Archive for the ‘Terms’ Category

Words that Grow

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Just Thomism has a fantastic post on the meanings of terms like form, matter, and substance as they were used by St. Thomas. The post explains a great deal of my frustration over the last six months; every time I think I’ve got a term figured out, it seems to shift a bit. JT explains why–and that it really does make sense.

I wish I’d read something like this six months ago. Of course, six months ago I probably wouldn’t have been in a position to appreciate it.

Extension and Comprehension

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

I learned two new terms this week, courtesy of Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, that are immediately applicable to De Ente et Essentia. The terms are extension and comprehension, two properties that terms have. (He also cited four pairs of synonyms; apparently, the concepts are important but the names for them are little agreed upon.)

Simply put, the comprehension of a term is its meaning; and the extension of a term is the set of things to which it refers. The comprehension of the term man, for example, is rational animal; the extension of the term man, is all men and women.

The interesting thing about comprehension and extension is that they are inversely related. If you increase the comprehension of a term, you decrease its extension, and vice versa. Thus, the term rational animal has greater comprehension than the term animal alone, it is more determinate, but at the same time it has a lesser extension, it refers to fewer beings.

And this, it so happens, is the distinction that Thomas has been making in Chapter 2 of De Ente et Essentia. In terms of extension, the genus animal contains everything that is in the species man; but in terms of comprehension the term animal means only that which all animals have in common, and is thus only a part of the species man.

Some books just seem to come along at the right time.

Socratic Logic, by Peter Kreeft

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Aha! Comes the dawn!

Early on in my Aquinas blogging I joked that if I ever wrote a philosophy book, it would be entitled “What Aquinas Takes For Granted,” and it would cover all of the points of Aristotelian thought that Thomas uses without explanation, for the benefit of those, like me, who came in late. But glory of glories, wonder of wonders, I no longer need to, for Peter Kreeft has already done it.

I recently received in the mail Kreeft’s book Socratic Logic, which is that most glorious of things, a college-level introduction to Aristotelian Logic. (Kreeft is a big fan of Socrates, as the title indicates, but though he is clearly fond of Plato I gather he considers Aristotle to be Socrates’ true successor.) And though I’ve just begun to read it I do believe that it is going to resolve a great many of my questions.

Just yesterday, for example, I got horribly confused by a passage in Thomas’ De Ente et Essentia about the relation between species and members of a species; and just this morning Kreeft began to explain some basic concepts that I had not understood.

I have been treating the term man as a species, as equivalent to the term rational animal; after all, “Man is a rational animal.” This is incorrect. Man is a term, a concept, the result of a simple apprehension. It is simple and indivisible. Rational animal is the species of man. It is clearly not simple and indivisible, as it composed of genus and specific difference.

What I was missing was the notion of the “five predicables”, the five kinds of things that can appear as the predicate of a proposition: genus, specific difference, species, property, and accident. These terms have to be thought of as predicates; and if I had realized this, I’d not have confused man and rational animal. These two concepts are related, but not identical.

I am just scratching the surface of Socratic Logic, but I can confidently say that it’s going to be an eye-opener all the way along.

What joy!

Truth Cancer

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

Mark Shea recently used the term “truth cancer”. Truth cancer takes root when you latch on to one truth out of many and proceed to exalt it to the detriment of the others. This leads to the syndrome Uncle Screwtape called “Christianity and …”. This one truth, which is undeniably true, becomes an idol.

Or, as it occurred to me to put it the other day, while cancer metastasizes, truth cancer hypostasizes.

How Do I Apprehend A Car?

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

Consider my neighbor’s dog, vs. my neighbor’s car.

His dog is a substance, a natural unit as Herbert McCabe would say; and the essence of his dog is the species dog. His car is not a substance; it is an accidental arrangement of substances, what McCabe would call an accidental unit. Not being a substance it can’t have a substantial form, so I presume it has the accidental form of a car.

Now, when I look at his dog, I apprehend the dog’s essence, its quiddity: it’s a dog.

When I look at his car, I apprehend a…what? Can an accidental arrangement, a heap, have an essence? I had thought not. And yet I apprehend a single thing, and what I apprehend is (or so I thought) the thing’s quiddity, which is to say its essence.

Either the terms essence and quiddity have a wider sense I was unaware of; or the concept I apprehend when I see my neighbor’s car is not a quiddity, but something else.

So what is it?

The Soul and the Body

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Phil’s been urging me to immerse myself in St. Thomas alone, rather than in his disciples, but I’ve resisted doing that. I find it most useful to approach new ideas from multiple angles, as it’s easier to discern their shapes that way. Here’s a vindication of my approach.

Part of the baggage of our cultures is Cartesian dualism, the notion that the body and the soul are entirely separate. This makes no sense, from the point of view of Christian doctrine, and Thomas had no such notion, as I’ve read; but in a book by Peter Kreeft I ran into the following passage, which really hammers home both the difficulty of overcoming our Cartesian heritage, and what a non-dualistic view of body-and-soul looks like:

The body is the content or material of the soul; the soul is the form of the body. We think it is a harmless platitude to say that we are one, not two; yet it entails the startling consequence that the answer to the question “What is the soul made of?” is “flesh and bones”, just as the answer to the question “What is this bunch of flesh and bones?” is “a human soul”.

There is no “me” without form (the soul) and matter (the body). I am a composite of the two, but not in the physical sense that an axe is a composite of a blade and a handle. The two parts are not separable. If I lose my form, I die…and though my soul continues, Kreeft suggests that this is a kind of cosmic obscenity, a deeply unnatural thing, to be rectified at the resurrection. (In fact, at one point he appears to suggest that between death and the resurrection one must have some kind of minimal body to exist at all.)

Herbert McCabe makes the point that form is that which is intelligible, which can be known through the intellect, and that matter is that which is unintelligible, which can not be known but can only be sensed. The use of the words matter and body in metaphysics is therefore not identical with our day to day meanings. And yet surely they are related? Surely our physical bodies are that which we can sense, while our souls can only be known?

Genus and Species

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Thomas has been explainining how the essence of a composite being can include both matter and form. Before we move along to the sixth paragraph of Chapter 2, I’d like to spend some time with the last sentence of paragraph 5:

If animal were not all that man is but rather only a part of him, then animal would not be predicated of man, for no integral part is predicated of its whole.

Because a genus is less specific than a species, I tend to think of it as less extensive than a species. For example, when I hear that “Man is a rational animal” I mentally take some notion of animal and add rationality to it. Aquinas’ point, here, is that “animal” is wider, more extensive, than “man” is–it includes all of the attributes of all animals, including men. What defines a species isn’t something added to the definition of animals; it’s what distinguishes this kind of animal from that kind.

I’m going to have to keep an eye on this mistake, and see if it’s been leading me astray.


Monday, September 1st, 2008

I’ve been throwing the word apprehend around a lot recently. It’s a word in constant use by many of the books I’ve been reading recently, and one that I understand well enough to follow them; but it occurred to me do that I can’t really define it.

According to, to apprehend is generally “to understand”; when used of an object, it is “to grasp the meaning of; understand, esp. intuitively; perceive.”

Thomas and company clearly distinguish between perceiving, that is, acquiring images through our senses, and apprehending, that is, understanding through our intellects. From this, we can conclude that dictionaries are the death of fine and subtle distinctions. But of course, I’m trying to define apprehend as a technical term in philosophy, not as in normal English.

Apprehension can also be distinguished from comprehension; defines comprehend as “to understand the nature or meaning of; grasp with the mind; perceive.” Uh-huh.

Dagobert D. Rune’s Dictionary of Philosophy says this:

Apprehension: (ad + prehendere: to seize)

1. Act involving the bare awareness of the presence of an object to consciousness; the general relation of subject to object as inclusive of the more special forms, such as perceiving or remembering, which the relation may take.

2. Act involving the awareness of the bare presence of an object to consciousness, as opposed to any act which involves judgment about such an object.

I fancy that the second meaning is the specific one I’ve been looking for.

The same source has this to say about comprehension:

Comprehension: (Lat. com + prehendere, to grasp)

The act or faculty of understanding, intellectual grasp, or insight. Comprehension may be achieved variously by:

  1. unifying and relating manifold facts or ideas;
  2. deducing something from premises;
  3. accommodating new facts or ideas to established knowledge;
  4. seeing a thing or idea in its proper or significant context;
  5. relating a fact or idea to something known, universal and subject to law.

Comprehension carries sometimes the special connotation of thorough understanding.

The etymology of the words is revealing: to apprehend is to seize an idea; to comprehend is to grasp an idea. The second has a sense of greater care and attention, of deliberation.


Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

The other day we ran into the term suppositum. I looked it up on Google, and found this bit from the Catholic Dictionary’s entry for person:

Rationalis naturae — Person is predicated only of intellectual beings. The generic word which includes all individual existing substances is suppositum. Thus person is a subdivision of suppositum which is applied equally to rational and irrational, living and non-living individuals. A person is therefore sometimes defined as suppositum naturae rationalis.

Thus, a suppositum is an individual substance; a person is an individual substance, a suppositum with a rational nature.

Now you know.

Comes the Dawn: A Substantial Epiphany

Friday, August 15th, 2008

I had thought I knew what substances were, metaphysically speaking. A substance is a being, something that exists. (Please note, I’m speaking of primary substances here, not secondary substances.) From the examples I’d seen, I’d come to think of a substance as being a thing, an object, that has its own identity. Dogs are substances. People are substances. Chairs are substances. Laptop computers are substances. It turns out that I was mistaken, as Brendon explains in passing in a post about Artificial Intelligence.

Things that are physically composed of multiple pieces organized in a particular way, such as machines and other artifacts, are not substances; they are made of pieces which are substances, or which are themselves composites of substances.

Living things are different: they are alive by virtue of having a soul (vegetative, sensitive, or rational, as the case may be), and this soul is in fact their substantial form. Machines have no substantial form.

This leads me to a bunch of other questions:

  • When an animal dies, it loses its soul, and hence its substantial form. Though perhaps it would be more correct to put that the other way round. But anyway, a live dog is a substance; a dead dog is a composite of substances. Yes?
  • An axe, made of a blade and a handle, has the form of an axe. The axe is not a substance and has no substantial form. Brendon says it has the accidental form of an axe; and yet I would have thought that the axe had the essence of an axe, would belong to the species axe. Is “axe” not even a secondary substance?
  • Brendon points out that a bronze bust only accidentally has the form of the person it resembles; the appearance can be changed without changing the underlying substance, bronze. But is bronze a substance, metaphysically speaking? As an alloy, isn’t it a composite?
  • Can we, as human beings, bring new substances into existence by our own power, by any means other than procreation? I live with four substances of whom I’m the proud father; are there any other substances I can claim to be responsible for creating? It would seem not. I might breed animals or raise plants, but in such cases the substance is generated by its parent substance(s).
  • Consider a bar of pure iron. Is that a substance? Or is it only made of a substance, iron. If it is a substance, what happens when I cut it in two? Do I now have two substances?

I understood all this better last night, before I started thinking about it.