Top Ten Things Augustine Contributed to Philosophy, Part I

Top Ten Things Augustine Contributed to Philosophy, Part I

While Augustine had no formal education in philosophy, he was nevertheless an intuitive philosopher with varied interests. He also left a deep and abiding influence on Western philosophical thought. Augustine especially used philosophy to complement his study of theology. The first part of this two-part post will outline a brief summary of five of the ten most significant ideas and theories that Augustine contributed to the field of philosophy.1

1. Theory of Time: In the Confessions (Book 11), Augustine develops a very thought-provoking concept of time. He argues that time itself is part of the created order and is uniquely apprehended through the human mind (the past in memory, the present in recognition, and the future in expectation). The philosophical skeptic, Bertrand Russell, once said Augustine’s theory of time was superior to that of Immanuel Kant’s subjective theory.

2. Learning Language: Augustine attempted to explain how small children learn and express language. The analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s starting point (albeit critical) in his Philosophical Investigations was Augustine’s discussion of language in the Confessions.

3. Faith Seeking Understanding: In his Sermon (43.7, 9) Augustine asserted: Crede, ut intelligas (“Believe in order that you may understand”).2 For Augustine, faith (“trust in a reliable source”) is an indispensable element in knowledge. He argued that one must believe in something in order to know anything. Knowledge begins with faith, which provides a foundation for knowledge. Faith in itself is indirect knowledge (like testimony or authority). While faith comes first in time, knowledge comes first in importance. Faith and reason do not conflict, but instead complement one another. Augustine believed that while reason does not cause faith, reason everywhere supports faith. Augustine also said that Christians should seek to use their reason to understand doctrines (the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) that are given via divine revelation (thus “faith seeking understanding”). Augustine’s thinking about the role of faith influenced St. Anselm’s Credo, ut intelligam (“I believe in order that I might understand”).

4. Ontological Argument: Augustine’s writings also influenced St. Anselm’s formulation of the ontological argument for the existence of God. For in On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana), Augustine wrote that God is “something than which nothing more excellent or more sublime exists…”3 St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) would later write in his work, the Proslogion, that “God is a being than which none greater can be conceived.”

5. Refutation of Skepticism: The French philosopher René Descartes’ (1596–1650) cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is derived from Augustine’s dubito ergo sum (“I doubt, therefore I am”) and si fallor sum (“If I am deceived, I am”).4

 Read about another 5 contributions next week…

  1. See Colin Brown, Christianity & Western Thought, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 93–9; Nash, 140-66; Copleston, 40­–90.
  2. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v.v. “Crede, ut intelligas,” “Credo, ut intelligam.”
  3. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 70.
  4. Copleston, 54.