BMCR 1994.05.07

1994.05.07, Bourke, Augustine’s Love of Wisdom

, Augustine's love of wisdom : an introspective philosophy. Purdue University series in the history of philosophy. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1992. 234 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9781557530257. $13.75.

The goal of the book is to provide an accessible version of Augustine’s philosophy of memory, and hence of mind, as well as an introduction to some aspects of Augustinian epistemology. Issues raised in Confessions 10 are central for understanding the thought of Augustine, but they are also plainly and simply central. The questions Augustine poses in Confessions 10 have not yet been answered to the satisfaction of anyone working in the related fields of epistemology, philosophy of mind, or cognitive science. A work on these issues by such an esteemed scholar is a welcome sight indeed.

At the center of the work is Confessions 10.1-30, with the Latin text and Bourke’s English translation on facing pages. The Latin text is from: The Confessions of St. Augustine (1927) John Gibb and William Montgomery, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The English text reprints Bourke’s 1953 translation for the Fathers of the Church series volume 21, Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. The author has also done the majority of the translations from other works he includes in the book (215).

The work is intended primarily for classroom use. The series “offers well-edited basic texts to be used in courses and seminars and for scholars and teachers looking for a succinct exposition of the results of recent research” (publisher’s flyer). It is an important addition to the paltry selection of accessible inexpensive editions of mediaeval texts in English. It is particularly fitting to have something intended for use in philosophy classrooms. The format with introductory chapters, followed by primary text, concluding with the chapters of commentary is eminently practical. The notes are found at the end of each chapter.

An instructor might choose, for example, to utilize only the text and commentary, having provided his or her own introduction to Augustine, without loss of content or continuity. Since the Latin text and English translation are on facing pages, the book can be used by students who have no knowledge of Latin, yet it is also effective for students beginning to get their feet wet in the language. More experienced scholars will appreciate being able to consult the original as they read and ponder Bourke’s thoughtful commentary.

The commentary is divided into a paragraph or two of textual analysis followed by a more extended philosophical exegesis, assessment, analysis or explication, for each of the thirty chapters of Book 10 that Bourke considers. References to Biblical pass ages, where they are included, are found in the analyses. Bourke’s commentary is accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Since it covers this small portion of Confessions, it will appeal to advanced students wishing to focus on this particular topic. But it is not highly technical or pedantic. Thus it is likely to be a wonderful way for younger students beginning a study of Augustine or mediaeval thought to learn about and immerse themselves in the traditional approach of text with commentary.

Bourke often presents Augustine’s theory of memory as a response to the heuristic paradox and the doctrine of recollection found in Plato’s Meno (144, 156, 168, 175 for example). He says:

Although both Plato and Plotinus have contributed something to the Augustinian description of memory, when compared with what Augustine offers in this [10.8] and the ensuing chapters, their accounts are much less striking than Augustine’s (143).

This comparison will be helpful for students of the history of philosophy, trying to trace epistemological themes through time. Remembering that Augustine probably never read Meno, scholars who focus on Augustine might wish to explore the manifold other motivations for his epistemology.

The book begins with standard introductory material concerning Augustine’s life and times gleaned primarily from Confessions 1-9. In the first three chapters (3-51) the author presents a whirlwind tour of philosophical writings and themes found in the Augustinian corpus. On the whole this introductory material is well done. A virtue of these chapters as well as the commentary is their extensive integration of material from elsewhere in the Augustinian corpus.

Throughout the book Bourke takes pains to distinguish between philosophical and theological themes in Augustine. Unfortunately he fails to point out that this distinction would not have been clearly formulated in Augustine’s mind. Bourke says:

Since we are concerned in the present work with philosophy, not theology, we will not attempt to follow Augustine’s explanation of what his Church teaches on the subject. There are, however, many philosophical observations running through all the books of The Trinity. (9)

One would like to see more said in defense of this procedure. Minimally Bourke ought to say something about the artifice involved in selecting some themes as philosophical while ignoring what were most certainly motivations and implications of those themes in the mind of Augustine.

I question what Bourke means by “purely philosophical” in general, but in particular of course, with regard to the thought of Augustine. This need is especially evident when he says the Expositions of the Psalms “touch on practically all the fundamental themes of Augustine’s philosophy and theology” (10). A student, or even a philosopher looking to learn more about the early medieval period, may want to hear more about how or why the psalms are the subject of a philosophy course.

He also cites in his bibliography “Augustine’s works of philosophical significance” (215). But his list is so long that one speculates about his selection principle. Bourke says:

It should be remembered that Augustine was not writing for non-Christians or unbelievers in theism. His contemporary audience was 99 percent theistic (139).

At the same time that Bourke cites his focus as philosophy, he acknowledges that “Theocentrism is an important part of [Augustine’s] methodology” (28). Still one wants to know what a theocentric methodology entails. Spinoza’s methodology might be said to be theocentric as well but there are crucial or even profound differences between what Spinoza does and what Augustine does.

Again, when he says he will include in his discussion works that are relevant to a philosopher concerned with ethics, he ought to make clear that Augustinian ethics are not the sort of philosophical ethics the student will have been exposed to in a study of utilitarianism, deontology, and ethics applied to current issues. To his credit, Bourke does point out that Augustine’s philosophy does not comprise a system (20). In a book aimed at undergraduate students, one would expect to find some narrative concerning what counts as a philosophical system, or at least some pointing to well known uncontroversial examples of philosophical systems.

Bourke suggests that Augustine prefigures Freud by coming “close to discovering” the subconscious mind (207, also 176). The concept of a subconscious mind is not pellucid, thus I am not sure that Bourke’s suggestion or analogy is helpful. As he himself says: Even modern psychology may not have all the answers to questions about the subconscious mind (167). On the other hand, Bourke explains that Augustine’s views on the soul develop from a fairly easy mind body dualism to a position on the unity of the human person (35-39, also 169-170). These discussions of Augustine’s views of the soul, along with those concerning Augustine’s reluctance to commit on the origin of the soul are insightful and illuminating (143-144, 172-173, for example).

In the opening chapter Bourke begins his case for interpreting Augustine’s self-declared love of wisdom as an introspective philosophy. He continues his argument by introducing the student to central strands of Augustine’s philosophy in Chapter Two. There he outlines “five characteristic themes” of Augustine’s “methodology.” He nicely refers back to these points (by page number) later in his commentary. The first theme defines belief and understanding, including an explanation of two kinds of human reason.

Bourke calls Augustine’s epistemological outlook “interiorism” owing to its Platonic denigration of the senses as a means to true or important knowledge. He reiterates that Augustine’s is an “introspective method” in the next chapter as well as in the later commentary chapters. (See for example 143ff., 169) Bourke mentions that Descartes’ cogito “owes something to Augustine” (note 19, 30). It seems to me that Bourke’s description of Augustine owes something to Descartes. I was left wanting to hear more in defense of Bourke’s use of these modern terms to describe Augustine’s position in Confessions 10 and De Trinitate.

Taking an interpretive position from which to approach Augustine’s epistemology is laudable. Bourke often provides careful explanations as he remarks on Augustine’s use of introspection. He says:

While his introspective approach to philosophy appears to be very subjective, this does not entail neglect of the real existence of being outside his mind (120).

Still I felt keenly the desire for further justification for and explanation of why this interpretive perspective was being used. For example, in presenting Augustine’s view of the two cities, Bourke says: “This distinction is as much a product of introspection as any other Augustinian insight” (49). But the distinction is also very much a product of a vast network of other factors that inspire Augustine’s writings and make them as rich and complex as they are.

Bourke portrays Augustine’s “interiorism” as an epistemological method when he contrasts it with empiricism. But Augustine is not anti-empirical. Whether an introspective or empirical methodology is followed depends very much on the nature of the object of knowledge. Given that the subject matter of Confessions 10 is memory, thought processes, the mind itself, it is not surprising that Augustine’s method would be reflective. One would hardly expect him to perform neurosurgery. But Bourke also uses “interiorism” to describe Augustine’s full conversion experience. That is, he contrasts “interiorism” with the “externalism” of Augustine’s youth when he was caught up with the beauty of mutable things (199).

Chapter Three continues the outline of main themes in Augustine. Bourke’s choices are: three levels of reality, eternal and seminal reasons, the immateriality of the soul and its functions, theories of sensation and illumination, the concept of time, the nature of virtue and its relation to happiness, and the two cities. That he is able to cover this material in seventeen pages (and these include many quotations) should inform the reader as to the depth of the explanations. That he is quite concise is a virtue for much of the student population. Moreover, Bourke returns to cover the epistemological themes in greater depth in his commentary. When he elaborates upon 10.5 and 10.6, Bourke takes the opportunity to explicate the doctrine of illumination. He includes in his discussion passages from various other works (for example, a letter to Consentius, ca. 409, De genesi ad litteram, De Trinitate). This discussion continues in the next chapter, as Bourke comments on 10.8-10.12. Again, the integration of explanatory material from other Augustinian works is helpful.

Bourke’s references need to be updated. Some of the commentaries cited, although they are monumental works, have been supplemented. A glaring example is his claim that there is no work on Augustine’s psychology in English (note 6, 178). He seems unaware of Gerald O’Daly (1987) Augustine’s Philosophy of Mind. He mentions Mary Carruthers (1990) The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, but not Frances Yates (1966) The Art of Memory. Providing more recent authorities would be useful even for the undergraduates at whom this book is aimed, for it would help to provide a sense of Augustinian scholarship as a ongoing living process. Also, sources mentioned in the notes are not always repeated in the bibliography at the end of the work. Thus one cannot easily relocate a reference one recalls from earlier in the book.

The main problem with this book for specialized scholars is that they would have ready access to Bourke’s translation, as well as to many other translations they might find superior. Additionally, scholars, and perhaps even graduate students in philosophy or mediaeval studies who wish to learn more about Augustine’s philosophy of memory may find the tone of the book a bit off-putting. The prose is commendable for its clarity, but sometimes the explanations, the points selected for elucidation, come across as simplistic. The use of present day examples is appreciated, but they often seem dated or obvious. Bourke finds it necessary to apologize for Augustine’s use of “heart” as the seat of his desires in 10.1.1 (119), for example.

Nonetheless, a book of this nature is most welcome (and long overdue) for use in the philosophy classroom. Academicians from outside of philosophy or from outside of mediaeval studies who wish to extend their understanding of Augustine as a philosophic al writer will also profit from study of this book. I think more specialized scholars will find some aspects of the book valuable, but many other aspects will be disappointing.