The overcoming of abstract/concrete opposition

Each rung of the ladder of being involves overcoming of the ontological division between the abstract and the concrete.

1.) Natural things. On the lowest level of being, both the abstract and the concrete cannot both be real. Among sensible things, we either have to say, with Aristotle, that the concrete is real and the abstract is a mere logical being that has existence only secondarily to the concrete; or we say with Plato that the intelligible world is real and concrete sensible things are secondary and purely participatory existences.

2.) The human intellect. The human intellect is the first realm in which the ontological opposition between abstract and concrete begins to break down. Is my abstract idea abstract or concrete (i.e. “mine”)? When I know DNA, do I know it by the idea in my head or by the same idea as you? The questions are all false dichotomies because the human mind transcends the ontological oppositions we find in natural things. Nevertheless, our mind is still the form of a natural body, and as such it mires us in the oppositions we find in #1.

3.) The angelic intellect. Angels overcome the concretion of substance that we find in each human person. In the angel, the reality of the substance is no longer opposed to the reality of the species, but both express their proper perfection in one and the same angel. Nevertheless, the angel is one and only one concrete substance, and so is divided from the substance of others, even if not from his own intelligible, abstract character.

4.) The triune God. The definitive overcoming of the opposition between the concrete and the abstract occurs not only in the doctrine of divine simplicity (where we understand God’s existence through concrete terms and his simplicity by abstract ones) but also in the fact that the existence of one individual is no longer disconnected from the existence of another, i.e. abstraction comes to full flower by preserving its absolute unity while communicating itself to more than one substance, as opposed to angelic nature, which is too restricted to be fully communicated to more than one.



  1. Zippy said,

    February 14, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    It might just be that I am slower than the average bear, but I can’t even begin to see what makes (1) necessarily the case. (I suppose it might be actually the case without being necessarily so: the necessity is what I don’t see). Why must I consider a rock “more” ontologically real than the Pythagorean theorem, or vice versa?

    • February 14, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      What we say about the Pythagorean theorem would depend on your theory of mathematical things, but most folks don’t see them as straightforwardly natural, even if not supernatural.

      That said, my point is basically the problem of universals. If our three options are Plato, Aristotle, or some form of Nominalism, then we have to chose between seeing universals as real and sensible things as secondary participations (Plato) or seeing the sensible things as real substances and the universals as secondary, derivative things (Aris. and the Nominalists). Their vocabulary bears this out: what Plato calls “the thing in itself” is the same thing that Aristotle or the Nominalists “an abstraction”*

      Plato would have seen pythaogrean-theorem like things as more real and rocks as mere participations or derivative instances of things like this; Aristotle and the Nominalists saw the rock as more real and things like the Pythagorean theorem as abstractions from these concrete realities. I here make no judgment about which side is right, but look at all the options and see that they posit what I call an ontological opposition between the concrete and the abstract, i.e. they all agree that both the concrete and the abstract cannot be real.

      *Lloyd Gerson wrote a very good article that denies that Aris. and Plato were speaking of the same thing, but the general point still stands.

      • Zippy said,

        February 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm

        Fair enough about the ‘standard’ views. I understand that they think we have to choose. I just don’t really understand why they think that. It seems like an unnecessary and rather arbitrary – counterintuitive even – axiom to me. Of course a coherent ontology will view material and immaterial things differently; but assuming that one must be ‘more real’ than the other seems like – well, it seems like assuming the square root of negative one to be unintelligible nonsense. I suppose I can see why it might appeal to certain folks’ intuitions, but I can’t see what makes it necessary.

        My own intuition is that the number four and my dog are both real, though of course they have quite different natures as the kind of thing they are.

      • Zippy said,

        February 14, 2016 at 3:19 pm

        Also, I don’t think my intuition is arbitrary. Suppose I get run over by a bus. Do either my dog or the number four cease to exist? No. Therefore, both are real. Haggling over which is ‘more real’ than the other, then, is really just haggling over their different natures masquerading as haggling over which is ‘more real’.

      • February 15, 2016 at 8:04 am

        Forming a general judgment of the standard views is too overwhelming a task for this format, though I think that the question is not so much whether the intelligible or the sensible/concrete are both real as whether the reality of one is derivative or participated from the other.

        Mathematical things are always the paradigm for the Platonic view, but they have to generalize to all abstracta/ intelligible reality – in fact, if we want to call them equally real we would have to deny that they are properly described as “abstractions” since this describes them as derivative and secondary realities.

  2. William Farris said,

    February 14, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Gotto go with Plato here. Space and time are both concrete and abstract realities. They are abstract because they are not causal; they are concrete because they intuitively, obviously exist and can be measured, etc.

    The theological pushback (e.g., Wm Lane Craig) concerns aseity. How silly to think that the co-eternality of necessary propositional truth and other abstracta violates aseity.

  3. stevegbrown said,

    February 15, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    “… we either have to say, with Aristotle, that the concrete is real and the abstract is a mere logical being that has existence only secondarily to the concrete; or we say with Plato that the intelligible world is real and concrete sensible things are secondary and purely participatory existences.” Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t this a short sight of Aristotle in that he denied a real distinction between essence and existence. Joseph Owens wrote a whole thesis on this in his “Doctrine of Being in Aristotelian Metaphysics”? What is your take on Owen’s thesis?

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