Aquinas on being by Anthony John Patrick Kenny

By Anthony John Patrick Kenny

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Why may not the ability to form universal ideas belong to a corporeal agent, and thus be ‘a form imposed on matter as material forms are’? The one type of agent that we all know to exist which is capable of forming universal ideas is the human being: and human beings, during the one phase of their existence of which we have certain knowledge, are corporeal substances. In this passage, however, Aquinas is arguing not with those who, like twenty-first-century philosophers, might question whether the intellect enjoys the second type of disengagement from matter, but with predecessors and contemporaries who might question whether it enjoyed the first type.

In other words, if we correctly understand the definition of ‘God’, we will see that there is such a thing as God. This thesis is most naturally understood as concerning specific existence. It is a thesis that we will explore when we come to deal with Aquinas’ treatment of Anselm’s so-called ontological argument. In the present context it is more fruitful to ask whether we can make sense of the essence ϭ existence doctrine if we interpret existence not as specific but as individual existence. It can certainly be argued that individual existence is essential to God in a way in that it is not in the case of creatures.

For logical purposes, a sentence of the form ‘Fs exist’ is rewritten with the aid of a quantifier as ‘There is at least one x such that x is F’, or more simply as ‘Something is F’. An advantage of this form is that it makes more perspicuous the import of negative existential propositions such as ‘extra-terrestrial intelligences don’t exist’. If we take this as a straightforward subject–predicate sentence we seem to get into a muddle: for if the sentence is true there isn’t anything in the universe for the subject expression ‘extra-terrestrial intelligences’ to refer to, and so it is On Being and Essence: II  obscure what we are predicating non-existence of; whereas if we say ‘There is no x such that x is an extra-terrestrial intelligence’ or ‘nothing is an extra-terrestrial intelligence’, that problem disappears.

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