Aquinas on the incorporeality of the intellect

In our discussion of the earlier post, Kleiner recommended that I check out Aquinas’s argument against the corporeality of the intellect. There is a batch of arguments in Summa, book 1, question 75. I took a look at one, and worked through it, with the following results. I thought I’d broadcast them for general edification:

1. It is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things.

CH: Is this obvious, that there is nothing in the material universe we cannot understand? No, not obvious, though it might be true.

2. Whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else. Thus we observe that a sick man’s tongue being vitiated by a feverish and bitter humor, is insensible to anything sweet, and everything seems bitter to it.

CH: So — if X has Y in its nature, then X cannot know Y? I can’t see why this should be true. Try out some parallel claims:
• “If X is the same color as Y, then X cannot contain Y” (false)
• “If X’s definition makes appeal to Y, then X cannot be used to define Y” (false — check out “between” and “interval”)
• “If X is related by blood to Y, then X cannot digest Y” (false, and sickeningly so)
It’s hard to come up with claims that are parallel in the right way, so these may not be relevant. So let’s address the claim directly. It seems to me that even if being material can skew one’s perceptions, and make knowledge harder, that would not prove that being material makes it impossible to know any other material thing. It may only make the task tricky.

3. Therefore (from #2), if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies.

CH: Well, that’s only as good as #2, and its consequent is absurd only if we presume #1.

4. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body.

CH: Only as good as #3.

5. It is likewise impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ; since the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color.

CH: Same objections as to #2. But also, it is not impossible to figure out what colors objects in a room really are even if you’re wearing tinted goggles. You have to compensate. Probably, Aquinas thinks such compensation is impossible for a material system. But that begs the question.

6. Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation “per se” apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation “per se.” For nothing can operate but what is actual: for which reason we do not say that heat imparts heat, but that what is hot gives heat.

CH: Whatever. Okay with me.

7. We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.

CH: Not proven!


64 thoughts on “Aquinas on the incorporeality of the intellect

  1. Kleiner

    Nicely done Huenemann. I will try to supply some reasons for thinking 2 is better than you think.

    Keep in mind that a hylomorphic metaphysic is packed into this (matter-form composites). In Aristotle’s hylomorphism, matter is the principle of individuation There is some common sense to this, Huenemann and I have the same nature (we are both essentially human) but are two different things. Since our difference is not one of nature (form), it must be one of matter (place).

    Corresponding to this is a distinction between our powers based on what they are set over. Sensation is set over material bodies (individuals). But when we know, we know universals (essences, ‘what it is to be human’). If our intellect were merely material and had no per se operation apart from the body (like, say, our senses) then it could only grasp individuals. In fact (Aquinas takes this as obvious) it knows more than individuals, but grasps universals.

    Think of it in this way – the only kind of “thing” you can put in a container is something that is ‘like’. You can’t put ‘sardineness’ into a sardine can. You can only put individual sardines into a sardine can. Sardineness (not material, you cannot sense it) can only be put in a like container, an immaterial mind.

    Granted, all of this presumes a kind of ‘epistemic optimism’ that Huenemann does not feel much at home with (though I do). But all Aquinas is really doing is ‘assuming’ that science is a legitimate enterprise and that scientists have genuine knowledge about the material world. Aquinas frequently makes reference to the legitimacy of science in his arguments against the Platonists. “Since [Platonic Forms] are immaterial and immovable, knowledge of movement and matter would be excluded from science and likewise all demonstration through moving and material causes.” (Q84.1). Aquinas takes this to be absurd, he takes it to be obvious that physics (the science of movement) is legitimate and that the science generally can demonstrate things empirically.
    That isn’t so controversial, is it?


  2. Huenemann Post author

    One interesting question that occurred to me after writing the post is about face-recognition software. Airport security is interested in hooking cameras up to computers which can take in the visual data and sound an alert every time OBL walks by. It’s proven to be a very difficult task, but programmers have made stunning progress. You can still dupe the machine. But the amazing thing is that the software can pick out faces from the blurry mix of motion, shadows, bags, and coats, compensate for angles and tilts, and run a check to see if a particular face has Arabic features (or whatever). It sure seems like a machine can employ some understanding of “sardineness” in order to put all and only sardines into the appropriate can, so to speak.

    Now it occurs to me that you might say “Clever trick. But the machine is only simulating face recognition; it is not really engaging in a true act of face recognition.” But then I ask: Are you able to recognize faces? How do you know you are able to? Obviously it should not be sufficient to merely say, “It seems to me as if I have this ability.” If you want to prove to me, or to yourself, that you can recognize faces, you will set yourself up at a high-traffic local and start pointing, “face, face, not face, face,” etc. And you would appeal to a known face-recognizing expert to judge your performance. I cannot think of any other way to determine whether you have the ability to recognize faces.

    But, hell, machines can pass the same test (or soon will be able to). So do we endow them now with an immaterial intellect, of the face-recognizing sort?


  3. Kleiner

    As I have posted on this blog before, I think it is possible that machines might be able to imitate the first act of the mind (recognition as an imitation of apprehension) so closely as to make it difficult to distinguish from what we do. But the computer is simply recognizing based on a pre-programmed set of data points. The difference would be this – can the computer tell us ‘what it is to be a face’ rather than just recognize the faces when it sees them? If the answer is ‘no’ (and I think it will be), then I have to show that I can say ‘what it is to be an X’ rather than just recognize Xs when I see them.
    In other words, what we are talking about here is the distinction between sensory recognition and intellectual apprehension (of essence).


  4. Kleiner

    While I don’t want to prematurely retreat from the above argument, I think there is a much simpler one in the Summa that has much less metaphysical and epistemological baggage packed into it. So I am curious to know what Huenemann and others think of Aquinas’ first argument for the immateriality of the soul. Focus on the second paragraph here (From 75.1): (I put a few comments in []s).

    I answer that, To seek the nature of the soul, we must premise that the soul is defined as the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things “animate,” [i.e. having a soul, keep in mind that ‘soul’ in latin is ‘anima’], and those things which have no life, “inanimate.” Now life is shown principally by two actions, knowledge and movement. The philosophers of old, not being able to rise above their imagination, supposed that the principle of these actions was something corporeal: for they asserted that only bodies were real things; and that what is not corporeal is nothing: hence they maintained that the soul is something corporeal. [Aquinas would consider modern materialism to be a very primitive view!] This opinion can be proved to be false in many ways; but we shall make use of only one proof, based on universal and certain principles, which shows clearly that the soul is not a body. [It is worth noting here how incredibly simple and obvious Aquinas thinks the task of proving the immateriality of the soul is.]

    It is manifest that not every principle of vital action is a soul, for then the eye would be a soul, as it is a principle of vision; and the same might be applied to the other instruments of the soul: but it is the “first” principle of life, which we call the soul. Now, though a body may be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, as the heart is a principle of life in an animal, yet nothing corporeal can be the first principle of life. For it is clear that to be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, does not belong to a body as such; since, if that were the case, every body would be a living thing, or a principle of life. Therefore a body is competent to be a living thing or even a principle of life, as “such” a body. Now that it is actually such a body, it owes to some principle which is called its act. Therefore the soul, which is the first principle of life, is not a body, but the act of a body; thus heat, which is the principle of calefaction, is not a body, but an act of a body.

    Now, this does not get you a lot. It might only get you something like the soul as a harmony that is not substantial. Think of Simmias’ objection in the Phaedo where he argues that the soul is a harmony as from a lyre, the immaterial harmony is totally dependent on the material strings of the lyre for its existence. It is for this reason that, later in 75.2, Aquinas makes the argument that Huenemann first posted above. Giving the soul a ‘per se’ operation apart from the body makes it actual (substantial). Making this move is to say more than merely saying that the soul is immaterial. (The article from which Huenemann’s first Aquinas argument comes is titled ‘Whether the human soul is something subsistent’, so it intends to prove that rather than to prove simply the immateriality of the soul).


  5. Huenemann Post author

    Yes, I surveyed that argument, but passed over it because I thought it was too easy to refute.

    I could argue, in parallel, that being magnetizable cannot belong to body per se, or else every body would be magnetizable. So, if a body is magentizable, it must owe that fact to some other, noncorporeal principle, etc. Therefore, being magnetizable is a noncorporeal feature of bodies.

    Which is absurd.

    Actually, I could have used Aquinas’s own example of “heat” as a counterexample, instead of magnetizability. “Heat is not a body,” i.e., heat is noncorporeal — is that what he means? If so, he’s wrong, as heat is energy, and energy and mass are intertranslatable. Or does a Thomist have to abandon E=mc2 as well?


  6. Kleiner

    I don’t think Aquinas’ sometimes (though not always) naive physics need detract from the metaphysical points at stake. Some disagree, that is why they refuse to take Aristotelianism and Thomism seriously. I’m no expert in physics, but it does not seem to me (and to others who know much more than I) that the language of act-potency is somehow threatened by our modern physics of energy.

    Interesting note here: what Aquinas takes to be a painfully obvious argument you take to be obviously refutable. Someone is missing something …

    Interesting counter-example, but I think its ‘accidentality’ misses the simple point of the original argument. Clearly Aquinas here is assuming (with good cause) that we are talking here about essential rather than accidental differences between things. Being magnetized is not an essential property of anything (for magnets can become de-magnetized), so we need not ascribe that attribute to its nature (that is not a per se attribution, but an accidental one like saying a body is red). But when we naturally divide the world ‘at its joints’ and distinguish living (animate) things and non-living (inanimate) things, we are looking to the nature of the living things to see what distinguishes them from inanimate things. Being animate is an essential property of all living things, though it cannot be an essential property of bodies as such, else all bodies would be animate (alive).

    Since Aquinas (like any good empiricist and scientist) is looking to the things in the world for the account for why they are as they are, he suggests that we must posit an immaterial soul in order to distinguish between two essentially different classes of things. So I think the argument can withstand your initial objection.

    If the answer is not an immaterial soul, then what is it? There are dead bodies and living bodies that are materially identical, so on what do you ground the obvious difference between the two?


  7. Huenemann Post author

    I have all sorts of worries with essences, but I’ll set those aside. If being magnetizable is an accidental property because it can be gained and lost, I would think “being alive” must also be an accidental property, as bodies can gain it and lose it.

    (Being magnetizable is not essential to a magnet? Oops, I’m setting those worries aside!)

    Are living and dead bodies materially identical? I would think then that it would be impossible to measure with material instruments (like EKGs and ECGs) whether a body is alive or not. Yet it is, isn’t it? Maybe those instruments only measure motion, not being alive. If so, then it’s logically possible to have living things without moving parts, or things in motion just like human beings that aren’t alive. If these are logical possibilities, they are ones I cannot conceive!


  8. Huenemann Post author

    By the way, I doubt that the alive vs. not-alive distinction captures a real difference in nature. There are all sorts of unfortunate medical conditions in which human beings are in a twilight zone between being alive and not being alive; there are viruses, which are sorta living sorta not; and there are corporations or populations which, as a whole, meet many of the qualifications for being alive, but intuitively they don’t seem like they are. “Being alive” is, I think, a cluster concept, like “democracy” or “impressionism.”


  9. Kleiner

    The wordplay on magnet/magnetization makes what I am saying look sillier than it really is. In fact, ‘permanent magnets’ can be de-magnetized. Magnetization is a property that some metals and rocks may or may not have. When a lodestone becomes demagnetized, it remains a lodestone (which is to say, its magnetic properties are not essential/substantial properties).

    Rather predictably, I suppose, I would argue that EKGs and such things measure the effect, not the cause.

    To clarify, being alive is a property of things, not bodies. (‘Thing’ and ‘body’ are synonymous only insofar as you assume materialism.) Some bodies are not alive, but some are (have souls). Some bodies that are now alive may not be later, but this is because they will no longer be tied to a soul. I think Aquinas would walk pretty close to Plato here, ‘life’ is an essential property of substantial souls. (He makes an argument rather like this in Q75 on whether the soul is incorruptible). (In case you are getting scared off by the word ‘soul’, I am not packing any theological content into ‘soul’ here, just referring to the ‘first principle of life’).

    Regarding living things without movement, I’ll attempt to argue Thomas’ position here but you won’t like my example: I suppose I would say it is possible to have a ‘living thing without moving parts’. For instance, angels (who are immaterial and so have no parts).

    Just because the lines are hard to draw does not mean that there is no real distinction between being alive and not living. ‘Intuitively’ I think most will grant that there is a real difference here, even if it is hard to pin down at the margins.


  10. Huenemann Post author

    No, not wordplay. Of course a magnet can become de-magnetized. But can it lose its magnetizability? If it could, it would cease to be a magnet, would it not? Anyway, that’s a side issue.

    So, strictly speaking, no body is ever alive, according to Aquinas. To say one is alive is just shorthand for saying it is somehow linked up with a soul, a living principle. If I ask why I should look at things this way — instead of saying that a body can gain/lose the property of being alive — his response is that it’s not in bodily nature to be able to “combine with” the property of being alive.

    If I ask again why I should believe that, … well, I’m not sure what he would say. Surely I’ve gotten off on the wrong track somewhere. I guess “being alive” isn’t just a property, but a thingy that defines an essence of a thing. So if a thing can have it, then its essence is to be alive. This is why souls are essentially alive (and can be created/destroyed only miraculously, right?). So if bodies could have it, they would essentially have it, and there would be no non-alive bodies.

    OK, that’s better. So why think “being alive” is an essence thingy? I gather it’s because it seems like such a big and important difference among the things we encounter. So whenever we identify what seems like a big and important difference, it is an essence thingy. Unless it turns out not to be; consider “edibility.” Is that an essence thingy that everything we can eat shares? That seems funny. But maybe that’s not a big enough, important enough difference among things we encounter. How about “potential predator of humans”? Never mind — I’m just being a smart ass. (See my picture!)

    I will admit that someone can look at things in this way. But I can’t see it as a compelling view unless you already see things in this way. (I know, I know: “Same backatcha, buster.”)


  11. Kleiner

    Aquinas thinks ‘being alive’ is an essence thingy since it is tied to act and hence form. (Though this gets complicated, much more complicated than in Aristotle, for in Aquinas there are two levels of act, essence and the ‘act of existence’.) Anyway, we should remember that universals exist in minds, not in things (so you avoid the truly absurd Platonic picture of things participating in all sorts of obscure properties like ‘being a potential predator of humans’).

    Anyway, IF you grant (and I am asking you to be charitable) that the hylomorphic view, though it has some hiccups, is a coherent view, then the question is the one you raise: why hold this view? Is it compelling over and against others?

    So back to my question to you: How do you explain that some things are living and some are not? Can you do so in a purely materialist way that does not, somewhere along the line, make an appeal to something immaterial, even if it is something insubstantial like a ‘harmony of parts’? The 75.1 argument is not committed to anything more than that (though Aquinas quickly commits himself to much more as Question 75 moves forward).

    PS: Now that we are actually doing some philosophy, have we scared off all the other bloggers???


  12. Huenemann Post author

    I don’t know what ‘being alive’ is, so I can only parrot some standard account like the one given on wikipedia here:

    This account identifies it in terms of a series of functions:homeostasis, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli, and reproduction. A thing can do all that if and only if it is alive. There are disputes over the definition, but that may be as good as anyone can do.

    The materialist says all of those functions can be cashed out in terms of algorithms, or programs done by nonliving units. Integrate those units and you have a living thing.

    I’m already suspecting that you will says that “functions” generally, or at least some of the functions listed above, require immateriality of some sort. Maybe I need some sort of criterion for determining when a thing requires positing immaterial stuff for an understanding of its behavior (according to Aquinas or Aristotle). If toasters and thermostats require immaterial stuff, then I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose sense of what we’re talking about. On the other hand, if they don’t, then that’s the sort of “functions” I have in mind as the building blocks of life.


  13. Kleiner

    Seems like a fair enough list, and pretty close to Thomas, he lists these powers: vegetative (growth, reproduction), locomotive, sensitive, appetitive, and intellectual.

    I think a key part of the wiki definition is that these functions originate internally (they have what Aristotle calls a “nature” or an internal principle of movement/change). Assuming we can agree on that, the question then becomes: What is the internal principle(s) of life? The toaster, presumably, would never qualify since its ‘principle of movement’ is external.

    My story is that this internal principle is a living form (an anima/soul). What will you point to? Aquinas’ argument is that you won’t be able to point to anything material, since there is surely a non-living body that has the same material condition that you might point out.

    It sounds like you want to point to an ‘integration of material units’ – but that starts to sound a lot like Simmias’ immaterial harmony from the Phaedo. If so, fine. It does not commit you to nearly as much as Aquinas (or I) is committed to. And you’d probably be able to get living machines out of that definition too. But it does commit you to a rejection (even if it is a ‘soft rejection’) of materialism. I’d smile at that!


  14. Kleiner

    I keep referring to particular arguments in hopes of giving the discussion context. Anyone that has taken my Intro course will be familiar with both the Aquinas arguments on the table as well as the harmony argument in the Phaedo I have referenced (so this should not be over anyone’s head).

    So I’ll put the harmony argument on the table. The harmony objection is raised by Simmias in the Phaedo (86a-e). Essentially the argument is that the soul is just the immaterial harmony of a properly ‘stretched’ or ‘tuned’ body, but with no substantiality of its own. Once the material parts fall out of ‘tune’, the soul (life) vanishes.

    In this respect, replied Simmias: Might not a person use the same argument about harmony and the lyre-might he not say that harmony is a thing invisible, incorporeal, fair, divine, abiding in the lyre which is harmonized, but that the lyre and the strings are matter and material, composite, earthy, and akin to mortality? [… …] For I suspect, Socrates, that the notion of the soul which we are all of us inclined to entertain, would also be yours, and that you too would conceive the body to be strung up, and held together, by the elements of hot and cold, wet and dry, and the like, and that the soul is the harmony or due proportionate admixture of them. And, if this is true, the inference clearly is that when the strings of the body are unduly loosened or overstrained through disorder or other injury, then the soul, though most divine, like other harmonies of music or of the works of art, of course perishes at once, although the material remains of the body may last for a considerable time, until they are either decayed or burnt. Now if anyone maintained that the soul, being the harmony of the elements of the body, first perishes in that which is called death, how shall we answer him?

    Again, I think Huenemann might be committing himself to something like an immaterial harmony (‘integration of parts’) for the first principle of life. It would not be substantial since it is entirely dependent on the proper organization of material components, but it is ‘more’ than the mere matter.


  15. Huenemann Post author

    It is good to press me on this. (And fun!) We probably need to get a better idea of what “materialism” is. Here is my first stab: materialism is the view that everything that exists is a result of the atomic elements following the forces of nature (electroweak, strong, and gravity). There probably are ways of explaining both the atomic elements and the forces in terms of even more basic things (string theory?), but that shouldn’t matter, since the end result is the same: atoms + forces = everything. I trust nothing immaterial has been smuggled in yet!

    Then here comes the reductionist account. Once you have atoms churning along over vast periods of time, pretty soon, in a few places, more complex entities develop (chemical compounds). These allow for even more complex developments. And then boing! You have life. Obviously, we want more details here, and biochemists are working steadily at providing them. Getting inorganic stuff to assemble on its own into living stuff has been duplicated in labs since the early 1950s (see, but there is a dispute over exactly what stuff was available on Earth at the time. (Or so I read.)

    Materialists like myself often help ourselves to functions, design, or forms, but that’s innocent so long as we also have a way (or at least a plan) to reduce these things to atoms + forces. Here it is analogous to computer programming. One could accuse programmers of believing in immaterial entities — for what are programs if not forms? — but we trust that every appeal to software can be reduced to talk about electrons shuffling around.

    So, no, no harmonies. Only atoms + forces.


  16. Huenemann Post author

    I forgot to add:

    Though scientists can duplicate the origin of life in the lab, you’d be right to point out that they still don’t have an account of it. They need to explain how life entities arise out of the mix, and the explanation must be reducible to atoms + forces. Until they do, it could be that immaterial forms are sneaking in along the way.

    (I’ll be traveling for a few days, so I may not be responding for a little while.)


  17. Kleiner

    Fair enough. My point here is that the provisional version of the yet to be provided account of how life arises out of the mix usually makes reference, as you did, to an ‘integration of material units’. I am treating that as basically synonymous with Simmias’ ‘harmony’ view (the material units of the lyre are integrated/tuned in just such a way).

    Perhaps I am bending the terms here, but since on this view something that is itself immaterial (the harmony/intergration) arises out of the material, you have become something like a ‘soft materialist’. A ‘soft materialist’ would grant that there are immaterial things (harmonies), though deny that those immaterial things are substantial and insist that their existence can be explained away as being totally dependent on the material units. A ‘hard materialist’ would insist that there are no immaterial things at all, whether subsistent or dependent.

    I am just sort of making up that soft vs hard materialist distinction, but it seems workable, no?

    The definition of materialism you provide seems like it could be read as a ‘soft materialist’ view, since it does not say that immaterial things don’t exist, it just says that anything that does exist (including possible immaterial things) exists ‘as a result of the atomic elements …’. In other words, that seemingly ‘soft’ definition of materialism just denies the substantiality of anything immaterial. Immaterial things could exist as ‘accidents’ (like red) do.

    Here is why I am pressing so hard on this (keeping in mind that I used to not believe in anything like a soul). I am mildly confident that once I get you to grant some kind of immaterial soul/integration/whatever, I’ll be able to argue you into a number of other things concerning it!! This is precisely how Aquinas proceeds. He first gets you to bite on some kind of immaterial anima (75.1). On my terms above he is initially arguing against hard materialism but not soft materialism. Then, once you have granted that, he argues for its substantiality (75.2) and thereby abandons also soft materialism. He revisits the denial of materialism in 75.5 before arguing for the big one – the immortality of the soul (75.6)


  18. Huenemann Post author

    Good luck!

    I’m not aware of any hard vs. soft materialist distinction. Someone might hold that some functions “supervene” on atoms + forces without being reducible to atoms +forces, but they would be called a “property dualist” (as opposed to a substance dualist). (Sounds to me that this is what Aristotle believes.) A real materialist says that where there is supervenience there is also reduction — and that’s what I think. The “integration of material units” can be explained solely by reference to atoms + forces. Don’t go calling my materialism soft!


  19. Kleiner

    I really think you and Simmias are making the same argument (though his lacks your modern scientific jargon of atoms and forces).

    Even if there is reduction, the ‘supervening’ functions/integration is not itself material, right? To play on Simmias’ harmony argument (which is actually a rather nice presentation of this view), the harmony, though reducible to the material units, is not itself any one of the material units and is not, in fact, itself material at all. So while the harmony/integration ‘can be explained solely by reference to atoms + forces’, the integration itself if not material.

    If I have you right, that is your view. If you don’t like my coined ‘soft materialist’ label, you can come up with something that sounds more macho.

    And if I have you right, we should work through each of Socrates’ responses to the harmony objection. Socrates essentially tries to move Simmias from soft materialism to a substance view of the soul. Socrates has 3 responses. (a) An appeal to recollection (I doubt either of us will be moved by that). (b) An appeal to virtue. (c) The ‘ruling response’.

    So tell me if I have you right. If so, I’ll post those arguments so we can work through those one at a time. But I might still be misunderstanding you, calling you names (‘soft’) and generally mischaracterizing materialism.


  20. Kleiner

    Very interesting connection with Levinas and Derrida, and a nice reminder that we talk/think in a way that cannot be easily mapped onto the ancient way of thinking.

    One other cautionary note to add: we should also be sensitive readers of the ancients and not force our dualistic understanding of both soul and matter onto them. Aristotle, for example, would reject that ‘physics’ has just to do with matter. In fact, he would think it utter nonsense to talk about matter alone (prime matter), since nothing at all could be said of it. Rather, his physics is a study of ‘in-formed matter’. Aristotle, Aquinas (and I) are not dualists – treating matter and form as separate substances (with all the mind-body problems that attend substance dualism). I don’t really consider myself a dualist at all, even though I am comfortable with body-soul talk. The ‘soul’ (form) and body (matter) are not two ‘things’ that have to be fit together. They are two ‘fashions’ of one thing. (I follow Lear in using ‘fashions’ instead of ’causes’ when referring to any of the ‘4 causes’).

    Point is, I think we can still hold on to the w[H]oly Other of Levinas, since physics that applies to hylomorphic entities will not apply to God in the same way (and, following Derrida, in a certain sense does not apply to any Other, including human persons, who have that quality of ‘transcendence -in-immanence’ which resists objectification). It may be that we can rightly describe the soul-body human nature, but still not yet speak of the person (in fact, this is Aquinas’ view).

    So even with my affinity for Levinas/pomo, I am not ready to give up entirely on more ‘traditional’ ways of talking about such things (matter-form, etc). In fact, I am interested in the less radical (which the French won’t like) project of rendering Levinas/Heidegger compatible with parts of the tradition they inherited. So I remain so eager to hear if Huenemann thinks I have him right (if Huenemann and Simmias have the same view).

    Theological aside which I don’t want to detract from the main topic of the stream: Obviously we are left with speculation on what happens after death, but is Vince flirting with ‘soul sleep’ (though some minor protestant traditions taught it, the RCC declared the view heretical)?


  21. Mike

    Have you been reading that Caputo book Vince? Or have you been doing other Derridean readings? I’m looking forward to reading the books you gave me. No time yet. I’m also planning to pick up Buber at some point. I was reading something else that mentioned him recently and collectively with some of what you’ve said I think he’s becoming a bit more relevant to me.


  22. Kleiner

    I agree that there is no ‘necessity’ to the claim that we are more than our physical body, but I still think we are more than that.

    Vince said, “The only thing that moves beyond the physical-chemical human is the awareness that there is (maybe) something beyond the horizon of our experience and knowledge.”

    Well that is, in part, what is what is in dispute here. My claim is that there is something within the horizon of being that is immaterial. I don’t think Derrida or Levinas necessarily disagree, I think they don’t care – they are concerned with what lies beyond the horizon of being.

    Again, I have a lot of sympathy for aspects of that pomo project, but I don’t think discussions of the ‘radically other’ somehow put to rest legitimate questions about the soul. Certain pomo philosophers might think that the ‘self is dead’ (and with it all traditional philosophical reflection on such things), but I think their obituary is rather premature.

    Anyway, I am not nearly so quick to dismiss the category of an immaterial soul, even in light of postmodernity. So I am resisting you a bit here since I am eager to push on with some of the arguments on the table. If you think Buber/Levinas/Derrida render these discussions pointless, well I guess you won’t be very interested in this stream. My proposal: let’s keep this stream focused on the Aquinas arguments and the harmony argument from the Phaedo. We’ll be treading pretty traditional philosophical turf here. The discussion is treading within the field of being and the real (and the question is whether the real admits of immateriality). Derrida and others are more interested in questions that look ‘beyond being’. I find that business equally fascinating (though I reject Derrida’s implicit claim that any discourse over being is necessarily ‘violent’ or ‘technological’). So if you want, start up a new stream to take up the pomo stuff (and if you guys are reading this material right now, please start streams about it) and let us have some old-school philosophical fun here on this stream! :)


  23. Mike

    I’m not trying to derail the core stream at all. Just wondering what’s been influencing Vince’s thinking on these issues. There may be students caught up with ideas related to the soul/being. As an onlooker i wonder where this process will end up.


  24. Kleiner

    A professor of mine at Purdue once said, “Reading Levinas makes you better at reading everything.” He might have been right – Levinas informs almost everything I read now (one could see Buber for the same reasons, I just know Levinas better).
    I just wanted to work out the flow of the stream – is Huenemann’s position largely similar to the harmony view put forth by Simmias in the Phaedo? If so, then can I argue Huenemann into something more than the ‘dependent and reducible’ immateriality of ‘integrated material units’?


  25. Huenemann Post author

    OK, I’m back. So Kleiner asks, “Even if there is reduction, the ’supervening’ functions/integration is not itself material, right?” I have no idea what this means. If I have a dozen eggs, is the dozen itself, apart from the eggs, immaterial? To me, “dozen” is just another name for 12 of something. Not every name names a distinct entity. And names themselves are not entities. These are cases where I agree with Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche before him, and Occam before him, that language misleads us.


  26. Kleiner

    Here is the point: A living human body can be distinguished from a ‘heap’ of flesh and bones. A heap of flesh and bones might be materially identical to a living human body (same material units). But I think we would all agree that there is some fact about the living body such that it deserves the name ‘living body’ rather than the name ‘heap of flesh and bones’. We are here inquiring about that principle that distinguishes the lived body from a heap. I don’t think language is misleading us here – though we say ‘one dozen’, no one thinks that the ‘dozen’ is ‘one thing’ – it is of course a collection of 12 things. But we do think, rightly, that a ‘living frog’ is one thing. There is some principle of unity operative there, though I am not (yet) insisting that the unitive principle is substantial. If Huenemann thinks ‘that frog’ and ‘dozen’ are used in the same way, and that those two ‘entities’ are relevantly similar, then we have moved so far from ordinary use of language that we’ve made philosophy utterly pointless to how people think and talk about their world. We all think the frog is an entity (of some sort) and that the dozen is not. (Forgive my brushing aside of the Wittgensteinian schtick, I just don’t like brushing off legitimate philosophical questions with what I see as hiding behind alleged deficiencies of language).

    The question is, in virtue of what do we call it ‘living’? We must be referring to more than the material units, for not all material units are living. Huenemann has, it seems, agreed to this. So what is it in virtue of which a body deserves the name ‘living body’? Huenemann’s provisional answer to that question is that it is an ‘integration of material units’ that makes the thing a living body rather than a heap of material units (I think that view is largely indistinguishable from Simmias’ harmony view). So it is because of the integration/harmony of material units that the body is called living.

    Now my question is this – what is the nature/status of that integration? I am not insisting (yet) that it is a substantial entity. But there is something – an integration/harmony of material units – that makes a real difference to the status of the body. This is not just wordplay or language misleading us, it is as obvious as pointing to a rock or a corpse and saying ‘non-living’ and pointing to Mike or a frog and saying ‘living’. And it does seem that the integration/harmony itself, while perhaps reducible to the material units, is not itself material.

    Incidentally, this is largely just a re-statement of Aquinas’ first argument in Q75 (we discussed it briefly above).


  27. Huenemann Post author

    Good pressing. What is the status/nature of that integration? I’m not sure what the options are. It doesn’t sound right to me to say that the integration is a “thing” added to the mix, since the integration cannot exist without the material components. It is more natural to say that the integration is a “way” in which the components relate to one another — organized systematically, rather than in a heap — so I suppose the integration relates to the sum of the parts as an adverb relates to a verb.

    I want to stress that the integration of the heap of parts is no less “adverbial” than the integration of the living body. That is to say, the parts of a heap are existing in a particular “heapish” way, and the parts of the living body are existing in a “living” way. (So much for trying to say what sounds natural!) Everything exists in some sort of way, and we should beware of thinking that the ways that capture our interest are something and the ways that don’t are nothing.


  28. Kleiner

    I will confess straightaway that I find it odd to diminish life in the way Huenemann would like. Sure, life captures our interest. But I don’t think this is accidental – life is interesting and good!

    I’ll keep pressing until Huenemann thinks I am wasting time or just being annoying (let me know). It seems to me that Huenemann is trying to skip a step. We are not yet asking if the integration/harmony is a ‘thing’ or, to use my terminology and fairly stock philosophical jargon, a ‘substance’. I’ll ask that he indulge me a bit here.

    I think we should proceed through these steps.
    (a) Is the integration/harmony itself immaterial?
    (b) Is it a substance (a ‘thing’)?
    (c) If it is a substance, what else can we say about it?

    Regarding (a) I am now more convinced than ever that Huenemann’s position is essentially indistinguishable from Simmias’ harmony view. I think our answer to (a) is yes.

    Now, that does not prove much. It confirms merely a harmony view of the ‘soul’. We use ‘soul’ here just to mean the first principle of life, or that ‘principle’ or even ‘adverbial state of affairs’ that makes a body living.

    Now we proceed to (b). Is the immaterial harmony reducible to its material units (the Hueneman/Simmias view) or is it a substance/’thing/? (By the way, I would prefer the substance talk, for I don’t want to ‘thingify’ substantial existence, thereby falling into the metaphysics of presence. I think of substantial existence in the Gilson existential Thomist sense, a dynamic act). Obviously Huenemann wants to say ‘No, it is not a substance’. I am arguing that it is a substance.

    To follow some recent advice for the blog, let’s keep this centered around some exegesis. We are working with Aquinas Summa 75 and Plato’s Phaedo. Both proceed in a similar fashion (both follow the (a), (b), (c) steps above). I will stick with the Phaedo to start, since Huenemann has essentially restated Simmias’ objection so his view maps nicely onto the text.

    To the text: Before giving his responses to Simmias, Socrates asks for Cebes’s objection (the ‘cloak objection’ at 87b-e). After hearing these, Socrates first gives a stern warning that we not become misologues (haters of argument and reason) at 90-91. Socrates then has 3 responses to Simmias’ denial of the substantiality of the soul: (1) An appeal to recollection (92). (2) An appeal to virtue (93-94). (3) The ‘ruling response’. Since I doubt either of us will be at all moved by the recollection response, I am skipping that one.

    (2) The virtue response. I don’t think this argument is all bad, but it presumes that virtue is a kind of harmony, and Huenemann may not give me that. So this argument may not get very far. Here is my summary of the argument:
    – A soul cannot be any more or less fully a soul than another – so one harmony cannot be any more or less a harmony than any other (supposing the soul is a harmony).
    – It is agreed that virtue is a harmony, and that vice is a disharmony (a good soul is harmonized).
    – That which is no more or less a harmony is not more or less harmonized.
    – So a harmony cannot partake of more or less harmony.
    – So no one soul can have more or less harmony than another.
    – So no soul could have more wickedness, or indeed any, since harmony does not admit disharmony.
    – Therefore, if a soul is a harmony, then all souls are equally good. But not all souls are equally good, therefore a soul is not a harmony. 93a-94b

    Again, if Huenemann (and others) don’t grant that virtue is a harmony, then this argument is dead in the water.

    (2) The ruling response. I expect this argument will have some traction. I will quote the text first, then give my brief summary:

    Soc: Once more, he said, what ruling principle is there of human things
    other than the soul, and especially the wise soul? Do you know of any?
    Indeed, I do not.
    Soc: And is the soul in agreement with the affections of the body? or
    is she at variance with them? For example, when the body is hot and
    thirsty, does not the soul incline us against drinking? and when the
    body is hungry, against eating? And this is only one instance out of
    ten thousand of the opposition of the soul to the things of the body.
    Very true.
    Soc: But we have already acknowledged that the soul, being a harmony, can
    never utter a note at variance with the tensions and relaxations and
    vibrations and other affections of the strings out of which she is
    composed; she can only follow, she cannot lead them?
    Yes, he said, we acknowledged that, certainly.
    Soc: And yet do we not now discover the soul to be doing the exact
    opposite-leading the elements of which she is believed to be composed;
    almost always opposing and coercing them in all sorts of ways
    throughout life, sometimes more violently with the pains of medicine
    and gymnastic; then again more gently; threatening and also
    reprimanding the desires, passions, fears, as if talking to a thing
    which is not herself, as Homer in the “Odyssey” represents Odysseus
    doing in the words,

    “He beat his breast, and thus reproached his heart:
    Endure, my heart; far worse hast thou endured!”

    Do you think that Homer could have written this under the idea that
    the soul is a harmony capable of being led by the affections of the
    body, and not rather of a nature which leads and masters them; and
    herself a far diviner thing than any harmony?
    Yes, Socrates, I quite agree to that.
    Soc: Then, my friend, we can never be right in saying that the soul is
    a harmony, for that would clearly contradict the divine Homer as
    well as ourselves.
    True, he said.

    My summary:
    – The soul rules human beings (proof, one can oppose the body’s desires, …).
    – A harmony can never be out of tune with its elements – it cannot oppose its elements, for a harmony is directed by its parts, it follows rather than leads
    – Therefore, the soul is not a [mere] harmony, since harmonies are ruled and souls rule.


  29. Huenemann Post author

    I still think the answer to (a) is no. “Being integrated,” though it is a grammatically a subject of predication, is not metaphysically a subject of predication. “It” is neither immaterial nor material, for there isn’t any “it” there. The proper subject of predication, in this case, is the set of body parts, which is heapish in one instance and integrated in the other.

    My family was in the house, Now they’re in the car. Is “being in the car” immaterial? Doesn’t that sound like a mistaken question?

    I think the problem with argument (2) is that Socrates needs a concept like “harmony-ish.” We all know that there are varying degrees of harmony — some purer or easier to apprehend than others. Wagner’s Tristan chord was a musical element that pushed the envelope, harmony-wise: the first hearers weren’t quite sure how harmonious it was, but they found it thrilling. Anyway, Simmias could say that souls are in the category of “harmony-ish” things, with there being some souls more harmonious than others.


  30. Huenemann Post author

    Re. (3) the ruling response: Why say the soul is ruling the body’s desires, rather than say that one desire (Odysseus’s desire for glory) is overpowering the others? And, again, I think Socrates’s take on “harmony” is too simplistic.


  31. Kleiner

    First of all, let me say that I don’t think the soul is a ‘thing’. If I had to say what a ‘thing’ is, I would point to a hylomorphic compound (form-matter composite). The soul is, I think, the act of the lived body and its principle of unity.

    Second point: I think the ‘being in the car’ point is off target. Being in the car is, I think, pretty obviously a derivative activity. Location can be a ‘way of being’ or a ‘state of affairs’ for a thing, but it is not itself constituitive of that thing and its unity. So, at first look, such ‘ways of being’ certainly seem a lot different than the ‘integration’ of material units. Why? The integration/harmony thesis is supposed to explain something that needs explaining – namely, why is this unified body living rather than not living. The location of a thing (being in a car, being in a house) are accidental relations. They make a claim about where this unity (living body) is, they are not themselves pointed to as the principle for the unity of the lived body. To use a bit of Heideggereese, those ‘ways of being’ are not ‘ownmost’.

    Either way, I think Huenemann is assuming the conclusion of the argument. He says that the ‘integration’ is not a proper subject of predication. Well, that is the point in dispute, right? It may be that the integration is totally derivative (an accidental set of relations). But it may not be. Let’s look at the arguments before we decide its metaphysical status.

    Again, let’s separate these two questions:
    a) is the principle of unity of a lived body, the principle of life, immaterial or not? I am not here asking if this principle is a substance, a thing, an event, a state of affairs, or whatever. I am leaving the metaphysical status totally wide open.
    I really cannot tell a difference between Huenemann’s position and Simmias’. I know Huenemann is dragging his feet here, but I think we’ve agreed that the principle of life (the ‘integration of material units’) is not itself material.

    b) What is the metaphysical status of this principle? This is the much bigger question.

    Let’s take up the ‘ruling response’, since that seems to be the one that makes the fewest unwelcome assumptions. Huenemann replies that the soul does not rule over the body (desires) when it opposes certain desires. Rather, all that is happening is that one desire is overpowering another. This fits nicely with Huenemann’s Nz sympathies (the ‘self’ as a boiling cauldren of desires and nothing more).
    My reply (in Socratic form):

    Kleiner: So you say that the self is nothing more than a collection of desires. Sometimes desire x overpowers desire y, sometimes desire z wins out, etc. Is that correct?

    Huenemann: Yes, you have my meaning.

    Kleiner: Now when you choose to go on a bike ride instead of on a run, do I rightly say that ‘Huenemann chose to ride his bike’?

    Huenemann: By Zeus, of course. Who else would have made the choice if not me?

    Kleiner: But is the ‘you’ here simply that desire? And if so, when you later choose to go on a run, are you no longer you?

    Huenemann: That is ridiculous, dear sir. I am not that one desire, I am the whole collection.

    Kleiner: But if your self is not identical to any one desire but is the whole collection, then that means that your self is both x and not x, since you have competing desires.

    Huenemann: I suppose.

    Kleiner: Are you one thing or are you many?

    Huenemann: I am one thing, that is obvious enough.

    Kleiner: Since you are one thing, a unity, then it cannot be that contradictory principles are the basis of that unity, if you understand me.

    Huenemann: By the dog, I understand you clearly and think you are right.

    Kleiner: Then we must conclude that you are not merely a collection of desires, though you may have them. Rather, there is some principle of unity ‘behind’ those desires that makes you one thing, even if you are a thing that is tugged and pulled by various desires.

    Huenemann: I suppose that is true, I will need to revise my position. But I have more important things to do than argue with you – there is science to be done! Good day!

    Kleiner: But I want to continue to talk and remain your pupil!

    [ … Will Huenemann follow Meno and Euthyphro, and abandon the debate? Or will he, like Glaucon, Simmias, and Cebes, stay to pursue the truth of the soul? … Stay tuned … ]


  32. Huenemann Post author

    I think what makes a body alive is a relation among its parts. You are pressing me on whether I think that relation is material or immaterial. Neither sounds right to me. That’s why I used the “being in the car” analogy. That’s a relation between my family and the car, and it doesn’t sound right to say that “being in the car” is either material or immaterial. It is a relation among material things, just as “being alive” is a relation among material things.

    Suppose I say the relation “being alive” is immaterial. Now I can raise many questions no one should like. Is the relation among my parts the same as the relation among your parts (as we are both alive)? How about the relation among my parts and the relation among a corn plant’s parts? How about the relation among my parts when I am healthy, or when I am sick, or when I lose a limb, or when I am in a coma? How about my relations qua organism, qua animal, qua human being, qua male human being, qua middle-aged human being, etc.? Just how many immaterial relations are jostling around my innards? There is no principled, sensible way of sorting out when there is one relation, or two, or many. And where there can be no individuation, there can be no individuals. Hence I resist any move toward thinking of relations as the sort of act or entity or whatever of which it makes sense to ask “Is it material or immaterial?”. I say: neither, just as the relation of “being next to” is neither material nor immaterial.

    Ultimately, in addition to the atoms in the world, I believe in forces, and I am equally reluctant to call the forces either material or immaterial (either answer would be problematic).

    Clever dialogue! But I am not “one thing.” I am a ball of snakes, a multitude, a chorus of voices each striving to be the melody.


  33. Kleiner

    I quite agree that the relation talk won’t get us very far. But I think these are your problems, not mine. I will remind you that it is your view that the principle of life is an ‘integration’ (relationship) of material units. For my part, I just suggested that the first principle of life – whatever that is – is not itself a material unit. I quite agree with you that there are all sorts of tangles on the horizon of the relation (integration) answer. Since the corn plant and the bear and the salamander have such different material parts (and ‘integrations’) but yet all have something in common (being alive), all the more reason to look to something that is not material for the principle of life!!

    I wonder how close we are on what you mean by ‘forces’ and what I mean by ‘powers’ (as when I say that the soul is the ‘power of the body’)?

    Funny last line, for I wonder what does the ‘I’ refer to? The ball of snakes? And yet, you speak of the ball of snakes from some distance. In other words, on your own argument the category of ‘I’ (self, subject) is not a metaphysical subject of predication (language deceiving us into treating chimeras as metaphysical entities). Do you really think that? But yet we predicate things of our ‘selves’ all the time! Do you think ‘I’ or ‘Charlie Huenemann’ operate, linguistically, in the same way as ‘dozen’? If so, it seems to me you will have a very odd account (or perhaps no intelligible account at all) of what a ‘thing’ is! Again, for my part I think the ‘death of the subject’ (which Foucault called the necessary sequel to Nz’s death of God) was pronounced rather prematurely.

    We probably won’t get much agreement here as this is one of those ‘rubber hits the road’ points where we just flat out disagree. But I think you move away from ordinary experience insofar as you deny that I experience myself as being, in some sense, ‘one’. And there is an incredibly high price to pay – once you give up ‘unity’ as a first principle of being, on what ground can you distinguish ‘this’ from ‘that’ (Mike from a stalk of corn from a frog)? But, with Nz, you choose Heraclitus over Parmenides. Notice, the Socratic warning against misology is not randomly placed in the dialogue. Your move to avoid the question of the substantiality of the soul ultimately means the end of reason – for without unity there can be no way of speaking about anything (see the Sophist).

    To tie in to Buber/Derrida/Levinas for Vince: Here is where I pull back a bit from those ‘philosophers of difference’. I think they are right to raise the question of difference anew for we can focus too much on ‘the same’ (Levinas calls the history of philosophy the ‘history of the same’). But they are wrong to deny unity any ground. On the contrary, unity remains a viable (in fact necessary) category for language and thought. I try to walk a middle narrative way, respecting the dynamic tension and play of unity and difference.


  34. Huenemann Post author

    It’s not “relation talk” that gets us into trouble; relation talk is unavoidable. It is reifying relations to the point where we treat them as substances, asking whether they are material or immaterial. (I know, you say you are not assuming they are things or substances; but I say that asking whether they are material presumes they are.)

    I think we can talk usefully about what bears and salamanders have in common, but looking for a “principle of life” they share looks hopeless to me. Again, do they share one insofar as they are alive, another insofar as they eat bugs, another insofar as they are terrestrial, etc.? We may as well argue about how many kinds of invisible fairies help the forest to grow!

    No, “I” does not function as a plural subject, grammatically. The self is a useful abstraction from the amazing array of functions performed by the human brain. But the abstraction loses utility the more closely we examine (through cog sci) what actually happens when people think and behave.


  35. Kleiner

    I’ll confess to being somewhat stunned by Huenemann’s almost blase reduction of what I see as very basic ontological categories. We just disagree here, and it is a disagreement about first steps (to reduce or not to reduce, that is the question), so it may not do us well to keep carrying on about it, but:

    It seems to me it is a perfectly legitimate way to ‘break the world up at its joints’ to distinguish between ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ things. Of course, I think we can break up nature at other joints (bug eating, berry eating, terrestrial, aquatic, etc) and these other divisions may or may not be useful and may or may not be arbitrary. But the ‘living vs non-living’ seems to be one of the least, perhaps the least, arbitrary division. In fact, it does not seem arbitrary to me at all. Huenemann can try to reduce that division to other arbitrary divisions, but that seems very odd to me. Again, I think that kind of reductionism flirts dangerously with serious misology. Let me re-state that for full effect: I think Huenemann’s materialist reductionism means the end of reason. His science would be impossible if he were right.

    Let us look at the scientists – doesn’t Huenemann know that his highest function of reason (scientific reason) makes these divisions – and finds itself justified in doing so – all the time?! Sure, there are judgment calls when dividing classes and species, but most scientists think this is a legitimate (non-arbitrary) thing to do.

    Since living vs non-living is a very obvious way in which nature can be divided into classes, the next question is – what is the principle by which these are X and these are not-X?

    I also just completely disagree with the view that the ‘self’ is merely a ‘useful abstraction’ or mirage. Quite to the contrary, I think ‘persons’ are just about ontologically basic.


  36. Huenemann Post author

    Sure, we all routinely make the distinction between “living” and “nonliving.” We also routinely make the distinction between “a few” and “a lot.” Being able to confidently make a distinction — and make it correctly — is not inconsistent with there being a continuum connecting the things being distinguished. The distinction between bird and reptile gets fuzzy as you sort through the fossils (indeed, all species distinctions get fuzzy in this way). The careful employment of ‘scientific reason’ often shows that where we thought there was a joint, there wasn’t.

    I find it funny that my taking science seriously is flirting dangerously with misology. I would have thought that insisting on ordinary distinctions, despite what careful observers have to say, would be flirting with misology. (Or does ‘misology’ simply mean ‘disagrees with Aristotle’?)

    Shall I let the scientists know that, with all that observing and experimenting and stuff, they are killing science? Observations can be SO inconvenient for theoretical principles!

    I can see I’m getting ill-tempered. You’re probably right: we’re just at a stand-off again.


  37. Kleiner

    On the flip side, that there is an observed continuum is not inconsistent with there being a real distinction. And I would argue that there are ontological gaps in that continuum, and at some point in the ‘living to non-living’ continuum we would hit an ontological jump. The higher up we are on the Porphyrian tree, the larger and more obvious the ontological gaps will be (like animate vs inanimate). The ontological jumps will be much smaller when we distinguish things lower on the Porphyrian tree (species and even genuses). None of this is contrary to ordinary or scientific observation.

    So it is not your taking science seriously that is killing science. I think I take science every bit as seriously as you do. It is your metaphysics – materialism – that will undercut the possibility of science (or understanding generally).

    My point here is pretty well-tread turf between us, it is basically the Machuga/Aristotle/Aquinas argument – there can be no understanding (scientific or otherwise) or meaning without an immaterial agent intellect.
    1. All relations are either physical or non-physical (i.e., intentional).
    2. The relation between a word and its meaning is not a physical relation
    3. The person who understands the meaning of a word is active, while the word itself is passive.
    4. That which is capable of action must subsist.
    5. Therefore, the agent intellect that understands words must be immaterial and subsistent.

    I have put a different spin on it in out discussion above – that sacrificing ‘unity’ as a basic principle will make it impossible to render anything intelligible (in fact, it will make it impossible to speak).

    So I was not meaning to name call with the misology talk. I really think it is a serious issue for materialism. I suppose my point is a pseudo Kantian question (though I am not proposing a Kantian answer): Assuming, as we both do, that science is a perfectly legitimate way to get real knowledge about the world – what are the conditions for the possibility of science? I don’t think materialism will work, I think you have to have an immaterial intellect (this is the point of the Machuga book). (By the way, I would make a similar argument for language generally, and a similar argument for unity being a necessary category in order for us to possibly make intelligible assertions. The latter is the ‘legacy of Parmenides’).

    We are at a stand-off here. As a parting shot, I cannot resist pointing out that I have never heard you really respond to this challenge – that is, come up with an intelligible account of how a materialist metaphysics could ground intelligent inquiry. As a philosopher who thinks philosophy should be a hand-maiden to science, shouldn’t this be job #1 for you? Maybe another day?

    ps – I have a good friend from grad school is is very good on all of this, I would love to bring him in next year to continue to ruffle your feathers.

    pps – None of this makes any mention about ethics, and I would have a whole lot to say about the deficiencies of materialism and reductionism there (deficiencies that one can miss if they ‘blink’ before Nz does). That will have to wait for another day too.


  38. Mike


    If you ask [adjective] questions you’ll get [adjective] answers.

    come up with an intelligible account of how a materialist metaphysics could ground intelligent inquiry

    how’s metaphysical “ground” been working out for us so far? does the “undermining materialism” Kleiner is worried about pose a genuine problem for society/humanity or are these solely philosophical (in the narrow sense) problems?

    Stay tuned for the next edition of “what are those philosophers saying now?” (TM). (now in online edition, not available in all areas of inquiry, some restrictions definitely apply, see metaphysical imprints for details, etc.)


  39. Kleiner

    Responding to Mike: Of course I do think this is a (narrow sense) philosophical problem. But I think the ‘undermining materialism’ also poses a genuine problem for society/humanity as well, though in this case on the ethics front. Materialism and reductionism undermine what is, to my mind, the bottom line of all ethics – the inherent dignity of the human person (now I move closer back to Levinas, though this is in keeping with the Thomistic moral tradition as well). This is THE issue in ethics, for it is from the inherent dignity of the person (and, ultimately, only from that – I am no utilitarian)) that we can push back against hate, tyranny, prejudice, etc. I would argue that the roots of relativism are in reductionism. So this is very concrete, and a fine example for Mike of how ideas – yes, even philosophical ideas and argument – can impact the world.

    Strangely enough, I think Huenemann agrees that ethics is a concern – that is why he will not walk with Nz to the end (Huenemann blinks).


  40. Mike

    Yeah, I get it.

    I think the moral choice should be made right there where you’re picking the adjective.

    I could definitely see how if you had a strong personal need for metaphysically grounding moral beliefs you’d want to pursue it. Reminds me of Milosz.

    I think Wilcox’s moral realism was (is?) a similar sort of pursuit.


  41. Kleiner

    Vince: I am leaning forward a bit on the Aquinas and Levinas connection, I really don’t have all this worked out. That said, Jean-Luc Marion (a Catholic writer in the vein of Levinas) commented that his inspiration for his book ‘God Without Being’ (and Levinas’ fingerprints are all over that book) was re-reading Aquinas. So I am not alone in thinking a connection could be made. (We could also look at Rene Girard).

    Here is a quick and extremely provisional stab: Reductionism and materialism are like ugly twin sisters, and they seem to always travel together. Reductionism is the specific worry here, for you are quite right that mere immateriality or ‘soulishness’ won’t get us ethics. From Aquinas you could come up with a hierarchy of animate beings according to their power and substantiality (Aquinas thinks only agent intellects are substantial, so my dog’s soul is not). I think Aquinas is on to something here, and it will help inform our ethical obligations. But to get the ethics Levinas is talking about I think you need to introduce relationship.

    It is in relationship that personhood comes forward (this is a very Levinasian and Buberian and, before them, Kierkegaardian, theme). I think this can be found in Aquinas, and is at least not in conflict with anything Aquinas says (especially when you look at his writings on charity and on the Trinity). Though Aquinas uses the Aristotelian jargon, his notion of substance is much different than Aristotle’s because his includes the notion of relationality (keep in mind that Aristotle’s UMM was utterly non-relatable, unlike Aquinas UMM who not only can relate to the world but is itself a set of relations between F-S-HS). In addition, I think Aquinas is much more ‘apaphatic’ about the Other than is usually thought, so I am pretty well convinced that he is not guilty of the worst kinds of ‘onto-theology’. (Very often the Levinas/Derrida/Heidegger critique of the tradition gets couched as an attack on ‘onto-theology’.)
    Needless to say, I have a lot to work out here. But I think there is a middle way, a relational virtue ethics that is not guilty of enframing. Furthermore, I think JPII has already given us a picture of what this rapprochement might look like – his ‘Theology of the Body’ is an absolute must read (I think you will see Buber and Levinas lurking there, certainly the pomo interest in the Gift is there. Keep in mind JPII was a continental philosophy trained in phenomenology).

    Anyway, Levinas is an absolute enemy of the reductionist tendency (as is Heidegger, reductionist/scientistic/materialism is just so much enframing and technological thinking). It is not that the reducing character of science is all wrong – the danger is when reductionistic thinking become the only way we think. Levinas screams against this, as does Buber with the Thou. What could swim more upstream of reductionism than Levinas’ (and Buber’s) insistence of the trace – of the absolutely Beyond that is Other even than otherness?!

    In my dissertation, I argued that Levinas and Derrida were on to something with their emphasis on the Other beyond our horizons. But the danger is that they render the Other so utterly untouchable and incomprehensible that they gut our ethical obligations (our ‘absolute responsibility’) of any content. It would be impossible to act (Derrida is especially big on this). I think this is wrong-headed. My philosophy, like my theology, is incarnational. While the Other is beyond any horizon of total comprehension, the Other (say, another person) is still encountered in a concrete way in a lived social world. We can listen to the Other and come to know his needs. Derrida argues that the Other is so beyond that we cannot even ask his name. That, to me, is foolishness. Part of ‘absolute responsibility’ must include me being able to responsibly take up my responsibility!

    Anyway, what all of these thinkers have in common is thinking that reducing man to a set of material units and forces undermines ethics.

    Mike: It is not so much that I have a ‘strong personal need for a metaphysical grounding’ for moral beliefs. Rather I think we, as a culture and a civilization, need a metaphysical narrative that grounds moral beliefs. The materialist metaphysical narrative is seeping in throughout our culture, and consequently moral relativism is creeping in too. Pope BXVI, in his recent US visit, rightly called the relativism ‘the most profound difficulty of our time.’ Ideas – yes, even philosophical ones – have consequences!!!


  42. Huenemann Post author

    OK, I want some answers. What is a principle of life? And what makes it present in a set of body parts?


  43. Kleiner

    I will just try to parrot Aquinas here.

    By ‘principle of life’ I take Aquinas to mean something like a cause or a ground. There are many ‘principles of life’. From Aquinas: ‘It is manifest that not every principle of vital action is a soul, for then the eye would be a soul, as it is a principle of vision; and the same might be applied to the other instruments of the soul: but it is the first principle of life, which we call the soul.’ (Q75)

    A heart is a principle of life for man, as are lungs, etc. But none of these can be the first (ultimate) principle of life, for there are things with hearts and lungs that are not living. The first principle of life is that which ultimately makes the body animate. (This could yet be the ‘integration’ you speak of). On Aquinas’ view, it is the act of the body. So the soul is the animating form or act of the potentially living body. On Thomas’ view (Aristotle) then, the soul is the formal cause of the living thing, the efficient cause of its movement/change, and its final cause.

    Please note – this is not a dualism. The soul is the power of the lived body. It is the ‘composite’ that is a substance. Aquinas constantly seeks to re-affirm our basic psycho-somatic unity: ‘it is one and the same man who is conscious both that he understands and that he senses. But one cannot sense without a body, and therefore the body must be some part of man’ (Q76.1). Aquinas brushes aside the mind-body problem with stunning quickness: ‘There are two kinds of contact; of quantity, and of power. By the former a body can be touched only by a body; by the latter a body can be touched by an incorporeal thing, which moves that body.’ (Reply to Obj 3, Q75).

    This is why I asked, above, how close Huenemann and I might be in these terms: ‘force’ (Huenemann) and ‘power’ (Kleiner). This is something for us to explore at some point.

    What makes the principle of life present in a set of body parts? There is a lot we can say about this, and a lot I think we just don’t understand here (mystery). But here is a first stab: Aquinas (following Aristotle) thinks form can be transmitted in three ways – sexual reproduction, the creation of artefacts, and by teaching. So, in the case of living forms, this is the old story of the birds and bees, right? Since something in act can only come from something actual, living forms can only be transmitted by actual living forms (procreation). (Aside: the chicken comes before the egg, for eggs are potential chickens. It is not the case that chickens are potential eggs).

    Vince: Great post, I think you speak really clearly on these issues. I quite agree with your take here on Derrida, very astute. Derrida’s critique is, I think, the offspring of Heidegger’s critique of technological thinkg (and both are intimately related to Kierkegaard’s concerns). I take those critiques seriously, but I do not let the worry paralyze reason in the Derrida does. It is interesting that Christians (I have in mind Girard and Marion) seem able to take up the pomo critique without it leading to an empty category of the Other. Surely Christianity’s incarnational theology is the reason – and the giving character (emptying, humble, … all that you said) of that concretization of the beyond is one major reason.
    Anyway, there are two options here when we encounter the Other that is beyond totalizing comprehension: (a) Derrida, who makes theology and ethics so negative that they go silent. (b) Marion, who upon encountering the Other (human or otherwise) that is ‘always beyond total comprehension’, says that we should humbly speak in an ‘endless hermeneutic’. Rather than having our inability to ‘speak its name’ with finality making him go mute, instead we are called to say and say and say more, knowing that we will never say enough (praise has no end). He remarks somewhere that when a person dies, the person who will say he knew her least will be her spouse, for he will be the one that most intimately knows the depth of that other person, a depth that cannot be plumbed. But yet at the same time he could tell the most stories, knows how to brew her tea, knows how she likes the pillow fluffed at night, etc.
    Check out Marion’s book: ‘In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomenon’ and also ‘God Without Being’.


  44. Mike

    Mike: It is not so much that I have a ’strong personal need for a metaphysical grounding’ for moral beliefs. Rather I think we, as a culture and a civilization, need a metaphysical narrative that grounds moral beliefs. The materialist metaphysical narrative is seeping in throughout our culture, and consequently moral relativism is creeping in too. Pope BXVI, in his recent US visit, rightly called the relativism ‘the most profound difficulty of our time.’ Ideas – yes, even philosophical ones – have consequences!!!

    Am I supposed to assume this is true or is there something specific you’re pointing at that you think can demonstrate it?

    Hopefully you don’t see that need for society and not for yourself or visa versa. If you see it for yourself then at least that would be congruent. You might also ask what other people are supposed to think when this particular point is incongruent.

    -i’m not trying to derail the discussion, feel free to focus elsewhere-


  45. Kleiner

    I do consider this an aside from the primary stream of discussion here, but a quick answer to Mike: I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone else needs it but not me. I said ‘we’ need it. By culture I just mean something like the collection of beliefs as well as the instrument by which those beliefs are transmitted to future generations. The relationship between individual and culture will then be dynamic, each influencing the other. But we should not underestimate the way in which our inherited culture shapes the way the think about almost everything – it even shapes the ways in which we can ask questions about our very culture. This is nowhere more vividly apparent than here in Utah, with its insulated and highly homogenized culture. So I am not asking you to assume the importance of culture, just saying ‘look at how important it is’. I think it is pretty obvious.
    I suppose my claim here assumes that things are getting worse, and that relativism is a real danger. I don’t have any one bit of evidence to back this up. Part of it is a ‘sense’ – I think moderns are lost in the cosmos, they don’t know who they are or where they are going (I have in mind here Pascal in the Pensees, who nails this point). But I would also point to the bloodletting of the 20th century (by far the bloodiest century ever), the radicalization of ethnic conflicts, the almost careless and shallow regard for human sexuality, etc. You’ll probably flip at my book suggestion here (in light of a past remark you made about Strauss), but read Bloom’s ‘Closing of the American Mind’. We here in the West (and beyond, for I have in mind here something that is global in terms of both culture and risk) are on the brink of losing something incredibly important to the welfare of human civilization – and at the bottom of the issue is whether we will respect the inherent dignity of human persons or not. Anyway, I think you’d agree that a widespread acceptance (a global ‘meta-narrative’) of the dignity of persons is a condition for the possibility for the kind of pluralism you are seem interested in.


  46. Kleiner

    Sounds like a neat book. To tie that to the ‘principle of life’ point above – in Thomas’ view the form is the principle of unity. Now form goes ‘all the way down’, all matter is informed (organized) in some manner or another. This would fit well with Vince’s description. Each bodily system (heart, muscle, stomach) would have its own particular character and unity (it is a heart and not a lung), but all of those systems are integrated into a higher unity of the living body, which is both one and many (many systems unified by an over-arching formal unity). It is the over-arching formal unity that ultimately explains why each lower system is organized in the way it is.

    Here, then, is the rejection of reductionism. For Thomas, at each level the principle of organization cannot be explained by what is lower but rather must make an appeal to what it higher. That so many systems work together in a grand unity suggests we need to look higher rather than lower. Sure, my heart has a kind of unity of its own (I could yank it out of my body and identify as a ‘this’ rather than a ‘that’). But the heart itself cannot be the account for why it is organized in the way it is, rather I have a two ventricle heart because I am a man. If I had a frog form (anima), I would have a single ventricle heart.


  47. Huenemann Post author

    I see. What makes a heart a heart is heartyness. What makes a lung a lung is lungyness. What makes a body living is livingness. There’s no way to separate these nessynesses from the objects, but when there is something about an object we think requires some explaining, we can contrast it with other objects and intellectually discern, through pure reflection, a nessyness that fills the explanatory role. If we press for further questions — like, “Why is it that a particular nessyness found only in some objects and not others? How, for example, does lungness find its way to the components of a lung rather than the components of the heart? — we play the “mystery” card. (Though I don’t see why we should. Why not attribute to the lung parts a ‘lungynessyness’ that makes them proper receivers for lungyness?) My reductionism isn’t nearly so handy!

    I poked around the web looking for ‘living vs. nonliving’ discussions. The most helpful is where I should have looked first: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on ‘Life ‘ ( From all that I found, it seems that there is quite a bit of controversy over what counts as alive. Bacteria, certainly. Viruses, mitochondria, virions, prions — not so sure. It comes down to what definition one wants to accept (specifically, whether a living thing has to be composed of cells), not anything to be settled through further observation or experimentation. One can draw a firm line here, but it would be necessarily ad hoc, since we don’t have any litmus test for determining “livingness.” Nowhere among the science and philosophy websites I viewed did I see the suggestion that in addition to the biochemistry, some sort of form or nessyness was required for the explanation. Mostly, I suspect, biologists leave the question alone because they can see it’s just arguing over a definition.

    Schrodinger wrote a book called “What is Life?” back in the 50s which raised such a suspicion, but the consensus seems to be that that challenge has been met. (I know, I’m arguing from consensus here, but right now I don’t have the interest to learn the biochemistry involved!)

    Vince’s book does sound interesting. I wonder how it’s been received, or if it’s been reviewed.


  48. Kleiner

    Huenemann, I think you were pretty unfair to my position in your first paragraph. I did not play the mystery card nearly so quickly. Rather I made an appeal to form at a higher level of unifying organization. My lungs and heart and stomach are organized in the way they are because I am a man. Why am I a man? Well, mom and dad must have had a glass of wine while listening to some Barry Manilow back in the early 1970s. I gave a concrete proximate answer as to why some bodies are living – sexual reproduction.

    I mentioned, very briefly, that at some point we’ll but up against mystery, but only with questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing’? and ‘why are there living things at all?’ Incidentally I don’t the materialist will find himself any better off when fielding those types of questions, in fact I think he’ll find himself worse off than I!

    I also think you keep thinking in dualist terms. When you said you wanted answers, you asked: ‘And what makes it [the anima] present in a set of body parts?’ And above you ask ‘how does lungness find its way to the components of a lung?’ This leads you to ask, frankly, caricatured rhetorical questions of my position, for both of these questions presume that the form is itself a ‘thing’ and that the matter is itself a ‘thing’ (so the lung-form-thing has to find the lung-matter-thing). Of course that is silly, and you rightly mock it. But I’ve never said that, rather I say the form is the act or power of the body, but neither by itself is a ‘thing’.

    The question being asked is not just bickering over a definition. Rather the question is: why is this body one thing (an organized unity) even though it is composed of many parts/systems?

    In a nutshell, we disagree on this point: can matter account for its own unified organization? I say no, you say yes. When asked, ‘Why is that a lung?’, I have an answer of some sort, I explain the organization of the matter by appealing to form. If I ask you, ‘Why is that a lung?’ you will point to its parts. But I will ask again, ‘But why are those parts organized in that way?’ And you will point to the parts. I just don’t think the reducing materialist can ever provide an answer for why the parts are unified and organized in the way they are (the only apparent answer you could give is just ‘pure accident’, for on principle that matter could have just as well been organized as an exhaust pipe).

    Look, I don’t claim that my (Aquinas’) story here is without kinks, but I think it does a decent job of answering a question that needs answering: what is the principle of unity and life in the living body? I don’t think the materialist has any answer to that question (why is the living body one unified system?). In other words, while Huenemann wants some answers, I don’t think his view can provide any. And my position is the one being mocked? Let’s not act like materialism has all (or ANY) of this sorted out! If you want to constantly defer the question (we can’t know, the lines are too blurry, language is misleading us, etc) and be a skeptic, fine. But be an even-handed skeptic and don’t assume materialist and reductionism!!! (Do you have a good argument for either of those?)

    ps – I guess it was my turn to get a bit ill-tempered.

    pps – I think the Aquinas/Aristotle definition of life would be relatively straight-forward, and broad enough to allow for the wide range of activities we see in living things (growth, movement, sensation, etc): a living thing has an internal principle of change/movement. Sure, we’ll have some controversial cases (robots), but I think most sufficiently broad definitions of life will have those.


  49. Kleiner

    Please post the book title when you get it. For my part, I don’t think the Thomistic view is in any way a threat to or resistant to those scientific explanations. It just claims that those explanations are not ultimate explanations, they themselves depend on something else to explain their material organization. With Vince, I find myself in complete wonder regarding these systems and their incredibly complex yet unified activities. My guess is that Thomas would have been utterly fascinated by our science (and taken it to be all the more reason to repudiate Platonism).

    Anyway, I did not mean to hijack Vince’s posts for my purposes. But it did fit nicely – science can do a great job of investigating these material systems, but since the principle of organization is not itself immediately observable, we have to work back to it. It still begins in observation (Aquinas is an empiricist after all), but the presence of the power in the organism can be known only in retrospect. It does little good to merely study an immature organism, as we will first come to understand the power in the body only from the point of view of the fully developed organism. But just because the powers are known in a ‘backward looking’ way does not imply that they are the product, as Huenemann insinuated above, of ‘pure reflection’. Rather, the powers are ‘observable’ in an indirect way.

    So, in case I am not irritating Huenemann enough, now I’ve raised teleology again! This is fun!


  50. Huenemann Post author

    I need to apologize for (unintentionally) mischaracterising the Stanford Ency’s entry on “life.” I made it sound like it clearly supports reductionism. In fact, it doesn’t. The author seems most interested in promoting a more holistic understanding of life through a kind of chaos theory.

    Chaos theory has been a scientific revolution on the verge of happening for over two decades. The rough idea is this. Lots of phenomena have a vaguely discernible pattern to them — think of cracks in the sidewalk, clouds, weather patterns generally, stock market prices. It turns out that using some fancy math you can construct equations whose graphs mimic these patterns. They don’t exactly duplicate them; they just produce the same overall sort of pattern. Advocates say that these more holitstic equations actually govern the behavior of the parts, and lead to better explanations than anything reductionism can offer.

    I think this is just a more mathematically-sophisticated version of the idea Aristotle-Aquinas-Kleiner offers (whom I hereby offer the friendly appelation ‘Arisquiner’). The main idea is that invisible forces or powers get parts to arrange themselves in certain ways. The author of the Stanford article does not examine the tension between this approach and reductionism. But he seems to favor the approach, so I’d be wrong to say the view is no longer bandied about.

    Chaos theory faces many of the same challenges I’ve been trying to raise. It’s largely unknown how a holistic governing force would get the parts to do what they are supposed to do. It is largely untestable (I hear there have been some successful attempts to predict with chaos theory, but I haven’t heard of any that decisively show any kind of holism at work). It seems to have reached a sort of plateau in popularity among scientists; I don’t hear much about it, so I suspect it’s not gaining more ground, but I could be wrong.

    I’ll hold off on answering the question, “But why are those parts organized in that way?” Ultimately, the question will be employed at the juncture where (I say) obviously non-living things are brought together by mechanical forces to form a living thing. Craig Venter’s group is working on that one, and he thinks they’ll have it solved within a matter of months. Meaning: he’ll have a recipe to make a living thing out of a bunch of chemicals. But the thing is, even then I don’t see that Arisquiner has to recant. We can always say that in the stirring together of the chemicals, or in the baking or whatnot, a form is being produced which makes the living thing a living thing.


  51. Kleiner

    I certainly think the faith-reason synthesis is a big part of what we call ‘Thomism’ (and it is something I certainly sign on to), though I think we are here treading in natural reason – no need for any divine revelation in any of what we have said. My point above (probably poorly stated) was simply this – the Thomist position (both the natural philosophy and the Thomist view on any divine revelation) is science-friendly, not incompatible with the bio-chemical accounts you glossed.

    It feels like this stream is winding down. If so, a few parting thoughts:
    a) This was perhaps the most successful philosophy blog discussion we have had, and right on the heels of our recent stumbles (and my unpopular questioning of the value of blogs in the first place!). I think it helped to follow the advice from Mike and Doug (I think it was Doug) and make some exegesis of argument central to blog. The longer posts helped too, it was less tit for tat.
    b) I will anxiously await Huenemann’s own materialist account of life and unity at some later date. Though I don’t expect such an account can be cooked up in a lab (to think so is to reduce causality to the recipe/how of efficient cause while forgetting the what and why of formal and final cause). But if his account is better than mine, I am certainly not above changing my position. In the meantime, am I wrong or did Huenemann admit the Arisquinian (I like that) position is a reasonable position out there in the philosophical marketplace? If so, thanks Charlie. That was gracious.
    c) Arisquinerians. I really like that, though I wish we could mix in Heidegger’s name somehow. Either way, look out you materialist/reductionist Huenemanniacs – there are legions (well, two or three) of Arisquinerians coming after you!!


  52. Mike

    I guess the superhero costume here would be a big A on the front? What would the rest of the outfit look like? More like Batman or Superman?

    I’ll continue to insist that stuff like movies, music, pop-literature will be much more influential on culture than anything like this. I’d love to be proven wrong though. (by history I mean, not by argumentation, there’s plenty of proofs in argumentation to go around, and around)

    I googled around a bit for that quote by Aquinas towards the end of his life after he had that mystical experience. Pretty interesting.


  53. Kleiner

    To paraphrase Marion, ‘Sure we can say that God exists – but that is the least we can say (that is not saying very much)’.

    Even before the mystical experience, I would argue that Aquinas’ theology (I have in mind the early questions of the Summa) is much more negative than is usually thought. Aquinas himself says the inquiry ‘must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does.’ Many read a positive doctrine there and brush off his warning as pious double-talk. I don’t, his theology is full of ‘nots’. Interesting fact: Who do you think the most oft cited person is in the Summa? It is not ‘The Philosopher’ (Aristotle). It is the great mystic Pseudo-Dionysius.

    This is not to say that reason in some sense does not extend beyond the horizon of nature for Aquinas, but it does mean that (a) the horizon of nature (experience) is always the starting point and (b) when we extend beyond ‘possible experience’ our reason becomes increasingly apaphatic.
    Perhaps Vince can now see here possible connections with Levinas/Buber/Derrida?

    I also don’t think we should misuse the famous straw quotation. I don’t think it means that his reasonings were worthless, just that he became intimately aware of how incredibly short they fall. It is a humble admission rather than a surrender of reason.


  54. Doug

    Dr. Huenemann,

    I was hoping (and I realize this has nothing to do with this current blog, but I thought I would ask) that we could post a few political/philosophical posts on here. Its the political season and I think it would be really interesting to read about and discuss the philosophy behind the founding of governments, political parties, etc. Also, it would be really interesting, fun, and well absurd (because its speculative) to see which candidate the Great Philosophers would vote for.

    Well except for Heidegger since Hitler’s not on the ballot! Just kidding Kleiner, I thought you might appreciate the only cheap shot I can take at your favorite philosopher.


  55. JT

    Hi all, I think I’ll throw in my two cents on this issue. Aquinas’s views on the immateriality of the intellect are controverted. I wish I knew more about it (Robert Pasnau has done some useful work on this, if anybody ever needs to look further), but here’s what I understand. (Sorry this is so long. I’m still working on the art of brevity.)

    In this particular passage from ST 1.75.1, we find an argument Aquinas uses in other places too. It is based on something Aristotle said. In the De Anima, Aristotle compares the soul to the eye, saying that just as the eye could only perceive all colors if it was colorless itself, so too could the intellect perceive all material things only if it was immaterial itself.

    Aquinas thinks of vision (and the mind) as a kind of encoding system. By encoding system, I mean something like the following. I have an object x that I want to record some information about, and I have a medium m on which I want to record that information. I record that information with an encoding system: certain marks made on the medium m are supposed to represent certain real features of the object x. For example, a little mark f on the medium represents a real feature F of the object, mark g represents real feature G, h represents H, and so on. Let me call these little marks ‘representational features’. They are ‘features’ because when I carve, say, mark f into my medium, I am basically just giving the medium m the feature f. They are ‘representational’ because they are supposed to represent something else, e.g., mark f represents the object’s feature F.

    A good example of this kind of thing is a piece of film. When film is exposed to light bouncing off an object, at each spot on the film where light hits it, the film changes into the opposite color. Here we have an encoding system of the sort I just described: the film takes on features, namely certain colors, which represent features (namely the opposite colors) of the external object.

    Notice, though, that representational features have to be reserved features, that is, reserved only for representation. For example, the representational features of film are its colors: the presence of a bit of color on a piece of film has the sole purpose of representing some feature of an external object.

    Consequently, when a medium receives some representational feature, it cannot already have that feature. If a piece of film were already purple, it couldn’t represent orange (the opposite of purple). This is why a piece of film that’s already been exposed to light doesn’t work. It’s already acquired features that are normally reserved for representation, and that screws up the encoding system.

    To put this point in a slightly different (and stronger) way, we might say that any intrinsic or permanent feature of a medium cannot be identical to a feature reserved for representation. That’s just a basic requirement for encoding/representational systems of the sort I’ve described here. Representational features are reserved for representation, so the medium cannot have them in itself. The medium can only acquire and lose representational features for the purpose of representation.

    This is basically the point that Aristotle and Aquinas want to make with the eye. The eye is like a piece of film in that it records colors (among other things), and so it cannot have any colors itself, just as a piece of film cannot have any colors.

    Similarly, Aquinas sees the mind as a medium that encodes information too. But what the mind encodes is information about the material objects we encounter every day — people, cows, trees, stones, fire hydrants, and so forth.

    But at this point Aquinas (and Aristotle) move hastily to their conclusion: since the mind encodes information about material features, material features are reserved for representation, so none of the mind’s intrinsic or permanent features can be material features. Therefore the mind must be immaterial.

    What’s troubling about this last move is this: Aquinas has only said that the mind encodes information about material features. That is, the material features in question are the features of the extramental objects. But this says nothing about whether the representational features inscribed in the brain are themselves material features, and Aquinas’s argument only works if the representational features are material.

    In other words, the argument Aquinas (and Aristotle) are trying to make here only demands that the representational features are reserved, not the features of the objects that are represented. A piece of film must be colorless not because the objects it records have colors, but rather only because the film’s representational features are colors. Similarly, on this argument, the mind would turn out immaterial not because the objects it records have material features, but rather only because the mind’s representational features are material.

    So in order to make his argument work, Aquinas needs to show that the representational features inscribed in the intellect are material features. And if Aquinas showed that, then it seems he’d be saying that the mind, an immaterial thing, has material features inscribed in it, and I’m not exactly sure how that works.

    Aquinas probably talks about this, I just haven’t looked into it myself. I know he thinks that the representational features in the mind are qualities (one of Aristotle’s ten categories), but I don’t know whether they count as ‘material’ qualities or ‘immaterial’ qualities. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what counts as ‘material’ for Aquinas. (I don’t think Aquinas thinks the ‘material’ is necessarily coextensive with things that have dimensions/extension.)


  56. JT

    Here’s some notes I jotted down as I was reading the above comments you all made. Maybe they’re useful, maybe not.

    – Aquinas doesn’t have to argue that heat or being magnetizable are bodies. He just has to show that those aren’t essential properties of all bodies. Similarly, he just has to show that being animate isn’t an essential property of all bodies.

    – For Aquinas, heat is an absolute (non-relative) thing. A reified individual property or a trope, if you will, that inheres in an individual substance and makes it a hot substance. Aquinas doesn’t have a concept of energy though. He explains, say, how heat hots in terms of causal powers/dispositions rather than energy. (But of course, that’s all the range in analytic philosophy today too.) So a flame can heat a pot of water because it has the power to heat water.

    – Aquinas thinks that substantial forms determine a thing’s identity conditions (and forms determine kinds, so this is something like the sortal-dependent identity we get in David Wiggins). Thus, you are you only when you have your substantial form. When your body dies, the substantial form goes away for a time until the final resurrection (Aquinas thinks the substantial form for a human is the soul/life-principle). Your identity goes with the substantial form, and so that lump of matter (the body) that used to be yours is no longer yours. In fact, Aquinas thinks that lump of matter acquires a new substantial form, namely the form of being a corpse. So for Aquinas, the corpse is not identical to you, because you and the corpse have different identity-determining forms.

    – Aquinas doesn’t want to let matter determine a thing’s identity, because things gain and lose matter all the time. My cells die and new ones are generated, so I have changing matter. Would your matter yesterday, call it m1, be the same as your matter today, call it m2? Most of the scholastics would say: some parts of m1 are the same as some parts of m2, but other parts are different. The parts you had yesterday that you still have today are the same, but the parts you either lost or acquired since yesterday are not.

    – I’m not sure I understand the EKG/ECG example. Suppose that Theseus’ ship was originally made of pine, but at night, some bandits secretly replaced each of the original pine planks with oak planks that looked exactly the same as the pine planks. Suppose also that we had a machine that could measure the presence of some chemical in pine but not in oak. If we used our machine to check whether pine was in the ship of Theseus, wouldn’t we be able to tell that the ship was no longer made of pine? And wouldn’t it be plausible that the oak ship was not materially identical to the pine ship?

    – For Aquinas, ‘life’ is ‘life in the biological sense’. That means taking in nutrients, processing those nutrients so that the organism generates new cells to replace the dying ones, etc. Every living organism has a ‘soul’ (life-principle). He calls this the vegetative or nutritive soul. I don’t think Aquinas means anything mysterious when he says that living organisms have (vegetative) ‘souls’.


  57. Kleiner

    Very interesting comments, JT. Thank you. I had not heard that film analogy, and I think it is useful.

    This may not be implied by your discussion, but I had one cautionary note: I don’t think Aquinas has a ‘representational theory’ of truth (by which I mean a view that there is some ‘thing’ in the mind which represents some thing out there in the world) and so I worry a bit about some of the representational talk that might reify ideas. For Aquinas, ideas are dynamic signs – they are not the object of knowledge but are rather ‘that by which’ we know the object in the world (just as ‘phantasms’ or sense images are not ‘things’ but are ‘that by which we see’).

    For this reason, I think Aquinas takes Aristotle seriously when he speaks of the mind ‘becoming all things’. Not that the mind becomes one with the hylomorphic compound (when you think of an ant there is not an actual material ant in your mind) but one with the form of the ant (which is the act of the ant, so in a sense your mind is ‘actually’ an ant when you are thinking of an ant).

    The mind cannot be anything actually before thinking, or else it could not be ‘all things’. To take up your example, if the mind were actually purple, it could not be orange or red or frog or tree … … Thus, the mind being a blank slate is not just epistemologically important for Aristotle/Aquinas, is has important metaphysical ramifications as well.

    Anyway, I don’t think your very useful film analogy is off-track on this point, but I suppose a ‘representational theory’ could be read into it. I just wanted to fight it off lest there be any misunderstandings. I actually think Aquinas is pretty close to a Heideggerian ‘aletheia-ology’ – language and its expression of ideas dynamically disclose the world, rather than functioning as ‘things’ (as opposed to, say, Descartes, who reifies ideas into the objects of knowledge).


  58. JT

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree. My encoding system analogy is not meant to imply that Aquinas has a representational theory where we know pictures in the mind rather than objects in the world. On Aquinas’s view, the representational features encoded in the mind are not the objects of thought. We don’t know those representational features as such. Rather, we know the features of extramental objects. Representational features are that by which we know things in the external world. As Aquinas would put it, a representational feature f is not the ‘quod’ (‘what’ we know), it’s the ‘qua’ for some feature F of an extramental object (‘that by which’ we know F). Similarly, when I record some music on a CD and then listen to it, I don’t listen to the little physical pits burned in the CD. I listen to the music encoded by those pits. Hell, I’m not even aware of the little pits on my CDs.

    (Note also that Aquinas does not think we can know the self/mind by a cogito ergo sum argument. Aquinas thinks we can only know the self/mind empirically, just as we know everything else.)

    One question for you Kleiner: when Aquinas says that the form of the ant in my mind is the same as the form of the ant I know, do you think he means these forms are the same in kind, same in number, both, or neither?

    On another note, I used to think Aquinas held an alethei-ology too, but I was reading a lot of Heidegger back then. I confess I don’t know what I think about Aquinas’s theory of truth anymore. Have you read Caputo’s book on Heidegger and Aquinas? Interesting stuff.


  59. Kleiner

    JT – are you a USU student, or a Utah local? Or did you just stumble upon our humble blog?

    Very well said again, I think you know your Aquinas.

    To your question: Of course this is a hotly debated issue, and I must confess I don’t hold one view over others with such confidence that I would really press the matter (at this point). But according to my understanding of the numerical view, I am not inclined to say that the form of the ant in my mind is the same in number with the particular ant for the form in my mind is a universal and not a particular. I am not thinking a numerically different form when I observe and think about ant A as opposed to some other ant B. If the forms were numerically identical, then my understanding of ‘ant-ness’ would not be universal but instead would only have particular reference. That said, I think we have to insist on them being the same ‘kind’ on pain of my idea not really pointing to the ant out there in an understanding way.

    This is a thorny issue, since some more Platonic readings of Aquinas suggest that there is only one numerical form of ‘ant’ (or whatever else), and that each particular ant ‘participates’ in that one form. While I think Aquinas is very often more Platonic than most think (there is something like ‘Platonic ideas’ in the Divine Mind), I don’t think this is the case here. Certainly he would have wanted to say that each human person has their own form (otherwise when we died we would just meld into some ‘universal man’). But perhaps the situation is different with non-substantial forms (like the forms of beasts)? Furthermore, this situation is more complicated with Aquinas than it is for Aristotle, for Aquinas has ‘two levels’ of act. The act of form and the ‘act of existence’. We might say that the latter individuates.
    As you can see, I am not settled on this. What do you think?

    The Caputo book is interesting enough, though I’ll confess that Caputo’s constant genuflecting to Derrida has officially gotten on my nerves and gotten in the way of him saying something original.


  60. JT

    I grew up in Eden (in Ogden Valley just south of Cache Valley), and I was a USU student back in the days when Mike was. I’m close friends with Mike, and Mike’s put me in touch with Charlie. I used to play the drums on occasion with Vince too. Small world, eh? These days I’m in Oxford trying to finish up a PhD in medieval philosophy/theology, though I focus more on cats later than Aquinas (mostly Henry of Ghent, Scotus, and Ockham).

    On this issue, I’m probably more in line with you than with with those who want to see Aquinas along Platonic lines. I agree that Platonic ideas are for Aquinas divine ideas, but as for the world here below, I would defend the view that Aquinas is actually a nominalist about universals (universals are just abstract concepts in our minds, and so Plato’s humanity is numerically distinct from Socrates’ humanity). But certain Leonine neo-Thomists would fight me on that. =)

    In any case, since I see Aquinas as a nominalist about universals, I would agree that I have the numerically same abstract concept of, say, the ant-ness in ant A and the ant-ness in ant B, even though the actual substantial form of ant-ness in A is numerically different (though the same in kind) as the substantial form of ant-ness in B. But here’s where it gets tricky for me: it’s tempting to say that my concept of ant-ness is the same in kind as the ant-ness in ant A and B. After all, the essential ant-properties I know in my concept of ant-ness are the same as the essential ant-properties exemplified by A and B. But what does ‘same’ mean when I say that? Thoughts are different kinds of things than substantial forms, so they can’t really be the same in kind. So what’s sense can I give to saying that the essential ant-properties in my concept of ant-ness are the same as the essential ant-properties exemplified by ant A and B? I don’t quite know where to go from there. I’m not sure how Aquinas deals with that.


  61. Mike

    Some people think JT has some relationship with Retrotron (superhero) but he often denies it. Retrotron was last seen on USU’s campus wearing a cape, motorcycle helmet with duct-taped-on goggles, shorts and cowboy boots, cruising around on a BMX. I think Retrotron was spotted once in Chicago but I don’t think he’s shown up at Oxford. Any ideas if Retrotron will make an appearance in Oxford, JT?


  62. JT

    Sadly, Retrotron hasn’t extended his omnibenevolence across the pond. Or maybe his goggles just got lost in a box somewhere. ;)



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