JMC : The Metaphysics of the School / by Thomas Harper, S.J.

Chapter I. The Genus of Metaphysics.

FOR one who has undertaken to write a work on any given subject, nothing can be of more vital importance than that he should at the outset afford an accurate definition of that concerning which he is about to treat. It serves to give clearness and precision to the after evolution of thought, since it begins by presenting the whole question, as it were, in a nutshell. Now, a logical definition is made up of the Genus and Differentia, or, as these would be respectively termed in Metaphysical phrase, the material and formal parts. The former represents a class or universal under which, equally with others, the object of definition is included; while the latter expresses the determining or differential addition which essentially distinguishes the same object from all the others included under the same class. Thus, for example, when man is defined to be a rational animal, the term animal denotes the class or order to which man belongs in common with bird, fish, quadruped, reptile, insect; while the adjective term rational exhibits that essential form which distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The present Chapter will be dedicated to a consideration of the Genus of Metaphysics.


Metaphysics is a science, properly so called. More than this, it is the highest science, or, in other words, Wisdom.

I. In THE FIRST MEMBER of the present Thesis it is asserted, that Metaphysics is a science properly so called. The last modifying clause has been introduced for the purpose of defining the sense in which the word science is here understood. This has become the more necessary, in that of late years the term has not only been misapplied to the imperfect inductions of physical experiment, but strangely enough has been more or less generally accepted as representative of these inductions only, to the exclusion of, and even in contradistinction to, the cognition of necessary and eternal truths. By science, then, in accordance with the philosophy of the School, is here understood the habit of demonstration otherwise the certain and evident cognition of things by their causes. From this latter definition it follows, that the middle term in the demonstrative syllogism must necessarily be one or other of the four causes; about which more anon.

That Metaphysics is a science, may be deduced from the enumeration of the intellectual habits as given by the philosopher in the sixth book of his Nicomachaean Ethics. These are, as he tells us, Understanding, Science, Wisdom, Art, and Prudence. But Metaphysics is neither Art nor Prudence; for Art is effective, Prudence is practical; while Metaphysics is purely speculative, In the first, and proportionally in the second, we pursue Truth for an ulterior end, using it merely as a means for the attainment of certain results; in the third, we pursue Truth simply and purely for its own sake. Again, it is equally plain that Metaphysics is not only Understanding or the habit of intuition; for this latter is conversant with principles or immediate and self-evident truths, and has nothing in common with any whatsoever process of ratiocination; whereas Metaphysics is principally demonstrative. There only remain, tben, Science and Wisdom. Which of the two is Metaphysics? The Peripatetic would reply, It is both the one and the other.

Further, all certain and evident cognition of things by their causes is Science, properly so called. But Metaphysics is a certain and evident cognition of things by their causes. For not only is the investigation into the nature of causes its own exclusive function; but it likewise demonstratively, and therefore, certainly d evidently, deduces from the causes, thus scientifically cognized, its conclusions touching the nature, conditions, attributes, constitives, modifications of Being. It follows, therefore, that Metaphysics is truly and properly a science.

II. Metaphysics is not only a science; it is also the highest science, or Wisdom. The truth of this last Member of the Proposition is evinced by a threefold declaration.

i. There is this primary distinction between the intuitive habits and Science on the one hand and Wisdom on the other, that the latter comprises in itself the other two. The scientific habit is purely ratiocinative. It is not master of its own principles or fundamental premisses. These are reserved for the understanding or habit of intuition; and as the premisses must, from the nature of the case, surpass the demonstrative conclusions of which they are the cause, it follows that the understanding must in a corresponding manner surpass science in order of rank and excellence. It would he vain, then, to claim for Metaphysics the highest place among the intellectual habits, unless it were something more than simple science; otherwise, it would of necessity be surpassed by that intuitive habit to which, under such a hypothesis, it would stand indebted for its primary premisses.

But, again, Wisdom differs from intuition, in that it is contemplative of mediate as well as of immediate truths. Nay, more, it not only deduces conclusions by process of scientific reason; but it proves first principles themselves, not indeed by ostensive demonstration, (for that would be a contradiction in terms, seeing that ostensive demonstration supposes a real middle term, and so first principles would no longer be first principles), but by the reductio ad absurdum. And this is a principal reason why science rather than intuition is pronounced to be the Genus of Wisdom; even though the latter, exclusively considered, assumes by right the higher place.

Wisdom, lastly, differs from science, not only for that it comprehends within itself the habits intuitive of its own first principles; but also because, while each science deals with a separate and particular sphere of truth, Wisdom embraces the universe of Being within its field of view. But these distinct attributes of wisdom are discoverable in Metaphysics, and in Metaphysics only; consequently, Metaphysics is the supreme science, or wisdom, in the natural order.

ii. That science which treats of the highest truths, -- which investigates the nature and properties of causes as such, -- whose object includes within itself all Being, -- whose investigations are principally directed to things immaterial and spiritual and, among these, primarily to that one Being who is the supreme Reason and efficient and final Cause of the rest, -- which includes within itself the habit of its own first principles, is the highest science or Wisdom. But all these attributes are claimed for Metaphysics. Assuredly, it has in these respects the right of possession; nor has there as yet appeared any other science which has ventured on such claims. It will be well, however, to confirm the Minor of the syllogism more explicitly. Wherefore,

1. Truths assume a higher excellence, in proportion to their elevation above the reach of matter. One reason of this is, that by how much they recede from matter, by so much are they assimilated as its objects to the subjective faculty of thought and, therefore, become proportionately intelligible. Another reason may be added, which is this: The further a truth is removed from contingency and from the limitations of space and time, the more complete is its stability and in consequence the nobler its rank. But a truth is more remote from contingency and more fully liberated from the conditions of space and time, in proportion as its freedom from matter is absolute. Now, certain truths there are which may be called material facts. These are wholly wedded to matter, and form the adequate object of Physics. There are other truths which are derived indeed from matter, but from matter free of that concrete imperfection which characterises its actual existence in nature and its intrinsic constitution. It is accordingly denominated by the ancients intelligible matter, -- matter, i.e. so purified by process of abstraction as to have become a proper object of intellectual cognition. Such truths are far removed from contingency; because they are the eternal and immutable laws of space and time, -- the necessary forms of matter, just as Second Intentions are the necessary laws or forms of thought. These are the adequate object of Mathematics. There are likewise truths which are conversant with the nature and conditions of the visible world, considered as an existing fact. These are the object of Cosmology. Again, there are truths that regard the nature and condition of man, considered as an existing fact. These are the object partly of Ethics (including under the term Oeconomics and the political science), partly of Anthropology and therein notably of Psychology. Finally, there is a universe of omnipresent truths, which have little or nothing in common with either sensible or intelligible matter, though often to be found hidden under both, which are free by nature or abstraction from all modifications of time or space, which reveal the essences of things without regard to their actual existence, and which include spiritual natures and Him, in particular, who is Head, as their primary object. These form the subject-matter of Metaphysics. Since, then, a science is differentiated by its formal object and thence receives rank and excellence, it follows that among the real sciences Physics holds the lowest place; Mathematics, a higher; Cosmology, a higher still; Ethics and Anthropology, a yet higher; Metaphysics, the highest.

2. While Metaphysics is the science of Being in general, as such; its peculiar object, nevertheless, is Being that is in its own nature immaterial and spiritual. But in the hierarchy of truths these necessarily claim the foremost place.

3. Metaphysics has received from Aristotle the name of the Divine Science. And that philosopher gives as reason for the appellation, that this Science most nearly resembles the Divine, and that it proposes to itself God and the things of God as the foremost Object of contemplation.

4. Metapbysics embraces the doctrine of causation, which lies at the root of all scientific cognition.

5. It is the sole guardian and champion of first principles.

iii. The second member of the Proposition is further confirmed by an argument borrowed from the special properties of Wisdom, which the Philosopher reduces to the six following. 1. Wisdom in a way treats about all things. 2. It is versed in questions of more than ordinary difficulty, and further removed from sensile perception. 3. It is gifted with greatest certainty of cognition. 4. It is best adapted for teaching. 5. It is most worthy of desire and pursuit for its own sake. 6. It is paramount over the sister sciences. Now all the fore-mentioned properties of Wisdom are the appanage of Metaphysics; seeing that they either exclusively belong to it or, if one or other of them can be claimed by other sciences, nevertheless even these are legitimately reputed as its own, because within its sphere they acquire a singular perfection and independence, as for other reasons, so in particular by reason of their fellowship with the rest of the above-named properties. The doctrine of the Philosopher, which supplies the Major of this confirmatory declaration, requires further elucidation.

1. The explanation of the first-mentioned property, which postulates a universality of object, will find its more fitting place in the next Proposition. 2. That Wisdom should be versed in questions of greater difficulty and further removed from sensile perception, may be safely left to the verdict of common sense; for who would ever dream of calling that man wise, whose knowledge was confined to those obvious truths which are more or less the heritage of all men, and require no special intellectual culture for their perception? 3. When it is added that Wisdom possesses the highest certainty of cognition, it is worthy of remark that this of necessity involves the highest degree of evidence; for, since certainty is the legitimate offspring of evidence, it follows that such as is the evidence, such will be the certainty. Where, therefore, there is truly the greatest subjective certainty, there likewise must be found the greatest objective evidence. Now it is of the nature of a science that its cognition should be certain; for it is this which essentially distinguishes it from assumption or opinion. If, then, certainty of cognition is an indispensable requisite of all science, it follows that the head science should boast of the highest certainty. 4. No one can properly be said to know a thing, unless he is acquainted with its causes; for without such knowledge he knows not the thing, but the fact merely -- a cognition which hardly rises above the level of sensile perception. But no one is fitted to teach what he does not know: hence a man is capable of teaching, in proportion to his thorough acquaintance with the causes of his subject-matter. Science gives to its possessor a capacity for teaching in proportion to the wider and firmer grasp it gives him of the causes of things. But, if this be so, then that science, which includes the doctrine of universal causation within the sphere of its subject-matter, must needs supply the fittest and highest qualification for the office of a teacher. 5. The fifth characteristic requires no comment; for it is evident that, among the speculative sciences, that one which affords a wider and deeper insight into truths of the highest order, must be the most desirable for its own sake. 6. That Wisdom must be pre-eminent among the sciences, is likewise plain enongh; but it is by no means so plain what sort of pre-emindnce it is that is claimed for her. Is it such as would interfere with the autonomy of the other sciences? Is Wisdom the one subalternant science, and are all the rest subalternate to her? This last question provokes an explanation which will subserve to a solution of the supposed difficulty. In the catalogue of sciences there are some that are inferior to, because fundamentally dependent upon, others. The cause of such dependence mainly consists in this, that the first principles of the former are not axiomatic or self-evident truths, but are borrowed from a higher science in which they form the conclusion of a demonstrative syllogism. They are taken for granted by the one, because they are scientifically proved by the other. Thus perspective and music borrow their first principles from the higher science of mathematics. If the inquiry should be pushed a step further, and it should be asked whether there is any special reason or known foundation in the nature of things for this dependency; it must be said that it is due to a corresponding dependence inherent in the respective formal objects of each science. To put it more clearly: wherever such dependence exists, it will be found that the material object of both sciences is the same; but that in the case of the inferior science a certain accidental difference is added, (accidental, that is, to the quiddity of the material object), which suffices to constitute in the order of cognition a formal object specifically distinct from that of the superior science. Thus, for instance, number enters into the formal object of mathematics; sounded number is the formal object of music. So, the line enters equally into the formal object of mathematics; the visual line is the formal object of perspective. But an accidental difference, in the sense already explained, must intrinsically depend upon the principles of its subject. Hence, on the other hand, where there is an essential diversity between the material objects of any two sciences; it is impossible that such dependence should exist in the formal object and, consequently, in the science contemplative of either. Wherever there is such dependence of one science on another, the inferior is called the subalternate, the superior the subalternant. Is this, then, the position which Wisdom is supposed to occupy in relation to the other sciences? Most assuredly not. Such an assumption would at once collapse before the logic of facts; for who is there foolish enough to suppose that Mathematics, for instance, borrows its first principles from without, or that those axioms are capable of ostensive proof? Wisdom does not encroach upon the liberty of her sister sciences within their proper sphere; and leaves them perfectly free to pursue their several conclusions from the principles peculiar to their own subject-matter. In this respect her pre-eminence is rather a pre-eminence of rank; nevertheless, it is not absolutely this only. For, though she respects the autonomy of the rest within their own limits; yet she supports and strengthens them by virtue of her fundamental principles which dominate all Being, and she defends their first premisses against the cavils of scepticism.

That these characteristics belong to Metaphysics (which is the Minor of the syllogism), is a fact only to be realized by patient submission to her teaching.


I. In the confirmatory proof adduced in favour of the second part of this Thesis, it has been asserted that Wisdom deals with matters which are more difficult of apprehension and further removed from sensile perception. But this assertion is at war with itself, and is directly opposed to the teaching of the Philosopher. It is at war with itself; for the most abstract and universal ideas are evidently those which are furthest removed from mere sensible perception, since all objects of the senses are concrete and individual. Yet Peripatetic Ideology teaches that abstract and universal truths are the proper object of the human intellect, and are therefore more easily apprehended by it than those individual facts which are presented to it through the medium of the senses. It is, in the second place, directly opposed to the teaching of Aristotle, who states, in the First Book of his Physics, that in science we must proceed from the higher universals to particulars, because we must begin with what we know best, and the higher universals are best known to us. This doctrine of the Philosopher is confirmed by experience. For the child, when it first sees a watch or other sensible object, begins by seizing the idea of thing; nor, till years afterwards, does it fully comprehend the nature of a watch. Yet thing is the very highest universal.

ANSWER. This difficulty admits of easy solution. Universal ideas are of two kinds. There are universal ideas which are direct and primitive; others that are reflex and scientific. The former are rude, confused, potential, such as is the idea which a child forms of thing; the latter are philosophic, clear, distinct, explicit, In the process of mental development, we begin with the former and end with the latter. But in scientific inquiry touching the causes and properties of things, the truths which are less universal are the first cognized; since it is with the aid of theses that the mind is enabled to arrive at the higher universals. In this way the contradiction disappears {1}

II. A difficulty occurs as to the third characteristic of Wisdom, or Metaphysics; for it is anything but plain, that it is gifted with greatest certitude of cognition. Indeed, the reverse would seem nearer to the truth. Take Mathematics. Its axioms or first principles are all but unrivalled in the clearness of their evidence its conclusions are deduced from these by the most rigid demonstration. Its formal object is not wholly removed from sensile perception; yet is in its entirety necessary, immutable, eternal. Indeed, the common consent of philosophers allows to Mathematics a certitude and evidence which in the natural order cannot be surpassed. Then, again, as all human knowledge is primitively derived from the senses and sensile perception, and to a certain extent is dependent on these throughout; it would seem as though clearness and certainty must proceed from the same source. By how much, therefore, the formal object of a science is remote from sense; by so much is that science likely to lose in certitude of cognition. Now, the formal object of Metaphysics is wholly separate from all that is material and sensile; whereas Mathematics is exclusively occupied with the laws or forms of material quantity. Lastly, the Philosopher repeatedly insists on the distinction between truths that are evident absolutely or in their own nature, and such as are evident to us, maintains that they are in inverse proportion to each other, and states emphatically, in the Second Book of his Metaphysics, that our intellectual vision, in presence of the former class, resembles that of a bat in the sunlight.

ANSWER. These difficulties are weighty, and demand the fullest investigation. First of all, then, let it be observed that Metaphysics consists of two principal parts; one of which considers Being, the other the primary determinations of Being. Confining ourselves for the moment to the former of these, it cannot be doubted that Metaphysics excels the rest of the sciences, Mathematics included, in certainty of cognition. For, regarded in such wise, it deals with primary and fundamental truths which permeate the universe of Reality and are independent of all lower orders of truth; while these, on the contrary, are dependent upon them. Furthermore, the difficulty of apprehending them at the first, arising from their abstract and immaterial nature, is in the long run more than compensated by the simplicity of the subject-matter, consequent on the reduction of the multiform and complex, by continual process of abstraction, to the simplest and fewest elements. The same may be said of its fundamental principles, the great Dignities (to use a logical phrase) of all science; for they, too, are few in number and most simple in expression. Lastly, there is no science whose first principles do not owe all their strength in ultimate analysis to these primary Metaphysical canons; and consequently, the certitude of the former has its being in the evidence and certitude of the latter. Nor can it be granted for one moment, that all evidence and certainty are formally and immediately derived from sensile perception; though it is true that they are so derived, as one may say, occasionally; inasmuch as, at the first, sensile perception occasions the presence to the mind of those intellectual truths, imbedded in it, which rejoice in their own proper evidence, and, by that evidence, generate certainty of cognition. It may be as well to add, for the sake of greater clearness, that there are two kinds of certitude, each essentially distinct from the other; viz. sensile and rational. The former does immediately depend upon the senses; but not the latter. It is necessary, in the actual order, that we should gain our first idea of two, for example, and of a pair of twos from sensile perception; but there are few who would be rash enough to maintain that the evidence or certainty of the judgment, Two and two make four, is dependent on any collection, however multiplied, of sensile pairs of pairs.

It is when we come to consider the second part of Metaphysics, which investigates the primary determinations of Being, that the real difficulty begins. Let it not escape us, however, before proceeding further, that the question is already practically settled. For the nobility and pre-eminence of a science are measured by the nobility and pre-eminence of its principal formal object; so that the claims of Wisdom or Metaphysics to the possession of the highest certitude are already established, if the previous conclusions are correct. With this reservation, let us consider the difficulty under this its second aspect.

The problem, then, is this: can Metaphysics, when treating of the primary determinations of Being, claim for itself a greater certainty of cognition than belongs to the Mathematical or any other science? Are its first principles in this particular portion of its work, and consequently the conclusions which it demonstrates from these, more evident and certain than those of any other science? At first sight it would seem not. The logic of facts is against it. For pure mathematical demonstrations are irrefragable. They admit of no doubt and, as a fact, no one doubts them. But Metaphysical conclusions such, for instance, as those touching the primary constituents of material substance, the existence and nature of accidents, the Being of God, and the like, are so far from being undoubted, that, now more than ever, the philosophical student is perplexed with the multitude of opposing schools, each proposing a theory on these matters different from its rivals. To take the one question touching the nature of primordial matter: there are the atomic and dynamic theories, with their respective varieties, there is the Peripatetic theory, there is the Idealistic; all mutually opposed and too often advocated, not without show of temper. But this could not be the case, if the Metaphysical conclusions on these and kindred points were equally evident, equally certain with pure mathematical demonstration. How, then, can it be that the certainty of the former surpasses that of the latter? In considering this difficulty there is something to be premised, which will materially lessen its weight. Mathematical deductions are not of a nature to excite human passions and human prejudices; Metaphysical deductions, such as we are now considering, are. Those are purely formal; while these are specially real and have their bearing upon every other science. Thus it comes to pass, that the will plays a part prominently in these philosophical controversies. Prejudice in favour of a particular School or of a particular Professor, love of novelty, impatience of the just authority of the past, that intellectual egoism which, wedded to its own favourite branch of knowledge, would fain make it the final measure of all truth to the subversion of scientific order, an ambition of reputed originality, distaste for a patient labour of thought and a premature desire to escape from a state of pupilage, disbelief in the responsibility of thought, national and theological prepossessions, the tyranny of passions, -- these, and many others such as they, enfeeble, or even deform, the minds of those who have entered upon Metaphysical speculations; whereas they have no appreciable influence on the study of Mathematics. Still, after making all due allowance for the action of these disturbing causes, it must be owned that many of the conclusions in this part of Metaphysics yield to Mathematical demonstration in the measure of their certainty. Nor does the concession in any wise rob Metaphysics of this its third characteristic. For it still preserves the supremacy of certitude in its principal subject-matter; and, even in the second part, many of its deductions can boast of an equal degree of certitude; while those which are less certain and evident, trace the loss to no defect of evidence in the object, but rather to a disproportion between the grandeur of the objected truth on the one hand and the weakness of the human mind on the other. Hence it is that this partial diminution of certainty tends only to heighten the surpassing nobility of the Metaphysical science by revealing the nobility of even its secondary object.{2}

III. It may fairly be doubted whether Metaphysics possesses that superior aptitude for teaching which has been claimed for it. For such aptitude is founded in the greater ability of a science to demonstrate the attributes or passions of its Subject by its causes. When a man knows, and therefore can convey to others, the why and wherefore of the properties of things, he is fit to teach. But every science, properly so called, demonstrates by its own proper causes, and can consequently claim an equal aptitude for teaching. Neither is it enough to say, that the object and causes which Metaphysics contemplates are more sublime and excelling. For this, though it may with reason be advanced in support of the pre-eminence of that science, has no bearing on its aptitude for teaching, which is affected, not by the excellence of the subject matter, but by the proportion of the effect to its proper cause.

ANSWER. It is undeniably true that every science does demonstrate by the causes of its object. But in the instance of all the other sciences those causes are not primarily independent; on the contrary, they are subordinate to a higher order of causation. There cannot, therefore, be that adequate proportion between cause and effect, which the ultimate causes will exhibit. It follows that the science which investigates these primary or ultimate causes, (primary in order of nature, ultimate in order of logical analysis), will possess a greater aptitude for teaching.

{1} The above is the solution of the difficulty which the Angelic Doctor gives. 'Magis universalia secundum simplicem apprehensionem primo sunt nota. Nam primo in intellectu cadit ens, ut dicit Avicenna; . . . sed quantum ad investigationem universalium proprietatum et causarum, prius sunt nota minus communia, eo quod per causas particulares quae sunt unius generis et speciei, pervenimus in causas universales.' Opusc. LIII, (aliter XLIX), v.f.

{2} The Angelic Doctor offers a similar solution of this point of the difficulty. He says, 'Philosophus dicit in I. de Anima, Una notitia praefertur alteri, aut ex eo quod est nobiliorum, aut propter certitudinem. Si igitur subjecta sint aequalia in bonitate et nobilitate, illa quae est certior erit major virtus; sed illa quae est minus certa de altioribus et majoribus, praefertur ei quae est magis certa de inferioribus rebus.' I. 2ae. lxvi. 5, ad 3m.

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