Abstraction vs. separation (pt. 2)

STA divides abstraction (which gives rise to math and what’s now called the sciences) from separation (which gives rise to what he called metaphysics or divine science). As I’m interpreting him, abstraction gives rise to concepts or categories which are essential for us to know what something is while separation is the set of tools we use to articulate the insights we have into non-physical things: negation, causation, transcendence, etc. and which we describe by negative and analogous names.

Metaphysical substances are all persons and so non-homogeneous. At the limit of personality are the divine persons that cannot be assimilated into any genus at all. These we can know only that they are and not what they are. In the inanimate world things are utterly homogenous and interchangeable – while they are individual things their individuality adds nothing beyond being an enumeration of their type. The first hints on individuality arise in the living world where some substance acts of itself, and this responsibility gets another intrinsic conditioning to its existence when the type divides into male and female, since it now becomes impossible for all the perfections of the type to be realized in a single individual. After this, social structures in the animal kingdom make the type less and less able to realized in a single substance, serving to make individuality more and more pronounced. Many of the big-5 traits have precursors in other social species. To the extent that these structures are physical and generic they can always remain essentially homogeneous and so knowable by abstraction.

The definitive first step beyond this occurs in the human intellect. While it is always conditioned by personality and so by subconscious structures, this personality is in the service of a person, i.e. one who knows being and so transcends the information that physical cognition can provide. The existence we know is always from physical cognition, but not always in the same way. In the sciences and math physical cognition is the whole content of the thing known (though only mathematics considers this content as abstract) while in metaphysics abstracted content is the instrument we use to articulate insights into the non-abstractible. The first among non-abstractibles is existence, which is always left behind in abstraction; the next is the self or person, who is the subject of the intellectual act and is known through the abstraction without being abstracted. We flesh out this insight into the self who knows existence by negation, sc. the mind is nothing actual before it thinks. It is not, like the central nervous system, a cognitive apparatus with actual existence that is first assembled then put to use. This is the first instance of non-homogeneity, though it is at the minimal possible level. Being a person for us is still entirely conditioned by personality, i.e. the subconscious structures of the central nervous system that, of themselves, share in the impersonality of the inanimate world.



  1. Will Worrock said,

    July 10, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Mr Chastek, I’m an 18 year old who just converted to the Roman Catholic Church and am very interested in Thomism. Do you know of any good books to start at?

    • July 11, 2017 at 8:10 pm

      I’m not the one to ask. I liked STA since seventh grade and I liked reading Maritain and then Gilson. Later I loved Dekoninck who disliked Maritain intensely and taught students who disliked Gilson. So to this day I don’t know what to think about thomists since all the thomists I loved told me not to read the other guy, which I found confusing and it stunted what I could learn from them.

      I don’t know that I’ve read all that many books on Thomism (which sounds like a terribly boring topic) and I don’t teach it from textbooks. If you’re interested in philosophy or classical learning I’d never bother reading about thomism. Read Euclid if you haven’t or find something you love in Plato. You can read STA if you want but realize you’re not supposed to get it until you’ve found something to love in Plato and Augustine first. Philosophy isn’t so much a topic as a kind of love. Once you find a topic to love I might be able to point you in the right direction.

      I liked Feser’s book on Aquinas, though. He’s also fun to watch on YouTube.

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