« Three Possible Death-Bed Thoughts | Main | Around the Web »

Monday, September 30, 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Dear Bill,

I have got three objections against your exposition.

1) Any theory that would posit two primary substances in Christ would indeed not be orthodox. The individual human nature in Christ cannot be called a “substance” because “substance” is a concrete term referring to something which has a suppositality (or more of them). Individual human nature qua such abstracts precisely from suppositality; therefore qua such it is not a primary substance and is abstract (in the classical sense). This, of course, does not mean that it is an “abstract object” in the modern sense – abstractions are not abstract objects but aspects of concrete objects conceived separately.

2) After some reflection, I now think that the phrase “doctrines are rendered intelligible by a distinction” cannot be interpreted so that there is any sense in calling any distinction “ad hoc”. For what it means for a doctrine to be “rendered intelligible”? You mean either that one and the same doctrine changes from unintelligible to intelligible, or that an unintelligible doctrine is changed into a different doctrine which is intelligible.
Now in the former sense, “making a distinction” means only “making a distinction explicit in language”; the intended meaning remains the same (given that the doctrine remains the same). That means that the distinction has been part of the theory from the beginning, it only was not explicitly expressed. So if the doctrine is intelliígible with the distinction, it has ever been so (only some people perphas understood it wrongly). So if “making a distinction” means this, then no distinction can be made ad hoc, all distinctions are part of the original theories.
In the latter sense, “making a distinction” means changing the doctrine by adding that distinction so that you now have a different doctrine than before. You grant that the resulting doctrine containing the distinction is intelligible – but this doctrine is the only doctrine that is of interest (for the other, unintelligible one is not maintained by anybody). And in this doctrine the distinction is not ad hoc, it is an essential part of it. Saying that “without that distinction the doctrine would not be intelligible” only means that there is another similar theory, which however lacks that distinction and which is unintelligible. But how is that theory at all relevant for our assessment of the theory containing the dictinction? At worst you may object that some person (or the church) changed their mind from the former to the latter doctrine ad hoc, but this is something different: now you are not criticising the intrinsic makeup of a theory but an intellectual behaviour of an agent. Besides, I would claim that the Catholic Church did not make any ad hoc change of doctrine, let alone in response to charges of unintelligibility. Rather, it gradually more and more explicitly defined her own doctrine by rejecting emerging alternative interpretations of it (which were usually much less intellectually difficult than the orthodoxy).

3) I deny that the distinction is intelligible only on the basis of the theological examples (even though I concede that they are the only examples), because I deny that it’s the examples what makes a distinction intelligible. For a distinction to be intelligible it suffices that the distinguished meanings are intelligible each, and that it is not evident that they are equivalent. This constitutes epistemic justification for not considering them identical, i.e. for making a distinction between them.

Dear Lukas,

Thank you for your detailed comments. I will now respond only to your first objection.

>>Individual human nature qua such abstracts precisely from suppositality; therefore qua such it is not a primary substance and is abstract (in the classical sense).<<

One problem here is that 'suppositality' and 'supposit' are the very words whose meaning and use I am trying to understand; and yet you use them as if they are clear and understood in the same sense by both of us.

We agree that the classical sense of 'abstract' and the modern sense (probably not to be found in philosophy before the 20th century) are different, and we agree what that difference is. Thus I have no problem with the notion that one can consider Socrates' individual human nature in abstraction from the concrete Socrates, and that, so considered, his individual human nature is not a primary substance. One could say that it is an incomplete ontological factor revealed by ontological analysis.

I think we agree that a primary substance, to be such, must be composed of substantial form and materia signata, and perhaps also support, at a given time, some set of accidents or other. (Thus Socrates at a given time cannot be neither running nor not running. If he were neither, he would be an incomplete object; but no first substance is incomplete.) Thus, if one were to consider Socrates in abstraction from his accidents, one would not be considering him as a primary substance.

But, as I said in my main entry, if God the Son becomes man, he becomes a particular, concrete man of flesh and blood, body and soul. Substantial form + signate matter + accidents + existence. A whole concrete man is assumed, not an abstract individual human nature.

And so, as it seems to me, two primary substances are involved: the 2nd person of the Trinity, and the man Jesus of Nazareth. But there is only one supposit, the 2nd person of the Trinity.

Please note that both primary substances have a supposit. It is just that Jesus the man has an alien supposit whereas the 2nd person has a 'native' supposit (has itself as its supposit). So you can't say that the human substance is not a full-fledged substance.

>>3) I deny that the distinction is intelligible only on the basis of the theological examples (even though I concede that they are the only examples), because I deny that it’s the examples what makes a distinction intelligible. For a distinction to be intelligible it suffices that the distinguished meanings are intelligible each, and that it is not evident that they are equivalent. This constitutes epistemic justification for not considering them identical, i.e. for making a distinction between them.<<

We agree, then, that there are no non-theological examples of the substance-supposit distinction. But you want to say that the intelligibility of the distinction does not rest on, or presuppose, the theological examples. That seems to imply that the distinction would make sense even to someone who had never heard about Trinity and Incarnation.

Well, suppose we got into a time machine and paid a visit to old Aristotle. He knew nothing of Trinity and Incarnation, and we don't tell him about these doctrines. But we insist that there is an intelligible distinction between primary substance and supposit. I would expect him to say, "Well, boys, what's the distinction? You have two different words, but that's not enough. If you can't give me an actual or possible example where the distinction applies, then I say that your distinction is merely verbal."

I would say that, apart from Trinity and Incarnation, 'substance' is intelligible and 'supposit' is intelligible but only because they have the same meaning. You want to say that it is not evident that they are equivalent in meaning. But I say it is evident -- until you give an actual or possible example in which the meanings come apart. But then you have to bring in Trinity or Incarnation.


I say somewhere that burden-of-proof considerations are not relevant in philosophy. But suppose they are. isn't the BOP on you to show that 'substance' and 'supposit' differ in meaning? Isn't there a defeasible presumption that two terms mean the same unless there is some actual or possible situation in which the meanings come apart?


Three points again:

1) I don’t buy the Thomist conception of “materia signata” – but that need not distract us now.

2) Much more importantly, although I concede that necessarily, Socrates has this or that accident, I deny that it follows from it that Socrates considered in abstraction from these accidents is an incomplete object. When Socrates runs, the whole of Socrates is there. When Scorates does not run, again, the whole of Socrates is there. But for any x, y, if the whole of x is there even if y is not there then y is not required for the completeness of x. So Socrates considered precisely qua Socrates, without running or not-running, is complete, and a substance – the fact that a necessary condition of his existence is that he is connected either with the accident of running or the accident of not-running notwithstanding.

3) Regarding the Incarnation: one has to distinguished what the Son assumes and what He becomes. He assumes (individual but abstract) humanity, but he thereby becomes a (particular, concrete etc.) man. He becomes a concrete man not because of the (putative) concreteness of the assumed humanity, but because of the concreteness of the person=supposit who is assuming the humanity. The concrete term “Jesus the man” does not refer to the human nature of Jesus, but to the supposit qua endowed with the human nature. Thus Jesus the man does not have the supposit, but is the supposit. Thus, what can properly be called a substance is not that which the Son assumes, but only that which He becomes; because substance necessarily contains (at least one) suppositality.

Dear Bill,

regarding the S-S distinction (a reply to your other two replies):

1) I claim that the BOP is always on the party that denies a distinction. The reason is that a distinction blocks some inferences, therefore ceteris paribus the position without the distinction is stronger than the one with it. This is a principle underlying the scholastic technique of disputation, which used to be the paradigm of scholarly discourse for several hundreds of years and was still endorsed e.g. by Leibniz.

2) "Substance" and "supposit" do not have the same meaning, by their definitions. Substance is defined as a being which subsists, while it is left undefined in virtue of how many suppositalities. A supposit is that which has just one suppositality. Suppositality, in turn, is defined as the ontological principle through which that which is constituted by it is absolutely incommunicable, incapable of inherence, a last subject, a concretum. These definitions are perfectly intelligible and assign distinct meanings to the respective terms.

But there is even more profound difference between the concept of a "substance" and that of a "supposit". They are different types of concepts.

"Substance" is categorial, generic concept. It is a genus, perhaps one of the highest genera. So it is an essential concept which characterizes its object in some general essential manner. To say that something is a substance is to say that it is something of which the essence requires that it subsists, or has a suppositality. "Substantiality" in this sense is an essential characteristic, it is a requirement in the essence to exist in a non-inherent way, (and it is, by consequence, left undefined how, or how many times, this requirement is actually fulfilled, since this is beyond the focus of the concept, which is on the essence and its most general kind).

"Supposit" is not a categorial, generic concept. It does not capture any essential characteristic of its object; to say that something is a supposit is not to characterise it essentially, to assing its essential kind. The concept is completely indifferent to the essence of its object, which is outside its focus, so to speak. It only says: it is something which has (precisely one) suppositality. In this way it is a concept similar to the concept "individual".

I think that the above explication would be intelligible enough even for Aristotle :-). Aristotle's problem was, partly, that Greek captures poorly the distinction between the concrete and the abstract (this is something that creates many confusions in Aristotle's (and Plato's) thought); which is why Aristotle could not possibly be moved to enquire specifically about the ontological principle of concreteness. But other languages are better in that respect (notably Latin).


Thanks again for the stimulating comments. I hope to find time to respond later.


I would like to hear what you have to say about materia signata. And I would like to hear about the other ways in which you diverge from the doctor communis. Do you accept the distinctio realis? Who is the scholastic thinker you follow most closely?


You make some excellent and challenging objections. I think I am going to have to write some separate posts to address them properly. Stay tuned.

Dear Bill,

I somehow missed your question concerning the "materia signata". Here is my response.

I reject the "materia signata" as the principle of individuation for several reasons, mostly of Scotistic and Suárezian provenance:

1) The reasons that it must be matter and not form which individuates are not convincing;

2) The term "materia signata" cannot be meaningfully explained:
- not matter as actually affected by quantity: because quantity is an accident, which presupposes the substance already individuated;
- not matter merely as transcendentally related to quantity, because (i) it is not clear why it should be the source of individuation any more than pure matter; (ii) how can pure potency bear any transcendental relations? That would require some degree of innate actuality.

3) Even if "materia signata" were explained plausibly, then individuation would have to be ascribed ultimately either to matter (quantity being a mere condition), or to quantity (matter being a mere condition), or to both as co-principles. But matter alone cannot contribute anything to individuation, because it is pure potency, and quantity cannot contribute anything, because it presupposes the substance already individuated.

4) Principle of difference is a form, by definition. So principle of individual difference is something formal - a form or an aspect of a form.

5) In the Thomist picture, two individuals can share (successively) the same materia signata; so the matter cannot account for their being numerically distinct individuals.

6) Why should there be distinct principles of individuation for material and immaterial beings? Or why should the principle of identity of indiscernibles hold analytically for immaterial beings?

7) Then there is the awkward status of the disembodied soul, matter-less but still individual...

8) The entire doctrine seems to confound the empirical notion of "matter" with the philosophical notion of "pure subjective potency", and ascribe the very "formal" features of the former to the latter.

My other major problems with Aquinas are:

(1) real distinction of essence and existence - I would like to believe it (once I did), but all arguments I have seen seem to me unconvincing, if not clearly fallacious.

(2) Denial of univocity of being - even though I think Cajetan saved Aquinas from utter debacle in the debate with the Scotits, by providing a viable theory of analogy for him (Aquinas has none, just ad hoc usage), I still fail to see any convincing reasons why to deny univocity at all, and Scotus's arguments against analogy seem almost invincible.

I think I am pretty near to Scotus (although I have strong doubts concerning the formal distinction); and also partly to Suárez (in matters like the nature of law, scientia media etc.).

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 10/2008



February 2019

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28    
Blog powered by Typepad