Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter VI.
The Order of Precedence between Natural and Philosophic Certitude.


  1. As a fact, non-philosophic or natural knowledge has preceded philosophic.
  2. What is meant by philosophy in general.
  3. Applied Logic is a part of philosophy.
  4. The justification of one who, without mastering scientific logic, cultivates the other sciences.
  5. How scientific arises out of non-scientific logic.
  6. Consequent deduction of practical principles, whereby to judge and choose a system of philosophic certitude.
  7. Hopeless search after a philosophy of certitude, built up step by step like Euclid's geometry, and never anticipating the results of a future step.
  8. Parallel case of trying to arrange the sciences hierarchically, or in order of subordination.
  9. Short maxims summarizing the practical results of the chapter, and warning the reader against the extravagances of philosophizing.

1. WE must next begin to handle the question, about our real possession of certitude concerning things. All along the affirmative answer has been tacitly assumed, as it must be assumed by whoever professes to be conducting a rational discussion: but it is now time to talk explicitly about the subject. Philosophy, though an inevitable development of mental culture, belongs rather to the bene esse than to the esse of intellectual life. If ever luxuries precede necessaries, as in the priority of metrical over prose literature, there is some accidental reason for this apparent inversion of right order. The early Greek philosophers found verse decidedly an easier way of giving currency to their opinions: so that when Heraclitus of Ephesus made the experiment of trying to invent a prose style that should have scientific accuracy, he brought down upon himself, perhaps not solely because he wrote in prose, the epithet of ho skoteinos, "the Obscure." But before any systematic philosophy, which is worth the name, and is not a mere fantastic cosmogony or something of that sort, there must go a fair development of the intellect, by its working, we do not say unphilosophically, but non-philosophically.

2. By philosophy is here meant "the knowledge of things through their ultimate causes."{1} All science agrees in being scientia rerum per causas, where the word "cause" is used in a wide sense, to signify the rationale of things: but it is special to philosophy to investigate the very ultimate reasons of things. Not all parts of philosophy, as is plain, can be about things equally ultimate; but all parts are deservedly classed as ultimate investigations.

3. The subject of the present treatise is undoubtedly, in its own order, an ultimate inquiry: for it discusses the very radical question, What is the validity of human knowledge? The special sciences assume this validity, and upon the assumption observe, analyze, synthesize, and methodize. Applied Logic has to take up the previous question, What is the guarantee of objective validity in observation, analysis, synthesis, and method? Sometimes the man of special science laughs at the logician: but he would not laugh if he remembered that, unless Logic is valid, his own conclusions are of no scientific value.

4. And yet the man of concrete science need not be a philosopher, which is not the same thing as saying philosophy need not be true; without philosophy he is quite right to take the validity of his faculties, and his way of using them, for established. We may go some way with Balmez when he says in his Fundamental Philosophy: "If any part of science ought to be regarded as purely speculative, it is undoubtedly the part which concerns certainty."{2} For consider how we teach philosophy. We let a boy go all through his school course, which includes various sciences, but we do not ask him to study philosophy strictly so called. If he intends to take up this branch, we are glad of his deferring it for a few years more; and if he enters upon his course at the age of twenty-one, we are rather satisfied than sorry at the delay, because he brings to his task a maturity of years, which is usually indispensable for real philosophizing, as distinguished from learning systems by rote, or from learning how to manipulate stock phrases.

Here, then, we show our firm belief that stores of real knowledge, and even of scientific knowledge, may be gathered by the mind that has never turned introspectively upon itself to systematize its own laws. What we call natural knowledge we hold as quite valid: the mind observes, reasons, and reflects, and in the exercise of these faculties perceives its own powers, and is convinced that it acts rightly. At the same time there spontaneously occur these self-questionings, which, when systematized and answered, form a body of philosophic doctrine.

5. Philosophic logic, therefore, is natural knowledge rendering reflexly to itself an account of itself. Wonderful and most necessary to true intelligence is that power, whereby the mind can make its own thoughts the object of further thought: and herein lies one of the manifest discriminations of man from lower animals, and one of the proofs for the spirituality of the soul. We have not two intellects, the one ordinary, the other extraordinary; the one direct, the other reflex; but we have a single intellect to think, and to analyze thought, to do our common-sense thinking and our philosophical thinking.

6. Whence follows a golden rule -- distrust that philosophy which is at utter variance with common-sense. What Mr. Bain says apologetically for idealism, forms really the strongest presumption against it, namely, that language, as we now have it, is based on the contrary hypothesis, and so will not, serve the purposes of the idealist. Mill,{2} too, is uttering his own condemnation, when he pleads unfairness in language; and says that if his theory of mind appears more incomprehensible than its rival, the reason is "because the whole of human language is accommodated to the latter, and is so incongruous with the former, that it cannot be expressed in any terms which do not deny its truth." It was one of Ferrier's pet declarations that "philosophy exists for the purpose of correcting, not for the purpose of confirming, the deliverance of ordinary thinking." If he had meant no, more than that philosophy, like any other science, should correct some popular delusions, there would have been nothing against which to object; but he meant a substantial correction of ordinary thinking, and that he was wrong, his own untenable idealism is sufficient token. Hegel, too, was wrong, as his, system again proves, when he asserted that "the mystics alone are fit for philosophizing." In another direction M. Ribot goes astray in his remark that philosophy has the value of mental gymnastics, exercising the faculties upon problems hopelessly beyond their grasp, and for that very reason calling forth the utmost efforts of the mind: just as a man might jump at a stretched string which he had no prospect of ever reaching, even with head or hands. Rather we should hold that, as the perfect Greek athlete was a man with flesh-and-blood muscles, trained to the utmost, but still of flesh-and-blood so the perfect philosopher is a common-sense man, who has bestowed uncommon care on the scientific examination of his common sense, but only by the aid of that which he has been examining. A philosophy written from this stand-point will read as if written in the open air, not in some sickly closet, where body and mind have their natural health destroyed.

On the principle here maintained, philosophy must never do anything that is dead against natural reason, as, for instance, give it the lie direct, or doubt its evident convictions. More will be said of Descartes hereafter, but he is too apt an illustration not to be used at present. He professed to be able "seriously and for good reasons" to doubt such self-evident truths as the capability of his own faculties to acquire knowledge and the plainest axioms in mathematics. Now this was sawing off the branch on which he sat, and it brought him to the ground, shattered beyond the possibility of rising again. It was philosophic suicide. Even Hume noticed that "the Cartesian doubt, were it ever possible, as it plainly is not, would be entirely incurable; and no reasoning could ever bring us to a state of assurance on any subject." Aware that it cannot create an intellect of its own, or discover an intellect that has not first spontaneously manifested itself, the scholastic philosophy accepts the position and makes the best of it, which best is not bad. It does not aim at a new kind of knowledge, a Soufi ecstasy or Hegelian dialectic, but only at elevating the vulgar knowledge, extending its range, and especially training it, by the aid of its own lights, to see its own highest principles of activity.

Hence the theory of knowledge, as proposed by the scholastics, whatever may be said of some details, at least in its essential parts has nothing that makes a heavy demand on the credence of the ordinary mind -- such a demand, for instance, as is made by our pure empiricists, and our so-called Neo-Kantians, who scarce have the first requisite of intelligibility, and who, so far as they are intelligible, are often extravagant. Indeed, the scholastic account so falls in with the view of the ordinary thinker, that the latter, when he takes up our treatises, is apt to exclaim: Is this what you call philosophy? Why, it seems to me that it needs no philosopher to point out that intelligence is intelligent; that what is evident is true; that the final test of understanding is, on one side, the actual experience of being able to understand; and to utter other such plain propositions into which I can resolve your rather more elevated utterances. There is truth in these remarks, and a truth not to be disguised, nor shamefacedly admitted, but manfully recognized. Our philosophy does start from common sense, and can never shake itself free from its humble beginnings. It is a terrae filius by origin; but at least it is the offspring of a healthy soil; and now that it has dressed itself up and made the best of itself, it presents no ignoble appearance. Neither was its parent, natural knowledge, mere blind instinct; it had the same means at command as philosophy has, but its skill in the use of them was somewhat inferior: though it saw its way as it went, it had not the cleverness actually to draw a map of the course. Now it can not only make journeys, but write an account of them, and gives sketches by the way.

7. The nature of philosophy being thus explained, it is clear that we can never find what some seem to insist upon, and what Ferrier tried to give in his Institutes of Metaphysics, namely, a philosophy of certitude built up after the plan of Euclid's geometry. Euclid begins with axioms, postulates, and definitions, and then he so piles proposition on proposition as never to need the conclusion of a later proposition as part of his proof of an earlier. But Euclid assumed those truths, which the philosophy of certitude has to discuss: what he had to prove lay all within the narrow department of quantity in extension, as represented by lines and angles. On the other hand, he who draws out the philosophy of certitude has to discuss the very faculties and principles which he must be using all the time, and cannot proceed a step without tacitly assuming the conclusions of pretty nearly his whole treatise.

Write any first chapter you like to your Book on Certitude, and see how far it is from involving only one simple idea or principle: see how much it already implies, upon which you will have afterwards to raise questions. You are going in general to ask if man can have real knowledge: and how can you help supposing all the time that he can? Relying on the veracity of the senses, in spite of its being so hotly canvassed a point, you refer to the writings of other authors, and in return you have recourse to the printed characters, which are to convey your thoughts to the world.

The reader, therefore, must be patient, and wait till he arrives at the end of the book, before setting, in his own mind, that the author leaves necessary matters undiscussed ; and he must not expect a Euclidean inverted pyramid -- a system rising, as it were, from a point and broadening as it ascends -- to be erected where that style of structure is neither needful nor possible. He must not too readily take it for granted that there is illegitimate arguing in a circle, if he is referred about from chapter to chapter, or told to put off, till a subsequent chapter be reached, his search for various pieces of information. If it is better to refrain from plainly saying that many of our propositions cannot strictly be proved, it is not because this declaration would not contain a truth; indeed, it is eminently true; but because it is pretty sure, in nine cases out of ten, to be taken in the very false sense, that no satisfactory account can ultimately be given of the judgments we hold by, and that we can take our so-called knowledge only on blind trust. From such a view we must strongly dissent; and if some propositions in this treatise are called not strictly demonstrable, the meaning is that they are immediately evident, and do not admit of resolution into simpler propositions.

8. What has been said of the Allzusammenheit, "altogetherness," or interfusion of parts, in the philosophy of certitude, which forbids the orderly march of propositions that we see in Euclid, may be paralleled by the impossibility of putting the several sciences into exact hierarchical order. One objection which Mr. Spencer urges against Comte's classification, namely, that some of the earlier sciences have to wait for advances to be made in the later, will always remain, whatever be the arrangement in way of subordination: and a quite perfect gradation is impossible. This is a fact, but it need create no great discomfort.

9. After having explained some wrong and some right conceptions as to the nature of philosophy, and having in mind the sad extravagances which the history of philosophy reveals in far too large a proportion of its parts, we may now draw a practical conclusion as to the sane method of philosophizing. We observe that the strain after the very knowledge of knowledge and wisdom of wisdom, has led to the neglect of the Apostolic precept, "Not to be wiser than it behoves us to be wise, but to think soberly."{3} Hence are suggested golden mottoes like these "Moderation is the best";{4} "Be not wise beyond thy wits"; "Be not wise after the manner of the wiseacre"; " Philosophize not unto foolishness"; "Do not for the sake of philosophizing destroy the foundations of philosophy."{5} These and the like maxims the philosopher should keep in his mind as ballast, or else the mental balloon may quickly be found outside the element wherein man can breathe. With regard to how many a writer, Hegel, say, or Hartmann, or one of the old Gnostic evolvers of Eons, have we sorrowfully to exclaim: " Alas, poor man, he has taken the headlong plunge into the great inane: it is hopeless trying to follow him, and he himself will never re-emerge!" The greater his powers, the more desperate, perhaps, is his condition; for, as St. Augustine observes, Magna magnorum deliramenta doctorum; or, as Balmez puts it, "There are errors which lie out of the reach of an ordinary mind "words which for present purposes it may be allowable to understand so that they form a repetition of the dictum of St. Augustine. One thing this volume does promise the reader, that in it he shall never be asked to believe what to the plain Christian man is startling, or appeals to no intelligent principle within him. It has no propositions brought down from the region of the marvellous. Mr. M. Arnold has lately told us, that there has at length dawned in England a day for which, years ago, he could only hope; and that now it is here regarded as an objection to a thing that it is absurd. If ever such a day dawns for philosophy, how will its light dissolve the hazy reputation of many a once cherished philosopher!

{1} "Scientia rerum per causas ultimas."

{2} Examination, c. xii, p. 213. (2nd Ed.)

{3} "Non plus sapere quam oportet sapere, sed sapere ad sobrietatem." (Romans xii, 3)

{4} mêoeu agan, metron ariston.

{5} "Noli propter philosophiam, philosophandi perdere causas."

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