-One option in Bible interpretation is to read everything that we think is disputed by science as being allegorical. Such exegesis has a fine history going back to Avicenna.

-From experience, we come to gather things together under a single name: Courage is virtue, and friendliness is virtue, and justice is virtue…etc. Taken in this way, the name will always be more universal than the things named by it. When we strike the definition, however, we find the source not only of the name itself but even of all that was under it. The definition becomes a term in between all the subjects and predicates fusing them together, and in this sense the first source of our rising above our first experience to a systematic and more intelligible understanding.

-Science, as a kind of knowledge, arises from the first knowledge, and this first knowledge grounds the signification of names.

 Signification can be divided in two ways: some things signify, and have parts that signify separately; other things signify do not have parts that signify separately. The first is a compound speech, the second is simple. By compound and simple we do not refer first to the word a word, nor to the thing spoken of as thing, but to the act of the mind, depending on whether it works with a single thing or not. To see the man run does not determine us to “runner” (or “fast runner”) more than “the man runs”. This is why we refer signification to mind, or to how things are in ratio or logos.  

-As in syllogisms, says Aristotle substance is the starting point of everything. It is from what a thing is that syllogisms start.

-Note that substance is in a certain way known through itself: “what is neither present in nor said of”. Well yes, because it is what all else is said of and present in. It is as if Aristotle started with the idea of substance, and then found two things which alone can be denied of it- and then constructed the rest of the world from various affirmations

-The terms of a definition must all be clearer and more known than the thing defined. He parts of the union are all more known than the union of the parts.

-Definition is in one sense an articulation of the causes of things, and in another sense an account of what a thing is. The union between these two is form: form as an end sought for is the source of all causality, form as an end achieved is the source of what a thing is.

-The definition of “B” alone can explain why every A is B. Any other reason will be less universal than B, and so there will always be some failure to overcome a merely predicated name.  

Notes on theology

-The ability to divide and critique Scripture does not make one a theologian, but rather the submission to it as a first principle of ones thought and understanding of God. Custom disposes us to see that these two things are compatible, but we need to be reminded that the first without the second is no theology.

-Catholics claim that Scripture is the product of a corporate, hierarchical, divine institution that still exists. For us, to read Scripture without reference to this institution is literally as stupid as having access to the author of some controversial or difficult text and yet never asking him to explain what he meant.

-Viewed from Catholic eyes, to speak of “Scripture and tradition” is actually a bit odd, like speaking of Moby Dick and Melville or of Hamlet and Shakespeare.  One gets the sense that he is simply repeating himself.  The whole person of a great artist is often consumed by their greatest works. When one talks about “Mozart” they are usually talking about a musical composition, not a man. And yet who wouldn’t want Mozart to play for himself?

human actions as instruments

All things stand to God as instruments. Since we can only act on things extrinsically and in some sense violently, we are prone to thinking that being an instrument involves being moved violently, which is not so. To be an instrument involves receiving from another, and there is no necessity that this thing received be contrary to the nature of the thing- in fact, there is not reason that the nature itself cannot be from another. This is why when speaking of creatures as instruments of God, we carry over the idea of being moved by another, but we leave aside the note of mechanical or violent causation.

But isn’t our free action directly contrary to being moved by another? Considered in itself and by definition, yes, but not when considered in relation to God. Viewed in relation to God, all things, even our own self and free action, are beings by participation. Our actions do not cease to be created beings simply because we do them. What does it mean of say that our own actions are not God himself, and are therefore in the created world? To ask the question is to answer it.

Some errors about St. Thomas’ doctrine of Predestination

There are three very common errors that people make concerning St. Thomas’ treatment of predestination.

1.) There is a general failure to determine about the divine nature. It is essential to come to the question of predestination already understanding why we would say by reason that God exists at all, and how he stands to creatures. Most debates about predestination can get nowhere simply because the disputants have an intrinsically disordered knowledge of things, because they want to have clarity about things that come later before they have any clarity of what comes before. The dispute between St. Thomas and Molina, for example, can be traced directly back to a dispute about what it means to be a prime mover. But few take the time to figure out exactly what motion is for St. Thomas, still less what a first immobile mover is. If we took the first things in natural theology more seriously, the later things would seem much clearer. Consider this rather facile, but sound argument: God is the cause of all that exists; but a saint’s choice to get to heaven exists, therefore etc.

2.) Related to this point, there is also the failure to understand the nature of St. Thomas’ teaching of causality. Many people get the basics of St. Thomas’ doctrine: there are four causes, the final cause is the cause of all and the efficient is what we first call a cause, etc. The doctrine of predestination, however, requires us to know something about the order of causes, and the various distinctions between lower and higher causes of one order, which are difficult things to understand. Consider what St. Thomas calls a general rule of all causality: the first cause is more inflowing into the effect of the second cause than the second cause itself. The architect is more the cause of the building than the site manager, who is more the cause than the guy who is actually laying the stones. The more universal cause, as a rule, is more present to the effect than even the one who actually puts his hands on the effect and is the immediate cause of it coming to be. Remote causes are, even by their remoteness, more intimately within the effect.

2a.) There is also the general problem of jargon and distinctions that confuse more than illumine. People both create problems and attempt to solve them by immediately speaking of “efficacious grace” and sufficient grace, or the difference between antecedent and consequent will, or whether freedom is genuine and authentic or determined, or whether knowledge of vision is compatible with premotion. All of these terms might have a place in the discussion: but the most important place they have in the discussion is after we have come to an agreement on more basic and fundamental points.

Notice the gravity of these two errors: predestination might be summarized briefly as God’s causality of certain human actions, and yet if we commit these two errors we will neither know what we mean by God or his causality. In such a case our ignorance of what we are talking about is already thorough, and it would only take an error about human freedom to make our ignorance total.

3.) As one could predict, errors about human freedom are usually involved in discussions of predestination too. Since this is an error that goes back to the origins of our race it’s hardly surprising that we are so prone to make it. More on this later.

Knowledge as a vital activity

Knowledge is essentially an operation of a living thing. As soon as we stop seeing it as such, we see it as the operation of a non-living thing and therefore the act of a machine. The impossibility comes in when we remember that machines are all essentially instruments serving human beings. We are for the sake of another that is not there. Or, we are for the sake of ourselves, and yet there is no self.

The more known to us, and the less known to us, Part II

Both the Reformation and modern philosophy were attempts to return to something simple and more known, and one can have great sympathy with both attempts when he looks at the sort of philosophy and theology that was being done at the time. Reading Cajetan’s Commentary on Ens and Essentia often seems like trying to decipher the schematics for the space shuttle: it can often take so long to figure out a sentence that one can forget what the paragraph was about. Cajetan, moreover, was perhaps one of the more intelligible Scholastics of his age. I doubt very much, for example, that anything Bl. Scotus says in his philosophy could be put simply in a declarative sentence, without qualifiers and technical language. This is not to deny the great genius of either Cajetan or Scotus, but only to say that one should not read them at all unless he begins with a great desire to understand them, and a great deal of patience. Even with such a favorable disposition, he will end up throwing the book across the room at least twice.

The corruption of 13th century Scholasticism was perhaps inevitable because no one could hope to live up to the standard set by the men of that age. Thomas and Bonaventure and Albert, or even Siger and Henry of Ghent simply make it look too easy. When we try to do what they did (and no one even thinks to try anymore) it never works out: we take too long to make minor points, we get bogged down in irrelevant distractions to the point, we stumble on objections that we cannot solve, and if we finished the writing it wouldn’t get published anyway. Every now and again I come across someone who tries to write a scholastic article. As a rule, the attempt is insipid, and it most likely argues a point that a St. Thomas could prove in a sentence. I have never come across someone who tries to write a series of articles developing a point. To do so is so far beyond the state of our philosophical art that it would be like asking the Medievals to make a laptop.

The more known to us, and the less known to us, Part I

Charles DeKoninck claimed that he could teach the whole history of modern philosophy as the overlooking of the distinction between what is more known to us and what is more known in itself. This is clear in a thinker like Descartes, who claimed that something like motion or the soul were simply evident to him. The paradoxes of idealism all rest on this same error: i.e. thinking that an idea is the sort of thing so well known to us that all our knowledge could in fact be of nothing but pure ideas. An idea is in fact a tremendously difficult thing to understand, and in order to speak about it coherently for very long one requires a whole tool-box full of distinctions, in addition to complete knowledge of a few sciences. Let me concede for the sake of argument that it might even be possible to replace all of reality with human ideas or perceptions of mind or intuitions or justified beliefs, but I will only concede this in the same way that it might be possible or calculus to replace all of mathematics. It doesn’t follow from this that one can simply start speaking about calculus right away, and any attempt to do so will lead to complete confusion both in the speaker and in the listener.

 One perennial reason that tempts us to start with what we don’t know is that we often find ourselves in need of philosophical answers right now. We don’t often feel the need to spontaneously ask questions about Calculus, but we do often feel the need to spontaneously ask philosophical or theological questions, even though they often involve as much prerequisite knowledge as Calculus does. One can give brief and dialectical answers to such problems, but at best those sorts of answers can only call us to some other science that treats of the problem in a more systematic way. If we rest in the dialectical answers for too long, we will predictably think that all answers are dialectical and therefore ultimately contingent.

 But just because we must start with what we know best, it does not follow that every return to something more simple and basic gets to something that we actually know. In fact, people as a rule begin with things they don’t know, nor do they recognize when another person is beginning with things they do know. This seems odd at first, or even contradictory, but it is not. If we can think we know what we don’t, then by the same reason we can think we don’t know what we do- for if we can confuse A with B, we can confuse B with A.  

Most debates about materialism fail to give an account of matter. Assume then, that the world is material, or even nothing but matter. All sides agree that it existed before human beings and could very well exist without them. The material world, as such, is therefore only potentially known.

To call human knowledge material, then, cannot explain how we actually know anything.

Definition as grasping, Part II

When we considered definition as a grasp in the above ways, it helps to liken it to how the hand grasps something. When we consider a grasp as a kind of touch, however, it helps to distinguish it from how the hand grasps something. At first glance, this need to distinguish the touch of the hand from the touch of the mind might seem strange or irrelevant. Why don’t we just ignore the sense of grasp meaning “touch” when we consider how definition grasps something? Again, do we speak correctly if we say that definition “touches” something? We must speak of grasp as a touch, however, because we are forced by the word itself. If we move the word “grasp” to have a meaning for both the hand and the mind, then we have already moved a sort of touch to have a meaning for both the hand and the mind. We simply need to grasp the sense.  


When the hand touches something two surfaces touch. Surfaces touch because their material parts touch exteriorly. Although a definition has parts, we must see them at once as different from material parts. To take only one essential difference, the defined parts of a thing must be said of the thing, but the material parts must never be said of the thing: we say Socrates is two-footed, but never that Socrates is his feet. Definition, therefore, touches the thing defined in an essentially immaterial way. This is obviously not to say that the thing defined is immaterial; but rather that to touch something by definition is an activity that flows from an immaterial principle, i.e. an immaterial beginning. We will say more later about the importance of seeing definition as an immaterial grasp, but we pause here only to consider the importance that one’s whole philosophy is right: notice how an error in Metaphysics, which is the last science that we should learn, leads unavoidably to an error in Logic, which is the first science that we should learn. Said another way, Metaphysics judges materialism, and Logic judges definitions- and yet a materialism of any sort makes it impossible to grasp very basic things in Logic.


Again, when the hand grasps something two surfaces touch exteriorly. But as we said above, definition is a perfect grasp of something, and a perfect grasp of something cannot be called a grasp of its exterior, for touching on its surface is more like a superficial or sophistical understanding. Definition, therefore, touches the defined thing in the sense that it gets to what is innermost and most intimate in the defined thing. Definition takes this idea of intimacy from an intimacy it learned first from the hands (a mother’s hand, for example) but it leaves aside the idea of the exteriority of the touch.


Notice the paradox in definition touching on something. On the one hand, touch gives the most rudimentary and imperfect knowledge, and on the other hand, it is proper to speak of definition as getting to what is innermost and most intimate in things. This is perhaps only a paradox when we consider it too abstractly, for in our concrete experience we find nothing strange in the fact that we are touched most deeply by something that in fact touches us only on the surface. We grasp a deeper and more causal reason, however, when we look at the nature of touch itself. Touch is the most basic sense because it directly preserves existence, for it makes us aware of the need to eat and seek shelter.  Man, however, can experience his existence as what is most foundational to him, and therefore as a certain fount from which all other realities spring. Touch first makes us seek lower things and merely exterior things, but later names what affects us most interiorly; just as man first understands his existence as nothing but the need for food and possessions, and later understands it as what is most interior and intimate.  



Definition as grasping, Part I

The word “grasp” first names an activity of the hand, then by analogy names an activity of the mind. Since the first senses of a word cast light on the later senses, we must first look at what belongs to the act of a hand grasping, and see how it carries over to the act of the mind grasping.


There are three ideas that cannot be separated from the idea of “grasping”.


1.)    Touching the thing grasped.

2.)    Bringing the thing grasped to rest, at least with respect to the thing grasping.

3.)    Separating the thing grasped from its surroundings.


The first of these speaks of what belongs to grasping as such; the latter two speak of effects of grasping as such. Among the latter two, the first deals with an effect that arises between the thing grasped and the thing grasping, and the second deals with an effect that arises between the thing grasped and other things. All three can be said of the act of the hand and the act of the mind properly, but the first is properly said in the most extended sense, and the last in the least extended sense, and so we will deal with them in the reverse order as we presented them.


 The act of grasping separates a thing first from its immediate surroundings. This is sometime easy to overlook because usually the things we grasp are only surrounded by air, but at times we see more clearly the difficulty of trying to separate a thing from what it is next to: think of trying to pinch a coin off of a very flat floor or of grasping gold leaf. If we cannot separate the thing from another, we cannot grasp it either; it makes no difference whether we are talking about treasure in a cave, or the classification of a platypus.


Presupposed to separating something is the very limits of the thing that allow it to be separated from another, in fact we might view grasping as simply an attempt to grasp the limits of things. It follows from this that we can only grasp what is limited and finite; or to speak more exactly, we can only grasp something insofar as it is limited and finite. This very idea of limit belongs to the etymology of the word “definition”, or of setting the limits or boundaries of something.  


The second idea that cannot be separated from the idea of grasping something is bringing the thing grasped to rest. As we said above, even I the object happens to be moving, it can never be moving with respect to what has a hold of it, whether this thing be a hand or a mind. But being at rest can be considered in two ways: either as the beginning or principle of some process, or as the end and term of some process. Definition has the unique property of being both essentially an end and a beginning in different respects. We have already seen that it is an end and perfection of a process that begins with naming, but it is also essentially a beginning of a process of reasoned out knowledge. As Aristotle points out, a definition that does not make the later properties of the defined thing known is worthless.

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