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Monday, December 24, 2012

0257: The Self-Evident Connotation of the Actus Essendi (XVI)

Entry 0257: The Self-Evident Connotation of the Actus Essendi (XVI)

Throughout this journal, I have indicated how important it is to stress that “existence” and “actus essendi” are not the same, that the notion of “existence” responds to the question “an sit,” and that the expression “actus essendi” refers to a metaphysical principle. I have explained that instantiation of the “actus essendi” occurs in extramental subsisting things, and that, in material things, such instantiation is the most certain source of the knowledge a human being can have of the “existence” of something, when the human knower places himself in direct sense-contact with the extramental subsisting thing in question.

In the historical development of philosophical thought, Saint Thomas Aquinas is the philosopher who has best clarified the above issue. I have also indicated the similarity that exists between the historical contribution of Aquinas and Newton’s formulation of the gravitational law.

Ever since there were human beings on earth, everyone was experiencing the gravitational force, and the precise formulation of the law that Newton provided did not change in the least the way things are with respect to gravity. Similarly, the power of explanation given to Aquinas did not change in the least what had been occurring ever since there were human beings on earth. What was said above about “existence” and “actus essendi” is just the way things are in what concerns our intellect’s interaction with the real.

It is true that in ordinary everyday life quite often we describe the real with the term “existence,” and that only the specialist metaphysicians describe and study the real with the terminology of the “actus essendi.” Again this is similar to what happens with gravitation. The everyday terminology used to describe our constant interaction with the gravitational force is not the terminology used by the specialist physicists who do specialized research on gravitation.

Now, there is no question that in Aquinas (a) the notion of “ens” comes from the “actus essendi” of extramental subsisting things, that (b) the notion of “ens” is what first falls in the intellect, and that (c) the notion of “ens” has a direct relation to the question “an sit” in our first interaction with the real. But does this mean that Aquinas wanted our initial notion of “ens,” the “ens quod primo cadit in intellectus,” to have no relation with “actus essendi”?

The answer is no. Just as everyone always experiences gravitation without calling it “gravitation” in the technical sense of the term, everyone always experiences the metaphysical principle of “actus essendi” without using the technical terminology developed by Aquinas. Just as the experience of gravitation is not the exclusive prerogative of the specialist physicists, nor after nor before Newton, so also, it doesn’t make sense to say that the metaphysical principle of “actus essendi” is only experienced by polished metaphysicians.

If there is a doctrine clear in Aquinas, that is the doctrine that the notion of “ens” prevents the infinite regress in knowledge. This is obviously valid for both the so called “first operation” of the intellect, where “ens” is first, and also for the “second operation” of the intellect, where the principle “it is impossible at once to be and not to be” is first.

For Aquinas, basically, all our knowledge rests on the notion of “ens.” And since “ens ab actu essendi sumitur” all our knowledge ultimately rests on the “actus essendi” of extramental subsisting things.

Is it correct then to describe the notion of “ens” as a confused notion, as a vague notion, as a notion lacking in clarity, or as an imprecise notion? My answer to this question is also a definite no.

It seems obvious to me that Aquinas is not saying that all our knowledge rests on something vague and confused.

For Aquinas, it is unquestionable that all demonstration rests on a self-evident principle. And above all, Aquinas meant this to be valid not just for metaphysicians, but for everyone who reasons correctly.

In this regard, indeed, Aquinas stresses that the notion of “ens” is “notissimum,” meaning that there can be nothing more self-evident to the human intellect than the notion of “ens.” And again, since “ens ab actu essendi sumitur” there can be nothing more self-evident to the intellect than the “actus essendi.”

Borrowing the terminology that John F. Wippel has used to explain similar issues, I want to use here the expression “first in the order of discovery” to describe the fact that “actus essendi” is certainly what we first experience, but not what children can first formulate in clarified metaphysics. Similarly, “in the order of discovery” everyone should have enough experience of gravity to be careful when close to a precipice, but not the knowledge Newton had to formulate the principles of gravity in clarified physics. But the knowledge of gravity that everyone has is not a vague knowledge of gravity, nor a confused knowledge of gravity, nor an uncertain knowledge of gravity.

Aquinas’ statement that “that which is first apprehended or conceived by the intellect is being” was analyzed by Michael Tavuzzi in an article published by The Thomist in 1987. (See Michael Tavuzzi, "Aquinas on the Preliminary Grasp of Being," The Thomist 51 [1987]: 555-574.)

Tavuzzi points out correctly that the fact that we have a pre-metaphysical grasp of being “is beyond reasonable dispute” (Tavuzzi, p. 574). This pre-metaphysical grasp of being, Tavuzzi remarks, “is readily accessible to and the common possession of all men” (Tavuzzi, p. 573). There is in man a pre-metaphysical understanding of being which is operative in everyday life. (See Tavuzzi, p.557.)

It is the actuality of the real, accessible in everyday life, what “first confronts the intellect and which, indeed, ‘moves’ it” (Tavuzzi, pp. 567-568). This everyday encounter between the intellect and extra-mental reality is what gives content to our pre-metaphysical apprehension of being.

Tavuzzi also explains correctly, that our pre-metaphysical apprehension of being and our knowledge of the first indemonstrable principle are attained immediately by the intellect. This means that “seizure by the mind of this initial content of knowledge cannot be the result of a process of demonstrative, or in any way syllogistic-deductive, reasoning” (Tavuzzi, p. 566). We access being directly – immediately – through our everyday encounter with the real.

Tavuzzi, however, joins the group of Thomists who insist on saying that our pre-metaphysical apprehension of being is “vague and confused.”

But my conclusion is different. What needs to be emphasized here, rather, is that for Aquinas there was something “supremely obvious” – an expression that I borrow from Tavuzzi – about the pre-metaphysical grasp of being.