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  • Beauty, First and Last of All the Transcendentals:Givenness and Aesthetic, Spiritual Perception in Thomism and Jean-Luc Marion
  • Mark K. Spencer

In the face of reductionistic theories of various beings, Thomistic philosophers have been staunch realists and anti-reductionists.1 We see this anti-reductionism in Thomistic accounts of the human person, which defend a rich hylomorphic conception of the human person against more reductionistic dualisms, materialisms, and idealisms. We also see it in Thomistic accounts of the categories of being, which insist on the irreducibility of beings in each of the ten Aristotelian categories, against views that would reduce some purported categories to others.2 And we see it in the emphasis many Thomists of the last century have placed on beauty, its transcendental status, and its irreducibility to other transcendentals. Even artifacts, moral beings, and beings of reason get their proper due in Thomistic metaphysics, without being reduced to one another.3 [End Page 157]

Aquinas and his followers aim at the truth about all beings; they are not merely interested in how things are perceived.4 Yet, the starting point for reasoning to the truth about things is the world as it shows up for us; for example, we reason from objects as we perceive them back to the acts by which we perceive them and thence to our underlying powers and nature.5 Thomism, like Aristotelianism, seeks to "save" appearances—not by endorsing false theories that accomplish this preservation, but by discovering the truth about how things appear without explaining those appearances away.6 Still, Thomistic metaphysics is rooted not just in things' appearances, but also in historically held views from a variety of metaphysical traditions; it seeks to incorporate into itself the ways that things appeared to other metaphysicians, insofar as these are in accord with the truth about things. 7 In all these methodological tendencies, Thomism can be seen to be anti-reductionistic about both beings and how they appear, in its pursuit of the truth about all things.

Thomistic philosophy also tends to emphasize conceptual and causal accounts of beings. That which is received in acts of sense perception is merely potentially intelligible, and when rendered actually intelligible by the intellectual act of abstraction, a concept, expressible in a word, is produced; concepts, in turn, can be joined in judgments, in which, if true, the mind is conformed to reality. Following upon this awareness of sensible beings facilitated by concepts and judgments, we can reason causally about those beings, and so explain them through their final, formal, efficient, and material causes. Our highest natural cognition of beings, intellectual cognition, thus seems largely to involve, in Thomistic philosophy, concept-formation and causal reasoning.8 [End Page 158]

Some recent postmodern philosophers, by contrast, have argued that there are phenomena that show up in experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized, thought of as beings, or reasoned about causally, but can only be cognized in some other way, for example, aesthetically. Some postmodern philosophers argue that phenomena such as beautiful works of art or the moral call felt in seeing the face of another person exceed in their content what can be contained in any possible concept, or that they precede or make possible concept formation, thinking in terms of being, and causal reasoning themselves. As a result, these phenomena are not able to be adequately conceptualized, judged, or reasoned about causally.9

Given the prevalence of these views and given Thomism's focus on "saving the appearances" as explained above, it is worth considering how Thomism would account for such phenomena. One might think that although Thomism certainly has methodological reasons to take these claims about appearances seriously, it would ultimately conclude that such phenomena can be rendered actually intelligible, conceptualized, and explained causally. The Thomist might grant that while concepts are means by which the intellect is conformed to reality, no human concept can be the means by which one grasps the entirety of a being or its essential characteristics in themselves, and so in that sense the postmodern philosophers are correct that phenomena exceed what is contained in our concepts.10 Nevertheless, the Thomist might argue, this weakness in our concept...


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