#3 – The Residence of Language as Quiddity

This is the third article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. In my last article, #2 – The Formal Cause of Man, I argued that the immaterial substance of man is a form containing many virtual powers, making it very noble. The crown of the form of man, so to speak, is reason.

Now, the following images which I am going to use entirely butcher the inherent simplicity of the idea of an Aristotelian form. So one must remember even as I break things down into components we are talking about a thing that exists simply and not in complex parts (other than in the distinction of potency and act, that which could be and that which is).

I have already established that knowledge exists in man via forms, but that’s not the whole picture. Possessing a form is just one part of a more complex image. Even the notion of possessing a form is a little misleading.


Brace yourself, this may actually be the hardest part.


Let’s trace man’s rational capacity as it maneuvers the acquisition of a new form. First man exists somewhere. The man looks out and sees an oak tree. This poor fellow has never seen one before. As he perceives the tree, light is bouncing off of the tree and is reflecting into the man’s eye balls. The light does a weird upside down trick and plants a pretty upside down light-picture on the interior of the man’s eyeball. Nerve cells in the eye are triggered by the onslaught of light and thus fire according to what light is hitting them. If light of a certain wavelength hits an area, a cell that corresponds to that wave length will fire.

These nerve signals travel back into the occipital lobe, where the image is translated into neuron firing. Scientists believe that the image is somehow painted on to the neurons in some fashion. The pre-frontal cortex also has some role in maneuvering the man’s attention to not see literally everything that hits the eyeball, but to just focus on the tree in the image.

So far so good. But everything is sensory. The image of a tree exists within the brain, something Aquinas calls a phantasm. But there’s nothing about the brain that abstracts a pattern, or a form, because there needs to be the immaterial place for that form to abstract to. Enter man’s own immaterial form.

The active intellect perceives the image of a tree as housed within the human brain, but how does it get the form of an oak tree? Does it juice it out of the image and make form-juice? No – there needs to be a step between material and immaterial existence. Rather than there be a direct transfer, like we would talk about a physical channel between locations A and B (like a nerve between the eye ball and the occipital lobe), we now have to think about two terminals. One terminal, the brain, is sensory information. The other terminal, the intellect, is abstract form information. Here the active intellect actually mimics the form it perceives to exist within the image.

Woah. Think about when you’re learning to salsa dance from a youtube video and you’re trying to mimic the exact moves of the expert salsa dancer and you completely suck at it. Yeah, like that.

The active intellect does its best job to mimic said form and then the passive intellect receives the whole of the active intellect into itself and remembers said form. Note: the actual form that existed in the oak tree does not literally translate itself into the human intellect. So is it a form that the human understands at all? Yes! It has to be. Since the active intellect (a form) is that which is molding itself to what it perceives, the end result is a form that becomes understood.

Aquinas has an important phrase around this matter:

“Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur”

“For the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver”

“For the received [the form of the tree] is in the receiver [the man’s intellect] according to the mode [the shaping of the active intellect passing into the passive intellect] of the receiver” (Summa Theologiae, 1st Part, Q. 84, Art. 1)

So might there be another name for the quasi-form that enters the active intellect? Yes, Aquinas calls it a quidditas (Latin) or quiddity (English, literally: the whatness). The quiddity is, necessarily, a form, but it is not equal to the form that it is attempting to mimic. You see the actual form of an oak tree contains within it many virtual forms (that of root, leaf, chlorophyll, etc.) that unless the man has any in-depth knowledge pre-existing the observation of said tree, he does not know exist. Therefore the quiddity in the man, of the oak tree, may perceive the virtual forms of leaf, root, and bark, but not of chlorophyll. The quiddity is less noble than the form it was attempting to imitate, but the man has still understood a real form. Remember from the previous article what Aristotle and Aquinas echo about the nature of forms in reality:

“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).”

So man’s quiddity of an oak tree, a real attempt at understanding it, contains a good portion of the form perceived, but not the true whole of the form.

Man’s knowledge is therefore imperfect. If man’s quiddity mimicked the whole of the form immediately upon beholding the oak tree, he would have a perfect knowledge of not only that specific oak tree but the pure form of oak tree, but we know from experience that this is not the case. Knowledge can be amended through future education. This is the whole of the topic of Question 85 in the First Part of Aquinas’ Summa Theologia. Quiddities, either abstracted from observation or recalled from memory, are subject to modification, specifically “composition and division.” Over time man may compose a more noble form of the quiddity in question or he may divide it into other forms. Composition and division, according to Aquinas, is the process of reason within man.



If you made it this far, congratulations. You’ve only a bit farther to go.


Now, Aquinas himself informs us what a human word is:

“For in the first place there is the passion of the passive intellect as informed by the intelligible species [real world forms]; and then the passive intellect thus informed forms a definition, or a division, or a composition, expressed by a WORD. Wherefore the concept conveyed by a WORD is its definition; and a proposition conveys the intellect’s division or composition. WORDS do not therefore signify the intelligible species themselves; but that which the intellect forms for itself for the purpose of judging of external things” (Summa Theologia, Prima Pars, Q. 85, Art. 2, Reply to Objection 3).


Aquinas echoes Aristotle, and says repeatedly that quiddities, the things our intellects form to understand real forms outside of ourselves, cannot exist without phantasms. Remember the phantasm of the oak tree is what our random man used to abstract the quiddity of an oak tree. Phantasms are the purely sense, brain-based, images that our brains put together. But phantasms aren’t just visual images; they are the things put together by our multiple senses. They could be any image unique to the sense of taste, hearing, or touch, or all of the senses together. Quiddities behave as act and form, while the phantasm is the material or potency that has the form implanted onto it. Except this all happens within the human person.

Because phantasms can be arranged by any multiple senses, we come to recognize that human words are phantasms, phantasms that are reliant on quiddities to even exist. Without quiddities, human language doesn’t exist.

This is the third premise for my thesis:

Words are primarily concoctions of sounds, sensory phantasms, and quiddities are the Aristotelian forms of our words. Quiddities are real and immaterial forms, but they are unique to one man’s experience as they relate themselves to real and immaterial forms of the outside world.

Next time:

How exactly do we use these abstract notions in every day language? How do we acquire a language?

#4 – How Language is Acquired and Used

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