On holiday in France, I started reading Herbert McCabe on St Thomas Aquinas. I’d heard Sir Anthony Kenny in a ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast describing Aquinas as deserving as much attention from we moderns as Aquinas himself paid to Aristotle in his day – a great medieval foundation on which to build.

On a prominent bookshelf, in the holiday home we were staying in, Aquinas merited two volumes – Aquinas I and II – in the leather bound ‘Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World’. Only one other philosopher got two whole volumes… you guessed it – Aristotle. Good references then.

I’m too early into Aquinas to know how much is him and how much is McCabe building on him. But reading McCabe’s account, a whole series of philosophical concepts and ideas which I ‘learned’ at University are now a lot clearer to me.

Souls, existence and being are all brought to life, but also the significance of language. I never really got why modern philosophers were so hung up on language. Yes it’s an important skill, yes it codifies our world, but presenting it like maths is to science – underpinning everything we are, think and can know of the world – seemed to overrate ‘words’ to my undergraduate mind.

Take ‘redness’ I can accept your idea of red might overlap with mine, or be subtly different or be missing altogether if you’re colour blind. I can further accept my dog or a leopard might see it differently again, and a plant not at all. But as a good post enlightenment ‘atomist’, I felt ‘redness’ was ‘real’ not subjective. Whatever jingling of photons against molecules it is, ‘red’ for me was the name for a real ‘observable’ characteristic of the handsome poppies dotted in the wheatfields of Charente-Maritime.

I’m attracted by McCabe’s account that the big difference between a car and a cheetah, is one is made of parts, the other is only comprehensible as a whole. One can be taken apart and put back together again, the other can’t. One can exist uniquely as the only one of it’s kind, the other requires mates, progenitors and offspring to come to exist and continue to truly exist.

And so it is with humans. What we call ‘red’ is the product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of language – in an unbroken physical, linguistic and cultural chain. This unbroken chain can be ‘atomised’ into its constituent parts – which certainly helps us to grapple with what is and isn’t ‘red’, but that doesn’t really capture the phenomenon or the ‘phenomenology’.

There is no ‘red’ without humans to see it and a shared human language to describe it. We can describe the photons bouncing off the lattice of the petal, hitting the retina and sparking the neurones. Using language we can think hard about it and describe it to others. But before there was language to describe it, think it and name it there was no ‘red’. There were plants but no poppies.

What I call a poppy, Montaigne would have recognised as a pavot, Aquinas as a papaver and Aristotle as a παπαρούνα. Same sensory apparatus, languages from the same family tree, many common cultural references. Different words, similar – although never exactly the same – human experience: ‘redness’.

Being part of that unbroken chain of evolution, languages, knowledge and ideas is far richer than photons bouncing off a lattice. It’s good to look at the parts, but as Aquinas reminds us, it is the whole which is the special bit.


Some time ago the thought came to me that knowledge is an industrial business these days. In Aristotle’s era knowledge was lying around like coals on the fabled Newcastle beach. That’s not to say that Aristotle’s ceaseless collecting and inquiring and ordering where not great feats – and indeed arguably the invention of the scientific method. But there was plenty to go at and lots to be discovered. I consider this the era of beach coal.

Pace the Victorians and the great scientific amateurs. Named for the Latin ‘to love’, they pursued knowledge with independent means, chipping ‘curiosities’ out of geological strata, condensing chemical elements and taking care to ensure god was suitably credited in the processes they discovered. This was the age of independent mining – small entrepreneurs digging deeper and descending into specificity.

Then we enter the industrial era of knowledge. Universities, labs, great machines, competition between countries and ideologies, chemical warfare, Los Alamos, the military industrial complex, the 5 year plan, the ‘white heat’ of progress, the space race and the mindblowingly massive Large Hadron Collider. Science now sinks deep deep shafts and scours entire landscapes in the industrial pursuit of small incremental additions to the sum of what we know.

One of the downsides of this is the great discoverers of our time can generally only tell us a lot about very little. They are so deep down their shaft of knowledge – illuminated only a few feet ahead by their hi-tech miners lamps – that they sometimes struggle to interest the common man. They are also a fractious bunch. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn persuaded me 20 years ago, science is a competitive business. Flying elbows, trashing of reputations, the race to publish first and good old fashioned bickering are all a commonplace. Throw in powerful lobbies and money and the truth easily disappears back down the mineshaft.

Some are frustrated by this and believe public policy makers should rise above the melee and submit to the randomised double-blind trial. Others argue that more research and evidence will lead the human race to peace, prosperity and happiness. A few capture the popular imagination: Dawkins, Hawking for example. A very few (E.O. Wilson the socio-biologist is the only one I can immediately think of) manage to retain an Aristotelian ‘holism’ in their work and advance the big picture as well as the small detail.

So where does that leave the thoughtful polymath of today? Amateurs, in the Victorian sense or ‘lovers’ of knowledge, can feel intimidated without citations, a tenure, papers, experiments, machines and a peleton of research assistants. What chance of any useful discovery? Worse any statement, or thesis advanced might easily be disproved, infirmed or dismissed by competitive, individualistic and fractious experts.

I think the answer is to give up on the search for brand new knowledge. Leave that to the deep shaft miners. And as for ideas, like in the movies all the best plots have been written, all the best ideas have been had. New syntheses are what the complexity, chaos and the pace of change in modern life demand – new takes, approaches, ways of looking at ourselves. 

There are few new discoveries which are accessible to the amateur thinker, but we all have the Bayesian brains to form a new powerful, personal synthesis which helps us and others. 

I think ecology and epidemiology – seeing the interrelations and underlying patterns – not seeking the Eureka moment is where most of us will find our intellectual fulfilment.