The Relation between Philosophy and Particular Sciences




By Fr. Raymond Taouk


I.  the domain of particular science


The part. sc. is the one which studies a specific type of being through its proximate principles. It can study one type of being (biology, the living bgs; geology, the rocks) under one aspect or one property (essential or accidental) which is its formal object.  They presuppose certain fundamental notions or axioms (formal object, what is life? for the biologist; reality, matter, space for the physician; number for the mathematician). Yet, they never study them as philosophy, a common but dangerous temptation. Usually, these philosophical concepts are of common knowledge. But to give them a proper foundation, philosophy is necessary. 


ii. philosophy


1.    Philosophy is the science which studies all things in their first and most universal principles.  It deals with the great problems of things and man : nature of the bodies, of the living beings, man, the universe.

2.    Its proper object is being and the essence of things, quid est? and tries to understand the ultimate meaning and end of these beings.  It provides a proper critique of the scientific presupposits.  Whereas sciences are more partial, detailed and specific, because philo. abstracts from more things, it is total in so far as it goes to the essential aspects of things. 

3.    Terminology of the distinction

·        the Ancients considered only philosophy, divided into prima (Metaphysics) & secunda (physics, math.)

·        the Moderns distinguish the positive sciences from philosophy :

·      positivism denies the validity of philosophy, by stating that the essence is either non existent or unknowable.  The object of knowledge is only the phenomenon, the sensible appearances of things.  Neopositivism states something similar.  Only the sciences can know objectively the real.

·      scientists recognise the value of philo because they assume implicit philo. data : existence of universe, value of the scientific method, the h. capacity to know the truth, the influence of things.[1]

·      The Thomists recognise the value of philosophy but diverge in the following :

·      some admit the Ar. notion of certa cognitio per causas’ for the positive sciences.    Philo. is distinct because it is mainly metaphysical, study of the ult. cs and highest degree of abstraction.

·      others say that modern sc. is not ‘certa cognitio per causas’ since it not does study the true causes, and would have only hypothetical value (physico-maths= symbolic vision of reality).



 The Order of Sciences




I.  General vision


1.    distinction by the sources of knowl.

·        human sc. founded on principles known by nat. reason

·        theological science, based on principles known only by Revelation.  Its formal object is Deus Revelans, its principles are those truths known by faith, its conclusions are theological (implicit truths of faith).  It is a true science re. God, the supreme cause of all things,  because it proceeds orderly and rationally under the light of faith.  Although it is distinct from philosophy (by its light) it is still a universal science since its object is the most universal cause and its conclusions affect the entire realm of being.


2.    distinction by their ends

·        speculative sc. (ad cognoscendum) : divided between philosophy (per causas ultimas), and part. sciences (per causas proximas). They can also be divided into the diverse aspects of reality studied (bodies, quality, life, man, God, process of knowledge).

·        speculativo-practical (ad agendum) like ethics, Law, medicine, engineering.  The pract. sc. are subordinated to the corresponding speculative sc. from which they draw their principles of actions.


3.    distinction by the method

·        deductive, i.e. mostly demonstrative like Maths,

·        experimental, i.e. mostly by means of experimentation (nat. sc.)


4.    distinction by the degrees of immateriality (Aristotle) see below.



ii. the physical, mathematical and metaphysical sciences


1) division


Every science consists in abstracting essential elements from things.  Abstracting means not only isolating any element, but also extracting  an intelligible element from its sensible matter.  To abstract is to dematerialise so as to grasp the intelligible structures of things.  The modes of abstraction lead to a distinct intellection of the real.[2]


1.    The physical intellection is

·        proper to the natural sciences (re. things which depend on matter et sec esse et sec. definitionem). 

·        The physical concepts reveal aspects of sensible matter abstracting from individual matter.  ‘Iron is a heavy metal’  contains an essence palpable and visible. 

·        All phys. cpts and propositions refer to experimental observation (things move, the earth is round) which allows for experimental verification (direct or instrumental). 

·        These concepts and laws are universal (body, atom, planet) and deal with the intelligibility of these essences (biology does not only see the blood circulation but explains it).


2.    The mathematical intellection is

·        proper to the math. sciences (about things which depend on matter sec esse sed non sec. definitionem). 

·        Its concepts deal with abstract quantitative structures, leaving aside the sensible matter (and experimental aspects of things). 

·        Its object is abstract qtty (number and figures), an ens rationis drawn from concrete material beings (multiplicity of beings and extension of bodies).[3]


3.    The metaphysical intellection is

·        proper to philosophy (about things which depend on matter nec sec esse nec sec. definitionem). 

·        The metaph. concepts indicate aspects of things wo sensible matter and applicable even to immaterial beings (relative to the human mind or  God). 

·        The concepts of being, truth, substance, cause, finality, relation, are purely intelligible or metaphysical concepts, and they do not ncssly refer to material beings. 

·        Those concepts which refer to spiritual beings and their acts (God, to intellige, to love, person) are also metaphysical. 


º of abstr.

from matter

preserves object

dependt on matter

known by


sensible matter

for its ex. and definit

expermtl verific.



for its exist. alone

int. alone

‘intelgbl’ matter

immat. being

in no way

int. alone


2) explanations


1.    The criteria of truth.  The knowledge of truth is based on the criteria of evidence adequate to the given science.  The ult. criterion of truth of the physical judgments is the sensible and experimental evidence.  It is the same for the material truth of the math. judgments.  The truth of the metaphysical judgments is founded on the intellectual evidence from any experience, e.g. the int. evidence that what we know and see is real (see criteriology).

2.    Universal ApplicationThese 3 levels of intellection are used spontaneously in daily life, as every physical concept involves some basic metaphysical notions.

3.    Remarks

·        Many authors speak of these 3 degrees of immateriality as 3 degrees of abstraction.  ST, however, in Boet. de Trinit q.5, considers that only the level of physical and math. sc. are abstraction or mental separation.  The metaphysical level is called separatio or real judgment (since it deals w. what is or can be really separated).  There is no major inconvenience in calling it 3d degree of abstraction.

·        Some doubt whether this theory of the degrees of abstraction can answer the questions of modern critique.  Yet, given that they explain the various forms of elevating the mind above the sensible, they are not only perfectly adequate but also very relevant in a day when modern science is more and more abstract from intuitive knowledge.

·        Where do the second philosophies fit it (philo of nature, of maths.)?  They seem to occupy an intermediate level, joining the inferior degrees with the metaphysical level, by applying the metaphys. principles of intelligibility to the inferior levels.  E.g. the conclusions of cosmology are not object of experimentation, those of the math. philosophy are not reduced to a math. demonstration : they move in the lower level materially, but formally they are metaphysical sciences.



iii.  the physico-mathematical level


1.    Already in the time of Ar. there existed intermediate sciences, applying the math. data to physical investigation, astronomy, agrimensura, optic (In II Phys. lec.3).

2.    The physico-mathematical level is proper to modern physics which deals w sensible bodies considered as measurable (formal object strictly intlgb), dimensions, space, time, speed, light, heat, force.

3.    limits : though intelligible, this object is very poor for the knowl. of nature and needs the philosophical vision of the essence of corp. things.  Also not every nat. sc. is mathematizable (chemistry, geology, geography, nat. history, biology).


iv.  human sciences


1.    In the 19th Century., some philosophers called sc. of the spirit those new disciplines irreducible to nat. sciences.  They used two distinct methods :

·      the positive method which merely describes the plain facts, wo preconceived ideas on the nature of ends of the h. phenomena;

·      the structural method, based on the same method, specifying it into diverse sc. (economy, history, Law, psychology, sociology, linguistics, symbolic Logic, cultural anthropology, pedagogy).


2.    In concreto, they were always subservient to a certain philosophy or vision of the world

·        either materialist (economy of Marx)

·        or positivist (psychology of Freud i.e. psychoanalysis, sociology of Durkheim).


3.    Their object is physical and spiritual since they deal with the whole of man.  They are particular sciences (dealing w. h. phenomena in their proximate causes), thus distinct from philo. and moral science.  But they can be more fruitful and true only when guided by true philosophy and moral life  whereas they denaturalise themselves if they admit false philosophical presupposits.



v.  unity and subalternation of the sciences


1.    One science is subordinate to another if it receives from it some of its principles (optic-geometry).

2.    The diversity of subalternation may come from the diversity of beings (inferior or sup), comprehension (theology, philo, part. sc). 

3.    Subalt. can be

·      material or instrumental (theology uses philo; psychology uses chemistry; philo uses part. sc.);

·      formal or fundamental

·      part sc. based on philo since they presuppose that the world exists and that we can know it;

·      pract. sc based on Ethics like medicine and economy suppose ultimate norms of morality.




The Method of Sciences



I.  method in general


1.    The method is any orderly process used to reach an end. There are different methods, didactic, apologetic, polemic, artistic, technical.  The scientific method is the ordered way of obtaining the knowledge of truth in a given scientific discipline.  It is the application of the rational order to a field of knowledge.


2.    Scientific knowl. starts from principles, and deals with them in two ways, as the principles are :

·        drawn from experience, always necessary for any human knowledge whatsoever. 

·        used in the demonstration of conclusions.  Science is the knowl. of certain conclusions obtained by demonstration from certain principles.


3.    Distinction

·        via inventionis (method of investigation), more intuitive and disorganised where everything comes into play : experience, reason, hypotheses of work, Logic.  It admits of various steps (selection of the main problems; study of the possible solution, formulation of the certain conclusion, critique of the contrary positions).  Here, we can distinguish between the analysis (resolution, from the general to the part.) and the synthesis (composition, from the particular to the general).

·        via disciplinae , the method properly scientific which contains the ordered matter well organised and found ready to be taught.  This is the aspect we deal with here.



ii.  the scientific experience


1.    Experience is the starting point of scientific knowledge.  The experimental data is that from which, by induction, the mind extracts the laws and principles of beings.  They can be simple data from sense perception (light of a star), usually particular truths (symptoms and process of a sickness),  or basic generalisation (growth of plants).


2.    Experience in physics, is something always used

·        Experience artificially produced to draw conditions for its better observation = experimentation.

·        The radius of experience is increased by the use of instruments of observation and of measurement, which allows us to capture insensible properties (X rays, magnetism, chemical affinity) or sensible properties not directly sensed: weak sounds, ultrasound, imperceptible light undulations.[4]

·        The physical experience is restricted to its formal object (mechanics looks at things only under the aspect of extension, local motion and force).  This means that ‘observation, experience’ varies according to the sciences.

·        The more the physical objects depart from experience, the more difficult it is to know them (macrocosmos, microcosmos).


3.    In Maths,

·      the first arithmetic and geometric notions are obtained by induction from the sense data : they are not innate ideas nor pure constructions of the human mind. 

·      From that point on, Maths develops deductively and constructively wo need of further experiences, due to the liberty and clarity with which the human mind operates in the quantitative abstraction. 


4.    Experience in philosophy. 

·        For a realist philosophy, experience is also the beginning and the necessary basis from which philosophy grasps inductively its metaphysical principles. For, experience includes not only sensation but also knowl. of particular truths (this animal is eating), which presuppose other universal truths (principle of non-contradiction : being is not non-being).

·        Philosophy uses a complete, not partial, experience, which alone is adequate to know its object.  What the philosophical analysis needs is not plenty of data, measurements or scientific experiments. It does not seek partial experiences but others more complete and mostly qualitative which better reflect the intrinsic nature of things, from which to draw essential inductions.

·        Thus, philosophy uses frequently the common experience which is more complete and permits a more essential intelligence of the facts, although it leaves aside quantitative details and other part. accidents.  In this case, philosophy will reflect critically upon the convictions of ‘common sense’, since some of them can be proved false, a cultural phenomenon.  It also takes into account the scientific data to give them a philosophical interpretation.

·        The complete experience exercises only a negative control over the philosophical theses, since the sensible verification is not a criterion of truth for them, but is always a criterion of error since no philosophical thesis can contradict a certain experience.  Thus a philosophy which denies motion, the external reality, human liberty, is automatically disqualified.  A moral philo. which affirms that the end of man is found in material goods is proved false by experience.  Normally, no philosophical doctrine denies the scientific data, but it is not rare that philo. theories contradict the complete experience of common knowledge.




[1]Einstein says “No matter how much purely ‘positivist’ it looks, every theoretical truth is a kind of occult metaphysics’.

[2]In I Phys. lec.1.

[3]Some believe that modern maths. studies only logical structures (part of formal Logic) and not qtty anymore.  In praxis, most of the math. judgts refer to qttv aspects (sum total, multiplicity).  An interesting problem is the correspondance between maths and reality, esp. with the advances of physico-mathematics.  There is often connection because maths can be reduced to the natural number and the dimensive continuous, which have a direct relation with the real (multiplicity of beings and extension of the bodies).

[4]The systems of measurements are conventional, but cum fundamento in re, based on the real qtty of things.