Archive for February, 2009

CT 81: Reception of Intelligible Forms in the Possible Intellect

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

In Chapter 81, Thomas says,

As was stated above, the higher an intellectual substance is in perfection, the more universal are the intelligible forms it possesses. Of all the intellectual substances, consequently, the human intellect, which we have called possible, has forms of the least universality. This is the reason it receives its intelligible forms from sensible things.

When an intellect understands something, it understands by possessing the essence–the form–of that thing. That’s what Thomas means by “intelligible form”–the kind of form that can be apprehended by the intellect. The human intellect, being the least possible kind of intellect, has the most particular, least universal forms, which as he says are received from sensible things. I look at a dog, and apprehend Dog.

This can be made clear from another point of view. A form must have some proportion to the potency which receives it. Therefore, since of all intellectual substances man’s possible intellect is found to be the closest to corporeal matter, its intelligible forms must, likewise, be most closely allied to material things.

When I apprehend Dog, I am apprehending the essence–the form–of the dog. Now, it is precisely this form that makes the dog a Dog. It is this form that turns the matter of which the dog is made into that which we call a Dog. And consequently this form, Dog, is proportional to matter, that is, it’s a form that is suitable for bringing the potency of matter to that kind of act we call a Dog.

However, it’s also a form that is intelligible to the human intellect. It’s suitable for forming matter into a dog, and for forming my intellect into the concept Dog. This makes sense, because we’ve already determined that all of intellectual substances, the human intellect is closest to matter.

Good grief, I think I’m actually beginning to understand this stuff.

CT 80: Different Kinds of Intellect and Ways of Understanding

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Now that we’ve put Man in his place, let’s continue examining human intellect in Chapter 80:

Since intellectual being is superior to sentient being, just as intellect is superior to sense, and since lower beings imitate higher beings as best they may, just as bodies subject to generation and corruption imitate in some fashion the circulatory motion of heavenly bodies, it follows that sensible beings resemble, in their own way, intellectual beings. Thus from the resemblance of sense to intellect we can mount to some knowledge of intellectual beings.

A sentient being is a being that possesses sense, i.e., vision, hearing, and so forth. Animals are sentient; plants are not. Humans are sentient but also intellectual. Now, all beings resemble some perfection or perfections in God, and the higher the being, the more so. Thus, Thomas may say that lower beings imitate higher beings “as best they may”. Since sentient beings resemble, in some sense, intellectual beings, we can learn something about how intellect works in Man by studying how sense works in Dog.

However, “sentient being” is not the same as “sensible being”. A sentient being is a being that has sense; a sensible being is a being that can be sensed.

In sensible beings a certain factor is found to be the highest; this is act, that is, form. Another factor is found to be the lowest, for it is pure potency; this is matter. Midway between the two is the composite of matter and form.

OK, sure. Rocks, plants, animals, people, are all a composite of form and matter.

We expect to find something similar in the intellectual world. The supreme intellectual being, God, is pure act. Other intellectual substances have something of act and of potency, but in a way that befits intellectual being. And the lowest among intellectual substances, that whereby man understands, has, so to speak, intellectual being only in potency.

Interesting. At the top end of the intellectual scale, we have God, who is pure act; then we scale down through the angels, in whom is some admixture of potency (though no matter), until finally the lowest creatures on the intellectual scale, the souls of men and women, have intellect in potency only. That makes sense.

Hey, wait a minute. Potency only? But how can I understand anything, if my intellect is only potentially there?

This is borne out by the fact that man is at first found to be only potentially intelligent, and this potency is gradually reduced to act in the course of time.

Aha! We learn! Babies understand nothing. Over time we become more intelligent, that is, we understand more things, more essences become intelligible to us. At birth, our intellect is capable of understanding, but we know nothing; when we are grown, presumably we’ve learned something.

And this is why the faculty whereby man understands is called the possible intellect.

Some background I picked up somewhere. The intellect has two parts, the agent intellect and the possible intellect. The agent intellect is that by which we apprehend the essence of something. When I see a dog and think, “That’s a dog,” it is the agent intellect at work. The possible intellect, as I understand it, is like the intellect’s memory. If I see a dog, and I’ve never seen or heard of a dog before, I apprehend it as some kind of animal I’ve never seen before. Gradually, as I learn about dogs, all of the things that go along with being a dog accumulate in the possible intellect and become available to be apprehended. Then, when I see a dog I can move quickly from “this animal before me” to “Man’s best friend.”

CT 79: Inferiority of Man’s Intellectual Nature

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

So now we come back to Thomas’ Compendium of Theology, which you may have seen published as Aquinas’ Shorter Summa (not to be confused with A Shorter Summa, which is one of Peter Kreeft’s two abridgements of the full Summa Theologiae). Previously we were looking at the intellectual substances, i.e., angels; now we move on to Man’s intellectual nature in Chapter 79:

Infinite progression is impossible in any series. Among intellectual substances, one must ultimately be found to be supreme, namely, the one which approaches most closely to God. Likewise, one must be found to be the lowest, and this will be the most intimately associated with corporeal matter.

One of the interesting things about reading Thomas is that over time you begin to see certain general principles used over and over again. Some one should search them out and compile them into a book; this would be a great beginning to the hypothetical volume I’ve dubbed “Things St. Thomas Aquinas Took For Granted.” That infinite progression is impossible in any series is undoubtedly one of these.

One of Thomas’ assumptions, I gather, is that nothing created is truly infinite. There are a great many atoms in the universe, for example, far too many for any human being to count, but the total remains is a finite number. So, if you’ve got a finite number of intellectual substances, and they can be ranked by how closely they approach God, then certainly you’re going to have a greatest and a least.

And the least will be associated most intimately with corporeal matter–and that’s us. We’re kind of like amphibians, as Uncle Screwtape describes us, having both material and intellectual (i.e., spiritual) components.

This can be explained in the following way. Understanding is proper to man beyond all the other animals. Evidently, man alone comprehends universals, and the relations between things, and immaterial objects, which are perceptible only to the intelligence.

We, alone among animals, have intellect. Intellect, it develops, is necessarily an immaterial faculty:

Understanding cannot be an act performed by a bodily organ, in the way that vision is exercised by the eye. No faculty endowed with cognitive power can belong to the genus of things that is known through its agency. Thus the pupil of the eye lacks color by its very nature. Colors are recognized to the extent that the species of colors are received into the pupil; but a recipient must be lacking in that which is received.

As always, Thomas’ when Thomas draws examples from physics, astronomy, or biology you have to be very careful. This is an interesting one, though—because the pupil is, in fact, the lens of the eye, and indeed to do its just it must be transparent, lacking in color. That said, he certainly hasn’t proved this principle through this example. The retina, on the other hand, certainly are colored. You can’t taste your own tongue, but you can certainly taste someone else’s. (Ahem.) And anyone who has had their ears ring knows that ears can produce sounds that can be heard.

On the other hand, an eye that sees mostly itself (as with glaucoma) or an ear that hears mostly itself (as with serious tinnitus) or a tongue that tasted mostly itself (ewwww) wouldn’t be all that useful.

The intellect is capable of knowing all sensible natures.

That is, it can apprehend the essences of the things we see/hear/taste/smell/feel.

Therefore, if it knew through the medium of a bodily organ, that organ would have to be entirely lacking in sensible nature; but this is impossible.

Hmmm. Clearly, any bodily organ has a sensible nature; I’ll buy that. Now presumably a sensible nature is the species of a being that can be sensed. And unlike accidents, such as color, which can be possessed to a greater or lesser degree, a being has a species or it doesn’t, all or nothing. Your cornea can have the slightest bit of clouding, in which case you’ll see less perfectly but you won’t be totally blind; but your intellect can’t have just the slightest bit of sensible nature; it either does or it doesn’t.

So a thing can have or not have a sensible nature; and Thomas is claiming that if it has one, it cannot apprehend sensible natures; it’s own sensible nature would get in the way.

How come? I can see it by analogy to sight, but that’s not a proof.

Moreover, any cognitive faculty exercises its power of knowing in accord with the way the species of the object known is in it, for this is its principle of knowing. But the intellect knows things in an immaterial fashion, even those things that are by nature material; it abstracts a universal form from its individuating material conditions. Therefore the species of the object known cannot exist in the intellect materially; and so it is not received into a bodily organ, seeing that every bodily organ is material.

This bit makes more sense. A universal clearly is not material; so it can’t exist materially; and since every bodily organ is material, the apprehended universal doesn’t exist in any bodily organ.

Now, there’s an obvious question I think any programmer would ask, here. What’s the difference between, say, an architect’s concept of a building he’s designing, as it exists in his intellect, and the CAD model of the building, as it exists in a computer’s memory? The CAD model is an immaterial thing, a collection of related ideas; but it’s captured as patterns of 0’s and 1’s.

You could ask a similar question about a printed book. There are certainly ideas in the book, in the form of letters made of ink. A book is a material thing containing immaterial ideas, but those ideas are captured materially. Why could there be a bodily organ (i.e., the brain) that works the same way?

I think the answer is that the book does not understand itself; the computer does not understand the program within it. The ideas in a book or in a computer program or in a CAD model really only come to life in the intellect of the author or the programmer. They are physical tools that borrow the immaterial intellect they need from them what has it.

The same is clear from the fact that a sense is weakened and injured by sensible objects of extreme intensity. Thus the ear is impaired by excessively loud sounds, and the eye by excessively bright lights. This occurs because the harmony within the organ is shattered. The intellect, on the contrary, is perfected in proportion to the excellence of intelligible objects; he who understands the higher objects of intelligence is able to understand other objects more perfectly rather than less perfectly.

Sense organs are weakened by inputs of extreme intensity, but the greather than objects the intellect understands, the more it is strengthened. And things that are “over your head” don’t weaken your intellect (even though people say, “that makes my brain hurt”)—they just go over your head.

Consequently, if man is found to be intelligent, and if man’s understanding is not effected through the medium of a bodily organ, we are forced to acknowledge the existence of some incorporeal substance whereby man exercises the act of understanding.

Yeah, well, we knew he was going there. :-)

For the substance of a being that can perform an action by itself, without the aid of a body, is not dependent on a body. But all powers and forms that are unable to subsist by themselves without a body, cannot exercise any activity without a body. Thus heat does not by itself cause warmth; rather a body causes warmth by the heat that is in it. Accordingly this incorporeal substance whereby man understands, occupies the lowest place in the genus of intellectual substances, and is the closest to matter.

And there you are. We sit right on the dividing line between the fleshly and the spiritual, and fall into both groups. And therein naturally comes our importance as creatures: God needs us not, and yet we are perfectly designed to be his ambassadors to the rest of the material universe.

Isagoge: Chapter 17 — Of Community and Difference of Property and Accident

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Property and Accident, compare and contrast:

It remains to speak of property and accident, for how property differs from species, difference, and genus, has been stated. It is common then to property and inseparable accident not to subsist without those things in which they are beheld, for as man does not subsist without risible, so neither can Ethiopian subsist without blackness, and as property is present to every, and always, so also is inseparable accident. Nevertheless, they differ, in that property is present to one species alone, as the being risible to man, but inseparable accident, as black, is present not only to an Ethiopian, but also to a crow, to a coal, to ebony, and to certain other things. Moreover, property is reciprocally predicated of that of which it is the property, and is equally (present), but inseparable accident is not reciprocally predicated, besides, the participation of properties is equal, but of accidents one (subject partakes) more, but another less. There are indeed other points of community, and peculiarity of the above-mentioned (predicables), but these are sufficient for their distinction, and the setting forth of their agreement.

There’s nothing really new here; all of these points have been made previously. What it comes down to is this: a property is a necessary consequence of the essence of the thing, and applies only to that species, and is always present, whereas accidents, even inseparable accidents, can be more or less present, and are not a necessary consequence of the essence of the thing.

Now, Porphyry says that a property is a property of one species alone. And yet some species are genera in their own right. In Porphyry’s scheme, for example, man is a genus within which divinity is a species: the gods are immortal men. And surely these gods, being rational, would also be able to laugh. So to say that a property is a property of one species alone is true, but misleading: it is predicated of all individuals that belong to that species, whether directly of through some subspecies.

Anyway, that’s it; we’re done with Porphyry! And there was great rejoicing!

Isagoge: Chapter 16 — Of Community and Difference of Species and Accident

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Species and accident, compare and contrast:

To species and accident it is common to be predicated of many, but other points of community are rare, from the circumstance of accident, and that to which it is accidental, differing very much from each other. Now, the properties of each are these: of species, to be predicated of those of which it is the species, in respect to what a thing is, but of accident, in reference to what kind a thing is of, or how it subsists. Likewise, that each substance partakes of one species, but of many accidents, both separable and inseparable: moreover, species are conceived prior to accidents, even if they be inseparable, (for there must be subject, in order that something should happen to it,) but accidents are naturally adapted to be of posterior origin, and possess a nature adjunctive to substance. Again, of species the participation is equal, but of accident, even if it be inseparable, it is not equal; for an Ethiopian may have a colour intense, or remitted, according to blackness, with reference to an(other) Ethiopian.

And there you go; species and accident have almost nothing in common.

I’m pleased to see that my conjecture about “intension and remission” was correct.

One more chapter, and back to St. Thomas!

Isagoge: Chapter 15 — Of Community and Difference of Species and Property

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Species and property, compare and contrast:

In what respect species differs from genus and difference, was explained in our enunciation of the way in which genus, and also difference, differ from the rest; it now remains that we should point out how it (species) differs from property and accident.


It is common then to species and property, to be reciprocally predicated of each other, since if any thing be man, it is risible, also if it be risible, it is man, still we have frequently declared that risible must be assumed according to natural adaptation to risibility.

Right. Men are naturally able to laugh, even if this man never laughs, or has suffered an injury so that he physically is unable to laugh.

It is also common (to them) to be equally present, for species are equally present to their participants, and properties to the things of which they are properties, but species differs from property, in that species indeed may be the genus of other things, but property cannot possibly be the property of other things.

I’ll note (again) that Porphyry is taking property in the narrowest possible sense, here.

Again, species subsists prior to property, but property accedes to species, for man must exist, in order that risible may: besides, species is always present in energy with its subject, but property sometimes also in capacity, for Socrates is a man always in energy, but he does not always laugh, though he is always naturally adapted to be risible.

I’ve not run into this use of the words “energy” and “capacity”, but I suspect he means something like “act” and “potency”. Though that’s not quite right either; the species “man” is present in a baby, but the baby isn’t fully a man in act yet. Nevertheless, it’s clear enough what he means.

Once more, things of which the definitions are different, are themselves also different, but it is (the definition) of species to be under genus, and to be predicated of many things, also differing in number, in respect to what a thing is, and things of this kind, but of property it is to be present to a thing alone, and to every individual and always.

Um, what?

(Two more chapters!)

Isagoge: Chapter 14 — Of Community and Difference of Accident and Difference

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Accident and difference, compare and contrast:

To difference and accident it is common to be predicated of many things, but it is common (to the former) with inseparable accidents to be present always and with every one, for biped is always present to man, and likewise blackness to all crows. Still they differ in that difference indeed comprehends but is not comprehended by species; for rational comprehends divinity and man, but accidents after a certain manner comprehend from their being in many things, yet in a certain manner are comprehended from the subjects not being the recipients of one accident, but of many. Besides, difference indeed does not admit of intension and remission, but accidents accept the more and less; moreover contrary differences cannot be mingled, but contrary accidents may sometimes be mingled. So many then are the points common and peculiar to difference and the others.

What it comes down to is, the difference has a special relationship to the species of which it is the difference, and to any sub-species of that species, whereas accidents do not, generally speaking. Further, the difference is an all-or-nothing kind of thing; a thing has it or doesn’t, either the thing is this kind of thing or it isn’t. Accidents can generally come and go, and can be had to a greater or lesser degree, and can be commingled: a crow that is spattered with white paint is both black and white at the same time, and an albino crow (if such things exist) is white and not black, but remains a crow.

(Only three more chapters to go, and we can get back to St. Thomas!)

Isagoge: Chapter 13 — Of Community and Difference of Property and Difference

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Property and difference, compare and contrast:

Difference also and property have it in common to be equally shared by their participants, for rational are equally rational, and risible (equally) risible (animals). Also it is common to both to be always present, and to every one, for though a biped should be mutilated, yet (the term biped) is always predicated with reference to what is naturally adapted, since also risible has the “always” from natural adaptation, but not from always laughing. Now, it is the property of difference, that it is frequently predicated of many species, as rational of divinity and man, but property (is predicated) of one species, of which it is the property. Difference moreover follows those things of which it is the difference, yet does not also reciprocate, but properties are reciprocally predicated of those of which they are the properties, in consequence of reciprocating.

The primary difference between the two is that a property of a species (in the strictest sense) is predicated only of that one species, whereas a difference can be predicated of many species. Thus, properties in this sense are reciprocal: if A can laugh then A is a man, and if A is a man then A can laugh. It seems to me, though, that property is more frequently used in the wider sense, where it is not necessarily confined to one species.

Note that properties concern the nature of the being, not the current state of the being. If I lose a leg in an accident, I am still naturally a biped; indeed, were I born with one leg, I would still naturally be a biped. A man who never laughs is still able to laugh by nature.

Isagoge: Chapter 12 — The Same Subject Continued

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

That is, the Community and Difference of Species and Difference, which Porphyry didn’t quite get to in the chapter by that name.

(Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days, by the way.)

It is common then to difference and species to be equally participated, for particular men partake equally of man, and of the difference of rational.

Well, yeah: since the difference is part of the definition of the species.

It is also common always to be present to their participants, for Socrates is always rational, and always man, but it is the property of difference indeed to be predicated in respect to what kind a thing is of, but of species in respect to what a thing is, for though man should be assumed as a certain kind of thing, yet he will not be simply so, but in as far as differences according to genus constitute him.

A man’s species says what he is; but the chain of differences leading up the chain of genera to the category of substance indicate what kind of thing he is: a rational, animate, living body.

Besides, difference is often seen in many species, as quadruped in many animals, different in species, but species is in the individuals alone, which are tinder the species.

There are many species of which a particular difference can be predicated.

What “tinder the species” means, here, I cannot say; I have to assume that it’s a typographical error. But anyway, the only beings of which a particular species can be predicated are the individuals within the species.

Moreover, difference is prior to the species which subsists according to it, for rational being subverted, co-subverts man, but man being subverted, does not co-subvert rational, since there is still divinity. Further, difference is joined with another difference, (for rational and mortal are joined for the subsistence of man,) but species is not joined with species, so as to produce some other species; for indeed a certain horse is joined with a certain ass, for the production of a mule, but horse simply joined with ass will not produce a mule.

Remember, again, that for Porphyry a god is an immortal man. Thus, to say that Zeus isn’t a man doesn’t imply that Zeus isn’t rational, but saying that Zeus isn’t rational implies that Zeus isn’t a man.