Aquinas: Knowing Form, Knowing God

Aquinas’s twelfth question asks in what way we ‘know’ God. It ties in nicely with the idea of subjectivity that’s dominated this half of the blog for, uh, over a year now. This particular volume is actually the first I ever read of Aquinas, so it’s nice to be returning to it now. I read this and then decided that I’d better read Pseudo-Dionysus first, because Aquinas refers to him a bunch. 1a.12.2 asks whether we see God by way of “created likeness”, which – well, it’s complicated. 

Aquinas has this theory of knowledge which draws a distinction between form and matter. We might define the form as the characteristics that define a thing, while the matter is the tangible quality of the thing. If you think about a box, for example, what you’re thinking about is the form of a box – it’s got all of the characteristics of a box, but it’s deprived of matter, of tangible physical existence. So according to Aquinas, when we understand something, what we understand is the form, and not the matter. The matter’s almost moot. Imagine you see this box, and you become familiar with its form – with every aspect of what it’s like. If you were told that there was a second box in another room, identical in literally every possible characteristic, you wouldn’t have to see it to understand what it’s like. You’ve seen the first box, you have the form in your head – the actual physical matter that distinguishes your box from the other one is irrelevant, at least for the purposes of your understanding.

Now, between these two boxes, there’s only one ‘form’. They’re identical – they bear the same form. It seems like Aquinas is drawing on some Platonic frameworks here – there’s the ‘form itself’, and then a bunch of instantiations of that form. Aquinas is suggesting that knowledge is when we look at an object, take the form, throw away the matter, and have this abstracted form in our heads which is more ‘pure’, in the sense that it’s not limited by matter any more. So our brains aren’t ‘preloaded’ with these forms – we have to actually experience the object in the first place, and then abstract its form into our brains. This object, the actual thing-in-the-world, the thing that’s just one instance of the Form Itself – Aquinas calls this a ‘likeness’.

So: question. Given that all knowledge comes from seeing a likeness and then abstracting the form and putting the form in your brain, how do we know God? Does the mind see God by means of any likeness? Here’s the initial argument Aquinas presents:

“Actual thought is the realized intelligibility of what is known… but this only occurs when… the mind is formed by a likeness of the intelligible thing. Hence if God is actually seen by the created mind He must be seen through some likeness.”

This is basically repeating what we’ve already covered. Knowledge (or ‘actual thought’) is the realized intelligibility of what is known – so knowledge is when our empty brain ‘realises’ or understands something. As we’ve already discussed, this understanding means having the form in your head. However, “this only occurs when the mind is formed by a likeness of the intelligible thing.” We only understand the form once we’ve seen a likeness, an instance of the form in reality. So in order to know God, surely we must see a created likeness of God somewhere, because that’s how knowledge works.

Right. So given all of that, this is how Aquinas responds to that conclusion. Firstly, he argues that the form of God could never be contained in any likeness. He musters a few arguments in defense of that point, most notably the idea that God is infinite, but (harking back to 1a.7.2) no created likeness could be equally infinite. To clarify, we’re not just talking about physical likenesses here – we could be talking about seeing something ‘mentally’, whatever you want to take that to mean. So because God contains “to a transcendent degree every perfection that can be described or understood by the created mind”, there’s really no likeness that could possibly be that good. And if the likeness isn’t accurately representing the form of God, we can’t abstract the form of God out of that likeness – so we can’t know God through that likeness.

So then how do we know God? If knowledge works by abstracting forms from likenesses, but there’s no possibly adequate likeness of God, how do we know His form? Well, Aquinas begins his argument by pointing out that when we see things, there’s two necessary components – the power of sight, and the object itself. When we see a rock, we have the actual rock in front of us, as well as some form of light that allows us to see it. What Aquinas asks is what happens when the essence of God is both the thing seen and the light by which we see it – that is, when God is both the thing that we’re looking at and the way in which we understand Him.

It’s an idea with far-reaching implications: it suggests that God is resident in us. The response to the third objection points out that the divine essence is existence itself (see 1a.3.4 for this argument). Normally when we know things, we abstract forms from things and give them this mental existence – we turn them into abstracted ideas. However, when God’s essence is understood (ie present in the mind), it has no abstracted existence as ‘just an idea’, because its essence is identical with its existence. Again: if God’s essence exists in your mind, it exists as itself, not as some abstracted idea. And if God’s essence exists as itself in your mind, then God is literally hanging out in your brain:

“…the divine essence is united to a created mind so as to be what is actually understood and through its very self making the mind actually understanding.” 

I’m aware that this last step might be confusing, because I haven’t explained how God’s essence is identical with existence. For the sake of space, that might be something you have to follow up yourself. The point is that there’s an immediacy to God, because He becomes the way in which you understand. That’s what immediate means – not mediated. There is no mediation of God. He is present in those who know Him.




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