03 April 2005

First and Second Uses

(I wrote this yesterday but couldn’t post it from my room in the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst, where I was staying for a conference on political philosophy. Did I keep my resolution, then, to post every day or not?--But just as well, because several readers of Dissoi Blogoi have written to say they need time to catch up.)

Here’s a question about medieval philosophy that relates directly to issues of analogy and metaphor in Aristotle.

In ST I.13, on the ‘names’ of God, Aquinas criticizes the view of Maimonides, who holds that all affirmations about God should be understood as assertions about God’s relationship to creatures: as either (i) denying some similarity to creatures (e.g. “God lives” means “God is not inanimate”) or (ii) affirming God as the cause of something in creatures (e.g. “God is good” means “The goodness in creatures is caused by God.”) On this view, no affirmations about God are, strictly, about God: rather they are about some relation God has--which is what Maimonides wanted, to safeguard, as he thought, the doctrine of the utter simplicity of God.

Aquinas objects to this view that, first of all, it could not account for our wanting to apply some predicates to God rather than others. Why don’t we wish to say “God is corporeal”, meaning by that, God is the cause of bodies? And why don’t we wish to say “God is corporeal”, meaning by that, God is not a non-body (and understanding ‘non-body’ as ‘mere potentiality’—as we could understand it, if we wished)?

This objection, although clever and interesting, is not my concern here, but rather the second objection Aquinas raises. On Maimonides’ view, he says, “it would follow that all names applied to God would be said of Him by way of being taken in a secondary sense, as healthy is secondarily said of medicine, because it signifies only the cause of health in the animal which primarily is called healthy.” (That’s all that he says, and he apparently takes just this to be a weighty objection.)

Aquinas is alluding here, of course, to the example of pros hen analogy that Aristotle gives in the Metaphysics: we apply the term ‘healthy’ to urine, food, and medicine, not because these things have something in common, and exemplify the same universal, but because each is related in some way to the central or primary sense of ‘healthy’, viz. a healthy animal.

But here’s the problem. It’s usually thought that, in such cases, one identifies the central or primary use of a term, by seeing which use occurs in the definitions of all the others. E.g.

Healthy(1) animal: (say) an animal which has a body that works well in carrying out the functions of living.

Healthy urine: urine which indicates that an animal is healthy(1).

Healthy food: food which makes an animal healthy(1).


Aquinas evidently thinks that, in assertions such as ‘God is good’, the term ‘good’ is used in the primary sense. Yet presumably Aquinas would not wish to say that one has to mention God in giving an account of what a good human being or a good knife is. Presumably, then, he thinks it only a sufficient, not a necessary, condition of a term’s being primary, that it occurs in the definition of all the secondary uses. But then:

  1. What other criterion of a primary use is he relying upon?
  2. Does Aristotle, too, recognize other sorts of primary usage?
  3. How could primary and secondary uses be related, except through a connection in their definitions?

(I posed these questions to a skilled Thomist, who could not see the way out.)

2 comments:

Wes DeMarco said...

This is a good one. The answer, I think, has to do with causal dependence. God does have to be mentioned in the account of a good person, since a person is an intellectual substance and knowledge of God is the proper end of such a substance. It is the knife case that is more interesting. God doesn't have to be mentioned in the account of a good knife qua knife because the good of that genus needs no intrinsic reference to divine perfections. However, I do think that God would have to be mentioned in the account of a good knife qua good, so far as a metaphysical account of good must ultimately reference God as the final cause of all final causes. Therefore, in general, it is causal dependence that links the secondary (tertiary, etc.) to the primary. FOrmal cause--and hence definition--is pivotal to be sure in many cases, but it is not the only sort of causal dependence that can underwrite the connection at issue. I also think that we need to appeal to causal dependence to make sense of the way in which negative knowledge of God's essence by natural unaided reason is "proper" knowledge, as Aquinas maintains, since we are in effect judging that the imperfections of the effects are not found in the ultimate cause.

Wes DeMarco said...
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