On the Word “Modern” as modifying philosophy, culture, thought, life…etc

I was puzzled for years over why the word “modern” served as any description of anything- what does it tell us except that it is held by people now existing? St. Thomas  even refers to himself as “modern” (cf. Proemium to the Commentary on Divine Names).

In its present sense (modern sense?) the via moderna first referred to the philosophy of William of Ockham. There is no agreement on even what to call the philosophy of Ockham beyond that it is the origin of the via moderna. It is pretty clear that the name “nominalism” was imposed on his thought by his adversaries. This is not to say that the word fails to be an apt description (a description of a doctrine is not necessarily wrong for being imposed by an opponent) it is only to say that the disagreements about Ockham’s thought are so profound that they reach even down to the name that we should call it- with one exception. Everyone agrees (for the moment) that it should be called the modern way as opposed to the ancient way.

The cause of analogy (Notes on Dionne II)

St. Thomas has a well known but often dismissed example concerning the difference between the meaning of a name and its etymology: “stone” was named because it hurt the foot; a similar etymology (from St. Thomas’s source for “stone) was that bees (apes) got their name from having no feet (“a” the alphaprivative, and “pes” for “foot”) But “stone” does not mean “foot hurter”; nor does “bee” mean “footless”.

The critical distinction here is between “that from which the name is taken” and “that to which the name is imposed”. But sometimes both of these two share the same name. At this point, one has analogy. “Light”, for example, first means that physical thing that comes from fire or 60 watt bulbs, but the word later comes to mean the power of reason, then holiness (“let your light so shine before men…” Mt. chap. 6) and then even God himself (God from God, light from light, etc.). The first meaning is “that from which the name is taken”, and the later meanings are the all based on it. St. Thomas’s example shows us that just as one moves from a thing to a sign (hurting the foot to the word “stone”), so too we can move from one sign to another sign analogous to it (light meaning manifestation, light meaning God).

Infallible truths in fallible knowers

One can believe something knowable by reason and then go on and come to know it; one can also believe something of the faith and come to know it in the next life. Considered in this life, the acts of belief are still very different, especially when considered as acts of a fallible reasoning power. In the first, reason assents to an authority with no essential connection to truth as opposed to falsity; in the second, reason assents to an authority as the essential and sufficient principle of the truth.  

This paradox of infallible truth within a fallible knower is clearest in the truths of the faith as opposed to the truths of reason, but a similar paradox occurs in the truths we know by nature and immediately as opposed to those we know by hypothesis, experiment and any kind of verification of principles by conclusions. There have been two kinds of objections to the presence of an infallible truth in a fallible knower: either it is impossible for some reason, or unfitting. If unfitting, it is either because it would somehow not befit God to share (which Simonides said, and to which Aristotle responded that God is not jealous of his wisdom) or it would not befit man to seek or lay claim to divine truths (this is the sense of Hume’s “do your philosophy, but still be a man”, or the contemporary objection that divine truths are unfitting since they are not falsifiable.)


Reason looks for the causes of things, but causality most fully belongs to the motive or end or goal or function or proper operation of something. All these simply speak to what the causal activity terminates in. They most fully answer the question why something is what it is, or does what it does, and they provide the intelligibility of the cause as cause. We figure out causes by looking to what something always or usually ends up doing, or by looking to the motives in play.

The term of becoming, therefore, is first in causality though it is last in existence. But there are only two ways to be outside of existence: to be absolutely nothing, or to be in knowledge. If the first, it would not even be a cause, therefore it is the second. This is why St. Thomas could say that what is most causal in things is first in intention.

All causality is a participation in mind. The locus of this participation is within the cause, not outside of it- it is nature. The causality which our reason seeks, therefore, is a middle ground between the human mind and the divine mind. To deny that causality is a middle would involve saying that we were the causes of nature- which would make us the cause of ourselves.

Notes on truth

-People’s arguments are a part of themselves, and so we love them like our own children. This love is increased by habit, and by being able to experience the argument from inside and to take pleasure in it. This kind of love is natural and beneficial- it is a result of our natural order to truth, just as our love of high calorie foods is a result of our natural order to survival.

-Just as we are dependent on various sense powers to know truth, we are also dependent on a section of the brain that can register object permanence. Without this permanence of the known, the truth is merely what is being perceived, and man is the measure of all things. In fact, it could not even be this. Regardless of the status of our bodies, the status of our consciousness or knowledge would not rise above that of a toddler.

Truth is essentially revealed in its permanence and stability. As some known is stable and permanent, so also it is true, and vice versa. This stability is measured by the extent that something rises above mere dependence on sense, or the flux of opinion, or the flux of being something we hold as uniquely our own.

Pseudo Dionysius and St. Thomas advocate a kind of Sola Scriptura, but to them “Sola Scriptura” is a prepositional phrase. St. Thomas is careful to draw out the significance of the preposition:

[quotation from Dionysius] Someone in no way ought to dare to say nor even to think something about the supersubstantial God… beyond these things that are expressed in the holy oracles [Scriptures]…

Significantly, he does not say “in the holy oracles” but “from the holy oracles” [Latin “ex”; Greek “ek”] because all things that that can be brought forth [elici possunt] from these things which are contained in Scripture are not separate from this doctrine, although they are not contained in Sacred Scripture.

St. Thomas, in other words is opposing in Scripture to from Scripture, although both could be correct translations of “Sola Scriptura”, taken as a prepositional phrase. The same considerations would apply even if we took “Sola Scriptura” as a noun and adjective.

Notes on the Commentary on Divine Names- UPDATED

-A certain humility is necessary to accept revelation, for so long as one holds that they are the greatest mind in the universe, revelation is impossible. This is true regardless of whether one holds it as a speculative matter (no mind is greater than our own) or as a practical or quasi-moral matter (if one holds that revelation, if given, can only be such that it engenders knowledge in us of the things revealed, as opposed to faith.)

-The mind simply cannot assimilate the highest revelations to itself by its means of knowing in this life. Imagiation and sensation are a veil that we forever are throwing over what is most intelligible. Mind cannot fashion the truth of the highest revelations out of the things of imagination and sense which it carries along with itself.

But for all this, it would not befits the divine goodness not to remain closed in himself. This is true simply from the fact of creation as such. Creation is a certain refusal to remain wholly within oneself; it is a decision to draw another into a shared life out of one’s own goodness.

Some Notes on Dionne

Aristotle says that words are symbols of thoughts, and thoughts are likenesses of things. Notice that he doesn’t say that words andthoughts are both immediately subordinate to things, but things immediately, words mediately. Thought is conditioned by real things, but words are essentially subordinate to thought, and therefore to the conditions of thought. Because of this, words have an essential limitation that thought does not have, since they have a subordination that thought does not have. This is why we can distinguish in thought between the thing understood and the way we understand it; or even between the thing signified and the mode of signification, but we can never speak without using a mode of signification. This distinction between the res significata and the modus significandi is the key observation that St. Thomas makes concerning how we can affirm things about God.

We cannot limit human knowledge to spacial and temporal things without destroying spacial and temporal things as known. Neither can such a limitation explain the spacial as existent. This does not mean that we must admit into consciousness a whole class of positively known objects which are not spacial and temporal, as if spacial and non-spacial objects were like two species of a common genus. Non-spacial reality consists in a certain judgment about spacial and material things: they can neither be, not be known without something other than the spacial and the temporal. The attempt to limit the real to homogeneous in extension or duration is like trying to limit e-mails to those which are forwarded. If all the e-mails we ever got were forwarded, would it be reasonable to assume that all e-mails were such? Wouldn’t this more destroy experience than preserve it, even though we must conclude to something outside of experience? This being said, it is clear ow we can wholly limit our experience to some X, and yet know the necessity of some real non-X. 

Things which exclude each other in space do not exclude each other in mind; things which exclude each other in time do not exclude each other in thought. Almost any common noun is a sufficient proof of this. It unifies things which can never be unified in in time or in body. The causal powers of teh spcaial an d temporal are all dependent on another in many different ways.

A scientist has to understand how science works in the same way that a piano player has to know how a piano works. But there’s more than one kind of question about how pianos work, and not all of them are answered by the same sort of knowledge.

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