#2 – The Formal Cause of Man

This is the second article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. In my last article, #1 – An Argument for Aristotelian Forms, I argued that changeable things all have a form. These forms are immaterial and are, essentially, the more perfect thing from which something derives its nature.

The most difficult concept to accept in the modern time is the unobservable nature of these forms. Science, the scientific method and the fruits of its method, tells us that if it is not observable then it cannot exist, or that there should be no credibility put to its name. Yet the scientific method, when held to such a high standard, becomes something it isn’t. The scientific method itself is not scientifically observable, for example. It is derived first from logical argumentation. Science is within the realm of physical study, while the derivation of the scientific method itself is out of a certain metaphysical reality. Metaphysics is the study of the foundational and logical principles of reality that conceptually allow for the existence of something like physics and science.

Turning the scientific method into a metaphysics is a logical fallacy popularly called scientism, or positivism. If you wish to accept the validity of science, then you have to accept the role of logical argumentation as a legitimate form of exploring knowledge and truth, or you just end up tripping yourself. Logic, such as what is found in the previous article, is not invalid simply because there is no ‘science’ to back it up (even though one might find that to be incredibly disagreeable).

As such, we know that everything that suffers change, or suffers a reduction of potency to act, has a form. Very quickly one will note that if this is true, then humans must have a form just as much as anything else. But is the form of man equatable to the form of a triangle? Or the form of a pine tree? Are there any differences?

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas both readily address such a problem. Let’s start with the form of a triangle. It is a simple notion – three lines, three angles, all connecting. Nothing of material is defined within its form, either. Consider, though, in comparison, an oak tree. There’s a lot going on with an oak tree: leaves, roots, bark, xylem, phloem, pollen, fruit (or nuts), and much more. That’s quite a bit more complicated than a triangle! Additionally, couldn’t we consider each of the components of a tree as its own form? Surely a leaf, common to many kinds of trees, is its own form? Well, actually, yeah! An oak tree can be barren of leaves during winter, for example, and still be an oak tree. But that is not because leaves don’t happen normally with oak trees, it just happens to not have leaves at that moment. But if an oak tree did not have the form of leaves within it somehow, it just wouldn’t be an oak tree; it would have to be something else.

Aristotle compares forms to numbers, as demonstrated by Aquinas:

“For this reason Aristotle, Metaphy. Viii (Did. Vii, 3), compares the species of things to numbers, which differ in species by the addition or subtraction of unity. And (De Anima ii, 3) he compares the various souls to the species of figures, one of which contains another; as a pentagon contains and exceeds a tetragon” (Aquinas, Summa, Q. 76, A. 3).”

When you look at the number 8, we know that it contains within it a place for the number 4, specifically times the other number 2. But we do not look at the number 8 and immediately say ‘ah look! the number 4!’ Rather we know that within the 8 is the virtual notion of 4, insofar as that the number 8 “contains and exceeds” the number 4. So we can add in more ‘unity’ of smaller and simpler things and come up with something that is more complex.

Rather than calling the triangle simpler than the plant, though, our guiding philosophers do something unexpected. They call the plant more simple than the triangle. What? Why? Because the plant contains more forms virtually within a single form than just the triangle. Do not think of a large moving box that has a bunch of smaller blocks within it. Instead think of gelatin cubes. All of the forms like triangles are rather small. When you compile them, though, and they unify in their strange gelatinous way, they become bigger and better or, as our philosopher guides might say, more noble. The more something can unify a large amount of virtual forms actually within itself, the more noble it is.

So when Aristotle and Aquinas look at nature, they do not see a range of equals, they instead see a sea of less noble and more noble forms. Plants are more noble than rocks. Plants have virtual powers of taking in nutrients, growing and reproducing. Rocks do not have these powers or the virtual forms to achieve them. Animals, though, are more noble than plants. Animals, beyond having the same powers of plants, are also capable of sensing things (including feeling emotion but more basically the idea of seeing and smelling) and locomotion. This finally gets us to humans. Humans are capable of all of these things, yet additionally have the power to reason. This makes the human form more noble than any other form on earth or in the material universe. No other material creature has the power to reason as we.

(Yeah I know you think animals can reason too, but the short story is they can’t. Check out this whole article I wrote about the topic.)

The simple form of man (remember gelatin cubes, not moving boxes) contains virtually within himself all of these other forms and powers, the most prized and unique being this of reason.

Aristotle and Aquinas note that something interesting has to take place within man for reason to occur. All other beings less noble than us have a point of achieving the perfection of their form, of realizing their potential. But all of an animal’s, plant’s, or rock’s potential is physically realizable. Even an animal’s emotions are physically manifest things. But is reason similarly realizable within the physical realm of a being? It can’t be.

What is reason? It is the possession of knowledge and the ability to contemplate that knowledge, to mediate from a question to an answer and to an explanation. Man’s knowledge is not some sort of hive mind knowledge, though, and so that possession of knowledge is unique to each person. So how does one possess knowledge and then possess it separately from another person? There must be a place in each person for this knowledge to be possessed, since we so clearly have the capacity for knowing.

Humans can know things in multiple ways. We can know specific things, like what our Aunt May’s ugly dog looks like, and we can know more general things, like what a generic dog may look like. When humans observe and learn these forms of knowledge, they abstract certain intelligible characters from the reality in front of them. When observing the dog, abstract intelligible characters of a small nose, long legs, bushy tail, and short fur all come to the human mind. As a whole, the human abstracts the idea of “Aunt May’s ugly dog,” which has all of these intelligible characters. Aristotle and Aquinas tell us that the human mind comes to possess forms, just like the forms that exist in the world. When a person thinks about a triangle, the form of triangle translates directly into us and we possess that form. We cannot possess it materially, say in our brains, though, because then we would have strangle triangles as neurons, say. No, our neurons are quite limited on what they can turn into. There must be some way that we immaterially possess these forms, as they themselves are immaterial.

Well what do we have that is immaterial? Our own forms of course! So what, our forms are like weird vacuums that suck a form out from it’s primary existence in the material world? Nah, that’s a bit too weird. Plus, if one person sucked a form out of a triangle (therefore obliterating that individual triangle), the person sitting next to him couldn’t also suck the form of triangle out, and we know that isn’t what happens. Both people can get the form of triangle. Aquinas says that our intellects, the powers of reason and comprehension within the form of man, shapes itself around the intelligible characters that we observe through our senses. The immaterial part of us shapes itself around the immaterial notions of the real world outside of us, and therefore we come to possess immaterial forms.

That’s far from the end, though. Because so what? Our forms mirror other forms? Cool. Except not cool! We have to maintain our own integrity with the form of man or else we just turn into a triangle! Therefore we must have a virtual power that transforms itself, just as we contain the virtual form of heart that directs and guides the structure and function of our physical heart. And then so what? We have a virtual power that manipulates itself to mirror outside forms, okay cool. Except not cool! How does the process of understanding happen from just mirroring? It doesn’t. There is another virtual power that stores these immaterial forms so that we can recall them later or so that we can modify them later. There is a memory and active contemplation of forms. Remember that change is a reduction of potency to act? Usually in a material being that potency and act translates only from the formal cause into the material cause. But here within humans we have an instance of potency and act occurring right within the formal cause alone.

Aquinas says that we therefore have an active intellect (which shapes itself) and a passive intellect (which receives the shaped active intellect and comprehends it). No other material creature in the material universe emulates such an ability. We are unique in this way.

This is the second premise for my thesis:

We have forms, just like every other changeable thing, but our forms are unique and more noble because of the power of reason. Our reason is a complex existence of potency and act not just between our formal and material causes, but right within our formal cause.

Next time:

Where does language situate itself into relationship with man’s formal cause?

#3 – The Residence of Language as Quiddity