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Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 50, Number 2, April 2012
pp. 293-294 | 10.1353/hph.2012.0023

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Lydia Schumacher has written an ambitious book. Among the many things she tries to accomplish in the volume, three stand out to this reviewer. First of all, she proposes to reexamine Augustine’s theory of knowledge. She argues that Augustine’s philosophy is grounded in theology. For his theory of knowledge this means, by Schumacher’s reading, that the aim of cognition is to enable the human being to regain its original status as “image of God,” which latter state is manifested in knowing God and making God known. It is the mental, and by extension ethical, process of becoming God’s image that Schumacher says we should, in the Augustinian context, take the phrase ‘divine illumination’ to signify. For Augustine, Schumacher insists, this process is an entirely internal phenomenon constituted by a self-correcting series of intellectual reflections on the part of the mind. In holding to this view, Schumacher emphatically rejects the understanding, common in scholarship, that “divine illumination” for Augustine had to do with mental reference to what she labels an “extrinsic” standard such as the eternal ideas in God’s mind.

Second, Schumacher argues that the Augustinian project, epitomized in his theory of knowledge, was carried out by most of the thinkers of the Latin Middle Ages, particularly by Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. These latter two individuals are therefore divine illumi-nationists of the first order. What historians often designate as an Augustinian current, evident in the high Middle Ages among scholastics from the Franciscan Order, represented instead a deviation, a turn to an entirely novel theological-philosophical project. Here, mind’s work was conceived of as “the immediate and totalized knowledge of an individual essence.” And for this, recourse to an extrinsic standard filled the bill. Consequently, high-medieval Franciscans were the actual propounders of the theory of knowledge Schumacher tells us has wrongly been associated with divine illumination. Moreover, this Franciscan current of thought, once severed from its original theological underpinnings, provided the historical inspiration for modern philosophy, thereby acting as a kind of catalyst for the modernist philosophical problems—as Schumacher receives them—of rationalism and fideism, skepticism as well.

Third, Schumacher sounds the call for a contemporary return to the authentic Augustinian project. By starting philosophy, as she claims Augustine did, with theological assumptions, she wants to fashion a “faith-based concept of knowledge” and with it, most importantly, to escape the modernist dilemma of the incompatibility of faith and reason. Grounding philosophy in theology—Christian theology, she maintains—will restore a lost integrity to our procedures of thinking, ultimately redeeming philosophy itself.

How much of this program has Schumacher managed to achieve? Since this reviewer is marked out as the key spokesperson for the interpretation of both divine illumination and the history of medieval thought against which Schumacher inveighs, perhaps he should not be the one to answer the question. Still, the reader forewarned, I lay out my opinion. With regard to her first goal, Schumacher makes good on her promise to render Augustine as a theologian bent on working from his assumptions to designate a process whereby philosophy and mankind can be simultaneously restored. She is not so convincing in her attempt to equate this program with divine illumination. For Schumacher, the process of divine illumination is correlative to the idea of God as source of the mind’s power to act. Yet Augustine often plainly associates what he describes as illumination with turning to God and conceding his ideas an important role in the mental processes of judgment and concept formation. It is hard to see how one can honestly exclude this extrinsic element of what Augustine intended.

Regarding her second goal, Schumacher does an excellent job of reminding us how Augustinian were almost all medieval scholastics, Thomas included, and warning us not to take the high-scholastic recourse to Aristotle as a sign of opposition to Augustinian modes of thought. I find her description of the so-called Franciscan current, however, as well as its purported Avicennian foundations, almost entirely unrecognizable, at moments incoherent. Being a principal to the dispute over this issue, I leave it to my readers to decide the justice of my claim.

Finally, on...



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