A brief response to a critique of St. Thomas’s doctrine of universals- UPDATED II

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.

The definition of chance

Aristotle defined chance as a cause per accidens, happening for the lesser part. What does this mean?

When a lion chases down a gazelle and kills it, there was a causal relation between the end and the process that led to it. But events don’t come with name tags on them, and so, looking at this happen, we might have said “look, the lion chased down the light-colored thing”. In this case, however, there is no connection between the end (killing a light-colored thing) and the process leading to it. It is accidental, or per accidens. Depending how we account for the experience, the process we experience might be chance or not. But it’s clear that the thing we are experiencing, depending on how it is accounted for, can either be 1.) a process where the end was a cause of the process, or 2.) where the end is not a cause of the process. 2 are events where the end causes per accidens.

There is more than one way to discriminate between 1 and 2. The simplest process is to multiply out experiences and isolate properties. Put a dark-colored gazelle in front of the lion, and then a light colored 747. Experiments to show other things might be more elaborate: for example, it was not known until quite recently that what the frog chased after was not a fly, but a moving object of a certain size. A frog in a room full of dead flies would starve to death. Most persons, now and forever, think that frogs eat flies, and that they eat moving flies only by per accidens (or, that it would even prefer a fly that was not moving). In fact, the reverse is true. Notice that this is the case even though frogs have, in fact. always eaten flies.

But if it is accidental that frogs eat flies, even while it happens that they have always sought them, there is an accidental cause that happens always or as a rule, and another kind of accidental cause that does not happen always or as a rule. Chance events are the second kind. Frogs don’t eat flies per se, but we would not say that they eat them by chance. Chance must be outside both what is per se (frog eats the moving) and what is accidental but occurring always or as a rule (frogs eat flies). Contrariwise, one of the main goals of science- in both the ancient and contemporary senses of the term- is to find a way to rule out both chance and the accidental but occurring always or as a rule. Teh former is frequently difficult to rule out, the latter is, in some cases, impossible to rule out.

Female consciousness and Thomism

Feminism could play an important role in bringing back the A-T understanding of nature. The main competitor to this view is a mechanist view- and the mechanist view of things is fundamentally and naturally male. The love of machines is so deeply and naturally ingrained in males that it’s even been observed in male monkeys. The exact findings of the trial are telling: monkeys were given mechanical and non-mechanical toys, and while the females played with all the toys indifferently, the males treated the non-mechanical toys as though they didn’t exist. My kids act exactly the same way: most of what enters my son’s consciousness is either a machine or related to it; my daughter plays with cars then puts them down and wanders off to something else. The female consciousness is more proportioned to the understanding of nature: it is not opposed to using mechanist conceptions of nature, but it is also not prone to treating the non-mechanical as though it did not exist.

Related to this, A-T could benefit from female consciousness in the philosophy of religion too. One of the dominant theories of the genesis of religion is the “agent detection” theory, which claims human beings are prone to attribute personal agency to phenomena. So far as this is seen as a critique, it is the critique of a bunch of men left alone in a room. Who else would say that, when we really get to the bottom of things, we will see that there are no personal interactions, but only mechanical ones?

Language as disproportionate to our concepts.

Most linguistic philosophy treats of subjects that I have no interest in, or at least they treat them in a way that doesn’t interest me, so I don’t have much to say about it one way or another. But I’ve had to study a fair bit of it, at least enough to get some standard accounts of what it sees itself as doing. Explanations of it like this are common:

Indeed, having language is so crucial to our ability to frame the sophisticated thoughts that appear essential to language-use and understanding, that many doubt whether mind is ‘prior’ to language in any interesting sense

[Linguistic philosophy is] The philosophical method of taking language, rather than what the language ostensibly concerns, as the primary datum. Rather than studying numbers, or space and time, or the mind, the philosopher distinctively studies the language of mathematics, or physics, or psychology.

The founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, held that definitions of concepts cannot exist independently from differences between words, or, to put it differently, that a concept of something cannot exist without being named.

If this is what linguistic philosophy is, it is false, dehumanizing, and contrary to experience. For the moment, I’m only interested in the above quotations. If you disagree, defend the quotes.

Philosophy should study the most fundamental things. But our experience of the most fundamental things is almost invariably an experience that cannot be put into words. The events that we mark out our life by are frequently ineffable. The impediment is not our skill with words: Shakespeare and Dostoevsky can make us feel things and capture the sense of certain emotions and mental states, but these words are not commensurate to the experience of love, or grief, or anxiety, or disappointment. Even the previous string of words is not proportionate to the experience, which is why we would need to say more than the word “grief” to explain grief, even while we know that no amount of words will ever explain it. But to say that there is no meaningful sense of mind prior to language, or that there is no experience without a word, or that it is a primary datum, is to insist that language will always be proportionate to thought. But our basic experience of fundamental things is their ineffability and of their superabundance over language. There is a reason why it is a cliché to say “there are no words for it”. This does not mean that philosophy studies grief, or our first kiss or the experience of leading troops into combat (all of which are simply ineffable). I am arguing that there experiences show that language is not proportionate to the reality we experience of the world, and that it is a basic fact of being human to recognize this.

The reason for this lack of proportion between language and experience- or language and our concepts, is that language is a work of human practical intelligence that is commensurate to a given language group; whereas the soul, which is actual in our concepts and experience, is a work of the divine essence and is commensurate to the whole physical universe directly and to being as such though this. Our concepts and experiences are similitudes generated and begotten in us by the universe; and our soul stands face to face with the universe and is symmetrical with it. But our language is made, not begotten, and it stands face to face with a given language group, limited in history and place, and is symmetrical with this.

Language is, perhaps, the greatest human artifact (I can’t think of a more significant one).  It is a universal in causando (a true equivocal cause), and a principle of thought. But it remains an artifact, and art will never be commensurate with nature.

Notes on sexual ethics

-Something is very odd about rejecting nature as a standard in sexual ethics. No one disputes that the desire is simply natural- unlike, say, the desire to collect stamps, quilt, or see fireworks on the fourth of July. But if the desire is natural, it’s odd that we would say the exercise of the desire need not be.  Prima facie, this like saying that the engine is mechanical, but shouldn’t work mechanically.

-Aristotle argued that the “vegetative soul” (or, in contemporary terms “vegetative life”) was poorly named. It should be called the reproductive soul or reproductive life.

-Priests stand in for a congregation and offer gifts for them. Sexual activity has a sort of priestly function: we act for the sake of the species.

-The axiom at the bottom of sexual ethics: the whole is greater than the part. Man considered as species is the whole; man considered as an individual, even with his peculiar individual desires, is the part. Note right away that, when you consider your individuality, you are not considering what is “more you”.

-We tend to speak and think of sexual activity that is reproductive and not reproductive as tough they were two species of one genus. Say we all agree that it is true to say that “sodomy is a kind of sexual activity”. Fine. But is this like saying “granny smith is a kind of apple” or like saying “a limp is a kind of walk”? The first is included in a genus, and shares a common nature with other species; the second is a defect of a nature, and so is properly opposed to the nature itself. Our answer to this question (which is usually tacit) will effect everything we think about the right and wrong in sexual matters.

-When we understand sex through statistics, we draw from a database about as old as one lifetime. This is something like trying to determine whether an acre of land is flat or hilly by examining the topography of one square foot of it.

-In condemning pornography, the Catechism gives a wonderful and insightful definition, but concludes with a striking condemnation: it immerses all those who participate in it into a fantasy world. Now if there is one area in which the times we live really are the worst times in all history- a claim often made and usually false- it is probably with respect to porn consumption. If the Catechism is right, we should expect our age to be more immersed in fantasy than any other. This would certainly be true of realities pertaining to sex (which are quite numerous and important) but given how central sexuality is to our personality, this fantasy consciousness would inevitably spill over into our view of reality generally. Thus, no age would find reality- the opposite of fantasy- as distasteful as we find it. . For the same reason, no age would find speculative reasoning- which seeks to uncover the structure of reality simply to know it- as distasteful as we find it. If we must reason about things, we modern men say,  let it be the sort of reasoning that we can subsume under our fantasy desires (like science, for example).  Even if we don’t watch porn, this is still the culture we live in. Physicalism may not be a masturbatory fantasy, but the two are made of each other.

Our answer to the question “why can human beings do evil?”

Think to yourself what the standard Christianity 101 response would be to the question “Why is it possible for human beings to commit evils?”


The standard response probably mentions free will. The response is the centerpiece of many responses to the argument from evil (why would God make men able to go to hell/ do terrible things, etc.), of toleration and liberty, and of puzzling questions about whether God or the blessed could sin, etc.

When St. Thomas answers this question, he doesn’t mention free will once (see here). He doesn’t even hint at it. Man is capable of doing evil because he occupies an order of existence lower than God. If this is right, then saying “we can sin because we have free will”  is like saying “we can limp because we walk “. The reply is sophistical- not in the sense of “Yuck! Bad philosopher!” but in the sense that it considers something accidental as essential. Walking is not defined as the power to limp or walk, as though they were two more or less equal paths that, together, defined what it was to walk. But when we define freedom as the power to do good or evil, it is the same as defining walking as the ability to walk or limp. It is not freedom that accounts for sin, but imperfection- an imperfection that happens to be in a voluntary power.

Though this seems like a technical quibble, the consequences are immense. For those who explain sin through free will,  sin becomes a sort of dignity. It arises from the perfection of our freedom. A greater freedom would, ipso facto, involve a greater ability to sin. For St. Thomas, the possibility of sin arises formally from our not being God. There is no necessary connection between sin and freedom- indeed they are formally opposed to one another, though they can happen to be found in one being if and only if that being also has defectibilty and imperfection. The possibility of sin is refered formally to the imperfection of a being, not to a formal perfection like freedom.

Again, it makes a great difference if, when you ask “why can I sin?” you imagine your dignity and autonomy, than if you imagine your lowliness and imperfection. According to the first, you see yourself as absolute; according to the second you see yourself as relative to the absolute and falling short of it.

Ramble on “what evolves?” Or, a question that needs to be asked before we can see if evolution is teleological in St. Thomas’s sense of the term. See, even the title is a ramble! Told you so.

Brandon has a great post on some of the basic facts that clarify the question “Is Darwin’s theory teleological?” It clearly isn’t in the sense advanced by Paley, but Darwin himself insists that it is teleological in some way. This raises the question for a Thomist whether the theory is teleological in the sense that Aristotle and St. Thomas understood teleology. I don’t want to speak to that question, but raise one question that needs to be addressed prior to being able to answer whether an evolutionary theory is the sort of thing that acts for the sake of something.

(I’ve said before that the a diversity of species- where diversity is understood as a number over the whole of time, such that if five species give rise to one, and then the five go extinct, that this counts as six species- is a good, and so far as evolution is unintelligible without increasing diversity in this precise sense- a sense of diversity which, as far as I know, no biologist cares about- it is unintelligible apart from some good. Leave this sense of the end of evolution aside.)  

One question that St. Thomas would have to clarify from the beginning is “what evolves?” In Contemporary terms: what is the unit of evolution? What does evolution act on/ exist within? Let’s get one answer out of the way from the beginning: assume someone said living things evolve. Very well. So does Lassie evolve? No. She can reproduce, die, interbreed, etc. but it’s not Lassie that evolves. So it’s not this or that individual living thing that evolves. So it must be something other than an individual. Here is the first difficulty: there are two things that differ from the individual: a multitude and a species as opposed to a multitude. I say “species as opposed to a multitude” because there is no impediment to understanding a species as a multitude of members. 

Say we conclude that it is some multitude that evolves- or, to be pedantic, a species or population that is considered as a multitude as opposed to being considered as a unity- what kind of multitude is it? It seems that the extension of a multitude over time  is meant. The population (multitude) changes over time due to selection (drift?). So is evolution something like a ticker-tape moving news sign, where the changes of various lights turning off and on give rise to a kind of intelligible movement, though none of the lights is moving? Again, it is like a movie reel, where the passing away of one picture after another gives rise to a sort of change of a whole?  But this example might raise more questions than it clarifies.

The goal in figuring out what evolves is to be able to ask the question “is this the sort of thing that acts for an end?” Not all processes- even intelligible processes- are things acting for an end. Aristotle points out, an eclipse is not a process that occurs for the sake of something. We can predict eclipses thousands of years in advance, we know exactly what the relevent causes are, but there is no intention towards it, even in St. Thomas’s very broad sense of intention. One can speak of an intention in St. Thomas’s sense towards the equinox or solstices- for these are real terms of the motion of the earth- but an eclipse is not a real term of the earth’s orbit, even though it arises forseeably and necessarily from it.

So even after we figure out what evolves, and what sense of change we are dealing with, we still need to ask whether this sort of process is like the moon earth interaction that gives rise to an eclipse (which is not a real term of their interaction) or whether it is like the process that gives rise to the tides (which is a real term of their interaction). What does the initial question have to do with this? Because a multitude, precisely as multitude, does not have an end. Ends come from some sort of coordination or unity of the multitude.

3 / 25 / 10

St. Thomas defines nature as something being given to things, that they might act by and for themselves. So far as they act by themselves, their action is absolute; so far as it is from a nature being given, it is relative to the giver.  This point can be generalized to creation itself: created being is absolute as being (for “to be” simply speaking means to subsist by ones self) and relative as created. This seems to be simply the paradox of a gift: if someone gives you the money to buy something as a gift, you are never quite sure how to answer the question “did you buy this?”

This doctrine is a mean between the extremes of occasionalism and liberal self-absolutism. Secular post-Christian culture grew from the latter; Islam is prone to succumbing to the former.

3 / 24 / 10

Reasoning, like any art, falls in and out of fashion.

St. Thomas and Descartes

Though this objection and response from St. Thomas don’t exactly speak to the famous dilemma of Descartes that founded modern philosophy, they are very suggestive of it. I’m not sure what to do with the text.

(quotation from St. Augustine) “There is no sensible thing that does not have some similarity to what is false, and, as a result, the two cannot be distinguished. To mention only one example: all that we sense through the body. Even when these objects are not present to the senses, we experience their images as though they were present, as when we are asleep or become delirious.” Truth, however, has no resemblance to what is false. Therefore, truth is not perceived by a sense.

One could similarly argue that every created thing has some similarity to what is false in so far as it has some defect. Nothing created, therefore, is truth, and so there is only one truth.

His response:

Although every creature has some similarity to what is false, created truth itself does not have this similarity. For a creature has some similarity to what is false in so far as it is deficient. Truth, however, does not depend on a creature in so far as it is deficient, but in so far as it rises above its deficiency by being conformed to the first truth.

De veritate, q. 1 a 4 ad 7.

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