I think a lot about form these days. My thoughts are diverse, but all with a view towards the same immediate end, which is a cohesive grasp of the comparison between the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of form. I have been suspecting a harmony between the two, which I have glimpsed from various signs or hints. I am seeking, in various ways, to explore these hints. Today's post explores this subject from the angle of the question of determinacy. As will be usual, critical commentary is always welcome.
In an important passage from the Summa, St. Thomas explains a crucial distinction between two different senses of indeterminacy – the word he uses is infinity – as it pertains to matter and form. The text follows:
We must consider therefore that a thing is called infinite because it is not finite. Now matter is in a way made finite by form, and the form by matter. Matter indeed is made finite by form, inasmuch as matter, before it receives its form, is in potentiality to many forms; but on receiving a form, it is terminated by that one. Again, form is made finite by matter, inasmuch as form, considered in itself, is common to many; but when received in matter, the form is determined to this one particular thing. Now matter is perfected by the form by which it is made finite; therefore infinite as attributed to matter, has the nature of something imperfect; for it is as it were formless matter. On the other hand, form is not made perfect by matter, but rather is contracted by matter; and hence the infinite, regarded on the part of the form not determined by matter, has the nature of something perfect. Now being is the most formal of all things, as appears from what is shown above. Since therefore the divine being is not a being received in anything, but He is His own subsistent being as was shown above, it is clear that God Himself is infinite and perfect. (Ia, q.7, a.1)
Here, St. Thomas identifies two senses of indeterminacy or infinity: the indeterminacy of matter, and the indeterminacy of form.
Matter is indeterminate because it is in potency to indefinitely many forms: in itself, matter is not some kind of thing, it has no actual existence. It receives actual existence only when it receives form, and is thus determined by form. Accordingly, it is made more perfect by the determination of form.
Form is indeterminate insofar as, in itself, it is common to many particulars, and this is in some sense its perfection. It is made more determinate insofar as it is limited to this one particular thing as opposed to that one, that is, insofar as it is received into matter. This determination of form is a kind of imperfection, insofar as its determination contracts it and makes it something smaller, so to speak, than it is in itself.
Thus, we have two senses of indeterminacy and determinacy for form and matter, according to which 1) matter possesses an indeterminacy which “desires” to be determined by form; whence the determination of matter is a greater perfection; 2) form considered in itseld possesses an indeterminacy which, as it seems, is already its proper perfection; whence the determination of form by matter to particular thing is an imperfection.
Charles DeKoninck, in a few different essays, seems to add another set of meanings for these terms which, though different, corresponds to St. Thomas' use of the terms in the above passage. Principally, if my understanding is correct, DeKoninck is not only interested in the distinction between how these terms apply to form and to matter (though this is important to his account), but also in maintaining a hierarchical continuum in which one perceives, from the lowest to the highest grades of being, an ever increasing degree of determinate existence. Thus, DeKoninck notes, as St. Thomas does in the above passage, that prime matter is essentially indeterminate, because it is the furthest grade of being away from the being of God Himself, who is necessarily at the opposite end of the spectrum: pure and absolute determinacy. Note the difference: whereas St. Thomas above spoke of the indeterminacy or infinity of God, DeKoninck here is speaking of the absolute determinacy, though both begin with the indeterminacy of matter.
It is crucial to realize that this is no contradiction – an equivocation, yes, but the equivocal terms are intricately related to each other. DeKoninck notes a difference between positive and negative indetermination, and he notes that “absolute determination is the very source of the highest form of positive indetermination, which is essentially perfection.” (Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism) Note how DeKoninck employs St. Thomas' terms here: the infinity of God, which is essentially His perfection, is sheer positive indetermination. But this “results” (this is necessarily inadequate language when speaking of God) from the absolute determination of God's being, His absolute necessity, the completeness of His actuality.
God's absolute determination, which corresponds to His infinity – positive indetermination – is to be contrasted with the determination – finitude – of composite beings, which, precisely insofar as they are composed, possess a degree of negative indetermination, which is the source of their contingency. Finite immaterial beings, such as angels, are composed of essence and existence; therefore their being is to this degree contingent, since their essences do not necessarily exist. Since, in such things, existence is to essence as act to potency, essence as a potential principles ushers in a certain indeterminacy and thus contingency: it may or may not be. DeKoninck writes: “This form of indetermination is essentially imperfection.”
Thus, again DeKoninck writes, “In other words, there exists a constant relation between the degree of essential determination and the degree of positive indetermination.” The more determinate is an essence, i.e. the more necessary is its existence, the greater is its positive indetermination – its approach to absolute infinity. By contrast, the less determinate is an essence, i.e. the more contingent is its existence, the greater is its negative indetermination.
In material beings, matter itself ushers in a new kind of negative indetermination that is part of the essence itself, for matter is itself a principle of indeterminacy in relation to form. “In cosmic beings there is not only indetermination of the essence relative to its existence:” - as is the case with angels – but “there is a negative indetermination within the very essence.” “Such an essence cannot be considered as purely determinate even in the order of essence, for its matter remains in potency to other forms.”
Thus, matter is negative indetermination, pure potency, that is given some degree of determinacy by form. The matter-form composite essence thus possesses a limited degree of formal determinacy, that is nonetheless checked by a margin of material (and negative) indetermination, since its matter is still in potency to other forms. But the more perfected matter becomes by the reception of higher forms, the more does it approach pure determination (though it never reaches it), and thus the higher does it approach positive indetermination, which is the perfection of spirituality. The highest degree of essential determination, and hence positive indetermination, that a material creature can attain is in the case of man, who has got a foot in two worlds at once: the world of matter, and the world of spirit. Man has a certain participation in the determinacy of form that belongs to the angels – a certain subsistence and necessity – although he is still limited and individuated by matter. Man is like the angels in possessing the determinacy which results in subsistent spiritual existence, and the positive indeterminacy which gives rise to true perfection and freedom.
There are at least four senses of determinacy/indeterminacy at play in this discussion. 1) Negative indeterminacy, which results from a) matter, or b) essence relative to a distinct existence; 2) positive indeterminacy, or unlimited actuality, which itself corresponds to a certain 3) determinacy of essence, which involves the fullness of actuality; and 4) determinacy of individuation, which results from a) matter in the case of form being determined to a particular individual; or, in the case of angels, from b) the identity of an angel to its own essence.
DeKoninck draws some interesting conclusions from this account of determinacy and indeterminacy. One conclusion has to do with the nature of science. Matter is something in flux; hence certainty means something much less for the natural sciences than it does for philosophy. The intellect's grasp of any sphere of objects is proportional to the inherent certainty and fixity – determinacy – of that sphere. But the natural sphere, i.e. beings of matter and motion, essentially involves a degree of indeterminacy, whence it is inherently less certain. Its being, its actuality, is something incomplete precisely because it is material. This means that, rather than holding to a fixed standard of philosophical certainty and dismissing all knowledge that does not and cannot attain that certainty, the philosopher should respect the natural sciences according to the place that they occupy in the larger scheme of things. It is wrongheaded to dismiss the sciences as untrustworthy because 'scientists can't seem to attain certainty about anything.' Of course the certainty of natural science is something less than philosophic, because the very objects of the sciences have less in them that can be known with certainty - that does not mean there is no certainty to be had. There is a certainty that belongs to science that is in proportion to the objective certainty – determinacy – of material being, which may be lesser, but is still real. An authentic attitude towards the sciences will see them in their proper places, and will accept the certainty which they offer in proportion to the determinacy of their objects. (A clearer explanation of all this is given by a former tutor of mine at TAC, here.)
More significantly, DeKoninck draws another startling conclusion, which is that evolution culminating in man is a necessary result of the potency of matter for all form in hierarchic order; that is, matter is potency, a desire for actuality, and the most actual that a material being can be is to be man. Man alone, among all material creatures, possesses spirituality of form. The realization of matter's potency must necessarily be accomplished through time – there is no other way for material potency to be actualized; hence the being of man is necessarily something historical and evolutionary. Indeed, the being of the whole cosmos is something evolutionary, because it is ordered to man as the term of its becoming. This is a very complex subject, (not to mention controversial,) which DeKoninck treats most fully in his work, Cosmos. But it is worthy of note simply in itself that DeKoninck is a rare example of a staunch Thomist with a great respect for the the natural sciences, and whose very Thomism gives him a basis to defend the theory of evolution as something good and even necessary for any theist to hold, in full harmony with a traditional hierarchical view of the cosmos.
More thoughts to come soon, hopefully, exploring the possible ramifications of this for Platonism...