Four levels of actuality

Operatio sequitur esse. Esse is here not actus essendi or ultimate act, but a synonym for natura as the source of operation. Nothing is without some work of its own. Thomas expressed the same idea as omne agit secundum quod in actu, meaning both everything acts so far as it is actual and so far as anything is actual, it is acting. 

Action has four hierarchical, analogous meanings:

1.) Passive response to exterior action. This is the level proper to the inorganic, the knowledge of which is concretized in physics and chemistry, studying the reactions that diverse substances have to being variously acted on. If you run an electric charge through water or pour acid on a base both the water and base respond in determinate ways for determinate reasons. More broadly, anything known by an experiment will be a reaction or response, since the initial action in the experiment is  performed by the experimenter.

The inorganic as such acts only so far as an exterior action is presupposed, and so is essentially derivative or secondary. A purely inorganic system must be therefore conceived of as both infinite and deterministic to the extent that it is intelligible, since any action it exhibits must be a set response to a previous cause considered as given.

2.) Active assimilation of the exterior world, but not as world. This is proper to the feeding and growing animate organism. While there are many passive type (1) reactions in trees reacting to water, these reactions do not exhaust the account of what the tree is doing. No mere result of a chemical reaction, for example, can be called a waste product; considered purely as a physical system, a tree produces sugars just as much as oxygen, the animal produces fur as much as carbon dioxide.

The food source as exterior is not actual but only potential food. This is true a fortiori of food so far as it is a source of actual growth. We might visualize the ‘consciousness’ of a plant as believing that all it consumes begins to exist within its own mouth. If the plant could form a belief, it would be of its entire self sufficiency.

3.) Assimilation of the exterior world as interior. While an animate organism as feeding and growing  does not take in the exterior world as exterior, a sentient organism does. The wolf’s food is a part of its life by sensation before it is part of it by feeding, so it makes sense to talk about an animal seeing actual food before it eats it.

Sentience assimilates the exterior world only so far as it affects an organ and therefore is made interior to the organism. This is why the sensation is not just objective but also pleasant, painful, frightful, perspectival, etc, all of which are results of the constitution of the animal. Both Plato and Berkeley made careers out of proving the ways in which sense objects are not entirely constituted by the nature of the thing sensed.

4.) Assimilation of the exterior world as such. This is the domain of intellection, which exists in its minimal state in human cognition. We can at least know that there are features of the exterior world  entirely peculiar to the exterior world: it is exterior to us, it exists, it divides into categories, it has an action expressive of its nature etc.


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