14.2 Abstract knowledge
We also need to distinguish thought about what exists from abstract thought.
We recognize abstract thought as knowing the forms of things, and this
is contrasted with thought of existing things, whether they be material, mental
or divine. According to the Aristotelian ontology developed in Chapter
4, everything non-abstract that exists is constituted by a
substance (or power) in some form. The role of abstract thought is to consider the
forms of things and ignore their substance or power. We say that the form of an
object is ‘entertained’ in the mind, and thereby known. It can be mentally compared
with other forms, used to make conclusions, etc.
Mathematics is the science of forms par excellence, so mathematics can
tell us nothing about what actually exists. Rather, it can tell us about what can
possibly exist. It can describe the forms which may possibly be instantiated
in natural or mental objects. We had a discussion in Chapter 4
about whether the physical world could be made out of forms, as, for example, Pythogoras
imagined a world made out of triangles. The conclusion was that some additional
component of substance was needed, as otherwise the world would be purely abstract
or formal (of forms). Formal worlds do not change. Forms can be used to describe
change, by effectively removing the temporal aspect or modeling processes as a new
(changeless) spatial component or dimension that is only called time. A
formal theory cannot describe substances (which are powers) themselves but only
describe how they change. Abstract theories of causes in science describe how objects
have changed, will change, and might change. They define dispositions, for example,
in terms of possible changes.
Formal worlds do not change, as physical and mental worlds do. Abstraction and
lack of change cannot be used to distinguish God from the world, because, though
God’s love and wisdom do not change, God is definitely not solely abstract.
Abstract knowledge only knows forms and only knows love according to its effects
and not its essence. So abstract knowledge does not itself constitute wisdom. There
is more to wisdom than abstract knowledge or abstract understanding. That extra
something must come from a more intimate acquaintance with love. Only by having
wisdom fully linked to love can it yield a general knowledge about the essence of
love and thereby be truly wisdom. Without that link, wisdom cannot be properly said