Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


Les degrés du savoir puts before the mind of its reader a vast panorama of spiritual activity, of modes of wisdom, ranging from the natural sciences through metaphysics to the contemplation of the mystic. If these various degrees of wisdom are distinguished, however we are asked not to be content with their otherness, but to see beyond to the way in which they hang together and cohere. The actual title of Maritain’s masterpiece is Distinguer pour unir ou les degrés du savoir, which I cite from the 8th revised and augmented edition, Paris, 1963.

I want to say a few things about Maritain’s moral epistemology as it is conveyed by Les degrés du savoir. As it happens, it is in the course of his discussion of mysticism that Maritain says the things which form the basis of my remarks. Maritain contrasts St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross by calling the former the Master of Communicable Wisdom and the latter the Master of Incommunicable Wisdom. In explaining what he means by these epithets, Maritain introduces the topic of the speculative and the practical. (p. 616) The text is concerned with this distinction in a formal way for only a few pages (pp. 618-627), but those pages are supplemented by Annexe VII, which is considerably more extensive (pp. 901-918). If the whole work is concerned with degrees of wisdom, these remarks may be said to deal with the degrees of practical knowledge. What I propose to do is (1) convey as swiftly and accurately as I can the content of the two passages just mentioned; (2) say a few things about the relation of Maritain’s doctrine to its sources in the writings of Thomas Aquinas; and (3) suggest the way the whole moral order is unified by Maritain’s employment of the concept of degrees of practical knowledge.

No student of these passages in Les degrés du savoir can afford to overlook the remarkable work of Yves Simon, La critique de la connaissance morale. It had been my intention to develop my paper as a detailed comparison of the doctrine of Maritain and its interpretation and development by Simon. There are not a few occasions when the explanation of the disciple is clearer than the teaching of the master. I am reminded of the anecdote according to which Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest – and came in third. It takes nothing from either Maritain or Simon to notice that while the former is often inchoative, suggestive, intuitive, the latter excels in clarity, prolongation and rational precision. Although my paper does not develop along the lines of such a comparison of the two men, my high estimate of Simon’s discussion of Maritain’s doctrine leads me to make this special mention of it. I cannot believe that my own understanding of Maritain is unaffected by a quarter of a century of admiration for La critique de la connaissance morale.


In the speculative order, the mind, taking its rise from the existent world, causes to lift up from this world universes of intelligibility more and more pure, with purity read in terms of distance from matter. Maritain has in mind the distinction of speculative science into natural philosophy, mathematics and metaphysics. The degrees of speculative knowledge, accordingly, are spoken of in terms of degrees of abstraction from matter. The movement in the practical order, on the other hand, is toward concrete existence, toward human acts accomplished in the world of particularity from which speculative thinking progressively distances itself. In the practical order, it is not simply knowledge that is wanted, but a knowledge ordered to the direction or guidance of human action.

Maritain distinguishes three levels of practical knowing: practical philosophy or moral philosophy, which he characterizes as speculatively practical; what he calls practically practical science, and finally prudence. “The virtue of prudence is right practical knowledge as immediately regulative of action.” (p623) Actually, Maritain first establishes a distinction between speculatively practical science and prudence. If both are action guiding, speculatively practical science is so only remotely, from afar, whereas, as we have just seen, prudence is the immediate guide of the concrete act hic et nunc. (p. 621) The question then arrives whether there is a science, a practical science, between speculatively practical science and prudence. The notion of practically practical science expresses Maritain’s affirmative answer to this question, an answer prompted by St. Thomas Aquinas. “. . . it’s no longer a matter of explaining, of resolving even a practical truth into its causes and principles. It’s a matter of preparing action and assigning its proximate rules.” (p. 624)

Now, speculatively practical science is a type common to the three moral sciences recognized by Aristotle: ethics, economics, and politics. What then would be examples of practically practical sciences? Maritain first lists some authors: Montaigne, Pascal, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Racine, Baudelaire, Swift, Meredith, Balzac, Dostoevsky. These men should not be thought of as disinterested observers or psychologists but as moralists, not in the sense of moral philosophers but rather in the sense of practioners practiciens of the science of morals. “For it is the very dynamism of the human being that they study, the use of free will itself, and therefore man’s relation to his ends such that the exactitude and depth of their views depend not only on the acuity of their gaze but on their ideas of good and evil and on the dispositions of their own hearts with regard to the sovereign good.” (p. 627) It is clear how the concept of practically practical science will serve Maritain in his characterization of the writings of St. John of the Cross by contrast with those of St. Thomas.

”Because practical knowledge is like a continuous movement of thought which descends toward concrete action in order to make it exist, its practical character, present from its origin, gradually intensifies until in prudence it becomes totally dominant.” (p. 901) This is how Annexe VII begins and far more clearly than in the text the practical order is seen as, so to say, the reverse of the speculative. If the speculative moves away from the concrete and the material, up through philosophy of nature and mathematics to metaphysics, the practical is the movement toward the ever more concrete which reaches its term in prudence, the immediate guide of action. A new note is struck now; what completes the practicality of the practical is the will. Practical knowledge at all levels is action guiding, but it guides action more and more proximately as we move toward the realm of prudence.

Moral philosophy is speculatively practical knowledge as opposed to practically practical knowledge which includes practically moral sciences as well as prudence, the prime instance of the practically practical. Moral philosophy remains intellectual in the sense that its truth does not imply nor engage right appetite nor affective motion. If practical truth consists in the judgment’s conformity with rectified appetite, then moral philosophy is not truth with practical truth. Maritain speaks of moral philosophy as scrutinizing its objects according to the laws of ontological analysis, dividendo et resolvendo, that is scrutinizing them in a speculative manner. The following passage lays out the degrees of practical knowing as Maritain sees them.

If truth in practical philosophy does not consist purely and simply in cognoscere as it does in speculative philosophy, it at least consists in cognoscere as the foundation of dirigere, whereas in practically practical knowledge it already consists in dirigere but precisely as founded in cognoscere, and in prudence it formally consists in the dirigere itself. (p. 905)

Maritain takes this to mean that the operable thing can be considered, as operable, in three ways. Finally, he repeats that the phrase “practically practical” applies in a loose sense to those moralists and novelists listed earlier but in the strict sense only to prudence. There is, accordingly, a gradual sharpening of the terminology or, accordingly, a gradual sharpening of the terminology or, as in this case, making it more supple. Maritain began by asking if there was an intermediary between practical science and prudence. The answer was yes and the suggestion was that we call the intermediary knowledge practically practical. Now we learn that, in the strict sense, it is prudence that is practically practical.

It is no easy matter to grasp what precisely it is that Maritain means by the practically practical as opposed to the speculatively practical and to prudence. Sometimes he illustrates what he means by distinguishing between theoretical and practical medicine. The former would define and order and schematize such things as fevers whereas the latter would prescribe such and such a potion to relieve a fever or perhaps remove the cause of the fever.

The analogue of this in morals would be theoretical ethics and practical ethics. Presumably, theoretical ethics would be characterized not simply by its greater remoteness from the action it would direct, its greater generality, but also by the fact that it proceeds dividendo et definiendo. But Maritain explicitly rejects this interpretation. “. . . when St. Thomas speaks of the speculative manner of considering an object of operation, he isn’t thinking of the knowledge we are calling here speculatively practical, for example moral philosophy . . . he is thinking if a purely speculative knowledge of an object which nonetheless is operable.” (p. 909) The mode of both speculatively practical and practically practical science is compositive as opposed to resolutive.

Maritain exemplifies the distinction by appealing to the difference between the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas in the Second Part of the Summa theologiae and the moral theology of an Alphonsus Ligouri. One senses what it is that the distinction is meant to pick out. Surely the procedure of both the Prima secundae and the Secunda secundae is sufficiently different from that of a man giving quite circumstantial and concrete advice. Is the difference one of degree or one of kind? Maritain phrases the question in this way: Is the habitus of moral philosophy identical to the habitus of practically practical moral science? He holds that it is probable that these are different habitus (and that prudence is a third habitus distinct from them both). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, given the origin of the distinction, he feels sure that there is no such distinction of habitus between practically practical science in the realm of the factibile or art. This distinction between the agibile and factibile, between the practically practical and completely practical in the two realms, is yet more surprising when we consider that earlier (pp. 906-7), the distinction between practically practical and completely practical had been attached to the distinction between facultas and usus. But then Maritain had been quick to add, “Except insofar as it concerns prudence which is different from art in that it extends to actual exercise, since not to use prudence hic et nunc would be imprudence.” (907, n. 1)

The distinction between the speculatively practical and the practically practical is sometimes put like this: while the speculatively practical is completely intellectual, the practically practical already involves the appetitive condition of the knower, though not in the complete way that prudence does. “The rectitude of willing is doubtless more required by prudence, which alone considers the singular case hic et nunc and which alone descends to the imperium. But it is also necessary, for reasons just given, for practically practical science.” (p. 915, n. 1) Nonetheless, Maritain allows that sometimes the practioners of practically practical science give bad advice and are wrong to a greater or lesser degree. This of course is incompatible with the claim that such sciences depend upon the rectitude of the will.

There are, then, difficulties with the threefold distinction Maritain wishes to make in the practical order. The distinction between moral philosophy and prudence poses no problem. It is the nature and status of practically practical science that puzzles Maritain’s reader. This is not to say that he cannot easily see what it is Maritain wishes the phrase to denote. When we consider, for example, the distinction Thomas Aquinas made between the judgment per modum cognitionis and the judgment per modum connaturalitatis in the matter of chastity, we seem to be confronted with two sorts of advice, that of the moral theologian and that of the chaste man. The chaste man in the case in point is not judging concerning some action of his own. Rather he is putting himself into the shoes of his questioner and, guided by his own rectified appetite, giving a judgment as to what is to be done. What is to be done by another, that is, not hic et nunc by himelf. No need to mention the use Maritain put connaturality to in many areas beyond that in which it functions for St. Thomas Aquinas. Surely, when connaturality is used to distinguish between the judgment of prudence and advice given by the good man which is in effect some version of, “Well, what I would do is . . . ” we encounter little or no difficulty in recognizing a type of moral knowledge which falls between moral philosophy and the judgment of prudence as such. The question is not whether there is such intermediate knowledge but how best to characterize it. Let us turn now to the texts of St. Thomas which inspired Maritain and see if they cast light of his notion of practically practical knowledge.


The second part of Annexe VII begins with a list of texts on which Maritain relies for his understanding of the distinction between the speculative and practical as well as for his views on the degrees of practical knowledge. We find (on p. 907) a schema devised to show the distinction between speculative and practical knowledge. What is the relation between Maritain’s view that practical knowledge is of three kinds or degrees and the distinction to be found in the text cited from Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 14, a. 16? Thomas, asking whether God has speculative or practical knowledge of creatures, begins by making the distinction that interests us.

Knowledge can be called speculative first because of the things known, which are not operable by the knower, as is the case with man’s knowledge of natural or divine things. Second, because of the way of knowing, as for example if a builder should think of a house by defining and distinguishing, considering its universal characteristics. This is to consider operable objects in a speculative way and not insofar as they are operable. For something is operable thanks to an application of form to matter, not by analyzing a composite thing into its universal formal principles.

Maritain stops quoting at this point, but the text itself goes on as follows:

Third, with respect to the end. For the practical intellect differs from the speculative in its end, as has been said. The practical intellect is ordered to the end of the operation whereas the end of the speculative intellect is the consideration of truth. Thus if a builder were to consider how a house can come into being, not committing himself to operation as his end but to knowledge alone, his consideration would be, from the point of view of its end, speculative, though bearing on an operable object.

Clearly, since there is a plurality of criteria for speculative and practical knowledge, there is the possibility of there being degrees of both. That is, a given instance of knowing can be, with regard to one or more criteria, speculative, and with regard to others practical, and vice versa. Of course, a given instance of knowing can be speculative or practical with regard to all criteria and thus be either completely speculative or completely practical. This text of St. Thomas seems just what we need if we want a way of speaking of degrees of practical knowing.

We can also see why Maritain did not quote the second portion of text, which goes on to discuss the end as a criterion: Maritain had already discussed the end before setting down his schema. Maritain is influenced by a remark of Cajetan’s in the cardinal’s commentary on the passage before us. Cajetan distinguishes between the finis cognitionis vel scientiae and the finis cognoscentis vel scientis, between the end of the knowledge and the end of the knower. Maritain accepts the importance of this distinction and argues that it is only the ordination of knowledge to an end other than knowledge that epistemology or noetics has to consider. Whether or not an agent actually uses this knowledge to achieve the end toward which the knowledge is ordered is a matter of free will and cannot enter into the specification of a habitus. (p. 906-7. In a footnote on p. 907, Maritain observes that this distinction does not seem applicable to prudence.) It may be that Maritain is misled by Cajetan here and tends to conflate two of the criteria set down by St. Thomas, namely, manner of consideration and end, since the manner of considering provides the ordination to operation Cajetan seems to mean by the finish scientiae.

What on the basis of the text of St. Thomas might one give as the degrees of practical knowledge? The object considered is either something we can do or make, or it is not. If it is, it is an operable object and knowledge of it will be so far practical. But the way of knowing the operable object may be either by way of dividing and defining and classifying or in an action guiding manner, e.g. a knowledge expressed in precepts. The latter would be instances of what Thomas means by a compositive way of knowing. Thus to know an operable object in a compositive manner is to know it more practically than to know it in a resolutive or analytical manner. Thirdly, if one is actually putting this knowledge to use, is acting on it, then his end or purpose is practical. Knowledge can only be put to use if it is knowledge of an operable object in a compositive manner, so we are faced here with completely practical knowledge.

How does this stratification of practical knowledge compare with Maritain’s? Let us call the degrees of practical knowing suggested by the text of St. Thomas minimally practical knowledge, virtually practical knowledge and completely practical knowledge. Is minimally practical knowledge identical with Maritain’s speculatively practical knowledge? Perhaps, then again, perhaps not. On the one hand, Maritain explicitly denies that moral philosophy which is an instance of speculatively practical knowledge can be characterized as knowing an operable object in a speculative way. But to define virtue, to discuss the species of a given virtue, are instances of minimally practical knowledge and are clearly activities we associate with moral philosophy. Need we take Maritain’s denial literally? If not, it is fairly clear that minimally practical and speculatively practical knowledge can be identified.

Equally, I think, we can identify what in both divisions is called completely practical knowledge – at least when we are talking of moral knowledge. Completely practical knowledge in the moral order will be manifested by prudence – or its opposite.

So we come back to practically practical knowledge. Is it identical with virtually practical knowledge? The difficulty with saying it is stems from Maritain’s wish to have practically practical knowledge be manifested in advice of a concrete and particular nature, though at some low level of generality. But “Good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided,” the first and most general principle of the practical order, seems to satisfy the criteria of virtually practical knowledge. It is action guiding advice although of a breathtaking order of generality. Indeed, if we consider the famous text in Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 94, a. 2, which asks whether there is one or many precepts of natural law, we will note a progression from the ratio boni (the good is that which all things desire) to the first precept (good is to be done and evil avoided). Definitions, divisions, classifications are presupposed to the formulation of practical precepts. If precepts save the two criteria of virtually practical knowing – operable object and compositive mode – there would seem to be homogeneity in practical knowing from the most to the least general sort of advice. This suggests that what we have called minimally practical knowledge should be regarded as a moment in moral philosophy, not as a rival to it. Moral philosophy is best seen as aiming to give very general advice, at the outset, and continues toward the concrete by giving more and more circumstantial advice as to what shoud be done and what avoided. On the basis of the text of St. Thomas, there is no way one could distinguish between what Maritain calls speculatively practical and practically practical knowledge. Both would be concerned with an operable object in a compositive way; the fact that one is more general than the other does not seem to provide a basis for formally distinguishing the two.


Maritain came up with his schema of degrees of practical knowledge, not precisely as exegesis of St. Thomas, but as inspired by Thomas. I can find no claim in the passages of Les degrés du savoir I am examining to the effect that Maritain intends to give an accurate restatement of the views of St. Thomas. That his schema is not identical with the one we can construct from Thomas is sufficiently clear. Thus, it is not on an exegetical level that we will find the value and power of what Maritain has to say.

What especially lends his position weight is his insistence that, however we distinguish degrees or types or levels of practical knowing, we are dealing with something unified, something which coheres. Maritain is far more interested, finally, in that concrete coherence than he is in abstract distinctions. This is evident, I think, in the offhand but recurrent remark found both in the text and in the Annexe to the effect that Maritain does not think that any purely philosophical ethics can address itself to man’s actual condition. I want to draw my considerations to a close by showing that, whatever difficulties we find in relating his various remarks to one another, Maritain’s conception of practically practical science draws our attention to a fact about moral science it would be very difficult to ignore.

One of the points of the doctrine of natural law is to show that men, despite their fallen moral condition whether taken singly or as a society, can arrive at some true knowledge as to what is fulfilling of the kind of agent we are. Bad morals are unable to completely snuff out a person’s capacity to form true judgments as to what he ought to do. But such judgments are very general, so general that they do not engage, or threaten, our moral character. The womanizer can when jaded wax eloquent on the attractions of chastity. More particular judgments, however, can have applications to the judge he will find difficult as the judgments become more circumstantial. Indeed, if our moral character is bad, we may be incapable of formulating particular practical judgments appropriate to our own condition. In the case of particular judgments bearing on the singular, this is easy to see. Qualis unusquisque est, talis finis ei videtur. Our singular judgments manifest our moral character. Only the good man can truly perceive the demands of the good in concrete singular circumstances.

What Maritain’s conception of practically practical science draws attention to is a further fact. Even at the level of theory and generalization what we say will by and large reflect what we are. What is called rationalization is only one instance of this, but it is a sufficient instance. Are we not often aware that we are tailoring our general conceptions of what is to be done or avoided to what our acquired dispositions demand? If this is so, it will be all the more so in the example St. Thomas gives of a man giving advice on the demands of chastity, not per modum cognitionis but per modum inclinationis. His advice will reflect what he is, not just what he knows. One of the lessons of Maritain’s conception of the practically practical, as applied to moral knowledge, is that our judgments per modum cognitionis may also, in their own way, reflect what we are.

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