Monday, 25 September 2017

Tentative Thoughts on Participation...

This is a somewhat tentative exploration of the doctrine of participation and its meaning, inspired by a variety of reading that I have done on the subject. Hopefully in the upcoming months I will be involved in more intensive studies, and will be able to explore the subject with more depth and recourse to texts and authorities.


In logic, as in the Categories of Aristotle, substance is said primarily of the individual in a genus or species, which is a composite, and secondarily of the genus or species itself. The individual substance as such is predicated of nothing, though it is itself the subject of many predications. The logician is here considering things according to how they are defined in speech; the naming of things accordingly is a kind of mental construction, built to reflect the structure of understanding rather than the structure of reality itself directly. 

In metaphysics, the case is quite different. The metaphysician considers things according to an understanding of their intrinsic and real order outside the mind. It is not so much a question of speech as it is of existence. Individual beings, as considered by metaphysics, are dependent and composite, inasmuch as their very substantiality is communicated to them by one of their parts, namely their form. It is, indeed, from the form that the matter and the whole composite receive the notion of "what it is," that is, that it is "this something." The form, which is actuality, is thus said to have the notion of substantiality in a manner that is simply prior to the substantiality of matter and the composite itself. In other words, form considered in itself exists more independently and on its own right than even the composite itself, and in the composite, it is the form which gives substantiality to the whole.

From this, Aristotle easily infers the existence of absolutely prior forms which exist without composition with matter: these are the separate intelligible substances, beings of a purely spiritual nature. These separate intelligible beings bear the notion of substance in a way that is simple, uncontracted, and whole, in comparison to the partial and contracted manner in which sensible things bear this notion, i.e. by participation in form. Intelligible substances are uncontracted and unlimited form; sensible substances are contracted and limited actualities, because their forms exist in matter. In other words, intelligible substances bear the notion of substantiality through themselves, composite substances through their forms.

Plato thought that the separate substances were the same in species as - or that they were the species of - sensible composites. Aristotle denies the sameness in species simply speaking, but he maintains the existence of separate substances which stand in some way as archetypes of actuality to the lesser and more contracted actualities of sensible beings, which are mixed with and limited by potency. St. Thomas makes this even more evident, and develops a full doctrine of participation that is inspired by Plato but harmonious with Aristotle, drawing out its full implications with regard to the participation of creatures by likeness in the divine being itself.

In some sense, for St. Thomas, it remains that sensible substances are some kind of image with respect to intelligible substances, insofar as they participate in some likeness of the actuality of the latter. There is a fullness of actuality to which one might think the form of a man indeed corresponds, but as a limited and contracted actuality. This fullness of actuality would not in fact be "Man Itself," as if it were the specific form of a man existing in a real, separate, but abstract mode; in this sense, then, Plato errs in positing the separate species of sensible particulars. Nonetheless, the particular man does bear a real relation to some fuller actuality which is not limited by matter, and of which the form of a man is really only a contracted image in matter. Plato is thus perfectly correct to insist that the archetypes in which sensible creatures participate are more real than sensible creatures themselves, quite by definition, for they possess a fuller, more complete, and simpler actuality. Participation thus means, for Thomas (in full harmony with Aristotle) as well as for Plato, the reception by a limited and particular thing of that which belongs in a more universal and complete way to something else. It is important to emphasize here that, for both Thomas and Plato, this received or participated nature is found in a more universal way in something that, indeed, actually exists, something that is truly one in number, and hence universal in the very mode of its being. Ultimately, any finite or composed creature, even a separate substance such as an angel, bears a relation of participation to God Himself, inasmuch as God is supersubstantial being in Himself, perfect simplicity and pure actuality, absolutely uncontracted by any admixture or potency, devoid of all composition - whether of matter and form or of essence and existence. All thing, sensible or intelligible, participate in Him by likeness insofar as they possess some measure of actuality, in being or in form. This God is the One, or the Good, of Plato, the ultimate transcendent first principle, the source and archetype of all things.

However, for St. Thomas, this universality of being is strictly distinguished from that sense of universality which is according to predication, i.e. something merely said of many. This is precisely what, despite the profound truth of his doctrine, Plato seemingly failed to distinguish (according to the most common reading of him): universality of being, on the one hand, and universality of predication, on the other hand. The separate substances which he posited were understood to be the species of things; and species is an intentional category, a predicable term. "Man itself," or "humanity," is something said of many, and thus it is a universal predicate, and as such a being of the mind. Plato supposed - according to the most common reading of him - that this species was also a universal being existing actually in concreto, that is, outside the mind, but in a manner free from the conditions of particularity. But Plato is here jumping from the way we speak - again the logical consideration of things - to the way things actually are - which is a metaphysical consideration. He supposed that, from the fact that we say the same thing about various instances, it must follow that there is some separate reality which corresponds to the common attribute named, i.e. that the spoken universal corresponded to some really existing universal being, one in number but somehow causal of all the instances which take part in it. Aristotle and Thomas realized, more moderately, that from common predicates, it does not follow that there is some common species that exists separately, but merely that all the individual instances are alike in form. There is indeed a commonality among them, but that commonality is something one only insofar as it is abstracted by the intellect, and thereby exists as a unity in the intellect. Outside the intellect it only exists in multiplicity, that is in the multitude of particulars of which it is the species. In other words, its existence as one and universal is merely intentional, and thus predicative, rather than truly causal or real.

This distinction is crucial, for if it is not maintained, then we fall easily into pantheism, by seeking to maintain that the common species of things is also some real existing thing that is separate and one in number, but still informs the things of which it is the species. All things are divinized by their common sharing of a single form which is a divine being in itself. Doubtless, Thomas and Aristotle are concerned to maintain the divinity of form in things - not, however, by conceiving it as a single divine being that somehow inheres in a multiplicity of beings, but as a contracted and multiplied image of something other and separate that is itself more divine and one in number, such as an angel, or ultimately God Himself. Thus, the truth of participation is maintained, but the error of pantheism avoided.

Thus, Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas could be seen to be in profound agreement that particular things really do participate in an actuality that belongs more universally to something else that really exists as a separate substance, and ultimately the divine substance. But this universal substance is not, for Aristotle and Thomas, a species of any sensible thing or things, as it was for Plato, but it is entirely its own species; that is, what is universal in being, in which particulars participate, is not also universal in predication, and vice versa. Nonetheless, it remains true to affirm, with Plato, that that substance in which lesser beings participate is truly a real, and separately existing substance - indeed, it is more real and more substantial in itself than anything which participates in it.


There is a question emerging in all of this, for those who know St. Thomas well, concerning the role that the divine ideas might play in relation to participation. According to a certain understanding, it seems appropriate to say that, for Thomas, the divine ideas essentially replace the Platonic forms, and that creatures might be said to participate by a kind of likeness in the divine ideas themselves, just as Plato would say they participate in the forms or separate species. (This post is largely informed by this way of thinking.) According to such a reading of St. Thomas, the Platonic notion of form is saved by replacing the forms within the divine intellect, since only in this way could their intelligible mode of existence really be maintained - for it is ultimately impossible to say that, as intelligible species, they have a separate existence all of their own, as Aristotle showed. But recently, after reading from Gregory Doolan's book on the divine ideas in St. Thomas, I have become less sure of this reading of St. Thomas, specifically the interpretation according to which creatures participate in a divine idea. Certainly the divine ideas, as Plato's forms, play some sort of causal role towards creatures, but it is less clear how that role corresponds to a notion of participation. As we have seen thus far, St. Thomas preserves Plato's doctrine of participation, but he seems to shift it away from the species and towards the separate substances which have their greater real universality in virtue of being more actual, simply speaking. In other words, it is a notion of participation which takes less account of the kinds of things, but more account of their very thing-hood, i.e. their substantiality. (It is of supreme interest that, whereas pre-Aquinas it seems that the fundamental tension between Plato and Aristotle is participation versus substantiality, for St. Thomas these two things cannot be conceived apart from each other.) Substantiality is the primary attribute of being as being. Thus, according to this account, it is in regard to their being, rather than their kind, their whatness (quidditas), or their essence, that they are said to participate in the divine substance.

So, again, here is the question: What, then, do the divine ideas have to do with participation? Anything at all? Is there anything more which Plato put forward about the ideas that might be saved, if perhaps modified, by St. Thomas and integrated with the metaphysics of Aristotle? Perhaps the above account of participation, which seems to focus on the substantiality of things, i.e. their existence, need not be exhaustive. Perhaps an even more complete account of participation will include some account of how things participate, according to their specific forms, in the divine ideas. Such an account would have to be careful to maintain the distinctions we have already made, i.e. between universals in re and in praedicando, but perhaps this is quite possible?

This is all for another post. Right now it is just a question, to which I am not yet sufficiently well-informed to have a solution which I comfortable to propose. Some other time, perhaps, after more study and reading, I will do my best to address this. But discussion is certainly welcome now.

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