A critique of Dekoninck

(This is a working hypothesis. It also doesn’t change the fact that I see myself as a disciple of Dekonick, who IMO belongs in the tradition as much as John of St. Thomas or Cajetan.)

Dekoninck frequently drew attention to being as the most indefinite of concepts. Given that human knowledge moves from indefinite and general ideas to distinct concepts, we can reason to the idea that it begins with the most indefinite and general concept, which seems to be being. Taken in this sense, being is the upward terminus of the Porphyrian tree.

The argument is good as far as it goes, but it passes over the problem that while what is higher in the Porphyrian tree is what is less and less formal in things, “being” is what is most formal in the things.  For Joe Smith, “animal” is less formal than “man”, but being”  is more formal than both, since it is an act to which all other acts are in potency. Again, while “animal” is just a vague, abstract way of grasping what is concretely a man or a platypus or a goat, “being” is not just this. This difficulty is not trivial: DeKoninck spent much of his life treating the division of the sciences, but he never treated the problem of being as formal to the science of metaphysics. In fact, many things he said about being were deprecatory and even dismissive, and his account of metaphysics (such as it was) tended towards seeing it as nothing but a terminus of natural philosophy- as though there was nothing more to metaphysics than a natural philosopher saying “Oh, I guess God exists”, and then falling into perpetual silence. This attitude was imparted to his students, of which I am of the second generation.

There are moments in the early Dekonick that escape this critique (his early lecture on the principle of contradiction is a brilliant example). But on the whole his teaching is characterized by overlooking some very significant things that St. Thomas says about being.



  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    July 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Is your critique here saying that he contradicts St. Thomas and that you think Thomas is right and Dekonick wrong?

    More specifically, is there something about being’s formality that makes it more definite than Dekonick believed? Maybe it is just that I am having difficulty understanding how something can be both most indefinite and yet most formal.

  2. July 30, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Is your critique here saying that he contradicts St. Thomas and that you think Thomas is right and Dekoninck wrong?

    More or less, but not exactly. It’s not that STA has an extensive account of how the third degree of abstraction relates to the concept of being and CDK overlooks it or flubs it; it’s that CDK’s account of being and metaphysics do not do justice what STA says about these things.

    (N.B. I don’t know if your comment is a typo or not, but CDK’s last name ends with “iNck” though pronounced “ic”. Blame the French – then try to figure out the r and v in “Favre” pronounced as “Farv”).

    CDK never did justice to the “third degree of abstraction” (or whatever one wants to call the form of abstraction that typifies metaphysics and so gives rise to the formality of being) though he had many opportunities to do so. His account of the concept of being is only being that is first in the intellect, which he usually confounds with the sense of being that the metaphysician reduces things to. Even being as first in the intellect is a good deal more difficult to understand than a mere limit to the Porphyrian tree, since even this imperfect concept refuses to be of the same sort as the genera supposed underneath it.

    No one has ever done justice to the first and second degrees of abstraction in a way equal to CDK. That “no one” is not hyperbole. But his glaring omission is a just treatment of the third degree, which affects what he says about the other kinds of abstraction.

    St. Thomas never wrote extensively on the third degree of abstraction as it gives rise to the concept of being. This fell to his disciples, who have to give a synthesis of his vision of being. This is a startling and immediately paradoxical problem, and no metaphysics is of any value unless ti begins with the paradox of being. Parmenides saw it, even if he didn’t articulate it in exactly the right way (and Aristotle’s response to P. is a good deal more difficult than it is usually taken to be, since it’s not clear how many people would really be willing to admit that being is clearly distinguished from the principles of being.)

    That being is at once the most potential and actual of concepts is simply another spin on the Parmenidean problem; in fact, it advances the doctrine of Parmenides to a deeper level. Parmenides would take this as evidence that our attempts to reason are all simply apparent, and that we in fact see all being as one from the beginning. Reasoning itself is as subjective as motion, division, or the physical world, even if it is an unavoidable subjective feature of the world.

  3. Blaise said,

    July 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    When De Koninck refers to “being” as the emptiest of concepts, he appears to be considering it precisely as a concept. That is to say, he is speaking of the concept of being insofar as it is a principle whereby we know beings. In this respect, the concept of being is most general, so general, in fact, that as you yourself stated, this concept extends to things which possess being in analogous ways. Given the imperfection of the human intellect, man’s concept of being does not function as a principle of knowing things according to their determinate kinds but abstracts from this determination, as St. Thomas teaches regarding genera in the De Ente. (Contrast the human concept with the more perfect concepts employed by the angelic intellect or the single concept whereby God attains to a perfect knowledge of all things in all their determinateness. See Summa Theologiae Prima Pars, and the Prologue to St. Thomas’ Commentary on the Gospel of John.) Whether an analogous concept is indeterminate in exactly the same way as a genus seems to me to be a matter of debate, but the weakness of the human intellect demands at least a similar indeterminateness on the part of an analogous concept.

    When we consider, on the other hand, the object of the intellect, which it attains by means of the concept of being (as the principle of the intellect’s act), this object indeed is most formal. However, because of the vacuity of our concept of being, we do not attain to an individual being and to its intrinsic act of existence in all their actuality. For this reason, metaphysics in particular must proceed according to the via negationis. In fact, in his commentary on the De Trinitate (Question 5), St. Thomas indicates that the mode of abstraction proper to metaphysics is more properly called a separation and consists in a denial by means of the second act of reason.

    Two final points. First, St. Thomas, in his Commentary on the De Causis (Lectio 1), argues that the order between more and less universal causes applies to all four types of causality, formal causality included. He here suggests that animality is a more universal formal cause of a man than humanness. (Take note, however: this does not mean that St. Thomas holds that a being can have multiple substantial forms.) I do not mean to suggest that it is easy to reconcile this position with some of St. Thomas’s other positions; nevertheless, I believe that reconciling these two positions is possible.

    Second, until you produce actual texts from De Koninck, your critique seems to amount to the criticism that he did not say everything that might be said about the science of metaphysics. Such a critique, however, would surely apply to every philosopher who has ever lived (St. Thomas included). Perhaps a more charitable position would be to say that De Koninck, with as great a mind as he had, nevertheless recognized the great care with which one must proceed in such difficult matters and the insufficiency of the human intellect to attain perfectly to such subjects by nature alone. As a consequence, he no doubt set out in such matters more slowly and as a consequence did not produce as many writings on such a difficult subject. His untimely death may well have cut short a more direct foray into the realm of metaphysics by natural reason, but one may hope that, as a recompense for his devotion to the truth, he has received a view of the metaphysical from the far superior supernatural perspective.

    • July 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      A reply to all this doesn’t need to mention anything you don’t already know: St. Thomas didn’t advocate a purely apophatic or negative natural theology, and so a fortiori he didn’t advocate a purely negative or apophatic grasp of being by the mode of abstraction that gives rise to the subject of metaphysics. St. Thomas never worked out a complete doctrine of how this mode of abstraction gives rise to being as a subject, just as he never worked out a complete doctrine of analogy. This fell to whichever disciples chose to deal with the general shape of his doctrine of abstraction, like CDK. It does not contribute to our understanding of this mode of abstraction to point out that it is imperfect, since this is simply apophatism.

      As a good example of a treatment of the third degree of abstraction, which also makes clear how it illuminates things about the other modes of abstraction you can read John Horgan’s essay here, and you can follow the footnotes to the work of Nicholas Balthasar.

  4. July 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    “Produce more texts”

    Egad, I’m not doing all that typing. You can trust that I’ve done the reading or not, but that’s where it has to stay. To establish my bona fides, note that I’ve got an archive of every word Dekoninck ever wrote (and I’m the only non-institution affiliated person to have it.)

    My critique isn’t that CDK didn’t mention some things. It’s that he didn’t mention things precisely where he should have done so. He wrote all about abstraction and never did justice to the peculiar sort of abstraction proper to metaphysics. If you want to volunteer a text from his voluminous writing about abstraction that does justice to the third degree of abstraction I’d be happy to have it – but I’m very confident that it’s not there.

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