ND   Jacques Maritain Center : Theories of Knowledge / by Leslie J. Walker, S.J.


Theories of Knowledge



Leslie J. Walker, S.J., M.A.


Longmans, Green & Co.
39 Paternoster Row, London
New York, Bombay, and Calcutta



THE improvement in the position of Catholic philosophical literature which has manifested itself both in English and foreign languages during the past twenty years is of a most cheering character. It used to be not unfrequently remarked that the great majority of works on philosophy published during the last century by writers adhering to the Scholastic tradition were Latin manuals, compends, and summaries, reproducing and repeating over and over again the same bare outlines of the philosophy of the Schoolmen, without any attempt to develop that system, or to bring its doctrines into living contact with modern thought. And we fear it has to be admitted that there was some justification for the complaint. Balmez, Kleutgen and a few other writers did indeed furnish most substantial and valuable contributions in which the principles of the great Catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages were brought to bear intelligently on modern problems. But the greater part of the Latin manuals which appeared during the nineteenth century exhibited little effort at an understanding or an enlightened criticism of the philosophers since Hume. Modern speculation was usually condemned en masse. There was rarely any attempt to discriminate the elements of truth which might be found in an erroneous system, or to look at an opponent's conclusions from his own standpoint. He taught some obviously wrong doctrines; and he was to be refuted. As the space of a textbook was very limited, the refutation was necessarily somewhat summary.

In the circumstances this was probably inevitable. Almost the only class of Catholic readers at all interested in philosophy were ecclesiastical students who needed instruction in the essentials of Scholastic philosophy, chiefly as a grammar to their subsequent Theology. The Latin compendia designed to meet their wants had to compress into the narrowest space an epitome of the Scholastic system, dwelling especially on those topics which prepare the way for theological doctrines to be subsequently studied. Modern philosophical speculations apart from their connections with religious dogma possessed little or no interest, whilst domestic disagreements on metaphysical issues of minor import absorbed much energy and space. At the same time it was more urgently needful that the student should be warned that the conclusions or the systems of heterodox thinkers were false than that he should be enabled to understand these systems or to see how these conclusions had been reached. Accordingly the representations of such opponents' views were often inadequate, and the refutations at times superficial. Still, on the whole, they sufficed fairly well for the purpose in hand.

But the situation has been steadily changing during the last thirty years. In addition to the clerical student, to whom a more liberal culture is now necessary, an increasing number of educated lay-Catholics have arisen who, finding themselves in the midst of a society in which philosophical problems and systems are keenly discussed, are inevitably themselves drawn to take an interest in such discussions. It is therefore no longer sufficient for present-day needs to furnish a brief outline of the Scholastic doctrine with a summary refutation in two or three syllogisms of leading adversaries. Indeed it begins to be a serious question whether such treatment is not calculated to do more harm than good. It is now extremely probable that the student will himself read the opponent's own presentation of his doctrine, and if the previous representations or refutation be unfair, then there will be an inevitable reaction and the student's sympathy will be enlisted on the side of the writer whom he believes to have been unjustly dealt with. A careful, patient and scrupulously fair consideration of an opponent's views, if they are discussed at all, is the only profitable course at the present day, whilst the most effective form of philosophical criticism is that which, instead of singling out particular flaws, takes a large view of a system as a whole, traces it back to its sources, examines its internal consistency, and then follows it out to its ultimate consequences. It is thus, and not by arguments deduced from summarily assumed principles, which our opponent will not admit, that an erroneous system is to be most fruitfully controverted.

Happily, as I have already observed, there is manifest in recent years a large and increasing improvement in this respect in Catholic philosophical literature, both in English and foreign languages; and new works are constantly appearing which exhibit the genuine philosophical spirit. True fidelity to the teaching of St. Thomas involves not the mere repetition or translation of the phrases or arguments of the great Scholastic Doctor, but the evolution of his principles and their intelligent application to the problems raised by the advance of Science and the varied conditions of human life to-day. The great fundamental philosophical questions will indeed remain always with us. But even these are ever presenting new aspects and raising new issues whilst sundry minor metaphysical controversies which once intensely agitated the keenest intellects of Europe now possess merely a historical interest. What we more particularly want in these circumstances are monographs or substantial works devoted to the special problems of the present time. In comprehensive treatises of this kind, it is possible to attempt to shed some new light on the problems which now face us.

It is, therefore, with the greatest pleasure that I welcome the present volume as, in my view, both a valuable addition to modern Catholic philosophical literature, and also peculiarly suitable to present needs. It deals with the problem which lies at the root of so many other philosophical questions, -- the great problem of epistemology. The author in the course of his work undertakes primarily the examination of the two most keenly discussed theories of knowledge of the present day, Absolutism and Pragmatism. But in his study he is naturally led back to their sources in Criticism and Empiricism. He puts each system before us as expounded by its best representatives; he keeps constantly in view their mutual relations, and their connections with Kant and Hume, and he contrasts the most important features of each theory with the Realism of Aristotle and Aquinas. It is this method of intelligent and judicious consideration of current philosophical opinions from the standpoint of Scholasticism that appears to me to be specially profitable to-day. The work has obviously involved a very thorough and painstaking study of the different phases of Neo-Kantianism and also of the various forms of anti-intellectual Voluntarism, whilst the criticisms bring out some of the best merits of the Scholastic doctrine. The reader possessed of an acquaintance with recent philosophical speculation will appreciate the knowledge and acuteness with which the diverse aspects of the central problem are handled. In its original form, from which the present differs only by a slight expansion of some parts, this essay was submitted to the University of London. The fact that it should have gained for its author the degree of Master of Arts with the mark of distinction for special merit from a body so little suspect of excessive sympathy with Scholasticism as the London University is a guarantee of the value of the work, as it is at the same time a creditable testimony to the high standard of fair-mindedness and impartiality of that Institution.

Stonyhurst, March, 1910.


As the Introduction to this work sufficiently explains its scope and purpose, further remarks by way of Preface are hardly necessary. Suffice it to say that it has been my sincere endeavour throughout to present the views of opponents in fair a light as possible and for the most part in their own words. In this I have been much assisted by the kindness of Dr. Schiller, who has read several of the Chapters dealing with Pragmatism, and has aided me with valuable suggestions. My thanks are also due to the Rev. P. Hobart and the Rev. M. M'Donald for their services in the laborious work of reading and correcting proofs; and to the Rev. J. H. Oldham and other friends who have assisted me to prepare the Index.

St. Beunos College, March, 1910.

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