The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies will offer a three-year program in philosophical studies that will provide a wide-ranging introduction to classical philosophy. This program will consist of six courses over three years (during the fall and spring semesters), each course consisting of 6 or 7 two-hour sessions, including lectures and time for discussion.

This program is intended for generally educated citizens who wish to develop a deeper grounding in philosophy. No previous formal study in philosophy is required. Our goal is to provide people with sound philosophical “tools” that will help them to evaluate and form judgments about problems and issues facing them and their fellow citizens, drawing especially on the ethics and metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.

OUR FIRST COURSE will be an introduction to ancient Greek philosophy. We will begin September 27, 2006 (Wednesday) from 7 to 9 p.m., at the McInerny Center office at 616 E Street, NW, Suite 1214. Short recommended readings will be provided online, along with suggestions for further reading. OUR SECOND COURSE will briefly survey the main periods in the history of philosophy, from Medieval to Early Modern until contemporary philosophy. And it will focus particularly on two absolutely uniquely great figures like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. OUR THIRD COURSE will deal with the basic principles in natural philosophy and logic as the needed background for the study more advanced areas, like metaphysics, in the FOURTH COURSE, and ethics and political theory in the FIFTH COURSE. Finally, in the SIXTH COURSE, we will end the program by addressing the public square and the current issue.

Classes will be taught by Fulvio Di Blasi (University of Palermo), Joshua Hochschild (Mt. St. Mary’s College), Ralph McInerny (University of Notre Dame), Dr. Michael Pakaluk (Clark University), Christopher Wolfe (Marquette University) and other Visiting Professors.

Cost of enrolling: $ 100.00 per course ($ 50.00 for students). Some tuition grants are available. To register, contact

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Prof. M. Pakaluk, RMC @ FRC, 24 September 2008
Moral Philosophy: Conscience, freedom, virtues, habits, pleasure

Points on conscience:

1. What we loosely refer to as ‘conscience’ was classically divided into two things, synderesis (a natural ‘habit’ of the mind) and conscientia (an ‘act’ of the mind, a kind of judgment)
2. Conscience is not classically regarded as a source of obligation (an inner voice) but rather as the application of reason to particular cases. Just like any reasoning, it is measured by the truth (reality) and is capable of “getting it wrong”.
3. Because conscience is the arriving at a judgment of what should be done, all things considered, anything that I (merely) have strong feelings about, or very much want, cannot be counted as a dictate of conscience.
4. There must be starting points of practical reasoning (because there must be starting points for any reasoning), which are in some sense provided by ‘nature’; these are naturally good but can be corrupted.
5. Because the will should follow what reason proposes, an erring conscience binds; but
6. Because we can be responsible for not knowing what we should know, in those cases an erring conscience does not excuse

St. Thomas Aquinas, S.T. I, 79, 12 c

"Synderesis" is not a power but a habit; though some held that it is a power higher than reason; while others [Cf. Alexander of Hales, Sum. Theol. II, 73] said that it is reason itself, not as reason, but as a nature. In order to make this clear we must observe that, as we have said above (Article 8), man's act of reasoning, since it is a kind of movement, proceeds from the understanding of certain things--namely, those which are naturally known without any investigation on the part of reason, as from an immovable principle--and ends also at the understanding, inasmuch as by means of those principles naturally known, we judge of those things which we have discovered by reasoning. Now it is clear that, as the speculative reason argues about speculative things, so that practical reason argues about practical things. Therefore we must have, bestowed on us by nature, not only speculative principles, but also practical principles. Now the first speculative principles bestowed on us by nature do not belong to a special power, but to a special habit, which is called "the understanding of principles," as the Philosopher explains (Ethic. vi, 6). Wherefore the first practical principles, bestowed on us by nature, do not belong to a special power, but to a special natural habit, which we call "synderesis". Whence "synderesis" is said to incite to good, and to murmur at evil, inasmuch as through first principles we proceed to discover, and judge of what we have discovered. It is therefore clear that "synderesis" is not a power, but a natural habit.

St. Thomas Aquinas, S.T. 79, 12 c

Properly speaking, conscience is not a power, but an act. This is evident both from the very name and from those things which in the common way of speaking are attributed to conscience. For conscience, according to the very nature of the word, implies the relation of knowledge to something: for conscience may be resolved into "cum alio scientia," i.e. knowledge applied to an individual case. But the application of knowledge to something is done by some act. Wherefore from this explanation of the name it is clear that conscience is an act.

The same is manifest from those things which are attributed to conscience. For conscience is said to witness, to bind, or incite, and also to accuse, torment, or rebuke. And all these follow the application of knowledge or science to what we do: which application is made in three ways. One way in so far as we recognize that we have done or not done something; "Thy conscience knoweth that thou hast often spoken evil of others" (Ecclesiastes 7:23), and according to this, conscience is said to witness. In another way, so far as through the conscience we judge that something should be done or not done; and in this sense, conscience is said to incite or to bind. In the third way, so far as by conscience we judge that something done is well done or ill done, and in this sense conscience is said to excuse, accuse, or torment. Now, it is clear that all these things follow the actual application of knowledge to what we do. Wherefore, properly speaking, conscience denominates an act. But since habit is a principle of act, sometimes the name conscience is given to the first natural habit--namely, "synderesis": thus Jerome calls "synderesis" conscience (Gloss. Ezekiel 1:6); Basil [Hom. in princ. Proverb.], the "natural power of judgment," and Damascene [De Fide Orth. iv. 22 says that it is the "law of our intellect." For it is customary for causes and effects to be called after one another.


Often there are distinguished different types of freedom:
-- Freedom of indifference: the mere power of choosing among indifferents
-- Negative freedom: absence of external constraint or limitation, whether legal, economic, or social (peer pressure, stigma, public opinion)
-- Positive freedom: expressive or creative realization of one’s nature to achieve some valuable good
Each earlier sort of freedom is (typically) a condition for the later sort.
Libertarians differ from other conservatives in taking government’s role to be the restricted to preserving negative freedom.
(i) it is doubtful that there is any coherent notion of negative freedom which stands on its own, which isn’t regarded as in service to a positive notion (for the libertarian this is typically an ideal of self-reliance);
(ii) freedom is not possible without truth, and yet once truth is introduced, one is led to a positive conception of freedom.

Freedom depends upon truth:
For you to act freely, is for (i) you to act (ii) of your own accord to attain (iii) what you want.
Coercion and compulsion can diminish all of these: psychological diminishes (i); external diminishes (ii); both can diminish (iii).
But so can ignorance:

-- If you act in ignorance of a first principle of practical reason, then, to that extent, it is not you who are acting (not, at least, the sort of being that you are).
-- If you act at the suggestion of another, or on a principle supplied by another, which cannot stand up to ‘right reason’, then you do not act of your own accord.
-- If you act for an end (purpose, goal) that cannot reasonably be endorsed, then in getting that you do not actually get what you want (see Plato’s Gorgias).
Because freedom depends upon truth, and truth involves correspondence to something over and above us, then freedom depends upon some act of acquiescence in, obedience to, or reverence for the truth.

False contrasts between: freedom and law (either human or divine); freedom and nature.


A habit is necessary whenever something of a certain nature has a goal which its nature itself is not sufficient for it to achieve. The habit, then, a ‘second nature’, is acquired (either by a natural or conventional process) so that such a thing may reliably achieve its goal. Habits suit nature as exercised over time. E.g. God and the angels have no habits.

A habit is a certain ‘category’ of existence, a stable disposition, quality-like (it makes a thing of a certain sort). Habits are good if they conduce to a thing’s achieving its goal, otherwise bad.

Habits of a human being may belong either to the body (strictly, the body-soul unity insofar as this involves vegetative or animal functions not directly responsive to reason) or to the ‘soul’ (strictly, the mind, and the body-soul unity insofar as this involves animal functions responsive to reason). Good habits of the body are healthy and healthy conditions; bad habits are bad health and unhealthy conditions. Good habits of the ‘soul’ are ‘virtues’, and bad habits are ‘vices’.


Some useful terms:
-- Intellectual versus ‘moral’ (or ‘ethical’)
-- Cardinal
-- Theological
-- Harmful versus disgraceful

Some theses about moral virtues:

1. We acquire them by doing other sorts of actions better or worse.
2. We acquire them by doing like acts (we become courageous by acting courageously). (A circle?)
3. The correct action is so because, in various dimensions, it falls within a mean between extremes.
4. Similarly, bad habits which we can acquire may be assigned to either of two extremes.


There are two sorts of pleasure, bodily and ‘psychical’.
Bodily pleasures are restorative and always imply either pain or a deficiency.
Psychical pleasures are inherent in the activity, yet still ‘side effects’.
The paradox of hedonism, and instrumentalism.


Prof. Josh Hochschild

Moral Philosophy:
The Human Good, Man’s Ultimate End,
The Structure of the Human Act


“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.i)

Real vs. Apparent good

Hierarchy of ends/goods

Ultimate end/good

What about Pluralism? Diverse ways of realizing the one ultimate end

The Ultimate End as Happiness

Common (mis-)understandings of happiness…
…mentioned by Aristotle: pleasure, honor, wealth
…suggested in contemporary culture: power, coolness, beauty, freedom

The Function Argument: Happiness as fulfilling our nature

Responsibility for Action: Will and Intellect

Defects of intellect (varieties of ignorance)

Defects of will (coercion, fear, vice)

The Structure of the Human Act

Twelve “moments” in a complete human action:

When the intellect (1) perceives something as good, the will (2) wishes to attain it.

When the intellect (3) judges the end attainable (4) the will intends to attain it.

When the intellect (5) deliberates about means to attain it (6) the will may consent to various means.

When the intellect (7) decides which means to pursue (8) the will chooses that means to the end.

When the intellect (9) commands the will to complete its act (10) the will uses the means to attain the end.

When the intellect (11) perceives the attainment of the end (12) the will enjoys or delights in the attainment.
Nicomachean EthicsBook I, chs. 1 & 2

(trans. W.D. Ross)

1. Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity—as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others—in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

2. If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.






















I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Seventh Class


Hellenistic Philosophy
(Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics), and Neoplatonism

Hellenistic Philosophy
Deepest spiritual crisis in Greece:
- (Alexander the Great:) End of the polis/beginning of empires (Macedonia; Syria;
- From citizens to subjects;
- From civic virtues to technical bureaucratic skills;
- Collapse of traditional values;
- Big turn in moral and political thought;
- Cosmopolitism: falls down the distinction between Greeks and barbarians… and (to a
certain extent) between man and women (Epicurus would accept women in the
New philosophical systems:
- Materialism;
- Individualism: from citizens to individuals: education aims now, not at forming
citizens, but individuals; separation between ethics and politics; selfishness, in a
- Need for ethics (secular faiths)… grounded on (poor) physics… grounded on (poor)
- More phronesis than sophia;
- Consistency between (philosophical) doctrine and life;
- Return to Socrates:
§ autonomy and self-sufficiency;
§ peace of the spirit (happiness through detachment and renunciations);
§ idealization of the wise(s): the true man… similar to God… all founders of
the new great systems were divinized…

End of Minor Socratic Schools and decay of Plato and Aristotle’s schools: (end of the IV
century b.C.)
- Cynicism/(Antistene) Diogenes (I’m searching for the man): attempt to free himself
from every convention and induced need of society… license of free speech and
actions… public scandals… (Cratete);
- Academy;
- Peripato;

Epicureans (Epicurus, Lucretius)
Epicurus against Platonism’s metaphysics, religious and transcendental view, political
approach centered on the polis;
- Plato’s path to the truth: gradual detachment of the soul from the sentient world by
way of reasoning: First step: mathematical knowledge; Second step: dialectic… till
the knowledge of the ideas themselves;
- Epicurus: sensation/sentient knowledge as the highest criterion of truth. Reasoning
leads as away from the truth: it hides the truth instead of reviling it.
Epicurus: first very well aware materialist;
Philosophy as a system, not as specific issues and problems;
Ethics is superior to metaphysic, physics, and ontology;
- Nothing comes from the nothingness and nothing goes to the not existence…
- The whole is made of bodies and emptiness;
- Bodies are either composed or simple (atoms);
- Atoms are in a constant falling-down movement:
- doctrine of deviation (clinamen); mechanical movement but also… random/free
source of movements in the universe;
- no rationality but also no necessity (determinism): just randomness…
- Soul as a group of atoms… air-shaped and windy; mortal…
- Amazingly enough, Epicurus does not deny the existence of the gods.
Logics: it’s really a kind of philosophy of knowledge: an attempt to figure how we know
correclty starting with experiences.
- Three criteria/principles of truth:
- (1) Sensation: always true: it receives the atomic representation (image) of the thing;
- (2) Mental representation of the atomic structures received by the senses: what
remains in our memory… Names indicate these representations.
- (3) Feelings of pain and pleasure: (moral) sensations that determines what is good
and what is evil (to avoid): they can never be wrong;
- Opinion: it can be true or false because of the reasoning: unlike the other three
elements, they are not self-evidently true. They are true only when confirmed by
- The essence of man is material… material must be also his end;
- Human good: feelings of pleasure (hedonism);
- No need of reasoning to achieve the end;
- Unlike Cynicism: Absence of pain as the highest pleasure;
- Unlike Cynicism: pleasures of the soul higher than pleasures of the body;
- Utilitarianism: prudential reasoning applied to the maximization of pleasures…
Calculation of the best rank of pleasures; Prudence as supreme virtue;
- Pleasures (kinds and rank):
§ Natural and necessary (e.g.: eat, drink…);
§ Natural but unnecessary (e.g.: to eat well, refined drink, etc.);
§ Not natural and not necessary (e.g.: desire to be rich, to be honored,
powerful, etc.).
- Avoiding worries: (a) time… fleeing; (b) pain… that might always come; (c) death.
Absence of pain as supreme good… detach ourselves… Vice as ignorance of these
- Political utilitarianism: utility as the main ground of justice;
- Friendship: special role… special pleasure…

Stoics (Zeno)
Refusal of Epicureanism: man not just atoms… moral good not just pleasures;
No atoms but logos;
Logics: sensation/representation – dialectic – rhetoric
Freedom and necessity.

Skepticism and eclecticism

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Sixth Class

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Fifth Class

Logic, Physics, and
Theory of Knowledge:


Written works
a) Dialogues in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language.
b) Treatises on physics, metaphysics, etc.

- Born at Stagira, a Greek colony, in 384 B.C.; died at Chalcis, in 322 B.C
- Plato was his teacher: from 18 to 37, he studied in Athens with him
- He was asked by King Philip of Macedon to become the tutor of Alexander (the Great)
- About 335: Aristotle returns to Athens and opens a school of philosophy: the Lyceum (from the location: i.e.: a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios). It was also called the Peripatetic School because it was the master's custom to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking up and down (peripateo) the shaded walks (peripatoi) around the gymnasium.
- Very interested in natural sciences and in classifying plants and things from the natural world
- Regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of the Macedonian dominion.
- After Alexander's death, Aristotle was obliged to share in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians.
- Charge of impiety.
- He left Athens. He took up his residence at his country house, at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year, 322 B.C. His death was due to a disease from which he had long suffered.

Easy online sources:
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Catholic encyclopedia at New Advent
- Wikipedia

some features of Aristotle’s teaching
- Starts with physics… with the material world we grasp through our external senses;
- Aristotelian Realism;
- Methodology of the Endoxa;
- Physics as the first science;
- Systematic approach;
- Complete approach…

- Nature as an intrinsic, inner, principle of motion;
- Aristotle’s solution to the Parmenides vs. Heraclitus debate;
- Act and potency (potential);
- Substantial and accidental changes (1+ 9 categories);
- Categories as kinds of beings corresponding to the kinds of motions:
1) Substance;
2) Quantity;
3) Quality;
4) Relation;
5) Place;
6) Time;
7) Position;
8) State;
9) Action;
10) Passion.
- The four causes/principles:
1) Material;
2) Formal;
3) Final;
4) Efficient;
- Hylomorphism;
- Unmoved Mover.

Theory of knowledge
- Sentient knowledge and intellectual knowledge;
- Theory of knowledge, some basic principles:
a) Knowledge as possession of a form;
b) Similarity between the knower (of which the known object is part) and the thing known;
c) Not a destroying change in the knower;
d) Simultaneous actuality of the knowing faculty and the known thing;
e) The act of the known object “as known” and of the act of the knower “as knowing it” are one and the same act;
f) The act of the known object “as known” and of the act of the knower “as knowing it” are one and the same act;
g) This act exists in the knower: i.e., it is an act(ion) of the knower;
h) Knowledge happens according to the mode or essence of the knower;
- The role of the active intellect.

Basic notions in Aristotle’s Logics
- Logic as the last science (maybe not even a science): reducing arguments to their first principles and checking if they have been correctly developed from them;
- Meaning of demonstrating something: premise-conclusion structure;
- Subject of logics: syllogism:
- “A syllogism is speech (logos) in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from those supposed results of necessity because of their being so.” (Prior Analytics I.2, 24b18-20);
- Major premise, minor premise, conclusion: example “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates is mortal.”
- Induction and deduction: the need for first (self-evident) premises;

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Fourth Class

Philosophy, the Beginning: Fourth Class

Philosophy as “Training for Dying.”
The Human Soul. The Meaning of Life

Main bibliography: the Phaedo.

Soul as an ambiguous term

According to Descartes, “God” and the “soul” are the most important issues philosophy should deal with. It is certainly true that these two issues characterize, dominate, and push forward the entire history of philosophy. “Soul” is ambiguous, though. Does it mean “intellect,” “person,” “human nature,” the “self,” the “subject,” or something different from all of them? In ancient philosophy, the discussion on the “soul” overlaps other concepts and discussions—most notably, the concepts of self and the person—with which we will deal later on in our Program.

Aristotle’s famous argument for the spirituality of the intellect (inserire qui link approfondimento) does not refer to what we would call “person” today. Plato, like all Greek philosophers, did not have the concept of person; however, his arguments for the spirituality and immortality of the soul clearly refer to a subjectivity that we easily recognize as belonging to that concept. Aquinas gives an argument for the spirituality of the soul that follows the lines of Aristotle’s argument (inserire qui link approfondimento), but, unlike Aristotle, Aquinas explicitly distinguishes the soul from the person, the self, the intellect, and human nature. In approaching the concept of soul in ancient philosophy, it is important to keep in mind that this concept, at the early stages of philosophical reflection, embraces more meanings than we would ascribe to it today.

Philosophy as “Training for Dying”

At the beginning of his dialogue Phaedo, Plato explains why “those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying and they fear death least of all men.” This is not an invitation to commit suicide—that, for Plato, is intrinsically evil. Rather, it is the sketch of a deep religious and ethical view of life that does have many similarities with the Christian tradition. For Plato, the human soul is made for a truth and a good that do not belong to the present life, which must be seen at the same time as a punishment for some past fault and as a preparation for a future and perfect life. This life should be lived as “purification” by way of measure and detachment from the needs of the body. If death is “separation of the soul from the body,” the life of the wise, who look for the truth and the good, is already a “dying” and a training for the complete separation of death and for the next life. Plato’s thought involves a strong dualism between soul and body—which is evil—that is significantly different from Christian thought.

It is to defend his view of life that Plato, in the main part of the dialogue, tries to demonstrate “that the soul still exists after a man has died and that it still possesses some capability and intelligence”.

Plato’s idea of philosophy as “training for dying” is a particular instance of the ancient approach to philosophy as an active and genuine search for wisdom. Most of the ancient philosophers were authentically trying to figure what the overall meaning of life was in order to conform their lives to that meaning. Philosophy was meant to be the search for what fulfils human beings, for what makes life worth being lived, or, in another (famous) word, for what makes life “happy.” So, philosophy was not just a theoretical enterprise, but also a moral one: i.e., an enterprise supposed to result in living a wise life.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle, in his ethics, tries to give an account of human fulfillment, or happiness, that includes also things and pleasures that belong to our bodily life: i.e., to the life we live in this earth. With Aristotle, philosophy searches for a wisdom able to harmonize with each other the highest and the lowest dimensions of human life. While there is a strong dispute about Aristotle’s concept of happiness, there is no doubt that he does not share Plato’s dualistic account of human nature.

In medieval times, philosophy becomes ancilla theologiae (handmaid of philosophy) because medieval people commonly accepted that the ultimate truth of human life comes from Christian revelation. There is a fulfillment (a “natural happiness,” in the Aristotelian sense) that man is supposed to aim at and achieve in the present life; but the ultimate fulfillment (or “supernatural happiness,” or beatitude) will come from a next life in which the soul and the body will be reunited in the human person. Philosophy can take reason up to the threshold of the mystery of life; then, faith should come to give the final answer...

Further suggested readings:
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I, X
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio

The Soul and Plato’s Theory of knowledge

In the Phaedo, Plato’s theory of knowledge (and/or Recollection) is explained in order to support his discussion on the soul.

It is important to highlight that the way in which Plato looks at the knowledge issue is mostly similar to the way in which other Greek philosophers—most notably, Aristotle—look at it. The difference between Plato and Aristotle is, so to speak, only in the final solution they give to the problem of the universals.

Conceptual tools:
Difference between “act” and “potency,” or “being in act” and “being potential.” Only “being in act” means to exist: i.e., it is the “action” of being something. What exists “potentially” exists due to another different act (a pure potentiality cannot exist by definition).
Difference between “res” (thing) and “object”. The object is not a real thing but a thing “as known.” The object is in the knower.

Some basic principles in the theory of knowledge:
Knowledge as possession of a form:
ü The known object is part of the knowing being; it is a way in which the knowing being has been “configured” (like the file in the hard disk).
ü Knowledge is a contact between two things that alters one of them (the knower) according to the form of the other.
ü By “form” we can just mean a set of information that configures the knower according to the being of the known thing.
Similarity between the knower (of which the known object is part) and the thing known:
ü otherwise there would be no knowledge at all because knowledge is real if it refers the knower to what the thing known is.
ü The knower knows by “becoming” the thing known.
Not a destroying change in the knower:
ü knowledge is an accidental change in the knower that at the same time preserves his nature and “turns” him into the thing known.
Simultaneous actuality of the knowing faculty and the known thing:
ü e.g., the ear hearing and the thing “sounding” (this way of speaking is clear but not perfect because the thing cannot be “sounding” if the ear is not “hearing” it).

All these principles, as such, are shared by both Plato and Aristotle, but the last one raises a very relevant problem that will be solved very differently by Plato and by Aristotle.

Problem: material things are “in act” knowable according to sentient knowledge but not according to intellectual knowledge. They are not in act “intelligible.” To the human mind, only the universal is in act intelligible, but material things are essentially particular. If they were in act intelligible they wouldn’t be material beings. But, according to the last principle we listed, universals must be in act as universals before they can be received/known by the knowing faculty (i.e., the human intellect). And since the universals are not in act in the material (particular) things we see around us, Plato deduces that we (our souls) must have known them previously (in a past life) in an intellectual world made of actual intelligible objects. According to Aristotle, on the other hand, our intellect is able to abstract the universals from the material particular things, making them actual before receiving them into itself.

Plato’s proofs in the Phaedo

In the Phaedo, Plato gives three or four main proofs for the spirituality and immortality of the soul (the exact number is questioned by the interpreters). Both Plato’s general approach to life and his proofs for the spirituality and immortality of the soul depend on some powerful philosophical insights, which ground his so-called “theory of recollection”.
Plato’s proof from the “immortal and unchanging” truths, and his proof from the “ideal opposites” are two of the more fascinating proofs for the immortality and spirituality of the soul in the history of philosophy. Even those who want to criticize Plato cannot deny that his insights on the intelligible universals are very powerful and require strong philosophical answers. The intelligible universals must come before the several particulars, both in reality and in our knowledge. Aristotle neglected this insight. But in Augustine it became a strong theology of creation and the eternal law; and in Aquinas it became one of the most interesting ways to prove the existence of God.
Two objections raised against the proofs in the dialogue—the one comparing the soul to a “harmony” and the one comparing the soul to “an old weaver”—are so powerful that Socrates, in order to make his proofs more convincing, undertakes the explanation of his second navigation and of his theory of forms.

v From the life-to-death and the death-to-life cycles
v From the Theory of recollection
v Affinity argument
v From the ideal opposites (or from the form of life)
o “soul” equal “life”
o “life” equal “no-death” (this is the very essence/definition of life)
o the (form of the) “soul” cannot accept “death”, by logical necessity the soul cannot die.

Aristotle’s text in the De Anima

On the Soul, III, 4, 429a10-429b9

“Turning now to the part of the soul with which the soul knows and thinks (whether this is separable from the others in definition only, or spatially as well) we have to inquire (1) what differentiates this part, and (2) how thinking can take place.
If thinking is like perceiving, it must be either a process in which the soul is acted upon by what is capable of being thought, or a process different from but analogous to that. The thinking part of the soul must therefore be, while impassible, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Mind must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible.
Therefore, since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none. It was a good idea to call the soul ‘the place of forms’, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not actually.
Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before, as e.g. in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily immediately after, or in the case of a bright colour or a powerful odour we cannot see or smell, but in the case of mind thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it.” (trad. by J. A. Smith)

Main passages of this text:
1) Thinking is like perceiving: namely, (a) whatever thinks or perceives, while impassible, is capable of receiving the form of an object; (b) it is potentially similar in character with its object without being the object.
2) Aristotle’s conclusion is that “intellect (nous)” is “pure from all admixture,” “cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body,” and “is separable from it.” The stress here is on being separable. [It is important to highlight that Aristotle’s conclusion does not concern the “person,” and not even the “soul” as such or the “human subject;” it just addresses what he calls “intellect”.]
3) The main argument is that (a) “everything is a possible object of thought,” (b) so intellect must be pure “for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block”.
4) Supporting argument: the strong stimulation of the faculty of thought does not diminish the thinking ability; on the contrary, it increases it.

Terminological clarification: “impassible,” in Aristotle’s text, means that something is capable of receiving the form of something else without a substantial change in its own form (knowledge is an accidental change).

Something must be indeterminate in order to receive every kind of form. The analogy with the concept of “prime matter” can help. Prime matter, though, is not impassible. The analogy with sensory knowledge is helpful too. Sensory knowledge, though, can receive only bodily forms given by the images, and it is not perfectly impassible (see the fourth point about Aristotle’s text).

Aquinas on the spirituality and immortality of the soul

“Whether the Human Soul is Something Subsistent?”

Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, a. 2 c.

“Objection 1. It would seem that the human soul is not something subsistent. For that which subsists is said to be "this particular thing." Now "this particular thing" is said not of the soul, but of that which is composed of soul and body. Therefore the soul is not something subsistent.
Objection 2. Further, everything subsistent operates. But the soul does not operate; for, as the Philosopher says (De Anima i, 4), "to say that the soul feels or understands is like saying that the soul weaves or builds." Therefore the soul is not subsistent.
Objection 3. Further, if the soul were subsistent, it would have some operation apart from the body. But it has no operation apart from the body, not even that of understanding: for the act of understanding does not take place without a phantasm, which cannot exist apart from the body. Therefore the human soul is not something subsistent.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. x, 7): "Who understands that the nature of the soul is that of a substance and not that of a body, will see that those who maintain the corporeal nature of the soul, are led astray through associating with the soul those things without which they are unable to think of any nature--i.e. imaginary pictures of corporeal things." Therefore the nature of the human intellect is not only incorporeal, but it is also a substance, that is, something subsistent.
I answer that, It must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation which we call the soul, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things. Now whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else. Thus we observe that a sick man's tongue being vitiated by a feverish and bitter humor, is insensible to anything sweet, and everything seems bitter to it. Therefore, if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies. Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is likewise impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ; since the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color.
Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation "per se" apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation "per se." For nothing can operate but what is actual: for which reason we do not say that heat imparts heat, but that what is hot gives heat. We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.
Reply to Objection 1. "This particular thing" can be taken in two senses.
Firstly, for anything subsistent; secondly, for that which subsists, and is complete in a specific nature. The former sense excludes the inherence of an accident or of a material form; the latter excludes also the imperfection of the part, so that a hand can be called "this particular thing" in the first sense, but not in the second. Therefore, as the human soul is a part of human nature, it can indeed be called "this particular thing," in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense, what is composed of body and soul is said to be "this particular thing."
Reply to Objection 2. Aristotle wrote those words as expressing not his own opinion, but the opinion of those who said that to understand is to be moved, as is clear from the context. Or we may reply that to operate "per se" belongs to what exists "per se." But for a thing to exist "per se," it suffices sometimes that it be not inherent, as an accident or a material form; even though it be part of something. Nevertheless, that is rightly said to subsist "per se," which is neither inherent in the above sense, nor part of anything else. In this sense, the eye or the hand cannot be said to subsist "per se"; nor can it for that reason be said to operate "per se." Hence the operation of the parts is through each part attributed to the whole. For we say that man sees with the eye, and feels with the hand, and not in the same sense as when we say that what is hot gives heat by its heat; for heat, strictly speaking, does not give heat. We may therefore say that the soul understands, as the eye sees; but it is more correct to say that man understands through the soul.
Reply to Objection 3. The body is necessary for the action of the intellect, not as its origin of action, but on the part of the object; for the phantasm is to the intellect what color is to the sight. Neither does such a dependence on the body prove the intellect to be non-subsistent; otherwise it would follow that an animal is non-subsistent, since it requires external objects of the senses in order to perform its act of perception.” (trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province)

Aquinas’ proof for the spirituality of the soul follows Aristotle’s lines:
(1) the soul is incorporeal and subsistent;
(2) “for it is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things”; and
(3) “if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies”.

As with Aristotle’s, Aquinas’ argument does not concern the human person, or subject. In Aquinas, this is explicitly stated.

Aquinas’ terms “incorporeal” and “subsistent” correspond to Aristotle’s terms “separable” “pure from all admixture” “[not] blended with the body”.

Additional clarifications present in Aquinas’ text:
1) “It is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body” because “every body has its own determinate nature”;
2) It is impossible for the intellectual soul “to understand by means of a bodily organ because the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color”;
3) “Operation ‘per se’ apart from the body”: “only that which subsists can have an operation per se”.

It is crucial to focus on the meaning of “subsistent” (the actuality of intellectual form does not depend on its union with the body). The intellectual soul does have a proper act of existence; it is therefore “separable.” This is true if there are operations of the intellectual soul which do not depend on the union with the body.

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Third Class

Theory of Ideas, Second Navigation, and Knowledge as Remembering.
Myth, Faith and Reason

For our next two classes, we will be focusing on a single philosopher, the first from whom we possess a significant number of complete works. The philosopher is Plato, and we call his works "dialogues" because they imaginatively envision philosophical conversations between two or more characters.
A favorite dialogue used to introduce Plato's philosophy, and one especially suited to our chosen themes, is the Phaedo. In it, Plato pays homage to his teacher Socrates by depicting the final hours of Socrates' life, conversing with friends before his execution. The central, explicit philosophical question is whether there is life after death, whether the soul is immortal – but Plato uses the occasion to connect this question to some of his central theoretical innovations (the theory of recollection, the theory of the Forms) and practical concerns (the relationship between reason and myth; the connection between intellect and the emotions; the nature, causes, effects, and significance of virtue; and the purpose of philosophy).
Plato's Phaedo is the recommended reading for the next two courses. It is not brief, but can be read in parts. A classic discussion of the theory of the Forms, which will be a focus of the class on October 25, takes place over just a few pages, as part of Socrates' account of his own intellectual development (in most editions, numbered in the margins 95e-102a).
Any edition of the Phaedo can be used. The text is widely available online, for instance here.

On the linked page, you can find the section treating the theory of the Forms about two-thirds of the way into the dialogue, by searching down to the words "Socrates paused awhile" and ending at the words "the wonderful clarity of Socrates' reasoning."

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - Second Class


For the class meeting on October 11, we will cover "the Birth of Philosophy," including both the early philosophy of nature and the sophistic movement (roughly 585 to 400 BC, from the first recognized philosophers through Socrates' lifetime). Our purpose, of course, is not just historical but philosophical; we will trace the emergence of philosophy in ancient Greece in order to begin to participate ourselves in the philosophical tradition it inaugurated – that is, in order to philosophize. So we will not just try to formulate the theories of past thinkers, but to come to terms with these theories by discerning, and so sharing, the questions and problems to which these theories were formulated as answers.



A collection of fragments of early ("Presocratic") Greek philosophy is available here.

There are many passages on this webpage, but you can single out for your attention especially:

Anaximander, fragments (1) and (6)
Anaximines, (1), (3), (4), and (6)
Xenophanes, (11), (12), (14), (15), (18), (23), (24), (25), (26)
Heraclitus, (2), (19), (20), (22), (24), (81)
Parmenides, (2)-(8) ("The Way of Truth")
Empedocles, (8), (9), (17)
Anaxagoras, (12), (13) ("Nous" is Greek for "Mind")
Zeno, (1), (2)
Melissos, (1)-(10)


On sophistry or the sophistic movement, a brief and accessible summary is Ralph McInerny's own chapter on the Sophists from his History of Western Philosophy, vol. 1 (ch. 7), which can be viewed here.

I. Philosophy, the Beginning - First Class

The first class

What is philosophy? How should we study philosophy? What do we do exactly when we study philosophy? Why is “studying philosophy” different from studying something else? And why should we study philosophy if our primary focus is chemistry, biology, architecture, literature, medicine, law, etc.? By focusing on the very first period of the history of philosophy – the period of the naturalists and the Eleatics – this first class aims at introducing the students to the concept of philosophy and to some of its main historical issues.

Birth of Philosophy

Philosophy was born in a Greek colony (on the coast of what today is Turkey) in the 6th century B.C. Thales of Miletus seems to be the first philosopher in history because, in his reflections on the origin or cause of all things, the logos of philosophy emerged from the myth of ancient poetry. The term “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” According to Aristotle, “wonder” is the starting point of both philosophy and poetry because “wondering” (or contemplating) is the attitude of those who sense the existence of a deeper meaning of reality and try to express this meaning either through the arts or through the logos.

Order and Becoming

In a sense, “order” and “becoming” are the two first, very important, insights of philosophical thought. These two insights ground the search for the first cause – or the first intelligible and ordering principle – of the (physical) world, and explain the features attributed to it by the first Greek philosophers: the unchanging substratum of every change (Thales); the efficient cause of the changes (Anaximenes); an indeterminate principle (Anaximander); an intelligible principle of order intrinsic to material reality (Pythagoras). The first cause is always supposed to be the real, deepest, being behind the familiar reality of becoming. But “becoming” means “ceasing to be something” (the child becomes a man by stopping being a child), and, to Heraclitus, the only reality appears to be the becoming itself.

[Read more: “Naturalistic Period and the Concept of Becoming”]

Being vs. Becoming

At its birth, philosophy is “philosophy of nature,” and the main problem it addresses is the possible contradiction between the concept of “being” and the concept of “becoming.”In order to save the being of reality, Parmenides takes the opposite side of Heraclitus, by saying that only being exists and that becoming is only an appearance. To defend Parmenides’ view, his disciple Zeno elaborated famous paradoxes on the impossibility of movement and multiplicity. The “problem of becoming,” as it emerges from the dispute between Parmenides and Heraclitus, is the first, most important dilemma in the history of philosophy. The first acceptable solution came from Aristotle’s explanation of “change,” and from his distinction between different analogical predications of “being” and “not being”.

The Pluralistic Solution

Another way to solve the problem of becoming came from the pluralistic schools, which proposed an account of nature’s changes grounded on the idea of a plurality of basic (unchanging) elements/principles. The pluralists’ thought represents certainly a progression in our understanding of physical nature, but it cannot solve the philosophical problem of becoming because the many basic elements maintain the same features of Parmenides’ concept of “being” (absolute, unchanging, univocal…). There is no “being” (or substratum) among the elements, or atoms. Their interactions and movements involve the existence of an absolute “not being,” which, by definition, does not exist. The pluralistic solution to the problem of becoming is an excellent opportunity to study the difference, and interdependence, between a scientific explanation of nature and a philosophical one. From one of the pluralists, Anaxagoras, came the important insight, used and developed by Plato, that the first principle of reality must be “intelligence”.

The Problem of the Universals

What is the truth of the universal concepts or ideas we have in our minds, even the most abstract and difficult ones, like ‘person,’ ‘intellect,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘chaos,’ ‘energy,’ etc.?The so called “problem of the universals” is the main gnosiological problem of the entire history of philosophy. Where do the universal objects we have in our intellect come from? What is their truth?Broadly speaking, there are two possible solutions: [a] the universal comes somehow from our sensory cognition (Aristotle, Aquinas…); [b] the universal comes from somewhere else (Plato, Hume, Kant, Popper, Kuhn…).Aquinas’s critique of Plato is a perfect way to sketch the problem. According to Aquinas, the proper objects of our intellect are not the universals as such, but the same material things that fall under our (external) senses. In order to have a clear understanding of Aquinas’s approach, we have to distinguish between three kinds of objects of human intellectual knowledge: (1) “quidditas rei materialis”—proper object and object of first intention; (2) “intelligible species abstracted from the phantasm”—not proper object and object of second intention; (3) “ens in universali”—common object. The intelligible species (idea) is always a means to know reality, but not the reality we know.

[Read more: The Concept of Truth and the Object of Human Knowledge”]

Further Suggested Readings for the First Class

-- Aristotle, Metaphysics, book I (available online at
-- Ralph McInerny, A History of Western Philosophy, Part I (available online at
-- G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 5-125

Bibliography and Suggested Readings for the Course

-- Di Blasi F., “The Concept of Truth and the Object of Human Knowledge
-- Di Blasi F., “Person or Digital Self? An Argument against AI Theories,” in M. Berti and F. Di Blasi, Exploring the Human Mind: the Perspective of Natural Sciences, ASRui: Milano 2004
-- E. Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941)
-- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio
-- John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth
-- J. Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1989)
-- Ralph McInerny, A History of Western Philosophy, in the Jacques Maritain Center’s website
-- Plato, Apology
-- Plato, Phaedo
-- G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy, vol. 1 and 2 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).
-- R. Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts (London and New York: Routledge, 1989)

This list is subject to changes as the course goes by