A Perennial Philosophy of Nature

Van der Straet (1523-1605): A Natural Philosopher in His Study
Van der Straet, A Natural Philosopher in His Study (detail; Wellcome Library)

Just posted at the website of the American Catholic Philosophical Association is the program of the upcoming November meeting. “A Perennial Philosophy of Nature” is the theme. This topic in general is one which is both important and yet overlooked and misunderstood today. Usually, “natural philosophy” is either thought to be merely an old name for the natural sciences (and that is a use of the term), or something having to do with a romantic reaction to German idealism, or some manner of eco-ethico-philosophy. However, its place in the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition is much more important than the current topics in scholarship would let on.

Therefore, the conference’s thematic topics ought to bring much-needed light and focus to this area of study and contemplation. Is natural philosophy still relevant today? Is a perennial philosophy of nature possible? Is it merely “applied metaphysics,” or might it have its own unique place and role in the body of the speculative sciences? Among this group of disciplines, St. Thomas notes the aspect of contemplation that most distinguishes natural philosophy—what he calls scientia naturalis or natural science—in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John. In the prooemium, when discussing the inspired author and his gospel, he notes that “The contemplation of John was thus full, high, and perfect.” St. Thomas then adds:

These three characteristics of contemplation belong to the different sciences in different ways. The perfection of contemplation is found in moral science, which is concerned with the ultimate end. The fullness [plenitudinem] of contemplation is possessed by natural science, which considers things as proceeding from God. Among the physical sciences [inter scientias physicas], the height of contemplation is found in metaphysics. But the Gospel of John contains all together what the above sciences have in a divided way, and so it is most perfect. (Commentary on John, proem., n. 9)

It is striking that here—and compare this to his prooemium to his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, n. 2—St. Thomas numbers metaphysics among the “scientias physicas,” that is, the sciences about naturally existing things. Yet metaphysics is the “height” of this contemplation, whereas natural philosophy is the “fullness” of speculative contemplation of the created order. By recalling our attention to the existence, nature, and role of the philosophy of nature, the conference may help to revivify a more general interest in the fullness of philosophy today.

The entire program looks fascinating. For instance, there is Tom McLaughlin’s paper defending the existence of natural place in a contemporary scientific context. CEPOS (Catholic Engagement in Philosophy of Science) has three satellite sessions, and the Sacra Doctrina Project has two satellite sessions. There are sessions sponsored by Benedictine College, as well as one by the Society for Thomistic Natural Philosophy. There is also a session on Edward Feser’s Aristotle’s Revenge, featuring the author’s responses to commentary on the book by philosopher Robert Koons and physicist Stephen Barr.

Yours truly will also be contributing a paper in one of the main sessions: “Is Aristotelian-Thomistic Natural Philosophy Still Relevant to Cosmology?” The ACPA has awarded me its “Young Scholar’s Award” for this essay, and for this recognition I am very grateful. I’m also very much looking forward to contributing to two satellite sessions: first, a Sacra Doctrina Project session, whose topic is “The Impact of Natural Philosophy on the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas”; second, one of CEPOS’s sessions, whose topic is “Aristotelian Threads in Philosophy of Science.” The topic for the latter will be based upon my Synthese article “World Enough and Form: Why Cosmology Needs Hylomorphism.” The abstract for the former is included below.

Lastly, I will be commenting on my friend Tim Kearns’ paper, “Substantial Form in Modern Physics and the Other Sciences—and a New Picture of the Cosmos,” which is featured in a main session with Robert Koons’ “Thermal Substances: A Neo-Aristotelian Ontology of the Quantum World.” Tim’s paper is an extension and completion of work which we have talked about frequently in the past, and I’m very much looking forward to promoting and adding to his discussion.



Those Two Roads: How a Natural Philosophical Solution
to a Difficulty
about Motion Serves Thomistic Theology

John G. Brungardt
Newman University

Glossing Aristotle’s definition of motion, St. Thomas Aquinas observes: “It wholly impossible to define motion in another way through things prior and more known, except as the Philosopher here defines it.” [St. Thomas, In Phys., lib. III, lect. 2, n. 3: “Et ideo omnino impossibile est aliter definire motum per priora et notiora, nisi sicut Philosophus hic definit.” (Leon.2.105)] If this is the case, the definition of motion and its consequences, even more than Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s doctrine of hylomorphism, must not be overlooked. This is especially true if being as first known to us is changeable being. [St. Thomas, De Veritate, q. 1, a. 1, c.: “Quod primo intellectus concipit quasi notissimum, et in quod conceptiones omnes resolvit, est ens.” (Leon.22/1.5)] Our knowledge of motion conditions our knowledge of material being, and thus our knowledge of immaterial being will be restricted to the degree that we are ignorant of motion. If ignorance of motion is ignorance of nature, and if we are ignorant of nature then how can we know the principle upon which all heavens and nature depend?

With this in mind, the presentation presents St. Thomas’ resolution to a difficulty in Aristotle’s consideration of motion, action, and passion. First, the difficulty. The Aristotelian account argues that motion is an imperfect act, existing in the mobile as a subject. Likewise, the action of the mover and the passion of the moved are in the thing in motion. Indeed, the act of the mover, the act of the patient, and the motion are all numerically the same act, and yet, St. Thomas claims in his commentary, action and passion are still really distinct, categorical realities. [St. Thomas, In Phys., lib. III, lect. 5] This seems to be the same as claiming that “road from Thebes to Athens and the road from Athens to Thebes” are two roads. [Aristotle, Physics, III.3, 202b14] How can this be the case?

After explaining the difficulty, the presentation reviews St. Thomas’ resolution, beginning with his reasoning why action and passion are distinct categorical realities. Action and passion must be distinct because they are defined by opposing notions or “constitutive rationes,” for action is constituted by a relation of proceeding to another (that by which motion exists), passion by the relation of having come from another. Then, we consider why the constitutive rationes of action and passion are not categorical relations. To be precise, the relations which define or constitute action and passion are secundum dici, rational relations, or “transcendentally rational” relations.

The presentation concludes by indicating three ways in which this account of motion, action, and passion is useful for theology, both natural and sacred. First, the real distinction of action and passion permits one to avoid Hume’s difficulty with transitive agency and defend the reality of agent causality as we first experience it. [other possibilities include uses in mathematical physics, regarding the reality of the passage of time and how the mind with its mathematical tools adds to the reality of the object of physics] Second, this account allows us to see the logical possibility of the existence of a mover that is not itself in motion while moving something else. Both of these first consequences have clear uses for natural theological proofs for the existence of God. Third, the constitutive rationes of action and passion, discovered in natural philosophy, permit Aquinas to answer a key objection against the coherence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, namely, that “things which are identified with the same, are identified with each other.” [St. Thomas, ST, Ia, q. 28, a. 3, obj. 1 & ad 1] Indeed, in his response to this objection, Aquinas cites Aristotle’s treatment of action and passion in Physics III as what is better known to us.


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