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Saturday, November 10, 2012


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What is, for me, most striking about Bill's troubles with Sousedík's elaboration of the thomistic theory of predication is first, that he seems spells out precisely the questions that I regard as the most fundamental ones in all this business, and second, that these are precisely the questions that had stirred the development of the more and more elaborate late-scholastic theories of universals (or predication, for this is one and the same problem for the scholastics). In this comment, I will try just to sketch the direction in which I think the answers can be found; perhaps to elaborate on some points later.

Now - the core problem of course is the common natures. I am afraid that there is a slight misunderstanding about the meaning of this term, and Sousedík's choice of his term - "absolute subject" - just makes it worse. It is common to talk of a common or "absolute" nature as though it were an entity or item beside universals and individuals, indeed, "jenseits von Sein und Nichtsein". Truly it seems absurd to postulate such an entity which clearly violates the principle of excluded middle.

However, despite the manner of talk of the scholastics and of Sousedík, one must resist to consider an "absolute nature" as an item or entity. There is no such entity called "absolute nature". There are particulars which exist really, and there are universals which exist intentionally. And they have something in common - the "objective content" which exists both really, as individualised and identified with the particular(s), and intentionally, as abstracted and universalised, as a universal. This "something in common" is called the "common nature", but it is not something over and above the universal or the particular. We should not say - and we do not say, properly - that there is some "absolute nature". The nature can only be absolutely considered, that is, considerd under a kind of "second order abstraction" - viz. under abstraction from the fact whether it is or is not considered under abstraction from individuality.

The intended meaning of the saying that this "absolute nature" is neither one nor many, neither real nor intentional etc. is not that there is in fact some primitve constituent item out there devoid of all these properties. That would indeed be absurd. The meaning is that the nature - which in fact is both many [namely according to its real existence in particulars] and one [according to its intentional existence in a universal] (note that this is not a contradiction!) - this very nature does not possess any of these two modes of being and the consequent properties "of itself", that is, necessarily, i.e. it can be consistently grasped without them or "absolutely"; and only insofar as it is thus grasped, we can say that it is neither this or that. Just like a chemist can grasp water as water, that is, according to the properties that belong to water on the basis of its chemical constitution, and disregard whether it is for example cold or hot. He would say that water as water is neither hot nor cold, even neither hot nor not-hot - without thereby necessarily postulatig some item called "absolute water" over and above the individual instances of water of various temperatures.

In other words: you cannot start with "absolute natures" as some elementary items and then try to build the common-sense particulars out of them. Quite the other way around: you take the familiar particulars, then you become aware that you are able to grasp them by means of universal concepts, and then you proceed to identify what the universal concept has "taken" from the particular (its "objective content") and what not (the properties of concepts /like being universal/ as opposed to their notes). That which the universal concept has captured of the particular is the "common nature"; it is something existing as really identified to the particular (or else it could not have been abstracted from there) - therefore it cannot, of itself, require universality. But it is also something capable of existing as identified to a universal concept; therefore it cannot, of itself, be incompatible with universality.

So, a common nature is not some elementary ontological item, a philosophical "atom"; it is an abstraction of an abstraction.

Keeping the explained meaning of "absolute nature" in mind, we can, I hope, answer two other Bill's questions.

1) Concerning the (non-)unity of the common nature: I suggest that the theory be understood thus: what the "absolute nature" is only denied is numerical unity and plurality. It is true that e.g. Aquinas does not speak of any other unity, but later thinkers, even later Thomists, as a matter of course ascribe "formal unity" to common natures. By unity is meant internal indistinction or indivision of some kind, accompanied with division or distinction from anything else. A forest, for example, is "one", if it is sufficienty undivided (e.g. by a stripe of meadows) in itself, and sufficiently divided from other forests. Only according to such unity can forests be counted. Now natures considered absolutely do posses certain kind of internal indivision and division from anything else: the nature of man, for example, is indistinct or undivided in itself in the sense that "man" is "man" and not "not-man". (Or you can put it thus: this particular human nature of Socrates is in this formal sense indistinct and undivided from the particular human nature of any other human individual, and so they are all "one" in this sense. The meaning is the same without "absolute nature" being talked about as though it were an item.) And it is divided from any other nature by the fact that no other nature is "man". This is not a numerical unity that would allow treating absolutely considered natures as numerically distinct individuals, but it is a kind of (lesser) unity which still allows counting them, according to that unity. Of course, the number of natures is not a number of numerically distinct individuals, that is, number in the proper sense of the word. In general, any amount of "entity" takes with itself its proper unity. But a nature, whether considered as abstracted from the individual difference (and therefore universal), or as conjoined to it (and therefore particular), or disregarding any of these alternatives ("nature taken absolutely"), keeps its other metaphysical constituents (higher genera and differentiae) which constitute its entity which requires the proper degree of unity, as "unum et ens convertuntur".

2) Why to posit common natures and not really existent universals?

I think I can give a more formal argument here.

If there are really existing universals, they are either really identical to the individuals or they are not. If they are not, then, very simply, "man" is not something what Socrates truly is, but rather something that Socrates is not, and we need (at least) some revisionist theory of predication to explain this difficulty away. Also, it means that we never grasp the particulars themselves by means of our universal concepts, but something else. But this is both against the common sense and against the realist assumption that what we primarily grasp by our cognitive faculties including reason is the reality consisting of particular things like men, women, dogs, chairs, tables, houses, etc. (This was the main objection of Aristotle against Plato, as I read him.)

But if universals are identified with particulars, then they must have the same persistence conditions, which they clearly have not (this is why immanentist ultrarealism of William of Champeaux and his likes was rejected in the 12th century). Therefore, the fact of our universal knowledge of particulars cannot be explained by positing really existing universals.

Best regards,


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