Reading the Scholastics : Example Versus Proof (Tip # 1)

The scientifically-informed modern reader is often under the impression that when an academic author gives an example, they are giving a proof of their theory or idea. Hence, if the example fails, so does the argument, at least in part. This is often true for the natural sciences. If the physicist’s examples of his theory fail, so does his argument in some way, since his argument has a direct dependence on the evidence.


Hugh of St. Victor teaches young canons at Richard’s Abbey

This assumption just does not work when it comes to Scholasticism — by which we mean Scholastic philosophy and theology. In many ways, they are simply not held to the same empirical standards as natural scientists. (Some of them, such as Albertus Magnus, had a strong interest in the natural sciences. But neither he nor any of the Scholastics as such fit into this modern paradigm of the natural scientist.)

The phrase “not held to the same empirical standards” in all likelihood generates an exciting suspicion in the modern mind. “So how do these lowly theologians wrestle with quantum theory? They could not even stomach classical physics when Galileo and Newton came along!” Yes, yes. What a howler. But their physical theory was not integral to Scholasticism proper, namely, their philosophy and theology. So, let me be reassuring in saying this difference of criteria does not reduce Scholasticism to nonsense. “But what set of criteria are the Scholastics held to? No doubt one that is favorable to their viewpoint.” Well, sure. But the set of criteria that natural science is held to certainly is favorable to many scientists’ viewpoints on matters of natural science. “But that is because the scientists are right!” Perhaps many of them are about some things. But then again, perhaps so are many of the Scholastics.

Obviously not every scientifically-inclined modern person is that obtuse or aggressive. But some are, and many of the genuine ones are at least as suspicious. These kinds of misgivings arise — I speculate — because of an assumption that any theorizing which is not under the dominion of the natural sciences is useless : “A web of conjectures and theories which do not necessarily say anything about our own world. They are too Cartesian, too a priori, too rationalist. And if these theories turn out useful in some way, it is because they turn out to be empirical. But if they are empirical, they are subject to the natural sciences. They are empirically falsifiable by experiments, and we must treat them as any other claims which could, with some new evidence, be disproved. They are continually subordinated to the scrutiny of the scientific community.” Or, so we might be told.

But those who hold this dichotomy between the irrelevant and the empirical do not understand where Scholasticism — indeed, where much of philosophy — fits legitimately into our understanding. It is largely independent from empirical scrutiny, but it is not thereby exclusively rationalist or a priori. For example, Scholastic metaphysics has a very small set of a posteriori data, which are not empirically falsifiable, but act as first principles. Even the natural sciences assume this. For example, the observation that I have experience is only available to me a posteriori, but is not empirically falsifiable. If some people deny they have experience — what can you do? Or suppose someone denies the existence of change. “It is an illusion,” they say. But are not the illusions always changing? There is no experiment that can put some sense into them. (However, holding them over a fire might aid their reasoning.) They just have to accept change as a basic fact on some level. These are a posteriori first principles, and they are like logical first principles : they cannot strictly be proven by demonstration, but they are reasonable to believe, and cannot be coherently denied.

Much of Scholastic philosophy has these basic, empirically unfalsifiable, a posteriori givens as partial starting points. (There are other starting points too, such as logical first principles, and previously established points.) Scholastic philosophy strives to interpret them. Such interpretation does not fall back on further empirical facts about the world. In fact, there are no further empirical facts about the world behind these first principles to fall back onto. That is in large part why this investigation is not a kind of natural science. Interpretation of these starting points can only fall back on reason, and rigorous speculation.

It is within this context of rigorous speculation that (most of) the examples given in the Scholastic writings work. They are not proofs. They are not further supporting, empirical evidence. They merely serve the purposes of illustration and pedagogy — as if to say : “This example seems good to me. But if this example is scientifically inaccurate, then so be it. All it is meant to do is get us on the same page, to the same point, talking about the same subject. The goal of an example is to direct our attention to the finer details of the argument, not to prove it. The proof lies elsewhere, namely, in the strictness and precision of our reasoning. But to be extremely precise, we must direct our attention to that very specific point. And we sometimes use examples for this purpose.”

Suppose there is a stop sign, but the word “STOP” is misspelled on it as “SOTP.” Its purpose is still discernible — the sign is still red and octagonal after all, and we can guess what it should say. When modern people read the Scholastics and say, “Well that example is wrong, so we should distrust their theories,” this is much like a linguist saying, “Well the stop sign is misspelled, so I distrust these so-called rules of the road.” How preposterous! The sign is meant to direct your attention to something specific, not prove the traffic rules to you. Much how traffic rules and proper spelling stand independent of each other, so do Scholastic speculation and scientifically accurate examples. They are different enterprises with different functions, and different criteria. When a Scholastic uses a scientifically inaccurate example, we should treat it the same as the misspelled sign. Its purpose is still discernible, if we are willing to try and see what the author is pointing out. But that is the whole point of the example! Again : much of Scholastic philosophy is not held to the same empirical standards as natural science.

Should Scholastics, especially modern-day ones, try and use good examples? Without a doubt, at least for the reason that it makes the principles and arguments clearer. Moreover, Scholasticism should have a healthy respect for the scientific community and their many achievements. But has every Scholastic from every time period understood and obeyed perfectly this rule that examples (in most cases) serve to illustrate and not to prove? Probably not. Yet, even if some have not, the core of the Scholastic system is not founded upon these trespasses, so it does not matter.

What is an example from the Scholastic system which is neither exclusively a priori nor empirically falsifiable? (A proof would need to be treated separately.) In other words, what would this Scholastic speculation even look like? The simplest example is the act-potency distinction. It starts from the undeniable observation that there is change in the world, at least on some level. The starting point : “There is change.” What comes next is an interpretation of this basic fact. “If something is actually this way right now, but it was not this way before, then it must have just been potentially this way before. For if it was not potentially this way before, how could it have actually come to happen?” And if we hear the lampoons of “what confounded sophistry!” coming as if from the mouth of Voltaire himself, we can only insist there is far more nuance to the account. But we can understand the general idea (since it is just an example, after all).

“What good is any of that kind of thinking? It seems like a collection of truisms.” Well, it begins with what seems like useless truths. But the fact that they are so apparent makes them a good foundation for bigger ideas. What do we get, for instance, from the act-potency distinction? There are many corollaries. The most immediate ones might be efficient causality and final causality, which we can formulate in the principle of causality and the principle of finality. And pretty quickly from the principle of causality, we can get arguments for the existence of an uncaused cause, Pure Act, otherwise known as “God.” Most people would consider that important knowledge. Or, if you want something more practical, the principle of finality can, when coupled with a few other observations, get us to a system of classical ethics as we find in Aristotle.

To be fair to the scientifically minded, there are some points in which the modern natural sciences and Scholasticism should come into contact and engage in fruitful dialogue — just look at the work of William A. Wallace and Benedict Ashley.* Additionally, there needs to be more straightforward, simply stated, competent presentations of Scholasticism to the inquirer.** But both Scholasticism and the natural sciences are relatively autonomous enterprises, so long as they stay within their proper boundaries. (Just as Scholastics should not play “overly-a priori physicist,” so scientists should not play “amateur philosopher.”) As a result, we ought to interpret the Scholastics charitably, if we are to interpret them at all. This includes treating their examples as examples, and not as empirical evidence. Scholasticism is, on the whole, not held to the same empirical criteria as the natural sciences. They are not the same investigations. And this is true, even though they may overlap in some places — much like how words sometimes happen to end up on traffic signs.


* See, for example, Wallace’s The Modeling of Nature, and Ashley’s How Science Enriches Theology.

** We can recommend Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics here.