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McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies
Program in philosophical studies
September 2006


Fulvio Di Blasi


Philosophy, the Beginning:

First Class



The first class


What is philosophy? How should we study philosophy? What do we do exactly when we study philosophy? Why is “studying philosophy” different from studying something else? And why should we study philosophy if our primary focus is chemistry, biology, architecture, literature, medicine, law, etc.? By focusing on the very first period of the history of philosophy – the period of the naturalists and the Eleatics – this first class aims at introducing the students to the concept of philosophy and to some of its main historical issues.


Birth of Philosophy


Philosophy was born in a Greek colony (on the coast of what today is Turkey) in the 6th century B.C. Thales of Miletus seems to be the first philosopher in history because, in his reflections on the origin or cause of all things, the logos of philosophy emerged from the myth of ancient poetry. The term “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” According to Aristotle, “wonder” is the starting point of both philosophy and poetry because “wondering” (or contemplating) is the attitude of those who sense the existence of a deeper meaning of reality and try to express this meaning either through the arts or through the logos.



Order and Becoming


In a sense, “order” and “becoming” are the two first, very important, insights of philosophical thought. These two insights ground the search for the first cause – or the first intelligible and ordering principle – of the (physical) world, and explain the features attributed to it by the first Greek philosophers: the unchanging substratum of every change (Thales); the efficient cause of the changes (Anaximenes); an indeterminate principle (Anaximander); an intelligible principle of order intrinsic to material reality (Pythagoras). The first cause is always supposed to be the real, deepest, being behind the familiar reality of becoming. But “becoming” means “ceasing to be something” (the child becomes a man by stopping being a child), and, to Heraclitus, the only reality appears to be the becoming itself.


[Read more: “Naturalistic Period and the Concept of Becoming”]



Being vs. Becoming


At its birth, philosophy is “philosophy of nature,” and the main problem it addresses is the possible contradiction between the concept of “being” and the concept of “becoming.”
In order to save the being of reality, Parmenides takes the opposite side of Heraclitus, by saying that only being exists and that becoming is only an appearance. To defend Parmenides’ view, his disciple Zeno elaborated famous paradoxes on the impossibility of movement and multiplicity. The “problem of becoming,” as it emerges from the dispute between Parmenides and Heraclitus, is the first, most important dilemma in the history of philosophy. The first acceptable solution came from Aristotle’s explanation of “change,” and from his distinction between different analogical predications of “being” and “not being”.


The Pluralistic Solution


Another way to solve the problem of becoming came from the pluralistic schools, which proposed an account of nature’s changes grounded on the idea of a plurality of basic (unchanging) elements/principles. The pluralists’ thought represents certainly a progression in our understanding of physical nature, but it cannot solve the philosophical problem of becoming because the many basic elements maintain the same features of Parmenides’ concept of “being” (absolute, unchanging, univocal…). There is no “being” (or substratum) among the elements, or atoms. Their interactions and movements involve the existence of an absolute “not being,” which, by definition, does not exist. The pluralistic solution to the problem of becoming is an excellent opportunity to study the difference, and interdependence, between a scientific explanation of nature and a philosophical one. From one of the pluralists, Anaxagoras, came the important insight, used and developed by Plato, that the first principle of reality must be “intelligence”.



The Problem of the Universals


What is the truth of the universal concepts or ideas we have in our minds, even the most abstract and difficult ones, like ‘person,’ ‘intellect,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘chaos,’ ‘energy,’ etc.?
The so called “problem of the universals” is the main gnosiological problem of the entire history of philosophy. Where do the universal objects we have in our intellect come from? What is their truth?
Broadly speaking, there are two possible solutions: [a] the universal comes somehow from our sensory cognition (Aristotle, Aquinas…); [b] the universal comes from somewhere else (Plato, Hume, Kant, Popper, Kuhn…).
Aquinas’s critique of Plato is a perfect way to sketch the problem. According to Aquinas, the proper objects of our intellect are not the universals as such, but the same material things that fall under our (external) senses. In order to have a clear understanding of Aquinas’s approach, we have to distinguish between three kinds of objects of human intellectual knowledge: (1) “quidditas rei materialis”—proper object and object of first intention; (2) “intelligible species abstracted from the phantasm”—not proper object and object of second intention; (3) “ens in universali”—common object. The intelligible species (idea) is always a means to know reality, but not the reality we know.


[Read more: The Concept of Truth and the Object of Human Knowledge”]




Further Suggested Readings for the First Class


-         Aristotle, Metaphysics, book I (available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.html)

-         Ralph McInerny, A History of Western Philosophy, Part I (available online at www2.nd.edu/Departments//Maritain/)

-         G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 5-125




Bibliography and Suggested Readings for the Course


  • Di Blasi F., “The Concept of Truth and the Object of Human Knowledge,” in F.T. Arecchi (ed.), The Scientific and Philosophical Challenge of Complexity (Milan: ASRui, 2000)

  • Di Blasi F., “Person or Digital Self? An Argument against AI Theories,” in M. Berti and F. Di Blasi, Exploring the Human Mind: the Perspective of Natural Sciences, ASRui: Milano 2004

  • E. Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941)

  • John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio

  • John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth

  • J. Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1989)

  • Ralph McInerny, A History of Western Philosophy, in the Jacques Maritain Center’s website

  • Plato, Apology

  • Plato, Phaedo

  • G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy, vol. 1 and 2 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

  • R. Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts (London and New York: Routledge, 1989)



This list is subject to changes as the course goes by



1st Class

2nd Class

3rd Class

4th Class

5th Class

First course

Second course

Third course

Fourth course

Fifth course

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