Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and medieval transcendental philosophy
To the question “What is philosophy in the Middle Ages,” current scholarship has responded with two different answers. According to Jan Aertsen, medieval philosophy is essentially a philosophy of the transcendentals. Aertsen argues that every major medieval theologian, from Bonaventure to Eckhart, asserts that all the concepts of the human intellect can be reduced to a set of most basic concepts, such as “being,” “oneness,” “truth,” and “goodness,” without which nothing could be apprehended by the intellect. According to Aertsen, this reduction forms the foundation of the medieval philosophy project. He has shown in great detail in a recent book how this is the case for the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Alain de Libera, on the other hand, has argued that philosophy in the Middle Ages is the story of the gradual rediscovery, during the 13th and 14th centuries, of the ancient ideal of philosophy as a “way of life.” He argues that Averroes and his Latin followers initiated this development but that Meister Eckhart completed and perfected it.
This thesis reviews Aertsen's treatment of Aquinas and extends it to the case of Eckhart and demonstrates the centrality of this doctrine to Eckhart's thought. But this thesis also breaks new ground in showing that Eckhart's doctrine of the transcendentals forms an essential feature of this synthesis of practical and theoretical philosophy that de Libera argues Eckhart's thought represents. Unlike Aquinas, Eckhart argues that the transcendental properties of being belong properly to God alone. His metaphysics is essentially an Averroistic metaphysics whose proper subject matter is not being qua being but the divine being who, as pure existence, is indistinct from all things. Thus, the transcendence of the divine being cannot be thought without also thinking its immanence. Eckhart's philosophy is therefore a dialectical philosophy that attempts to arrive at a knowledge of God not as “object” but as the immanent principle of the soul's freedom and thus of its transcendence. This study is philosophically significant in that it shows that Eckhart's thought, while thoroughly medieval in its concerns, constitutes a philosophical project that, in its dialectical approach, anticipates German Idealism.