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”.


  1. Ryan H said,

    September 29, 2008 at 7:56 am

    Thanks for this post, very illuminating. I started studying philosophy about two years ago, sparked by these words Frank Sheed wrote about the Trinity: “The way into the mystery lies, as we have already suggested, in the meaning of the words person and nature. There is no question of arithmetic involved.” I haven’t gotten very far yet in my learning, but it already seems that I started with far too much optimism that I could find definitions with “clarity and distinctness from the very beginning” and that these would tidily solve any apparent contradictions in the Trinity. So, I look forward to learning a new way of looking. Do you have any recommendations for further reading on this topic?

  2. a thomist said,

    September 29, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    The higher the thing we seek to know, the more we must rely on authority to know it, and the more important it is to pick good authorities to lead us. In the case of the Blessed Trinity, our reliance on authority is pushed to the maximum. You should seek out texts on the basis of the authority of the writer, and stick as close to him as possible. Scripture and the Chrish are the unquestionable authorities, but it helps to have a guide to them- who is an authority himself and derives his authority from his fidelity to the texts and proclamations. Here St. Augustine is an indispensible guide.

    Here already you might start to see a possible answer to the difficulties in speaking about the Trinity: the overlooking of the role of authority. Reason has a part to play in speaking about God, but authority is more important. Authority, after all, is the whole basis for our believing in a trinity of persons in God in the first place. We have to start any discussion with an agreement that we are relying on authority even more than reason, but not to the exclusion of reason.

  3. Ryan H said,

    September 30, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Thank you for your reply. I agree that we rely on authority even more than reason, but that this does not exclude reason (I recently read Newman’s Grammar of Assent and enjoyed his insights about the Trinity and his articulate defense of the reasonableness of authority in revealed religion.)

    I’ve got to confess, I intended to read St. Augustine’s On The Trinity, but was intimidated by the length, difficulty, and seemingly repetitious style, and I ended up only really reading Book 7, as the table of contents stated that it addressed the logical and linguistic problems of the Trinity. I found the following sentence to be provocative, and in an odd way, quite comforting: “Why, therefore, do we not call these three together one person, as one essence and one God, but say three persons, while we do not say three Gods or three essences; unless it be because we wish some one word to serve for that meaning whereby the Trinity is understood, that we might not be altogether silent, when asked, what three, while we confessed that they are three?”

    Sounds like I need to make a more disciplined effort to really read Augustine. Also sounds like you are advising me to not go for “guides to the guides” but stick with Fathers and Doctors? … Next on my reading list was Maritain’s An Introduction to Philosophy – do you think I should scrap that plan?

  4. Ryan H said,

    September 30, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Oh, sorry, forgot to ask: I’m interested not just in further reading on the Trinity, but on the more methodological topic of this blog post: “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.” I’d never heard of anything like that before, but it seems quite intuitively compelling. Is this insight something that dawned on you over time, or did you find it written somewhere?

  5. a thomist said,

    September 30, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Modern thought followed the fall of Scholastic thought- the partisans of modern thought would claim it fell under the weight of its own absurd contradictions; the thomists like myself argue that it fell under the contradiction of never really being one thing, but various schools which were fundamentally at odds with each other.

    The answer to the fall of Scholasticism was a refusal to see any value in the sorts of questions it asked..People dismissed its whole mode of analysis as absurd jibber-jabber and word games. Some part of this was deserved- Scholasticism tended toward over-precision. Some other part of this was philosophy becoming more popular and widespread, which required that it be dumbed down.But a very large part of the defeat was the thought of William of Ockham, and those who followed him.

    Ockham is most famous for inventing nominalism, which is a theory of knowledge which can only be consistent by turning intelligence into a kind of sensation. The complete dissolution of the best that came from Scholastic thought is an inevitable consequence of such an affirmation. Scotism and Thomism are fundamentally opposed to each other- but both are wiped completely from the consciousness of someone who thinks reasoning is simply a kind of sensation.

    Descartes made some attempt to preserve the transcendence of mind over sensation, but he could only do so by positing his famous dualism that people largely only invoke to deny. This dualism survives in Kant, although Kant was better at hiding it (in the CPR he claims man is two knowing subjects) No one can put Humpty together again.


  6. September 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I’ve gotten most of the way through Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy, and found it somewhat helpful; I think I’d probably buy it again. It reinforced some things I’d read elsewhere, and there were one or two discussions that really, really helped.

  7. Ryan H said,

    September 30, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks to both of you for your responses!

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