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Friday, 11 August 2017

The Importance of it all... Or "Why Philosophy is So Dang Hard"

A sad and perplexed philosopher
Thus far, on this blog, my thoughts have been of certain questions pertaining to form, as conceived differently by Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas. In the last post, I promised a less technical article explaining the importance of this discussion... Well, today I think I have hit somewhat upon the importance of the discussion, but without really successfully divorcing myself from the terminology. Maybe I'll try again later. For now, my readers will have to continue to bear with me for one more post.

The article of July 29 was a first, rather haphazard, exploration of form in Plato, specifically in regard to the question of its separateness from, and priority to, that which is formed. First we asked whether it were necessary that Plato's forms be conceived as individual hypostases of their own, such that there is a “Beauty Itself” subsisting apart from anything else, and which is the form of all beautiful things. We discovered that it is not necessary to hypostasize the form of beauty, while still maintaining the language of separation: separation emphasizes the distinction between form and the formed, and likewise between existence and the existent (esse and ens), a distinction firmly maintained by St. Thomas.

We discovered two meanings of form that seem to be confounded in Plato's use of the term, which I described as form-as-paradigm and form-as-image. In seeking for the essences of things, Plato perceives, in a confused way, two dimensions of form: its utter transcendence and divinity, and its immanence in the world of matter. His emphasis is clearly on the former aspect, but he does not forget the latter; indeed, he is very aware of the immanence of form, but he himself has difficulty trying to reconcile these two aspects. We discovered a possible step to this reconciliation, which is the distinction between paradigm and image – a distinction understandably overlooked by an initial exploration of form.

We then saw how the connection between paradigm and image is the condition for the possibility of knowing God, in whom the paradigmatic forms are contained as exemplar ideas, by way of the image-forms that subsist in concrete realities. This already hits upon the central point of all philosophy, and the central point of everything I hope to write on this blog: the knowledge of God, in whom all created perfections are present in an uncreated way. Every creature, by its form, is a manifestation of God who is pure actuality.


The article of August 3 had less evidently to do with Platonic form, at least immediately. It was an exploration of the concept of determinacy, and its many applications, according to St. Thomas and Charles DeKoninck. Today we will discover - scratching the surface - its relation to the doctrine of participation. We discovered two meanings of determinacy, and two corresponding meanings of indeterminacy:

1) Negative indetermination results from potential principles in relation to actual principles: matter in relation to form, or essence in relation to existence.
2) Positive indetermination results from the infinity of actual principles in themselves: form in itself is something universal and unlimited; likewise being or existence. (These are the two senses of indeterminacy noted by St. Thomas in Ia, q.7, a.1.)
3) Determinacy of essence, which coincides with positive indetermination, and refers to the fixity and necessity of infinite actuality.
4) Determinacy of individuation, which coincides with negative indetermination, and refers to the limitation of actuality that is “imposed” by principles of potency such as matter or essence, in relation to form or being, respectively.

The importance of this discussion has to do with modes of participation, which I explored in the article of August 8. The indeterminacy of potential principles such as matter and essence, in relation to form and being, reveals the imperfection of finite beings: their actuality is only ever partial; the mode of their assimilation of actuality is never complete; matter never holds the form within its grasp tightly enough to be completely actuated by it, for it still retains a considerable margin of potency to other forms. Thus it only participates in its form, in its own essence; it is not identified with its essence, with what-it-is; it has an identity that is not fixed, is subject to variation. Participation describes the relationship of potential principle to actual principle, and this is a relationship which is incomplete, in which something is always “left out.” Matter desires form, it desires actuality, and that is what matter is: pure desire. But it cannot seem to attain it. It always remain somehow, fundamentally, a mere potency.

This also radically affects how such things are known. Things which contain a principle of negative indeterminacy (such as matter) in their very composition are, to that degree, unintelligible; there is in fact less to know in them, because they are by nature unfixed, uncertain, in flux. To this extent, the reality they possess is limited, they have a lesser actuality; their truth appears only variously and in time and space, through the imperfection and variety of bodies. Knowledge of these things means less than it does of intelligible realities. Knowledge itself is better had of nobler objects, and yet it can only begin with the objects of sense experience, which are indeterminate and changeable, and to that extent less real. This is something of a paradox that longs to be resolved in the knower: the intellect is naturally desirous of perfect actuality, yet it can only know things “in the flesh,” as it were. How is this to be resolved?


Another paradox emerges: On the one hand, from the discussion of form-as-paradigm and form-as-image, we saw that things are a manifestation of God; for all immanent forms are but images of the divine ideas, imprints or impressions of the divine essence. Their actuality is the wonderful condition of their intelligibility; it makes them knowable. And what is greater still, their actuality is nothing other than a reflection of divine actuality. What wondrous possibilities are opened to the faculty of human knowledge! On the other hand, from the discussion of the indeterminacy and imperfection with which form is received by matter, we have seen that material things cannot seem to perfectly grasp actuality; matter desires form and actuality, but it is never something fully actual. This is a severe limitation on their knowability, their intelligibility; and suddenly the intellect finds itself blocked, impeded by the intrinsic uncertainty of things. What is to become of the knowledge – especially the knowledge of God – which he previously hoped to gain through things?

In other words, finite beings simultaneously reveal and conceal God, and this is almost necessarily a torment to the intellect, which tastes of actuality in things, but is never satiated by them. This is, perhaps, the very cause of all the frustration and confusion in all of philosophy and theology: the paradox that the intellect seems naturally fit for pure and infinite Being, but it is also limited by its finite nature, by which it is conditioned to know only finite things, whose being is something, so to speak, impure.

So many philosophies throughout history have wrestled, in some form or another, with this very problem. It may well be the fundamental tension of all philosophy, from Plato to Kant. Plato retained a sublime and enthusiastic confidence, despite difficulties, in the possibility of metaphysics – the knowledge of what is purely intelligible – and mysticism – the incommunicable experience of it; Aristotle's metaphysics was more modest and restrained, careful to maintain its contact with tangible, earthly realities, as well as strict reasoning; the Neoplatonists retained the old Platonic enthusiasm for the mystical and metaphysical, but saw the harmony of Plato and Aristotle; Scholasticism saw philosophy in the light of faith, under which the question of knowing the transcendent was taken to a new level. In the modern age, Descartes later questioned the possibility of knowledge beginning with the senses in the first place, and sought to establish metaphysics by a complete and unconditional reliance upon the powers of reason; Hume denied the possibility of real metaphysical knowledge at all, and reduced all knowledge to perception; and finally Kant, as it were, the apex of modern philosophy, brought about the complete destruction of metaphysics by glorifying human reason, and put forth the practical intellect as the only guarantee – a shaky "faith" – of transcendent reality. Rationalism and utlitarianism were thus born, and philosophy all but gave up on the perennial quest of seeking the contemplation of God; it now sought the glorification and satisfaction of man, and God became either a tool for this end, or simply irrelevant and non-existent, when, at last, man practically became a god unto himself in the philosophy of Nietzsche. The history of philosophy is the story of a conflict within man: the desire for infinity wrestling with an overpowering finitude. Modern man may think that he has become infinite, because he has become God; but in reality he has given up the possibility of knowing the truly infinite and transcendent God, he has been overpowered by finitude and limitation. As if to console himself, he tells himself that he is God; but it is a lie. It is a tale of despair and self-deception. It is the sin of Adam all over again: turning from the true God and setting up oneself as one's own idol...


…But I have waxed tragedic... I had hoped to convey, by that little digression, the importance of the whole discussion of form, as variously conceived by Plato and Aristotle. It is a crucial question for the knowability of God Himself, and thus it has everything to do with the entire life of man. The history of philosophy is evidence of its urgency, and every individual human life is a quest of insatiable seeking. We are always desiring; this is the very condition of our being: it is an orientation towards something great and unknown, beyond us, other than us, other than everything we experience. The evidence suggests that we seek for transcendence, for the metaphysical, the mystical. It is all evidence of the fundamental human desire to know, which Aristotle famously notices in the Metaphysics. Everything thus far is a question. What is the answer?

(Final note: Eventually I hope to continue this discussion of the importance of metaphysics, extending it more explicitly and specifically to the ethical, political, and even personal spheres.)

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