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

Book III. Attributes of Being.

Chapter I. Attributes of Being in General.

PREVIOUSLY to commencing the momentous discussions which will occupy us in the present Book, it will be necessary to offer certain Prolegomena touching the nature of the subject-matter in general and of the terms employed. More than half the difficulty in understanding a metaphysical question may be traced, in the majority of cases, either to an utter ignorance, or to a confused apprehension, of the point in dispute and, in particular, of its technological expression.


Wbat is an Attribute? The name suggests that it is something which is attributed or ascribed to another thing. Hence, in its most generic signification, it is equivalent to Predicable; and, indeed, it nominally suggests so much of a logical element, that it is not the word one would have selected, if the English language could have supplied a better. The Latin word ordinarily employed is Passio or Passion; and, though it cannot be so conveniently made use of in our own tongue in such a sense, because it already serves by general consent to express another widely different idea, it will, nevertheless, assist towards a more definite cognition of the subject in band, to analyze the meaning of Passion, when thus employed in connection with Being. Passion may be taken participially, as it were, or nominatively. In the former case it signifies the receiving of something; in the latter, the Something received. In either case it presupposes the some Thing which receives or is affected, and it also, -- particularly in its second signification, -- formally connotes something somehow received and, therefore, a sort of addition to the thing receiving. Whether it be understood participially or nominatively, it does this; but in the latter instance in recto, in the former in obliquo. For, The being affected by something, puts that Something in an oblique case; but, The something affecting something else, puts the Something in the nominative or direct case. Now, that Something should be affected by another, presupposes this Something as already constituted in its own essence; because a thing must first be, before it can be affected. Therefore the Passion which is received or added, cannot form, in any way part of the Essence of that thing; or, at least, does not enter into the notion of its Essence. Still, if it be a real Passion, it must he a real addition to the Essence; and it would seem, at first sight, as though it must be really distinct from the Essence to which it is really added. It looks, therefore, very much like what Logicians call a Property; and, indeed, that word has been often employed by the Latin Metaphysicians promiscuously with Passion. But, if the former word is to be limited to its strict meaning, as it appears in the list of Predicables; it always stands for the Attribute of a Genus or of a Species. While, then, the same objection must he made against it, only with greater reason, which has been already brought against Attribute, viz, that it is a logical term, there is the further objection that it belongs exclusively either to Genus or Species; and Being, as has been shown in the preceding Book, cannot possibly be one or the other, seeing that it is a Transcendental. Notwithstanding, if it be abstracted from such limitation, the term Property will help to give a clear idea of what is meant by the term, Attribute, as here employed; and Attribute itself under analysis offers the same elements as Passion, though under a logical form. For the preposition which enters into its composition, seems to advert to a sort of addition made to the Subject; which, accordingly, that Subject, (already constituted in its essential notes), is considered to receive.

To sum up, then: the term Attribute is intended to signify something added to an Essence, which is not either that Essence itself or any part of it, but is in some way or other received by that Essence as its Property.


Four conditions arc requisite in order that a thing may be a real and true attribute or property of something else:

a. It must itself be a real something; that is, it cannot be a mere logical entity. Otherwise, how could there be a real receiving or addition?

b. It must be somehow in its real nature distinct from that Essence of which it is a property. If it were not so, it would be the thing itself, -- a part at least of its Essence and, therefore, not its mere attribute.

c. It must be convertible with it; i.e. taking S for Subject and A for Attribute, these two enunciations must be eternally verified All S is A, and All A is S.

d. The subject must not enter into the essential and intrinsic constitution of the Attribute. Otherwise, it would be possible for an Essence to become in part an accident to itself; seeing that the Attribute is an accident to its subject. This last condition is unequivocally implied, if not expressed, by the Philosopher in his Metaphysics. These are his words: 'As concerning that which is predicated under the form of accident (for instance, the being musical or white) it is not true to say, because it has a double signification, (or two significates included under the term), that therefore the Essence and the Accident are the same. For, although that to which the accident of white belongs, is de facto that accident, so that there is in one sense an identity; nevertheless, not an identity of Essence and Accident. For, to be a man and to be a white man are not one and the same thing; but, by the information of the Passion or Attribute, they become one and the same'.{1} Aristotle's meaning in the above passage amounts to this: Accidents in the concrete include two things, viz., the Subject informed and the Accident informing. Thus, White means a white Something; that Something is the Subject, Whiteness is the Accident. Hence there is an objective identity; for, this man is white, and this white object is a man. But for the mere reason that a concrete accident includes the two, it is a mistake to suppose that the Accident is identical with the Essence; though there is an identity of supposit, because, from the nature of Accident, it inheres in that thing which is its Subject. And the identity of Supposit arises from the actual inhesion of the Accident in that other, according to the exigence of its Being.


All scientific knowledge, or Science considered as an intellectual habit, is the result of demonstration. But all pure demonstration proves the attribute of the given Subject by means of the efficient and material cause of the former, which is the Essence or Nature of the latter. Hence, the Middle Term of pure demonstration is the definition of the Subject. For, seeing that every property flows from the Essence of the Subject; it follows that this Essence will be the efficient cause of the Property or Attribute. But, if this be so, it is necessary to the possibility of Science that its object, whatever that may be, should have certain Attributes; and, moreover, that those Attributes should in some way or other be able to be demonstrated of their Subject. Since, then, in the preceding Book, the subject of Metaphysics has been accurately defined; the inquiry into the existence, number, and nature of its Attributes follows in natural order. This Prolegomenon, (which could more accurately have been described as a Scolion from the treatise on Demonstration in applied Logic), is of considerable importance to an understanding of the discussion on which we are about to enter.

The first question, then, that confronts us in the present inquiry, is this: Can Being have any Attributes? It is a sufficiently grave problem. For, since Being is the adequate object of Metaphysics; it will follow that, if Being has no Attributes, there can be no such thing as Metaphysical Science. Yet, at first sight, it would seem as though Being could not possibly have any real Attributes; for this reason. If the supposed Attributes or Properties are real, they are Some thing; but if they are Some thing, they are Being. If they are Being, Being enters essentially into the nature of its own Attributes; such Attributes, therefore, violate the fourth condition of an Attribute, as given under the second Prolegomenon. Furthermore, if Being enters essentially into the nature of its Attribute; the second condition, mentioned in the same Prolegomenon, will be violated, viz.,, that the Property must in its real nature be distinct from the Subject of which it is the Property. For, if such Attribute be not Being; it is no Being or Nothing, and ipso facto ceases to be a real Attribute. But, if it is Being; what real distinction can be discovered between it and its Subject? If, however, it should be asserted that it is a logical Attribute; then, the first condition is violated, which requires that it should itself be a real Something. Besides, in such case, Metaphysics would be a Science of mere concepts, not of things, -- would justly lose its supremacy as the Queen of Sciences, save for those to whom concept and reality are one and the same, -- and would become a mere province of Logic.

On the other hand, if the common sense of mankind is a worthy guide, (and woe to Philosophy if she reject it); there is something real in Unity, Truth, and Goodness. Most men will own, that these properties are no mere figments of the mind. Yet, they are reckoned in common estimation as Attributes of Being.

Such is the difficulty which imperatively demands a solution. But, before entering upon the investigation, it may be well to interpose a remark which will anticipate certain objections that might otherwise prove troublesome. It is one thing to maintain that an idea is representative of nothing outside the mind; it is another, to maintain that the objective reality, thus represented, is really distinct from the objective reality represented by another idea. Again: it is one thing to assert that the essential representation in an idea does not include this or that; it is another to assert that the object represented is not essentially included in, or does not include, that other. In a word, there are distinctions of reason, or logical distinctions, which have a real foundation and are expressive, after their manner, of a reality.

{1} To de kata sumbebêkos legomenon, oion mousikon hê leukon, dia to ditton sêmai nein, ouk alêthes eipein hôs tauto to ti en einai kai auto kai gar sumbebêke leukon kai to sumbebêkos, hôst esti men hôs tauton, esti de hôs ou tauto to ti ên einai kai auto tô men gar anthrôpô kai tô leukô anthrôpô ou tauto, tô pathei de tauto. Metaph. vi, 6, v. f.

<< ======= >>