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  • Peter Olivi on Human Self-Knowledge:a Reassessment1
  • Dominic Whitehouse, OFM (bio)

The most controversial aspect of the theory of human self-knowledge that Peter Olivi proposes in Question 76 of Questions on Book II of the Sentences is his seemingly reductive presentation of the theory of Thomas Aquinas.2 Little doubt now remains that Thomas is Olivi’s prime target in this question. François-Xavier Putallaz had come to this conclusion in his chapter on Olivi in La connaissance de soi au XIIIe siècle:de Matthieu d’Aquasparta à Thierry de Freiberg (1991), which is the first extended consideration of Question 76. His opinion is confirmed by Article 19 of Olivi’s Impugnatio quorundam articulorum Arnaldi Galliardi,3 a text that Olivi wrote towards the end of 1282 in response to an official complaint lodged against his teachings by a fellow Franciscan lector, Arnaud Gaillard.4 Addressing the question of whether the knowledge we accrue in this life remains or disappears [End Page 173] in the next, Olivi attacks the Aristotelian theory that the human soul needs phantasmata (viz. sensory species produced by the imagination) in order to know itself. In the concluding paragraph of this article, Olivi makes clear that the most influential contemporary advocate of this theory is Thomas Aquinas: “But since he [Arnaud], with Thomas, turns to Aristotle for support in this matter [i.e. that self-knowledge can only be attained through phantasmata], I submit that Aristotle has erred in De anima III as well as in Physics I….”5 Since Question 76 was written (or perhaps revised) not long before Article 19, the latter work confirms the textual evidence that Question 76 itself provides as to the version of the Aristotelian theory of self knowledge that Olivi primarily has in mind while presenting his own (highly individual) Augustinian alternative in this question.6

After concluding that Aquinas’s theory of human self-knowledge is almost certainly the one that Olivi primarily wishes to rebut in Question 76, Putallaz then accuses Olivi of presenting a partial picture of this theory:

Olivi reduces the Aristotelian knowledge of self simply to the abstract scrutiny that the soul undertakes of itself. The description of the cognitive process that Olivi briefly calls to mind is exactly the same as the one found in Saint Thomas, though reduced to only one of its aspects. He also forgets, or is unaware, that [End Page 174] Thomas Aquinas, in most of the [relevant] texts, talks equally as much about concrete knowledge, habitual knowledge, pre-reflexive knowledge, and also about reflexion in the sense of reditio completa.7

What this accusation boils down to is that Olivi focuses exclusively upon Aquinas’s quidditative modes of self-knowledge (his apprehensive and judgemental modes) but totally neglects (or omits) his experiential ones (his habitual and actual modes).8

Later writers on Olivi’s theory of human self-knowledge have, with greater or lesser force, confirmed Putallaz’s verdict, namely, that Olivi has given as a considerably tailored (and consequently unfair) description of Thomas’s theory in Question 76. Susan Browler-Toland, in “Olivi on Consciousness and Self-knowledge: The Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Epistemology of the Mind’s Reflexivity” (2014), does not question that Olivi has indeed read what Thomas has to say about human self-knowledge.9 She nevertheless criticises him for vehemently attacking Thomas’s theory, on the one hand, yet virtually reiterating Thomas’s [End Page 175] division of self-knowledge into experiential and quidditative modes, on the other. Her explanation for this oddity is that Olivi has not read Thomas with sufficient attention:

Interestingly, despite the fact that Olivi is clearly aware (and critical) of Aquinas’s discussion, he fails to note that Aquinas marks the very same sort of distinction [between a quasi-perceptual or experiential mode of knowing one’s mind and a conceptual or quidditative knowledge regarding the nature of a mind or rational soul in general] – a failure which vitiates much of his critique of Aquinas’s views.10

Christian Rode’s assessment in “Der Begriff der inneren Erfahrung bei Petrus Iohannis Olivi” is far gentler. Like Putallaz and Brower-Toland, he claims that “Olivi...


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