Review by Dr Pravin Thevathasan
Man's Knowledge of
An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology
by Frederick D. Wilhelmsen
This is a clear and well-written introduction to the epistemology of St Thomas Aquinas by one of the leading Thomists of recent times. St Thomas is the philosopher of common sense. There is very little common sense in much that passes for philosophy these days. At school, I did a course on the philosophy of perception and I was told that when I was looking at an apple, I was really looking at redness and roundness: epistemological scepticism was in vogue. In contrast, Thomas teaches that when I see an apple, I actually see an apple.
For Thomas, knowledge is not reduced to what is perceived by the senses. Nor is it purely to do with our intellect. Being is an important word for Thomas. We can know being and we do so because of both our senses and our intellect. In modern philosophy, or at least in much that passes for modern philosophy, we have to choose between sense and intellect. Not so for Thomas. The two work together.
As the author demonstrates, there are different kinds of certitudes in Thomistic epistemology. Intellectual certitude can be metaphysical: when I see a red apple, I can know that it is a red apple. Certitude can be physical: when I throw a ball up, I know it will fall down, because of the physical law of gravity. Certitude can also be moral: it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. This moral certitude is knowable by the intellect. There is such a thing as emotional certainty: it feels wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. But such emotional certainty is much more prone to error than intellectual certainty. I can intellectually believe in the existence of God. But I may not feel that he exists. When the emotions are not controlled by reason, it causes us to make wrong moral decisions.
These days, moral discourse is so often reduced to the emotions. The politician in favour of euthanasia tells us it pains him to see people suffer. He has no recourse to reason.
Thomas is not against the emotions, provided our emotions are subject to reason. We are more likely to be against euthanasia when we passionaletely feel it is wrong to exploit the vulnerable.
It goes without saying that there is no mention of euthanasia. But reading this book makes one realise the critical importance of Thomistic epistemology in an age of epistemological scepticism.