Nominalism as Christian Philosophy (II)

An essentialist theory has to see essences as primarily intended, and so cannot see individuals as such as primarily intended. Thus God did not primarily intend to make persons, but human nature, which just happens (by some theories, anyway) to require persons to exist. But the notion of person is too integral to Christianity to be treated as an afterthought.

Said another way, on Aristotle’s account of things it is the essence or unchanging species that strives to participate in the divine as much as possible – the individual is more or less accidental. Christianity makes personhood divine in its account of the Trinity(and so makes creation a participation in persons) and makes the primary locus of divine participation the individual choices and life of the person.



  1. sdcojai said,

    January 5, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Strikes me that this is an immensely important topic, and I agree with what you say about the importance of persons. But should we call that nominalism? Could there be a dichotomy lurking here that doesn’t cover all the possibilities? Does seeing the inherent value and intelligibility of the person make us nominalist?

    A way that this problem has often seemed to me to present itself is this: The object of intellect, and therefore our end as human beings, is the knowable. But “knowable” has two senses: the universal knowable, and the personal knowable. Thus, I “know” the Pythagorean Theorem in one sense, and I “know” Sally in another sense.

    Assuming an analogy between these, I used to suppose that the universal knowable was the primary analogate. But actually, the reverse is true, isn’t it? That strikes me as a reason why “I’d rather be enjoying the Beatific Vision” makes sense understood one way, but seems almost laughable in the other.

    Not sure if that sounds too aphoristic. If it is, let me know, and I’ll come back and try to say more.

    Really like your blog, by the way.


    • January 6, 2013 at 9:00 am

      But “knowable” has two senses: the universal knowable, and the personal knowable.

      This requires a sense of “person” that is more than the individual signed by matter, and an account of knowledge that is more than one limited to abstraction from matter. I think there are principles in ancient/Medieval philosophy that allow us to articulate this difference, but they haven’t been actualized as a complete theory yet. I’m thinking of principles like (a.) “life is self-motion” (i.e. the higher mode of being is precisely the self) or (b.) life is divided from nature, as nature is principally moved by another or (c) there is a habitual knowledge of the self, i.e. of an individual that is not known by “reflection upon the phantasm” (or at least not in the same way as this is meant generally. It’s startling to see how seriously St. Thomas takes this question when he raises it) or (d) being cannot be known by abstraction, since the principle and term of abstraction are beings. I think principles like this could be powerful in conjunction with Buber’s idea that the “I-you” relation is essentially divided from the “I-it” relation, and that the former is the paradigm and measure of all other sorts of being (which is exactly what a worshiper of the Trinity should expect.)

      Say more about the Beatitude argument – I’d certainly agree that that beatitude shows that “knowledge” most of all means a knowledge of persons – a knowledge that overcomes the division between the entitative and the intentional (since it is the only sort of knowledge where the intelligible species is identical to the thing known [ST 1 q. 12 a. 2])

  2. January 5, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    How does the “one substance” part of “three persons, one substance” function in this version of nominalism as Christian philosophy?

    • January 6, 2013 at 9:02 am

      I don’t know the answer to this historically, though in a parallel problem of transubstantiation I’ve heard people suggest the idea of limiting the idea of substance to things involved in the Eucharist, so perhaps there was some attempt to limit the idea of substance to the Trinity. It’s doubtful that anyone would buy this as a serious solution.

      Nominalism is the claim that there is no real paradigm for a multitude, whether in the natural world nor in the mind of God, and so “that which is common to many” tells us nothing outside of the logical order. But since at least one person of the Trinity is the logos, there is a different sense of what logical order would be for it, and so it would not necessarily be contained in the nominalist critique. There might even be a pious nominalism that argues that to impute any extra-mental reality to essences would be to appropriate to the human mind a prerogative of the Trinity – the idea being that only in God could a Logos be in the entitative order.

  3. sdcojai said,

    January 6, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    What I meant about beatitude is in what you said: it shows that knowledge is most of all in knowledge of persons. The idea of “enjoying the beatific vision” seems often to be conceived of as if it meant “knowing” or “seeing” God as an object, rather than as a person; but that way the idea of “enjoying the beatific vision” seems finally absurd.

    We use the word to “see” according to a similar analogy of meanings to that with which we use the word “to know.” I’m thinking of the expression “go to see someone,” where to see involves being _with_, in the presence of, a person, just as the Word “was _with_ God.” This being-with seems to me to me to be absolutely essential to the perfect kind of knowing that is only possible with persons. (It often strikes me that this lowly preposition “with” might be among the most significant words we have.) Towards beings which are less than persons, knowing is too imperfect to include being-with in a full sense: there the being-with seems to be partly subordinated to simply being oneself; one possesses the known, rather than being with it.

    Most universally, the object of knowing is therefore not the essential, but being, as indicated by your argument above about being lying at both the beginning and end of abstraction. (But it seems to me that the argument shouldn’t conclude that being can’t be known by abstraction, but rather that it can’t be fully known.) But the nominalist-essentialist difference seems to me to be, in the first instance anyway, not about knowing in the most universal sense, but more about the how we know things which are less than persons. I wonder if thinking about angelic knowledge wouldn’t help to clarify that; one doesn’t have to go all the way up to God to see a case where the individual and the essential already cease to be distinct from each other.

    I’m not sure I agree that there is no (complete) theory about person being a higher object of knowing… though of course “complete” covers a lot of ground. I’ve just been looking at what Wojtyla says in Person and Act, and also in Sources of Renewal. These strike me as bearing very profoundly on all this.

    Looking back over what I just wrote, I wonder what you, James, and others think about this idea of “being with” in connection with knowing.

    • skholiast said,

      January 7, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      It seems to me that being-with in the sense sdcojai is using it entails a kind of being-constituted by the relationship with the entity in question. Insofar as i am a person, I am different from who I would be because of my relationship with other people. The more I “let them in,” the more I “become who I am.”

      I’ve often wondered whether to deeply know something –whether a theorem, or my neighbor, or a landscape, or etc– really doesn’t mean apprehending it “as” a person, as a Thou — in other words, to be-with them in just such an “open” and re-configuring way. Could there be a sense in which the Pythagorean theorem or the view from the Empire State Building is a Thou? Is there an Angel of the view from the Empire State?

      i agree with what thenyssan says (below), that one need not identify “individual” and “person,” and it seems to me that if we don’t so identify them, we don’t have to swing to nominalism in our desire to safeguard the person.

      • sdcojai said,

        January 8, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        Skholiast: what you’re saying reminds me of the wonderful place in Plotinus, where he suggests that, in way, all creatures contemplate God — which, of course, is an attribute of persons more properly.

        The question of whether to identify person and individual evidently depends on whether, by “individual,” one means _mere_ individual as opposed to person, or whether one means it quasi-generically. A mere individual would be a vehicle, so to speak, through which the essential nature exists; so there need not be much of an argument between those insisting that in lower natures (sub-personal) the individual is for the sake of the species, or for its own sake. The species only exists in the individual; in that sense, the individual reproduces for the sake of the individual; but the mere individual only has value as an instantiation of the species.

        The deeper question, then, is whether there is _ever_ such a thing as a mere individual, absolutely speaking. Answering it will depend, I think, on whether we conceive of the lower natures as existing for, and in relation to man, or not.

      • January 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm

        I’ve often wondered whether to deeply know something –whether a theorem, or my neighbor, or a landscape, or etc– really doesn’t mean apprehending it “as” a person, as a Thou

        This is exactly what Buber thinks to to be most impressed by the reality of things. See the account of the tree on page 7-8.

  4. DavidM said,

    January 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    “…on Aristotle’s account of things it is the essence or unchanging species that strives to participate in the divine as much as possible – the individual is more or less accidental.” – ?!? Where did you get this claim from? I’ll wait to hear your answer, but in the meantime I’ll just say that this is NOT how Aristotle’s account of things goes.

    • January 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      The most natural act is reproduction, by which the thing participates in the immortal and divine. Divinity is thus seen as found in the species as opposed to the corruptible individual. see De Anima 2:4.

      • DavidM said,

        January 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

        “the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible.” (DA 2:4) Two points: (1) Aristotle does not say it is the species wherein divinity is found; it is the individual in accordance with its species. (2) This passage ignores specifically rational natures (i.e., persons), but that is obviously not true of Aristotle’s account as a whole.

      • DavidM said,

        January 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm

        To clarify point (1): “it is the individual [which partakes in divinity, sofar as possible] in accordance with its species.”

  5. January 7, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    The goal of reproduction is not the making of an individual, this is an instrumental means to taking part in the eternity and divinity of the species.

    Aristotle’s account of rational natures is that they are made from men and the sun, like other natural things. There is no indication in his theory that some other cause is necessary (unlike, say, STA, who sees the human soul as requiring an act of special creation)

    There is just nothing in a natural theory that can intend individuals as individuals, especially not in a natural theory that seeks to derive things from essences. One cannot derive Napoleon from the nature of man. From this point of view – which Aristotle sees as fundamental – the individual is unintended, unable to be anticipated and outside what can be derived. The individual (on any theory, not just Aristotle’s) can be nothing but a fact. To the extent that we see individuals as intended or primary, we need to account for this by something other than a natural theory or the actions of essences, and our science has to consist in arrangement of facts (or a revelation from God) as opposed to essential truths .

    • DavidM said,

      January 8, 2013 at 8:35 am

      “The goal of reproduction is not the making of an individual, this is an instrumental means to taking part in the eternity and divinity of the species.” – That is a false dichotomy, seems to me.

      In your second paragraph you are talking about efficient causes, when the relevant question (about essences, natures) is about formal causes.

      In Aristotle’s view, man is made for wisdom, i.e., participation in the life of God (as well as a life of action in accordance with virtue). This is accomplished in individual persons and only in these.

      “The individual (on any theory, not just Aristotle’s) can be nothing but a fact.” – I don’t know what to make of this claim. It seems false – or at least too cryptic to be true.

  6. thenyssan said,

    January 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    I notice in your OP you slide from individual to person. It seems to me that the Nominalist problem you are working at depends on identifying the two; part of the essence of Trinitarian belief (and orthodox Christology) is their non-identity.

    • DavidM said,

      January 8, 2013 at 9:07 am

      A person (according to Boethius) is an individual substance of a rational nature. A person is just a species of individual. The principle kind of individual (and principle kind of *being*) is a *substance* for Aristotle (not an *essence*). Substances (individuals) are what are primarily intended by nature (see Met. VII – although this account of *ousia* – that is, the primary object of first philosophical inquiry – is in part transcended by Met. IX and XII).

  7. January 7, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    That’s true but I think it presses the distinctions in the words beyond what is necessary for the point here. The basic idea in the OP (pt. 1 and 2) is that history, omnipotence, and persons create tensions with the idea that a stable and unchanging essence is fundamentally what is at work in created things.

    What is the structure of this universe? The Aristotelian account is that it is a hierarchy of essences filling out all the degrees of being, where there is an intelligible, one step causal connection between what the Andromeda galaxy is doing and the fact that wheat grows in summer. The layers are timeless essences stacked up in an eternal universe that has no structure in history. The Christian, on the other hand, says the universe is an historically ordered whole, both in the natural world and in the progress of human life. The universe is primarily the temporal structure of a story whose contours are given not by layers of essences but by contingent, accidental, and freely chosen events. These are very different views of the universe. St. Thomas holds to both, but it is not clear how they work together.

    • sdcojai said,

      January 8, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      James, are you familiar with DeKoninck’s essays on indeterminism? E.g., Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism, and Reflections on the problem of Indeterminism? I think DK shows the right way between straightforward nominalism on one side, and what he calls “fixism” and “bad angelism” on the other. What he says is profound, in my opinion, and a key to real cosmology, as opposed to the fake cosmologies that bad scholasticism likes to take refuge in.

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