Augustine’s Theory Of Sense Knowledge -- By: Terry L. Miethe

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 22:3 (Sep 1979)
Article: Augustine’s Theory Of Sense Knowledge
Author: Terry L. Miethe

Augustine’s Theory Of Sense Knowledge

Terry L. Miethe*

Augustine was a truly remarkable man. He marks almost as great a period in the history of philosophy as in theology. He belongs to no one group or religious organization. Rather, he is the heritage of Western thought as a whole. Protestants and Catholics have long studied this great saint’s teaching. B. B. Warfield once said of Augustine:

It was with him that the immediate assurance of consciousness first took its place as the source and warrant of truth. No doubt there had been a long preparation for the revolution which was wrought… but the whole preceding development will not account for the act of genius by which he actually shifted the basis of philosophy, and in so doing became “the true teacher of the middle ages,” no doubt, but above and beyond that “one of the founders of modern thought.” He may himself be said to have come out of Plato, or Plotinus; but in even a truer sense out of him came Descartes and his successors.1

Yet Augustine’s theology/philosophy had its problems. The theory of sensation in Augustine has been called one of the weakest elements in his entire philosophy because of the greatly active role that is given to the soul. Augustine came forward as a rationalist (1) in the sense that rationalism describes those thinkers who believed that “reason” is the prime source of knowledge, and (2) in opposition to sensationalism and empiricism. The latter think that our knowledge is derived exclusively from sensation or experience.2

In Augustine it is the soul that is the life-giving principle of the body. The soul is able to affect the body but the body is never able to affect the soul. Augustine regards sensation as a case of the soul’s making use of its body. Sensation is always a property of the soul, never of the body. The soul feels through the body; the body does not feel.3

Augustine was very comprehensive in his philosophy. There is evidence that he was acquainted with all the more important ancient philosophies. He mentions, for example, those of the Ionic and Eleatic schools (De Civitate Dei 18.2). He knew Aristotle, although he did not regard him as highly as he did Plato. (All that Augustine ever read of the works of Aristotle was the Categories—a very simple eight-page treatise.)

The source of the problem in Augustine’s theory of sense knowledge is his active theory of sensation, the view that in sensation the soul acts instead of being acted upon. Sensation is regarded as an awareness on the part of the soul of a

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