#6 – The Grammar of the Soul

In previous articles, I have written about the existence of the human soul, justifying it using Aristotelian and Thomistic logic. Expounding on the logic is difficult for a new reader, laborious for an amateur explaining it, and grueling for an academic trying to add to the already standing body of work around Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysical ideas. Of course, the intersection of my academic studies and Aristotle or Aquinas really collide when speaking about language. While there is plenty to speak of within the Thomistic tradition about the nature of language, it is done in one sort of way.

Seemingly from age to age, it is enough to send the minds of philosophers spinning to contemplate the fact that the phenomenon of language is so uniquely intertwined with the human soul, indivisible from our nature as both rational and animal. Most of the energy that St. Thomas puts toward contemplating the nature of language and the mind deals with the nature of man’s reception of knowledge. The reception of knowledge is the grounds on which we formally understand that we do have souls, and rational ones at that. This fact, as O’Callaghan writes, is closely intertwined with St. Thomas’ understanding of the purpose of man.

“Not only is it the case that for St. Thomas our mental life is incomplete without its welling in the world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects, but perhaps even more striking is St. Thomas’s position that the created world of animals, plants, and inanimate beings is itself incomplete until it is taken up into the mental life of the human person who dwells within it. This mutual indwelling is for St. Thomas the perfection of the created order, a more perfect image and likeness of God” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 280-281).

Man’s teleos, final purpose, is to behold God as He truly is, for “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 3, Art. 8) This is the Beatific Vision. God is a truly infinite being, infinitely higher in nature than we ever could be, and our purpose is to spend eternity beholding Him, coming to know Him. We could spend all of eternity beholding Him and still never find an end of wonder.

For Aquinas, the human soul is, primarily, receptive in nature. Its teleos is receptive, therefore Aquinas understands the whole of the soul as primarily being a receiver in and of the world, and more so a receiver of God. Thus, when exploring the soul’s relationship to language, Aquinas primarily engages in the notion of comprehension, the work of such contemplation leading to my aforementioned articles.

Yet as many know, this is not the whole of language. Sure, language is comprehended, but how does an integral view of an ensouled human explain the action of speech? How does it explain where languages come from and how they develop and change? There are many questions that we could get to, but for now my big question is this: how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework? Modern linguists all have their ideas about how words exist in the human mind, but a large part of my linguistic studies at university were not so much interested in how words are and become manifest in the human mind (though that was certainly of interest as well) but also how those words cooperated, whether in comprehension or production, to produce elements bigger than themselves.

Curious to my experience, there, was how the most successful language acquisition models would often sidestep some of these questions of the nature of grammar, deeming any one model or idea insufficient, ultimately claiming it wasn’t an important enough question to satisfy before looking on to classroom practices. It was especially odd since most of my other classes spent time looking at just how language is constructed in the mind, such as my syntax classes. It didn’t take long, though, to notice a particular obsession with my favorite acquisition theories that was common to my favorite philosopher: comprehension. From observing Stephen Krashen to Bill VanPatten and beyond into the larger community of language instructors that were hyper focused on enveloping learners with mountains of opportunity for purposeful comprehension, it was impossible to not connect my favorite academic subjects.

The theories expounded by these academics, the Input Hypothesis and the Input Processing theory, subordinate or eliminate grammar lessons in the language classroom when practically applied to curriculum. Overt grammar knowledge, they argue (and prove), is unnatural and isn’t effective for novices. What is? Many repeated innocuous exposures to significant forms of grammar in context.

So can Aquinas explain why these theories are true? Can Aquinas explain how the human mind learns grammar without overly explicit lessons? I firmly believe that a Thomistic Theory of Grammar would help explain and inform many courses of modern linguistic study.

The Proposition

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

In Article #3 of this series, I presented the facts that words are equivalent to the passiones animae, the impressions made on the soul from reality around it. As an important beginning point, I wish to recap the way that words exist in our minds. From the perspective of comprehension, we see that a set of phonological or orthographical conveniences become associated with a distinct passion of, or impression on, the soul. The human subject perceives something in reality, or rather, something in reality makes an impression on the human senses, and the intellect becomes impressed upon by the senses themselves. While the true Aristotelian form of the perceived object never leaves itself, the very what-ness (quidditas) of the object becomes grasped at by the soul, and the impression can be called a passio animae. The act of receiving the passio and remembering the passio within the passive intellect becomes comprehension.

Now, in my classes and in the field of study of linguistics, grammar is classified as a unique branch of the reality of language, because it seems to be its own category. Suddenly one is not considering the abstraction of ‘dog’ or even the abstract motion of ‘eating’ but the strange application and rules of how these words work together. We do not say “Eating dog” or “Eat dog” or “Dog eat” but rather “The dog eats.” It is no surprise that multiple words get strung together, but the linguist studying grammar wishes to understand not only why we string words together in this specific way, but how we implicitly know and control this construction of language and how we know when to add or remove different linguistic affixes. Perhaps, even, the linguist wants to know why an incorrect construction of these elements leads to miscommunication. The average man does not overtly think about constructing his sentences, but simply communicates his observations, needs, desires, and inquiries. Even an educated man, though, can be quite confused by obscure sentence strings and sentences that ignore standard grammar conventions.

Returning to our information of St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that when words work together, there is in fact a single passio animae that results from the conveyed information. All of the individual components work together and create a single impression, a “complex concept” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 19-20)  . Thus informed, one might ask where grammar fits in. It cannot be ignored, as clearly incorrect grammar leads to obstruction of comprehension, but done well or with little deviance it is unnoticeable.

Since language is particular, and not universal to all of mankind, it would be easy to propose that grammar somehow belongs solely within the material domain, in the brain, or, at the very least, as a sensory phenomenon. This would likely be akin to a behaviorist understanding of language and grammar, where there are positive associations built up with certain word or sound relationships, and negative associations with incorrect relationships. If I said to my friend “Nosotros hablas mucho bien español” I would suffer some negative reactions, but if I then corrected to “Nosotros hablamos muy bien el español” I would be received much more positively. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the fact that words and grammar conventions themselves carry meaning, which within the human mind properly belongs to the intellect. There’s a reason that behaviorist ideas of psychology haven’t aged well.

If grammar somehow belongs to the intellect, then we have to differentiate grammar and words. Words observe a singular entity, while grammar primarily entertains multiple entities. Here it is helpful to consider what sorts of substantial categories of things the intellect abstracts. Aristotle long ago distinguished between substantial forms and accidental forms, substantial being something like “human” whereas accidental is “red hair.” Within the concept of accidental forms, Aristotle described nine types, and one of the most significant here for us to understand is that of relation. Mere relationships are themselves abstracted accidental forms, beings, that the intellect entertains, separate even from the things that a relationship enjoins.

In Spanish, there are many suffixes for verbs which convey a range of information, from the time of the action and the subject that performed the action to subtle mood differences of the action (whether it for sure happened or whether it is desired that it happens). Certainly, then, the suffixes connect the primal identity of the word with more subtle applications of that word with other abstract notions of ‘past’ and ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘by us.’ At play is a distinct relationship. But this distinct relationship does not exist solely to that unique action in that one context. It can be applied to many words describing different actions, but it is the same abstract relationship at play.

When students learn a new language, it can be fascinating to learn about the novel grammar constructions of new languages. One of my favorites of these is one I learned of Irish Gaeilge, where possession cannot be expressed by a transitive verb. One must say that a certain object is “at” them. But by saying something is “at” one self, they have thus expressed possession.

Tá  an   uisce agam.

Is   the water at-me.

I have the water.

Yet, as wild and foreign as the grammatical concept may propose itself to be, it is nonetheless still comprehensible to the student, even if only after many exposures to the various instances in which the language proposes it to the student. In my experience of teaching language, this is the part that students struggle with the most. It’s not necessarily learning that certain phonetic or orthographic pieces are constructed together, but that the abstract relationships proposed by the grammar are actually meaningful and appropriate.

Why can’t I just say that I LIKE the food Mr. Skipper? Why do I have to say that it pleases me? That’s so wEiRd.

So inevitably, grammar is a composition of certain abstract relationships that one language orchestrates very differently than another. In Spanish one of the most important relationships is between Action, Time, and Subject. The importance can be seen in not just the primacy in a phrase, but how convenient the expression of this relationship is in phonetics. It all gets conjoined in the very same word.

Fuimos – We left

It is not impossible for other languages to convey similar meanings, but the conventions of expressing those meanings look differently, and the attention given to those conventions and relationships take on different value as an abstract whole. The fact that prepositions are always connected to other subjects or objects means that in Irish, personal pronouns become subjugated as suffixes to the pronoun in question. Yet that is the key – the two separate elements of preposition and pronoun, in Irish, are subject to a grammar relationship that results in a phonetic merge.

Ag + mé
(At    me)
= Agam

Where Grammar Comes From

This is a point I want to address with particular importance and stress. In an “I-make-me” world, we want to decentralize power into the individual, often to the detriment of our communal nature.

When a baby learns a language, they have to learn about the conventions of grammar and the abstract relationships that the language of their parents prioritizes. But the parents do not take the baby to school to expound on the nature of those relationships, and the baby still learns the language just fine. In general, it’s probably a common assurance that most parents are not able to expound on those relationships. For them, the language is as much innate given as it will be for their child.

Here I want to stress the obscure nature of the soul. You see, when Aquinas investigates the nature of the soul and talks about comprehension, he is never speaking about an overt process. He doesn’t talk about the intellect recognizing the act of cognition. He talks about the immediate and incognito effects of cognition. For Aquinas, comprehension is not really a voluntary action, it is mostly involuntary. Callaghan explains that, “in the case of intellect, a potentially intelligible thing extra animam, rendered actually intelligible by the agent intellect, moves the possible intellect to its act” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 214), where the motion of intelligibility and comprehension begins outside of the intellect. The intellect is capable of recognizing how it works, but it is a complex act of self-analysis, a reception of itself into itself, only after the primary acts of comprehension are already complete. So when one speaks of analyzing grammar, we are already speaking about things that we have understood, and are grasping at how it is possible for our intellects to have already done what they have. In other words, we do not know what the primary relationships motivating our language’s construction are until we are able to later reflect on them.

Initially, of course, humans did not just have their languages. They had to have come out of something else. What is innate to humanity as a source out of which language came? Perhaps philosophers like Naom Chomsky want to talk about the powers of Universal Grammar, where there are certain neurologically based constructs that predict the growth of language in the human person, and are evident in the analysis of syntax across languages. Later advocates, such as Ray Jackendoff, will of course be sure to tell us that such explanations are possible without resorting to a ‘magical’ view of the mind as soul. Yet, truly, it is the intellect and will, that which makes us rational creatures, that is the true substrate of the human person, which gives rise to language.

At some early point in human development, historically and not in any one person, groups of humans could have begun with artificially and intentional phonetic relationships that conveyed abstract relationships. One can think of how a string of words can convey grammatical notions:

Dog eat now but cat eat morning not now.

The children of those who came up with the more artificial constructions of language would receive them more naturally, and it would not be so difficult to use and explicitly remember those linguistic conventions. They might even feel so free as to build or synthesize more linguistic conventions and further their language into something more advanced. There is modern evidence of this behavior with the phenomena of pidgin and creole languages, where a certain community synthesizes two or more languages, oftentimes with difficulty or with novel structures and what would previously be considered unconventional, but then the children of that community acquire the synthesized language as its own and do so with ease, essentially creating a new language. To conceive of primitive human communities doing so without a previous linguistic base is not difficult. Certainly within three generations it is conceivable to think of a human community moving from not having a language at all to having an incredibly elaborate language. Yet, as the third generation carries on to the fourth, there is no need to overtly convey linguistic grammar conventions, if there ever was a need to do so.

Wherefore doth it import to us?

In the general process of abstraction, there is  an observation of particulars that contributes towards a non-specific thing which is shared between all of them. In the case of grammar, I have appealed to something of a grammatical relationship that guides specific linguistic constructions. But, one may ask, why is that any different than the more recent tradition of understanding a linguistic ‘rule’? In other words, how is a rule different than a relationship?

Before even engaging in the specifics, I think the description of rule vs. relationship is already a tangible difference. One can think of rule as something with authority that imposes on another, that conveys overt control, and paints an image of very finely tuned divisions between correct and incorrect. Yet quite readily anyone who has spent time in the language classroom will be able to observe that the ‘authority’ of a rule is realistically only a façade, that overt knowledge of rules does not guarantee fluency in the language, and that there are always exceptions. In other words, while there is speak of grammar ‘rules’ it’s really difficult to maintain such an appearance. Instead, a relationship implies something that works dynamically between idea and user, even between ideas, that more often exists implicitly, and is much more forgiving, or even encouraging, of deviances from any norm.

More critically, the average grammar rules are often too dependent on the material elements of language. I can easily picture a Spanish textbook in my head which looks at grammatical categories that are based on purely orthographic and phonetic differences, such as the difference between –ar and -ir verbs. Yet there is no movement of difference in meaning when analyzing these categories.

Fruitfully one can look at these textbooks and see the relationships that stand out as foundational. Ironically they can be found when textbooks attempt to explain the rules, talking about why exceptions exist, what the goal of these different grammatical forms are, etc. When looking at the differences between –ar and -ir verbs, for example, one might end up instead contemplating the relationship between verbs and the present sense of their action as compared to the relationship between verbs and a future sense of their action. While the traditional rules are generally divided somewhat arbitrarily, understanding grammar as a set of relationships is a notion fraught with meaning and purpose. Instead of a learner being taught how to create “correct” phrases, they are instead oriented towards finding meaning and purpose in phrases, and are oriented towards creating meaning and purpose in production.

Now, I hear the critics crying out, “the lists and divisions may be arbitrary, but they help divide up what is a long and complicated list of deviations! There’s no other way to learn so much content! Textbooks can still be used in the classroom if they were to perhaps include more organization around these relationships!” And in a sense, they are correct. Trying to organize grammar lessons and principles around relationships, one may inevitably separate out –ar, -er, and -ir verbs because of the ease of demonstrating their orthographic and phonetic differences, but this returns us to our friends who are teaching language in input-intensive comprehensible classrooms.

Comprehensible Input

The goal of the Input Hypothesis in a practical application is to provide a language learner with a ton of rich and meaningful input, input that actually bears meaning and relevance to a student, so that the student comes to possess the language. The input is often context-rich, heavy with cognates at the beginning of education, and long and drawn out towards a lofty goal at the end of every lesson, filled with many repetitions along the way. It draws the student with purpose towards a third-party goal that immerses and guides the student through language growth the entire time.

Over the years countless studies around input comprehension have demonstrated that students exposed to this rich input perhaps do not develop a rich overt knowledge of textbook rules, but that they have a high implicit understanding of how a language works. They do not struggle in reading books (yes, full books) that target their language level, they engage in relatively fluent conversations, and otherwise have a quite natural possession of a language.

In other words, students taught in Comprehensible Input based classrooms, classrooms that might be considered ‘immersive’ and most often without textbooks or guided curriculum, come to possess a language much in the way that a young child comes to possess their first language(s), without overt grammatical knowledge of a language. They implicitly have formed an understanding of the way that grammatical relationships work within a language, possessing those abstract forms within their intellect that easily guide their comprehension and production of a language, no matter the format.

The Soul is Necessary to Explain Language.

In the end, we return to the main point of this article. At the beginning I asked: “how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework?” to which we have this answer:

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

Since grammar in practicality is a set of organizing principles of language that relate two or more meaningful notions together, then those organizing principles, relationships, must exist somewhere that can implicitly exert a governing dominance over the words and affixes that need to be arranged together. Since it has already been established that words root themselves in the abstract formations of the intellect, then it follows that grammar relationships need to similarly take residence in the intellect. Once again we find ourselves needing philosophical logic of the human soul in order to explain the phenomenon of language.

Of course, while this doesn’t seem to have any practical applications, we see that it is incredibly relevant not only to scientists and academics who are trying to explore the nature of language and the forces that govern it, but also to those who teach and learn language. Before you say “I’m not taking a foreign language class!” I just want you to think about how you’re understanding the words of this article, and how you perhaps have taught your own children to speak. What about that word you saw last week for the first time and you had to google search its definition? Language acquisition is most effective, it has generally been documented, when set up with effective Comprehensible Input. As a whole, also, language knowledge is largely implicit, and this Theory of Grammar – a Thomistic Theory of Grammar, finally explains what is going on at the root of our human nature to make it all possible.

#5 – What Relevance This Thesis Has

This is the fifth article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. Here are the summative premises so far that I have explored in my articles:

#1: Everything that changes, that suffers a reduction of potency to act, has an immaterial formal cause, or an essence, just like the oak tree, and this formal cause actually and truly exists.

#2: 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.

#3: Words are primarily concoctions of sounds, sensory phantasms, and passiones animae are the Aristotelian forms of our words. Passiones animae 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.

#4: Mankind’s active intellect is always shaping itself to some intelligible species for knowledge’s sake. In order to use language, word phantasms map themselves to a passio animae, and when we communicate we are communicating these passiones animae in order to communicate larger ideas. Acquiring a language is not just a discussion about learning the phantasms, but syncing their connection to passiones animae, something children struggle with less than older humans because they generally don’t have many logistical obstructions to prevent them.

The conclusion from all of these premises? That mankind has an Aristotelian formand this form is integral to an explanation of the human phenomenon of language. Without this form, language doesn’t work. But if this form is such an important part of how we look at human existence, why haven’t you heard about it before? Why isn’t it talked about it your typical science classroom?

Because you actually have heard of it, just under a different name: the soul. For Aristotle such words would have been entirely interchangeable. In fact, according to this language, we may even be so bold as to say that animals have souls and plants have souls. Here, the soul refers to this foundational form that is the primary agent of something changeable. It is exactly because of the connotations of the word soul that you are not likely already familiar with this topic.

The inclusion of the soul as a point of discussion was commonplace up until the age of the ‘enlightenment,’ the 1600s. Around this time philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, and Bacon began come about and shove off the ideas handed down to them by their philosophical predecessors. They decided they didn’t like the ideas of the past and forged their own roads of study. We think of the problem of the soul as the problem of the ‘ghost in the machine,’ but the only reason this is even a problem is because of philosophers like Descartes. Before these “classical” philosophers we had ready answers for such questions, but with the advent of new thought, of a focus on material wealth and study, these answers were blotted out of secular memory. Metaphysical questions were set aside in favor of more physical questions.

Philosophers after Descartes and others, who assumed some sort of the existence of a mind, or soul, put aside the philosophical contemplations of the mind put forth by Descartes, saying that there was a ‘ghost in the machine’ problem with his work, and discredited the notion of a soul as non-provable. Can we see it? Touch it? Taste it? Hear it? Smell it? No? Then how can it exist? Clearly the things that exist are the things that we can sense (if we truly can sense). Descartes said the only thing we can trust to exist is our own mind, but for those who followed him not even that was good enough. The only thing we can trust is the physical world, because it shows us regularity through our senses.

Materialist and individualist thinking began to be more and more commonplace. Assumptions that the soul exist faded out into history or were accorded to a matter of religious faith.

For me, now, to suggest that the human soul not only exists, but that a true linguistic study is incomplete without its consideration is


I have no scientific evidence. The soul does not have an observable and measurable effect on the brain. We can’t see who’s pulling the strings, how the strings are attached, what pushes what button – except in arguing that out the battle would already be lost.

The scientific method can’t reveal everything about knowledge to us. Logic and reasoning themselves must inform a measure of our thought. This is why my thesis is relevant. It proposes, with serious argument and practical evidence, the definitive existence of the human soul and its tie to the existence of language.

There is no one, and I mean absolutely no oneseriously investigating the relationship between the human soul and language. For a world that doesn’t believe in immaterial things, and an academic world that would never support investigating it, the nature of the human mind is an enigma that has become a ‘classical’ philosophical problem.


There is no reason for the soul to not primarily be at the core of any investigation into linguistics. If moment to moment existence and use of human language is reliant on the human soul, the form of a person, then it matters when studying human language. At the end of my thesis I explore exactly how the soul supports further language study, and exactly why it needs to be included. The answer to modern man’s questions about the nature of the mind exist right within our grasp, right underneath our finger tips. All we need do is reach out and grab it.

#4 – How Language is Acquired and Used

This is the fourth article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. In my last article, #3 – Language as Man’s Passions, I argued that words, as we know them, are phantasms that exist within the human brain but rely on passiones animae, immaterial forms, to actually exist as knowledge.

This finally gives us the flexibility to talk about how language is implemented and even acquired. Usage is easiest to lay out, first. Just as a real world object (that changes) is reliant on forms to provide its own consistency and direct future changes to itself, words are also reliant on forms. Without these forms, these passiones animae, words are just a bunch of meaningless sounds.

As each word is received into the human brain either through the eyes as written language or through the ears as spoken language, the human brain holds on to that sensory phantasm. Just as that content of our sight is restructured in our brain, so the input we have received from others is restructured in our brain. Assuming these words are not new, the active intellect shapes itself to the passio animae that it associates with the word. The passio animae derives its shape from the passive intellect and what it previously understood is on display in the active intellect. Should any new information be presented in the sensory experience that adds knowledge or divides knowledge, then the passio animae is further composed or divided, as Aquinas says. Either more virtual forms are added to the passio animae or the set of virtual forms found within the passio animae are divided and separated. Otherwise there is no alteration to them and the active intellect moves on to the next word.

If one remembers the example from the previous article about the oak tree, where a man sees an oak tree and abstracts an intelligible species that resembles the form of the oak tree, then one will also note that the phantasm of a word acts as a middle point between the passio animae and the real form in question. There are these three main components, then.

  1. The real form that exists in the world that the human is attempting to perceive or relay communication about
  2. The word around that form (an orthographic or phonological phantasm as compared to a visual phantasm in the oak example)
  3. The passio animaewhich while itself is a form, is only a copied form.

The shaping of the active intellect into the various passiones animae that come rapid-fire through the human experience (language is a very quick process, mind you) is momentary and passing. Do we really only process reality one word at a time?

The short answer is no. A word equals a passio animae but a passio animae does not equal a word. As for a single concept many virtual forms work together to compose a single, unified, intelligible species that the active intellect receives for comprehension, so many collaborative passiones animae work together to form a larger, more unified concept. This is the nature of a sentence, for example.

So that’s how we use language – as a concert of passiones animae to communicate knowledge, and specifically as phantasms that act as substitutes for other kinds of phantasms (like images). Because of the substitute nature of language, the encoding, it functions differently than other phantasms, almost like a shortcut to passiones animae (not that other phantasms aren’t active or present, they just aren’t necessary).

So how would someone learn language? Is it different between your first and your second language? No!

I’ll discuss in my next article some of the relevance of how this notion affects modern fields of study, but first let me articulate how language acquisition works in light of the human form. Babies don’t already have words when they are born. They don’t have very much function at all, to be specific. But they do have the basic components for whatever they need in life (typically). When it comes to language they have:

1.) Neurons connected to sensory organs

2.) Clustered neurons in the brain as a sensory center

3.) Rational intellects.

As babies grow and develop their sensory organs, the intellect shapes it up along the way. They perceive what is good about the world or what is good for them and they move towards those good things, discover that they have the will power to move towards those things, figure out how to direct their material body to accomplish these tasks, etc. They learn. When it comes to language, they first have to pair knowledge about the real world, for which they can form passiones animae without the use of words, with new phantasms, normally words that they are supplied with by their parents or caretakers.

As the babies grow into children and into adults their intellect, the amassing of many many passiones animae occurs. Alongside the growth of the intellect in general, words become attached to the passiones animae and they can use the words to communicate them. Further they can even use words and their passiones animae to puzzle about new passiones animae that are not abstracted from experience but from within their own intellects.

“I know what a red ball is, and I know what a green pyramid is…what if there was a red pyramid?”

My firm understanding of language acquisition here is that the method of acquisition of a language does not ever change. Obstacles may impede it at certain areas of life (not necessarily biological), but its method is consistent. New words and a new system of grammar are usually built up around pre-existing passiones animae or, it may be so, that new passiones animae are formed around new words, composed or divided from other passiones animae that are known. The connections between phantasms and passiones animae are not brought about in a day, though, and neither were they brought about in a day for young children. It takes 5 years for children to cement a decent library of word phantasms (and grammar, but more on that in the future, I promise) in connection to all their proper passiones animae. These children don’t already have a language in their brains and they are desperate for a solid method of communicating with others around them. There is no reasonable expectation that the acquisition of a foreign language after childhood should not take at least 5 years, if not longer, since there are many more life obstacles impeding that progress. Children, generally, are not obstructed in their first 5 years the way a high schooler or college student is.

This is the fourth premise for my thesis:

Mankind’s active intellect is always shaping itself to some passio animae for knowledge’s sake. In order to use language, word phantasms map themselves to a passio animae, and when we communicate we are communicating these passiones animae in order to communicate larger ideas. Acquiring a language is not just a discussion about learning the phantasms, but syncing their connection to passiones animaesomething children struggle with less than older humans because they generally don’t have many logistical obstructions to prevent them.

Next time: 

What is the conclusion to draw from all of these premises? Why is this a relevant matter for today’s world?

#5 – What Relevance this Thesis Has

#3 – Language as Man’s Passions

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. The mind abstracts intelligible characters, and these, amassed, collectively make an impression upon the moldable intellect. Altogether they make the intelligible species, formal content in and of itself. Here the active intellect actually receives the intelligible species as a formal cause, and then shapes itself around the species 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 shape itself around the intelligible species it perceives 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 or transpose itself into the human intellect, lest the original tree stop existing. 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 form that enters the active intellect? Yes. The whatness of the object is the primary focus of the intellect. This whatness, the quiddity (Latin quidditas), is composed of the various intelligible characters discernable through the senses. These intelligible characters work together to form an intelligible species. As the intelligible species is received into the intellect, though, it becomes something that the intellect in fact receives, or suffers. For this reason it is called a passio animae, or a passion of the soul. There are various degrees to which the passio animae may match the true form of the object in question, but it still retains the general essence of what is perceived.

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 passio animae of the oak tree may shape around the collective virtual forms of leaf, root, and bark, but not of chlorophyll. The intelligible species is less noble than the form it was attempting to imitate, but the man has still understood a real form, and it contains the same quiddity of the object in question. 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 the passio animae in a man, based on an oak tree, a real attempt at understanding it, contains a good portion of the form perceived, but maybe not the true whole of the form.

Man’s knowledge is therefore imperfect. If man’s passions 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. Passions, 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 passion 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 intelligible species, the things our intellects form around 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. The intelligible species (or formal composition of the intelligible characters of the quiddity) behave as act and form which gets passed into the potency of the intellect. This is the same as how the act and form of the quiddity of an object gets passed into the potency of the sensory brain. Conversely for language production, the active intellect uses the remembered intelligible species as act and form to pass into the potency of the sensory brain. Except this all happens within the unified human person. The intelligible species makes an impression on the intellect, which is then a passio animae, and a true concept, to which is equal a word.

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

This is the third premise for my thesis:

Words are primarily concoctions of sounds, sensory phantasms, and passiones animae are the Aristotelian forms of our words. They are real and immaterial forms and work to make immaterial concepts, 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

#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

#1 – An Argument for Aristotelian Forms

If you haven’t already read my article Some Things Never Change – A Metaphysical Reflection, please go do so. I’m going to presume a point or two from that article.

Let’s dive right into the depths of it. One of the most important pieces of my thesis, Thomistic Linguistics, is the existence of certain philosophically necessary forms. But what are these forms?

Recalling my previous article on change, I articulated the specific way a changeable thing can be reduced from potency to act. At the start, there is a thing. This thing undergoes a change. It has a thing that it is going to become as a result of its change, and this change is foreseen in its potency. This foreseen goal is the essence of what the thing is, or what it is supposed to be. This is the formal cause. There is the material of the thing, that which composes it, that is what makes it up. This is the material cause. There is something external to the thing which is how the formal cause is imprinted onto the material cause, how the act is brought onto the thing, called the efficient cause. Lastly there is the final cause, the end for which the thing is most inclined to do or be with its new state.

For Aristotle, these four causes answer the most important identifying questions you can ask about a changeable thing. What is it? We look to the formal cause. What is it made of? We look to the material cause. How is it here? We look to the efficient cause. What is it for? We look to the final cause. In sum, the formalmaterialefficient, and final causes form Aristotle’s teleology (the study of the telos, the end cause).

Here what we are going to focus on in this article is the formal cause of something. The essences of things. For Aristotle the essence, the formal cause of something, is not just some imaginative thing. It is a real thing that exists in the universe.

This is the crux of this discussion.

We can all conceive of a concept, an image of something. But these things are hardly tangible. They are abstract images we think of in our minds. How does an idea that we think of translate to a necessary, invisible, intangible form? The answer lies in processes outside of human interaction.

Take the example of an acorn. An acorn is a seed, a thing of definitive size and nature. An acorn is not an oak tree. It doesn’t have leaves, it doesn’t have roots, it doesn’t have a stem, and it does not produce other acorns. It just sits there. But it does not mean an acorn cannot become an oak tree. Within the acorn is the potency to become an oak tree. The mere fact that acorns always become oak trees and that oak trees always produce acorns is a natural regularity within the flow of nature. It is a pattern of regularity that is entirely independent of human interaction.

What is it that guarantees the regularity of the oak tree, that it will always become an oak and not some other tree? What is it that guarantees the regularity of the acorn, that it will always be the fruit of an oak tree? DNA seems to be the most regular answer, that it genetically is set to occur, but even if we equate the regularity of the oak tree (and the acorn as its fruit) to the regularity of DNA, we must be forced to ask about the regularity of the DNA itself. The regularity has to have an origination point, not at some point in the past, but at some point in the present. There must be some cause which keeps and maintain the focus of regularity at any given point in time, otherwise the thing in question would lose its integrity and fall apart.

If you remember from my previous article this logic sounds quite similar to the argument for the Unmoved Mover, and you would be correct, but we don’t need to go back quite that far in the metaphysical order. Somewhere between the metaphysically necessary Unmoved Mover (an immaterial being, remember) and the unnecessary oak tree (or acorn, both quite material), needs be a thing that predicts the specific structure of the oak tree or the acorn.

This thing, that predicts the structure, should it be material like the acorn or immaterial like the Unmoved Mover? Remember the predictability of the acorn to become an oak tree. That potency is something that exists within the acorn, and not within a pine nut, for example. Somehow or another, the form of an oak tree already exists, then, within the acorn. The acorn has the potential to properly become an oak tree. But the acorn does not have the qualities of an oak tree. Neither does the DNA. The DNA does not have leaves, does not have a trunk, does not have roots. Therefore the existence of an oak tree, only a potency, does somehow exist within the acorn. Obviously it does not physically exist, so we must conclude that the form is immaterial.

This is the first premise for my thesis:

Everything that changes, that suffers a reduction of potency to act, has an immaterial formal cause, or an essence, just like the oak tree, and this formal cause actually and truly exists.

Next time:

If all changeable things have forms…wouldn’t man have a form?

#2 – The Formal Cause of Man