De Koninck’s hierarchy argument

CDK PhotoIn addition to his futility argument for the necessity of mind in a material universe, De Koninck argues in another way. This argument type appears in De Koninck’s early work (1936–1943) as a sketch that attempts to “deduce” the necessity of matter by a comparison with an ontological hierarchy: “In the universal hierarchy of creation, our spatio-temporal universe—the Cosmos—is the last universe. It is basically nothing but an oblique prolongation of the hierarchy of angelic universes.”⁠1 Although De Koninck gives the argument four separate times, a unifying pattern in these arguments is clear and can be presented as follows.

De Koninck’s hierarchy makes several assumptions, and the primary one concerns the determination and indetermination of all being, in both positive and negative senses. This frames the argument in terms of what is prior in the order of existence simply speaking, and while this approach has the power of synthesis, it lacks the clarity of a discovery from what is better known to us (more on this below). Positive determination of being is found in its highest form in God, and is defined as absolute necessity of existence.⁠2 Correlative to this is positive indetermination, or non-dependence upon another, “which is essentially perfection.”⁠3 Since God’s creation can only participate and never equal his pure positive determination, creatures must all fall short of it by varying degrees.⁠4 Thus, created essences are varying degrees of participation in positive determination. However, this implies that their defect of being be a sort of negative indetermination, “which consists in the absolute non-necessity of [their] existence.”⁠5 Now, De Koninck also assumes that the order of the universe demands an inverse proportion between positive and negative indetermination: as positive indetermination of being decreases, negative indetermination of being must increase. Here again we have the Thomistic idea that the universe must be ordered in kind, which implies a hierarchy of being.⁠6 Finally, De Koninck assumes that this hierarchy is primarily intellectual, since positive determination is primarily intellectual. The argument here follows the Thomistic idea that degree of immateriality (or positive indetermination) is proportionate to a being’s participation in cognitive capacity or intellectuality. This flows essentially from the Thomistic theory of knowledge, which posits that the intellect must be immaterial in order to cognitively become, via an intentional form, the object of its knowledge.⁠7

Now, as one descends down the universal hierarchy of intellectual beings, it is necessary that there be a final or lowest one. By contrast, there is no “highest possible intellectual being,” because God could always create a being with a higher degree of positive indetermination or perfection.⁠8 That there must be a lowest intellectual being De Koninck manifests through four routes: implications about the essences of intellectual beings, about their duration, about their modes of knowledge, or about their individuation.⁠9 Here I consider only the first way.

The degrees of positive indetermination result in essences that are simple: their negative indetermination consists only in the contingency that the simple essences of intellectual beings possess due to their non-necessary possession of existence. However, as the angelic hierarchy degrades in its perfection, it approaches as a limit a possible essence which has negative indetermination as part of its very essence, i.e., an intellectual being with a complex essence. Thus, the increasing negative indetermination of simple essences prefigures on anticipates “a new species of negative indetermination,”⁠10 namely that which is a part of composite essences. However, this lowest possible essence must exist, argues De Koninck, because the universe (or essentially unified order of kinds of beings) must be complete. God cannot create an incomplete universe.⁠11 Thus, the lowest limit to the hierarchy of intellectual beings must exist in order for the universe to be complete:

This perspective reveals in the angelic hierarchy a prefiguration of the cosmos, analogous to that of the circle toward which the inscribed polygon whose sides are multiplied tends. Whichever of the points of view just suggested be chosen—that of essence, that of duration, of understanding, of individuation—it enables us to foresee matter, pure negative indetermination. It is by this that the individuation of non-subsistent forms is explained, passive experience, time, space, etc. But is also entails a new species of contingency unknown in the spiritual universes, which is proper to the nature which results from the hylomorphic composition of essences.⁠12

Thus, De Koninck’s hierarchy argument could be recapitulated as follows: First, the hierarchy of intellectual beings must be limited by a lowest intellectual being. However, this lowest intellectual being (so as to be the lowest) requires an essential part that is pure negative indetermination. Yet the essential part that is pure negative indetermination is matter. Thus, the lowest intellectual being of the universal hierarchy requires matter in order to exist.

Before reflecting upon De Koninck’s futility argument and hierarchy argument in terms of analytic power ontology, we should notice a few caveats. First, the “bottom-up” approach of the futility argument (going from matter to the need for mind) as well as the “top-down” approach of the hierarchy argument (going from mind to the need for matter) might leave us wondering if the human essence that is the result of both is a unified essence. What prevents a dualistic view? De Koninck seems to think that this is implied in the notion of pure negative indetermination, namely, that an essence one of whose parts is essentially indeterminate cannot be considered a separate unity in comparison with the determinate part. This is not the case in dualism.⁠13 Second, one might object that the human essence arrived at by these arguments gives us no details as to the precisely psychological and physiological makeup of the human organism. De Koninck admits this: the very indeterminacy of matter prevents us from anticipating these details a priori.⁠14 Third, and perhaps most importantly, both of De Koninck’s arguments flow from a metaphysical standpoint that assume many premises already established by way of discovery. To be sure, De Koninck admits this also. For instance, his assumption that angelic beings—or intellectual substances, subsistent forms—cannot share a common natural genus, such that a universe full of angels of the same species existing above our own would be an impossibility, relies upon an understanding of “natural genus” and “matter” argued for by the natural philosopher and utilized as a premise in metaphysics. Indeed, perhaps the clearest indication of the limits of De Koninck’s arguments lie in the fact that the ascending illation in the futility argument results in an assumed identity with immobile being and intellectual being, while the descending illation in the hierarchy argument results in an assumed identity between pure negative indetermination and primary matter. Yet for all the background assumptions at work in De Koninck’s two arguments, there is a good deal that captures the philosophical imagination in regard to the nature of material and intellectual powers.


1 De Koninck’s “Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 12 (1936): 59-64; “The Problem of Indeterminism,” (1935) in Writings, vol. 1, 377, pp. 380-82, 390-96; and “Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism” (1937) ibid., 404-411; also, Ego Sapientia (originally pubished in 1943), in The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume Two, ed. and trans. by R. McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) 23-26. There are also similar lines of thought in the “Philosophical Biology” lecture notes for a course given in 1935–36 and an unpublished draft note from the De Koninck Archives (Folder 20, Part 7, pp. 3–12). The quotation is taken from the opening of this unpublished draft note. In “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 390, he call this “a view of the whole that will permit us to situate this contingency proper to nature in the universal hierarchy.”

2 This thesis of the divine aseity and perfection is a familiar one in Thomistic metaphysics.

3 De Koninck, “Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism,” 404.

4 See, for instance, St. Thomas, In III Sent., lib. 3, d. 2, q. 1, a. 1, qc. 3, ad 2; Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2, c. 92, n. 7; ibid., lib. 3, c. 77, n. 5; ibid., lib. 3, c. 90, n. 4; Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 23, a. 5 ad 3; ibid., a. 7, c.; ibid., q. 47, a. 2, c. & ad 1; ibid., q. 65, a. 2, ad 3; Super Iob, cap. 4: “Deus autem in quo est prima rectitudo, sua providentia dirigens universa, inferiores creaturas per superiores disponit”; In De divinis nominibus, c. 8, l. 5: “Et ideo, subdit: si quis vellet accipere inaequalitatem secundum differentiam quae est in universo, omnium ad omnia, per quam differunt et aliquid est melius alio secundum quamcumque perfectionem, huiusmodi inaequalitatis iustitia est conservativa, dum non permittit fieri turbationem seu confusionem in rebus per hoc quod omnia omnibus commisceantur; et sic conservat iustitia omnia existentia, secundum species suas prout uniuscuiusque natura recipit et suscipit.”

5 De Koninck, “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 391.

6 See above, fn. 4. Also, this notion of a unity of order is the common Thomistic approach for defining the universe. See St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 39 n. 6: “Forma autem universi consistit in distinctione et ordine partium eius.”

7 See, for instance, St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 14, a. 1, c.: “Patet igitur quod immaterialitas alicuius rei est ratio quod sit cognoscitiva; et secundum modum immaterialitatis est modus cognitionis.”

8 The basic argument is that God is infinite uncreated act, exceeding all created act beyond proportion, and thus the modes in which his essence is imitable and participable by created essences consequently knows no upper bound.

9 See De Koninck, “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 392–93, and “Reflections on the Problem of Indetermism,” 406.

10 Ibid.

11 De Koninck argues that separating what is abstractly possible by divine omnipotence and what is consonant with divine wisdom is unfitting in a strong sense. God must create the universe with wisdom, which implies completeness of order.

12 De Koninck, “Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism,” 406–407.

13 Ibid., 407: “One of the principles of the essence must be pure indetermination, without which the essence could not be an ‘unum per se.’”

14 See ibid., 407, and “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 392, 393, 395.

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