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Aquinas on being by Anthony John Patrick Kenny

By Anthony John Patrick Kenny

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Form. For logical purposes, a sentence of the form ‘Fs exist’ is rewritten with the aid of a quantifier as ‘There is at least one x such that x is F’, or more simply as ‘Something is F’. An advantage of this form is that it makes more perspicuous the import of negative existential propositions such as ‘extra-terrestrial intelligences don’t exist’. If we take this as a straightforward subject–predicate sentence we seem to get into a muddle: for if the sentence is true there isn’t anything in the universe for the subject expression ‘extra-terrestrial intelligences’ to refer to, and so it is On Being and Essence: II  obscure what we are predicating non-existence of; whereas if we say ‘There is no x such that x is an extra-terrestrial intelligence’ or ‘nothing is an extra-terrestrial intelligence’, that problem disappears.

More precisely: a substance is in a state of potentiality with respect to the many different accidents it may take on; matter is in a state of potentiality with regard to the many substantial forms under which it may exist. But substance and matter do not, for Aquinas, exhaust the types of potentiality that there are: in the central passage of On Being and Essence he invites us to treat essence as a form of potentiality. It is this that enables him to state that every creature, everything in the universe except God, is permeated by potentiality.

For that matter, my hearing or my taste cannot be cut up or weighed (though of course the organs of these senses can). So in this respect Aquinas has not identified anything that marks off the intellect from the senses. We have not, however, been offered good reason for rejecting the second type of engagement with matter. Why may not the ability to form universal ideas belong to a corporeal agent, and thus be ‘a form imposed on matter as material forms are’? The one type of agent that we all know to exist which is capable of forming universal ideas is the human being: and human beings, during the one phase of their existence of which we have certain knowledge, are corporeal substances.

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