The Trinity, idealizations, fictions, and the formal character of relation

The heart of St. Thomas’s doctrine of the Trinity is that relation, considered formally, is not in another. This allowed him to identify the persons with relations without making them derivative or accidental beings (while at the same time dividing them from the absolute being of God).

I was thrilled to find an argument from John of St. Thomas that appealed to the same fact to explain (non negative) beings of reason, understood broadly to include anything that intrinsically depends on an act of reason to exist (as opposed to art, which depends extrinsically on reason to exist). This broad class includes fictional characters, scientific idealizations, imagined possibilities, counterfactuals, Russellian teapots etc.

What is incapable of existence is either something positive or nonpositive. If it is nonpositive, then it is a negation; if positive it can only be a relation, because every positive and absolute being is understood not in relation to something else but as having its own independent being, and whatever has independent being is either a substance or an accident… [R]elation alone is not repugnant to being conceived without reality, for it expresses not only the concept of “being in” but also the concept of “being to”. As a consequence, when taken precisely, relation does not express existence in the thing itself, but the extrinsic order to a term. And so relation can be a being of reason, understood as neither in something else or in itself, but as a pure “to another” without any existence in a subject in any way.

Cursus Philosophicus V. 1 On the nature and division of the being of reason, a. 1.


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