The Philosophical Concept of Knowledge




By Fr. Raymond Taouk

I.  knowledge as a metaphysical being


1) Definition


1.    Difficulty: it is difficult to give the general definition of knowledge because it must embrace both the sensitive and intellectual knowledge, both the knowledge of the world (defined as ‘to become the other’[1]) and the awareness of self.


2.    Definition : Knowledge is an act, spontaneous in its origin, immanent in its term, by which man has intentionally present a certain region of being.


2) Explanation


1.    Being : knowledge is for man a way of existing, it is a real being.

2.    Act :

·      It is not a movement , although there is movement in passing from ignorance to actual knowledge, knowledge is not found in the fieri, but in the factum esse, it is the term of the movement of learning.

·      It is not a production, as the idealists think.  In this, the idealists fall into materialism by conceiving knowledge in a physical way as a production.

·      It is an operation,  knowledge does not consist in a production of images or concepts, although such things exist and are condition and means of it.  Knowledge is not a production, it is an operation.


3.    Spontaneous act [2]:

·      in truth, the knower needs to react spontaneously to exterior excitations (agst Kant).[3]

·      yet, this spontaneity of the act of knowledge is not absolute since the senses must be excited exteriorly and since the intellect depends on the senses.  That is why the human faculties are ‘passive potencies’, unable to create their object (against  Kant).[4]


4.    Immanent act :

·      the knowledge of things does not modify them and mofidies the knowing subject.[5]

·      to affirm that knowledge is immanent does not mean that its object is a ‘state of consciousness.’


5.    Intentional act :

·      it renders a being present to a faculty as object of knowl.  This object specifies/informs act of knowl.

·      Intentionality is the relation itself of subject-object

·      It is not :

·      a material presence, modo physico, as of a pen in a box, since knowledge is non spatial.

·      any immaterial presence (like of God in his creatures) : immateriality is ncssy but not suffct for knowledge since it must add the specific relation subject-object.

·      But what type of existence has this object?  As such intentionality is not opposed to idealism, since idealism accepts that knowledge is relational-intentional to an object. The crux of the matter is existence : only a specific mode of knowl. i.e. experience answers it bec exp. alone reaches existence. 

·      If existence was not given in the first place, there would be no intentions, no beings of reason.  Even imaginary numbers of maths or chimeras have a relation with existence, and a foundation in reality, otherwise, they would not even be imaginary. Tertium non datur : being or nothing.


6.    Knowledge can be summed up as an intentional being, esse intentionale.


ii. first division per se : intuition and discourse[6]


1) discourse


1.    Discourse is opposed to intuition in that it is the movement of the mind from one knowledge to another by means of the first.[7]

2.    Discourse can be said :

·      late dictu :

·      of the sensible order : the association of images, or evocation of one image from a sensation.

·      of concepts : abstraction is discursive in that it is the passage from the phantasm to the concept.[8]

·      of judgements : because, even when the truth of the judgt can be perceived intuitively (in facto esse), it involves (in its fieri) analysis and synthesis adding stg to the concepts.

·      Stricte dictu of reasoning is the discourse par excellence since it is the means of science.  Reasoning has 3 species : induction, deduction and analogy.

2)  intuition


1.    Different opinions :

·      Descartes defines it as merely intellectual as intuition only of an idea clear, distinct and indubitable.

·      Kant admits only the sensible intuition of a concrete object (empirical intuition of the phenomena, and pure intuition of a priori forms of sensibility). He denies the intellectual intuition since the understanding, pure spontaneity or act, would have to create its concrete object in order to have a direct intuition of it.

·      Post Kantians restore the intellectual intuition, e.g. Hegel defines it the Absolute Spirit conscious of being the whole reality.

·      Bergson defines it as a sympathy by which we place ourselves within the object to coincide with it.

·      The Thomists are divided :

·      Cajetan, John of ST say that there is intuition only for the direct and immediate knowledge of an existing being, i.e. only for sensation.

·      Maritain and Verneaux judge that ST’s position is that there is intellective intuition.

2.    Notion of intuition (Verneaux-Maritain, cf. ST), it has for object :

·      an existing thing directly grasped.[9]

·      an existing thing indirectly grasped : the cogito contains an intellectual intuition of the existence of ego.[10]

·      an inexisting concrete thing, imagined, even a made-up phantasm.

·      an abstract essence present to the mind by a concept.  In fact, the concept is the fruit (conceptus-genitus) of abstraction, which broadly speaking is a discourse.  Yet it ends in an intuition because, by means of the concept, the intellect simply contemplates, ‘intues’, ‘vizualises’ the essence.[11] 

·      The judgements per se nota are immediately seen.[12]



iii.  second division per se : experience and reason


1) terms


1.    Experience is properly the intuition of the existing things.  It divides into sensible experience (external intuition) and internal experience of one’s conscience.[13]

2.    Experimental science, ‘experimentum’, the proper of the man of experience is formed firstly by the memory which registers past facts and confronts them by means of a synthesis called ‘collatio’ made by the cogitativa or ‘ratio particularis’. Experience does not produce a universal concept but is close to it. [14]

3.    Experimentation consists in making experiences oriented according to a hypothesis which needs verifying.  It is the basis of natural sciences.

4.    Is all other knowledge a priori In Kant, a priori is an equivocal term which has a meaning either negative (what does not derive from experience is a priori), or positive (what is condition of experience).  But this positive a priori can be understood as the transcendental Kantian a priori (by which the subject gives a form to the phenomenon), or as the metaphysical a priori Thomist (by which the subject simply actualizes the experience modo suo, i.e. gives it an esse intentionale).


2) What is a priori in knowledge?


1.    Is the object is a priori?

·      the sensible object is totally a posteriori or experimental.

·      the intellectual object is :

·      a posteriori since the essence is abstracted from experience,

·      somewhat ‘a priori’, that is the universality and state of abstraction of the object.[15]  True for the concept, it is more so for the judgement since the mind gives the concepts their function of S & P.

2.    The subject is a priori :

·      nature, faculty, laws of knowledge do not derive from experience (a priori negative) but on the other hand, the content of knowl. is given a posteriori because nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu.

·      limits : the formal objects follow the faculties, and are a priori (are built in, prior to experience) since potentia specificatur et diversificatur ab objecto; quidquid (objectum) recipitur secundum modum recipientis (facultas) recipitur.




[1]cognoscere est fieri aliud ut aliud.

[2]the act of knowledge is spontaneous, but freedom belongs per se to acts of the will.  The faculties of knowl as such are strictly determined in their activity.  However man is free to direct as he wishes his senses and his thoughts.

[3] Kant is wrong when he defines sensibility as a “receptivity of impressions”.

[4] Kant is wrong when he defines understanding as the “spontaneity of the concepts”.

[5]I 82,2.

[6]the cartesian distinction betw. intuition and deduction is too narrow; deduction is only one of the forms of the discourse.

[7]that is why 2 merely successive sensations or ideas are not a discourse, since there is no relation of cause-effect.

[8]there is an intuition of the concept (known directly, wo gnoseological process from one knowledge to another), but there is stg discursive, i.e. gradual and mediate about its obtention (psyschological process of abstraction from the phantasm to the impressed species to the expressed species, not ncssly from knowledge A to knowledge B).

[9]of course the type of the intuitive knowledge is ‘to see’, i.e.  visual sensation, but it extends to other things, as everybody uses the verb to see for other senses and intellection.

[10]De Verit. 10,12 ad 7.

[11] “Dicitur intellectus ex eo quod intus legit intuendo essentiam rei” Ethic vi,5 #1179.  “Intellectus cognoscit simplici intuitu, ratio vero discurrendo de uno ad aliud”; I 59,1 ad 1.

[12] “Omnis scientia habetur per aliqua principia per se nota et per consequens visa” II II 1,5.

[13] “Est enim in nobis experientia dum singularia per sensum cognoscimus” I 51,1; “Hoc enim quilibet experitur in seipso quod habet animam, et quod anima vivificet.” De Anima I,1 #6.

[14] “Experimentum est ex collatione plurium singularium in memoriam receptorum.  Huiusmodi collatio est omino propria et pertinet ad vim cogitativam quae ratio particularis dicitur” Met. I 1,#15.  It is the intimate knowledge of concrete things given by the long frequentation, trees for a log man, sheep for a shepherd).

[15]”Intellectus agens causat universale, abstrahendo a materia” I 79,5 ad 2; “Intellectus est qui facit universalitatem in rebus”  De ente c.iv.