An A to Z of Theory | Thomas Aquinas: Talking about Difference

Thomas Aquinas is the best-known philosopher in the Medieval European tradition. What relevance does he have for activists and radicals today? In the first of a three-part series, Andrew Robinson explores the context and concerns of Aquinas's work. 

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, June 8, 2015 18:37 - 2 Comments


Thomas-Aquinas-Ceasefire-640Thomas Aquinas is the best-known philosopher in the Medieval European tradition. What relevance does he have for activists and radicals today?  In the first of a three-part series, I aim to examine the context and concerns of Aquinas’s work.  I will also explore the differences between Aquinas and modern philosophy, and attempt to explain how Aquinas’s analogical approach to religious knowledge is also relevant for theorising other kinds of difference. 

Thomas Aquinas – known as St. Thomas Aquinas in Christian thought – is perhaps the outstanding figure of European medieval philosophy, and a vital transmission point between the ancient and modern worlds. I’ve written previously about the position of the Ancient world in political thought, as it is studied and taught today.  In the European canon (the series of texts recognised as important), ancient authors have a central place, and are treated as precursors of modern authors – even when, often, they are not. But there is also another anomaly, in that most courses on political thought cover Plato and Aristotle, and then hop to Machiavelli or Hobbes. In other words, there is a 1500 year gap between the beginning and the middle of the canon – as if nothing important happened in between.

Aquinas’ context

There are symptomatic reasons for why these 1500 years “go missing”. One reason is that Europe during this period was a mainly rural society without strongly centralised state power or correspondingly centralised forms of thought. The theories which emerged in this period were tied into Christianity, and so don’t fit easily into modernist accounts of secular rationalism. They do not fit easily into statist teleologies. Another reason is that Europe lost its regional hegemony to the Islamic world for much of this period. Europe effectively became a peripheral region on the margins of this larger empire. Within Europe, religion was dominant in defining the form of thought. Christianity had an often reactionary influence in wiping out other local belief-systems, but it was also a contested field in which peasants and artisans formed their own utopias and social movements.

If we trace written political thought through this hiatus in the canon, it emerges that Ancient thought was largely kept alive in the Islamic world, and only begins to filter back to Europe after the Christian conquest of Spain, Sicily and the Crusades. At this point, Christians captured Islamic libraries, and theological scholars started to engage with ancient, Islamic and Jewish authors, notably Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maimonides, and Ibn Sena (Avicenna).

By 1200, Aristotle’s doctrines were causing problems in both the Christian and Islamic worlds, because they provided a plausible account of reality without any reference to divine revelation. One influential perspective – developed by Averröes in the Islamic world and imported into Christianity by Siger of Brabant and Boetius of Dacia – argued that divine revelation and scientific knowledge are two completely different regimes of truth. Both are true, but in different spheres. This is remarkably similar to the later idea of secularism. The Catholic Church found this doctrine worryingly disempowering, and censured its advocates. Siger was charged with heresy, but fled to Italy and died in mysterious circumstances (possibly murder, execution or suicide).

The rise of philosophy was both a threat and an opportunity for the Church, which had a major role in its formation in this period. The first universities in Europe started to appear around the year 1200, in a period of economic growth and increasing urbanisation. They emerged as more formalised versions of sites where particular schools of scholars had concentrated. Early universities gained their fame through reputation, but kings and popes then started founding new universities by decree.

In this period, the Catholic Church and its Pope had substantial, mostly religious power, which coexisted with the secular power of lords, kings and the Holy Roman Emperor in a Europe of contending nexuses of power. Soon afterwards, the Papacy was to increase its secular power by winning a war against the Emperor, only to lose its influence to the rising power of secular states such as France and England.

It was in this context that Thomas Aquinas (literally Thomas of Aquino, a region in Italy) wrote. Many of the problems he addressed were focused either on reconciling Aristotelian reasoning with Christianity, or responding to the various positions emerging from Islamic and Jewish scholars, such as negative theology and Averröes’ “double truth”. Aquinas is often read to be interpreting Aristotle in a Christian framework. But there are certain key differences in their approaches. For example, Aquinas believes there is a single human community headed by God, with a common law. This makes him considerably more universalist than Aristotle, for whom the ultimate level of association is the polity or city-state.

Arguing against Siger of Brabant, Aquinas attempted to integrate Catholic and Aristotelian doctrines, providing a synthesis which remains the orthodox Catholic position to this day. He argued that reason and revelation lead ultimately to the same truth. And he used analytical logic to attempt to demonstrate this – in effect, to render the two compatible through reinterpretation. He therefore prefigures the later role of analytical philosophy as a systematising method, reconciling dominant ethics and science.

This was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it blunted the critical force of the rediscovery of Aristotelian naturalism – just as today, analytical thought blunts the critical power of science. On the other hand, it made freedom of thought respectable and harder to persecute, opening space for others to make more radical claims further down the line. Liberation theologists such as Clodovis Boff have interpreted Aquinas’ absorption of Aristotelian ideas as evidence that theology depends on the social sciences for its social analysis.

Aquinas also increased the prestige of logic in relation to faith, in a period when mysticism was also very popular (St. Francis of Assisi was his contemporary). But in the last years of his life, he abandoned scholarship for mysticism, declaring his former words to be mere straw.

Aquinas and modern thought

There are important differences between Aquinas’ approach and the main trends in philosophy today. Modern European ethical and political theory is dominated by secular rationalist approaches which maintain that moral truths can be rationally deduced from self-evident premises. Ancient and Medieval philosophy located ethics as part of what might be called a theory of how to live. To act ethically is to pursue one’s own flourishing in a full sense. Ethics and self-help were two sides of the same coin.

There are two main reasons for these differences. One reason is that modern Europeans have decided that people pursuing their own flourishing or welfare will be transactional, instrumental, selfish and egotistical. Earlier thinkers dismissed this view, because being egotistical in this narrow way undermines one’s flourishing. Most of us need other-regarding relationships and emotions as part of our flourishing. (In Aquinas’ theory, social fellowship is one of the six basic goods which are needed for anyone’s flourishing). Hence, self-interest in the modern “bourgeois” sense is seen as self-stunting.

Another reason is that Ancient and Medieval thinkers believed that we live in an ordered universe in which clear natural laws could be deduced. Modern thinkers became convinced that nature is chaotic, barbarous and inefficient. In other words, they defined the natural order as immoral or amoral. This is closely connected to a preference for a processed world over a natural world – a perspective of domination over nature, of humanisation as moralisation, which is related to ecocide and capitalist modernity.

Also, increasing exposure to other cultures (partly as a result of imperialism) made it increasingly untenable to believe that people naturally gravitate towards particular beliefs, social structures, or types of action. Someone needs to have a pretty insulated life to be able to take seriously the claim that people are born believing in God, or that everyone who possesses reason will value marriage and the state. Without this insulation, the illusion of an ordered, natural universe tends to collapse. In Aquinas’ day, with the exception of the Islamic world, Europeans had little knowledge of the world beyond their own borders.

So in many ways we’re dealing with a difference in paradigm from modern thought. It is hard to even make sense of Ancient and Medieval thinkers if one cannot at least suspend disbelief in the idea of an orderly universe in which each of us has a definite place. But remember that it is equally difficult to make sense of modern thinkers if one cannot similarly at least accept the possibility that the world is mechanical, that human beings are rational atomistic subjects, and so on. It’s just that most people are more used to accepting, or at least humouring, these beliefs.

Remember, too, that modern people also hold untenable beliefs about ways in which the world is orderly or predictable, which break down the moment their cultural bubble is shattered. For example, many middle-class white people believe that success comes from hard work, that the market works for general welfare, and that police are neutral protectors of the weak. These are clearly not tenable beliefs, but they can be sustained within a particular bubble – and they clearly inform what passes for scholarship within some fields today (for instance, mainstream economics, and World Bank development doctrine).

So there is something like what Lyotard terms a differend between modern and Medieval thought. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t dialogue between the two. In fact, a lot of modern thinkers try to translate ancient and Medieval ideas into modern contexts, in several ways. One strategy is to lift certain parts of the theory out of their context, and use them as isolated arguments in a different scheme. So, for instance, legal theorists can adopt Aquinas’ ideas about law, and analytical philosophers can engage with his response to the “problem of religious language”, without engaging with his wider frame.

Another strategy is to read modern assumptions back into older texts, assuming that their distinctly ancient or Medieval elements are dispensable, and that they really meant (for instance) that moral positions can be deduced from the rational good of humanity. This basically denies the differend by projecting modern assumptions backwards. A third strategy – adopted in the case of Aquinas by the Radical Orthodoxy school – is to use older theorists as a kind of traditional shield to denounce and evade modern tendencies. Aquinas is taken to show that vital theological questions are somehow above the pettiness of Oxford professors with their mundane analytical examples. Paradoxically, this is also a modernisation of Aquinas, since his own approach is not defined against analytical philosophy or the primacy of reason, but rather, includes important aspects which prefigure these approaches.

Talking about difference: The “problem of religious language”

One of the main areas where Aquinas is still discussed today is the “problem of religious language”. In contemporary terms, this is framed in terms of the question of what it means to talk about God or other religious contexts, in response to the analytical philosopher A.J. Ayer who claims that such statements are simply nonsense, meaningless. For those who reject this criticism, it remains problematic to make claims about attributes of God. The difficulty is that humans can’t have direct sensory access to God, or see from God’s point of view. How, then, is it possible to make claims like “God is good” or “God is wise”?

So why is this interesting for radical thought? Of course, this question is still important for Christian anarchists, liberation theologians, Jewish and Muslim anarchists, who are radicals and also monotheists. At first, this discussion might not seem very relevant to people with a secular disposition (atheists, humanists etc), or to pantheists, but it is also relevant to the question of how to talk about other kinds of things we don’t understand very well or cannot access directly. In contemporary poststructuralism, notably in the work of Derrida, Levinas and Spivak, the question of the unknowability of God is closely connected to the unknowability of earthly others.

In other words, there’s a parallel to the problem of religious language in whether/why someone in Britain can say, “Native Americans respect nature” or “the Ancient Greeks were wise”. They are making a general claim based on very limited knowledge, about a culture they probably cannot understand from inside. Do any such claims necessarily involve epistemic violence, or the misrepresentation of another perspective from a western point of view? And what about claims about people and beings who are different from oneself in other ways – claims made across psychological difference, or about children or animals for instance? Can we say that a child or a dog loves her/his primary carer, if this is different in kind from adult human love?

Finally, if we take seriously that we are all unique individuals or, alternatively, that we are all constituted by a particular nexus of structures of oppression and positionality, then aren’t all interpersonal claims also claims across difference to one degree or another? In short – if you don’t believe in God, this discussion might still be relevant to you. Think of it as a discussion of how we can talk about radical difference, or how we can talk about things outside our own perspective.

Numerous scholars before Aquinas adopted “negative theology” (also known as apophatic theology) – the position that we can only make negative claims about God. So if someone says “God is good”, they really mean “God is not bad”, or “God is outside the proper range of the concepts of good and bad”. This is the position taken by Pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides among others.

Aquinas argues for an alternative approach based on analogy. An analogical claim is true in some ways, and false in others. In particular, Aquinas distinguishes between the res significata (thing signified) and the modus significandi (way of signifying, or way it is signified). An analogical claim made about God, such as “God is wise”, is true in its res significata – it really refers to the thing it says, in this case wisdom. But it is untrue (or at best metaphorical) in its modus significandi – the meaning the concept has for humans.

In this example, when a human thinks the word “wise”, they are thinking of wisdom in a human sense – as something which could have been otherwise, which has been built up from experience or learning, which requires emotional self-control, which relates somehow to our senses, and so on. These assumptions are wrong when applied to God. For instance, if God is wise, then he must be wise in an eternal way which isn’t learnt. God can’t sense things in a human way, so assuming this kind of reference is inappropriate.

So what is their modus significandi in relation to God? Basically, this is what cannot be known or said. God has these virtues in a different way from humans, but we can’t know exactly how. Words used of God point to something beyond what they can literally convey. The entire discussion might function a bit like mystical practices, pointing towards the unspeakable. It is meant to produce a transformation in the person following the argument, as they come to appreciate the unknowable. It also indicates that it is possible to make very general, indeterminate claims without being able to make more precise claims, and suggests that this is appropriate in cases where knowledge is limited. The mystical aspect of this awareness stems from the fact that we know that we cannot know the more precise meanings of such terms (in this lifetime at least), which can produce a kind of euphoric humility.

Aquinas’ approach has been interpreted in various different ways. Some people emphasise the idea of proportion or relation. Virtues can be said analogically because they are qualitatively related to God as their source. Others argue that analogy is semantic, logical, or metaphysical. One aspect of Aquinas’ approach is the idea that two beings with the same property “participate” in a common being. In a sense, they are different expressions of the same thing (and not just the same word applied to different things). This is not just a question of causality, but a kind of continuity of substance.

Analogy is different from metaphor. Metaphors are terms which properly apply to humans, animals or things, which can also be used of God. Analogies apply primarily to God. In other words, a term can be literally more true of God, even if its emergence as a concept applies first of all to people.

Difference in kind and analogical language

Aquinas uses a theory of language in which words signify ways of thinking, which in turn somehow express reality. This particularly expressive view of language is distinct both from modern assumptions of thought as reflection or categorisation, and postmodern claims that language is a social construct. In modern terms, we might say that Aquinas believes that concepts are necessarily mediated by someone’s form of life.

Human language expresses particularly human ways of being, such as sensation and perception, which relate it to a process of life rather than a set of external objects. However, it can express things which are outside this way of being, in a way mediated by it. In other words, there is some similarity between the human concept and its referent, even though the mode of expression is human and distorts it. Analogy is similar to Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances. A crucial difference is that, in Aquinas’ view, the distortions of language do not prevent access to the essence or nature of things through concepts.

In Aquinas’ worldview, all creatures are different in kind, with a particular nature or essence. Therefore, no claim can be made in the same mode or modus between two kinds of creature. This isn’t limited to humans and God. For instance, all animals eat and reproduce. But in Aquinas’ theory, each species eats and reproduces in a different mode. There is a human mode of eating (which includes capacities such as reason), a bovine mode, a canine mode, and so on. When humans say that a dog is eating, we’re doing something similar to when we say that God is wise – we’re saying something which is true in its referent (res), but we’re saying it in a human mode.

Whatever we say and think is processed through a human mode of representing, and we can’t access it in its own mode, its proper nature. In effect, we would have to be a dog or a stone or God to think or speak of them in their proper nature.

One result of this view is that statements don’t necessarily have zero-sum values of truth. A claim isn’t 100% true or false, but rather, has a degree of fit with the reality to which it refers. The claim “the dog is eating” (connoting “eating in human mode”) is partially true, because there is some fit between human and canine modes of eating, but not fully true. A true claim for Aquinas is a claim which is closer to being fully true than it is to being fully false.

This continuum theory of truth is an interesting alternative to modern epistemologies. It allows high-level, rather vague claims which are “more true than false”, even when the meaning of these claims cannot be more precisely articulated. This is similar to the Levinasian approach, in which difference in the world is a “trace” of the divine. The trace is paradoxically both meaningful and transcendent (beyond meaning).

One difficulty with this approach is its residual essentialism regarding types of difference. Aquinas assumes (wrongly) that ways of being are metaphysically defined by belonging to a species with a particular nature and essence. But one can abandon this assumption without the problem of speaking across difference similarly disappearing. Similar problems arise in talking about cross-cultural understandings of different cultures. Anthropologists and other observers can make such claims, but they are always made in the language of the observing culture, and to that extent, vary from the same beliefs as manifested in the culture which is observed. This sometimes leads to the view that there is complete incommensurability between cultures, but this seems unlikely, as cultural translations and hybridities occur in practice.

Aquinas offers a possible answer. He argues that we can make claims which are true at the level of res, provided we remain aware that we are using an inappropriate modus. So for instance, if a British person says that “Native Americans respect nature”, this may well be true in its res significata  – provided we understand that the British person is probably understanding “respect”, “nature” and cultural identity in a western, modern or British modus significandi, which is not applicable to Native Americans – they do not necessarily “respect nature” with the meanings of “respect” and “nature” that are understood by the person making the claim. Aquinas offers an approach which is humble enough to recognise the limits to knowledge, without making it impossible to say anything at all.

This also explains how certain theories can seem true, despite having inappropriate or loaded assumptions. There are many cases where a claim about a referent (res), which may well be true or at least arguable at the level of truth, also carries inappropriate connotations of a particular social system’s modus. Think for instance of claims that non-capitalist societies engage in production or possess social capital, that indigenous groups or peasants are natural resource managers, that stateless societies use social sanctions, that medieval Europe had a feudal or tributary mode of production, that political movements in the global South are liberal, conservative, fascist, and so on.

Today’s social science is divided between those who maintain that such concepts have a direct, literal reference, and those who maintain that, since such western concepts involve epistemic violence, difference is ultimately unknowable. Aquinas offers a third possibility: we can have true, imprecise knowledge of other cultures based on our own categories, provided we are careful to always keep in mind that the modus or implications of the concept do not necessarily apply. This allows us to translate between contexts, and observe meaningful structures based on our own categories, without assuming that everything is visible from our own point of view.

This may also be useful in relation to individual differences. At a personal level, think about the use of descriptions of mental states and psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, anger, happiness, or stress. Two instances of the same mental state are not identical, which is why the dominant medical model often falls foul of difference. But at the same time, there are similarities which allow a certain degree of structural awareness and intuitive reconstruction of someone else’s emotions.

For other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Thomas Aquinas: Talking about Difference | Anth...
Jun 12, 2015 12:11

[…] Thomas Aquinas is the best-known philosopher in the Medieval European tradition. What relevance does he have for activists and radicals today? In the first of a three-part series, Andrew Robinson explores the context and concerns of Aquinas's work.  […]

Jesse B
Jun 18, 2015 4:50

Thank you for the very well thought and written article. This is exactly the type of thoughtful digestion over the claims of the post-structuralists I often feel lacking in current academic debate.

Thank you very much for your work Andy.

Leave a Reply



More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture