De Koninck’s “philosophical species”

Over the next several months, based on rereading it for a reading group with fellow interested philosophers and scientists, I hope to post some reflections on Rob Koons’s new book, Is St. Thomas’s Aristotelian Philosophy of Nature Obsolete? The book is a summative presentation of an ongoing research project into hylomorphism and modern science which Koons has elaborated in a series of publications over the past decade or so. Edward Feser reviews the book here.

The book’s goal is to defend an Aristotelian philosophy of nature by way of showing that Aristotelian hylomorphism can provide a cogent interpretation of quantum theory that is not incompatible with empirical evidence and, in fact, provides stronger grounds than its competitors. It is my second time through the book, and I hope to gain a lot via the discussion with the group.

In the book’s introduction (see p. 3ff), Koons asks two programmatic questions: (1) Can we have Aristotelian metaphysics without and Aristotelian philosophy of nature? He answers now. (2) Can we have Aristotelian philosophy of nature without Aristotelian natural science? Again, his answer is “No.” He argues that those who answer “Yes” to first question have an Aristotelian metaphysics without hylomorphism. Those who answer “Yes” to the second he calls “Aristotelian quietists.” Aristotelian natural philosophy has no influence upon the practice of science, and thus the Aristotelian account becomes unfalsifiable, based on general experience no matter what scientific developments arise. Koons avers that Jacques Maritain is an example of an Aristotelian quietist.

He also seems to include Charles De Koninck in this camp.

What would an Aristotelian natural philosophy look like, if it renounced forever the need to be informed by detailed and progressive empirical inquiry? Charles De Koninck gives us some idea. In his 1934 book, Le Cosmos, De Koninck suggested that there are just four “philosophical” species: man, animal, plant, and the inorganic. This would mean that all inorganic substances would share exactly the same nature (or essence).

Koons, Is St. Thomas’s Aristotelian Philosophy of Nature Obsolete?, pp. 8–9

Koons then proceeds to draw several absurdities from his paraphrase of De Koninck’s position: first, that it means clearly distinct inorganic phenomena would have the same nature; second, that these generic forms cannot provide per se unity to substances; third, the lack of biological detail in the “animal” species would also affect the human species, rendering any ethical consequences drawn from that basis unsound.

However, it is Koons’s reading that is unsound.

It was curious to note upon rereading this passage that De Koninck—even the early De Koninck in the 1930’s—is among those who “renounced forever” the philosophy of nature being informed by the progress of the natural sciences, due to the fact that the very purpose of Le Cosmos is to respond to such progress and to rethink many key Aristotelian-Thomistic concepts accordingly. Indeed, the entire first part of the unfinished, three-park work discusses the then-current scientific viewpoint of the evolving cosmos. Or, it was curious due to the fact that De Koninck’s recently finished doctoral dissertation on Arthur Eddington’s philosophy of science does not make such a suggestion.

Now, I have shared Koons’s reading of De Koninck, when I encountered the passage(s) to which I take Koons to be referring (he gives no page numbers). However, my past self was just as mistaken. Of course, De Koninck’s Cosmos was neither finished nor published, much less published in 1934. There do exist page proofs of the book in various De Koninck archives, and I always read the Cosmos with its unfinished status in mind.

What does De Koninck mean by “philosophical species”? Here is the passage where he introduces the idea:

The ensemble of beings constituting nature is divided into four species: men, animals, plants, and the inorganic. One can know without understanding: animal; live without knowing: plant; be without living: inorganic. These four species are the only ones philosophically definable [Ces quatre espèces sont les seules qui soient philosophiquement définissables]. The canine species is not a species in the philosophical sense.

De Koninck, The Cosmos, p. 258 (McInerny ed., 2008; the original French text is from archival material; see also the Laval ed., Oeuvres de Charles De Koninck, I.1, p. 27 for the same text)

Now, as I mentioned previously, the incomplete book is written in three parts, each titled, respectively: “From a Scientific Point of View,” “The Philosophical Point of View,” and “The Theological Point of View.” (The third part is unfinished.) Thus, De Koninck means the qualification “philosophical” to be an epistemological limitation: the philosopher from his resources can only define four natural kinds, not that only four exist. This philosophical vantage point is based upon common experience (non-living vs. living, sensing or not, thinking or not) and divided neatly by opposed differentiae (albeit De Koninck nowhere, to my knowledge, claims that the inorganic is therefore characterized in its essence by negation, as Koons claims).

Now, this claim may be wrong, but it is not the claim with which Koons’s saddles De Koninck’s philosophical animal.

That De Koninck does not mean to deny the existence of distinct sub-species is clear from other passages. For instance:

Some scholastic authors have held that biological species at the interior of the same philosophical species, defined according to their degree of organization, differ only accidentally. And that within one philosophical species inferior biological species produce higher species.

This accidental difference is an extremely ambiguous thing. Must not the gradualities of the accidental order be reduced to the substance of which the accidents are a function? Let us not be misled by a confusion of the scientific point of view with the ontological, with which we are now dealing.

De Koninck, The Cosmos, p. 263

That is, De Koninck is cautioning against the mistake which other (unnamed) scholastics make, namely, to think that when biologists speak of varieties or subspecies, that this can be easily carried over into Thomistic terminology. His use of “philosophical species” is not meant as the infima species of a Porphyrian tree, but as far down the tree as the philosopher can go. From the philosophical point of view, “heat” is a sensate, phenomenologically rich experience, whereas from the scientific point of view, it is a measurable quantity, it is “molecular bombardament” (see ibid., 276–77). Analogously, the biologist can provide the philosopher of nature with far more specific details about species.

This is where De Koninck does falter. At this point in his career, he still partially agreed with Maritain about the formal separation of the philosophy of nature and the specific natural sciences. Thus, the “manifest image” is the ambit of the philosopher of nature, while specialized, technical experience is required to achieve the scientific point of view. It was later that he realized the errors of this position (albeit not much later, in an essay in 1941: see here and here). That is, De Koninck went from answering “Yes and no” to Koons’s second programmatic question to answering “No.”

Be that as it may, it is clear that even on this early view, De Koninck intends the philosopher of nature to learn from the biologist. In order for the natural, causal processes of evolution to explore the four philosophically definable species, De Koninck speaks of ontological “cuts”. For example:

Prime matter is pure indetermination. Forms can only be contained in it in the manner of possible cuts in an indefinitely divisible line. For natural beings, then, there do not exist forms of structure determined a priori, with the exception no doubt of the form or forms given at the outset, and of the form which will realize the finality of nature as a whole. Moreover, existing forms are by definition determined. Yes, but in the manner of the cuts when a line is actually divided. These forms of existent beings are fixed like whole numbers. Between any two existing forms there is more than an infinity of others possible.

De Koninck, The Cosmos, p. 262

Or: “We have already said that natural forms are contained in the potency of matter only in the manner of possible cuts in a continuum. (To avoid what is called latitatio formarum.)” (Ibid., 284 and n79) And, again:

I know of no criterion that would show the ontological cuts of the inorganic world. I do not say either that such cuts do not exist: that would be an equally gratuitous assertion. I only say that I have no criterion to discern them.

Ibid., 272

This is as close as De Koninck comes to Koons’s critique, for he adds “I see nothing more unfitting in an inorganic world, substantially one in which innumerable living things vegetate, than in one tree on which insects munch the same leaves.” He floats the idea, yes. But I wonder how absurd the idea is when Koons’s ontological escalation proposes something similar, at least for primitive stages of the cosmos (see Obsolete?, p. 75, and below). It is also clear from context, given that he proposes form and matter as principles of the solution to the problem of change and the question of individuation (Cosmos, pp. 259–60, and 261), that De Koninck is not asserting monism about the inorganic cosmos as such.

The factor motivating De Koninck in these discussions is actually the limited character of form as a principle, of its virtus essendi (a concept he appropriates from St. Thomas, and which must be explored some other time). The limited virtus essendi of the “cosmic form” of physical things (as opposed to forms of non-physical, separate substances), grants them a co-dependent relationship to matter in the universe. This is clearer from an essay written at the same time as The Cosmos, although De Koninck’s concern about the indeterminacy of matter is still present in Cosmos:

This need that form has for matter introduces into it an irreducible obscurity. We cannot have a distinct idea of the cosmic form independent of the idea of the composite; even the separated human form implies a relation to matter. And the matter that enters into this idea is not determined without signifying as well determinability with reference to an infinity of other forms. A non-subsisting form is not a quiddity in the strict sense. That is to say that the different sub-species, the species of dog, the species of elephant, cannot be absolutely opposed as are the species-individuals which are the pure spirits; that is to say as well that definition will include the notion of matter. If they were determined in matter, there would be an independent idea of matter for each of them, and that would no longer be pure potency; there would be a latitatio formarum or all forms would advene ab extrinseco, such that the existent varieties are analogous to the divisions made in the continuum which are determinately true only a posteriori. Consequently, 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. (By varieties of existence I mean the sub-species contained within the limits of absolute natural species. Note however that a sub-species which in fact constitutes a limit of a natural species is never the absolute limit of that natural species. It tends toward a limit which is found at infinity. In the final instance, the absolute character of natural species is founded on matter insofar as it is essentially ordered to its ultimate act, to its ultimate end—the human form, which is formally and in an eminent way at once sensitive, vegetative, and form of corporeity.)

De Koninck, “The Problem of Indeterminism,” 381 and n23

I submit, then, that none of Koons’s reductiones ad absurdam follow, because De Koninck does not in fact hold that only four natural kinds exist. Nor do they follow even in the context of the book, because De Koninck does not defend the idea that inorganic things are all of the same kind, or that substantial form is not a principle of per se unity, or that the human form lacks all lower-level teleologies (with their attendant ethical implications).

If anything, De Koninck’s attempts to “de-angelize” the neo-scholastic conception of the forms of physical things is much closer to the project Koons has executed than might appear at first glance. At least, that is my hypothesis.

Consider the crucial hypothetical modality De Koninck mentions here:

An important point for the form under which we treat this question is that from the existence of the first composite (supposing that the world had a beginning in time) all possible natural forms were given in the potency of prime matter. Hence, no special creative act is necessary to educe them from this potency, provided that there exists some sufficient created cause.

De Koninck, The Cosmos, pp. 262–63 (and see n32 for the qualification that he does not mean the human form is producible by natural processes alone)

And, compare:

With ontological escalation, in contrast, all of the levels are equally universal and primordial (at least potentially). Rather than imagining that the world began (after the Big Bang) as a cloud of autonomous particles, from which larger structures eventually emerged, I suppose that the early universe consisted entirely of large-scale substances (initially, perhaps, a single, cosmic substance), from which smaller entities gradually precipitated.

Koons, Is St. Thomas’s Aristotelian Philosophy of Nature Obsolete?, p. 75

2 thoughts on “De Koninck’s “philosophical species”

  1. In a text written in 1949 after the bombing of Hiroshima for the feast of Thomas Aquinas De Koninck wrote: “It seems that the atomic bomb blew up hylemorphism: the doctrine of matter and substantial form. I almost agree, just as I agree that the theory of relativity has destroyed the so-called Aristotelian notions of space and time, just as the theory of evolution would have undone the notion of species”.

    The term “almost” is fundamental! De Koninck criticises a kind of philosophical verbalism characteristic, according to him, of certain Thomists of his time. Then he specifies: “I have always suspected that the quiddities and essences of which certain philosophical writings speak have never existed and will only exist in these writings. The disintegration of matter should do Thomism a great service: it presents us with the opportunity (quite a noisy one) to ask ourselves whether the word matter really means all that we believe it should mean”. ( page 46)

    Thus I think your hypothesis is valid. Indeed, De Koninck’s attempts to “de-angelise” the neo-scholastic conception of the forms (or matter) of physical things are quite similar to his criticisms of philosophical verbalism.

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