The Philosophy of Aquinas

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Christopher Shields, Robert Pasnau
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christopher Shields and Robert Pasnau have provided an updated edition of their introduction to Thomas Aquinas originally published in 2004. The aim of this book is to equip the reader with a good understanding of Aquinas’s “four-causal explanatory schema” that “informs virtually every facet of Aquinas’ philosophy, from the most elementary to the most intricate and advanced” (x). Assuming that “no real understanding of Aquinas’ philosophy will result without a solid grounding in his doctrine of the four causes” (x), The Philosophy of Aquinas provides a good introduction to the philosophical concepts necessary to understand the philosopher-theologian from Roccasecca.

After a short intellectual biography of Aquinas (chapter 1), chapter 2 discusses the four causes’ explanatory framework just mentioned, focusing on Aquinas’s On the Principles of Nature. Through an exposition of On Being and Essence, chapter 3 expounds Aquinas metaphysics of being, thus completing the relatively brief but comprehensive account started in chapter 2 dedicated to the philosophical categories necessary to understand Aquinas. The book, however, does not merely expound Aquinas’s philosophical categories in the abstract. In fact, from chapter 4 onward, the authors make the reader have direct contact with Aquinas’s own applications of his philosophical system. Chapter 4 expounds Thomas’s doctrine of God’s existence and nature as found in the first book of Summa contra Gentiles. The second and third books of this latter work are the main text that inform chapter 5, dedicated to Aquinas’s view of God’s power and his relation to creation. Chapter 6, based on Aquinas’s Questions on the Soul, summarizes Aquinas’s doctrine of the human body and soul and their relationship. Aquinas’s epistemology and philosophy of mind are discussed in chapter 7, which mostly relies on Summa Theologiae. The book does not ignore Aquinas the commentator. In fact, chapter 7, which discusses Aquinas’s theistic and teleological doctrine of the purpose of human life, is based on Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Finally, the last chapter treats Thomas’s ethical theory as found in Summa Theologiae and in Disputed Questions on Virtue.

The tone of the book is mostly sympathetic to Aquinas’s philosophy, although the authors in each chapter mention and discuss several difficulties and objections that his system might face. The authors also claim that on the topic of freedom and necessity Aquinas is a compatibilist. This is an arguable claim for many scholars that see Aquinas more as a libertarian. At any rate, Shields and Pasnau seem to make a good case for their claim in spite of the limited space dictated by the introductory nature of their book. Still, the reader that is looking for a more critical reading of Aquinas that interacts more directly with the relevant scholarly literature might not find what he desires in this book. That said, the secondary sources indicated in the suggested readings might be of interest to those who desire to engage with many of the main works on Aquinas available today. But this more critical interaction with both Aquinas himself and the contemporary literature is not the aim of this volume. 

Shields and Pasnau’s goal is to furnish the student of Aquinas with the basic philosophical knowledge necessary to read and understand the philosophical theologian’s works. They do that not only, as I have said, by interacting with Aquinas’s own works, but also by offering and commenting on relevant practical examples that facilitate understanding, especially for the beginner. Furthermore, the primary sources listed in the suggested readings indicated at the end of each chapter (and throughout the individual chapters) are a further helpful addition to guide the student in the challenging but rewarding endeavor of understanding Aquinas. The book is organized in a helpfully systematic way, and the exposition is clear and highly readable. I think that Shields and Pasnau have satisfactorily achieved their intended goal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marco Barone is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Shields received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cornell University. Currently Shuster Professor of Philosophy and Concurrent Professor of Classics at the University of Notre Dame, he has also held permanent positions at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Oxford. In addition, he has held visiting posts at Cornell University, Yale University, St. Louis University, Stanford University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Robert Pasnau received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cornell University, and has taught at the University of Colorado Boulder since 1999. He is the editor of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy and the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy and has published widely on both the history of philosophy and contemporary questions.



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