August 1, 2008

De Magistro

Knowledge contains within it the essence of pedagogy. It is the “passing down,” either through the presence of speech or, in an author’s “absence,” the written word, where teaching begins. Teaching philosophies vary, from Plato’s suspicion of teaching (and writing, for that matter) in defense of the Socratic dialectic (1), to the assumptive dismissal by St. Thomas Aquinas of the human ability to teach in support of his theology. However, it was the Aquinas essay, “De Magistro” (“On the Teacher”), which focused my attention on the matter of pedagogical knowledge and its revelation through the interaction of study.(2)

Aquinas grants that “if humans can teach” it is through the use of “signs and symbols.”(3) He further states that without knowledge of “the things themselves” (and here we must avow that these “things” also include such “intelligibles” as “beauty” and “truth”) we cannot “understand” the signs. Willingly comprehending that Aquinas means “signs” to be the words we use to describe these “things,” we must admit his logic is sound as these referents are indeed carriers of information but not the knowledge itself.

This poses seductive queries (in no particular relevance or desire) on the “emptiness” of semiotics, the privileging of empirical knowledge, and “parallels between Thomistic methodology and contemporary structuralism” nearly 700 years earlier than previously suspected.(4) Notwithstanding these distractions, what proves most significant to my consideration of Aquinas and his selection for inclusion in Song for Europe is the role of the teacher.

As evidenced in both approach and site, my blackboards create a methodology for study. There are words to be deciphered, in this particular installation words in Greek, Latin, French and English, and sentences to be constructed from these words. Deduction plays a part but intellectual activity is close at hand as the writing eventually reveals thought. All those so disposed may further research individual text selections and, regardless of one’s expertise with respective languages, this reveals more “knowledge” and possible “meanings.”

For this to be a success, participation is required. It is a participatory experience of both “looking” as regards the objects and lines “drawn” within, and “reading” as words become apparent. My roles in this are both as artist and teacher, as I present “things” for study, objects for contemplation and communication.

“For the teacher presents signs of the knowable things, from which the student's mind takes ideas in order to consider them. Thus the teacher's words or writings end up being like the subject of study, since the student takes ideas from both. The difference is that the teacher's words are a more direct way of generating knowledge than the experience of the subject since they are signs of the ideas themselves.”(5)

Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: De Magistro (Latin) (2008), in process; © Copyright 2008.


1. “. . . this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, it is born in the soul and straightway [sic] nourishes itself.” From Plato’s Seventh Letter, translation by J. Howard,

2. The etymology of “pedagogue” is perhaps enlightening here, as the origin is both Greek and Latin; from the Latin paedagōgus, a “slave who supervised children and took them to and from school,” and from the Greek paidagōgos, where “slave” becomes a “boy” who performs the herding and “supervising.” Disregarding for the moment the slavish nature of teaching, we must remain aware of the possible sociological damage done by assigning the task of “teacher” to “slaves” and “boys” that has perhaps subliminally affected the field of education over the years.

3. This quote and all subsequent quotations are taken from The Aquinas Project, translation of “De Magistro” (“On the Teacher: Question 11 of De Veritate, Article 1: “Can humans teach each other?”) by Gregory Froelich.

4. “Aquinas” and “Structuralism” yields 43,000 hits in Yahoo’s search, with at least Umberto Eco’s volume a promising resource for elucidation on this topic.

5. Op. cit.


Aaron MC said...

Aquinas was beaten to the punch by Augustine and his own De Magistro. Similar subjects.

I figured a mention would be good. Anyone interested in the subject would probably want to read both. Aquinas wasn't quite as... wordy.

romina joseph said...

hello mark tis is romina joseph from india ....i love to read the works of st.augustine and i don't find the book de magistro with any of my priest frends in india case u have the english version of the book can u plz send it to me by e wud help me in pusuing my further reading
my e mail id is
plz help!!!thanx for taking the time to read this

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Greetings Romina,

De Magistro is actually from St. Thomas Aquinas, not St. Augustine. It is from his "Disputed Questions on Truth (Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate)", 1256-1259. I provided the link in my footnotes but here it is again: De Magistro. Thanks for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Augustine wrote De Magistro prior to 430 was a dialogue between him and his 18 year old son on the impossibility of teaching, and the theory / philosophy of inner illumination, the Teacher being Jesus Christ, namely his Holy Spirit alone dispensing wisdom. If Aquinas wrote a commentary or another paper with the same title, then maybe you want to clarify that for the readers of this blog. Maybe check your dates. The only De Magistro is the original written by Augustine.

Tom Kasperek said...

in 389 AD - The Teacher was written by Augustine. How can it then be written by Aquinas in the 1200's?

Here is an excerpt:

On the Teacher (De Magistro) 
(q. 11, a.1 of De Veritate)
Can humans teach each other? There are several different reasons to think that only God teaches and should be called teacher.
In the Gospel of Matthew it says, "There is one who is your teacher...Do not allow anyone to call you teacher." The Gloss on this passage says, "Do not let this divine honor be attributed to you or any human, or else you will be usurping what belongs only to God." Therefore, only God can teach or be called teacher.
Also, if humans can teach, it is only through using signs and symbols. Now one might think that teaching can take place through the things themselves and not through signs or symbols. A common example is if someone wanted to know what "ambulare" means and you show him by walking. But even in this case you will have to use some kind of sign in order to teach him. Augustine proves this in On the Teacher by pointing out that, since one thing can have all sorts of features, we can not know what the demonstration is about. Is it about walking itself or some feature, like speed? Therefore it seems that some kind of sign is necessary. But signs are not enough. For knowledge of the signs is not knowledge of the things themselves. In fact, one must know the things themselves before understanding the signs. Signs and symbols are invented in order to communicate the knowledge of things. Therefore, no one can teach another knowledge of the things themselves.
Also, consider the case where someone uses certain signs with you. Now either you already know what those signs signify or you do not. If you do know those things that the signs are about, then the signs won't teach you about them. If you don't know them, then you couldn't know what the signs mean. For example, if you don't know what a stone is, then how could you know what the word stone means? Someone ignorant of what the signs mean can't be taught through those signs. Therefore, if all we have are signs by which to teach, then we can't teach each other.
Also, to teach is to cause knowledge in another person. But knowledge is in the intellect, whereas signs are received by the five senses. If signs are the only tools we use to teach, then our "teaching" would stop at the senses and not extend to the intellect. Therefore, one person cannot really teach another.
Let us suppose that one person's knowledge is caused by the knowledge in another. Now either that knowledge already exists in the individual who is to be taught, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then we have the case of one person causing knowledge in another. But this is impossible. If it does already exist, either it exists in a fully actual state (which would make teaching superfluous) or in a seminal state. But no created power can make something in a seminal state to become fully actual. Only God can do this. Therefore, humans cannot teach each other.

Also, knowledge is nothing other than the representation of things in the soul...

© Dr. Gregory Froelich

TK Note: it is a category mistake to attribute authorship of such a piece of theological and philosophical mastery such as De Magistro by trying to connect that work to a much less formidable intellect in Aquinas.

Prof. MCB said...

Hello Tom (and "Anonymous"),

Many thanks for your scholarly advice. I have never professed to be an expert on Aquinas but having developed a keen appreciation of his thoughts as a Fine Arts graduate student, his writings came to mind when I conceived this art project. My research did yield the Froelich text (see footnote #3) but my focus was on Aquinas's views on teaching and how it pertained to my project, thus, my energies were devoted to my creation.

Readers will no doubt avail themselves of both of your directives in pursuit of further knowledge. Evidently there is another text that may prove "illuminating" by John W. Tuohy: