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CRITICAL STUDY

MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY AND THE TRANSCENDENTALS:


AERTSENS CHARACTERIZATION OF MEDIEVAL
THOUGHT AND THOMISTIC METAPHYSICS

Aertsens recent book on the transcendentals in the thought of


Thomas Aquinas and his immediate predecessors is a splendid piece
of research that should prove useful for years to come to those interested in the history of medieval philosophy1. The significance of the
book derives mainly from three factors: its exploration of a central
topic in medieval philosophy which, unfortunately, has been largely
neglected; its extraordinary erudition; and the detailed and enlightening analyses found throughout the book. Aertsen discusses every
relevant text and has taken into account most of the significant secondary sources. The breadth and depth of the book make it required
reading of all those interested in the thought of the Middle Ages.
The centerpiece of the study is the discussion of the transcendentals in Thomas thought, but Aertsen has also provided us with the
first overall discussion of the history of the transcendentals in the
early thirteenth century. In Chapter One, where Aertsen takes up
that history, he discusses Philip the Chancellor, the Summa theologiae
attributed to Alexander of Hales, and Albert the Greats early works.
The discussion of Thomas views begins with a general analysis in
Chapter Two. Chapter Three takes up the relation of Thomas conception of metaphysics and the transcendentals, and the next five
chapters are devoted to particular transcendentals: being, one, true,
good, and beauty (sic). The last chapter before the chapter which
summarizes the conclusions of the work is devoted to the relation of
the transcendentals to God. The book, moreover, is preceded by an
Introduction in which Aertsen proposes a new and provocative inter-

1. Jan A. AERTSEN, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas
Aquinas (Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters 52), Leiden-New YorkKln 1996.
RTPM 64,2 (1997) 455-463

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pretation of medieval thought. The bibliography is thorough, and


the indexes are helpful.
Significant and novel theses are found in practically every chapter.
Indeed, even to list these, let alone to remark on their relative value,
would take up substantially more space than I have at my disposal,
and so will have to be left for others to consider. Here I would like to
turn my attention to two of the theses Aertsen defends which are at
the core of the book and which, in my opinion, are both controversial
and provocative. They go against a long-established, interpretative tradition and touch the heart of medieval and Thomistic thought. These
theses are closely connected, but they are presented in two different
chapters. The first is formulated in the Introduction and concerns the
character of all medieval thought; it serves as the capstone for all subsequent discussion. The second, made explicit in Chapter Three, is
concerned with Thomas conception of metaphysics.
The more general of the two theses is presented at the very beginning and repeated at the closing of the book. In the Introduction,
Aertsen tells us: We want to show that philosophy in the Middle
Ages expresses itself as a way of thought which can be called transcendental (p. 1). And in the concluding chapter, he adds:
medieval philosophy can be understood as a transcendental way of
thought (p. 419). He echoes this view throughout the book, sometimes enlarging upon it, as when he says that the doctrine of the
transcendentals is the core of medieval metaphysics (p. 21). The
point is clear: the proper way to characterize medieval philosophy as
a whole, and medieval metaphysics in particular, is as transcendental.
By this Aertsen means not only that medieval philosophy is primarily concerned with the transcendentals, but that it also uses an
approach which can be characterized as transcendental.
I should add at this point that this claim has some antecedents.
One of the first scholars to note the importance of the transcendentals in medieval philosophy was Allan Wolter in his pioneering
study of this subject in Duns Scotus2. And Ludger Honnefelder has
written a series of studies in which he argues that the conception of
metaphysics as the study of the transcendentals initiated in the Mid2. Allan B. WOLTER, The Transcendentals and their Function in the Metaphysics of
Duns Scotus, St. Bonaventure, New York 1946, p. 184.

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dle Ages constitutes both a major shift in the conception of the discipline and one that had lasting and substantial impact in early modern philosophy3. Still, Aertsens claim is more encompassing than
either of these antecedents, since it applies to medieval philosophy as
a whole.
The more specific of the two theses concerns Thomas in particular, but goes hand in hand with the overall thesis concerning
medieval philosophy. According to Aertsen, Thomas does not adopt
the theological conception of metaphysics [common before him].
His understanding of first philosophy is transcendental (p. 127);
indeed, for him the very understanding of metaphysics has itself
become transcendental (p. 155). And shortly after, Aertsen adds:
The first and most fundamental aspect [of Thomas thought] is his
view of the subject of metaphysics [because it involves] a shift
from the theological conception of metaphysics, based on transmateriality, to an ontological conception, based on commonness. The
subject of first philosophy is not the first being, that is transcendent,
but being in general and that which is consequent upon being [so
that with Thomas] [t]he conception of metaphysics itself became
transcendental (p. 157).
In short, Aertsen claims that Thomas conception of metaphysics,
in line with the thesis he maintains concerning medieval philosophy
in general and medieval metaphysics in particular, is transcendental,
and it is so primarily because the subject of the discipline is identified with the transcendentals, namely, being qua being and its attributes. Moreover, elsewhere he also applies his general claim about a
transcendental approach in medieval philosophy to Thomistic metaphysics (p. 157).
As with the more general thesis, there are also antecedents of Aertsens claim concerning the metaphysics of Thomas. Cornelio Fabro
3. Ludger HONNEFELDER, Der zweite Anfang der Metaphysik. Voraussetzungen,
Anstze und Folgen der Wiederbegrndung der Metaphysik im 13./14. Jahrhundert, in:
J.P. BECKMANN et al. (edd.), Philosophie im Mittelalter. Entwicklungslinien und Paradigmen, Hamburg 1987, pp. 165-186; ID., Ens in quantum ens. Der Begriff des Seienden als
solchen als Gegenstand der Metaphysik nach der Lehre des Johannes Duns Scotus, Mnster
1979 et 21989; ID., Metaphysik und Transzendenz. berlegungen zu Johannes Duns
Scotus im Blick auf Thomas von Aquin und Anselm von Canterbury, in: L. HONNEFELDER et W. SCHBLER (edd.), Transzendenz. Zu einem Grundwort der klassischen metaphysik, Paderborn 1992, pp. 137-161.

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had already claimed in the sixties that the transcendentals are the
proper focus of Thomas metaphysics4. But again, Aertsen goes well
beyond this antecedent because he claims that metaphysics itself has
become transcendental and that it has become so in Thomas not
only because of what it studies but also because of the way it does it.
The argument on which the less general thesis is in part defended
is based on the subject of metaphysics. It could be formulated like
this:
1. Metaphysics is a science.
2. The aim of every science is to study its subject and the properties of that
subject.
3. The subject of metaphysics is being qua being.
4. Being qua being and the properties of being qua being are the same as the
transcendentals.
5. Therefore, the aim of metaphysics is to study the transcendentals.

The argument used to support the conception of medieval metaphysics as the study of the transcendentals is similar to this, but the
argument used to support the claim that all medieval philosophy
involves a transcendental way of thought is of a different sort. For
this thesis maintains that not just in subject, but in approach as well,
medieval philosophy involves a kind of transcendentalism. I have not
enough space to examine in detail this second claim made by Aertsen
or the arguments he uses to support it, but I will say a few words
about the particular claim concerning the subject of metaphysics in
Thomas and the general claim that medieval philosophy is primarily
concerned with the transcendentals.
First concerning Thomas: Historians of philosophy should maintain a clear distinction between what the authors they study hold and
the implications of what those authors hold, for surely authors are
aware of what they hold but they are not always aware of the implications of what they hold. Indeed, it is a matter of common experience that we are frequently, and sometimes painfully, made aware of
the implications of our views. The failure to keep this distinction in
mind has unfortunate consequences for historical interpretation,
resulting in the attribution of views to authors who did not, and
4. Cornelio FABRO, The Transcendentality of Ens-Esse and the Ground of Metaphysics, in: International Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1966), p. 392.

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sometimes could not, have held such views5. Now, it seems to me


that Aertsens claims about Thomas conception of metaphysics fail
to take into account this distinction and, therefore, lead to unnecessary confusion concerning his views. In saying that Thomas understanding of metaphysics is transcendental, does Aertsen mean that
Thomas was aware that it was so, or is he merely claiming that, given
what Thomas says about metaphysics, his conception of the discipline implies it is transcendental, regardless of what he consciously
thought about it? More specifically: Did Thomas claim, and was he
aware of the fact, that metaphysics is the study of the transcendentals, or is this conception of metaphysics an implication of his views,
but one of which he was not aware?
There is no clear evidence of the first, for nowhere does Thomas
explicitly say that for him the subject of metaphysics is the transcendentals. Indeed, Aertsen does not quote a single text of Thomas
to that effect. Thomas does say explicitly that the subject of metaphysics is ens commune and ens in quantum ens (Expositio super librum
Boethii De Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 6 and 7), and he also says that,
because of this, metaphysics also considers the attributes of being (In
Metaphysicam, Promium). But he does not say that the subject of
metaphysics is being qua being and its attributes. This is different
from what Aertsen claims in two important senses: First, the subject
of metaphysics is not being qua being and its attributes, but rather
only being qua being. The attributes of being are not part of the subject of metaphysics; they are studied only because metaphysics studies being. This is important because it suggests that the concern of
Thomas was not with the transcendentals as such, but with being.
Second, what Thomas says is different from what Aertsen claims
because it does not suggest that metaphysics deals with what is transcendental qua transcendental, but with being qua being. Of course,
being qua being is being-in-general, that is common being, and in
this sense it is transcendental. But to say this is not to say that it is
the commonality, i.e., the transcendentality, that is the pertinent factor here. Indeed, if that had been the case, Thomas could have hardly
avoided saying what Aertsen claims he holds, namely, that the subject
5. For more on this, see my Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography, Albany, New York 1992, pp. 295-304.

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of metaphysics is being qua being and its attributes. Thomas does


not say this. His concern is not with transcendentality as such, but
with one of the transcendentals.
It is quite significant that Thomas never says that the subject of
metaphysics is the transcendentals. Indeed, if as Aertsen claims, he
held such a view, why did he fail to say so? And indeed, if such a
view is an implication of Thomas view of metaphysics, why did
Thomas fail to draw out the implication? Certainly there is plenty of
evidence that he strived to draw out the important implications of
his views, in particular when those implications were in conflict or
agreed with well-established and authoritative views. In the case of
metaphysics the maximum authority was Aristotle, but Aristotle
never unambiguously stated that metaphysics is concerned exclusively, or even primarily, with the transcendentals, although he does
say that there is a science which investigates being qua being and
the attributes which belong to it in virtue of its own nature and
that the philosopher investigates the truth about the properties
peculiar to being qua being (Metaphysics IV, 1 and 2; 1003b17 and
1004b15).
From this one or more of the following can be inferred: (1)
Thomas was not aware of the conception of metaphysics as the study
of the transcendentals; (2) he was aware of it but did not hold such
a view; (3) he was aware of it but did not believe that it was an implication of his views. (2) and (3) do not seem appropriate, for it would
make no sense to say that he was aware of it but did not think it was
important enough to be mentioned.
In short, from all that has been said it follows that Aertsens judgment is questionable if he intends it to mean that Thomas was aware
that metaphysics is properly the study of the transcendentals. Moreover, it also becomes questionable if it means only that Thomas conception of metaphysics does in fact imply, regardless of what he may
have consciously thought, that it is the study of the transcendentals.
Note that I am not trying to prove that Aertsen is wrong in his judgment in this matter, but only that there are legitimate questions that
must be answered before one can agree with it and which he has not
answered in his book.
Second, I turn to the more general thesis concerning the character
of medieval philosophy. First of all, one could raise a question con-

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cerning whether in fact it is accurate to say that medieval philosophy


is transcendental because it is concerned primarily with the transcendentals. Let us suppose this claim is taken to refer to medieval philosophy understood in the general sense, used during the Middle
Ages, of the cumulative aggregate of all other disciplines. Then, the
claim would be clearly false, for how are we to fit such disciplines as
canon law, grammar, rhetoric, medicine, and alchemy within a transcendental conception? A more modest claim might have more success. For example, if one were to claim that it is only medieval philosophy understood as a more restricted enterprise that is to be
considered as the study of the transcendentals. But under closer
scrutiny this claim does not fare better, for much medieval philosophy has little to do with being qua being and its attributes. Consider
what we call today the philosophy of language and logic. Of course,
one could argue that these are not parts of philosophy properly
speaking and in fact that the medievals did not think they were
and therefore they cannot serve as counter examples to the thesis
we are examining. Well, perhaps not, but if they are not part of philosophy, where are they to be fitted? And, even if they are excluded,
what would we make of the philosophy of mind, for example? For,
indeed, the mind was a most important subject of study by philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages.
Here again, I find myself thinking that Aertsen, in his enthusiasm
for the neglected medieval doctrine of the transcendentals, has himself forgotten important historiographical principles. Because he sees
the transcendentals operating throughout medieval philosophy, he
concludes that the transcendentals must be central to it. But this is
far from being the case. A notion can be functionally operative in a
philosophy and yet be of merely marginal importance in the overall
conceptual perspective of the author. For a notion to be central it is
required that it become a subject of discussion not subordinated to
the discussion of other philosophical notions. Textually, this entails
that we should find separate treatises, books, articles, and monographs devoted to it. At this point the notion begins to play a key
role in the development of other notions6. Centrality is a stage of

6. See my Philosophy and Its History (supra, n. 5), pp. 301-302.

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development with respect to a philosophical idea that goes even


beyond that of textual independence, where a clearly delineated part
of a text is devoted to it. But where are the summae ontologiae, summae metaphysicae, or summae transcendentiae, in the Middle Ages?
The transcendentals, considered as such, do not become central in
philosophy until the silver age of scholasticism, with authors like
Surez.
A still less radical and more promising way of interpreting Aertsens claim would be to restrict it to metaphysics. But even here questions can be raised. For one thing, apart from a rather unclear text of
Albert the Great7, there is no evidence that anyone before Duns Scotus explicitly claimed that metaphysics concerns the transcendentals.
And this is not all. More important, perhaps, is that the center of all
philosophical, theological, and metaphysical speculation in the
medieval period, from the beginning to the end of the age, is without a doubt, God. And it is not always God considered as Being, for
there were medieval thinkers who did not think of God primarily in
that way. The queen of the medieval sciences is not ontology but theology. True, God transcends the world, and in that sense one can say
that metaphysics is a transcendental enterprise. But that is not what
Aertsen claims. His claim is that metaphysics becomes transcendental because it is about the transcendentals, namely, being qua being
and its attributes, rather than about God or immaterial being. God is
a being, or perhaps the being, or even the model of all beings, or the
source and/or cause of all being, but certainly not being qua being,
whether strictly or even analogically speaking. Indeed, perhaps the
greatest controversy of the times concerning metaphysics was precisely whether God was properly studied in the discipline. It is God,
then, that is at the center. Of course, this does not mean that a new
conception of metaphysics as the study of the transcendentals does
not begin to take shape in the thirteenth century. But to go from
this, as Aertsen does, to the claim that the proper characterization of
medieval philosophy, or even medieval metaphysics, is as the study of
the transcendentals is to go beyond what the historical evidence, even
that offered by Aertsen himself, supports.
7. ALBERT THE GREAT, Metaphysica 1, 1, 2, Opera omnia 16 (ed. B. GEYER), Mnster 1960, p. 4.

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Let me finish by emphasizing, again, the value of Aertsens contribution to the understanding of the history of the medieval doctrine
of the transcendentals and the role it played in Thomas thought.
Aertsens book is a model of erudition and subtlety. The questions I
have raised concerning his characterization of medieval philosophy
and Thomas metaphysics should not obscure this fact8.
State University of New York
Buffalo

Jorge J.E. GRACIA

8. I would like to thank Robert Delfino for several useful suggestions.