Aquinas’ Method of Philosophy

In our latest episode, Frey sketches out Aquinas’ “exemplary method of philosophy,” the ‘quaestio format.’ With this format, Aquinas models a core pedagogical technique of the universities of his time—quaestiones disputatae (lit: questions debated). For this technique, students would take up sides of an issue, articulated as a question, and offer arguments for each side. The master (think professor) would then evaluate the arguments and adjudicate. That Aquinas structures many of his texts around this technique (especially his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica) indicates that he is concerned with students reading his texts acquiring not only the content of the view Aquinas himself supports, but also the proper method for thinking through an issue and arriving at a view—one which engages with contrary arguments and show the superiority of one’s own view to such arguments. As Frey points out the in episode, this pedagogical value of Aquinas’ writing is not restricted to his own students; philosophers today can gain much from a close study of Aquinas’ method.

In this post, I will further illustrate the quaestio format Frey describes through a brief exposition of a single article from the Summa Theologica. (Remember that the general structure of the texts written in the queastio format is a broad question—think chapter—which is answered through a series of articles on smaller, related questions—think sub-sections of a chapter—which in turn are answered through the debate structure described above.) For the purposes of this post, it would be best to have the Summa open alongside (you can access it here:

Article 9 of Chapter 1 engages with the question: “Whether Holy Scripture should use metaphors?” The broader issue of the chapter is: “The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine.” Many of the other articles of this chapter deal with the nature of theology and its role as a science (where ‘science’ refers primarily to a body of knowledge—that of the divine—in contrast to contemporary usage of ‘science’ to refer to a means of acquiring knowledge), and the distinction between philosophy and theology (or reason and revelation). Article 9 fits into this discussion because it is concerned with what sorts of meanings one can expect to find in scripture (i.e.: metaphorical, or only literal), and thereby what sort of knowledge one can acquire from an understanding of scripture.

The dispute over whether scripture contains metaphorical language centers on passages like Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” One can quickly come to see the motive for taking such a passage in a metaphorical sense. If we take ‘image’ in a literal sense, it seems that this passage seems to imply the corporeality of God—for if man were a literal image of God, external features of man would correspond to those of God (a face, hands, and so on). Because a view of God as corporeal runs into a variety of philosophical problems (for example, it doesn’t seem that God could be omnipotent, but just really, really powerful), one might be inclined to take image in a metaphorical sense (e.g.: features of man’s spirit, rather than body, correspond in some way to God’s nature). However, the assumption of metaphorical senses of scriptural passages is not uncontroversial, as Aquinas captures in the objections of Article 9.

After introducing the issue of the article, Aquinas first lays out ‘objections’—concise arguments contrary to the position Aquinas himself will support. To one first encountering Aquinas’ style, it may seem strange that he frontloads the objections; it may be intuitive to some modern readers that the objections to one’s view should come after the view is laid out (at least, this is one standard format of undergraduate papers). But we need not see this structuring of the articles as quite so strange: as (one variety of) a good thesis statement takes the form ‘while such-and-such seems to be the case, I will nevertheless argue that so-and-so is actually the case.’ One can see Aquinas’ objections as an extended version of the ‘while’ clause of this variety of thesis. The merit of this variety of thesis statement, and thereby Aquinas’ own format, is that it immediately puts one’s own position in conversation with its contrary, and thus demands a precise formulation of the position in order to show its (hopefully successful) engagement with its contrary.

The three objections Aquinas lays out function as arguments against the expectation of metaphorical language in scripture. To summarize: the first contends that metaphorical language is appropriate only for poetry, which is inferior to theology (or divine science), so metaphorical language cannot be appropriate for theology; the second contends that metaphorical language only obscures the truth (especially with respect to truth of the divine), and thereby is antithetical to the purpose of theology (to acquire knowledge of the divine); the third contends that if metaphorical language is to be used, comparisons should be drawn between those entities that are closest to the divine (say, the stars), rather than those further from the divine (material bodies on earth).

Having laid out reasons to take up the negative view to the question of whether Holy Scripture should use metaphors, Aquinas then introduces a passage from scripture that seems to resist the view put forth by the objections (on other occasions, as Frey notes in the episode, Aquinas will point to passages from Augustine, Aristotle, or other theologians or philosophers), and marks the introduction of this passage with the phrase “on the contrary.” In the case of 1.9, the scriptural passage (Osee 12.10: “I have multiplied visions, and I have used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets”) indicates the permissibility of metaphorical language, contrary to the position expressed by the objections. The work being done by this passage is minimal, however—reference to this passage is not meant to serve as a decisive argument against the objections, or as a full expression of the view Aquinas is to adopt (both of which will come later). Instead, the function of this passage is to destabilize the view expressed in the objections—in effect, Aquinas is showing that, despite the apparent force of the arguments articulated in the objections, surely the arguments must have some problems, for they contradict the dictates of scripture itself (in parallel to how a contemporary philosopher might begin to push against an argument by showing that one of its consequences is unacceptably unintuitive).

With the position of the objections destabilized, Aquinas makes room to express the positive case for the contrary position (that one should expect to find metaphorical language in scripture). Without going into much detail for the purposes of this post, Aquinas’ basic point is that there are epistemological merits to the use of metaphorical language: man is first acquainted with sensible objects, and so knowledge of the sensible world is prior to knowledge of ‘intellectual truths’ (including divine truths), and articulation of divine truths through sensory language enables those who would be unable to grasp the intellectual truths ‘in the abstract’ to acquire some understanding of such truths.

But such positive arguments by themselves are insufficient—Aquinas must also explain away or undermine the arguments expressed in the objections. Otherwise we are left with two competing sets of arguments that might seem on equal footing. And this is how Aquinas concludes the article. Again, just to give the summaries: his response to the first objection (that metaphorical language is inappropriate for the divine science, because it is only appropriate to the ‘inferior science’ of poetry) is that one can provide a distinct justification for the use of metaphorical language in scripture (that it is “necessary and useful”) from the justification for its use in poetry (that such representations are pleasurable). His response to the second objection (that metaphorical language obscures truth) is that such language, on the one hand, in fact can help to elucidate divine truths, and, on the other, can obscure such truths in a valuable manner—from the “ridicule of the impious.” Not only does metaphorical language not always obscure matters, but when it does so, there is value to this obscurity. His response to the third objection (that if metaphorical language is to be used, the comparison should be drawn between the highest—‘noble’—of sensible objects, not those on the earth) is that earthly objects are those that man is most closely acquainted with, and thus has the best epistemic access to, so such metaphors are more able to catalyze elucidate of divine truths than those that employ sensible objects that man has lesser epistemic access to.

It is worth noting that the responses to all three objections rest upon the positive arguments given in the reply: each response employs the epistemological value of metaphorical language in order to undermine the objections at the beginning of the article. Thus, the two positions (that which affirms the use of metaphorical language in scripture, and that which denies it) ultimately engage in the replies, producing a tightly knit dialectic (i.e.: resolution of disagreement through reasoned argument)  in the article.

The broad movement of Aquinas’ quaestio format, then, is as follows: he lays out ‘objections’ that provide arguments for the position he seeks to deny—thus motivating the need for arguments for the position he will accept; he then destabilizes the conclusion of the contrary position by pointing to an authoritative passage which denies the that conclusion; finally, he offers positive arguments for the position he affirms, and then undermines the objections by means of these positive arguments. The systematic application of this method both makes the text immediately accessible to one who has grasped the method, and provides a model of reasoning for the reader to employ in her own philosophical practice. And, has been alluded to both in the episode and in this post, the systematic format of Aquinas’ writing still provides a model worth emulation for contemporary philosophers—the tightly knit dialectic of Aquinas’ style share virtues of clarity, precision, and engaging argument that are still virtues of philosophical practice today. A close study of Aquinas’ style of argument, then, can still reap significant pedagogical value for students of philosophy today.

Phil Yaure






One response to “Aquinas’ Method of Philosophy”

  1. Constance Blackwell Avatar

    †his method of philosophising did not of course stop with aquinas I a reading Pedro da Fonsea’s commentary on the Metaphyics 1577, for vol 1. Here the Quaestio is also used to include important connotations of terms — and thus Fonseca makes Aristotles work – his metaphysics

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