Thomism and power ontology

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In two previous posts, I discussed De Koninck’s futility and hierarchy arguments relating matter and mind within the cosmos. The accounts of matter and mind require substantial claims that are typical of scholastic natural philosophy and metaphysics. However, such claims are more easy to come by in the world of analytic philosophy thanks to power ontology.

In recent years, the popularity of power ontology has led many analytic philosophers to contemplate notions that were cast aside or rendered ghosts of their former scholastic selves in the early history of modern philosophy. They speak of dispositions as real properties of objects, and the ground for law statements, as possessing physical intentionality, and even as the capacity for the very existence of an object.⁠a The notion that things in our experience can do or have done to them is such a commonplace that lay observers would naturally wonder how philosophers could be trained to think otherwise. Typically the blame is laid at Hume’s feet. However, Locke also bear part of the guilt.⁠b Indeed, the method of Locke’s investigations—his “way of ideas”—conveniently isolates the question of the interaction between the ideas that we observe within our minds and the separate, physiological connection which they must (somehow) have with our bodies.⁠c The “powers” of objects were sundered from things themselves and replaced by mental objects, conceived as conditions which the experiencing mind brought to its experience of the world (however that might occur ‘physically’ and whatever ‘physically’ might or might not mean). Indeed, powers and dispositions ‘in’ things that produced law-like behavior could thereby be conceived according to this new logical status, as conditional connections existing only in the mind.

However, power ontology has reversed this trend. In this respect, it returns to a way of thinking about physical reality and physical objects that comports with an Aristotelian or even Thomistic mode of philosophizing. Therefore, it will prove useful to compare them more closely. While this review of power ontology is not intended to be exhaustive, it aims to be illustrative of the grounds for its compatibility with Thomistic ontology as well as to challenge the limits of its application. A further limiting factor in this review is that I will take George Molnar’s version as an example.⁠1 The outer limits of the order of discovery when utilizing the tools of power ontology are Thomistic ones.

In terms of his fundamental positions, Molnar stakes his claims as follows.⁠2 He assumes the univocity of ‘existence,’ the uniqueness of the world, and a correspondence theory of truth. This allows Molnar to focus the discussion not on what ‘concept F’ means, but on ‘what being F’ actually is. He also defends trope-realism and distinguishes this against nominalism and classical realism. Molnar’s trope theory claims that “[t]ropes are genuine, mind-independent properties, but they are non-repeatably particular,”⁠3 thus avoiding nominalism’s antirealism concerning properties and classical realism’s defense of instantiated universals. Finally, Molnar adopts a three category ontology of objects, properties, and relations. This is against relationalism (that there are no subjects, only relations) and foundationalism (that there are no relations, only subjects).

Molnar proceeds to elucidate what powers are through an explanation and defense of five features they possess, viz., directedness, independence, actuality, intrinsicality, and objectivity. Directedness entails that powers “are properties for some behaviour, usually of their bearers.”⁠4 Molnar’s argument proceeds through an analogy with mental intentionality (appealing to the directedness of powers to something beyond themselves (their manifestations), and the various properties that this referent possesses). It is striking that what modernity rejected as an anthropomorphic move on the side of those placing powers in things, Molnar insists upon as the very rehabilitation of powers. What is essential here is how manifestations constitute powers: “Having a direction to a particular manifestation is constitutive of the power property. A power’s type-identity is given by its definitive manifestation.”⁠5 The independence of powers entails that powers “can exist in the absence or in the presence of their manifestations and so are ontologically independent of the occurrence of the manifestations.”⁠6 This places Molnar against a conditional analysis of powers (power exist only insofar as they are captured in the logic of our statements about actual things) and against Megaric antirealism (powers exist only when activated). This feature of independence is best fleshed out by the correlative assertions that powers are actual (or real), and exist objectively in their bearers. Actuality entails that having a power means “prima facie having an actual property in the same sense in which objects have actual properties that are not powers. … Powers are not merely the potentiality of some behaviour.”⁠7 Along with their objectivity—that powers are not mind-depenent entities or anthropomorphic projections—the actuality of powers is required to attack Humean antirealism and antiobjectivism about powers.⁠8 However, the most germane property (along with directedness) that characterizes Molnar’s powers is their intrinsicality. Indeed, intrinsicality seems prior to actuality, independence, and objectivity as the ground that they all require. This claim of intrinsicality is in direct opposition to Locke’s position cited in the introduction.⁠9 Not all powers can be extrinsic relations, however, on pain of falling into occasionalism. That is, unless powers are intrinsic to their bearers, natural events must be attributed to a source entirely outside the course of nature.⁠10

From this sketch of Molnar’s power ontology, I make one point of destructive and one point of constructive criticism. Indeed, these two points are two sides of the same coin: Molnar’s critique of Aristotelian realism regarding instantiated universals sits uneasily with his virtual acceptance—via the characteristics granted to powers—of an Aristotelian doctrine of natures. This twofold point can be made by utilizing the Thomistic reception of Aristotelian realism. This reception leads Aquinas to elaborate the notion of a nature “absolutely considered,” that is, what it is that belongs to the nature or essence of itself, apart from existence either in objects or in the mind.⁠11 That is, the essence of an object, a property, or a relation can be mentally contrasted against what accrues to it when it exists “in” something else (world or mind). The key point about a nature absolutely considered, however, is that as such it is neither one nor many, at least by way of numerical multiplicity.⁠12 Thus, in and of itself, a nature cannot be “many” (because then it could never be instantiated once) nor can it be “one” (because then any of its multiple instantiations would really be the same numerical instance). In this way, the Thomistic notion of essence prescinds from individuality and universality—this “one” and “many” must be found in things or in the mind apart from the content or intelligible structure of an essence.

As to the Thomistic notion of “nature,” it suffices to note that it shares all five features of what Molnar wishes to call the “powers” borne by objects. This notion countenances both passive and active parts in the nature of a thing: a nature is “principium motus et quietis in eo in quo est primo et per se et non secundum accidens.”⁠13 Famously, Aristotelian natures include both the formal and material causes, although nature is more form than matter (the power of a dog to produce puppies is more of the nature of the dog than is the dog’s power to fall down a steep hillside under the influence of gravity). A nature, so considered, is therefore directed, insofar as a principle is ordered to a motion or effect as the manifestation of that nature. A nature is also intrinsic to an object, insofar as this distinguishes a natural principle from art. A thing’s nature, finally, is actual, they exist independently of their manifestations, and they are also objective (not mind-dependent, anthropomorphic projections). Furthermore, the Thomistic account provides that the accidents of substances (or, the properties of objects) also possess natures in a qualified way. To be more to the point, faculties or capacity of non-living and living things would be called “powers” in the sense that Molnar intends. The key expansion of Molnar’s talk about powers, however, is that the Thomistic view applies Molnar’s properties to the essence of the object that possesses powers, and not just to those powers themselves.

It seems from this comparative sketch, therefore, that there is more in common between Thomistic natures and Molnarian powers. Now, recall that Molnar’s complaint against Aristotelian realism is that Aristotelian universals are “immanent to the world, being repeatable individuals that manage to be wholly present in all their many instances at once.”⁠14 Furthermore, they do not serve to explain anything, but rather make things more obscure.⁠15 However, if powers explain insofar as they have existence in individual objects, then I submit that (with the above qualifications regarding natures absolutely considered), Aristotelian universals only explain on like terms. Furthermore, they do their explaining as natures or the capacities of things with certain natures. Thus, strictly speaking on the Thomistic view of Aristotelian universals, the essences which they denote are not “individuals” which are repeatable. I submit, therefore, that provided Molnar’s account of powers can be expanded to include the capacities of an object as such (which is the notion of an Aristotelian nature), his account has implicit Thomistic outer limits. However, this would have to be fleshed out by placing the notions of mind and matter, found in De Koninck’s arguments, within the context of power ontology.


For this last claim, see Andrew J. Jaeger, “Back to the Primitive: From Substantial Capacities to Prime Matter,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 88, no. 3 (2014): 381–95.

See John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, v. 1, 12th ed. (London: Rivington, 1824) bk. 2, ch. 8, sect. 23, 118, who lists the sensible qualities as secondary, but as tertiary he lists “the power that is in any body, by reason of the particular constitution of its primary qualities, to make such a change in the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of another body, as to make it operate on our senses, differently from what it did before. Thus the sun has a power to make wax white, and fire to make lead fluid. These are usually called powers.” Of course, these tertiary qualities are “powers barely” and are not “in the things themselves.”

See ibid., bk. 1, ch. 1, sect. 2, 1–2: “This, therefore, being my purpose, to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge; together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent; I shall not at present meddle with the physical consideration of the mind; or trouble myself to examine, wherein its essence consists, or by what motions of our spirits, or alterations of our bodies, we come to have any sensation by our organs, or any ideas in our understandings; and whether those ideas do in their formation, any, or all of them, depend on matter or no: These are speculations, which, however curious and entertaining, I shall decline, as lying out of my way in the design I am now upon.” Note that Hume similarly sunders the phenomenological and physical modes of investigation: see A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. by L. W. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896) 275–76.

1 George Molnar, Powers: A Study in Metaphysics, ed. by S. Mumford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).  First, I note a few things concerning his background ontological views, discuss the five central features which characterize powers, and locate this proposal in the context of the broader spectrum of dispositional realism when it comes to the question of physical laws and what De Koninck would have termed “the nature of a thing.” Second, I offer an account that bridges Molnar’s views with the Thomistic one of De Koninck.

2 Ibid., 21–57.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 60.

5 Ibid., 61.

6 Ibid., 82.

7 Ibid., 99.

8 The argument against Hume is effected by showing that Hume’s argument does not work, because it depends upon Deductivism, which leads to absurd consequences. See ibid., 113–24.

9 Indeed, Molnar helpfully cites a contemporary of Locke’s, Boyle, on this point. Of Boyle’s view of the “powers” gained by iron when fashion into a lock and key, Molnar states, ibid., 103: “[P]owers do not represent a net addition to the ontological inventory. They do not exist, or are not real, or are identical with the primary qualities already present. On the other hand, when the key and the lock both come into being, then, according to Boyle, they ‘each of them now obtain a new capacity’. Here tertiary powers are taken as real, but relational properties. This view is deflationary only about the intrinsicality of the powers.”

The following passage from Boyle is provided by Molnar: “We may consider, then, that … whoever invented locks and keys … had made his first lock … that was only a piece of iron contrived into such a shape; and when afterwards he made a key to that lock, that also in itself considered was nothing but a piece of iron of such a determinate figure. But in regard to these two pieces of iron might now be applied to one another after a certain manner, and that there was a certain congruity betwixt the wards of the lock and those of the key, the lock and the key did each of them now obtain a new capacity; and it became a main part of the notion and description of a lock that it was capable of being made to lock or unlock by that other piece of iron we call a key, and it was looked upon as a peculiar faculty and power in the key that it was fitted to open and shut the lock: and yet by these new attributes there was not added any real or physical entity either to the lock or to the key, each of them remaining indeed nothing but the same piece of iron, just so shaped as it was before.” See Boyle, “The Origin of Forms and Qualities according to the Corpuscular Philosophy”

10 Correlatively, this shows the importance of Molnar’s defense against Hume, since Hume is an occasionalist “minus God” in Molnar’s phrase (ibid., 114).

11 “A nature or essence thus taken can be considered in two ways; the first is according to its proper notion, and this is its absolute consideration. In this way, nothing is true of it except what belongs to it insofar as it as such. Whence, if anything else is attributed to it, it is attributed falsely. For instance, it belongs to man insofar as he is man to be rational and an animal and other such thing which fall into his definition. ’White’ or ’black’ or things of this sort, which are not in the notion of humanity, do not belong to man insofar as he is man. Whence, if it were asked whether such a nature so considered could be said to be one or many, neither is to be conceded, because either one is outside the understanding of humanity and either is able to accrue to it. For if plurality were part of its understanding, it could never be one, yet it is one insofar as it exist in Socrates. Likewise if unity belonged to its notion, the nature of Socrates and Plato would be one and the same, nor could it be multiplied in many things.” (De Ente & Essentia, my translation; see Kenny ed. n. 54)

12 An essence has unity on the whole, but also contains parts, and thus is many, but this is not numerical multiplicity.

13 In Phys., lib. 2, lect. 1, n. 145.

14 Molnar, Powers, 24.

15 See ibid., 24–25: “Whenever universals are invoked in an account of something of philosophical interest, be it the facts of predication, the nature of lawfulness, the necessity of causation, the character of numbers and other abstract entities, and so on, we understand less after the explanation is given than we understood before it was given. The world seems more intelligible without universals.”

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