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Making Motions in a Language we do not Understand: The Apophaticism of Thomas Aquinas and Victor Preller

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2012

Adam Eitel*
Institut S. Thomas d'Aquin pour la théologie et la culture, Université Fribourg, MIS 5212, CH 1700 Fribourg,


Victor Preller's Divine Science and the Science of God makes an unjustly neglected contribution to understanding the apophaticism of Thomas Aquinas and, by extension, the possibilities and constraints of theological discourse. Preller contends that, according to Thomas, God-talk can be meaningful though not intelligible. That is, by faith one can know that one's propositions refer to God; one cannot, however, know how they do so. The first part of the article explains the main inferences leading up to these conclusions. The second part attends to some key passages in Thomas' Summa Theologiae in order to substantiate Preller's interpretation. Spelling out these passages requires coming to grips with Aquinas’ distinction between the ‘thing signified’ (res significata) and ‘mode of signification’ (modus significandi). Armed with this second stock of concepts, the argument doubles back on the conclusions already set out: building on Preller, I argue that Thomas distinguishes between meaning and intelligibility for semantic reasons, judgements about the practice of language which are bound up with certain other ontological judgements. Throughout the article, the virtues of this line of interpretation are compared and contrasted with the position laid out in Kevin Hector's article, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas: A Reformulation and Recommendation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 60/4 (2007), pp. 377–93.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012

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1 Preller, Victor, Divine Science and the Science of God: A Reformulatin of Thomas Aquinas (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967)Google Scholar. Cited hereafter as Divine Science.

2 Marshall, Bruce, ‘In Search of an Analytic Aquinas’, in Stout, Jeffrey and MacSwain, Robert (eds), Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein (London: SCM, 2004), p. 56Google Scholar. Preller's Divine Science predates what John Haldane and others have styled ‘Analytical Thomism’, a scholarly movement whose aims and ends have been cause for recent debate. See Paterson, Craig and Pugh, Matthew S. (eds), Analytical Thomism: Traditions in Dialogue (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006)Google Scholar.

3 Preller's adherents and allies include John Bowlin, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Jennifer Herdt, George Lindbeck, Bruce Marshall, Eugene Rogers and the late William Placher, just to name a few. The broad contours of Divine Science appear in Rogers, Eugene Jr, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995)Google Scholar and Placher, William, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God went Wrong (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)Google Scholar. However, neither of these works focuses primarily on Divine Science, nor do they treat Divine Science with the depth of attention that I do here. Hauerwas', Stanley Gifford Lectures (publ. as With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001))Google Scholar owe an even greater deal of inspiration to Preller. Hauerwas has noted that With the Grain of the Universe is, in many ways, a reformulation of the lessons he learned from Divine Science. ‘Preller’, writes Hauerwas, ‘thought and said better in 1967 what I was trying to say in 2001’ (Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Aquinas, Preller, Wittgenstein, and Hopkins’, in Stout and McSwain, Grammar and Grace, p. 77). This just noted collection of essays, Grammar and Grace, of which Preller is the dedicatee, is the most recent and pronounced sign of Preller's unassuming influence. Many of the essays found there, especially those by John Bowlin and David Burrell, pay their respects to Preller's influence on their respective readings of Thomas. See also in the same volume Fergus Kerr's ‘“Real Knowledge” or “Enlightened Ignorance”: Eric Mascall on the Apophatic Thomisms of Victor Preller and Victor White’ (pp. 103–23), which goes some way towards explaining some of the reasons for the late-blooming reception of Divine Science.

4 Hector, Kevin, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas: A Re-Formulation and Recommendation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 60/4 (2007), pp. 377–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 ‘Apophatic rule’ is Hector's phrase, not Preller's.

6 Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 388.

7 Ibid., p. 380.

8 Ibid., p. 390.

9 The virtues of Hector's article far outweigh its defects. Indeed, in my judgement, it is one of the best expositions of Thomas' account of positive predication that we have. See esp. Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, pp. 381–8.

10 With two exceptions, all parenthetic citations refer to Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Domincan Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948)Google Scholar. The remaining two instances (which I mark by footnote) also refer to the Summa, though I have used the English trans. provided in the Blackfriars edn, Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologiae, trans. McCabe, Herbert, vol. 3 (New York: CUP, 1964)Google Scholar. In all cases, Roman numerals indicate the part, followed by Arabic numerals, which indicate the question and article. Objections ‘obj’. and replies to objections ‘ad’ are likewise indicated by Arabic numeral. A sed contra takes an ‘s.c’. and introduction takes an ‘int’. Quotations from the body of Thomas' response are cited without further specification.

11 See ST I.12.3; I.78.3, 8; I.84–5. For the sake of continuity with Hector and Preller, when translating Thomas' phantasmate I substitute ‘mental image’ for ‘phantasm’.

12 Cf. Sellars, Wilfrid, Science, Perception, and Reality, International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method (New York: Humanities Press, 1963)Google Scholar. In other circumstances, I might need to consider objections to this perhaps proto-Kantian, proto-Sellarsian formulation of Thomas' epistemology. But since my aim here is to set forth Preller's reading of Thomas, and since Hector also endorses this part of Preller's reading, I leave such considerations aside. See Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 382, n. 15.

13 Preller, Divine Science, p. 42.

14 Ibid., p. 42.

15 Ibid., p. 39.

17 Cf. I.78.3 and 8.

18 Cf. Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 379.

19 Hector's summary of the inferences leading up to this point is especially instructive. See Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 382.

20 Ibid., p. 382, n. 15.

21 Ibid., p. 380.

22 Cf. Preller, Divine Science, p. 4.

23 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Sententia super Peri hermenias, I.2, trans. Jean T. Oesterle as Aristotle: On Interpretation, Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation, 11 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1962).

24 Preller, Divine Science, p. 5.

25 Ibid., p. 10.

26 I am concerned here only with the sort of theology that Thomas considers sacra doctrina, which proceeds from God's self-revelation in holy scripture, and so is distinguished from the philosophers’ claims about divinity. cf. ST I.1, ad. 2.

27 Cf. Preller, Divine Science, p. 10.

29 Ibid., p. 5.

30 Ibid., p. 22. cf. Victor Preller, ‘Water into Wine’, in Stout and McSwain, Grammar and Grace, p. 262.

31 Preller, Divine Science, p. 10.

32 Cf. Sententia super Peri hermenias, I.2.

33 Preller, Divine Science, p. 45.

35 Ibid., p. 150.

36 Ibid., p. 74.

37 Ibid., p. 233.

39 To this point, see also Bruce D. Marshall, ‘Quod Scit Una Uetula: Aquinas on the Nature of Theology’, in Rik van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (eds), The Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 1–35. It is worth noting here, if only to assuage (what I consider to be valid) Barthian anxieties that Thomas understands the holy scriptures as a divinely inspired witness to Jesus Christ, God's self-revelation ‘upon which sacred scripture is founded’ (ST I.1.2, ad 2 in fin). See also Eugene F. Rogers, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), p. 19.

40 Preller, Divine Science, p. 234.

41 Cf. ibid., p. 153.

42 Ibid., p. 262.

44 Cf. Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, pp. 388–9.

45 Ibid., p. 389.

46 Ibid., p. 390.

47 Ibid., p. 391.

48 The following explanation of the relations between the modus essendi, modus intelligendi and modus significandi is further explicated in Rocca, Gregory P. OP, Speaking the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004)Google Scholar and id., ‘The Distinction between Res Significata and Modus Significandi in Aquinas's Theological Epistemology’, The Thomist 55/2 (1991), pp. 173–99. Thomas was not the first to employ these concepts theologically; for a detailed explanation of their provenance in medieval theological literature, see Rosier, Irène, ‘Res significata et modus significandi: Les implications d'une distinction médiévale’, in Ebbesen, Sten (ed.), Sprachtheorien in Spätantike und Mittelalter (Tübingen: G. Narr, 1995), pp. 135–68Google Scholar.

49 I retain the Latin terminology in this section in order to underscore their technical status in Thomas' oeuvre.

50 Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 389.

51 Cf. I.12.11, 12.

52 Cf. I.33.2, ad. 4, I.39.2.

53 Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 390.

54 Emphasis added. I have used the Blackfriars English trans. here.

55 I have used the Blackfriars English trans. here.

56 Hector, ‘Apophaticism in Thomas Aquinas’, p. 391.

59 Ibid., p. 390.

60 Preller, Divine Science, p. 268. My thanks go to John Bowlin, Kevin Hector and Robert Jenson for their help with an earlier version of this article.