Category: Philosophy

Aquinas 101

Aquinas 101, by Francis Selman, is subtitled “A Basic Introduction to the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas”; and that’s a pretty good description.

Most of the books I’ve read about Thomas have focussed on his philosophy and natural theology, e.g., his proofs for the existence of God and of God’s attributes, as accessible to reason. This one covers that, but then goes on to cover the remainder of his theology as well. It isn’t a long book, only about 200 pages, so the coverage isn’t deep; at least, I found the opening chapters on the existence of God to be rather shallower than other books I’d read. But on the other hand it covers the waterfront, which is a really good start. It helps to study the map before putting on your boots and going for a hike.

So, recommended, with caveats.

Text vs. Video

Eolake Stobblehouse has a post on text versus video and wonders why he finds text so much more compelling than video when video is so much more immediate. He does, but he’s not sure why. Me, I think I know why, and I posted the following as a comment to his post:

Reading is conceptual; watching video is sensual.

In classical philosophy, the mind is divided into the sense and the intellect. The one deals with sensory input, perceptions, and the images that result from them, and also the images we assemble for ourselves. The latter deals with abstract concepts, which are tied to images but are distinct from them. (You can’t think about triangles as a concept without imagining a triangle, but no specific triangle you can imagine perfectly captures what we mean by the concept of triangularity.)

Reading deals with concepts. Often it moves from concepts to images, but not always. Movies and TV are primarily sensual. They suggest concepts, but do not require them. And so in the order of meaning the written word can be much more focussed, more precise, more crystalline than any movie could possibly be.

In short, in movies the images are precise and the meaning is fuzzy; in writing the concepts are precise and the images are fuzzy. Take your pick.

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide

Philosophy is hard. The terminology is complicated, the words often don’t mean what you think they mean, and there’s over 2500 years of philosophical tradition to digest. Even when you think you understand what a philosopher is saying, you’re almost certainly you’re missing something.

And if you’re not a trained philosopher, it’s even harder.

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to make headway with the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. With the help of quite a many books, a lot of hard work, and encouragement from a surprising number of folks on-line, I begin to think that I’m at last beginning to understand a little of the very basics. (To quote Steven Brust, I might be putting that too strongly.) I know what some of the terms mean, and what they don’t mean; I know how some of the ideas go together. And one of the experiences I’ve had over and over again, as I read through something by St. Thomas and seen him pull yet another principle out of the air in the course of an argument, is a strong wishing for book I’ve mentally titled, Things St. Thomas Takes For Granted. St. Thomas has a number of basic assumptions, axioms, and self-evident (to him, at least) principles that he uses, and I’ve been longing to know what they are and how they fit together.

Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is the closest thing I’ve yet found, and I more or less devoured it.

Not only does he explain what St. Thomas is talking about, on such topics as metaphysics, natural theology, psychology (one of those words that doesn’t mean what you think it means) and ethics, he explains how modern philosophers typically mis-read St. Thomas, and why their objections and arguments against him fail.

I found it clearly written, explaining many hard and easily misunderstood concepts plainly and well, including a variety of my own misunderstandings, and when I got to the end I wanted more.

No doubt some of the bright light that went on in my head was illusory: things I thought I understood will slip away as I go back to wrestle with what St. Thomas actually said. And it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have found the book so helpful and enjoyable if I hadn’t put in all of the work I’d done previously. But as it is, I like, and I highly recommend it.

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