Archive for the ‘knowledge’ Tag

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I just finished Muriel Barbery’s charming and provocative The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the French novel (or extended philosophical essay, depending on how you look it) narrated by Renee, a widowed middle-aged concierge and clandestine intellectual, and Paloma, a wealthy and intelligent twelve year old. So convinced is Paloma of the meaninglessness of life and so frustrated is she by the banality of her class that she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday after burning down her family’s apartment.

Renee is an autodidact, a lover of Tolstoy and Ozu, a critic of phenomenology, a “traitor to her archetype.” So convinced is Renee of the hostility of the upper class towards her own that she hides her intelligence behind her concierge uniform and the smell of proletariat cuisine wafting from her apartment. She plays dumb around the intelligent residents of the French apartment building she oversees, yet her narration is full of hostility towards the hypocrisy of these malign aristocrats. At the same time, one perceives a loneliness underlying her criticism. Renee has only one friend when the novel opens, Manuela, the Portuguese cleaning lady, and even when she talks about her late husband, the tone is stiff, formal, and lacking in intimacy. She is, as Paloma says, like the hedgehog: “on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

One is tempted to think that the title derives its name from this description, but as the NYTimes review cleverly points out, “there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all.”

(What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”

Berlin took the name of his book from the Greek poet Archilochus’ statement, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” What does the original quote mean? Who knows, although there is a helpful little debate in the New Yorker from 1980. Berlin took it to mean two different ways of knowing the world: those for whom all knowledge is an expression of a single idea like Plato, Pascal, Hegel, and Proust, and those whose knowledge relies on multiple disparate ideas and experiences like Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Joyce. Hedgehogs are the monists, foxes the pluralists.

My intention is not to go into Berlin’s text, but Archilochus’ phrase brings to mind two slightly different ways of knowing than Berlin discusses: simple apprehension and discursive knowledge. According to Aquinas, spirits (that is, angels) as well as God, know by simple apprehension. When they know an object, they grasp its essence of the object, its quiddity or “whatness” along with all of its accidents in one single act of knowing. Human beings, a hylomorphic unity of body and soul, do not have the power of simple apprehension. Humans know by discursive reasoning. When a human apprehends an object, it is only partial, and perfect knowledge is gained only by synthesis or syllogizing. Aquinas sums up:

the angels hold that grade among spiritual substances which the heavenly bodies hold among corporeal substances: for Dionysius calls them “heavenly minds” (1; 55, 1). Now, the difference between heavenly and earthly bodies is this, that earthly bodies obtain their last perfection by chance and movement: while the heavenly bodies have their last perfection at once from their very nature. So, likewise, the lower, namely, the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all. Such is the condition of the angels, because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them. (I, Q. 58, art. 3)

Accordingly, spirits are the hedgehog who “know only one thing”; humans are the foxes who “know many little things.”

The reason this is important as relates to the book is that both Renee and Poloma are illustrations of discursive reasoning at work. Both proceed from what is known to what is not known. What is known is the stirring of the heart at the story of Levin and Kitty, the fall of a rosebud on the table, the shiver of delight at the sound of Mozart, the repugnance of phenomenology and nominalism, and the allure of Japan. What is unknown is love, truth, and beauty. Both Renee and Paloma reason discursively to arrive at the knowledge of love, the knowledge of beauty. Human beings cannot grasp the essence of love or beauty in an instant; we must arrive at such knowledge by experience, by piecing together bits of what we know over time, imperfectly and slowly, but nevertheless, humanly. Human beings are foxes. But we are foxes capable of becoming hedgehogs.

The elegance of the hedgehog is the “suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” as Paloma reflects as she watches a rosebud fall. “It”s something to do with time, not space.” Time is the recurring motif in the novel. Paloma writes in her journal about kairos, a Greek concept that means roughly ‘the right moment . . . kairos is the intuition of the moment, something like that.” It is the “split second of eternity” when, as Renee reflects, “a few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog unintentionally provides an excellent theological anthropology. Human beings are somewhere between earth and heaven, body and spirit. They are trapped in time and yet desire eternity. They are limited and yet desire transcendence. They know imperfectly and yet long for perfect knowledge.

For Aquinas, such perfect knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of understanding. John of St. Thomas writes:

The gift of understanding does not judge analytically, nor does it reason about supernatural truths through their causes. From an interior impulse of the Holy ghost and from an affection toward spiritual things, it discerns spirtual realities from corporeal, and separates the things to be believed from those which are not the be beleived, or errors. The evidence of a reasoning process is not required for this type of judgment. It does not proceed from cause or from effect, nor does it resolve the conclusion to its principles, since the gift of understanding, like the habit of first princeples, is concerned with principles. Rather, this judgement is formed from a better and keener penetration of the terms in these truths, their congruity, and the incongruity of the opposing errors (84).

This is why understanding lasts persists in heaven. It is the knowledge of essences that human beings will possess for eternity.

Yet for both characters in the book, kairos is a result of a kind of analogy to grace, the undeserved and even unwilled friendship of the perspicacious Monsieur Ozu who sees through the rough facades of the two narrators and reveals to them the essence of love. Left to their own devices, the discursive reasoning leads only to an imperfect knowledge of love, beauty, and truth. Alone, Renee and Paloma are nominalists who see philosophy, art, and literature only in their particularity. With Ozu, they become realists who realize the beauty of a Dutch still life and an Italian Renaissance painting are expressions of the same beauty, of Beauty itself. The elevation of the intellect and the will and the senses that comes from the influence of Monsieur Ozu allows the characters to transcend their former selves, to grasp love and beauty and truth in an instant. It is these moments of eternity which make life worth living, as Paloma discovers, and it is the desire for these pockets of eternity to last which renders death beautiful, the perennial beauty of the camellia against the moss of the temple. For these two atheists characters, this is just about as close to a knowledge of God as one can come. The “elegance of the hedgehog” is just God by another name.

Aquinas on God’s Knowledge

Jon Levenson writes in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence that three Christian theological errors have distorted the scriptural understanding of Israel’s God:

1. “the residue of the static Aristotelian conception of deity as perfect, unchanging being”
2. “the uncritical tendency to affirm the constancy of divine action;”
3. “the conversion of biblical creation theology into an affirmation of the goodness of whatever is.” (Levenson xxv).

This is the argument that Matthew Levering takes on in Chapter 3 of Scripture and Metaphysics, namely, that in light of Scripture’s numerous accounts of God’s capricious will e.g. Exodus 32, Jeremiah 18), incomplete knowledge (Genesis 18:21), and impotence to stop certain atrocious acts, how can Christian theology still hold that God is unchanging, omniscient, and omnipotent. Levering illustrates how Aquinas solves this problem through a creative interplay of Scriptural exegesis and metaphysical reflection. In this post, we will discuss Levenson’s argument that God is not omniscient as the metaphysicians claim that God is.

Levering first identifies three important aspects of Aquinas’ scriptural exegesis. The first is that Aquinas has a “whole-canon hermeneutic;” that is, he accepts on faith that the whole Bible contains God’s self-revelation. This means that Aquinas thinks that each passage which reveals something about God’s identity must be weighed against other relevant passages in order to understand the full meaning of these passages.

Second, Aquinas thinks that the images of God found in the biblical texts must be analyzed metaphysically in order to fully understand what the text is saying, and in order to avoid anthropomorphizing God. The third point is related to the second. That is, Aquinas believes that human language used to refer to God is analogical, meaning that words used to describe finite creatures like “good” or “wise” or “angry” cannot be fully and properly ascribed to God who is beyond human comprehension and human language. To see more on Aquinas’ use of analogical language to talk about God, check out this earlier post.

In seeking to understand God’s knowledge, Aquinas turns first to the relevant passages of Scripture, and then uses metaphysical speculation to investigate these revealed mysteries by establishing “their ontological, causal, and communicative structures, [thus enabling him as a theologian] to express judgments about the meaning of Scripture’s claims about God and human beings” (Levering 21; see Fides et Ratio no. 66).

Jon Levenson, influenced by process theology, doubts that God fully knows other creatures, arguing that this seems to contradict the image of God in scripture of God coming to know his creatures, whose free actions seem to frequently allude the knowledge of God. In investigating God’s knowledge, Aquinas begins with God’s perfection, citing Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is also perfect.” Aquinas notes that “a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection” (Ia, Q. 4, art. 1). What he means is that we use the word “perfect” analogically to describe the being of something.

A thing is perfect in so far as it exists the way that it is supposed to. A pen, for example, is perfect in so far as it fully exists as a pen is supposed to exist, writing smoothly, etc. Human beings, however, are more complicated than pens. There are lots of different ways that humans can be. Humans can be wise or unwise, they can be good or not good, they can be knowledgeable or lacking knowledge. Human beings are good or perfect (that is, achieve the fullness of their being) to the extent that they do the various things that human beings are supposed to do. One of the things that humans are supposed to do is “know things.” Thus, knowledge is one of the various perfections that we can ascribe to humans.

But humans exist or “have being” in a different way that God does since they are (1) created and (2) embodied. Humans can have more or less existence. For example, somebody who has lived a long time and has done good and virtuous things and has gained a lot of knowledge we might describe as having “a full life.” Such a person has reached a greater state of perfection. I do not a moral state of perfection but an ontological state of perfection. They have reached a greater or fuller state of being. They have lived the way humans are supposed to live.

God, we have already established, is pure Being, because God is pure form. Since God is pure and simple Being, there is only one way for God to exist. In other words, God does not have more or less existence like human beings do. So all the “perfections” that we ascribe to humans to indicate the extent to which they are fulfilling how they are supposed “to be,” perfections like goodness and knowledge, are already in God because God is simple Being. God is not better or worse, or does not exist in a fuller or lesser way. God simply IS. And this means that any perfection that we would derive from existence is simply in God.

Aquinas uses this idea of God’s perfection to shed light on the scriptural passages that refer to different “perfections” of God like God’s knowledge. He looks at Romans 11:33, for example, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and Job 12:13 “With God is wisdom and strength, counsel and understanding” and Hebrews 4:13 “All things are naked and open to his eyes.” Aquinas’ explanation is metaphysical. Since God is simple being, God’s knowledge is not a perfection that exists apart from God’s being. As Levering writes, “God is his knowledge, and his knowing is infinite. Knowing is a perfection of His infinite Act” (86). Simple existence that God reveals of his identity in Scripture, from which all created things take their existence demands that God is also perfect and knowing.

But surely Levenson would argue that this is exactly the God that is not revealed in Scripture, but rather the philosophers’ god superimposed on the scriptural account. Levering would point to Scripture accounts of God not knowing, such as in Genesis 3 when he questions the woman. If God knew everything, why the questions?

Aquinas’ response to Levering is that Scripture clearly indicates that God is all-knowing. However, in describing the ways that human beings can relate to God, the authors of scripture sometimes portray God’s knowledge as incomplete, not because God’s knowledge is incomplete, but because human language is insufficient to describe the complex ways that human beings relate to God. Human beings know, to return to our last post, in an analogous fashion to the way God knows.

Human knowledge in Aquinas’ theory is obtained in two operations. The first operation, the sensitive operation, is when the sense perceptions like vision and hearing and touching perceive a particular object. Sense knowledge then is knowledge of particular things like a particular dog. The second operation is the intellective operation. Intellective knowledge is knowledge of universal things, that is, what makes this particular furry and barking thing in front of me a “dog.” So human knowledge proceeds from particular things to the ideas behind those things; that is, human knowledge processes from sensory knowledge to intellective knowledge of the ideas behind the sensory objects.

Another way of explaining this is with the distinction between form and matter (see this and this earlier post for more explanation). In Aquinas’ view, all things are composed of form, or the essence of what they are (the dogginess in the dog) and matter, the particular individuating “stuff” which makes one dog a particular dog and distinguishes it from other dogs. The sensory operation of knowledge perceives the various aspects of the dog like fur, four legs, paws, canine teeth. The intellective knowledge abstracts from the particular matter and judges the “thing” to be a dog. It is the intellect that allows a person to say that both a Chihuahua and a Doberman, despite their differences. That is, it is the intellective operation that allows a human to abstract the form “dog” from the particular substance.

Truth consists in the equality of the intellect with its object. True knowledge of a dog is when the intellect rightly abstracts the form “dog” from the particular substance, rather than abstracting the form “cat” or “bear” despite certain similarities in the particular matter.

God’s knowledge is different. God does not have a body, so obviously, God does not know things through a sensitive power. Nor is God’s knowledge a distinct power in God. As we established above, as simple Being, God is God’s own knowledge. So how does God know? God knows, according to Aquinas, because God is the cause of all things. God knows things because God makes them. God’s knowledge, therefore, (and this is the important part) is not affected by and dependent on what is known, but God’s knowledge is what causes anything to be known.

For humans, something must exist (even as an abstraction like a dinosaur) for it to be known. For God, it is the opposite. God must know anything for it to exist. God’s knowledge is logically and metaphysically prior to existence. God’s causative knowledge raises a huge theological problem, namely the problem of evil, because if God’s knowledge causes all things, then how can we say that God does not thereby cause evil. We will address this problem in another blog post. But for now, it is sufficient to address Jon Levenson’s claim that God has incomplete knowledge with the metaphysical claim that our knowledge is analogical to God’s. So we have to use analogical language to talk about God’s knowledge. God does not know through sensory perception like we do, nor does God know in stages of perceiving, abstracting, and judging like we do. God’s knowledge of a dog, in its essence, is metaphysically necessary (though not sufficient) for the dog to even exist, much less be known according to human knowledge.

Celebrating God’s Revelation on the Feast of the Epiphany

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of God to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Gospel reading for Mass today is the story from Matthew of the revealing of Jesus Christ to the wise men.  The fourth century pope Leo I (also known as Leo the Great) has an impressive homily for today’s feast:

What wondrous faith of perfect knowledge, which was taught [the wise men] not by earthly wisdom, but by the instruction of the Holy Spirit! Whence came it that these men, who had quitted their country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in His looks to enforce such systematic adoration, observed this method in offering their gifts unless it were that besides the appearance of the star, which attracted their bodily eyes, the more refulgent rays of truth taught their hearts that before they started on their toilsome road, they must understand that He was signified to Whom was owed in gold royal honor, in incense Divine adoration, in myrrh the acknowledgment of mortality.  Such a belief and understanding no doubt, as far as the enlightenment of their faith went, might have been sufficient in themselves and have prevented their using their bodily eyes in inquiring into that which they had beheld with their mind’s fullest gaze. But their sagacious diligence, persevering till they found the child, did good service for future peoples and for the men of our own time.

In light of today’s feast, I think it is appropriate to present a few reflections on what this feast celebrates–the revelation of God.

Thomas Aquinas introduces the Summa Theologica with a discussion of revelation which he calls “knowledge of God” outside of what could be known by human reason alone.  The truths in which revelations consists cannot be grasped by the natural intellect but must nevertheless be accepted on faith.  These truths are invisible, which Aquinas backs up by quoting Hebrews 11:1  “faith is the revelation of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.”

These truths are also eternal, not like the knowledge of this age which passes away.  Here, Aquinas draws on 1 Corinthians 2:6-10:

Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.  Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.  For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

An example of such knowledge which exceeds what the natural intellect can achieve on its own is knowledge of the Trinity.  No amount of scientific experimentation will ever yield proof that God is one God in three persons.  No philosophical method can ever lead to the conclusion that God creates, redeems, and sanctifies.  These are called “theological” rather than philosophical truths, and they must be believed to be known.

Human reason can, however, come to some knowledge of God without the light of revelation.  Aquinas says that human beings were created with intellects that naturally seek out the causes of phenomena they observe in the world.  The Magi, for example,  saw a strange star and sought out its cause.  But the cause was not simply some astrological phenomenon, but rather, the unique work of a God revealing himself to the Gentiles.

Because the things we observe in the world are caused by God, human beings can “know that God exists in a general and confused way” (I, Q. 2, art. 1).  We can know God made the stars without really knowing the God who made the stars.

We can also know God as the source and the end of our quest for happiness.  All people desire happiness (beatitude) which is found ultimately only in God, a conviction that provides the foundation for Aquinas’ moral theology.  However, this knowledge regarding God as the source of our ultimate happiness is also confused because not all people know what their happiness consists in, some believing it to be riches or fame or pleasure (which I talked about here).

This general and confused knowledge of God can be demonstrated in five ways, all of which proceed from an observable effect to God who is the cause of this effect.  These five ways will be the subject of another blog post but in brief they are as follows: (1) God is the first mover of all of the universe, put into motion by no other; (2) God is the first efficient cause; (3) God is the only necessary thing amidst all other contingent things which exist; (4) God is the greatest gradation of Being, the most perfect thing of all other things which exist; and (5) God is the intelligent designer of all things which seem to have been made by something for a purpose.

The “five ways” are philosophical ways of talking about God, but they just scratch the surface.  Revelation opens up to us knowledge of the essence of God, not just what God appears to do, but what God is.  The perfection of this revelation is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  By the mystery of the Incarnation, we are brought to knowledge of “the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God–‘His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . .’” (Damascene, De Fide Orth. iii, 1, cited in Summa Theologica 3, Q. 1, art. 1).  For this reason, Aquinas argues, it was fitting that God become incarnate, so that we may see Jesus and know God.

Aquinas says that humanity’s whole salvation depends on this knowledge of God revealed in Christ.  “Therefore,” he writes, “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.  It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 1–the first article of the Summa Theologica, for what it is worth).  We celebrate this revelation today, the Feast of the Epiphany, and like the three Magi from afar, we too would do wel to fall prostrate at the feet of our savior, and pay him homage.