Monday, January 7, 2019

The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine's Theory of Knowledge [Review]


by Hiram R. Diaz III



How sensory experience relates to the acquisition of knowledge, especially of universals and absolutes, has always been a major problem in philosophy. Is there a place for the senses in our acquisition of knowledge? If so, then what is that role? If all that we know is reducible to basic sensory experiences, then can we know what is definitionally supra-sensible (i.e. God)? Indeed, can we believe in supra-sensible realities at all if our knowledge is entirely derived from our sensory experiences? Contrariwise, if all knowledge is not derived from sensory experience, then do the senses play any role in the acquisition of knowledge? If they do, then what exactly is that role? 


These questions might seem to be abstruse and impractical, but they are of direct relevance to the Christian life. No one understood this better, perhaps, than St. Augustine. The bishop of Hippo’s writing often touches upon the subject of epistemology and its spiritual significance (e.g. Concerning the Teacher & The Confessions of St. Augustine). However, given the scope of Augustine’s canon, as well as its depth, coming to a fully-orbed understanding of the bishop’s epistemology can prove to be a difficult task for most non-academics. 

Ronald H. Nash’s The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge helpfully provides those interested in the subject of Augustinian epistemology with an in-depth yet accessible presentation of Augustine’s theory of knowledge. Citing from a wide variety of primary sources, Nash explains the bishop’s hierarchy of epistemological sources, ranging from sensory experience to the contemplation of God. Nash also resolves the apparent contradiction between Augustine’s early rejection of sensory experience as a means of acquiring knowledge in books like Against the Academics and Concerning the Teacher, and his positive remarks concerning sensory experience as a source of knowledge in other places throughout his corpus. 

Given the importance that epistemology plays in the realms of our quotidian affairs as well as the highest academic pursuits, The Light of the Mind is a good introduction to the well thought out epistemology of one of the church’s brightest theological minds. Whether or not Augustine achieves his goal of tying together sensory perception and the contemplation of God is up to the reader to decide. Yet what can be agreed upon by all sides is that the bishop’s efforts are worthy of examination and consideration. Nash has, therefore, done the church a great favor by systematizing the bishop’s thoughts, from many primary sources, in a single, accessible, and short volume. It is well worth a serious read.