that is not material. The object perceived must produce a material impression on the sense organ. This means that a merely sentient being is utterly incapable of knowing God or even an abstract reality, like courage or justice. It is only when we understand and appreciate this truth that we will be able to realize the human soul is spiritual and possesses, in addition to the nine senses, another knowledge power, or faculty, we call the intellect.

One major aim of our philosophy program is to defend the spiritual plane in human nature by which man is absolutely and essentially different from the animals. This difference is ignored or minimized in education today due to many influences, not the least of which is the theory of evolution. The defense of man’s spirituality begins in the distinction between an idea and a phantasm, a technical matter to be discussed fully in due time. For the purposes of this introduction, it will suffice to say that a phantasm is a technical term for a sense image of a concrete material object, to which all the senses (external and internal) contribute, that is impressed on the brain. It is a medium of knowledge on the plane of sense, as the idea is for the intellect.

Making the distinction between sentient knowledge and intellectual knowledge does not mean that we despise the senses. The philosopher notices the preeminence of the senses among all the powers we have in common with animal life in general (i.e., powers of locomotion, digestion, etc.). The sense organs are the most precious organs in the human body. Almost the whole body is built to protect them, to be at their service. In other words, man was obviously constructed more for knowledge than for any other purpose, even on the bodily plane. The organ of touch, the most fundamental of the five external senses, pervades the whole body. We can only see with the eyes, we can never hear with the nose, but we can feel with every part of us. Very few parts of the human body are not sensitive to touch. If touch is the most fundamental of the senses, then sight is the most elevated. And to contemplate the operation of sight, we discover a cosmic interest in knowledge — even sentient knowledge. Sight cannot be without light, and light is the most cosmic material nature. It is basic to all of the rest of the material universe. Our eyes could be in perfect condition, but if the lights went out where we are reading this book, we would not know what the book says. We may have a whole library in front of us, but without light, we will learn nothing. Light is a necessary medium for knowledge. It is probably the most mysterious, exciting, and exquisite material reality. (It is material, but by the way we use the word “light” when talking on the spiritual plane, we intimate that there must be light even beyond matter.)

The whole world is flooded with light. Almost all matter is ready to explode into light. (This is an indication of the cosmic interest in knowledge.) There is no purpose for light except to make knowledge a possibility. Let us consider the objects perceived in the light: trees, flowers, rosebushes. Every single second of their existence, they are broadcasting to the whole world what they are by way of color, size, proportion, motion, etc., all through the medium of light. Knowledge is one of the most fundamental tendencies of all nature. (In the end, when we come to study knowledge at its highest levels, it is going to lead us to the contemplation of the processions in the Holy Trinity.)

Now let us consider one of the theses that will be defended in the course on epistemology. It is thesis number three: we have many cognitive faculties,3 and they are, per se, infallible. What are the faculties? We have mentioned nine of them above, the internal and external senses, but to enumerate all of the faculties of man would be much too much detail for now. Let us consider the sense of sight again, since it served us well above: There is a rose. Joseph is looking at that rose. He sees that it is red. Now, the scientists say that Joseph does not see the rose, that what he really sees is an impression on his retina. They are wrong; Joseph sees the rose. The image on the retina, which the scientist sees, is the means to an end. The ultimate experience of knowledge is not my seeing the phantasms in my head, but the object outside. Once this foundational truth of the study of knowledge is destroyed, it can never be restored. We have to begin with it as the fact. A child looks at a rose and says, “Oh, look! A beautiful red rose.” Right away the cynical scientist comes to him and says, “The red is not there. It’s just in your eyes, in your head. And what’s there outside is electromagnetic waves. So the eye does not perceive the red, it creates it. If there were no eye looking, there would be no red there.”

These are the fundamental doubts which every young man and woman has been exposed to in college today. As philosophers, we reject that completely. The rose is red. God gave us eyes to see things as they are, not to make them. The cognitive powers are not creative, they are merely receptive. They are pure and clear and waiting for the object to convey what it is. A whole world of difference begins once some cynic, under the pretense of scientific discovery, denies that fact.

They will tell you, “One person might see it red, another might see it yellow.” Relativism has entered the picture. Now, if a man has jaundice, we can examine him and find out that he has a prejudice in his illness to add yellow to everything he sees. That could be explained. One of the marks of the age in which we live, (an age which is, philosophically, a sick age) is preoccupation with abnormality. Before they study the marvel of sight, the modern sophists like to get distracted by the accident — the defect — of color blindness. Right away they say, “Well, people can be color blind; therefore, since what I see is red, and what he sees is grey, and what the person with a different kind of color-blindness sees is blue, then it is all relative to the individual’s perception.”

Is it meaningful to say that the object is red? Yes, it is meaningful. God intended the rose to appear exactly as it normally does, and He gave us the powers to see it that way. That is why all normal people see it red, and why there must be an accidental cause for the abnormality. (It is also why people label color-blindness an abnormality.) Otherwise, all objectivity is gone. If the colors are really in my mind, they are merely a subjective experience — like a dream or a headache. How is it that we all see red? Because the thing is that color. How do you know that we all see the same red? Well, we seem to be able to talk about red. We say the same things about it. We share experiences among ourselves. How in the world could that be going on if there were no such thing as red which exists outside us?4

Here is the point at issue: Is knowledge a purely subjective and therefore a relative thing, or is it an objective thing? Did God give us knowledge powers to make our own reality, each in his own mind, or to know things that really exist as they are? The reader will probably know by now that the answer of the student of Philosophia Perennis is the latter for both questions. Knowledge is objective because we have the faculty to know what really exists outside us. God gave us that power. The first answer to each of the above questions (the wrong answer) is at the basis of so much of modern philosophy. It is this subjectivism that is the real achievement of modern philosophy. These thinkers have so polluted our atmosphere with error that today even a common man, who may never read a philosophy book all his life, can be heard to say, “Well, maybe that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me.”

Immanuel Kant used to sit at his desk at eight o’clock and philosophize until four o’clock. When he took his walk at four o’clock, people set their watches. His life and his thought were both very methodical. Kant began by almost deliberately denying the simple fact of knowledge as we have been considering it. He ended up by saying that we do not perceive or know what the universe is. Instead, we make our own universe. The universe one knows is in his head. Time and space are the modes of perceptibility of man. Man being what he is, that is the kind of universe he makes. All objectivity is gone. Everything is swallowed in the person himself. It has been said that Kant is a much greater influence in the world than St. Thomas Aquinas ever was. This is true to a very great extent. Out of this subjectivism we have subjective religions: “We don’t care what you believe. Truth and falsehood don’t mean a thing. Every man makes his own religion. As long as he is sincere, everything is fine.” It is the end of all doctrine, the end of all truth, the end of all morality.

Now that we have seen what the subject of epistemology is, showing its importance and where it fits in our philosophical scheme (and even treating some of the controversies created by our philosophical enemies), we will begin where the formal study of epistemology must begin: universals. This is the problem that we begin with because all philosophic principles are in terms of universals. One can write a biography of one individual man, but when he writes a science, it has to be about man. The Summa Theologica contains the treatise, De Homine, about man. Every one of us is in that treatise. St. Thomas Aquinas did not know the author of An Introduction to Philosophy as Wisdom, or any of its readers, but we are all there by way of one abstract notion: man.

As we have already seen, there have been three false schools about universals: nominalism, conceptualism and exaggerated realism. There is a way to steer clear of all three of these errors. When we are seriously interested in truth, we will discover there are three distinct orders that have to be adjusted correctly in relation to each other before we can communicate with each other meaningfully. What are the three different orders? Thought, language, and reality. Now, the possibilities of confusing these three orders are infinite. That is why only a person with good will, only a person who truly loves the truth and seeks after wisdom with a purity of heart, can become a true philosopher. Wisdom will elude a person who is just trying to be clever or trying to justify his wicked life, or attempting any other vain, self-serving achievement. One has to have purity of heart. This is why St. Paul could say, “Charity rejoiceth in the truth.”

We have been considering man in this chapter. Let us look at the proposition, “Man is a responsible creature.” That is one sentence we would have to justify. We would have to prove it. But for now, let us accept it as a given. Suppose we make another sentence: “Man is a monosyllable.” Is that correct? Is man a monosyllable? Yes. Now let us notice what can happen when we destroy the harmony that should exist between the three orders of reality, thought, and language. This illustration will reveal the function of language in relation to thought. It will also tell us the relation of thought to reality. Now, we say, “Man is a responsible being, but Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is a responsible being.” Fine, this is logical; but then we say, “Man is a monosyllable, but Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is a monosyllable.” Is that true? Of course not. It is what happens when language is abused and does not represent the same reality consistently in a syllogism. (The two problems we have just studied are syllogisms.)

Here is another one: Frank says to Joe, “Man is a universal.” Joe then asks, “What do you mean by a universal?” “Well,” says Frank, “Fido, the name of a particular dog, is a singular, not a universal. It refers to one definite entity. But, if I say ‘man’, or if I say ‘dog,’ these are universals.” “Fine,” Joe says, and they have reached an agreement. “Man is a universal” Frank says. “Fine,” Joe replies. “But, Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is a universal.” Frank has just deceived or confused Joe by the destruction of the order that should exist among reality, thought and language. The errors sophists make are not always as simple and evident as these examples, but no matter how subtle it is, the fallacy can be reduced to a bad syllogism. It is quite easy to play those orders against each other.

Language is only language when it is the expression of thought. A word can stand for an idea, but a word is not an idea. There are properties of a word that are not in the idea. We now start talking about a medium. The word is a medium. All language is a medium of communication. The idea is a medium too, but a major part of epistemology is to explain the difference between one kind of medium and another. The idea is that by which we know the thing. It is not that which we know. Otherwise, ideas would be blinders, not eyeglasses. They would be the only thing we know. We can say it this way, “The ideas are not the things we know; but by ideas we know things.” Most of the modern psychologists talk as if all that we know is our ideas. They confuse the kind of medium that an idea is with the kind of medium a word is.

The last thing that we will cover in this chapter is the thesis in epistemology which defines universals. Here it is: “That which we conceive by the direct universal concept is real, though not in the manner in which we conceive it. The reflex universal concepts, however, are figments of the mind, though they, too, are based on reality.” This is one paragraph of epistemology; and to understand every single word in it is the very first thing a philosopher must do patiently before he ventures into any field of philosophy. We will have to wait until the book on epistemology before we explain this thesis in detail.

Man reasons, while the angels intuitively see. The pride of man is exhibited when he pretends to be an angel and rushes into the areas which require very patient and careful preparation before starting to formulate truths. We are not angels; we are human beings. And while the power of reason God gave us makes us infinitely higher than the animals, it is still the lowest level of intelligence. So it is both the dignity of man that he reasons, and the humility of man that he must know by patient reasoning: by humbly defining his terms, making distinctions, clarifying the issues, and going from one step to another. If the angels needed to study geometry, they would see all the theorems in the axioms, but man cannot do that. How quickly do we see the axioms or the postulates? “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. If equals are added to equals the sums are equal.” We began with simple truths like that, and then patiently we come to truths like, “The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the squares of the two shorter sides.” Nobody ever said, “I knew that right away. The moment I heard it I knew that to be true.” It is by going patiently, step by step, defining every term, that we finally come to truth. Truth is something so precious that it deserves the most careful attention and the most painstaking approach.

One of the marks of the modern thinkers (we have discussed several of them already) is to act as if they are not human beings, but angelic minds. They think that without any study of logic, without any careful discipline, they can proceed to tell us all about anything under the sun (or over the sun). They start talking about God and about whether there are angels or no angels; about whether the soul is a spirit or not a spirit. They talk about immortality. They talk about all the problems of ethics with absolutely no foundations. The job of the good philosopher is to establish the firm foundation for the truth.

1 Metaphysics is simply another name for ontology.

2 This fundamental trinity fascinates good theologians. It is one of the natural stepping stones to contemplation of the supreme Trinity which all reality reflects. The three acts of to be, to know, and to love correspond to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

3 The word “faculty” simply means power.

4 To recall something from our last chapter, Leibnitz would answer this problem by saying, “It’s all by some kind of pre-established harmony.” We say, “No. The object is red, and every person who looks at it in normal conditions, normal illumination, will see what it is.”