View Articles

Monday, December 1, 2014

0382: Actus Essendi as the Primary Signification
of the Verb 'Est'

Entry 0382: Actus Essendi as the Primary Signification
of the Verb 'Est'

Concerning the well known text from the commentary of Aquinas to Aristotle’s Perihermeneias (book I, lecture 5), Jan A. Aertsen remarks that in this text Aquinas clearly indicates the primary meaning of the verb “est (“esse”). Thus Aertsen writes:

Thomas is intrigued by the fact that Aristotle speaks of the consignification of is, which consists in its function as copula. Yet consignification presupposes a primary meaning. What is the principal signification of is, on which the consignification depends? His answer is:

“‘[Hoc verbum “est”] significat enim primo illud quod cadit in intellectu per modum actualitatis absolute: nam “est,” simpliciter dictum, significat in actu esse; et ideo significat per modum verbi. Quia vero actualitas, quam principaliter significat hoc verbum “est,” est communiter actualitas omnis formae, vel actus substantialis vel accidentalis, inde est quod cum volumus significare quamcumque formam vel actum actualiter inesse alicui subiecto, significamus illud per hoc verbum “est” (…) Et ideo ex consequenti hoc verbum est significat compositionem’ (In I Perihermeneias, lecture 5).

This text,” Aertsen continues, is central for grasping Thomas’s understanding of being. The primary significance of is, Thomas states, is to be in act, and he draws from this the conclusion that therefore it signifies after the manner of the verb. This conclusion points to the considerations guiding Thomas’s line of thought.

The verb is the subject matter of chapter three of Perihermeneias. Proper to the verb is to signify something after the manner of an action or passion:

… proprium autem verbi est, ut significet actionemest enim proprium verbi significare aliquid per modum actionis vel passionis (In I Perihermeneias, lecture 5).

The verb to be must therefore also bring to expression some activity. But Thomas sees a fundamental difference between to be and the other verbs. Other verbs, like to run, signify accidental actions. Esse, however, is not a secondary act, but the primary:

“‘Actio enim est proprie actualitas virtutis; sicut esse est actualitas substantiae vel essentiae’ (Summa theologiae, part I, question 54, article 1, corpus).

“[Also: ‘Esse non dicit actum qui sit operatio transiens in aliquid extrinsecum temporaliter producendum, sed actum quasi primum; velle autem dicit actum secundum, qui est operatio’ (De veritate, question 23, article 4, ad 7).]

Esse is the prerequisite condition of every act, the actuality of every form or act. Esse is the actuality of all things, since it is related to everything as act. Nothing has actuality except insofar as it is:

… ipsum esse est perfectissimum omnium, comparatur enim ad omnia ut actus. Nihil enim habet actualitatem, nisi inquantum est, unde ipsum esse est actualitas omnium rerum (Summa theologiae, part I, question 4, article 1, ad 3).

From the principal signification of is, its copulative function must be understood. Because actuality is always the actuality of a form, we use is in joining subject and predicate to signify that a form actually is in a subject.

See J. A. Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 189-190.

Aertsen’s analysis is in agreement with the analysis of Gyula Klima who reports that “According to Aquinas’s view, the copula is not just a merely syncategorematic particle with the sole function of joining the predicate to the subject, but it retains the primary signification of the verb ‘is’, which predicated in itself signifies the actual existence of the thing of which it is predicated” (G. Klima, “Aquinas’s Theory of the Copula and the Analogy of Being,” Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 5 [2002]:159-176).

In his analysis Klima shows that the secundum quid ad simpliciter inference is at times a valid inference as for example when passing from

(i) ‘Socrates is white,’ to

(ii) ‘The whiteness of Socrates is,’ and then on to

(iii) ‘Socrates is with respect to whiteness.’

Paraphrasing Klima, from (iii) one can certainly infer that Socrates is, indeed, absolutely and in the primary sense of being, for according to the above equivalences, (iii) is equivalent with (i), and (i) certainly implies that Socrates is, for Socrates cannot be white unless he exists.

For Aquinas, “Esse dupliciter dicitur, uno modo, significat actum essendi; alio modo, significat compositionem propositionis, quam anima adinvenit coniungens praedicatum subiecto” (Summa theologiae, part I, question 3, article 4, ad 2). 

In other words, the primary meaning of the verb “est” (“esse”) is the esse proprium rei subsistentis extra animam, which esse Aquinas saw as one of the thing’s intrinsic metaphysical principles, and which he designated with the technical expression ‘actus essendi.’