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The following is Part VIII in a series defending the claims of the Catholic Church. Read Part I here; Part II here; Part III here; Part IV here; Part V here; Part VI here; and Part VII here.  

(LifeSiteNews) — The previous instalment of this series explored how the Catholic Church has consistently defended the capacity of human reason to reach certain knowledge about realities beyond the direct apprehension of the senses. This includes knowledge of the existence of God and of certain attributes of his nature. 

The Church has steadfastly defended this truth, and condemned the contrary errors, in opposition to the erroneous philosophies that have increasingly taken hold of the Western mind since the eighteenth century.  

However, the Church has not been satisfied with just condemning error, nor even with definitively proposing the truth. She has also tirelessly sought to rejuvenate the intellectual life of the Church, and to call mankind back to the true principles of reasoning and knowledge which she has preserved.

In pursuit of this goal she has defended and promoted, the approach to philosophy and theology of the scholastics, and especially the doctrine and methodology of St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274).

In this next set of articles in our wider series vindicating the claims of the Catholic Church, we will trace the rise of scholastic philosophy, its devastating decline, its revival under the direction of the Holy See, and, finally, its status in the Church today. 

This is of crucial importance because it is this philosophy, ever ancient and ever new, which provides us with the means of resolving many of the most pressing issues in our world today.

Foremost among the needs of modern man is to once again attain truth about the existence of God and of His nature. True philosophy thus provides us with an important foundation for the return of the world to Jesus Christ and to the Church which He founded. 

What is philosophy?

Before addressing the rise of scholastic philosophy, we must first determine what philosophy actually is.

The word philosophy comes from two Greek words, philia, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom. Philosophy can therefore be described as the love of wisdom, and a philosopher as a lover of wisdom. This is called the nominal definition; in that it is derived from the name of the thing.

There is however also a real definition of philosophy. The real definition of a thing is that which distinguishes it from all other things, and therefore tells us most precisely what it is.

The real definition of philosophy is usually expressed as something like this: “the science of all things naturally knowable to man’s unaided powers, in so far as these things are studied in their deepest causes and reasons.”[1]

Let’s look at this definition in more detail.

What is a science?

A science is a body of related facts set forth systematically with their causes and reasons. 

Every science has two kinds of object: material and formal. The material object is the material studied and the formal object is its aim and approach as regards that material.

We have already encountered this important distinction in an earlier article. We saw that natural theology and sacred theology both study what can be known of God, which is to say that they have the same material object, but that they do so from different perspectives, that is they have different formal objects. Natural theology approaches God by the natural light of human reason, and sacred theology by the light of divine revelation.

Another example of two sciences sharing the same material object but differing in their formal object are physiology and medicine. Physiology studies the human body in order to know how it functions, but medicine studies the human body in order to know how to maintain or restore its function. 

Every science has its own proper material and formal objects. And we must not restrict the name science to the empirical sciences. Other bodies of knowledge, such as history, law, and philosophy, are equally scientific and each have their own proper methodologies for establishing the causes and reasons of the data that they study. 

What is the object of philosophy?

The material object of philosophy is the totality of reality.

The formal object of philosophy is the ultimate, or deepest, causes and reasons of this total reality, as they can be known by man by means of the light of natural reason. 

We have repeatedly encountered the words cause and reason, so it is important to clearly understand what is meant by them in this context. 

A cause, as we saw in an earlier article, is anything that contributes in any way to the production of an effect. 

A reason is anything which helps to explain a reality. 

A cause contributes to the being or becoming of a reality; a reason contributes to a person’s understanding of the reality. 

The goal of philosophy is to explore the ultimate causes of the world that we experience and to understand as deeply as possible why it is the way it is. 

The lower sciences explore the causes and reasons proper to their own limited subject area. Philosophy then abstracts from these findings and asks the ultimate questions about why things are the way they are. 

Desiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier gives a useful and concise summary of what philosophy is. He writes:

Philosophy is the science of the totality of things. The particular sciences are directed to groups or objects more or less restricted: philosophy, the general science, regards the sum total of all reality.

Philosophy is the science of things through their simplest and most general reasons, or again, through their most far-reaching causes.[2]

The subdivisions of philosophy

What has been said above will become clearer if we consider it in the context of the seven classic subdivisions of scholastic philosophy.

We can explain these subdivisions as follows:

Cosmology – the ultimate causes and reasons of non-living bodies

Psychology – the ultimate causes and reasons of living bodies

Ontology – the ultimate causes and reasons of non-material real being

Natural Theology – the ultimate cause of being and its reasons 

Dialectics – the ultimate causes and reasons of human reasoning

Criteriology – the ultimate causes and reasons of human knowledge and certitude

Ethics – the ultimate causes and reasons of the free acts of the human will

These are the seven ultimate disciplines; they seek to answer the deepest questions that man can ask through his natural reason.

When man begins to seek to understand the deepest causes and reasons of the world around him, he must necessarily seek to understand the physical bodily beings he experiences, whether non-living (Cosmology) or living (Psychology). This is the subdivision of philosophy called Physics.

These thoughts lead him to consider the nature of being itself, abstracted from bodies, (Ontology) and of the first cause of being (Natural Theology). This is the subdivision of philosophy called Metaphysics.    

However, these disciplines alone do not provide man with ultimate understanding. Man must also ask himself how his knowledge is reached and how he knows that what he thinks he knows is actually true. Man must therefore seek to understand his own reasoning process (Dialectics) and the nature of his knowledge and its certitude (Criteriology). This is the subdivision of philosophy called Logic. 

Finally, as man is possessed not only of an intellect, but also of a will, he must understand how he must ultimately act. This is the subdivision of philosophy called Ethics.

Physics, Metaphysics, Logic, and Ethics together make up the science of Philosophy. 

These disciplines taken together explore the deepest, the ultimate, causes and reasons of man and the world around him.

Only one science is greater, deeper, more ultimate, more awesome, and that is the sacred science of theology, which is based on principles directly revealed by God. 

In the next instalment we will consider the origins of the science of philosophy.


1 Mgr Paul Glenn, Introduction to Philosophy, (St. Louis, 1944), p3.
2 Desiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Vol. I, p9.