Being as the first thing in the intellect

St. Thomas raises an objection to thinking that the one and the many are opposed:

If “one” is opposed to “many” it is opposed as the undivided to the divided, and thus as lacking something to the possession of it. But this is inappropriate, since it would follow that the one would come after the many and be defined by it. But a multitude is defined by the unit, so there will be a vicious circle in the definition…

si unum opponitur multitudini, opponitur ei sicut indivisum diviso, et sic opponetur ei ut privatio habitui. Hoc autem videtur inconveniens, quia sequeretur quod unum sit posterius multitudine, et definiatur per eam; cum tamen multitudo definiatur per unum. Unde erit circulus in definitione…

This not St. Thomas’s most fundamental objection to his thesis that one and the many are opposed (it’s the fourth objection). What makes the objection so notable is that, in responding to it, St. Thomas articulates a theory about the  basal structure of every human thought:

One is opposed to many as a privation, so far as the ratio of the man is that which is divided. So it is necessary that division is prior to unity, though not simply speaking, but according to the ratio of our apprehension. We apprehend simple things by composite ones, which is why we define a point as what is partless, or as the principle of a line. But multitude, even by its ratio, stands to one in such a way that we do not understand the divided to have the ratio of a multitude, except from the fact that we attribute unity to both of the divided things. So one is put in the definition of the multitude, but not multitude in the definition of the one. Now division falls into the intellect from the very negation of being. So what first falls in the intellect is being; second that this being is not that – and by this we apprehend division; third, one; forth, multitude.

unum opponitur privative multis, inquantum in ratione multorum est quod sint divisa. Unde oportet quod divisio sit prius unitate, non simpliciter, sed secundum rationem nostrae apprehensionis. Apprehendimus enim simplicia per composita, unde definimus punctum, cuius pars non est, vel principium lineae. Sed multitudo, etiam secundum rationem, consequenter se habet ad unum, quia divisa non intelligimus habere rationem multitudinis, nisi per hoc quod utrique divisorum attribuimus unitatem. Unde unum ponitur in definitione multitudinis, non autem multitudo in definitione unius. Sed divisio cadit in intellectu ex ipsa negatione entis. Ita quod primo cadit in intellectu ens; secundo, quod hoc ens non est illud ens, et sic secundo apprehendimus divisionem; tertio, unum; quarto, multitudinem.

There is not much in Thomistic epistemology that is not a commentary on this response. What has stuck with me the longest is what first falls in the intellect is being, second, that this being is not that – and thus we apprehend division- [which he earlier identifies with the negation of being]. Some questions:

1.) If we understand the complex before the simple, then why is the understanding of being first?

2.) How can being be known first, and then this is not that being? Where are the “this” and “that” coming from?

Some responses:

1.) The question muddles St. Thomas’s “falling into” (cadit) the intellect with “apprehension” in the single word “understand”, but the two must be kept separate. Every apprehension involves something falling into the intellect, but the reverse is not so, since apprehension is a grasping or an active engagement with something, and therefore is properly in the second act of the intellect. Notice how the second stage St. Thomas describes transitions from the first to the second act, for after being “falls” into the intellect, it next (befalls it): that this being is not that – and by this we apprehend division. And so the first apprehension is of division, but it is not the first thing present in the intellect.

The first thing known is thus not the first thing apprehended – to apprehend being involves working back up to the first thing known. Apprehension, or whatever has a truth value for us, is always something in media res. It comes after something already known.

(It’s worth raising the question whether, if one overlooks the first act of the intellect – as happens when truth is made absolutely fundamental in human knowledge – that he is led logically to believe in the priority of non-being)

2.) “Being” falls into the human intellect formally, and in the mode of a human intellect. But what is formal to a human intellect is understood in the mode of a predicate, and so our first apprehension of being is in the mode of a predicate. But the predicates of a human intellect involve two things: communicability (as formal) and being said of a subject. The “this” or “that” arise in respect to both: according to communicability, we get this and that; according to being said of a subject, we get either this or that (which is to say, some subject or another).

Thus the human intellect truly understands being first, and even being as most formal – but it apprehends it according to the mode of a predicate, and thus it does not first understand being as a subject – certainly not grammatically, but more importantly, not as a subject of discourse. It is precisely because being is understood in its most formal character that we do not first apprehend it as a subject – it is because we understand metaphysical being first (sorry Laval school, Toronto is right) that we cannot be metaphysicians first (Sorry Toronto, Laval is right).



  1. Ed L said,

    July 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

    You say: “ ‘Being’ falls into the human intellect formally, and in the mode of a human intellect. But what is formal to a human intellect is understood in the mode of a predicate, and so our first apprehension of being is in the mode of a predicate.” Could you explain how this fits with the first act of reason grasps the simple nature? If the first act does not involve putting together, (and this act always precedes the second act of reason in some way), I cannot see how one can say that being is first apprehended as a predicate.

  2. July 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    We could say that being is the first formality in any nature that falls into the intellect.

    One note – I’m not advocating that STA always uses “apprehension” for the second act. This would be an attempt to give a precision to the word that it just can’t have. But I think that he is using “apprehension” in this response to speak of the relation it has to the second act, and that it makes sense for him to do so.

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