Common natures

Bill Vallicella has been discussing the Thomistic notion of a common nature in a number of recent posts:   Stanislav Sousedik's "Towards a Thomistic Theory of Predication"Lukáš Novák on Common Natures,  and, most recently, More on the Status of Thomistic Common Natures.   Some years ago, prompted by a Catholic friend of long standing, I read Anthony Kenny's  Aquinas on Mind, and more recently, Ed Feser's Aquinas.  Both these authors give good introductions to Thomistic metaphysics.  But I struggle with both books largely because I can't engage with the basic metaphysics.  It's a little like the struggle one has with a mathematical theory when one hasn't fully absorbed some foundational theorem.  At least with the maths one can repeatedly go over the early material, work through examples, and eventually the light dawns.  Sadly, for me, the words the Thomists use have individual meanings but the sentences they comprise do not.  For example, we are told that the common nature felinity has  the mode of being esse naturale in the cat in front of me and also the mode of being esse intentionale in my mind as I contemplate the cat.   This leads us straight into an abstruse debate as to the 'ontological status' of felinity: is it universal or particular, one or many, or perhaps none of these characterisations?   But what does it mean to say that one and the same thing  has two 'modes of existence' open to it?  I use 'thing' loosely in the same sense that BV uses 'item'; it does not imply 'entity', though surely something that has a mode of being open to it counts as an entity?   Is  'being' seen here as an action subject to adverbial qualification?  Are we offered simple examples by which we might get clear as to the meaning of 'mode of being'?  I fear not.  I'm left with the feeling that 'mode of being' is term invented to give a quick and easy theory of mind.  How do I know the thing before me is a cat?  Simple, answers the Thomist, felinity exists in esse naturale in the cat and the self-same felinity also exists in esse intentionale in my mind.  Ergo, I see the thing as a cat, QED.  Leaving aside the question as to whether the co-presence of felinity in the cat and in my mind is sufficient for me to recognise the cat (how would mistakes be explained, for example, or the time taken to arrive at a decision on a borderline case) this seems to sweep all the difficulties under the 'modes of being' heading.  How are we to understand this?

Let me try to give my own interpretation of the Thomistic jargon.  I start by suggesting that a common nature such as felinity is to be understood as one of the ways (a bit of) the world could be, and, indeed, one of the ways bits of the world actually are.  Here 'way' is to be taken exactly in the sense that we say that Head, Tail, Tail is one of the ways that tossing three coins might turn out.  Or that there are eight such ways in all. Or that there are 635103559600 ways of dealing a 13-card hand from a standard deck of 52 cards.  I'm happy to give a description such as Head, Tail, Tail and assert that it is a way of ... and to make existential assertions such as there are eight ways of..., but I shall make no claims as to the 'ontological status' of such ways.  My view is that we understand this sense of way perfectly well and know what we mean when we assert their existence or count them. It's clear that ways are abstractions of a high order.  We aren't  interested in the size of the coins, what they are made of, where they land on the table, or their orientation.  Only that they have distinct faces that can be identified as Heads and Tails, and that some ordering is imposed on them, say the temporal ordering of their being tossed.  Again, I see no need to delve into the ontological status of abstractions.  It is enough that we understand the term.   I now say that 'felinity' is the name we give to one of the ways of arranging world-stuff into an object.  Just as we can say that a triple coin tossing conforms to the way called 'HTT',  so we can say that a lump of world-stuff conforms to the way called 'felinity'.  This is my translation of the Thomist's  felinity exists in esse naturale in the cat.  How do I know that the cat before me conforms to the way of felinity, the state that the Thomist expresses as felinity exists in esse intentionale in my mind?  One approach to this is to claim that ways have structure.  For example, a six-coin tossing can be seen as a three-coin toss followed by a second three-coin toss, so any way of tossing six coins is a pair of  ways of tossing three coins. (Mathematicians call this a Cartesian product).   Likewise, the way 'felinity' may be seen as a combination of lesser ways such as four-legged-ness, tailedness, sharp tooth and clawedness, and so on.  To recognise felinity I must recognise its component ways.  To recognise the component ways I must recognise their component ways, and so on recursively.  To avoid an infinitely deep recursion I must claim that certain elementary ways are recognisable without further recursion.   So an analysis of felinity into a tree-structure of lesser ways must be present in my mind and these lesser ways must be recognised in the object before me.  This, I claim, is what the Thomist must mean by a common nature existing in esse intentionale in my mind. 

No comments:

Post a Comment