Internalism, esternalism and Aquinas

Propongo ai lettori di Briciole filosofiche questo interessante articolo sulla relazione tra l’epistemologia tomistica e le c.d. posizioni dell’internalismo e dell’esternalismo [Giovanni Covino].


In his study Self-implicating Knowledge. The Practice of Intellectual Virtue, T. Hibbs presents a paragraph concerning the relationship between Thomistic epistemology and the two currents of internalism and externalism.

In contemporary analitic epistemology it is customary to distinguish between internalism and externalism: two theories of epistemic justification. Hibbs wondered about the possibility of including Thomas Aquinas in one of the two currents. Macdonald had already faced this problem in some way. According to Hibbs, St. Thomas Aquinas would be internalist in one aspect, for another externalist.

If for modern thinkers there is a certain consensus in placing them on one or the other front,  according to the standard division between internalism and externalism, it is difficult to place premodern thinkers. If Descartes, who believed the epistemic justification process based on access to clear and distinct ideas, can be considered as a perfect internalist, while Thomas Reid, who based knowledge on the reliability of the relative faculties, is an externalist, problematic is the collocation of Thomas d’Aquino’s thought. We can say that on the one hand Aquinas affirms that every science to be such must be based on statements that are known and immediately evident, but also that he believes that this is possible only if the human faculties are not deceptive by nature and that therefore one can have access.

According to Hibbs if we consider two types of distinctions between internalism and externalism, perhaps we can try to say something about the relationship of Tommasian thought with the two different currents of analytic epistemology. A first distinction, called “standard”, concerning the accessibility of the criteria of justification by the conscience, sees the internalists affirm that all the criteria are accessible and the externalists that only some are. A less standard distinction instead sees an internalism that says that some criteria are accessible while an externalism that says that no criteria are. According to the standard distinction we have: a strong internalism and a weak externalism. According to the less standard distinction we have a weak internalism and a strong externalism. Now if we accept the first distinction, St. Thomas Aquinas is an externalist; if we take the second type of distinction, Aquinas is an internalist. So Aquinas would be a weak externalist and a weak internalist.

For St. Thomas, in fact, access to the first principles of science is possible but the different sciences have, by virtue of their own object, a different degree of certainty.

This is how Hibbs criticizes Macdonald’s position and defines it as anachronistic. According to Hibbs there are precisely two anachronisms:

  • the first concerns the concept of science whereby: in Thomas we have a science if and only if there is a demonstration of conclusions starting from first principles, while today in analytic philosophy knowledge is “very roughly, true belief that is both responsibly and reliably formed “, as John Greco says.
  • The second anachronism consists in not recognizing that Thomistic epistemology does not coincide with either a strong externalism or a strong internalism.

Mario Padovano OP

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