Thomas Aquinas and Cognitive Therapy
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Thomas Aquinas and Cognitive Therapy

emotions, rationality, cognitivism, Aristotelian psychology, powers

Giuseppe butera has written a stimulating and persuasive defence of the view that Aquinas’s philosophical psychology (APP) can provide “a profound and cogent philosophical framework for cognitive therapy (CT).” In this short commentary, I respond to Butera’s claims from the perspective of one possible reading of the moral psychology of Aristotle, one of Aquinas’s major philosophical influences. Given the general debt that Aquinas owes to Aristotle, as noted by Butera, this may provide a helpful slant on Butera’s interpretation of Aquinas.

Indeed although Butera offers Aquinas as an alternative source for a philosophical underpinning of CT, rather than the Stoics cited by Beck, one might think that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could in any case be put forward as equally fruitful areas for inquiry in this context. Thus, one might think that Socrates’ moral psychology, which led him to the cognitivist claim that virtue is knowledge, provides a commitment to a CT-related perspective that both predated and itself influenced the Stoics. And one might then expect to learn things of relevance to CT from the ways in which Plato and Aristotle responded to that Socratic cognitivist outlook.

From such an Aristotelian perspective, then, Butera’s approach is very welcome. He makes a strong case for considering Aquinas’s broadly Aristotelian conception of the human person as a desirable alternative to any account that depends on Cartesian substance dualism (of mind and body). On the Aristotelian account, by contrast, the human person is itself a single substance comprised of form (the soul) and matter (the body), the ensouled body constituting a substantial unity. The soul is a set of essential powers, the powers each human has which makes him/her a human being. These powers are necessarily linked in such a way as to comprise that unity and enmattered in a body, each enmattered set of powers constituting an individual member of the species.

As Butera also notes, Aquinas follows Aristotle in supposing there to be five basic kinds of human essential powers—vegetative or nutritive, locomotive, sensitive or perceptual, appetitive or desiderative, and rational. Taken together, these distinguish humans from other species. And broadly speaking Aquinas thinks of the distinctively human motivational features as having three parts, non-rational appetites or desires, appetites or desires open to reason, and the purely rational intellect.

Within this broad framework, Butera offers an account of APP and in particular of the emotions whose treatment is so important with CT. Given that this account is broadly congenial from an Aristotelian perspective, I offer three main comments. First, Butera makes interesting methodological claims, which I briefly explore. Second, and most [End Page 373] substantially, I examine Butera’s claims about emotions in APP in terms of some Aristotelian points about the acquisition of emotions. Third, I suggest that these latter points bring out a slight tension between the way in which Butera endorses CT at the outset of his paper and his slightly more qualified remarks at the end of it.


In footnote 1, Butera talks of “the differences and complementarity of the methods employed by philosophers and scientists.” However, although he fairly notes that the ambitions of his paper far exceed its scope, so he cannot be expected to have elaborated this theme, his methodological comments do raise some questions as to how exactly we might understand the relation between the two modes of inquiry. He suggests, as noted, that APP can provide the philosophical underpinnings for CT. He goes on to indicate that APP can provide a deeply rooted and highly articulated philosophical explanation for the effectiveness of CT (347). This consists in showing that the principles and methods of CT can be philosophically grounded by APP (348), which he exemplifies by identifying seven points of contact between CT and APP.

Butera contrasts this approach with that of Beck, who is content for CT to be “an empirically grounded system of psychological principles and therapeutic methods” (347). So what does the philosophical material add? According to Butera, “employing the rational, dialectical method of the philosophers, [Aquinas] is able to sound depths inaccessible...