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Monday, May 12, 2014

0352: The Self-Evident Connotation of the
Actus Essendi (XVII)

Entry 0352: The Self-Evident Connotation of the
Actus Essendi

In the De veritate, question 1, article 1, Aquinas affirms that the notion of ens is the most self-evident notion (notissimum) for the human intellect. In one of his explanations of this affirmation Aquinas remarks that

Sicut in demonstrabilibus oportet fieri reductionem in aliqua principia per se intellectui nota, ita investigando quid est unumquodque; alias utrobique in infinitum iretur, et sic periret omnino scientia et cognitio rerum.

That is to say,

“When investigating the nature of anything, one should proceed in the same way one proceeds in demonstrations: Just as in the demonstration of a conclusion one must ultimately begin from a self-evident principle that requires no demonstration, so also in the establishing of the nature of something one must ultimately begin from a self-evident notion. Otherwise, both types of knowledge will become involved in an infinite regress, and science and our knowledge of things will perish” (De veritate, question 1, article 1, corpus).

It is after this remark that Aquinas proclaims:

Illud autem quod primo intellectus concipit quasi notissimum, et in quod conceptiones omnes resolvit, est ens.

That is to say,

“That which the intellect first conceives as, in a way, the most self-evident, and that which the intellect links as prior (or simultaneous) knowledge to the knowledge of all other concepts, is ens” (De veritate, question 1, article 1, corpus).

The observation that the primary conceptions of ens and of the first indemonstrable principle prevent knowledge form falling into an infinite regress goes all the way back to Aristotle.

Here I want to focus briefly on the issue of infinite regress by quoting an insightful comment by William A. Wallace:

“The use of the term ‘foreknowledge’ (praecognitio) when speaking of the requirements for demonstration arises from one of Aristotle’s statements at the beginning of the Posterior Analytics wherein he asserts that one cannot communicate knowledge to another without presupposing that the latter knows something beforehand. Such previous knowledge must be gained independently of the demonstration being proposed, since anyone who lacks a sufficient fund of information to assent to (or disagree with) the premises will be unable to pass from them to the conclusion they imply. Not only this, but at least some preexistent knowledge will have to be attained independently of any demonstration whatever, since the very nature of demonstration as generating true and necessary knowledge requires that not everything that is known can be demonstrated. Were this so, one could never demonstrate anything at all, since every premise would in turn have to be demonstrated, setting up an infinite regress, and nothing could ever be known as true” (W. A. Wallace, Galileo and His Sources [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 101)