Upcoming research stay at Notre Dame


This April and May, I will be a visiting research scholar at the Jacques Maritain Center and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at the University of Notre Dame. While there, I have two primary goals. First, I will be developing an article on Charles De Koninck’s understanding of formal causality. Second, I will be re-starting the Charles De Koninck Project website and translation project, which will include discussing the possibility of continuing Ralph McInerny’s English series of De Koninck’s Writings with Notre Dame Press.

The consideration of De Koninck on form will be the development of a rather long footnote in my dissertation which my director, Dr. Hassing, inspired by a brief marginal comment on a draft that I should not neglect what De Koninck thought about form.

* * *

Leslie Armour gives an insightful account of the origins of the problem De Koninck faced, i.e., “the situation created by the fact that one of the central features of the rise of modern science was the growing conviction that reality is not directly revealed in our experience.” (Armour, “The Philosophy of Charles De Koninck,” in De Koninck, Writings, Vol. 1, 9, and see generally 8–24). Armour notes (18, 19) that the original account of abstraction proposed “a straightforward account. The form which informs the thing can also inform the human intellect—though the object which is the knowledge will be ontologically quite different from the object which is the thing. This view . . . came to grief with the rise of modern science because it seemed that nothing of the object was actually in the intellect, and skeptics like Simon Foucher taunted the Cartesians with the claim that even ‘ideas’ could not fill this gap. They could not ‘fill the gap’ because, if they were to fill the gap, they would have to resemble the objects in the world. To do this they would have to have some property in common with the things in question. And this would bring back the scholastic (Aristotelian) theory. . . . [De Koninck] certainly knew that he could not simply go back to the ‘scholastic’ view that the properties of things are in some simple way just transferred to the intellect. For this would be to suppose that the modern crisis which one might call the separation of the intelligible and the sensible had never occurred. De Koninck’s answer was to develop the theory of abstraction.” Now, to develop the theory of abstraction, viz., abstraction from matter, one must also develop the notion of form (for the mind in its abstraction considers what is formal apart from what is material). By focusing on the modern development of species- or “form-neutral” common features (what are termed the common sensibles), De Koninck is able to relate the formal object of physico-mathematical science to the formal object of natural philosophy. This begins to answer a Baconian account of the conceptualization of form that is typical of modernity. In a recent publication, I’ve addressed De Koninck’s account of abstraction at greater length.

What about a developed notion of form? De Koninck develops the notion of “natural form” to incorporate, respectively, physical indeterminacy and the evolution of species. This innovation was criticized by some of De Koninck’s contemporaries: Ernan McMullin, in “Realism In Modern Cosmology,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 29 (1955): 141, notes that the indeterminacy of chance events “are not due to an intrinsic defectibility or ‘indetermination’ of the ‘nature’ itself; to hold this would be to mistake the Aristotelean determinability of proper matter by extrinsic factors for an uncharacteristic Platonic indetermination or incoherence in the being of the physical object itself. I am aware that some Aristotelean scholars like O. Hamelin and C. de Koninck, prefer the Platonic interpretation here. It seems preferable, however, within the content of Aristotle’s system as a whole, to say that this system is formally determinate and determinist as far as the physical world is concerned.” The accuracy of McMullin’s brief remark calls for a more extended treatment (briefly, De Koninck would take issue with resolving chance to purely “extrinsic” factors). Indeed, De Koninck’s view of form— since it attempts to connect, on the one hand, the contingency in nature and in chance events (distinguished by Aristotle, see Prior Analytics, I.12, 32b4–14), with the emergence of new forms via evolution through a process requiring (to his mind) both per se and per accidens causality, on the other hand—is an adaptation of the old Aristotelian and Thomistic understanding, and hence McMullin’s criticism might simply be misplaced.

To consider De Koninck’s notion of form, one should consider “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 380–83, 390–96, and “Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism,” 404–410, in Writings, Vol. 1, both written and published in the mid-1930’s. Further, his Cosmos, in the same volume, should be consulted, in particular 262–70. (All citations below are from this volume unless otherwise specified.) The contingency or indeterminacy of chance events De Koninck resolves to the contingency within natures (see De Koninck, “La philosophie des sciences,” 359: “From the pure potentiality of matter it follows exactly that no natural form can be entirely determined ad unum. The margin of indetermination overflowing the form is cause of contingency in nature.”). This contingency within natures De Koninck resolves to the inability of form to perfectly master its correlative material principle; the existence of composites is not so determinate as to escape the order of what happens for the most part. The perspective De Koninck takes when explaining his position is metaphysical: he compares the absolute determination (perfection) of God to the relative indetermination (imperfection) of creatures. Within the latter order, there is a hierarchy of determination or perfection within the intellectual universe (the angels) that decreases as it approaches, like a limit, the various cosmic species (De Koninck compares this angelic hierarchy to polygons successively inscribed in a circle as their limit, with the intellectual cosmic species as the limit, since man is the raison d’être of the other non-intellectual cosmic species). This decrease of positive indetermination (perfection, freedom from interference ab extra) is met with an increase of negative indetermination that is fully realized only in a species where the principle of determination (form) is paired with a principle of indetermination (matter). A cosmic species is such because it, unlike the angelic species (which share no natural common genus), possesses pure indetermination within its own essence. For more, see this post on De Koninck’s hierarchy argument and his “deduction” of the infra-angelic universe.

Man as a cosmic species contains virtually three other irreducible kinds: the animal, vegetative, and elemental. These four are termed by De Koninck “philosophical” species (258) or “limit species” (409) or “absolute natural species” (399) because they have no intermediaries that can be cleanly opposed based on their proper operations (being, living, sensing, and knowing). While only man cannot have a subspecies of these limit species (since his form is at root spiritual and the completion of the cosmic hierarchy of kinds), the other three can. Indeed (381), unlike the differences between one angelic species and another (which admits of no intermediaries and no evolution from one to the next), these lower three cosmic species admit of intermediaries and a process of ascendant evolution from one to the next. Thus, “the different sub-species, the species of dog, the species of elephant, cannot be absolutely opposed as are the species-individuals which are pure spirits; that is to say as well that their definition will include the notion of matter.” (Thus, in this philosophical vantage point of defining species, all evolved species are “varieties” that come about like cuts in a line; see 262, 381; 399, n. 23; 410.) De Koninck maintains that the pure potency of prime matter requires indetermination within cosmic essences when considering form as a co-principle to matter (this is the “margin” about each form). This helps account for the evolution of species: “The determination that is a material form is yet to be so far as determination goes. If it were completely given in advance, generation for example would be a pure releasing into existence of a form already determined in the matter.” Further: “To say that matter is pure potency is to say that, as such, it always exceeds the form—because the form, itself determinate, does not entirely determine the matter, it cannot be entirely determined ad unum. A form entirely determined ad unum is by definition a subsistent spiritual form.” (266)

De Koninck’s development of the notion of form, therefore, places indeterminacy within cosmic species or essences so as to allow for an account of the evolution of varieties within a metaphysical hierarchy of cosmic species via the contingency of chance events and the agent causality of a spiritual cause. These cosmic species have man as their raison d’être (De Koninck’s arguments follow St. Thomas’ classical idea of the necessary completeness of the universe). This means that matter in the cosmos is at the service of spirit and sub-human forms are “much less states than tendencies” (266; for this reason De Koninck accuses modern natural philosophy of the “sin of angelism” when it conceives cosmic varieties after such an angelic model of species—see De Koninck, “Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism,” 61). This is De Koninck’s revision of “forms” and “natures” (especially of sub-human nature) so as to countenance the evolution of species: it entails (269) that “nature is essentially a principle of ascending movement” from less perfect species to more perfect species. The “ultimate disposition” of sub-human species is something that can only be investigated a posteriori by inquiry into what the “laws inscribed in [such natures]” have produced in the course of history. What remains unchanged in De Koninck’s view is how the natural philosopher knows form: it is by observation of the effects, accidents, and properties that lead him to a knowledge of cosmic essences.

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