Note on a division of metaphysics

The Thomist manual tradition divided metaphysics into the study of finite and infinite being. The governing principle here is the primacy of esse or the act of existence, which is either recieved (finite being) or unrecieved (infinite). Another division hinted at by some of the manuals might be better: an analysis of the question “what exists”; that is, an analysis of the subject that we say exists. Here the division is between essence (which is what exists so far as existence must appropriate something outside of itself in order to exercise its act, and is therefore what exists in the mode of the perfected) and God himself (who is “what exists” when the question is answered per se in the first mode of the per se.)

The division might be between essence, which is what exists in the second mode of the per se, and God, who exists in the first mode of the per se. Essence can enter into the account of existence (in the mode that matter enters into a definition), whereas saying that God exists is like saying that a circle is equidistant from the center.

Neither cold nor hot

Neither the fervently religious nor the militantly secular atheist will ever have lasting political power in the West, since neither side will ever be able to wrest control from the mediocre and nominally religious. The West will always be ruled by those who (say) call themselves Christian in phone surveys, usually baptize their children and have nice church weddings, and go to a service once or twice a year, if they get around to it.

The nominally religious are those for whom neither religion nor atheism is of much interest. I’m reminded of an old friar who loved to quote St. Thomas’s comment on the Apostle Thomas when he saw the resurrected Lord. The Apostle said “my Lord and my God”, but Aquinas says “he saw one thing and said another”, that is, he saw one thing with his natural cognitive powers and said something beyond this by the light of faith. The old friar explained that the Apostle could have just as easily said “O, I never knew you had a twin brother” or “O, you got better quickly” or “Wow, I have no idea what is going on here” or given some sort of proto-Arian response to the matter (whatever that would be). All these responses would be much more in keeping with his skeptical nature. But the response of the mediocre religious would be something like saying, in a warmly pleasant way, “O, you’re alive, how nice!” which he would certainly say with a warm and sincere smile, perhaps followed by a nod and a light shrug. After leaving the upper room and resuming his affairs,  he would think about the event now and again, and bring it up as an interesting story to his friends, who would themselves smile and nod warmly and sincerely saying “how interesting! I always knew there was something special about him!”

Note on the first two modes of the per se

To say something per se is to say it essentially. But the essential pertains to the definition, and so either a.) what is said is in the definition of the subject; or b.) the subject is in the definition of what is said. For a.) Line belongs per se to triangle, and point per se to line for b.) even and odd are said per se of number. In a.) triangles (the subject) have lines by definition and lines have points; In b.) Though we say “numbers are even (or odd)” number is used in defining odd even though it is the subject. The first sense is what we first means when we talk about what is predicated per se; for the perseity belongs to the actual act of predication as opposed to belonging to the predicate.

The three divisions in possibility

Say we agree a.) logical possibility is whatever does not involve contradiction, and b.) God is able to do anything that does not involve contradiction.  It seems to follow that logical possibility has a real basis in the power of God, and since the power of God has a real existence outside the human mind, therefore logical possibility is a real thing existing outside of the human mind. I disagree with the conclusion, and claim that logical possibility has no basis in reality apart from the presence of things the human mind, and that any attribution of logical possibility to things is by an extrinsic denomination, the way you could point to something and say “That is the major term of the syllogism” or “She is the subject of the sentence” (before objecting, be sure to read to the last paragraph).  

Some basic axioms:

1.) The possible and the impossible are opposed as contradictories, since “impossible” simply means “not possibile”.

2.) What necessarily is (or is not) is divided from what possibly is (or is not).

Note that 2.) is the division between the necessary and contingent – and so “possible” in this sense is synonymous with “contingent”. But in 1.) possible is not synonymous with contingent – If it were, it would follow that whatever was not contingent would be impossible. Such a claim requires saying that God is impossible – but it has more basic problems than that. First of all, it’s not what we mean to say when we use the term “possible”, and second even a necessary proposition would be an impossible proposition, though this claim that would fall victim to the crudest liar paradox, i.e.  “no proposition is necessary.”

It follows that there is a real distinction between the possible as opposed to the impossible (1) and the possible as opposed to the necessary (2). When we speak of “the absence of formal contradiction” we are speaking of (1), since if what lacks contradiction is possible in sense (2) then the necessary would be contradictory. Therefore logical possibility is possibility in sense (1). Now since anything that actually exists is not impossible (1), it follows that God can be called a “possible being” if one is speaking of logical possibility. But here again, this sort of possibility is by extrinsic denomination, the way one might say a real thing is “the subject of a sentence”, even though to be a subject only belongs to something so far as it is known and signified by a mind.

But I also agree that God is able to do all that does not involve formal contradiction, and that the object of God’s power is real. So what then? First note that even if one appealed to such a reason to argue that logical possibility was in some way real, the argument could only have force after one had proven that God existed. We absolutely can not appeal to some notion of “possibility” (absence of formal contradiction) in an ontological proof for the existence of God. But even after one has proven the existence of God, logical possibility is not a real possibility, even though God can do all that is logically possible. The reason is that the whole question of omnipotence clearly takes place under a consideration of what is able to be done or made (namely, by God) and so this restricts the notion of the logically possible to what is able to be done. We come to a consideration of the omnipotence of God with an understanding that it is a consideration of what can be done or made, but the logically possible as such has no such limitation, simply because what is not impossible is a broader category than what can be made or done.

There is therefore a third sort of possibility which must be distinguished from the possible as opposed to the impossible and the possible as opposed to the necessary, namely (3) possibility as opposed to what cannot be made. The impossible is not contained in (3), and so everything in 3. is possible in the sense of (1), but not vice versa. This opposition is at the heart of people confounding possibility in (1) with possibility in (3). Further, both the possible and the necessary are found in (3), though every possible being in (2) is in (3) though not every necessary being is.

This last sort of possibility is, I’d argue, the sense of “possible” and “impossible” as real predicates. We can also call it possibility that is in the power of an agent. With God, the extent of this possibility is absolute and unqualified, but it arises from other agents too. Real possibilty (as opposed to impossibility) thus always reduces to the power of some agent, as Aristotle and St. Thomas both argued.


To transform experience into charity the way that converter boxes constantly convert currents or the way waterwheels turn the motion of a river into the motion of a millstone.

By experience is meant experience as lived in the concrete: we become spantaneously irritated, joyful, angry, bored, and every person spontaneously experiences things through the filter of his character in a more or less unavoidable way. It’s that that the saint can transform into charity by imposing his will to do so upon it.

If the two highest commandments are in fact true, to be such a conversion mechanism is simply what a human being is. Human life simply mediates experience and charity. What decision we have consists in choosing to live like a human being.

Faith, reason, rationalism

Any account of St. Thomas’s work and accomplishments includes how he “showed that faith and reason were not opposed to one another”. The statement is true, but it runs the risk of being understood in a rationalist sense. To say that faith and reason can never contradict does not mean that one can have a rational basis for everything in the faith. One might be able to prove (and not without difficulty) that there is no contradiction in the doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union or the inspiration of the Scriptures, but absence of contradiction is not the presence of evidence or even justification. Again, “having evidence for X” or “having justification for X” never means (merely) knowing that there is no formal contradiction of X; and so Christianity really does demand that we believe some things with no rational basis or justification.

St. Thomas’s response to this state of affairs was constant throughout his career. Consider an objection that he raises to the claim that “God requires that we believe things beyond reason”:

 [I]t is dangerous for man to assent to matters which he cannot judge whether that which is proposed to him be true or false… but a man cannot form a judgment of this kind in matters of faith, since he cannot trace them back to first principles, by which all our judgments are guided. Therefore it is dangerous to believe in such matters.

What rationalist could have said it better? It is obviously impossible to judge somethign to be true if you don’t have that by which it is judged to be true. St. Thomas consistently responds to this sort of objection like this:

Just as man assents to first principles, by the natural light of his intellect, so does a virtuous man, by the habit of virtue, judge aright of things concerning that virtue; and in this way, by the light of faith which God bestows on him, a man assents to matters of faith and not to those which are against faith. Consequently there is no danger or condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, and whom He has enlightened by faith.

The appeal is to the light of faith, a distinct habitus that empowers one to judge things as true that cannot be so judged apart from such a light. One has here the simultaneous vindication and scandal to rationalism: on the one hand St. Thomas accepts the truth that one cannot accept the truth of what they cannot judge for themselves, on the other hand he denies that every such power is one that human beings have of themselves (“themselves” is not used in exactly the same way, but we put it like this to show the scandal of the position).

— (pt. II, ousia and matter)

Aristotle divides ousia from what is accidental (both accidents and accidental wholes), and from another (which again is accidental) and so it makes sense to say ousia is  substance. But it is not enough to divide ousia from what is accidental, one must also consider how what is essential is ousia, and how it is not. There are two aspects to this: one needs to consider how ousia relates to the what it is to be; a phrase of Aristotle’s own which is therefore guaranteed to have some relation to ousia (why else would he coin the phrase?) and considering how it relates to matter and the universal.


Matter seems most of all to be ousia or substance, simply because we are at a loss over what exists when we take it away. Take away shape, position of parts, order, motion, etc. and one is left with whatever was shaped, positioned, ordered or moved – which is clearly the elemental parts that compose something. Such a thing is a fundamental foundation of all, and so most of all what exists. Aristotle’s first response to this is categorical – on such an account, “matter” as such is the unshapen, unpositioned, unordered, etc. that is, it is undetermined and no particular thing, but something isn’t said to be when it is like this. If anything, matter seems more opposed to being; and at any rate it is not what one means when they speak of being or existing.


It’s crucial to notice what Aristotle doesn’t repudiate in the previous argument: namely a.) he admits that matter is fundamental, and b.) we are at a loss to say what there would be, if not for matter. And so in order to preserve the sense in which to be or to exist is fundamental, though opposed to matter, we must a.) attribute to matter a derivative foundational character, that is, we must say it is fundamental though an effect of something more prior, and b.) we are at a loss to understand this thing that causes it – it seems that we must understand it in large part by understanding its relation to matter. Just as matter is understood by a negation of the secondary and accidental forms that are given to us by sensation, so too being in its fullest sense must be what is prior to even the matter we attain by the removal of these accidental forms. Matter, in other words, is an intermediary between accidental forms and being in the sense of ousia. It makes sense that the first attempt to rise above sheer bovine sensation would be to the doctrine that all is matter, even though such a doctrine is completely opposed to the awareness we have that what exists is definite and a determinate this (what Aristotle called a tode ti and the Medievals called a hoc aliquid). A materialist metaphysic is utterly incapable of explaining the definiteness of things, that is, why some things are this and not that.


Being is thus the arche or principle that makes matter a fundamental principle, that is, being is the principle that appropriates matter, even in its own foundations, for its own realization of itself. Being first shows itself as a dynamic actor upon matter, though not an extrinsic actor (for what is extrinsic to a thing is not that in virtue of which it exists by itself and therefore is ousia or substance). Being is like a doctor healing himself or a barber shaving himself, that is, an interior form (medical art or shaving know-how) that acts upon matter which is also ones own; being is the self as prior to matter acts upon matter. Being (at least material being) makes itself with matter and in matter.

What is the “ousia” that Aristotle says is being? (pt. I)

Aristotle’s first answer to “what is being” is ousia. Rather than translating the term, it’s better to approach it through the various things that Aristotle says about it. So what does he say?

The question “what is being” clearly is a particular case of seeking an answer to the question “what something is”. But there is more than one answer to such a question. John, for example, is six feet tall, or two-hundred pounds, or ten feet from Billy’s cow; and “white” is a color on the French flag or an essential color in snow-globes. Now all of these answers can truthfully fill in the blank when we ask “John is ______” or “white is _____”, and so they all give an answer to the question of what John or white is; but none of them answers the question without qualification. Someone who is really in doubt about what John is or what white is (say, someone learning English or first investigating the physics of color) doesn’t want to be told just anything that can truthfully fill in the blank in a question, but something fundamental among the possible answers. Ousia is thus the answer that we give to the question “what is being” when the question is without qualification – whatever that is. Ousia in this sense is opposed to what truthfully answers what something is only in a qualified way. This can be called “the accidental” but we must point out right away that it is not (initially) the same thing as what Aristotle calls “an accident”. The unqualified answer to “what is white” is the ousia of white, even though white is an accident.

But though there is an ousia of white or jogging, nevertheless such things do not first answer the particular question “what is a being?” Just as an unqualified answer to “what is hot” requires us to speak of something that is hot by itself (and not, say, a coffee cup, that might be hot if something else heats it) so too the answer to the question “what is being” requires us to speak of something that can be by itself. Aristotle calls this being able to be koris, that is, “separable” or “independent” (as most translations put it), but it is simply the first condition for what an answer has to be to the question “what is being?” It would have to be what can be by itself, independently of the action or existence of something other. By such a criterion, qualities and relations and positions and privations and other things like them cannot be ousia, and ousia is opposed to them.

The intimacy between ousia and the unqualified answer to the question “what is being?” means that one f the first and most obvious answers to “what is ousia” is “whatever answers the question of what it is to be”. Aristotle refers to this thing all the time – it’s his to ti aen einai or, in Latin, quod quid erat esse. The crucial word in this constructed idiom is the to ti or quid, that is, “the what” (Latin was late in developing the definite article, and so a better idiom would be ly or illud quid erat esse.) This “ti” or “quid” is what makes it an answer to the question “what is being?” To save time, the Medievals used the term essentia to refer to this quod quid erat esse, which was fine since they knew what the term was standing in for. But for a contemporary English speaker to refer to it as essence from the get-go will assure that he has no idea what he is speaking about, or why Aristotle was saying anything true. Aristotle’s to ti aen einai is simply obviously an answer to what being is; an English speaker’s essence is not. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s idiom is not a mere repetition of  “what is being” in another form, for Aristotle introduces the notion of einai, that is esse or “be” as an infinitive. Just as running is whatever it is to run, being is whatever it is to be.

But not all things are such that there is an answer to the question of what they are without qualification, and so not all have a to ti aen einai. The basic problem is that not every thing is a kind of thing. A green house is certainly a thing, but it does not follow that it is a kind of house. An enumeration of all the kinds of houses would speak of ramblers, colonials, split-entry, etc. but not “green houses”. It is not one of the divisions that architects or Realtors speak of. There are all kinds of things that exist but are not sorts of things. Here again, Aristotle is eliminating another sense of what is simply accidental from the notion of ousia. Being in this sense is what is specific or generic, though not in the biological sense of a “genus” or a “species” but in the sense of what is a kind of thing as opposed to a merely accidental unity – even if this accidental unity truly exists.  Such a sense is not utterly unrelated to the biological sense (biologists would not study, say, “mice with at least two feet”, since this is simply not a sort of mouse) but it is not an answer to a properly biological question either.

Aristotle thus gradually – by a series of imperceptible steps, each of which is so obvious as to be almost banal – slowly isolates being by separating it from the accidental – first what is accidental in predication, then in being, then by lacking a proper kind. He then has to isolate the sense of “being” from the various candidates that are not accidental – matter  and the universal or general kind.  We’ll look at matter in part II; the universal in part III.



Are infinite scientific revolutions possible?

Why couldn’t accounts in natural science simply change ad infinitum? Perhaps the very nature of natural science is that it approaches fixed truth though the attainment of it involves contradiction. The notion of truth as unchangeable would be borrowed from some higher science and inappropriate to natural science. There are, in fact, several very good arguments that this is in fact the case:

1.) From the definition of nature. Nature is a ratio of the divine art, so that things might move and achieve their own ends. It is thus a way of taking part in the divine intellect, and to understand it requires an intellect that is proportioned to understanding such a thing. But the human mind is not such, at least not in its present sense. The same argument can be made by understanding nature as creation.

Note that the argument applies only to the attaining of the nature ultimately, with an exhaustive knowledge of what is innermost in it, where “innermost” is understood as the unifying source of all observable phenomena. Such a term is a point of contact with the divine action. But a failure to attain to this term (or to attain to it with human knowledge as human)  does not eliminate the possibility of the mind attaining some final truths and knowing them as such. But it does require that the advance in the natural sciences will more and more alienate it from any sort of final knowledge. Paradoxically, though in a familiar enough way, the reduction of more and more phenomena to a single theory will involve more and more pluralism in the details of the theory; and the approach to the truth by negation of false theories will involve a greater plurality of explanatory theories.  

2.) From way we know the proper object of natural science. The history of natural science is of a gradual separation from the sensible: Aristotle based his whole theory on the properly sensible; Newton and Galileo shifted science to the imaginable magnitudes of Euclidean space; and the last great revolution showed the inadequacy of quantity as imagined. The connection to the sensible has become more and more remote from the empirically verifiable, even while natural science can never wholly separate itself from empirical verification. Based on the progression of the sciences so far, a final or perfect science would require transcending the very principle that constitutes the science itself – a pretty straightforward contradiction.

Notice that the difficulty is not with the sensible as such, but that we know the sensible by sensation and yet desire to give an intellectual account of it.

3.) From the imperfect intelligibility of the object itself. The objects of natural science all have an intrinsic principle of unintelligibility. All the complaints against Aristotle’s account of form in the Metaphysics – Geach somewhere says that Aristotle rarely says one thing about it that he doesn’t deny somewhere else – arise from matter being a real principle lacking intelligibility in itself. The dual role of matter, namely that it enters into the essence of a thing (and so must be in the definition) even while it is unintelligible and in this sense cannot enter into the definition, requires a double approach to the principles of natural being. The clarity of categories will diminish as we advance in knowledge of the sensible.

With human beings, the unintelligibility of matter also arises from another principle – that we know by abstraction. Our knowledge consists in being acted upon, and only forms can do such. Scotus, however, goes too far in saying that this is all there is to the unintelligibility of matter.

Aristotle and the idea that truth is not enough

Aristotle’s logic was interested in a good deal more than truth. We might even get a clearer view of what he was doing if we say he wasn’t interested in truth. Truth as such includes even what is true accidentally or by chance, and Aristotle was most of all concerned with how one would avoid such truth. His concern was not identifying every possible formal inference but avoiding sophistry, and sophistry consists not in saying falsehoods but on exploiting the various ways in which something is true, which for Aristotle means exploiting the various ways in which one thing is said of another. Aristotle’s whole logic is an analysis of how something is said of another – he starts with what is said of another (a predicate), he moves on to consider how many ways something is said of another, in which he first considers just one such thing (a proposition) and then more than one (an argument); and then divides in another way into what is known in itself (demonstration) and what is known only of the mind contributed some of its own clarity to the thingsg themselves (dialectic).

This project is obviously related to identifying formal truth functions, but there are crucial differences. Truth fuctioning takes the proposition as a logical unit – but for Aristotle is would leave one powerless to logically distinguish between science and sophistry, which requires opening up the hood on the proposition itself. This also empowers him to give a fuller account of what will count as a true explanation – for he can know in advance that the explanation must not only be true and reached by some valid inference, but that the predicate will be said primarily and universally of a subject, not merely that it will be said or affirmed of all. This  fuller and more developed analysis of the structure of scientific propositons is crucial for his metaphysics, and even for the sorts of analyses that he gives of empirical things. Usually, some objection to an Aristotelian claim – or claims that just look strange on their face – will reduce to a faluire to appreciate the ways in which one thing can be said of another.

« Older entries