Ramble. Focus. Ramble.

Is Augustine a Rationalist?

I have been blogging about issues that come forward in class and that’s pretty much all I am doing with my blog nowadays.

Here is an interesting debate that sprouted in class, this Tuesday. Is Augustine a rationalist?

Well, when we were discussing Plato, we talked about how he was a rationalist and Aristotle an empiricist. Rationalists believe that knowledge comes from reason/mind and empiricists argue that knowledge only comes from experience or sense organs. Now, let’s see what Augustine has to say about knowledge. Augustine’s theory for knowledge is called Illumination and the premise that leads to illumination states:

All learning is through signs.

We cannot know anything without signs and we cannot know the signs if we don’t know what they signify. So this runs in circles and it is quite a paradox; easily comparable with the one that Meno proposes.
There is a gap between us and signification of the sign which Augustine fills with the concept of God. He says God informs the mind of truth and therefore God give’s us knowledge. Here is how we can state our argument:

All Knowledge is through signs.

We can’t know things without signs.

We cannot know a sign without knowing what it signifies.

Only God can inform us what things signify.

Therefore, God gives us knowledge.
Now, Augustine definitely does not propose that experience gives us knowledge. However, my question is what are these signs? Are they perceived by the sense organs. I think yes. Well, we have a little bit of empiricism here but one that necessarily requires God.

Let’s see if Augustine fits the rationalist group better. Well, the knowledge is not coming from reason, NO. It is coming from the mind, YES. Somebody put it in the mind. God put it in the mind. Clearly, Augustine is not exactly a rationalist.

I want to know if Augustine is a rationalist or an empiricist? It seems like he is both.

Augustine is usually called a rationalist and let’s see what a rationalist is like. Let’s obviously take Plato first. We need to assume that Plato too believed in the theory of recollection like Socrates. Which means, Plato believed that the soul is immortal and it was here before the body. The soul knew all things in its non-bodily state and it can recall all things now.

The soul has knowledge from the time when it did not have a body so this knowledge was not perceived through sense organs, for sure. This knowledge came from reason obviously if Plato is rationalist? Well, maybe there is a gap here too. Where do you use reason? While you are recollecting or when your soul was acquiring knowledge?

Here is my own reply to my problem. Maybe, Plato’s rationalism cannot be seen through the idea of recollection. It is obvious that recollection is actually a Socratic theory and Plato probably thought highly of it but it is not his own theory for knowledge.

What is Plato’s epistemology then?

He was anti-empiricism because he wanted us to look into the immaterial realities instead of perceiving the particulars in the material world. Knowledge comes from universals and not particulars. Which means Plato definitely thought that reason allows us to see (metaphorically) the universals.

And yes he has an argument for that:

Universals are unchanging, necessary and eternal. They give meaning to the many particulars that are present on earth. It is only reasonable that we trust an unchanging, necessary and eternal object for learning, like a perfect triangle.

Coming back to Augustine, I am thinking again about the signs. Are they empirical data? In which case, there is some empiricism. Or are the ‘things’, of the following proposition, the empirical data?

We can’t know things without signs.

The ‘signs’ could be Augustine’s depiction of the Platonic forms but instead of in another world they are actually present in the mind.

But if they are put in the mind by a God, where does reason come in? I would call reason: 2+2=4 and Plato’s argument about the universality of forms does look like something that fits 2+2=4. Signs being put inside your brain instead of being derived at by your rationale, does not look like 2+2=4.
I am talking too much,  I just need to read Augustine more. And I could escape that if somebody could give me an argument for Augustine being a rationalist.

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2 comments on “Is Augustine a Rationalist?

  1. Mark Boone
    October 20, 2012

    Good work, Hadeel!

    Well, even though the whole exercise runs the risk of misinterpreting the ancients by imposing upon them modern categories, I think it’s best to consider Augustine a rationalist, or at least a thinker who falls within the same tradition of viewing knowledge as coming more from the mind than from sense experience: the tradition including Plato and the continental Rationalists of early modernism.

    It’s important to remember that Plato’s idea of recollection has the same input from sense experience as Augustine. Knowledge remains in the mind, but we need sense experience to awaken it. We might say of both Augustine and Plato (and, I think, Kant later on) that knowledge comes through sense experience, but from the mind.

    Of course, with Augustine the word “from” can be misleading, since knowledge ultimately derives from God. But the relationship of God and reason is a subtle topic in Augustine. The best book to read on this relationship, besides the De Magistro (On the Teacher), is Soliloquies, where Augustine has a conversation with his own “Reason.”

  2. hadeelnaeem
    October 20, 2012

    Yes indeed, the relationship of God and reason is what I should be looking for to solve this. And thank you for your comment.

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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