- Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge by Therese Scarpelli Cory
“Know thyself.” This inscription on the Temple of Apollo helped inspire the birth of philosophy in Greece. And yet it is no small irony that Loxias’s command was issued at the notoriously ambiguous Delphic oracle, for self-knowledge is both easy and difficult, ready at hand and obscure. In a relatively short but remarkably dense book, Therese Cory has given us a meticulous examination of how St. Thomas Aquinas handles the paradox of self-knowledge. This thorough collection and study of the manifold contexts in which St. Thomas treats the matter—and of contemporary scholarship on the same—deepens our understanding of the subtlety of his teaching. Indeed, contrary to modern mythology, in which “premodern thinkers are supposed to have nothing interesting to say about human subjectivity” (215), Cory argues that St. Thomas’s approach is “sophisticated and compelling” (7) and “could be fruitfully placed into dialogue with contemporary inquiry” (220). In addition, Cory admirably bucks the trend of “methodological segregation” (8), wherein the history of ideas and real philosophizing do not belong in a single volume, as the book is divided into two parts: a historical study of the background, context, and development of St. Thomas’s understanding of self-knowledge (encompassing the first two chapters), and then an engagement with the particular problems surrounding self-knowledge, aided by St. Thomas’s approach (in the remaining six chapters).
The historical chapters begin with the obvious sources of the medieval debates about self-knowledge—St. Augustine and Aristotle—but then delves into St. Thomas’s contemporaries, including not only Sts. Albert and Bonaventure but also William of Auvergne and Jean de la Rochelle. The medieval debate was shaped by the Augustinian notion that self-knowledge is natural and by the Aristotelian notion that self-knowledge is dependent on knowledge of the world outside the self, a pair of notions that, though “not necessarily in competition” (18), often were treated as such. Augustine himself [End Page 651] proposed two ways in which the mind naturally knows itself, which Cory calls, respectively, “permanent dispositional or habitual” (“weak”) and “peripheral, pre-conscious” (“strong”) self-knowledge (21–22). The latter (which Cory strangely describes as “supraconscious” ) was endorsed by most medievals, even the youthful St. Thomas, though he quickly became critical of it. Aristotle’s influence exerted itself most in understanding how active or explicit self-knowledge occurs, with his claim that “the intellect is intelligible like other intelligibles,” that is, through a species (27).
In the second chapter, summarizing St. Thomas’s account of self-knowledge, Cory argues that St. Thomas reformed the medieval debate so as to focus on what things the soul knows about itself, and how the soul’s being the form of a certain kind of body determines its mode of self-knowledge. Studying the former allows St. Thomas to balance one’s certainty of immediate and privileged self-access against one’s experience of a large dose of self-opacity. While distinguishing three phases in the maturation of his insights about self-knowledge, Cory shows the importance of the distinction between the ordinary man’s prephilosophic knowledge of the reality of the self/soul and the philosopher’s deeper knowledge of exactly what the human soul is, as expressed in its definition. Saint Thomas agrees with his contemporaries that the former kind of knowledge of the self as an existing fact occurs either habitually (through the “soul’s essential self-presence” ), or actually (through attending to one’s activities, from sensing to understanding to willing). In addition, however, St. Thomas makes the “radical claim at the time” that all kinds of self-knowledge presuppose knowing extramental objects, so self-knowledge cannot be “natural” in the sense of innate (ibid.). Because of the human intellect’s natural state as pure potency relative to the knowable, even the prephilosophic knowledge of the self requires that the intellect learn about the external world in order...