0. I’ll start this post, the sixth in a series dedicated to a sustained reading of and commentary upon Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle,* with a brief overview of the posts that have seen the light of day thus far in the series. I’ll then touch upon the Aristotelian theory of act and potency.
1. The posts that have seen the light of day thus far in the series fall into two categories. The first of the two categories includes two posts dealing with the arguments Aquinas presents in the very first paragraph of his “Prologue.” In the first of these two posts, I set out and offered a critique of the paragraph’s most explicitly stated argument, the conclusion of which is that one science must rule the other sciences. In the second, I did the same for the paragraph’s main argument, the conclusion of which is that wisdom is the science that rules the other sciences. The primary critique in both cases is that, though they both are valid arguments, Aquinas does not offer, at least in the prologue, all that we need to see to see whether they are in addition sound arguments.
The two posts are:
The second of the two categories includes three posts reflecting in various ways upon the relationships, or possible relationships, between the neo-Aristotelianism motivating After Aristotle and the Aristotelianism, or, possibly, the Aristotelianisms, of Aristotle and Aquinas. One of the three is the post introducing the series,
The other two posts point to some of the fundamental ways in which this blog’s philosophical perspective is in agreement with the Aristotelianism of Aristotle and Aquinas, thus justifying the “Aristotelian” of the “neo-Aristotelian” of the tag, “Analyses and Essays from a Neo-Aristotelian Point of View,” at the top of this page. In the one,
I point to the metaphysical realism that After Aristotle shares with the Aristotelianism(s) of Aristotle and Aquinas. In a subsequent postlette (which I, arbitrarily, it has to be said, decided not to include in the numbering of the posts of series),
I went on to point to the metaphysical pluralism and, moreover, the philosophical dynamism that After Aristotle shares with the Aristotelianism(s) of Aristotle and Aquinas.
In the remaining of the posts pointing to ways in which this blog’s neo-Aristotelianism is in agreement with the Aristotelianism of Aristotle and Aquinas,
I spelled out the metaphysical principles of non-contradiction and excluded middle and underlined the need to distinguish between the two metaphysical principles and the logical principles of non-contradiction and excluded middle, to which latter the metaphysical principles are prior.
I have not yet fully worked out what I will do in the post to come and bearing the title, “Aquinas on the First Principles 2.”
2. The primary intention of the present post is that of drawing attention to a central thesis in the holding of which the philosophical perspective of After Aristotle stands in agreement with that or those of Aristotle and Aquinas. Then, in the next post in the series, I will draw attention to a central thesis in which it differs from it or them.
Both the one thesis and the other, however, receive expression in Comment 2 of Aquinas’s commentary. There, after having reported, in Comment 1, that Aristotle
says … that the desire to know belongs by nature to all men.
Aquinas goes on to say
Three reasons can be given for this. The first is that each thing naturally desires its own perfection. Hence matter is said to desire form as any imperfect thing desires its perfection. Therefore, since the intellect, by which man is what he is, considered in itself is all things potentially, and becomes them actually only through knowledge, because the intellect is none of those things that exist before it understands them, as is stated in Book III of The Soul [429a23]; so each man naturally desires knowledge just as matter desires form.
The philosophical theory making its entrance here, with which After Aristotle’s neo-Aristotelianism is in agreement with that or those of Aristotle and Aquinas, is the theory of actual being and potential being or, as it is often put, being in act and being in potency, or yet more simply, act and potency. The philosophical thesis evident here with which there is disagreement is the thesis of the identity of the intellect actually knowing with that which the intellect actually knows.
3. The theory of act and potency will be the object of extensive discussion as the present series of posts unfolds. In this post, therefore, I will content myself with just the setting forth of two theses that my neo-Aristotelianism upholds and offering some indication of their contemporary relevance. The one is that
Whatever is actually something is also potentially that something.
Anyone actually knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are is also potentially knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are.
The converse, however, is not true; that is, it is not true either that
Anyone potentially knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are is also actually knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are.
Whatever is potentially something is also actually that something.
Not all persons potentially knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are actually know what they are. That is, it rather is the case that
At least one person potentially knowing what the twenty or so amino acids are is not actually knowing what they are.
At least one thing that is potentially something is not actually that something.
The theory of act potency is, as I briefly indicated above, still with us in contemporary philosophy, albeit, in most cases, with major differences from any Aristotelian understanding. There is, to point to just one example, John-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.**
The duality of potency and act falls by the same stroke [as that of “being and appearance”]. The act is everything. Behind the act there is neither potency nor “hexis” nor virtue.
Sartre’s metaphysics is then, at least to the degree that it consistent, one in which everything that is must be pure act, for it does not provide for any distinction between act and potency. And, as you may be aware, though I am now getting way ahead of myself, for the Aristotelian metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas, the divine and the divine alone is pure act. Sartre may then be seen, at least from that point of view, as holding that all actual things are divinities. As, however, we advance in this series of posts, it will be clear that I, along with Aristotle and Aquinas, do not see it to be the case either that everything is pure act or that all actual things are divinities.
4. The theory of act potency is also, of course, still with us in contemporary Aristotelianism and Thomism. An important statement of the theory can be found in the famous “Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses.” The first of these two theses, as it is translated on the Catholic Biblical Apologetics website, “The 24 Thomistic Theses,”*** reads:
Potency and Act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either pure act, or of necessity it is composed of potency and act as primary and intrinsic principles.
The second of the twenty-four Thomistic theses is
Since act is perfection, it is not limited except through a potency which itself is a capacity for perfection.
This, of course, is not simply a thesis, but an argument. Regimented just a bit, or so spelled out as to bring out its logic just a bit more expressly, the argument is:
Act is perfection.
Therefore, act is not limited except through a potency which itself is a capacity for perfection.
For now, I will content myself with the observation that at least one, and quite likely more than one, additional premise is needed if that conclusion is to be completely justified.
Until next time.
* Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Translated and introduced by John P. Rowan (Revised edition; Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1995 )
This edition of Aquinas’s text is serving as the text at hand in the present series of readings and comments. It is available online, at:
If you prefer to do your reading in hard copy, you may easily purchase a copy of the work through Amazon.com., by simply clicking on the following:
** John-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes (New York, Philosophical Library, 1956), p. 4.
*** One of the places online where a translation of the document can be found is: