In turning, then, to the question of how existence, in the sense of 'actuality', is predicated, we are brought to Thomas's famous teaching that existence is predicated 'analogically'. Famous it is, and famously misunderstood. To say that existence is predicated 'analogically' is in the first instance to say no more than that it is predicated neither equivocally nor univocally. On this matter, it is fair to comment that too much has sometimes been made of Thomas's so-called 'doctrine of analogy' -metaphysics of baroque complexity were once constructed on the back of a late medieval version of it. In fact the texts in which he introduces the term are remarkably off-hand and casual, as if he were throwing in a mere
21 This is not to say that'... exists' and '... is created' mean the same, even when predicated of creatures. The square of 1 is 1, and the square root of 1 is 1, but 'square of and 'square root of' do not mean the same.
term of art to do a job which logic requires to be done: that is, to stand for whatever those forms of predication are which could not be read as either logically univocal or logically equivocal. At all events, Thomas is much clearer about how existence is not predicated than about how it is.
We have seen that the content of the expression 'x exists' is the value of the variable 'x' - to that extent, Henry of Ghent follows Thomas precisely.22 What it is for a sheep to exist is simply what it is to be a sheep. What it is for there to be sheep, the species, is given in the description of the kind of animal world which includes ovines. Hence, what it is for a thing to be created is whatever it is for that thing to be brought to exist 'out of nothing' - that there should be such a world rather than nothing at all. For that reason, what it is to be brought to be out of nothing differs for every kind of thing in the sense that every meaning for the expression 'x exists' is determinate to a substitution for x, descriptive of a kind; in this sense there is nothing 'in common' between different values for the expression, just as there is 'nothing in common' between 4 as the square of 2 and 9 as the square of 3 - '... exists' cannot be predicated univocally. But in the sense in which both values are derived by the same function of 'squaring', operating upon different variables, we cannot say that 'square of...' is an equivocal term. And, in sum, it seems that Thomas meant little more than this when he says that esse is predicated 'analogically' -just not equivocally, not univocally.
Nonetheless, a little further clarification seems desirable. For to understand how existence is predicated of creatures, it is helpful to set its logic in contrast with other, non-existential, predications. Some predicates are predicated univocally and can only be predicated in a univocal sense -except, of course, when they are predicated metaphorically. In the predicate form 'x is blue', the predicate '... is blue' has the same meaning for all values of the variable x, since no matter what x stands for we know what will count as its being blue. Let us say, then, that predicates of the same kind as 'x is blue' are 'non-relative-to-subject' and that in this they differ from 'relative-to-subject' predicates such as 'x is large'. For what counts for a large x depends upon the sort of thing x stands for; manifestly there is no such single size, regardless of what sort of thing the adjective qualifies, as that denoted by the word 'large', for if there were, then a large mouse would turn out to be larger than a small elephant. It was, of course, Plato's notorious mistake to suppose that all large things must 'participate in' a 'form of largeness',23 a mistake he later came to acknowledge as incorrigible within his 'theory of forms', at least for relational predicates. Hence, his later doubts about that theory.
That said, for any given kind of thing which can be 'large' or 'small', there are some dimensions which make for a large one, some, necessarily less than the first, which make for a small one. And relative-to-subject predications share this much with non-relative-to-subject predicates, in that they are restricted in domain of reference - indeed, in the cases in question, to the same domain of reference. For nothing can be large or small except something which has mass; nothing can be blue which does not have a surface, and nothing which has a surface can be without mass. Both relative-to-subject and non-relative-to-subject predicates of these kinds are, we might say, 'topic-specific', in that they can be literally true only of a restricted range of values substituted for the variable x. And this, in turn, determines a meaning for the word 'metaphorical'. For a metaphorical predication predicates a term of a subject which falls outside of the domain to which that predicate is topic-specific, as when we substitute 'mood' for x in the expression 'a blue x', or 'mind' for x in the expression 'a capacious x'. Such metaphorical expressions are, therefore, all literal falsehoods.
What, then, of predications of the kind 'x is good'? Clearly, on the one hand, such predications share this much with subject-relative predications in that there is no single set of descriptions which have to hold true of all values for x in 'x is good'. For, of course, an undergraduate essay is a good one on account of certain descriptions being true of it, none of which are possessed of whatever counts for a good father, or apple, or time of the day for having a party. Clearly, we have to know what kind of thing x stands for if we are to know what will count as a good one of that kind, for it is in virtue of knowing what kind of thing is being said to be 'good' that we know what characteristics of the thing make for its being a good one of that kind.
On the other hand, 'x is good' differs from 'x is large' in that, whereas the latter predication is restricted to a determinate range of subject-terms, the former is not, for there is no restriction of any kind at all on what value can be substituted for the variable x in 'x is good'; of anything at all that exists there can be a good one of its kind. From which it follows that if '... is good' can be stretched across every kind of thing, it is nonetheless never stretched across kinds of thing in that manner in which terms are predicated metaphorically. For the predicate '... is good' has no primary sense restricted to some particular domain of good things, such that its predication ofobjects in other domains is non-literal -in the way in which '... is large' is predicated in its primary, and literal, sense of dimensive objects and therefore necessarily in metaphor, and in a secondary, derived, sense of anything lacking in dimensions, as moods and minds do. There are therefore no 'secondary' senses of the word
'good' either, no matter what it is predicated of: a good apple is good as apples go, a good time for celebrating is good as times for celebrating go, and so across the range, unrestrictedly, of anything at all. Hence, if '... is good' is not a univocal predicate, then neither is it ever, nor can it possibly be, a metaphor.
How, then, is the logical behaviour of predicates of the form '... is good' to be understood? As we have seen, one way of explaining the logic of 'a good x' is that it is similar in form to that of mathematical functions, such as 'the square of x'. The value of the whole expression varies with the value of x, for if x is 2 then the value of the whole expression is 4; if x is 3, then 9. But in either case there is a common definition of the function 'the square of...', for in either case the same function is performed on x. In this sense alone is there, for Thomas, a common definition of'good', and it is not such as to attach a univocal meaning across all its predications, nor yet does it leave those manifold predications in a condition of meaningless equivocity. For though on the one hand the conditions on account of which a good x is said to be good will vary across all the different kinds of things so described, in every such case the description of a thing's goodness will have been obtained by the same kind of judgement. For the thing's possession of those characteristics make it to be a good one on account of the relation in which they stand to the kind of thing that it is: roughly, for Thomas, a thing is a good one of its kind if it possesses the characteristics which make it to be a fully realised version of the sort of thing that it is.24 In that sense, and in that alone, is there a 'concept' of goodness, in which one knows how to give a meaning to the expression 'a good x' when one knows the value for x. The predication of '... is good' is rule-governed. And the rule which thus governs it Thomas calls 'analogy'.
What holds logically for 'a good x' holds logically for 'x exists'. From the fact that the esse of any created thing consists in its 'standing overagainst there being nothing at all', therefore, it does not follow that every kind of thing stands in the same relation of contrast with nothingness. Even if, as Thomas puts it, there is a real distinction between a thing's esse and its form, still God cannot bring it about that something exists rather than nothing without bringing it about that this kind of thing exists rather than that kind of thing. For just as the notion of a thing which is of such a kind as to exist is simply incoherent, so also is the notion that existence is predicable without reference to, and so as if univocally of, the kinds of thing of which it is predicated, as Scotus thought. Anything at all which
24 Or, as Thomas puts it, a thing's good is what fully realises it, makes it most 'actual': and that is its 'perfection', its most desirable condition - ST 1a q5 a1 corp.
is created is a created something or other. For it to exist is for it to be created; and for it to be created is for it to stand over against nothing. But how it stands over against nothing is determined by the kind of thing that it is. Hence, what you know about the meaning of'... exists' in 'x exists' is that it is the actualisation of some nature, but you do not know what it is to actualise in this case until you know what nature it is that in this case it actualises. Esse is relative to the form it actualises - it is not univocally predicated - even if in every case it is that by which form is actualised, that is to say, stands opposed to there being nothing, so that it is not equivocally predicated either.
But for Thomas, it is God who brings it about that there is anything at all rather than nothing, and it is God's being the cause of esse as such -of the actuality of all things actual - which justifies our predicating esse of God. To repeat what Thomas says: 'Esse causatum non est de ratione entis simpliciter, propter hoc invenitur aliquod ens non causatum.' It would seem, then, that both those who criticise Thomas for maintaining the proposition that there is a 'common conception of being', and those who deny that he maintains it, will need to explain more than they usually do about what it is they are respectively affirming and denying that Thomas maintains. For of course Thomas denies that existence is predicated univocally, even of creatures - a fortiori, not of creatures and of God. Conversely, in the sense just explained, he does of course deny that 'existence' is predicated equivocally. Of course, Thomas would never have said that there is some 'common conception' of existence predicable whether of all creatures or of creatures and God; but this is for the reason that on his account 'existence' is never grasped in any concept anyway: to repeat, for Thomas a 'concept' is our grasp of what a thing is, not of its 'actuality'. All the same, Thomas does maintain that esse is predicable non-equivocally not only of every creature that exists, but also of God and of creatures - and if we allow that he says this, we might just as well allow him to say (for it is at the very least misleading to deny it) that esse is 'predicable in common' of both God and creatures: of creatures as created esse; of God as esse's Creator. And say it he does. Is this 'onto-theology'?
It is at this point that we move back from the question of the logic of the predication of esse to what it is that is predicated of a thing when we say of it that it exists. If for a created thing to exist is for it to be created, then 'to be created' gives us the fundamental meaning of esse as 'act', 'actualisation' - as also, conversely, the fundamental meaning of 'act' as esse. Of course, for Thomas, 'act' has many other meanings - or at least uses - than that of 'act of existence', for Thomas happily speaks by extension from this primitive meaning, of how a person's running is an act, in the sense that it is the 'actualisation' of a person's potentiality to run when that person might have been sitting;25 or of the way in which a material object's being red is the actualisation of one of the colours it could be, and not of others; of the way in which my thinking about the square of minus one, is the actualisation of the intellect's capacity to think indifferently about anything at all. But all these uses of the word 'act' are parasitical upon a basic use and meaning, which is that according to which esse is the most fundamental actualisation of anything at all. Why?
Because in every other, parasitical, use of 'act', what is actualised is some already existing potentiality. If Frieda runs, then Frieda existed in such and such a nature which can run; if the lintel is red, then the lintel existed in bare pine to be painted one colour or another; if I think of the square of minus one, then I have a mind which could think of that, or of something else. But if what actualises is a thing's esse, and if the existence which esse denotes is that it exists rather than that nothing at all exists, then it cannot be the case that in the same sense there exists some potentiality which esse actualises. For the potentiality which esse actualises is brought about by its actualisation: the potentiality exists only as actualised, and cannot exist prior to it, as it were 'awaiting' actualisation.
It does not follow from this that what exists cannot not have existed, nor that it cannot cease to exist. It is crucial to Thomas's understanding of esse and essentia that they are 'really distinct' in any creature, for anything at all which exists as an actualised potentiality has been caused to exist and can be caused to cease to exist, even were it the case, as he thinks it coherent counter-factually to say, that it has endlessly existed and will endlessly exist.26 The contingency of a created thing lies in its createdness, not in any finite parameter of endurance. That said - the real distinction notwithstanding - a thing's esse is that by which the potentiality exists which it actualises. It makes no sense to say of what esse makes to be that it in any way 'exists' in potency 'to be'.27
25 See Aquinas, Expositio Libri Boetii de Hebdomadibus, lect. 2, introd., Latin text and trans. by Janice S. Schultz and Edward Synan, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2001, pp. 16-17.
26 Aquinas, De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes, in Baldner and Carroll, Aquinas on Creation, pp. 114-22.
27 This does not mean that created causes cannot cause something to be which did not previously exist. Of course, parents can cause children to be. What Thomas means in saying that esse is the act of existence by contrast with nothing is that the fact that there
But if that is so, if esse is therefore to be understood in relation to the potentiality it actualises, how can we in any way speak of God as ipsum esse subsistens, and so as 'pure act' - as Thomas does? It is clear to Thomas why we must say that God is 'pure act'. On the one hand there cannot be anything in God which his existence 'actualises', no potentiality of any sort, for God cannot be brought into existence or be caused to cease to exist, else God would be, simply, a creature. On the other hand it seems hard to know what sense it makes to say that God is 'pure act' but that there is nothing of which that act is the actualisation, as if we were to say that Frieda is running, but that her running is not the exercise of any capacity to do so. For, as we have seen, esse is intelligible only as the function of some form. But God is not some kind of thing; he possesses no 'form' which his esse actualises. So what sort of sense can we make of saying that God is just his actualisation, esse, but nothing actualised?
It might seem that Thomas's own argument has, by his own devising, manoeuvred him into the jaws of the Derridean trap. If we are to be permitted to say that God exists at all, the predicate '... exists' will have to retain some connections of meaning with our ordinary senses for the term as we know how to use it of creatures. But that 'ordinary sense' in which we use it of creatures is, it would seem, intrinsically tied in with their creatureliness as the actualisation of a potency. But if it cannot be in that sense that God may be said to exist, what sense can there be left to the term 'act' when, as Thomas says we must, we describe God as 'pure act'? Is this an aporia, an impossible dilemma?
It would seem not. It is clear from Thomas's latest writings - from the Summa Theologiae in particular - that far from seeing this problem as an intractable dilemma or theological blind alley, the 'pincer movement' which leads to it has been a carefully designed theological strategy, designed to manoeuvre the theologian into exactly that position where she ought to find herself - just in that place where, constrained by our ordinary discourse to be, we discover that that ordinary discourse is incapable of capturing the meaning it must nonetheless point to. Of course, we could not know what it means to say that God is 'pure act', ipsum esse subsistens - as we have seen Thomas to say, 'we cannot know the esse of God any more than we can know his essence'. In fact the incomprehensibility of the statement 'God is ipsum esse subsistens' is not an aporia reductive of Thomas's theological metaphysics to absurdity. It is, on the contrary, a is anything at all, rather than nothing, is, and can be, brought about only by God. No more than any created cause can parents bring anything about ex nihilo. But that created causality which truly causes something to be is itself caused to exist, as everything at all is caused to exist, and so is caused ex nihilo by God alone.
precise theological statement, intended to mark out with maximum clarity and precision the locus of the divine incomprehensibility, the ratio Dei, the most fundamental of the 'formal features' of God, to use Burrell's terminology.28 Since it is far from being the case that describing God as 'pure act' gives us some firm purchase on the divine nature, one may go so far as to say that talking about God thus is already a kind of failed speech, a 'babble'; for to pretend that we remain in full command of the meaning of such words through any self-evidently meaningful extension of their ordinary senses is idolatrously reductive of theological language. It is only just inappropriate to call such theological speech 'babble' in so far as, unlike mere babble, to call God by the name 'pure act', or ipsum esse subsistens, retains that degree of connection with the logic of our ordinary discourse which licenses us to derive, with consistency and coherence, what follows from saying it, and what does not. This is not absurdly to attempt to eat one's cake and have it. We know that, in so far as a creature is 'in act' it is, Thomas says, to that degree 'perfect' and so 'good' in some respect, secundum quid. From this we know that if God is 'pure act' then God is wholly perfect and good in every respect, simpliciter. We know this because we know what esse as 'act' means of a creature: it means the actualisation of a potentiality. Hence, whatever 'pure act' means, we know better than to attribute to God, in his character as pure act, anything which follows from a thing's having potentiality. But if we do not know what 'pure act' means anyway, in the sense that we possess some concept of it, then it follows that we know no better what 'wholly perfect' or 'good simpliciter' means than we know what 'pure act' means, except that they must be true of God, which is enough to know that their contradictories are false.29 We can, in short, know enough about what God is to know what God is not; and so we know in saying anything we are entitled to say affirmatively about God - 'God exists' - what we are denying in so saying. To that extent, theological talk has a grammar. It is a language. But that said, it is the grammar of a mystery, of language which breaks down according to determinable rules of breakdown. Theological speech is subject to a sort of programmed obsolescence.
29 Of course, it does not follow from this that all language about God is logically negative -this conclusion is what Thomas denies in what he understands (correctly or otherwise) to be the position of Moses Maimonides. To repeat a position so frequently stated in this essay: to suppose that all statements about God are logically negations is to reduce 'apophaticism' to the standing of literal falsehood. Any sense in which it is said 'apophat-ically' that God is not good would thereby be reduced to the statement that God is evil.
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