Home Page  


Thomas Aquinas: The Universal Doctor


The Meaning of Things

What went wrong


When Thomas Aquinas 1 lived, in the thirteenth century, almost no one in Western Europe doubted that things had an existence and a meaning of their own, independently of mankind.  They believed that humans were able to extract this meaning from the things outside their minds. In no way were the things ‘out there’ (not in the mind) dependent on the human mind for their meaning, and even their existence. People were dependent on things for their knowledge. This was the common belief.  It is not so today.

     Today there is a climate of thought which makes people believe they can determine for themselves what they are or could become, and how the purpose of each thing around them can be defined.  Reality is given its meaning from within their own minds. As minds succeed to minds throughout the generations it is not surprising that attitudes towards things change. Nothing is immutable. Minds die, and their ideas along with them. New minds come along with fresh definitions and the things around them have a new meaning. 

      In this book, which is about the relevance of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas for us today, the case will be made that this imposition of meaning is at the basis of many of society’s present ills. Instead of observing things, and learning from them, men (this word includes women unless otherwise stated) give their own meaning to them and proceed to use them according to this meaning. Since the thing very often has a meaning and purpose of its own, different from the one imposed on it, the result is at best a muddle and at worst a tragedy. Examples can be taken from the areas of food, drink, sexuality, plants, animals and human nature itself. These will all be introduced in later chapters.

       This chapter will be a defence of the two statements contained in the first two paragraphs above. That is to say, firstly, that once upon a time people believed that things in the world exist in their own right, having their own meaning, which they transmit to men’s minds, and, secondly, that today people believe that they can give their own meaning to things, which leads some of them to go as far as to doubt the reality of the world outside their own minds. An attempt will be made to explain how this second mindset has come about.

      Many people may find this whole enterprise irrelevant. They will assert that of course they believe things around them have an existence and a meaning of their own. This is the natural way of looking at things. Indeed it is. For this reason more attention will be paid in this chapter to the false and unnatural position, whereby the human mind gives meaning to the world, than to the one which says that the world itself transmits its meaning to us. It is hoped to show that this attitude is all-pervasive in the Western world today.

      People are subscribing to this subjectivism without realising they are. Human sexuality is a case in point. How many people who accept the modern ethos in this area give even a passing thought to such realities as ovaries, spermatozoa, the uterus or the vas deferens, and then ask themselves what is the purpose of this whole thing? By accepting the modern ethos, which says that sexuality is for enjoyment, with procreation an occasional extra in some cases, they are joining the majority who give their own meaning to things, a meaning that will serve their own selfish purposes. If people were to give an honest appraisal of the sexual differences of plants and animals, including mankind, they would be forced to acknowledge that the facts point to reproduction as the raison d’être of these differences. To leave humankind out of the many species covered by this general conclusion is a decision of the human mind, unsupported by the observed facts.  Man has given his own meaning to things, instead of letting things give their meaning to him.

        Modern art is a metaphor for this attitude. Instead of looking at nature and loving its lines and curves, the artist looks into his own mind as it interprets what is in front of him, and so produces something that other minds than his will not recognise, unless they are told what it is meant to represent. Traditional art is dismissed as ‘photographic.’ The post-moderns seem to have rebelled. They go back beyond the ‘photographic’ and present us with the things themselves, dye-stained stretches of water, or putrescent meat, for example. Some might say that by doing this they have abolished art. In a similar way, by giving their own meaning to things, modern philosophers practically abolished the things themselves. They put them into their own minds, then found they could not trust their own minds, so found they had lost all assurance that the things exist at all.

     This chapter will try to trace the steps that led philosophers to bring themselves to this point.

     The first opinion that is defended here is that Thomas Aquinas brought philosophy to a point of sanity and balance, which, if adhered to, would enable human affairs to be carried on in a viable way. His philosophy was solidly based on the observation of things around him. This attitude he learnt from Aristotle, 2 who was his main source in the philosophical sphere. He taught that in each thing there are elements which are intelligible to the human mind. The mind grasps these elements and so acquires knowledge of that thing. For example, a man sees, feels, smells and tastes an apple. His senses give him knowledge of the presence of all these attributes. His intelligence accepts a composite image from the senses and abstracts from it the nature of the thing, which is ‘apple.’

       The nature, or essence of the thing observed, which can be grasped by the human mind, Thomas calls its form. This word has a special sense in mediaeval philosophy. It does not mean the shape of a thing, or its state of health, or a mould for casting, or a bench or class in school, or a hare’s home, or something from Gestalt psychology. For Thomas form means what a thing is, and it is expressed by a common noun. So the form of a dog is ‘dog,’ of a horse is ‘horse,’ of the blueness of a thing is ‘blueness,’ of the fact of being hot is ‘heat,’ and so on. Although, when received into our minds, a form is abstract, in the thing itself it is real. All this may seem rather alien to us today. The modern world began losing any concept of form from the fourteenth century onwards, as I shall explain below. It is my contention, however, and I shall say this over and over again in this book, that it is the lack of any conception of form in the modern mind that has brought us to the point at which we are today. The loss of ‘form’ was ‘what went wrong’ in Western philosophy. Since philosophical theories eventually filter down into and shape the rest of society, the loss of form was what went wrong in society also.

      On the other hand, ‘what went right’ in philosophy was the life, career and writings of Thomas Aquinas. He was born in 1225, became a Dominican Friar in about 1244 and wrote and taught from about 1250 to 1273.  He died in 1274, having lectured mainly at the University of Paris, but also in various towns in Italy, finishing his career by teaching at the University of Naples, where he had started his own serious studies at the age of fourteen 3.  During his brief professional life he wrote about eighty works, some only a few pages long, others running to a thousand pages or more.  Towards the end of his life, from 1267 to 1273, he wrote a summary of his teaching, which fills over 2,000 quarto-sized pages of closely printed text.  It was left unfinished at his death but was completed in a Supplement by his faithful secretary, Reginald of Piperno, who took material from his earlier works, notably the Commentary on the Sentences, which was Thomas’s MA thesis. This Commentary was as long as, if not longer than, the later Summary of Theology ( the Summa theologiae, or Summa theologica, as it is often called now). In a brief prologue Thomas states that this summary of theology is written for the ‘instruction of beginners.’ Well argued and clearly set out, it leads the student through the subject step by step, explaining the terms used and considering possible objections. The best teacher of Thomism is Thomas Aquinas himself.

          One of the main characteristics of his philosophy is that of balance. It is apparent in his metaphysics (his teaching about the roots of being), his physics (his teaching about material things), his moral teaching and his political theory. This balance will be illustrated in almost all the chapters that follow. Here just one example will be given – the balance between ‘matter’ and ‘form.’


        I have said that the concept of ‘form’ as the inner nature of a thing is the important element in Thomas’s teaching that we now lack. How does the characteristic of balance enter into this teaching? Form is counterbalanced by matter. ‘Counterbalanced’ is perhaps the wrong word. The two are not comparable, but in material things they are inseparable. Everything in the physical world is composed of matter and form.  The matter is the part that changes, that is always potentially different; the form is the part that remains unchanged.  The form ‘cat’ is the same in the slippery, wet newborn kitten with closed eyes, in the blue-eyed ball of fluff a month later, and in the yellow-eyed full-grown cat that it will become.  The matter of the cat changes continually, but the form ‘cat’ remains unchanged.  What is more, the same form ‘cat’ is found in all other cats, and lives on, after the individual cat’s death, in every other cat, including her own kittens. The form of a thing is its species. It is what it is, it is the group to which it belongs, and it is what is handed on from generation to generation.

       If a thing’s form is ‘what it is’, why is matter necessary at all? What role is there left for it to play? For Thomas Aquinas it has a very important role indeed. Matter is what individuates. ‘Individuates’ is not a word we use very often today. For Thomas it means ‘separates or differentiates the individuals of one species from each other’.  Their species is their form (whether ‘dog’, ‘cat’, oak tree’, ‘man’ or whatever) – this unites them.  All dogs have the same form ‘dog,’ but each individual dog is made up of different matter. This sets him apart from all other dogs. It ‘individuates’ him. Thomas expresses this by saying,  ‘Matter is the principle of individuation.’  By making matter the element in each thing that separates it from others of the same species, Thomas identifies the form as the thing that unites these things. By making matter the principle of individuation he has liberated form to be the principle of unification

       The subsequent importance of this duality, strongly adhered to and defended by Thomas, will be examined more fully below in a consideration of what happened after his death.  For the moment let it suffice to say that by his division of all reality into matter and form Thomas was enabled to elaborate a philosophy which is a masterpiece of balance.

      This balance was unprecedented.  Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy is often described as a synthesis.  He did indeed incorporate into his philosophy all that he considered good and true in other philosophical systems.  In fact he found so much that was good and true in Aristotle’s system that he incorporated it almost entirely into his own.  Some would even say that he has incorporated his own system into Aristotle’s, but a detailed knowledge of both systems leads most thinkers to the conclusion that Thomas’s is more comprehensive and more logically thought out, and contains many elements that are not found in Aristotle’s writings at all. 

      The theory of individuation by matter is an example of this.  Thomas did indeed find this theory in Aristotle’s writings, but the latter merely mentions it briefly a few times and does not develop it or consider the possible objections to it.  The theory is found a little more fully developed in the writings of Avicenna 4, a Persian commentator of Aristotle whom Thomas studied extensively.  Avicenna does not formulate the theory coherently, however, and deals with none of the objections to it.  In the refined form in which Thomas presents it, it has no precedent.  In view of this, since the theory of matter as the principle of individuation is the very pivot of the balanced philosophy achieved by Thomas Aquinas, it is not surprising that the very balance of his system is itself unprecedented.

       Unprecedented in the thirteenth century, the balance achieved by Thomas Aquinas has been unsurpassed ever since.  There seems to be a malevolent law at work in human affairs which ensures that once perfection – or as near perfection as an imperfect world allows – has been reached, change must go on.  Since the only change from the perfect is to the imperfect, this change can obviously only be for the worse.  Now, if perfection in human affairs implies balance, then imperfection can be expected to imply imbalance on one side or the other.  A man may be too fat or too thin, too reckless or too cowardly; weather can be too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; a book can be too long or too short, too pedantic or too flippant, and so on.  Balance by its very nature is always at risk of being tipped to one side or the other.  Exactly this happened to the balanced doctrine of matter and form introduced by Thomas.  This is what first of all ‘went wrong.’

      Firstly, in the generation following Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus formulated a philosophy which exaggerated the role of form.  Then in the next generation William of Ockham, in reaction to the ultra-exaggerations of Scotus’s disciples, abolished form altogether and taught the primacy of the individual, which in Thomistic terms would evidently mean an exaggeration of the role of matter, since matter is the principle of individuation.

      John Duns Scotus was born in 1265 in Roxburghshire, Scotland.  He joined the Franciscan Order and studied in Oxford and Paris, dying comparatively young in Cologne in 1308.  There seems to be a growing interest in and approval of his work in certain circles today.  There is no doubt that he was devout and industrious and had a penetrating and subtle mind.  (His medieval nickname was Doctor Subtilis, ‘the Subtle Teacher.’)  Unfortunately, however, the main outcome of his work was to fill men’s minds with a doctrine incompatible on almost all levels with that of Thomas Aquinas, thereby seriously diminishing the effectiveness of the latter’s achievement.  What is more, Duns Scotus’s doctrine bore in itself the seeds of such a splintering and disintegration of each individual being that a violent reaction ensued, and the thinking world was launched on the ‘nominalist’ 5 road opened up to it by William of Ockham, a road along which only individuals exist and form is abolished altogether.

     The two tenets of Duns Scotus’s doctrine which led to this splintering and disintegration of each individual being are the following:

1) There is no such thing as really unknowable ‘prime matter’ 6 which is pure potentiality.  Even prime matter for Duns Scotus has some sort of form of its own.

2) Besides forms there are such entities as formalities, which are found at every level of being, and have a real, separate existence of their own.  For example there is a formality for ‘material object’, a formality for ‘thinking rational animal (i.e. man)’ and a formality for ‘this individual’.


     What these two tenets mean in effect is that for Duns Scotus each object has a multitude of forms, and not only one form as Thomas insisted.  For Thomas the form ‘man’ (or ‘rational animal’) includes within itself the sub-forms ‘material object’, ‘living being’ and ‘animal’.  By using  the word ‘formalities’ Duns Scotus thought he could still say that each object has only one form, e.g. ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘rose’, ‘pebble’ etc., but has several formalities.  So an individual person, for example Marie Antoinette, has within herself these formalities: ‘material object’, ‘living being’, ‘animal’, ‘human being’, and ‘Marie Antoinette’.  The average person can be forgiven for not seeing much difference between these formalities and forms, so that Marie Antoinette is made up of at least eight entities. These are: 1. her matter (remember that for Duns Scotus prime matter itself has a form and an existence of its own), 2. her form, 3. her individual self  (made up of these two, but distinct from them), 4. her materiality, 5. her vegetative life, 6. her animality, 7. her rationality and 8. her individuality (sometimes called ‘thisness’- haecceitas in Latin). 

     Already we have an intolerable splintering of the individual being, but Duns Scotus’s distinctions did not stop there.  There were still further refinements which a more erudite study than this present sketch would take into account.  Suffice it to say here that with his ‘formalities’ Duns Scotus opened the flood-gates to a veritable torrent of forms and sub-forms, all having reality, which were developed by his successors.

     Thomas had firmly closed these flood-gates by stating and maintaining against all opposition that each individual has only one form’, which is its specific form (i.e. the one accorded by its species, e.g.‘dog’, ‘whale’, ‘diamond’ )  All other ‘lower’ forms are included in this ultimate one.  The individual as such does not have an individual form which is different from the specific form. This tenet is known technically as the ‘unicity of form.’ Each individual possesses the specific form individually, and this individuality is assured by its matter, not by its form.  Matter individuates the form and thereby individuates the existent thing (whether living or otherwise) which is composed of matter and form.

     This is a sober doctrine, even a difficult doctrine, but a doctrine which ensures and safeguards balance.  Duns Scotus’s doctrine of a form which is unique to each individual is seductive – we all like to feel that we are unique, not only by our matter but also by our spirit (or form) – but it leads to chaos in the end.  Each form, each human spirit, each ‘soul’ (which is the ‘form’ of the body) is individual for Thomas Aquinas, but this individuality depends on the matter in which the form exists;  it is not intrinsic to the form.

      This flood of Scotist forms swept over the intellectual circles of the early fourteenth century and quickly provoked a reaction.  William of Ockham was only expressing the growing disgust with and practical aversion from such a torrent of intangibles when he sharpened ready for use his famous razor.7

      William of Ockham was born possibly at Ockham in Surrey in about 1290.  Like Duns Scotus he became a Franciscan Friar and studied at Oxford.  He led a rather eventful, even political, life and died in Munich in 1349, possibly of the Black Death.  Although belonging to the same Order of Friars he did not hesitate to attack the opinions of his earlier confrère, Duns Scotus.  His attacks were so radical that they subverted the teaching of Thomas Aquinas as well. 

      Not content with reducing the Scotist multiplicity of forms to one only for each individual being, which form was itself common to all members of the same species, Ockham decided that forms themselves were superfluous and should be shaved away from the face of reality by his razor.  Henceforth, for him, only individuals existed.  This was unfortunate, even for himself, for it left him with no rational grounds on which to base a formulation of the Christian faith.  If each individual thing exists separately from all others, with no real link between them, the common name they share being only a convention used by men to designate similar things, several very depressing consequences ensue.

        First of all, any possibility of real unity among things is destroyed.  If each oak tree is an individual possessing no link with other oak trees beyond one of accidental resemblance, the species ‘oak’ has been banished from the face of the Earth.  The unity of kind between the trees felt by someone walking through an oak wood, or a traveller finding the same oaks in Normandy as in Sussex, has been declared a myth, a figment of the imagination.  Even more depressing is the application of this doctrine to mankind itself.  ‘Mankind’ or ‘humanity’ is abolished; there are only individual men and women.  Any feeling of unity and a common destiny they may harbour is an illusion.  Each one is in reality absolutely alone and isolated in his own individual existence.  What is more, how can one ever reason from the existence of things to the existence of God, who in Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine is Pure Form and the source of all forms?

      Ockham recognised this impossibility and was forced to divorce faith from reason. His reason brought him to accept only isolated material individuals as real.  He had to ‘liberate’ his faith from reason and postulate the absolute, arbitrary freedom of God.  For Thomas, God is indeed free, but even He cannot transgress the principle of non-contradiction and make a thing both be and not be under the same conditions at the same time.  Ockham’s God presumably could, for he was completely divorced from the realm of reason.  It is not even absolutely certain that Ockham continued to believe in God by the time he had thought his philosophy through.  What is certain is that Ockham’s philosophy would not lead to a belief in God if one did not already believe in Him.  Furthermore it would tend to destroy any belief in God one already had.  The effect of Thomas’s balanced philosophy is the exact reverse.

      Let no one say that these are only ‘quarrels of the Schools’ and belong to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries where they originated.  Ockhamism is the view of the world which is commonly accepted in philosophical circles today. In the early twentieth century Bertrand Russell came up with a modernised version of it which he called ‘logical atomism’.  A modernised version indeed, for Russell used Ockham’s razor so drastically that he even eliminated the individual.  We might say that he shaved off the skin along with the beard.  For Ockham the individual at least remained as an undivided substance.8  Russell, however, will have no truck with substance.  For him that is a superfluous conception, destined to be eliminated by the razor.  All we need, he says, is a ‘cluster of compresences’, which means that Marie-Antoinette was not just simply Marie-Antoinette, but rather a cluster of attributes such as: daughter of Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XVI, mother of Louis XVII, in Versailles in 1780, dead in 1793, rich then poor, and so on. 9 An Ockhamist would at least be able to say, ‘It’s Marie-Antoinette,’ that is, to name her individual substance. Russell’s position may be a logical one.  Having abolished form, by use of Ockham’s razor, perhaps one is inevitably led to abolish individual substance as well.  If this is so, Ockhamism is shown to lead not only to the utter isolation, but also to the utter disintegration of the individual.  It is shown in fact to contain, together with its own grave faults, those of Scotism as well, but at a lower, more basic and more disastrous level.

      It can, however, be argued that William of Ockham is not alone responsible for the feeling of isolation and disintegration that is the lot of the majority of thinking youth at the beginning of the third millennium 10.  The seventeenth century delivered Descartes to Europe and the succeeding three centuries have progressively delivered Europe to Descartes. 

     Some might argue on the other hand that if there had been no Ockhamism there would have been no Cartesianism, although the latter is an indirect rather than a direct development from the former.  The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the spread of Ockhamism to almost all the European universities.  Scotism also had its adherents.  Thomism, however, found itself to a large extent confined to the Dominican Order, whose members continued to labour for its exposition and defence.  The split in Western Christendom occasioned by Martin Luther’s actions in the early sixteenth century cut off about half of Western Europe from any contact at all with Thomism.  This was because before his split with Rome Luther had been a member of the Augustinian Order of Friars, which had always been hostile to the rationalising Aristotelian orientation taken by Thomas Aquinas.  On leaving the Order, Luther did not relinquish this attitude but continued to exalt faith to the detriment of reason.  If one adds to this the fact that most of the Catholic half of Europe was imbued either with Scotism and its concomitant splitting of hairs, or with Ockhamism and its concomitant sterility, it becomes inevitable that at some stage a thinker will arise to announce that he is going to make a fresh start.

     That thinker was René Descartes (1596-1650).  He was educated at a Jesuit college and lived and died a practising Catholic in spite of his own doctrines, which proved in the end to be destructive of faith.  Descartes decided to make his fresh start by doubting everything that he could possibly, by some mental contrivance, doubt.  He managed to convince himself that it made sense to doubt the existence of the world around him – after all, he said, he might be dreaming or having hallucinations – including the existence of his own body, but he felt he had come up against something solid when he considered his own act of doubting.  This may seem to us rather dubious but it satisfied Descartes.  ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ 11, he triumphantly concluded.  What he meant was, ‘I am doubting, therefore I exist’.  He could doubt everything but his own existence, for there he undoubtedly was, engaged in doubting.  He did not, however, intend to remain within such a tiny area of certainty but proceeded firstly to ‘prove’ the existence of a good God from the ‘certainty’ of the existence of his own thought, and then to posit that a good God would not deceive him into believing that the world existed if it did not, so it must exist.  Having proved to his own satisfaction the existence of the world he then proceeded to talk and write about it in great detail.

     My presentation of Descartes’ undertaking is obviously simplified and overtly partisan.  It behoves a convinced Cartesian to defend him not only against this presentation but also against the criticisms that follow, for even leaving aside the weakness of Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God, 12 there are glaring inconsistencies in his position.  Firstly he proposes to build up all his subsequent certainties on his own initial doubt (which he calls ‘thinking’).  Secondly, he arbitrarily decides that God is good, using this arbitrary decision as a proof for His existence.  Thirdly, even if it is granted that God is good, it does not necessarily have to be a goodness according to Descartes’ conception of it.  God’s goodness may necessitate Descartes’ hallucinations for all Descartes knows.  His proofs for the existence of God, even if they are valid, do not necessarily lead to a proof for the existence of the world.  Fourthly, why does he consider that his own doubting is exempt from doubt? 

      Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was more consistent when, accepting with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) that thinking (Descartes’ cogito) must always be about something, he suggested that the something outside us is the reality (l’être), and we who are doing the thinking are only a pool of nothingness (le néant) at the heart of reality.  This conclusion seems improbable and apparently led to quite a number of suicides in the nineteen fifties, but it was built up logically out of an amalgam of Descartes’ axiom and Husserl’s attempt to make sense out of it.  ‘Let’s get back to the things themselves’, said Husserl, but starting from Descartes’ position he was soon embroiled in difficulties, and it was left to Sartre to demonstrate the absurdity of it all.  If we now combine Descartes and his ultimate descendant, Sartre, we are left with nothing at all, for Descartes was sure only of his own thought and Sartre reduced the thinking mind to a centre of nothingness.

     The fifth criticism to be made of Descartes’ method is the most fundamental and should really come before all the others.  It is that Descartes, if he wished to be a serious philosopher, which he did, should have started from the initial and indisputable certainty of being, in other words, of the existence of things.  This principle had already been formulated by Thomas Aquinas at the beginning of his treatise ‘On Truth’ (De Veritate).  Any investigation, he writes, should rely on an undisputed first principle, otherwise knowledge would be impossible. ‘Now the first thing that the intellect conceives as most clearly known, and in which it dissolves all other conceptions, is the existence of the outside world.’13 I have cheated somewhat in my translation, for Thomas does not say ‘the existence of the outside world.’  That is a modern phrase, invented since people began doubting the evidence of their senses (i.e. since Descartes started the ball rolling on that slope).  What Thomas says is, ‘What the intellect conceives as most clearly known is ens.’  Ens  is most exactly translated in English as ‘being’ or ‘a being’, but since this can be rather ambiguous, it can be paraphrased as ‘that there is something there.’

      This conviction comes to us at the most basic level there is, through our five senses.  This was Aquinas’s belief, as it is that of any other normal person.  Descartes had to do violence to his common sense in order to start off his doubting.  If he had first read Thomas Aquinas carefully, (There is no evidence that he did) instead of trying to make a fresh start on his own, he would have discovered a philosophical, more sophisticated reason for not doubting, for the first part of Thomas’s formula (simplified above) runs thus : ‘Just as in logical demonstrations it is necessary to lead one’s proof back to certain self-evident first principles, so it is also necessary in investigating what each thing is;  otherwise in both cases [i.e in logical demonstrations and in investigating the nature of things] one’s investigation would go on ad infinitum and all knowledge and all understanding of things would perish.’  It follows that since we have at least some knowledge and some understanding of things we must be able to trust the first principle, which is ‘being’, the conviction that ‘there is something there.’

      In the realm of mathematics Descartes’ work was exceptional. He was practically the founder of analytic geometry.  His philosophical reasoning, however, was questionable to say the least, and has been shown to be so over and over again.  It is therefore difficult to explain why other philosophers, such as John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776), took seriously his method of accepting one’s own mind as the fundamental certainty and why they were in their turn taken seriously by subsequent thinkers such as Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel (1770-1832). The result has been that the ‘Cartesian’ approach has taken over in philosophy, which has now come to mean ‘the way we think about the world’ or recently and even more radically ‘the way we talk about it,’ and not on any account ‘the way the world is.’

     The impasse that such an approach leads to was being realised on all philosophical fronts at the end of the twentieth century.  To typify the two main streams of Western philosophy in that century we might mention the conclusions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) in France and of Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000) in the U.S.A.

      Although Merleau-Ponty died in 1961 at the early age of fifty-three, he had been a very influential university teacher in Paris, first at the Sorbonne and then at the prestigious Collège de France.  His teaching was still apparent in the attitudes of many influential teachers and writers in the France of the 1990s.  He typifies the metaphysical approach started in Germany by Husserl at the beginning of the century, an attempt to get ‘back to the things themselves.’  Picked up, developed and transformed by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Husserl’s ideas were carried to their logical conclusion by Sartre, as we have seen. 

       Merleau-Ponty, who was more directly influenced by Husserl’s ideas than was Sartre, added to them his own unique contribution, which was a sort of gut feeling for the world about him.  Through his body he felt himself to be inextricably a part of the physical world.  All his adult life he seemed to strive after some coherent formulation for the existence of the world but, like Husserl before him, he still sought it halfway between his own perceptions and the object of these perceptions.  In always calling the object a phenomenon, 14 something that was ‘appearing’ to the perceptive subject observing it, these philosophers never speak of the object without expressing a sort of a dependence on the subject perceiving it.  The name given to their type of philosophy – phenomenology – expresses this. 

       Husserl wanted to get back to the things themselves, but neither he nor his followers managed to free themselves from the confines of their own subjectivity.   Merleau-Ponty came the closest to doing so, but starting from the Cartesian position of doubt he never got beyond what he called ‘perceptive faith’ or ‘perceptive belief’ (la foi perceptive), a faith or belief in his own perceptions.  He never broke through into that ontological 15 belief, to that ‘conception of being’, with which Thomas Aquinas tells us we must start if we want to get anywhere at all.  If Merleau-Ponty had admitted the necessity for ‘ontological belief’ he would have pulled the carpet out from under the feet of the whole Cartesian enterprise.  In so doing he would have revealed as unnecessary and falsely orientated the past three hundred years of European philosophy.


        Willard Van Orman Quine, who was a prominent figure of the philosophical scene in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, represents the other main branch of modern Western philosophy. This branch is today generally called ‘linguistic analysis.’ It now dominates almost all the philosophy departments of the English-speaking world.  It developed out of a reaction, led by Bertrand Russell, against the ultra-idealism of German, and some British, nineteenth century philosophers, who more or less posited that the whole of apparent reality was a creation of the human mind. The Cartesian background of that position is obvious.

       Yet the opponents of idealism, whether Russell or the logical positivists of the ‘Vienna Circle’ in the 1920s and 30s, or the myriad exponents of linguistic analysis that stemmed from these trail-blazers, were also Cartesian, in that they thought that their only route to knowledge was through the impressions of the human senses. What is more, going further than that, they sought truth in the expression of these impressions – in human language. As this proved to be rather woolly and ambiguous, some of them tried to find a strictness and certainty in logical structures. They invented several systems of symbolically expressed logic, akin to algebra. They hoped thereby to create a useful tool for scientific investigation.  Others, the ‘natural language’ group, turned their attention to a minute examination of a few structures of our ordinary speech.

       Quine lived out his philosophical formation mainly within the logic-based tradition of linguistic analysis. Since, however, common-sense American pragmatism also figured in his philosophical background, he was able to see the limitations of seeking certainty through language. His most fruitful contribution to twentieth–century philosophy is probably his theory of ontological relativity, by which he destroys before it is undertaken any attempt to reach certainty by a reliance on language, symbolic or otherwise. 

       Quine shows how all language is relative to the framework of meaning within which a speaker operates.  This framework is self-consistent – it will all hold together and will be consistently applied to any reality the speaker is presented with, hence the name of ‘ontological relativity’. Everything is relative within each person’s way of ‘speaking about’ (logos – word) ‘reality’ (ontos – being).  Each speaker has his own logical framework, consistent within itself but not necessarily consistent with anyone else’s.  This is obvious between speakers of different languages 16, even in translation, but inconsistency exists also between speakers of the same language. 

     To take an example used by Quine himself, one can never know if one’s listener is interpreting the word ‘rabbit’ as one interprets it oneself.  Perhaps he means the rabbit at each separate instant of time, or all the undetached parts of the rabbit.  If one tried to ascertain his meaning by asking further questions, all the words one used could be interpreted differently so that his answers would continue to fit his own linguistic pattern of meaning.  It does not help to have an artificial language expressed in a system of symbols (symbolic logic), because in any case the symbols will all eventually have to be translated into a ‘background’ language.  It does not matter how far you regress from background language to background language, or how complicated you make your definitions, precisions and explanations, ontological relativity and indeterminacy of translation will always apply.17

      Where then is the escape from this final impasse of interpersonal incomprehension?  Quine’s conclusion is that we must settle for a mutual agreement on the meaning of certain basic sentences – he calls them ‘observation sentences’- such as ‘The cup is on the table,’ and take it we both mean the same thing by them.  In fact we have to take it that there is a cup, that there is a table, that one is on the other and that we both see (‘observe’) this in basically the same way.  In other words (mine, not Quine’s) we need ‘ontological belief’, or a conception of being, of ens, in fact.  That is to say, we need to get back to the point where Thomas Aquinas started.  Quine does not say this; he probably did not even consider it.  But that is what his conclusions amount to.  The arrival point of logical positivism and of its offspring, linguistic analysis, is Thomas Aquinas’s starting point.

      So we see that towards the end of a century typified by linguistic optimism Quine forced linguistic analysis back beyond its point of departure.  The conclusion he reached at the end of decades of reasoning  - that we must agree to trust in reality - is the point at which Thomas Aquinas began.  There is, however, one important difference.  Quine says we must agree to trust in reality, whereas Thomas says we must trust in reality.  Quine remains in the subjectivist prison founded by Descartes.  Philosophers travelling the Cartesian road are in fact walking in circles round his prison yard and will never escape from the subjective world of their own impressions.

      Thus, after making this philosophical journey through eight centuries we find we are back where we started.  We must trust in reality. We must ‘believe our own eyes.’ We must believe that the things exist ‘out there’ independently of us, and that they have their own meaning, which we are able to grasp, using our senses and our intellect.

      Where is the problem then? If we are back where we started, which was with Thomas Aquinas, looking at things in a sane and balanced way, why is it that we now think we can give our own meaning to things? It must be because we are still listening to the wrong voices, choosing the wrong masters. Quine saw the weakness in the linguistic approach, but he still remained within it. The whole of modern philosophy is on the Cartesian track and is unwilling to leave it, however much of a false route it proves to be. Anyone who today is unfashionable enough to say, ‘You have all been going the wrong way for the past six centuries,’ is simply disregarded. Too much is at stake. The philosophy department of every university is at stake, the whole of our hedonist way of life is at stake, man’s apotheosis is at stake.

     These are unpopular opinions. Thomas Aquinas has become unpopular now even in places where he was once welcome.  Yet he has the answers. He first of all believes his eyes and his intelligence, which tell him that there is something ‘out there’ waiting to be analysed. He then goes on to analyse it and then to analyse his analysis. He is the perennial philosopher. He is for today and tomorrow, not just for yesterday.


1. In fact Thomas Aquinas (‘of Aquino’) was from Roccasecca, which is almost exactly half-way between Rome and Naples, on the edge of the Appennines, about 10km from Aquino

2. Aristotle (384-322 BC), the most encyclopaedic of the Greek philosophers, was being increasingly translated into Latin during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thomas Aquinas is considered by many to have understood him better than any other commentator of our era.

3. See Appendix I for more details of his life

4. ‘Avicenna’ is the name medieval Europe gave to Ibn Sina (980-1037), a brilliant and many-sided Persian physician and philosopher, who wrote (in Arabic) commentaries and paraphrases of Aristotle and many original treatises of his own on all branches of learning.

5. ‘Nominalism’ is a doctrine which says that only individuals exist, and that a common term applied to a group of them (e.g. ‘cat’ or ‘lily’) is only a convention of language, only a ‘name’ (nomen in Latin) and has no reality in itself whatsoever, not even in our minds.  According to nominalists there is no real species ‘cat’, only an incidental resemblance between a certain group of creatures which we agree to call ‘cats’.

6. For Thomas Aquinas ‘prime matter’ is matter before it has received any ‘form’ at all. It is unknowable to us, because we know a thing by abstracting its ‘form’ from the sense image we have of it. Everything that actually exists already has a ‘form’ of some sort whereby we can know it. Prime matter exists only potentially, not actually. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Thomas adhered to it consistently, although some Thomists dispute this, thereby distorting his teaching, since the theory is essential to the coherence of his philosophy.

7. ‘Ockham’s razor’ is the principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.  It is a sort of philosophical economy, a Time and Motion Study for philosophy.  ‘Form’ was one of the entities that Ockham considered unnecessary.  This was rather like deciding to do away with the arm so that the hand could move faster.

8. ‘Substance’ (substantia in Latin) is used here to mean ‘an individual thing.’  It is what underlies all the qualities a thing possesses, and remains although the qualities change.  A man can get fatter or thinner, be in Paris or in London, but he still remains the same man.  This is explained more fully in Chapter III.  It may help to realise that the word ‘individual’ from its etymology means ‘undivided.’

9. In his 1918 lectures on Logical Atomism Russell stated, ‘A person is a certain series of experiences.’ These lectures are reproduced in Bertrand Russell: Logic and Knowledge. Essays 1901-1950, ed. R.C. Marsh, London, 1965.

10. To the extent that for many of them the only solution is to stop thinking.  Strongly rhythmic body music, alcohol, drugs, sexual indulgence, television, computer games, spectator sport, occult practices, and Eastern meditation methods  are all available to help them escape from the logical thoughts of their occidentally trained minds.  Suicide offers the final solution.

11. The world knows this famous maxim as Cogito ergo sum, not Je pense, donc je suis, because seventeenth century thinkers were still literate in Latin.  Descartes wrote many of his works originally in that language.

12. Descartes’ offered three main proofs for the existence of God, all starting from the certainty he had of his own thoughts. One (now called the ‘ontological proof’) was similar to that formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, of which the inadequacy is demonstrated by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologiae I, q.2, a.1,ad 2 (‘ad 2’ means ‘the answer to the second objection.’). Thomas points out that you cannot deduce the real existence of a thing from the fact that you have an idea of it in your mind. See Appendix II for a longer explanation of the ‘ontological proof.’

13. ‘Illud autem quod primo intellectus concipit quasi notissimum, et in quo omnes conceptiones resolvit, est ens.’ De Veritate, q.1,a.1,c (In references to Thomas Aquinas’s works ‘c’ stands for in corpore, ‘in the body’, which is a reference to the main section of each article, beginning with the word Respondeo, ‘I reply’, in which he gives his own opinion.)

14. From the Greek phainomenon  - something appearing, becoming apparent, being shown.

15. The word ‘ontology’ refers to ‘the science of being’ (from the Greek ontos, ‘of being’).  Thomas Aquinas never used the word ‘ontology’, because it was not coined until the 17th century, yet the whole of his philosophy can in a way be called ontology.

16. The word ‘coffee’ is an example.  British ‘coffee’, U.S. ‘coffee’, German ‘Kaffee’, French ‘café’, Italian ‘caffè’, Swahili ‘kahawa’ all refer to different beverages. Not realising this can lead to many incidents of international disappointment and even disgust.

17.These ideas are to be found in the first essay in Quine’s, Ontological Relativity and other Esays, Columbia University Press, New York, 1969.


Copyright © N. A. Morris 2005

This Version: 14th March 2010

Home Page