Faith seeking understanding: a taxonomy

In Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word, Eileen Sweeney describes the current state of Anselm scholarship thus:

“There are real divisions in the interpretation of Anselm. […] Philosophers and systematic theologians carry off parts of his corpus, while those interested in spirituality take others. […] One of the most vexed questions in Anselm scholarship is its disciplinary location. Though the question of whether Anselm’s work is philosophy or theology is ultimately anachronistic, the extreme positions that have been taken on this question reveal something about how incompatible the elements of Anselm’s corpus seem to modern sensibilities.”[i]

According to the operative conception behind the aforementioned divide, to study religion, theology, or spirituality is to take faith as the object of one’s inquiry, while philosophy is that academic discipline most characterized by its connection with reason. And if reason and understanding, ratio and intellectus, are not the same, then the former at least provides the paradigmatic case of the latter.

Fides, or ‘faith’, can be understood in two ways: primarily, as a subjective state, that of believing a matter unable to be objectively verified; secondarily, as the matter is assented to. In the first way, the study of faith is part of the study of human subjectivity, and thus subordinated to psychology. In the second, to study the faith is to study the structures of propositional content assented to by those who have faith in the first sense. If one structure is privileged as correct, then one is studying theology; if we remain agnostic about the correctness of any one religious system and instead study properties of these systems for their own sake, then one is engaging in comparative religion.

A divide between subjective and objective senses similarly governs the meaning of intellectus, typically translated as ‘understanding’. This term can refer to: 1) the faculty of knowledge; 2) the state of knowledge attained by the proper exercise of that faculty; or rarely, 3) the knowledge itself attained by that exercise. The faculty of understanding is often taken to be identical to the faculty of reason, while the state of understanding occurs when one can give sufficient reasons (i.e. known true propositions taken as premises) for what is understood. As in the previous case, the faculty retains priority over both the state and the object attained, and is usually identified with the human mind. Understanding understanding is, then, the province of psychology. Correlatively, understanding in the second sense is taken to be a psychological state, and understanding in the third sense is dubbed ‘mental content’, and is studied, most often in philosophy of mind, under that heading.[ii]

The relation between these states is taken to be the following. Faith qua act of belief is an act of the will, marked by the subjective indeterminacy of the truth value of propositional contents taken as its object. The state of faith is, compared with that of understanding, incomplete. And the content of religious belief is thought of in its relation to the content of understanding according to one of two models: the first, stemming from Aquinas, holds truths of faith are above reason; the second, stemming from Latin Avërroism,[iii] allows truths of faith to contradict what is revealed to reason. In the first, faith acts as a supervaluation function filling in truth values undecidable by the machinery of reason alone. In the second, the data given to faith and reason conflict, and one must choose between the two.

Fides quaerens intellectum, then, is most often taken to mean ‘subjective, willed believing-without-evidence seeking definitive proof that what it believes unknowingly is in fact the case’. If one takes the content of reason and faith to conflict, then the ‘without’ in the above definition can be strengthened to ‘against’.

We should hesitate to think this was the picture Anselm, for instance, endorsed when he gave fides quaerens intellectum as the working title to his Proslogion. If the attempt to read Anselm and others differently on this point is fruitful, perhaps this will provide us with a way of seeing the matters themselves differently as well.

[i] Sweeney 2012, 6-7. Sweeney goes on to cite Gilson and Barth as examples of ‘philosophizing’ and ‘spiritualizing’ interpretations of Anselm’s work.

While Sweeney should be commended for drawing attention to this division, I do not think her work successfully transcends it. Sweeney sees Anselm’s thought as a sort of coincidentia oppositorum of logic and rhetoric, reason and desire. “Anselm’s project in the Proslogion is one that Anselm himself views as both necessary and paradoxical” (Sweeney 2003, 17). The problem with such a reading is that it merely entrenches the dichotomies and assumptions brought to the table by the above mentioned rival groups; the attempt to ‘balance’ these opposing elements without essentially questioning their internal content effects a mere reconfiguration of concepts, instead of leading to an improved understanding of those concepts.

[ii] To paint the situation a bit more accurately, what is studied is theories of mental content, thereby effecting a redoubling of the presumption of the primacy of the subjectivity putting forth these theories.

[iii] At least, this is how the story is told. For reasons to think the story isn’t quite as simple as its retelling, see Gyula Klima (1998), “Ancilla Theologiae vs. Domina Philosophorum Thomas Aquinas, Latin Averroism, and the Autonomy of Philosophy,” in J. Aertsen and A. Speer (eds.), What is Philosophy in the Middle Ages? Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Medieval Philosophy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), 393-402.