On reductionism

A scale proves that man is nothing other than a certain weight.

Measurements prove that man is nothing other than metrical, or scientific.

The Proof for the Existence of God from Beauty in the Sentences

Reading the Commentary on the Sentences is like reading another mode of St. Thomas: he still speaks as an authoritative master, but he is speaking in a more youthful and ecstatic key. He more emphasizes the role of the divine light as the source of theological truth, and he gives a striking proof for the existence of God from beauty.

The fourth [road to seeing the existence of God] is through eminence in knowledge. In everything in which is found a more and less beautiful, there is found some principle of the beauty, and something is called beautiful by its nearness to it. Now we see that a body is beautiful in a sensible species [or as sensible]; a spirit more beautiful in its intelligible species [or as intelligible]. Therefore it is necessary that there be something by which both are beautiful, to which created spirits more draw near to.   

 Quarta sumitur per eminentiam in cognitione, et est talis. In quibuscumque est invenire magis et minus speciosum, est invenire aliquod speciositatis principium, per cujus propinquitatem aliud alio dicitur speciosius. Sed invenimus corpora esse speciosa sensibili specie, spiritus autem speciosiores specie intelligibili. Ergo oportet esse aliquid a quo utraque speciosa sint, cui spiritus creati magis appropinquant.

St. Thomas here uses “speciosus” for beautiful, which seems to more emphasize the visible character of beauty. Had he used “pulcher” this proof would probably be better known, not because it would change the sense (“pulcher” and “speciosus” are synonyms), but simply because more people would have found it in word searches for “beautiful” in St. Thomas.

Words that Grow, or the meaning of terms in the via antiqua

A reader writes:

I recently bought a book on Thomism called “A Christian Philosophy,” and it’s some pretty heavy stuff! Would you mind answering a few of my questions about substance, matter, and form?

On the one hand, all I can do is wait for the questions. On the other hand, there is a preliminary remark to any discussion of the key terms of perennial philosophy. There are two fundamentally different ways of looking at philosophical terms, which correspond to the main division in the history of thought between the via antiqua and the via moderna. The via moderna feels most natural to us, but we have to learn a new way of looking at terms to see what substance, matter and form are.

The modern way wants clarity and distinctness in terms from the very beginning. This tends to make definitions either too simplistic or overly obscure. When those of us with modern mindsets try to define the terms given by perennial philosophy we are tempted to say “what exists in itself and not another” or “that which underlies accidents and confers being upon them”, (both accounts are both obscure and too simplistic- obscure by their wording and simplistic because they can’t account for the subtle nature of an integral part, like a foot or a hand). This is something like the old thomistic manual approach- which pproved fatal to the manuals since the words were seen as part of a specialized vocabulary as opposed to being drawn from our immediate concrete experience.

Unlike us, the ancients or medievals did not experience the terms in their philosophy as jargon. When we come across words like “matter” in ancient texts, we first ask “what is matter?”. For us, the word is jargon, and all one can do with jargon is seek a precise sense. To ask a Greek contemporary of Aristotle “what is matter” would have been a silly question- the word for “matter” (hyle) simply meant “lumber”- but everyone knows what lumber is, and if not a few examples are enough to grasp what it is you are talking about. “Hyle” is not jargon in Greek. Neither is “organon” or “syllogism” or “substance” or “predication”.  Aristotle often began with a consideration of concretely given artifacts- lumber, tools, signet rings, medical instruments, and medicine, words- and moved from the artifact to nature. He started with a concrete, easy to understand term which then grew to take on more abstract meanings, though it would never loose its reference to the real which consisted in its ability to be led back to the concrete.

The difficulty in explaining the word “matter”, or in Greek, “lumber” is that in English the word “lumber” can’t take on the same number of later, more subtle meanings that it can take on in Greek. It’s helpful to compare it to an English word that can take on many later, more subtle meanings, like “paper”. Everyone knows what paper is- but consider all the shades of meaning it takes on in phrases like  or “do you have your papers?”  or “it looks good on paper” or “We need to get this on paper” or “you get all the paper rights you want in Communist countries” etc. All these are very subtle, later meanings of the word “paper” but a native English speaker will grasp them straightaway. This is how perennial philosophy heard the terms that are translated as “substance” or “form” or “matter”. They could understand later meanings in light of a concrete artifact whose name was particularly good (for whatever reason) at taking on more abstract meanings. The via antiqua lived off of words that started off as concrete and obvious, but could grow to the abstract. This “growth of a word” is what is now called “analogy” or “an analogous term”. 

Words that can grow- or words that are one by analogy- were the beating heart of the via antiqua. What is called “perennial philosophy”, of which thomism is the most illustrious representative and closest approximation, intentionally sought to express itself in growing words. The via moderna, which starts with William of Ockham, intentionally denied the value of such words. On their account, a words most have one meaning or they are worthless for philosophy or any other kind of discourse. Hence the dogmatic insistence on total clarity, and a single meaning of terms from the beginning. By the time Descartes comes along, this sort of approach to philosophy is taken for granted. The philosopher is called upon to create the whole “philosophical world”  with bright yellow lines setting apart terms with one and only one meaning. The use of analogous terms used to allow a way to transition from the concrete, sensible world to the abstract world- but with these terms definitively thrown out, all philosophy became either overly concrete and unable to transition to the intelligible (Empiricism, Positivism, and much of Analytic thought… or anything English) or it became overly abstract and alienated from any roots in experience.

Thomism demands that we see a great value in terms that can grow from concrete to the abstract. If we can’t experience this growth in our own use of the term, we have to come to see it as a term that grows. We have to hear matter growing from “lumber” to “that which is changing per se”. This is the first thing we need to see about words like “substance” and “matter” and “form”.

The false hypothesis of the abortion debate

The usual abortion dialectic, agreed to by both sides, is that the product of conception is either a person or not, and if it is a person, one cannot destroy it; but if it is not, they can.  The second half of the disjunction is pretty clearly false- another man’s property is a clear case of something that is not a person, yet which we are not free to destroy. Even if we stipulate that some zygote is only a potential person, such a being is wholly understood in relation to the actual person who will arise, and so our actions with respect to it must be informed by its relation to the good of the person who will arise.

If the zygote is not a person, how are we to understand it? So far as it is relevant to this debate, it is either a part of another, or the property of another. Now anyone who imagines that the zygote is a part of its mother neither understands what “part” or “conception” mean, and while there is a real sense in which the zygote is the property of its parents, they can only be said to own it in the sense of owning it in trust- the way parents might oversee money (or a kingdom) that is to be given to a child when he comes of age.  The zygote’s whole nature- genetic code, sex difference, life, growth, etc- is a nature ordered to being given to another, like money held in trust.


Aristotle defined moral action as a kind of habit, and his definition will be obscure unless we understand the way in which almost all human actions and operations are habitual. When the average person grabs a fork, for example, they grab it in such a way that they can scoop up food with it and get it into their mouths. That’s a learned habit. Two-year-olds don’t grab forks that way- they can’t even grab food in any sort of ordered way. They don’t even recognize that they need to go to the bathroom, or avoid running into the street, or blow their nose. Habitual human activity is involved in any activity that rises above rolling on the floor and screaming whenever you are hungry. Habit can be involved more and less in the process- it seems less involved in crawling and more in walking- but the role of habit is indispensable.

Habit is a channel and focus for a natural power which is required for a person to act well. Habits perfect powers, and in so doing perfect action and the one who acts. We have such an utter dependence on our habits that it is hard to overestimate their importance- habits are so much a part of our action that we tend to forget their even there.

There is a tendency to over-compartmentalize moral actions into a special moral sphere, and we might be tempted to say that the sort of “oughts” that are involved in the way one ought to use a fork are not moral oughts. This does not seem right. A person who chose to eat or act like a two-year-old would be doing something morally wrong. He would be rude, selfish, and self absorbed. There is a strong likeness between being a child and being a vicious man. Neither one has good habits- the child in an excusable and inevitable way, the vicious man not.

God exists because existence is not a predicate

“Existence is not a predicate” means that existence adds nothing to our understanding of the concept. Existence therefore belongs to anything we have a concept of in virtue of something other than itself; something other than what it is. We know, therefore, that there must be some source of the existence of all things who is wholly beyond anything we can form a concept of- an ineffable creator who dwells in unapproachable light.  

The substitute world of the Via Moderna

Ockham says that when the mind brings forth a concept, it brings forth what would simply be the thing itself, if it had the power to produce it. It would be hard to find a more perfect point of departure to understand thevia moderna.  

1.) The concept is now a substitute for the real. According to Ockham, to think of Tibbles the cat means to make something which would simply be a second Tibbles, if my mind were strong enough. The world of knowledge is in every respect a second, substitute world, except for being somehow the product of an inferior maker.

2.) As soon as one makes knowledge a second world whose whole existence consists in being made by us, there is the immediate modern problem of how we are to figure out whether the second world has been made just like the first.

3.) The way that Ockham sees the world of knowledge being made presupposes that our knowledge is always of a singular. St. Thomas, Aristotle, and Plato all denied this saying that intellectual knowledge was never of the singular, at least directly. Ockham’s argument leads to an implicit denial of the difference between sensation an knowledge, which must lead at some point to a denial of all metaphysics. Immortality, the divine existence, causality, the distinction between act an potency, etc. all become impossible to know, despite any claims to the contrary. That Ockham believed that God’s existence could be proven only shows his inability to discern the consequences of his own thought.

4.) The substitute world can only be real, at best, if we establish it on the basis of some test. Thought as such becomes always hypothetical. What is not testable or verifiable can never be considered real.

5.) Words are no longer tools or lights that reveal what is real, they are (again) substitutes for the real. The careful analysis of what is heard about nature is no longer considered relevant. So what if our thought and speech always divides nature and art, sense and intellect, living from dead, quantity from substance, immanence from transitivity? So what! A bunch of scholastic word-games, that’s all. If you want to prove that knowledge and the real correspond, you need tests, not some meditation on words and thoughts about things. You need to see if there is some process by which you can actually prodice something in the real world. Knowledge becomes defined by power to produce.

The subject of metaphysics is not the result of an abstraction. One cannot abstract the act of being. It is not given, like a nature or a mathematical entity. It is defined in opposition to what is sensible and imaginable. One cannot make a clearing in which being will reveal itself. Anything that appeared in such a clearing would be a nature or a mathematical entity. There is no getting a look at the subject of metaphysics.

So far as the “object of our knowledge” is said without qualification, there is no metaphysical object, but the negation of an object resulting in the thing that metaphysics is concerned with.

But isn’t substance a metaphysical subject, and isn’t it sensible at least per accidens? Yes, but substance is constituted as properly metaphysical only when we judge that it is not limited to the sensible realm. We must explicitly negate the plenitude and sufficiency of sensible and imaginable reality.

But if metaphysics has no objects, how is this different from there being no metaphysical objects at all? Because the very condition of objectivity demands a reality exceeding the object. Our judgment of substance, for example, is possible only on an analogy form our own substantial existence, but it is not given in sensation. Sensation is in fact inadequate to account for an object freely judged to be an object.

Fourth Way, part II

The fourth way first establishes that there is some way in which there is something most true, and it then shows why this greatest truth also exists. The proof for its existence presupposes knowledge of another text:

…there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and consequently something which is uttermost in existence; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in existence, as it is written in Metaph. ii.

Notice the total reliance on the text from Metaphysics II. Though I have read many commentaries and criticisms of the Fourth Way, I have never read one that cited or discussed the relevant passage from Aristotle:

It is right also that philosophy should be called knowledge of the truth. For the end of theoretical knowledge is truth, while that of practical knowledge is action (for even if they consider how things are, practical men do not study the eternal, but what is relative and in the present). Now we do not know a truth without its cause; and a thing has a quality in a higher degree than other things if in virtue of it the similar quality belongs to the other things as well (e.g. fire is the hottest of things; for it is the cause of the heat of all other things); so that that causes derivative truths to be true is most true. Hence the principles of eternal things must be always most true (for they are not merely sometimes true, nor is there any cause of their being, but they themselves are the cause of the being of other things), so that as each thing is in respect of being, so is it in respect of truth.

There are two arguments here for why what is most true is greatest in being:

1 maj.) The eternal is a greater kind of existence than the relative, contingent, or here and now 

1 min.) A something is true, so it is eternal.

So as something is true, so it has a greater existence.

The minor follows the division of speculative and practical science. The Major is self-evident ad sapientes.

The second argument

2 min.) as something is true, so it is causal

2 maj.) as something is causal, so it is existent.

So as something is true, so it is existent.

The minor is clear from the axioms and principles of the sciences, which must be more true than the conclusions (see APo book 1); and the major is clear from causality being an operation which follows the existence of something.

What is the distinction between the God of faith and the God of philosophy?

The distinction between “the God of the Philosophers” and “the God of faith” is a distinction in modes of knowing. It is like speaking about the difference between “the shape we touch” and “the shape we see”; or between “the bird we see” and “the bird we understand”.

Most people foolishly imagine that the distinction is one between separate objects. To imagine this cannot even make sense of the terms we are using. Faith and knowledge manifestly don’t exclude each other as objects, but as operations in the soul. The object in “The God of philosophy” and “the God of faith” is identical! 

The difference between the acts, as far as the Christian is concerned, is that faith is directly efficacious for salvation while philosophy is not. Faith also allows for a greater penetration into God himself, for we are not restrained to knowing only what can be discerned from creatures.

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