The Maverick philosopher returns to a critique he has given before about the Thomistic theory of universals. He first cites a passage from John Peterson, who is defending St. Thomas’s doctrine (italics), then he critiques it:
In and of itself, therefore, humanity is neutral as between particularity and universality. And it is this same human essence taken as existentially neutral which, as the objective sense of ‘human’ in ‘Socrates is human,’ makes predication by species possible. (106)
The idea is that one and the same item — humanity in our example — can exist in two ways. It can exist in particular concrete things outside the mind, and it can exist in an abstract and universal form in minds. But in and of itself it is neutral as between these two modes of existence. Taken by itself, therefore, it does not exist, and is neither particular nor universal. In itself, it is neither many in the way human beings are many, nor is it one, in the way in which the universal humanity in the mind is one.
So this Thomist essence is an item that is some definite item, though in itself it does not exist, is neither one nor many, and is neither universal nor particular. I hope I will be forgiven for finding this unintelligible.
The words here are slippery, and there is no avoiding this. The very nature of “the known” (X) is a tricky one, since we can speak of it either as known (A) or as the thing which is known (B). But it seems like what Peterson is laying down, and what Bill is critiquing, is the Thomist account of the unity of the “thing known” (C). If X is diverse when we consider it either as A and B, what is it in itself? I take this to simply be the question “What is essence pure and simple, prescinding from the division of A and B?” This takes us to, I think, C, which St. Thomas calls “the absolute consideration”. The absolute consideration is manifested in definition, so I will sometimes call it “the definition”. Bill and Peterson call it “the universal”, so I’ll call it that too, but there will only be one ratio throughout the rest of the post, called by three synonyms throughout: the absolute consideration, universal, definition. At the end of the post, I’ll hope to make it clear why using these three names is not convoluted, but made possible by the sort of question we are asking.
All right. So Bill is critiquing what St. Thomas calls the absolute consideration. This critique gains much of its force from Bill leaving off the observation that gives rise to it. It’s certainly true that if one simply looks at the description, it looks like a very bizarre thing, but the thing being described is pretty humdrum. St. Thomas notes that a definition of something, say “square” or “running”, does not include “one” or “many”. The definition of”sprinting”, which I suppose is something like “a short run at the runner’s maximum speed” does not specify whether there is one instance of this activity, or many- or even if there are any at all. If every sprinter on earth became incapable of sprinting tomorrow, the definition of sprinting would still be a nice thing to have- we would need it to understand what in the world just happened to us. So what shall we say about this “defined entity”, which is given in the absolute consideration? There doesn’t seem to be anything odd about saying that it neither exists or does not exist (so far as the definition is true and useful in either case), nor in saying that it
…is neither particular nor universal. In itself, it is neither many in the way human beings are many, nor is it one, in the way in which the universal humanity in the mind is one.
The reason for these oddities is not because it is some strange entity, but because the consideration prescinds from existence and number.
But MP’s critique raises a deeper question about the difference between something known and a means by which something is known. For St. Thomas, predicable universals are a certain means of understanding. They are also sorts of things, but this is a secondary consideration. First of all, they are that by which human beings understand, as opposed to being that which human beings understand. I include the term “human being” in the definition because, for St. Thomas, angels and God do not need predicable universals in order to understand intellectually. They have something like “the absolute consideration”, but it is not the same as the one we have been discussing here, since it does not give rise to a predicable universal, and so it cannot be called “a universal” as our absolute consideration can. I can’t develop this point now, but it is a crucial point in understanding St. Thomas’s account of universals. To say that there are universals “in the divine mind” (as John Peterson seems to argue) is, for him, a blasphemous (or at least incorrect) thing to say. The universal is a peculiar oddity that a spirit forms when it is fused together with a body, and is therefore forced to learn by abstraction from the things that the body suffers. Angels no more need universals to think than I need a blind man’s cane to maneuver around the room.
But back to universals as a “by which”. Universals are properly a means of knowing, and they need to have certain properties to do this. Knowledge involves, minimally, the presence of an object in a knower, and so the object will have certain features that are related to the knower, and others that are related to the object. That by which this happens, therefore, has to facilitate this kind of existence; and it does so by in itself being indifferent to what is peculiar either to cognitive or real existence. What Bill calls incoherent I would urge is exactly what is necessary for a being to know; and moreover that this putatively incoherent mode of existence is given in very common experience.
Because this absolute consideration, which is neither existent or not, singular or universal, etc. gives rise to a predicable universal in us, we tend to call it, by extension, “a universal”. Furthermore, since the most perfect development of this universal in us is a definition, it also makes sense to call it a definition.