The intentional as opposed to the entitative (or real)

The Anglophone debate about intentionality has two familiar poles: one side insists that there is one sort of stuff in the universe and that it is a causally closed whole; the other side says that there is an irreducible difference between beings, such that no one inquiry into beings (like physics, say) could in principle exhaust them. Like any philosophical impasse, it’s inevitable that people will interpret it as showing a need for a synthesis of both positions. But what would that synthesis look like? There isn’t any middle between saying that there is reductively one sort of being, and saying there isn’t.

We Thomists can interpret the impasse over intentionality as forcing us to face up to a deep paradox at the heart of our system over what exactly intentionality is. The question arises in in response to two key texts: ST I q. 14 a. 1 and De veritate q. 2 a. 2.  In the first, St. Thomas argues that immateriality is the cause of knowledge, , but on a close reading (and especially when we compare the text to 2.2.) it’s clear that St. Thomas is opposing knowledge to matter so far as matter can only be the principle of some finite existing subject. Pay close attention to the two adjectives: finite and existing. In other words, so far as form is finite and the principle of an existing subject, knowledge is opposed to that too. In fact, so far as a composite being is finite or an existing subject, we also oppose knowledge to that. To push this to the limit: so far as the human soul or an angel is a finite existing subject, intentional being is opposed to that too. St. Thomas is only using “matter” or speaking of the “immateriality” of  knowledge/intentionality as a synecdoche.” The reason why he calls intentional being “immaterial” is because matter, on his system, can only be a principle of a finite existing subject (or, what amounts to the same thing, form is both a principle of being and of knowledge), but it’s not as if he is singling out matter as opposed to material form, the composite, the soul, or angels so far as any of these four things are considered in themselves. St. Thomas’s claim is that to be in a cognitive power (or intentionality) differs from everything else because it is to be in another or as opposed to being in oneself or for oneself. The things of the intentional order are not new entities existing in and of themselves, as though we add them on top of other entities like cats or angels – knowledge is explained by way of opposition to things that exist of themselves, or at least by way of opposition to finite things that exist of themselves. There is, if you like, a single reality or existence – when it exists in itself, it is an entity or a reality and when it exists in another (a cognitive power of some sort) it is intentional.

Thus, so far as we tacitly consider existence as pertaining to things that exist of themselves (even if this term is taken analogously) then knowledge or the intentional order – even “the things that exist in the intentional order” or “intentions” – are divided from this. If you make the perfectly rational assumption that whatever exists, exists in itself, then intentionality does not exist. Don’t rush in with distinctions! Just let it be the truth that, say, Eliminative Materialism or Naturalist Mysterianism is trying to articulate. Let the truth of the matter be even more radical and extreme than anything the Churchlands or Colin McGinn would claim: sc. there is an ontological non-existence to intentionality and an ontological befuddlement of even the principle of contradiction in the consideration of the mystery of intention. I’ll see your modern Naturalism, and raise you one Heidegger and a Meister Eckhart.

But if Naturalism is to have its truth then Thomism needs its critique. We’ve been too blithe about perfect rational coherence and have rarely been forthright about the paradoxes at the heart of our system. If Analytic philosophy is the measure of the rational (that is, if we must accept a sort of logical rigor that is opposed to the cloudiness that arises from accepting paradoxes) then it seems that Thomism does not fare well at all, and that it can call itself philosophy only of it ignores the consequences of its principles. The opposition between the ens reale and ens intentionale is a perfect case in point – why is Meister Eckhart the only one who confronted the obvious paradox of opposing the intentional to the real? Thomists divided esse into the esse of “entitites” and the esse of intention for centuries before Heidegger pointed out the obvious consequence (though he came at it from different principles) sc. that the being of entitites (esse reale) cannot account for the disclosure of entities (esse intentionale); and therefore so far as being is taken as the ground of the disclosure of entitites (which is exactly what, adjusting for vocabulary, Thomism says it is), then not only is “being” not the being of entitites, but being is nothing. A locution like sein expresses exactly the consequence that Thomism points at (John Deely wrote a book on this point).

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