On the irreducibility of the more universal in our knowledge

Why not say that a universal is nothing other than a collection of its species, or the species is nothing other than collection of individuals? St. Thomas never speaks to this question directly, but a fitting response can be gathered from what he says about how species arise in the process of our knowing.

Our intellect moves from what is more general to what is more distinct by adding  to our general ideas, and the concept of “species” arises as the result of adding to some general idea. Species arises precisely by adding a difference to a genus. If one simply reduces the genus to a multitude of species, he annihilates the very thing that he added the difference to in order to form the species in the first place. An analogous argument applies to the distinction between the species and the individuals. There is something that makes this individual different from that one. Whatever this difference is, if we do away with the species we annihilate the very thing that allowed for opposing differences between the individuals. And so just as the very notion of species vanishes when we identify the genus with all of its species, so too the very notion of an individual vanishes when we identify the species with all of its individual members.

One might object that individuals are still different from each other even if they do not have a common genus. For example, there is no common genus of “shoe” and “white”, but they are certainly different. But this uses a notion of “different” which is not being discussed here. This kind of difference is what St. Thomas calls “other”, which is any absence of identity. If everything that was other than something was a difference in the way we are speaking of here, then “inanimate” could be a difference added to animal, and non-being could be a difference added to being itself.

In general, to say that a genus is nothing other than a multitude of species or a species is nothing other than its individual members is to destroy the order of our knowing, which proceeds from the more universal to the less universal by various kinds of addition. This explains why St. Thomas did not need to argue for why the more universal could never be reduced to the more particular, for he saw that understanding the former was the very principle by which we understand the latter, and so to reduce the more universal to the less universal destroys the very means by which we understand the less universal.

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1 Comment

  1. Timothy said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:04 am

    Interpreting the stepped process of mentation as per Genesis is to understand the human dwelling in his world. turning, such that the first is last from our fore-given perspective.
    Other than salt, which has cyclically brought man together, what is not within each of man, when considering kingdoms – mineral, vegetable, animal/man and finally human having stood uprightly in God Alone – His Kingdom – this opposed to lesser common theory that man stood erect in nature.
    But here we yet cannot escape ‘nature’, yet it is in His Name we pray so often, while so often forgetting His Nature. the two are undividable, such that one cannot be ascribed as a beginning nor an end, the alpha and omega of it.
    tracking the arc of it from spirit to emotion to physical to intellect, we are yet in a circular way upon itself cycling uprightly into spirit.
    scientifically, this is seen, as the first element is never lost within the spread of the table. it is within each subsequent element as origin having attracted. also, given the nature of mankind from origin, we see behaviors indicative of all else around him, taken in as example of living life. the reality that these ‘species’ seemingly without were within at origin, otherwise they as mentated examples would have remained unseen without as examples to live by and instinctually through.
    The Human is fore-given in the turning, the man cannot be judged – for how can a child be judged as the adult it is not. Yet, follow that child, see its unique aptitudes as a parent does, and understand that even as that child becomes an adult, the parent seeing the adult yet recognizes the child by yet seeing the unique aptitudes within their upright poise. a corn seed cannot produce peas, nor visa versa. Yet, a man, having all within, never fails to produce a Human.
    This none of Man can see, for it is unseen or seen by God Alone. and only with God Alone, Human seeing uprightly can see that Man as child is seed bound to become as Human with God Alone.
    What is fore-given cannot be understood/mentated without having turned to see that the first is last. this is contemplation – arrival to the last as first brooding over.


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