Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

Direct and Indirect “Knowledge”

For now, this will be the last installment on Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject. Though he has promised another four and a half volumes, I’ve reached the end of what has been published so far. Here I’ll briefly summarize the remainder of volume 3 part 1.

After analysis of an anonymous Averroist text of the 1270s that criticizes Aquinas in sharper language than that employed by Siger of Brabant, de Libera briefly discuses substance dualism and the plurality of substantial forms in the later Augustinian tradition. He documents the beginnings of the shift toward modern usages of “subject” and “object” in the 13th century. He notes the large difference in connotation between Aristotelian ousia and Latin substantia, glossing ousia as what something is in its depth. (I’ve been continuing to use “substance”, with Aristotle’s own gloss from the Metaphysics of “what it was to have been” a thing.)

He then turns to a long and delicately nuanced review of Aquinas’ compromise between Aristotle and Augustine on the soul’s knowledge of itself. The title of this chapter in French is a pun: by homonymy, it suggests “The Subject Supposed to Know Itself”, but literally, it is “The Subject Supposed to Have Itself”.

At summary level, Aristotle holds that all self-knowledge is indirect, while Augustine holds that the soul directly knows itself through its essence. But de Libera points out that there are elements of directness in Aristotle, and elements of indirectness in Augustine. He emphasizes that “knowledge” is said in many ways, from mere undifferentiated awareness to the strong knowledge that was called “science”. If we want to discuss claims about self-knowledge, we need to distinguish what kind of “knowledge” we are talking about.

In the final chapter, de Libera again mentions the Franciscan Peter Olivi, who in the 13th century criticized the representationalism of the medieval theory of “species” in the name of direct realism. Olivi also further sharpened Augustine’s claims that the soul directly knows itself by its essence. According to de Libera, while Olivi was far less influential than Aquinas, it was the interaction of their legacies that ultimately led to the modern notion of the human subject as agent and ego. Toward the end, de Libera again mentions the 18th century Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid, who was completely unaware of medieval Augustinian criticisms of representationalism, and re-invented direct realism.

Once again, we have to be careful about too easy assumptions regarding “isms”. Here, it turns out that both advocates of representationalism and advocates of direct realism may make strong appeals to immediacy and presence. The difference is that in modern terms, representationalists appeal to the alleged immediacy of mental representations, whereas direct realists appeal to the alleged immediacy of external objects. I read Aristotle as acknowledging a modest role for immediacy in common sense apprehensions, but as rejecting the idea that immediacy has any kind of privileged status in knowledge. I read Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur among others as strongly supporting this Aristotelian view.

Earlier, de Libera had noted a common Franciscan criticism that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, all self-knowledge is inferential. These days, I would take that as a compliment. In my youth, I uncritically absorbed a large bias toward immediacy myself. Immediacy was supposed to give a truth hidden by ordinary alienation. But in more recent years, I have become sympathetic to Brandom’s thesis that all apparently immediate knowledge is just that — apparently immediate, and that a kind of inference actually is the most primitive source of knowledge.

The Human in Siger of Brabant

Those whom modern scholars called Averroists were supposed to be unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Averroes. This turns out to be as inaccurate as the supposition that the Latin scholastics as a whole were unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Aristotle.

At issue here is what it is to be human, and in particular how the difficult Aristotelian concept of “intellect” relates to human beings. There were not just two but a wide variety of nuanced and well-argued positions on this.

Among the so-called Averroists, Siger of Brabant (1240-1280) is the best known name, but no full book has yet been devoted to his work. According to Alain de Libera, in his later works Siger developed original responses to Thomas Aquinas’ famous critique of Averroes.

Siger argued against Aquinas that the act of thought is not purely immanent but simultaneously immanent and transitive. That is to say, for Siger it is immanent in the human, but transitive in the separate intellect. While affirming a “separate” intellect, Siger emphasized against Aquinas that the total act of thinking is attributable to the whole human, and not just to the human’s intellective soul. Intellect is an “intrinsic operation” in the human that in a way does, and in a way does not, make it the “substantial form” and perfection of a material body. According to Siger, Aquinas’ claim that the intellective soul unequivocally is the substantial form of the body cannot be reconciled with Aquinas’ other claim that intellect as a power of the intellective soul is entirely independent of the body. Siger adopts Albert and Thomas’ term “intellective soul”, but for Siger only the animal and vegetative soul are united with the body in being. Intellective soul is naturally united with the body in operation but not in being, whereas Aquinas says they are united in being.

According to de Libera, Siger in his Questions on the Book of Causes argues that the form of the human is not simple, but is rather a composite comprising an intellect that “comes from outside” (in Aristotle’s phrase), and a vegetative and sensitive substance that is “educed from the power of matter” (de Libera, Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, p. 411, my translation). Intellect is said by Siger to be a “form subsistent in itself”. It is not a “substantial form” in the proper sense, which would imply that it was inherent in the human body. It is not in the body “as in a subject”. However, intellect has need of the human body (specifically, the phantasms of the imagination) as an object, and intellect is in turn attributable to the human as a whole, though it is not reducible to the biological organism. Intellect for Siger is neither the inherent form of the human nor a separate, external mover of the human, but a separate form with an operation that is intrinsic to the whole human, in which it participates by composition.

De Libera remarks in passing that the act of thought owes more to intelligible objects than to “intellect”. I would suggest that it is through language and culture and ethical practice that Aristotelian intellect “comes to us from outside”. We talking, encultured animals then acquire a spiritual essence that comes to be intrinsic to us, through our ethical practice, in which acquired intellect and animal imagination cooperate.

According to de Libera, for Siger “The ‘intelligent whole’ is composed of many psychic parts, which are not of the same nature, or of the same origin, or of the same ontological status” (p. 362).

Siger objects that Aquinas’ notion of intellect as united with the body in being “makes the act of thought a perfection of matter” (ibid). This makes the body intellect’s “subject of inherence”. But at the same time, applying Thomas’ own axiom that nothing is accomplished by a power separated from itself, Siger reproaches Thomas for being unable to account for “the integrality of the known” (p. 378), and specifically the knowledge of material things.

For Aquinas, establishing that there is an operation proper to the soul is essential to the possibility of the soul’s existence independent of the body, and thus to his philosophical argument for personal immortality. But Siger argues that in making intellect an operation proper (i.e., uniquely attributable) to the soul, Aquinas implicitly negates its attributability to the whole human. Intellection for Siger is “an operation common to the human composite as an integral whole” (p. 377). In other words, I think with my whole being, not just my “mind”.

De Libera concludes that Siger does preserve the possibility of personal immortality, which was a principal concern of Averroes’ critics. However, he finds that the texts do not support the claims of some recent scholars that Siger in his later works abandoned “Averroism” in favor of Thomism.

The phrase “form subsistent in itself”, according to de Libera, does not have the same meaning for Siger that it does for Thomas. Albert the Great had analyzed three logical possibilities for an “intermediate” kind of form that is neither fully separate nor inseparable from matter. According to de Libera, Siger’s work is consistent with this. Siger aimed at a mean between a Platonist excess of separation between form and matter, and what he perceived as a Thomist excess of union with respect to so-called substantial forms. De Libera does find, however, that Siger, like other authors, is too anxious to simplify the issues at stake, and that he goes too far in identifying the position of Aquinas with that of Alexander of Aphrodisias, who was regarded as having a “materialist” view of the human soul. He also says Siger goes too far in reducing Aquinas’ notion of form to the simple analogy of a stamp in wax.

De Libera meanwhile also raises doubts about Aquinas’ insistence on the absence of any intermediary between the intellective soul and the body. He notes that in a very different context, the Franciscan Augustinian Peter Olivi argued that the intellective soul is united with the body via the intermediary of the sensitive soul. Olivi’s position was rejected by the Council of Vienna in 1312.

De Libera accepts the notion of “substantial form” as genuinely Aristotelian, but appears to endorse the argument of Bernardo Carlos Bazán that Aquinas’ notion of intellective soul gives it a privileged ontological status that makes it more than a substantial form. According to Bazán, Aquinas’ anthropology from the very start goes beyond the Aristotelian hylomorphism that Thomas generally endorses. The form of a human in Aquinas — unlike anything in Aristotle — is such that it could not be the result of any natural generative process, but could only be created by God. Siger comes across as closer to Aristotle.

De Libera notes that in the wake of the English theologian Thomas Wylton (1288-1322), later so-called Averroists “invested massively” in a distinction between an inherent form and an assisting form, and regarded human intellect as an “assisting form”. (See also “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera.)

Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logiké“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.

Roots of Action

Returning again to Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject, de Libera had characterized a typical modern view of human subjectivity in terms of a “subject-agent” that combines the notion of a grammatical subject with that of a cause associated with a kind of “intentions” that are considered to be both mental acts and representations. This is a very specific cultural construct that makes many assumptions. It has acquired a kind of common-sense status, but treating human subjectivity in this way is very far from universally valid.

The common cliché is to call this the “Cartesian subject”, but de Libera’s project is to show that the groundwork for it was actually laid within the Latin scholastic tradition.

My treatment of de Libera’s work has been and will be a sort of journey of discovery; I don’t know in advance exactly where it will end up.

I had begun to look at his treatment of the particular place of Thomas Aquinas in this development. Previously, I have approached Aquinas mainly in terms of his admirable recovery and defense of what I consider to be good Aristotelian principles, and what I take to be his simultaneous divergence from or confusion of some of these that I regard as highly important. So, I felt the need to consult a few sympathetic secondary sources for a view of Aquinas more on his own terms. Now I feel a little better equipped to resume this thread.

It was a commonplace of 20th century Thomism to recommend itself as an alternative to broadly Cartesian views of what it is to be a human being. The contrasting picture de Libera paints is far more intricate and ambivalent. As well as recovering Aristotelian insights, Aquinas took some new steps in a “modern” direction, but many of these were only consolidated by the systematizing efforts of later Thomists. Part of the reason I felt the need to dwell a little on Aquinas was to be better prepared to understand distinctions between Aquinas himself and later Thomistic developments.

“The semantic field of action is nonetheless more complex, its frontiers more porous, when one considers effective usage, the real implementation of the principles mentioned, or when one analyses more finely the lexicon of the authors” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 312; my translation).

To begin with, leading 20th century Thomist scholar Bernard Lonergan concluded that a simple distinction between immanent and transitive action is “too rigid” (ibid). Lonergan is quoted (ibid) saying it was later authors who considered it metaphysically irreducible. For Aquinas, agere (to act) has a strong moral sense related to what de Libera calls a “subject of imputation”. In medieval Latin, actio (action) is used to translate both Greek praxis (glossed as moral conduct) and poieisis (glossed as production). Lonergan says Aquinas uses actio sometimes in a general sense that includes both of these, and sometimes more specifically for moral conduct. By contrast, action affecting external matter is more properly called factio.

For Aquinas, actio in the moral sense, according to de Libera’s summary of Lonergan, is associated with “free beings who are masters of their acts” (p. 313). I (and I think Aristotle as well) would say instead ethical beings who are responsible for their acts. Freedom and mastery are here implicitly defined in terms of one another, and ethical being and responsibility are also defined in terms of one another.

As I understand it, Aquinas regarded the will as a function of intellect rather than a separate faculty, so he would not be a voluntarist in the technical sense formulated that way. Nonetheless, as I understand it, he insisted that humans have the equivalent of arbitrary freedom.

I say that responsibility does not involve mastery, nor does ethical being involve freedom to act arbitrarily. This issue is independent of questions connecting action with efficient causality.

Mastery and arbitrary freedom (medieval Latin libertas, or the liberty of the lord to do whatever) are (mis)applications of something analogous to omnipotence on a moral or social level. Early modern apologists for absolute monarchy were strongly committed to an analogy between absolute monarchy and theologies stressing divine omnipotence. For Plato and Leibniz, this was the formula of tyranny. (See also Euthyphro.)

Essentialism?

Is it reasonable to call a philosopher who makes significant use of “essence” or similar terms an essentialist? I would say no. If you look at the Wikipedia article on essentialism for example, it appears to be a term of superficial classification that is used in a hostile or pejorative way. The definition given there is certainly nothing I would identify with.

I find essence to be a very useful concept. This Latin-derived term doesn’t exactly capture any single word used by Plato or Aristotle. Essence is what I call a way of being rather than a thing or property. It corresponds to the more abstract meanings of “form” and “substance”, and to what Aristotle called the “what it is” and “what it was to have been” of a thing. For both Plato and Aristotle it is an object of inquiry rather than something taken for granted. Aristotle’s notions of potentiality and actualization apply to it concepts of alternatives, development, and unanticipated change.

Aquinas’ introduction of a separate explicit concept of existence is a good example of how meanings change with context. For Aquinas, God in the act of creation gives being to possible essences. This implies that the essences are completely preformed, as Leibniz argued explicitly. Leibniz’s pre-established harmony has been viewed as deterministic, though Leibniz argued that it was not. In any case, Aquinas and Leibniz treat essences as discrete possibilities, whereas I read Aristotle as focusing on what is actualized or subject to a process of actualization. Essence as a discrete possibility is still arguably more sophisticated than what gets called “essentialism”, but it is much closer. (See also Platonic Truth; Form Revisited; Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

Heidegger, Sartre, Aquinas?

The heyday of existential Thomism is well past, but Etienne Gilson and others were certainly not wrong to take note of a close connection, despite other large differences.

Heidegger in Being and Time (1926) famously claimed that philosophers since Plato had been preoccupied with questions about beings and had lost sight of the central importance of Being writ large. Many 20th century Thomists partially accepted this argument, but contended that Aquinas was an obvious exception, citing Aquinas’ identification of God with pure Being. Heidegger rejected that identification, and would have insisted that Being was not a being at all, not even the unique one in which essence and existence were identified. Nonetheless there is a broad parallel, to the extent that Heidegger and Aquinas each in their own way stress the dependency of beings on Being.

In some circles, Aquinas has been criticized for promoting a “philosophers’ God”. But according to Burrell, Aquinas argued in effect that on the assumption that there is only one God, the God of Summa Theologica and the God of common doctrine must be acknowledged to have the same referent even if they have different senses, like Frege’s example of the morning star and the evening star.

Sartre in his 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” put forth the formula that “existence precedes essence”. Aquinas in Being and Essence had argued that God has no essence other than existence. Sartre argued in effect that the human has no essence other than existence. In his context, this is to say either that the human essence consists only in matters of fact, or that there is simply no such thing as a human essence.

Sartre’s use of the word “essence” reflects a straw-man caricature of bad essentialism. Whatever we may say that essence really is, contrary to Sartre’s usage it is supposed to be distinguished from simple matters of fact. On the other hand, in formal logic, existence does reduce to matters of fact.

What Aquinas, Heidegger, and Sartre have in common is that they all want to treat existence as something that transcends the merely factual and formal-logical. Speaking schematically, it is rather the analogues of essence that transcend the merely factual in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Thus Aquinas made a major innovation in inventing a new, unprecedented concept of existence that transcends the factual. I’m inclined, however, to sympathize with Dietrich of Freiberg’s argument that the concept of essence could already do all the work that Aquinas’ new supercharged concept of existence was supposed to do.

What is important for practical purposes is that there is something that transcends the merely factual. I think the close connection of “essence” with form and ends makes it an ideal candidate. The big difference between form and ends on the one hand and facts on the other is that logically speaking, facts can be arbitrary, whereas any form or end or essence necessarily implies some nonarbitrary order.

For Aquinas, God is simultaneously a fact and more than fact, and is unique in this regard. Nothing else has this dual status. Sartre transferred this unique dual status to the human. By contrast, the neoplatonic One is strictly more than fact — in traditional language, the One as source of being was said to be “beyond being” altogether. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich quipped that it could be considered blasphemy to say that God exists (because “existence” is mundane and factual).

The “To-Be itself” of Aquinas, while profoundly innovative with respect to previous tradition and certainly not strictly Aristotelian, is nonetheless arguably more Aristotelian in spirit than the neoplatonic One, insofar as it is less ambiguous about the goodness of the actual world. Plotinus struggled mightily to reconcile a commitment to the goodness and beauty of this actual world with an ascetic tendency to devalue all finite things in face of the infinite One. In Aquinas there is still some tension between the reality of secondary causes and the absolute dependence of everything on God, but I think it is fair to say that the way Aquinas sets up the problem makes the reconciliation easier to achieve. This was a huge accomplishment. Nonetheless, taking into account other factors like assertions about the place of omnipotence and sheer power in the scheme of things, my overall sympathies lie more with the neoplatonic “strictly more than fact” perspective, and even more so with Aristotle’s more modest view that the “First” cause is strictly a final cause.

Something from Nothing?

The idea of something from nothing always seemed to me like pulling rabbits out of a hat. Taken in a piecemeal sense, it would seem to be completely arbitrary, and arbitrariness leads to all sorts of bad things. Nothing good is arbitrary.

Leibniz defended creation from nothing and particular providence, while insisting that God does not intervene arbitrarily in the world. Already Augustine had said that what are called miracles are only exceptions to the usual course of nature, and that God never contravenes nature in an absolute sense. This leaves room for debate as to what kinds of exceptions can occur.

If God is the pure To-Be that gives being to beings as Aquinas says, creation from nothing would seem to mean only that the giving of being is not a case of “making from”. But why is this not just called Being giving being? What does “nothing” have to do with it? Of course, the doctrine of creation from nothing long predates Aquinas, and Aquinas was a consummate diplomat in matters of doctrine. Common doctrine is not a simple matter of truth, as the dogmatists would have it; it is a kind of social compromise that helps keep the peace. Preserving accepted phrases while giving them new meaning is a time-honored diplomatic move.

Aquinas’ notion of creation was likely also in part developed to oppose the dualist teachings of the Cathars, according to whom the physical world was created by an evil power.

I have considerable sympathy for the eternity of the world, or alternatively some sort of eternal creation, such as Aquinas recognized to be logically possible. More sophisticated accounts of creation like those of Augustine and Aquinas explicitly include the creation of time, so that there would be no “time before creation”, even though they affirm a beginning. I have trouble distinguishing a beginning outside of time from eternity.

A Thomistic Grammar of Action

David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action (1st ed. 1979; 3rd ed. 2016) is a very interesting unorthodox sympathetic treatment that provides much food for thought. Burrell’s reading of Aquinas’ notion of action is quite different than what I expected to find — more Aristotelian and less proto-modern. How to relate this to the less favorable picture of Aquinas that emerges from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s account — which heavily emphasizes how Aristotelian concern with ends and the good is displaced by the notion of the priority of divine omnipotence, which is not discussed by Burrell — is an open question.

“This is philosophy as therapy, not as theory” (p. 17). “[P]roofs play an ancillary role at best in the theological task [Aquinas] sets himself: to elucidate the parameters of responsible discourse about God” (p. 9). “It seems that he regarded philosophy’s role in these matters less after the model of a scientific demonstration than as a manuductio: literally, a taking-by-the-hand-and-leading-along…. This somewhat novel contention is designed deliberately to help us rediscover philosophy in its proper medieval dress” (pp. 15-16).

“He is not proposing a synthesis of religious experience. He does not write to edify, nor does he appeal to religious life or practice as offering relevant evidence for his assertions” (p. 18).

Noting the intensive preoccupation of 13th century writers with logic and language, Burrell characterizes Aquinas’ work as principally a sort of philosophical grammar designed mainly to show what cannot be properly said of God. He suggests that we take Aquinas’ expressions of negative theology with utmost seriousness. Aquinas’ positive theology should be taken not as a doctrine of God (which would undermine the seriousness of his negative theology), but rather as an exploration of the limits of language.

God for Aquinas is ipsum esse, “to-be itself”. “Odd as it may seem, however, this assertion does not succeed in telling us whether God exists. For its form is not that of an existential assertion, but of a definition giving the nature of the thing in question” (p. 8).

For Aquinas according to Burrell, “to-be itself” cannot be properly described. What appear to be descriptions of God in Aquinas’ works need to be interpreted in some other way. Aquinas uses language indirectly to show what it cannot say, “to increase our awareness of what we are doing in speaking as we do” (p. 7). “Where less patient thinkers would invoke paradox, Aquinas is committed to using every resource available to state clearly what can be stated….We cannot pretend to offer a description of a transcendent object without betraying its transcendence. But reflecting on the rules of discourse brings to light certain contours of discourse itself. And those very outlines can function in lieu of empirical knowledge to give us a way of characterizing what we could not otherwise describe” (ibid).

Metaphysics involves no arcane method or privileged noetic access, only “an adept use of skills commonly possessed” (ibid).

“What people have failed to do is to take seriously Aquinas’ disclaimer about our being able to know what God is…. By attending closely to what Aquinas does, we can see that he is scrupulously faithful to that original limitation. What God is like is treated in the most indirect way possible” (p. 15). When we say that we clearly know a proposition about God to be true, we are in fact speaking only “of God in so far as he is the proper cause of certain effects” (p. 9). “If whatever we can say about something reflects the formal feature of compositeness, anything lacking it will lie quite beyond the range of our linguistic tools” (p. 17).

“[O]ne could easily mistake the logical treatment for a more substantive doctrine…. [Aquinas] even encourages the confusion by using object-language constructions to do metalinguistic jobs. Yet he had clearly warned us that he was not undertaking to treat of God’s nature” (p. 19).

Aquinas is commonly understood to have taught that although “being” has no one univocal meaning, there is an “analogy of being” that makes its meaning uniform by analogy. I have been at some pains to point out that scholarship does not support attributing this view to Aristotle, as is also commonly done. Burrell says it is a serious mistake to attribute it to Aquinas — the analogy of being was actually pieced together by Cajetan, and depends on views significantly different from those of Aquinas.

Actus stands out as the master metaphor guiding Aquinas’ grammatical treatment of divinity” (p. 130). “It is the distinctively human activities of knowing and loving which offer Aquinas a paradigm for understanding action more generally” (p. 131). Here we are very far indeed from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s emphasis on the relation of action in Aquinas to a very non-Aristotelian notion of power. This certainly complicates the picture.

Burrell thinks Aquinas would agree that “exists” is not a predicate. He also thinks that “existentialist” readings of Aquinas miss the mark, and are distinguished by an inattention to language.

“Aquinas’ account neatly avoids what most of us today are persuaded lies at the heart of human action: decision” (p. 140). “[F]or Aquinas willing remains an activity of reason, broadly speaking. So it is proper that the pattern of receptivity be preserved in the consent which lies at the heart of more manifest voluntary actions like choosing. Furthermore, properly speaking, it seems that ends or goals are rarely chosen or even decided upon. Rather they grow on us. Or is it that we grow into them?” (ibid).

“It is at this point that one appreciates how a philosophical analysis works, especially in dissolving pseudo-problems. I have remarked how Aquinas’ analysis of action appears truncated. For it seems that the development of habitus [Latin for Aristotle’s hexis] as a proximate principle of activity demands one more step: to articulate what it is who acts. Such a step would carry us to the ‘transcendental ego’. But Aquinas neatly avoids that problem by recognizing there is no step at all. The one who acts, as Aquinas views the matter, is articulated in the remote and proximate principles of action. Nothing more need be said because nothing more can be said: the self we know is known by those characteristics that mark it” (p. 144).

“Aquinas manages to clear away certain endemic yet misleading ways of conceiving causal process by refusing to accept ’cause’ as the primary meaning of actus” (p. 146).

“Let me first put it paradoxically: the act of making something happen (causation) is not itself an action. As Aquinas analyzes it, causing an effect is properly a relation. The fact that A causes something to happen in B requires acts, of course, but it itself is not an action distinct from these” (p. 147). “In short, what happens is what we see happening to B (or in B). We say that A is causing this to happen, not because we ascertain that something is going on between them…, but simply because we understand that B depends on A to this extent…. Thus, causing does not have to be explained as a further act by the agent. It is, in fact, more accurately structured as a relation of dependence” (p. 148).

“The merit of Aquinas’ analysis is to exorcise the demand that a specific action be identified as ‘the causal process’. He succeeds, moreover, in locating ‘the causal nexus’ squarely in the category of relation. Causality can thus be explained as an ordering relation, given the capacities to act and to be acted upon in the factors so related…. [But] considerable intellectual therapy is always required to render plausible a formal or relational account of causality” (p. 158).

“A causal model misleads us, moreover, when we inquire into the source of action. That road leads one to adopt the language of will. We have already noted how elusive a notion will is…. Actions, however, require justifications rather than explanations — precisely in the measure that they are actions and not movements. Whoever understands actions to be the sort of thing for which the agent takes responsibility appreciates the import of this distinction. Hence Aquinas insisted that the will is an intellectual appetite, thus consciously adopting an intentional rather than a causal model in accounting for action” (p. 190).

All this is much closer to my reading of Aristotle than I expected. There is apparently also a much bigger distance between efficient causes in Aquinas and in Suárez than I thought. Suárez reportedly had just the notion of “influence” between cause and effect that Burrell finds to be absent in Aquinas.

Being and Creation

Gaven Kerr in Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Creation (2019) argues that Aquinas’ original notion of esse (being or existence, as distinct from essence or the “what it is” of a thing) is the common root of both his account of creation and his distinctive metaphysics (see Being and Essence). “In focusing on esse Thomas is the first to take note of the centrality of the actual existence of things as a metaphysically significant feature of them, rather than simply a general fact about them” (p. 50).

“All other metaphysical components such as matter and form are subject to esse, so that without esse there would be no actuality. Esse then is the act of all acts, and in being so it is the perfection of all perfections” (pp. 50-51). Pure esse is a name for God. Other beings receive the esse without which they would not exist from God’s act of creation.

Kerr cites arguments that neither Plato nor Aristotle had a concept of being as sheer existence. Only Avicenna seems to have preceded Aquinas in this regard. Aquinas considers the emphasis on being as existence to be more universal, and therefore an advance.

It seems to me that Aquinas’ esse as sheer existence is a new super-concept that will implicitly redefine the meaning of existing Aristotelian concepts, for which the old names will still be used. The novelty of esse will be largely hidden due to a combination of ordinary practices of translation; its apparent common-sense character; and the use of familiar Aristotelian terms with transformed meanings.

Aquinas developed a correlative notion of ens commune or “common being” as the subject matter of a reformulated metaphysics, based on his famous interpolation of a uniformly analogous sense of being in Aristotle.

Creation as the immediate bringing of things into being from nothing becomes the new model for efficient causation (quite unlike Aristotle’s art of building). Efficient causes meanwhile become the most important kind of cause.

According to Kerr, the act of creation should not be conceived as the first event in a series. It is characterized more abstractly in terms of what Kerr calls the absolute dependency of beings on Being. It is not a kind of change. Whole causal series are created instantaneously. What is created is the total substance.

Aquinas steered a middle course between Bonaventure, who claimed to prove that creation implied a beginning in time, and Siger of Brabant, who held that natural reason implied the eternity of the world. Aquinas argued that both are possible according to natural reason.

Kerr argues that Aquinas’ notion of creation is agnostic to questions of natural science, and fully compatible with, e.g., Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. “When it comes to metaphysics, Thomas is committed to thinking through the issues involved therein on the basis of natural reason” (p. 4).

Kerr makes the interesting argument that mathematics and natural science are limited because they consider only the essence of things, and not their existence. He says Aquinas would have us focus on what it means for things to be rather than not to be.