Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Chapter Three

ON KNOWLEDGE THROUGH CONNATURALITY

I. ST. THOMAS AND THE NOTION OF KNOWLEDGE THROUGH CONNATURALITY {1}

THE notion of knowledge through connaturality -- that is, of a kind of knowledge which is produced in the intellect but not by virtue of conceptual connections and by way of demonstration -- seems to me to be of particular importance, both because of the considerable part played by this kind of knowledge in human existence, and because it obliges us to realize in a deeper manner the analogous character of the concept of knowledge. Henri Bergson and William James, who were so much concerned, the one with intuition, and the other with experience, never did, I think, bring out and make use of the old notion of knowledge through connaturality. Had they done so, I assume that a number of things would have been clarified in their own teachings. This notion of knowledge through connaturality is classical in the Thomist school. Thomas Aquinas refers in this connection to the Pseudo-Dionysius (On Divine Names, chapter II), and to the Nicomachean Ethics Book x, chapter v, where Aristotle states that the virtuous man is the rule and measure of human actions. I have no doubt that this notion, or equivalent notions, had, before Thomas Aquinas, a long history in human thought; an inquiry into this particular chapter in the history of ideas -- which would perhaps have to take into account such philosophers as Ramanuja, and the Indian school of bhatki -- would be of considerable interest. I did not embark on such historical research; the question for me was rather to test the validity of the notion of knowledge through connaturality, as elaborated in the Thomist school, and more systematically to recognize the various domains to which it must be extended.

To begin with, I shall refer to a basic distinction made by Thomas Aquinas, when he explains{2} that there are two different ways to judge of things pertaining to a moral virtue, fortitude for instance. On the one hand, we can possess in our mind moral science, the conceptual and rational knowledge of virtues, which produces in us a merely intellectual conformity with the truths involved. Then, if we are asked a question about fortitude, we shall give the right answer by merely looking at and consulting the intelligible objects contained in our concepts. A moral philosopher may possibly not be a virtuous man, and yet know everything about virtues.

On the other hand, we can possess the virtue in question in our own powers of will and desire, have it embodied in ourselves, and thus be in accordance with it, or co-natured with it, in our very being. Then, if we are asked a question about fortitude, we shall give the right answer, no longer through science, but through intuition, by looking at and consulting what we are and the inner bents or propensities of our own being. A virtuous man may possibly be utterly ignorant in moral philosophy, and know as well -- probably better -- everything about virtues, through connaturality.

In this knowledge through union or inclination, connaturality or congeniality, the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and is guided and directed by them. It is not rational knowledge, knowledge through the conceptual, logical and discursive exercise of Reason. But it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving account of itself, or of being translated into words.

St. Thomas explains in this way the difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality acquired by mystical experience.{3} For the spiritual man, he says, knows divine things through inclination or connaturality, not only because he has learned them, but, as the Pseudo-Dionysius put it, because he suffers them.

As I said at the beginning, knowledge through connaturality plays an immense part in human existence, especially in that knowing of the singular which comes about in everyday life and in our relationship of person to person. Yet it is not with this everyday practanquam ignotus cognoscitur, that is, He is known, through love, as infinitely transcending any human knowledge, or precisely as God.

* * *

There is, I think, another kind of mystical experience, which, in contradistinction to the one I just mentioned, may be called natural mystical experience; and an example of which we can find in Plotinus and in the classical schools of Indian contemplation. I can only state in a few words the conclusions of a certain amount of research I did on the matter. Here again, to my mind, we have to do with a particular type of knowledge both supra-conceptual and through connaturality. But the connaturality in question here is merely intellectual, and the essential part played by the will consists in forcing the intellect inwards, against the grain of nature, and in obliging it to empty itself of any particular representation. The reality to be experienced is the very Existence, the very Esse of the Self in its pure metaphysical actuality -- Atman -- and as proceeding from the One Self: and it is by means of a supreme effort of intellectual and voluntary concentration, sweeping away any possible image, recollection or idea, any passing phenomenon and any distinct consciousness, in other words, it is through the void that the intellect is co-natured to the unconceptualizable spiritual reality of the thing known.

 

III. POETIC KNOWLEDGE

Another typical instance of knowledge through connaturality apears in Poetic Knowledge. Since German Romanticism and since Baudelaire and Rimbaud, poetry has become self-aware to an unprecedented degree. Together with this self-awareness, the notion of poetic knowledge has come to the foreground.

The poet has realized that he has his own way, which is neither scientific nor philosophical, of knowing the world. Thus the fact of that peculiar kind of knowledge which is poetic knowledge has imposed itself upon philosophical reflection. And it would be no use to try to escape the problem by considering poetry a set of pseudo-statements -- with no meaning -- or a substitute for science intended for feeble-minded people. We must confront in a fair manner the fact of poetic experience and poetic intuition.

Poetic experience is distinct in nature from mystical experience. Because poetry emanates from the free creativity of the spirit, it is from the very start oriented toward expression, and terminates in a word proffered, it wants to speak; whereas mystical experience, because it emanates from the deepest longing of the spirit bent on knowing, tends of itself toward silence and internal fruition. Poetic experience is busy with the created world and the enigmatic and innumerable relations of existents with one another, not with the Principle of Being. In itself it has nothing to do either with the void of an intellectual concentration working against the grain of nature or with the union of charity with the subsisting Love.

Yet poetic experience also implies a typical kind of knowledge through connaturality. Poetic knowledge is non-conceptual and non-rational knowledge; it is born in the preconscious life of the intellect, and it is essentially an obscure revelation both of the subjectivity of the poet and of some flash of reality coming together out of sleep in one single awakening. This unconceptualizable knowledge comes about, I think, through the instrumentality of emotion, which, received in the preconscious life of the intellect, becomes intentional and intuitive, and causes the intellect obscurely to grasp some existential reality as one with the Self it has moved, and by the same stroke all that which this reality, emotionally grasped, calls forth in the manner of a sign: so as to have the self known in the experience of the world and the world known in the experience of the self, through an intuition which essentially tends toward utterance and Creation.

 

IV. MORAL EXPERIENCE

Finally moral experience offers to us the most wide-spread instance of knowledge through connaturality. As we have noticed, it is in the experiential -- not philosophical -- knowledge of moral virtues that Thomas Aquinas saw the first and main example of knowledge through inclination or through connaturality. It is through connaturality that moral consciousness attains a kind of knowing -- inexpressible in words and notions -- of the deepest dispositions -- longings, fears, hopes or despairs, primeval loves and options -- involved in the night of the subjectivity. When a man makes a free decision, he takes into account, not only all that he possesses of moral science and factual information, and which is manifested to him in concepts and notions, but also all the secret elements of evaluation which depend on what he is, and which are known to him through inclination, through his own actual propensities and his own virtues, if he has any.

But the point on which I should like to lay stress deals with that most controversial tenet in moral philosophy, Natural Law. I don't intend to discuss Natural Law now, I shall only emphasize an absolutely essential element, to my mind, in the concept of Natural Law. The genuine concept of Natural Law is the concept of a law which is natural not only insofar as it expresses the normality of functioning of human nature, but also insofar as it is naturally known, that is, known through inclination or through connaturality, not through conceptual knowledge and by way of reasoning.

You will allow me to place myself in the perspective of a philosophy of Natural Law: I do so not in order to assume that you take such a philosophy for granted, but in order to clarify the very idea of Natural Law. My contention is that the judgments in which Natural Law is made manifest to practical Reason do not proceed from any conceptual, discursive, rational exercise of reason; they proceed from that connaturality or congeniality through which what is consonant with the essential inclinations of human nature is grasped by the intellect as good; what is dissonant, as bad.

Be it immediately added, to avoid any misunderstanding, first, that the inclinations in question, even if they deal with animal instincts, are essentially human, and therefore, reason-permeated inclinations; they are inclinations refracted through the crystal of reason in its unconscious or pre-conscious life. Second, that, man being an historical animal, these essential inclinations of human nature we either developed or were released in the course of time: as a result, man's knowledge of Natural Law progressively developed, and continues to develop. And the very history of moral conscience has divided the truly essential inclinations of human nature from the accidental, warped or perverted ones. I would say that these genuinely essential inclinations have been responsible for the regulations which, recognized in the form of dynamic schemes from the time of the oldest social communities, have remained permanent in the human race, while taking forms more definite and more clearly determined.

But let us close this parenthesis. What are the consequences of the basic fact of Natural Law being known through inclination or naturality, not through rational knowledge?

First: not only the prescriptions of positive law, established by human reason, but even those requirements of the normality of functioning of human nature which are known to men through a spontaneous or a philosophical exercise of conceptual and rational knowledge are not part of Natural Law. Natural Law, dealing only with regulations known through inclination, deals only with principles immediately known (that is known through inclination, without any conceptual and rational medium) of human morality.

Second: being known through inclination, the precepts of Natural Law are known in an undemonstrable manner. Thus it is that men (except when they make use of the reflective and critical disciplines of philosophy) are unable to give account of and rationally to justify their most fundamental moral beliefs: and this very fact is a token, not of the irrationality and intrinsic invalidity of these beliefs, but on the contrary, of their essential naturality, and therefore of their greater validity, and of their more than human rationality.

Third: this is so because no conceptual and rational exercise of human reason intervenes in its knowledge of Natural Law, so that human reason knows Natural Law, but has no part, either in causing it to exist, or even in causing it to be known. As a result, uncreated Reason, the Reason of the Principle of Nature, is the only reason at play not only in establishing Natural Law (by the very fact that it creates human nature), but in making Natural Law known, through the inclinations of this very nature, to which human reason listens when it knows Natural Law. And it is precisely because Natural Law depends only on Divine Reason that it is possessed of a character naturally sacred, and binds man in conscience, and is the prime foundation of human law, which is a free and contingent determination of what Natural Law leaves undetermined, and which obliges by virtue of Natural Law.

Philosophers and philosophical theories supervene in order to explain and justify, through concepts and reasoning, what, from the time of the cave-man, men have progressively known through inclination and connaturality. Moral philosophy is reflective knowledge, a sort of after-knowledge. It does not discover the moral law. The moral law was discovered by men before the existence of any moral philosophy. Moral philosophy has critically to analyze and rationally to elucidate moral standards and rules of conduct whose validity was previously discovered in an undemonstrable manner, and in a non-conceptual, non-rational way; it has also to clear them, as far as possible, from the adventitious outgrowths or deviations which may have developed by reason of the coarseness of our nature and the accidents of social evolution. Eighteenth-century rationalism assumed that Natural Law was either discovered in Nature or a priori deduced by conceptual and rational knowledge, and from there imposed upon human life by philosophers and by legislators in the manner of a code of geometrical propositions. No wonder that finally "eight or more new systems of natural law made their appearance at every Leipzig booksellers' fair" at the end of the eighteenth Century, and that Jean-Paul Richter might observe that "every fair and every war brings forth a new Natural Law."{4} I submit that all the theories of Natural Law which have been offered since Grotius (and including Grotius) were spoiled by the disregard of the fact that Natural Law is known through inclination or connaturality, not through conceptual and rational knowledge.

 

V. METAPHYSICS AND KNOWLEDGE THROUGH CONNATURALITY

I think that the critique of knowledge is part of metaphysics, and that the recognition and analysis of that kind of knowledge which is knowledge through connaturality pertain to the object of the critique of knowledge. But knowledge through connaturality has nothing to do with metaphysics itself: metaphysics proceeds purely by way of conceptual and rational knowledge. Like all rational knowledge it presupposes sense experience; and insofar as it is metaphysics, it implies the intellectual intuition of being qua being. But neither in this intellectual intuition nor in sense-perception is there the smallest element of knowledge through inclination. In its rational development as in its primal intuitions metaphysics is purely objective. If one confuses the planes and orders of things, if poetic knowledge or mystical experience or moral feeling claim to become philosophical knowledge, or if a philosophy which despairs of reason tries to capture those kinds of knowledge through connaturality, and to use them as an instrument -- everyone loses his head, knowledge through inclination and metaphysics are simultaneously spoiled.


{1} Paper read to the Conference of the Society of Metaphysics. February 24, 1951.

{2} Sum. theol., II-II, 45, 2.

{3} Sum. theol., I, 1, 6, ad. 3.

{4} Rommen Natural Law, St. Louis, Herder, 1948, p. 106.

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