Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


The constant reader of Thomas Aquinas is amazed at the mileage the saint gets out of a minimal vocabulary. Certain words are used over and over again, in a variety of contexts, and it is not always easy to see why. Persistence leads to the conviction that there is method behind this parsimony. We talk about things insofar as we know them. Thomas likes to repeat, and the connections between the uses of the same term can thus reveal the order in which we came to know.

Variations on Form

We have a good instance of this if we reflect on the way in which the terms "form" and "matter" have been used, first as meaning, respectively, the shape of a thing and the material, particularly wood, that is shaped. These meanings are ready to hand from the work of the woodsman, the whittler, the birdhouse builder. These are products of human art, but we see that the artisan is reshaping the natural material and it is the smallest of steps to speak of the product of natural change as composed of mater and form.

In this use, the matter is no longer wood alone; it can be any natural thing or substance that undergoes change. Form is not merely external shape, but comes to mean such things as temperature and texture and color; it means the size and weight of a thing; it means its place. A thing thus has many forms. That is, a natural substance acquires variety of characteristics as the result of various changes and we can say in each case that it is a subject or matter that has acquired a new form.

These same terms were then extended to the elements of substantial change. Aristotle said that prime matter is known by analogy. We set up a series of proportions, thus. Shape (Socrates); Red (Plato); Here (Thelma); Heavy (Fifi); Human (X). The advantage of the procedure is this. Should you wonder what Thomas means by "form" speaking of that which makes Socrates to be a man, you might be told that this is just some Aristotelian technical jargon he has picked up. This is libelous. Aristotelian prose is almost wholly free of jargon. It is what attracted Thomas to him. The correct assuagement of your wonderment is to say, "The use of 'form' to speak of what Socrates makes human puzzles, as it should. But think of the way in which we can distinguish things by their shapes. Here are some blocks. Some are round, some are square, some are triangles. You can see on the box that they were made by Ota Toy in Japan. By some process or other this shape was imposed on this plastic, triangular shaped, square shaped, etc."

You may feel condescended to, but the art of teaching consists of tactful condescension. It is finding a point where the inquirer no longer wonders and proceeding from there back to what caused a problem. The very language of the tradition in which Thomas moves is meant to carry with it the history of its uses, not as an impediment, but as a precious illumination of the way in which later uses of the term grow out of earlier ones.

And the earlier ones bear on matters which are more easily known by human beings. If someone has trouble with the blocks, his trouble is more likely to be with English than with shapes. You discover he is a native speaker of Tagalog. Slipping into this crude but serviceable tongue, you swiftly establish contact with him.

The same terms are used to analyze coming to see and coming to know. In coming to see, the sense power as subject or matter acquires a new form; in coming to know, the intellect as subject or matter acquires a new form. There will be further extensions of these terms as well. For example, Thomas and Bonaventure will ask whether angels have matter as well as form.

Act and potency represent another set of correlatives that a long and connected history in Aristotle and Thomas.


What if someone objects that this is merely making a fuss over metaphor. He will ask us to notice that the form received by mind when it comes to know has long been called a concept. This suggests that coming to know is like having a baby; it is a process of conception or conceiving which results in a child of the mind. Why not just call this, and the use of form and matter much touted above, metaphorical usage and go on to serious matters?

In a similar way, the form of the mind is called an idea. The etymology of this is from the verb 'to see'. The idea is what the mind sees. But what of the extension of 'see' from sense perception to a mental grasp? Is that a metaphor? When Conrad in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, says that his task as a writer is above all to make us see, he is scarcely thinking of his uncanny ability to create an image. More than most writers, Conrad want us to understand what it is to be a human agent.

So when we say, "I don't see it" when someone explains something to us in arithmetic, we are unlikely to mean either what we do with our eyes or with our imagination.

But what is the problem? We imagined someone dismissively describing what we are doing as a going on and on about mere metaphor. What is metaphor? (I will not insult you by repeating the mot, "If physics were all, what's a metaphor?) A metaphor is the use of the name of one thing to speak of another. That is roughly Aristotle's definition in the Poetics. Sometimes the thing spoken of metaphorically has a name of its own. A variation of an Aristotelian example would be this. A golfer whose ball has gone into the woods sardonically asks his caddy for a number 9 axe. So too a woodsman might ask his assistant for a nine iron when he needs to clear away underbrush. The golf club is like the axe in that it is the instrument of the golfer. The axe is like the golf club, not because of the chips you can make with it, but because it is the instrument of the woodsman. Aristotle sets this kind of metaphor as based on an analogy or proportionality.

club axe

golfer woodsman

Metaphor results from the ability to see connections that might be overlooked. A fresh metaphor surprises with its fittingness. It tells us something. The metaphor is an essential element in poetic discourse. It takes us from one thing to another in such a way that the first casts light on the second.

If as the two of us watch Fifi walking rhythmically away I murmur that Fifi is a centrifugal bumblepuppy you are unlikely to catch my meaning, assuming I have one. Metaphors work only if the term extended is more known than the thing it is extended to.

Why else are metaphors so concrete, sensual, palpable? They put the matter before our eyes (another Aristotelian remark) by using words whose meaning is some sensible thing. We see it in the sense of imaging it, and then we see in a further sense, see the connection, see the way the thing spoken of metaphorically is illumined by being likened to something else. A haughty demeanor is caught by the word 'supercilious' making raised eyebrows the sign of the inner attitude.

So the objector has put his finger on an important point. Metaphors illumine, teach, connect. The etymology of 'metaphor' itself is to transfer, to transport. Moving trucks in Greece have METAPHORA emblazoned on their sides. We carry a word from the thing to which it belongs and lay it on another thing 'Metaphor' is a metaphor.


Some things spoken of metaphorically have names of their own. But sometimes this is not the case. A word whose meaning is already known is used to speak of something we come to know but which does not yet have a name. We could call it 'phlengo', of course, randomly taking any sound,, but to do that would be to lose the route that took us to it. To do that would be to create a technical vocabulary, a jargon. If Aristotle had called the principle of life the phlengo, the made-up term would, of course, have no associations that could help us understand him. In fact, he chose psyche, breath, naming the soul from a sign and effect of its presence.

The limitation of metaphor is that it tells us what something is like, not what it is. Similes are overt metaphors, so to say, and when the poet plangently pleads that his love is like a red red rose we reel in emotional response. But what does it mean? All the nice things we associate with a freshly bloomed rose are somehow attached to Fifi LaRue. But what is she really like?

It is thanks to its meaning that a term is applied to a subject, and if the subject does not exhibit the meaning in a straightforward way we may nonetheless accept the remark, even marvel at its fittingness. Fifi is a rose. But we would scarcely say that 'rose' now has a new meaning according to which it can be applied to pretty girls. Look up 'rose' in the dictionary and you will not find pretty girl among the meanings listed. That is one way to see that a metaphor is involved. The term means something thanks to which it straightforwardly applies to A (this flower). When it is used of B (Fifi, of course), this is because of what we associate with things which are straightforwardly named by the term.

To be spoken of metaphorically is to share a term with other things but not to gain a direct and independent claim on the term in question. Is that what is going on when Aristotle and Thomas use 'form' and 'matter' in the way we recalled above? Is the form of the mind called a form only metaphorically? (We now know what 'only metaphorically' means.) Not necessarily. Metaphors sometimes prepare for another and more informative sharing of the same term.

"Things are said to be named equivocally when, though they share a common name, the name means different things as used of each of them" That is the opening sentence in the Works of Aristotle as arranged by the Bekker in the nineteenth-century. When King Arthur cries, "Bring me my mail!" one servant brings him letters and another a suit of armor, thereby setting the table all aroar. Arthur's battle costume and his correspondence are both called 'mail'. They share the term. The term has one meaning as applied to armor, and another as applied to the post. In this case, it just happens that the same English word has these two meanings. There is no connection between the meanings. The term is equivocal. Both servants know English, they know the two meanings of 'mail', but one picked up the wrong signal in the context of the command. Arthur did not shout with the intention of being understood in both ways.

If a term is used equivocally when it has several meanings which are unrelated to one another, a term is used univocally when it is common to several things according to the same meaning. To speak of the armor of Arthur and of Prince Valiant as 'mail' is to use the term univocally. The same term has the same meaning in the two uses.

Metaphor is neither equivocation -- the term used metaphorically does not have another meaning that explains the use -- nor of course univocation. But there is another way in which a term can be shared which is like metaphor. Aristotle calls this controlled equivocation, Thomas calls it analogy. A term is used analogously when it has several meanings, one of which is primary and the focus of the others. Thomas regularly employs Aristotle's example of 'healthy'. I say that Fifi is healthy, that her complexion is healthy, that her diet is healthy. The common term here does not have one and same meaning in all its uses. But neither are we likely to say that there is simply a plurality of unrelated meanings. Anything is denominated healthy from health. Fifi has healthy, her complexion is a sign of the health she has and her diet ensures that she will keep it. The focal meaning is 'having the quality of health'. The other meanings presuppose and refer to this one.

It is this kind of controlled equivocation, an equivocation involving a focal meaning, or analogy that characterizes the language of the philosophical tradition in which Thomas moves. It is what controls his many uses of the same term, extending it in such a way that its meaning becomes a ladder on which we can mount from the easy and obvious to the difficult and obscure. This way of using terms -- Thomas calls it analogous usage -- is crucial in extending our knowledge beyond the physical to substances which exist without matter and ultimately to God.


On Naming God

I say that, as was pointed out, we know God from the perfections which come from Him to creatures, which perfections are indeed in God in a more eminent mode than they are in creatures. Our intellect, however, grasps them as they are in creatures and signifies them by words in the way they are grasped. That is why there are two things to be considered in names attributed to God, the perfections signified themselves -- goodness, life, and the like -- and the way of signifying them. With respect to what names of this kind signify, they belong properly to God, and more properly than to creatures and are said first of Him, but with respect to the mode of signifying they are not properly said of God, since they have a mode of signifying which is tied to creatures.

Some names signify such perfections which proceed from God to creatures in such a way that the imperfect way in which the creature participates in divine perfection is included in the very meaning of the word, as 'stone' signifies something existing materially; such names can only be said of God metaphorically. But some names signify the perfections absolutely without any mode of participating being included in their meaning, like 'being,' 'good,' and 'living' and such words are properly said of God.

-- Summa theologiae,' First Part, Question 13, article 3

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