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265 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION

GABRIELE GALLUZZO
To Grasp Something of the Thing Itself.
Aquinas on Nominal and Real Definition
In this paper I wish to present Aquinass interpretation of a particularly
difficult section in the second book of Aristotles Posterior Analytics, i.e. Chs.
8-10. The different issues I am going to touch upon all concern Aristotles
distinction between nominal and real definition: Does Aristotle have a notion
of nominal definition? Do nominal definitions have existential import? And
how do they relate to scientific, real definitions and to scientific enquiry in
general? I shall start off with a sketchy presentation of some problems in
Aristotles text and of some solutions that may be offered in response to them.
I shall then move to Aquinass understanding of Aristotles text. In presenting
Aquinass solutions to the problems posed by Aristotle I shall also try to see
which, if any, of the modern interpretations best fits Aquinass reading. My
general view is that Aquinas provides a consistent explanation of Post. An., II,
8-10, which is fundamentally in line with one of leading contemporary
interpretations and in particular with the one proposed by J. Barnes. In the
concluding remarks, I shall spend a few words on the sense in which, in
Aquinass eyes, Aristotles distinctions in Post. An., Book II support his views
on existence and essence. I shall also try to make it clear that this further
point of Aquinass goes much beyond Aristotles text and, to some extent, is
even against its spirit.
1. ISSUES IN POST. AN., II, 8-10
a) Knowledge of essence and knowledge of existence
As is well known, in Post. An., II, 1 Aristotle lists four kinds of question we
may ask about something and, consequently, four different pieces of knowledge
we come to acquire once each type of question is positively answered. Thus,
we come to know: (1) that something is the case; (2) why something is the
case; (3) whether something exists; (4) what something is. As the clause is
the case shows, (1) and (2) should be taken to concern states of affairs, which
can be expressed in a proposition. In Aristotles ontology, states of affairs are
analysable in terms of a certain propertys belonging to a certain subject.
266 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
Therefore, to know (1) means to know that a certain property belongs to a
certain subject, whilst to know (2) means to possess the explanation or the
cause of a certain propertys belonging to a certain subject. Unlike knowledge
of types (1) and (2), knowledge of types (3) and (4) does not concern the
belonging of a property to a subject, but rather conveys information about the
subject itself. By (3) we come to know that a certain thing exists, whilst by (4)
we come to possess the knowledge of what a thing is, i.e. the knowledge of the
essence of such a thing. As Aristotles examples in Post. An., II, 1 and 2 make
clear, the object of knowledge of types (3) and (4) is not restricted to genuine,
ontological subjects, i.e. substances, but includes everything that can be the
object of a scientific enquiry, i.e. everything that can figure as a subject in the
conclusion of a demonstration. Eclipses, for instance, or thunders are not
genuine subjects, i.e. substances, from an ontological point of view, but
rather events and hence, presumably, accidents. However, they are appropriate
objects of scientific knowledge, in so so far as they are things about which we
can ask whether they exist and what they are, and of which we can prove that
they possess certain characteristic properties.
My main concern here is the relation between knowledge of type (3) and
knowledge of type (4), i.e. the knowledge of the existence of a thing and the
knowledge of its essence. In Post. An., II, 1, 89b34 Aristotle says that, having
come to know that a certain thing exists we seek what it is. This suggests that
our knowledge of the existence of a thing precedes our knowledge of its
essence. In other words, we can start enquiring into what a thing is only after
we have ascertained that it exists. That the knowledge of a things existence
is prior to the knowledge of its essence is explicitly affirmed by Aristotle in
Ch. 8
1
, where he makes also clear the relation of priority between knowledge
of types (1) and (2). In general, Aristotle says, we enquire into why something
is the case, i.e. why S is P (type (2)) only after knowing that something is the
case, i.e. that S is P (type (1)): even though, occasionally, we may come to
know that something is the case and why something is the case at the same
time, it is impossible for us to know why something is the case before we know
that it is actually the case. Analogously, in the case of knowledge of types (3)
and (4) it is impossible for us to know what a thing is, i.e. to know the essence
of a thing, before we know that it exists. Thus, Aristotles general doctrine is
clearly that, standardly, our knowledge of somethings existence precedes our
knowledge of somethings essence.
Ch. 8 itself, however, complicates this picture in several directions. The
first thing to note is that, when Aristotle talks about the knowledge of the
1
Cf. also ARISTOTLE, Post. An., II, 8, 93a16-20. Cf. also II, 7, 92b4-5.
267 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
essence of a thing, he must clearly have in mind a full and complete account
of what a thing is, i.e. a scientific definition revealing the full essence of the
object we are investigating into. We shall see later on what a scientific
definition looks like and how it differs from other, non-scientific accounts of
a thing. However, as early as in Ch. 2 Aristotle gives us some indications as to
one distinguishing feature of a scientific definition. Part of his argument in
Ch. 2 consists in showing that also the knowledge of the essence of a thing is
an instance of knowing the cause or the explanation of something (thus,
knowledge of type (2) and knowledge of type (4) turn out to be closely
connected, if not in some sense identical). In all likelihood, Aristotles point
is that the essence of a thing x is the explanation or cause of xs existence, at
least in the sense that the essence of x explains why x exists in the way it does,
i.e. why it possesses certain fundamental features that characterise its being
the kind of object it is. Therefore, a scientific definition of x must include the
cause or explanation of xs existence, if not straightaway identify with a
statement of such a cause or explanation. Thus, Aristotles particularly
demanding understanding of scientific definition leaves room for there to be
other, partial accounts of what a thing is. Such accounts clearly fall short of
a complete, scientific definition, but may still be useful in the preliminary
stages of a scientific enquiry, i.e. in the stages before we arrive at a full
scientific understanding and definition of the thing we are after.
This distinction among different accounts of what a thing is links up with
a general difficulty concerning the relation between our knowledge of a
things existence and our knowledge of a things essence. For if we cannot
know what a thing is without knowing in advance that the thing exists, how
are we to acquire the knowledge that a thing exists? Now, Aristotle is clearly
not of the opinion that we can come to know that a thing exists without having
at least some account of the kind of thing whose existence we are trying to
know. If we did not possess any account of the thing whose existence we set
ourselves to establish, we would not be able to identify the thing in question
should we bump into it, nor, a fortiori, to establish its existence. For the
existence of a thing is always the existence of a certain kind of thing.
Therefore, it seems that, in order to know that a thing exists, we need some
account of the thing whose existence we are trying to know. Such an account,
however, cannot be the scientific definition of the thing, i.e. the definition
which fully expresses the essence of the thing, because the knowledge of such
a definition is posterior to our knowledge of the existence of the thing. Thus,
what is the account that enables us to establish the existence of a thing, if it
is not its full definition? Which features or properties of the thing does it
contain, if it does not contain all its essential features? Aristotle tackles these
difficulties in the course of Ch. 8s argument and comes back to them in Ch.
268 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
10, where he lists and describes different kinds of definition or account. The
question of the nature of Aristotles nominal definition mainly revolves
around understanding what Aristotle says in Ch. 8 and how it connects with
the discussion of the different kinds of definition in Ch. 10. Let me start,
therefore, with the question of how we come to know the existence of a thing,
which Aristotle discusses in Ch. 8. In the next section, I shall move to
Aristotles classification of the different kinds of definition in Ch. 10.
In Post. An., II, 8, 93a21 ff. Aristotle says that we can come to know the
existence of a thing in two ways. At times, we come to know the existence of
a thing only accidentally, at others by grasping something of the thing
itself: for instance by grasping that thunder is a certain noise in the clouds,
that eclipse is a certain privation of light, that man is a certain animal and
that soul is something moving itself. Aristotle further remarks (93a24-29) that
when we come to know the existence of a thing only accidentally, we have no
grasp of what the thing is, i.e. of its essence, for in a sense we do not even know
that the thing in question exists. When, on the contrary, we come to know that
a thing exists by grasping something of the thing, we are on our way to
knowing what the thing is, i.e. to knowing the essence of the thing. It seems
to me that, since Aristotle at 93a29 equates to grasp something of the thing
itself with to grasp something of what a thing is, i.e. something of its
essence, his distinction between two ways of knowing the existence of a thing
is most naturally read in the light of the distinction between accidental and
essential properties. In other words, we come to know the existence of a thing
only accidentally when we know that a thing exists through an account
indicating only accidental features of the thing we are after. In this case, there
is a sense in which we cannot even be said to know that a thing exists, because
to know the accidental features of a thing is not to know the thing as the kind
of the thing it is. Moreover, everything that can be properly said to be a thing
possesses a certain kind of non-accidental unity, which is reflected in the
unity of the account saying what the thing is. And an account which points
only to accidental features of a thing does not display the kind of unity
required, in that the different accidental features of a thing do not form with
one another a kind unity comparable to the unity that a proper object of
definition is supposed to possess. When, by contrast, we know the existence
of a thing through grasping something of the thing, we possess an account
which indicates some of its essential features. Such an account still falls short
of a proper scientific definition of the thing, in that it mentions only some of
its essential features and only part of its essence. However, it can contribute
much towards forming a full, scientific definition of the thing we are
investigating into. Such a reading of Aristotles distinction between two ways
269 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
of knowing the existence of a thing has been advocated by Barnes in particular
and seems to me the most natural way of taking the Greek text
2
.
How does the account of Post. An., II, 8 I have just provided relate to the
topic of nominal definition? On this account, a definition which makes known
only some accidental features of a thing and, consequently, provides us only
with an accidental knowledge of its existence counts as one instance of nominal
definition. The nominal definition of the things which we take to be objects of
scientific investigation, things such as thunders and eclipses, is an account
that explains the meaning of the name of the thing in question by pointing to
some of its accidental and superficial characteritics. Thus, on the view I have
just proposed the nominal definition of the objects of scientific investigation
should be sharply distinguished from the definition which grasps something of
the thing itself: although undoubtedly partial, the latter is an account which
contains one or more elements in the essence of the thing, whilst a nominal
definition only explains the meaning of the name of a thing by indicating some
of its accidental features. However, according to this reconstruction of Aristotles
doctrine of definition, the accidental accounts of Post. An., II, 8 are not the only
instances of nominal definition that there are. Nothing of what Aristotle says
rules it out that there might be nominal definitions of things that do not exist,
of things, for instance, such as goatstags. In Post. An., II, 7 Aristotle contrasts
the definition revealing what a thing is with an account that merely explains
the meaning of a things name
3
. He also remarks that there is no definition of
what a non-existent thing is, but only an account of what its name means. Thus,
in the case of non-existent things the nominal definition will be an account of
what the name of such things signifies, an account which does not indicate any
real features of the things defined, simply because the things in question do not
exist and so possess no real features for us to indicate. Of course, the nominal
definitions we are most interested in are those concerning existing objects, but
there does not seem to be any particular reason to deny non-existing objects a
nominal definition, given that, also in the case of existing objects, a nominal
definition only points to their accidental features. In other words, for supporters
of this account, nominal definitions have no existential import, i.e. they are not
confined to things that exist, but rather range over all things that possess a
meaningful name.
To sum up, according to this account of Aristotles doctrine of definition
in the Posterior Analytics, we would have three different kinds of definition:
(i) the nominal definition of a thing, i.e. an account explaining the meaning
2
Cf. J. BARNES, Aristotle. Posterior Analytics, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1993
2
, pp. 218-219.
3
Cf. ARISTOTLE, Post. An., II, 7, 92b4-8; 26-34.
270 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
of a things name, be it an existent or a non-existent thing. In the case of an
existent thing, a nominal definition mentions some accidental features of the
thing in question and provides us with a merely accidental knowledge of its
existence; (ii) a partial definition of the thing, which grasps one or more
element in the essence of the thing and so directs us towards the full
knowledge of the essence; (iii) the complete, scientific definition of a thing,
which is or at least contains a statement of the explanation of the things
existence. Let me call the present account Account A.
There are, however, other interpretations of Aristotles doctrine of definition
in the Posterior Analytics. One influential account, for instance, which has
been advanced some years ago by Bolton, does not differ from Barness so
much on the literal reconstruction of Aristotles distinctions in Post. An., II,
8 as on the scope and general significance of nominal definitions
4
. According
to Bolton, nominal definitions do have existential import, i.e. they are
confined to things that exist. Things that do not exist, things such as goatstags,
may be given an account of what their name signifies, but such an account
does not count as a nominal definition, at least as Aristotle understands this
notion. For a nominal definition is always an account of what something is,
and things that do not exist are simply nothing. Boltons account is much
influenced by his reading of Ch. 10, to which I shall turn in the next section.
Since now, however, we can see how this account applies to Aristotles
distinction in Ch. 8. For Bolton, a nominal definition is an account which
enables us to have a grasp of the existence of a certain existing thing by
pointing to some feature or other the thing itself possesses. Thus, all the
accounts Aristotle mentions in Ch. 8 must be kinds of nominal definition. In
other words, both the account by means of which we come to know the
existence of a thing only accidentally and the account by means of which we
know the existence of a thing by grasping something of the thing itself are
instances of nominal definition. The former account only mentions accidental
features of the thing we are investigating into and so is of little use in
scientific investigation. It may help us to fix the reference of a certain general
term and to single out some uncontroversial specimens of a certain natural
kind or phenomenon, but it contributes little or nothing towards our
understanding of the essence of the kind or of the phenomenon. The latter
kind of definition, by contrast, in so far as it grasps something of the thing
itself, already directs us towards a full understanding of its essence. Another
aspect of Boltons reconstruction is that he considers Ch. 8s examples of
4
R. BOLTON, Essentialism and Semantic Theory in Aristotle: Posterior Analytics, II, 7-10,
The Philosophical Review, 85, 1976, pp. 514-544.
271 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
nominal definition as mere examples, which do not exhaust the scope of
nominal definition. In particular Bolton suggests we should admit of
another kind of nominal definition in addition to the ones explicitly mentioned
in Ch. 8, i.e. the one that points to some per se accidents of the thing defined.
It is somehow intermediate between the two kinds of nominal definition I have
just described: in so far it points to per se accidents, it differs from the nominal
definition that makes known the existence of a thing only accidentally; on the
other hand, in so far as it points to some kind of accidents, although per se ones,
it also differs from the definition that grasps something of the thing itself.
However, it can be of some use in scientific inquiry, in that it reveals at least
sufficient conditions for a certain thing to exist, even if such conditions are
ultimately explained by the deeper, essential properties of the thing in question.
Boltons account strikes me as textually difficult. In particular, I fail to see
where and how Aristotle would bring into the picture the third kind of
definition Bolton alludes to. However, also this second account may be useful
in understanding Aquinass position. Therefore, let us keep it in mind and call
it Account B. The distinguishing feature of Account B is that it takes all the
examples of definition in Ch. 8 and in particular also the definition that
grasps something of the thing itself as instances of nominal definition.
Moreover, Account B suggests that all kinds of nominal definition must have,
for Aristotle, existential import, i.e. are confined to things that exist.
Among the different interpretations of Post. An., II, 8 which have been
advanced over time, I would like to mention another one, which is to some
extent a variation on and a refinement of Boltons view. The account, which
I shall label Account C, has been strongly defended by Demoss and
Devereux
5
. Demoss and Devereux agree with Bolton that nominal definitions
do have existential import and so are confined to things that exist. However,
they introduce a even more restrictive and metaphysically loaded notion of
what a nominal definition is supposed to be. According to them, the account
of a thing which only mentions accidental features of the thing itself, and so
gives us only an accidental knowledge of its existence, does not count as a
nominal definition. An account of eclipse, for instance, which only mentions
accidental features of the eclipse may still serve in some sense as an account
of what the name eclipse means, but it does not count as a nominal definition
of the eclipse in the Aristotelian sense of the term. For the task of a nominal
definition is precisely to help us to acquire a proper, i.e. non-accidental,
5
D. DEMOSS, D. DEVEREUX, Essence, Existence and Nominal Definition in Aristotles Posterior
Analytics, II, 8, Phronesis, 33, 1988, pp. 133-154. Account B is foreshadowed by R. SORABJI,
Definitions: Why Necessary and in What Way? in E. BERTI ed., Aristotle on Science. The Posterior
Analytics, Antenore, Padova 1981, pp. 205-244.
272 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
knowledge of the existence of the thing, and Aristotle is explicit in saying that
an account which mentions only accidental features provides us with a merely
accidental knowledge of a things existence. Thus, on this view, the most
chracteristic examples of nominal definition are the definitions that grasp
something of the thing itself, i.e. the partial definitions of a things essence
6
.
They differ from scientific definitions in that they do no mention the cause or
explanation of the things existence, even if they direct us towards such a
cause and explanation. Note that Account C is exactly the reverse of Account
A, at least in so far as the nominal definitions of the objects of scientific
investigation are concerned: on Barness view the nominal definitions of such
objects are precisely those definitions that mention only accidental features
of the thing defined, whilst on Demoss-Devereuxs view accidental accounts
do not count as nominal definitions. What is more, Boltons and Demoss-
Devereuxs notions of nominal definition are quite different from the modern
one. Far from confining themselves to giving the meaning of a term, nominal
definitions point towards real features of the thing defined. The fact that they
also have existential import means that definitions that only spells out the
meaning of a name, the meaning, for instance, of the name of a non-existing
thing, are not even nominal definitions. Barness view on nominal definitions,
by contrast, is closer to the moder one, in that, according to him, the main
task of a nominal definition is precisely to explain the meaning of a things
name, be the thing in question existent or non-existent. However, at least in
the case of existing things, nominal definitions do more than that and point
to some real, though merely accidental, features of the thing defined.
6
As we shall see later on (cf. infra, p. 276), for Demoss and Devereux nominal definitions are
not confined to things like thunders and ecplises, but also concern other kinds of objects. In Post.
An., Ch. 9, Aristotle distinguishes between things that have a cause other than themselves and
things that do not have a cause other than themselves. Aristotles distinction is not entirely clear
but one reasonable suggestion is that things that have a cause other than themselves are the items
that can appear as subjects in the conclusion of a syllogism, whereas things that do not have a
cause other than themselves are the primitive items in a certain scientific branch (for instance the
unit in the case of arithmetic) and so do not appear in the conclusion of syllogisms. Accordingly,
in Post. An., Ch. 10 Aristotle holds that the definition of things like thunder and eclipse can be the
conclusion of a syllogism. As the text makes clear, the definition of thunder and eclipse that
figures in the conclusion of a syllogism is not their scientific or complete definition, but rather the
partial definition of their essence, which according to Demoss and Devereux is one instance of
nominal definition. The definition of the primitive terms of a scientific branch, i.e. of things such
as the unit, cannot appear, by contrast, in the conclusion of a syllogism and must simply be
assumed. On Demoss and Devereuxs interpretation, also the definition of the primitive terms of
a science counts as one instance of nominal definition. Thus, nominal definition covers both the
derivative and the primitive terms of a certain scientific branch. In both cases, nominal definition
seems to have existential import. Moreover, it is clear that Ch. 8 does not deal with primitive terms
but rather with derivative ones, i.e. things such as thunders and eclipses.
273 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
The accounts I have just sketched out by no means exhaust the different
interpretations of Post. An., II, 8-10 scholars have been proposing over time,
especially when points of detail are considered
7
. However, they should
provide us with a general grid to evaluate Aquinass interpretation. Before
turning to Aquinas, however, I shall test out the different accounts against
Aristotles explicit classification of the different kinds of definition in Ch. 10.
b) Kinds of definition
In Post. An., II, 10 Aristotle lists different kinds of definition. There is no
consensus among scholars as to how many kinds are actually listed and as to
how Aristotle thinks they relate to each other. I shall start, therefore, by
simply reporting Aristotles different statements on definition; then I shall
illustrate some of the difficulties his classification presents.
Df1) Since definition is said to be an account of what something is, one
kind of definition will be an account of what its name, or some other name-
like expression, means.
Df2) Another kind of definition is an account that shows why something
exists. Such a definition will be like a demonstration of what something is,
differing from it only in arrangement.
Df3) A further type of definition is the conclusion of the demonstration of
what something is, e.g. thunder is a noise in the clouds.
Df4) The definition of an immediate term is an indemostrable positing of
what it is.
Aristotles classification is particularly difficult and has always baffled
interpreters. Before seeing how the different accounts I have listed in the
previous section make sense of it, let me lay down some facts about which
there is a certain, relative agreement. I have described Df4) as the definition
of an immediate term. In Post. An., II, 9 Aristotle distinguishes between
things for which there is something else which is their explanation, i.e. things
which have a cause other than themselves, and things for which there is not
7
For a more recent reconsideraton of the issues raised in Post. An., II, 8-10 see: D. CHARLES,
Aristotle on Meaning and Essence, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000. Charless analysis is set
against the background of the contemporary debate about essentialism.
274 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
something else which is their explanation, i.e. things which do not have a cause
other than themselves. Aristotles distinction is variously interpreted. On one
reasonable interpretation, the intended distinction is between the primitive
terms of a science, i.e. the items that do not appear as subjects in the conclusion
of a syllogism, and the derivative ones, which, by contrast, appear in the
conclusions of syllogisms
8
. On any account, however, the things which do not
have an explanation other than themselves are the things whose definition is
Df4), i.e. the indemostrable positing of what they are. Whether such things
are the primitive, immediate terms of a science or something else, they are
clearly not the kind of things Aristotle talks about in Ch. 8, where reference is
clearly made to things which have an explanation other than themselves, things
for instance like thunders and eclipses. Therefore, we can leave aside Df4) for
the time being and concentrate on the other three kinds of definition.
Also the relation between Df2) and Df3) is relatively clear. Df2) is the
complete, scientific definition of a thing. It provides a complete account of
the essence of a thing by mentioning the cause or explanation of its existence
9
.
Aristotle suggests that we can obtain such a definition by re-arranging the
terms of a special kind of demonstration, that is the demonstration of what
the thing is. What Aristotle means, of course, is not that we can come to
discover the cause of the existence of a certain thing by building up a special
kind of syllogism, but rather that, once we have discoverd the cause or
explanation of a certain thing or phenomenon, we can build up a syllogism
where such a cause figures as the middle term. And then by re-arranging the
terms of the syllogism in question, we can obtain a full, scientific definition
of the thing. Aristotles example of Df2) is: Thunder is a sound of fire being
quenced in the clouds, which presumably is equivalent to: Thunder is a
noise in the clouds caused by the quencing of fire. Df3) is precisely the
conclusion of the syllogism we are able to build up once the cause of a thing
is discovered. According to Aristotle such a conclusion counts as one kind of
definition of the thing. He also provides an example of Df3), i.e. thunder is
8
For this interpretation see: BARNES, Aristotle cit., pp. 221-222; Cf. DEMOSS, DEVEREUX,
Essence, Existence cit., pp. 134-138. For a different reading, accordind to which Ch. 9s
distinction should be read in the light of the opposition between events/accidents and substances,
see: W. D. ROSS, Aristotle. Prior and Posterior Analytics, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1949, p. 633.
9
In Post. An., II, 2-9 (and especially in II, 2) Aristotle expresses himself as though the
scientific definition of a thing were simply identical with a statement of the explanation or cause
of its existence. From II, 10, however, it clearly emerges that what he means is that the scientific
definition contains a reference to the explanation of a things existence. It should not be
forgotten (i) that II, 1-2 give only the general structure of scientific investigation by indicating
the general questions scientists are supposed to answer and their mutual relations; (ii) that the
discussion in II, 3-7 is deliberately aporematic.
275 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
a noise in the clouds. It should not pass unnoticed that the example Aristotle
offers is precisely one of the examples in Ch. 8 of an account that grasps
something of the thing itself. Thus, the kind of syllogism Aristotle seems to
have in mind is something along the following lines:
(1) Noise in the clouds holds of the quencing of fire
(2) The quencing of fire holds of thunder
(3) Noise in the clouds holds of thunder
Aristotles syllogism can be and as a matter of fact has been
reconstructed differently, and there are also some other problematic points
of detail
10
. But, on a whole, the relation between Df2) and Df3) seems to be
sufficiently clear. Df3) is the partial account of a things essence, whilst Df2)
is the full account of the essence: Df2) is obtained by re-arranging the term
of the syllogism which has Df3) as its conclusion.
Much of the dispute concerns Df1), Aristotles nominal definition, and its
relation to the other kinds of definition. One major problem here is whether
Df1) is another kind of definition, i.e. a kind of definition over and above Df2),
Df3), Df4), or it should be identified with one of the aforementioned ones.
That the letter is a concrete possibility seems to be suggested by Aristotles
rsum of the different kinds of definition in II, 10, 94a11-14, where he only
mentions Df2), Df3) and Df4) and makes no reference at all to Df1). Thus,
some interpreters have thought that we are in fact confronted with only three
kinds of definition and hence Df1) should be identified with one of those three
types. Ross, for instance, holds that we should simply identify Df1), Aristotles
nominal definition, with Df3)
11
. Aristotles example of Df3) in fact is thunder
is a noise in the clouds, which is also one of the examples in Ch. 8 of an
account which grasps something of the thing itself. Rosss suggestion is
congenial to Account C, according to which nominal definitions are precisely
accounts which mention some elements in the essence of a thing and so direct
us towards a full understanding of its essence. Now, Df1), nominal definition,
is defined by Aristotle as an account of what something is. This suggests
that Df3), the partial account of a things essence must be an instance of
nominal definition. For Ross, therefore, the reason why Df1) is not mentioned
in Aristotles final list at 94a11-14 is simply that Df1) is nothing but Df3).
10
For the interpretation I suggested in the text see: BARNES, Aristotle cit., p. 224. For a
critical discussion of the interpretative options available see: M. MIGNUCCI, Aristotele. Analitici
Secondi, Organon IV, Laterza, Bari 2007, pp. 276-278.
11
Cf. ROSS, Aristotle. Prior and Posterior cit., pp. 634-636.
276 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
As a matter of fact, supporters of Account C agree with Ross that Df3) is
an instance of nominal definition
12
. Demoss and Devereux also agree in some
sense that Aristotle presents in Ch. 10 three types of definition. What they
reject is Rosss unqualified identification of Df3) with Df1)
13
. For one of the
consequences of Rosss view is that Df3) is the only kind of nominal definition
there is. However, it is clear that the objects of which Df3) is a definition are
those objects that have a cause or explanation other themselves, i.e. things
such thunders and eclipses. But Aristotle also mentions objects that do not
have a cause or explanation other than themselves, i.e. the objects whose
definition is Df4). And Demoss and Devereux insist that also Df4) is an
instance of nominal definition. The main difference between Df3) and Df4),
i.e. between the two types of nominal definition Aristotle would admit of, is
that the nominal definitions of objects that have a cause other than themselves,
Df3), figure as conclusions of a syllogism, whilst the definition of things that
do not have a cause other than themselves cannot figure as conclusions of a
syllogism. Thus, on Account C, Df1) does not point to one separate kind of
definition, but rather counts as a general characterisation of nominal
definition, which includes both Df3) and Df4) and is naturally contrasted with
real definition, i.e. an account that, like Df2), reveals the cause or the
explanation. In other words, Aristotle would first distinguish between nominal
definitions and real definitions and then further specify that there are two
different kinds of nominal definition, i.e. Df3) and Df4).
There are difficulties with this way of interpreting Aristotles distinctions
and in particular with considering Df3) as an instance of nominal definition.
At 93b29-36, when introducing Df1), Aristotle says:
Since a definition is said to be an account of what something is, it is clear one
type will be an account of what its name, or some other name-like account,
means e.g. what triangle means. When we grasp that this exists, we seek why
it is so. But it is difficult to take anything in this way if we do not know that it
exists. The explanation of the difficulty was given earlier: we do not even know
whether it exists or not, except accidentally
14
.
If we take in this way at 93b33 to mean by means of a nominal
definition, i.e. Df1), it becomes virtually impossible to take Df3) as an
instance of nominal definition, as supporters of Account C think we should,
12
Cf. DEMOSS, DEVEREUX, Essence, Existence cit., pp. 134-138.
13
Cf. ibid., pp. 136-137 (esp. Footnote 10).
14
Cf. ARISTOTLE, Post. An., II, 10, 93b29-36 (Barness traslation). The emphasis is mine.
277 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
or simply identify nominal definitions with Df3), i.e. with partial definitions
of the essence, as Ross would have it. For, when read in this way, Aristotles
passage comes to say that Df1), i.e. nominal definition, is the kind of account
in virtue of which we come to know the existence of a thing only accidentally,
and not the account in virtue of which we grasp something of the thing itself.
In other words, the text seems to support an intepretation along the lines of
Account A, i.e. Barness interpretation
15
. Nominal definitions explain the
meaning of the name of things. In the case of things that exist, they also point
to some accidental features of things and so enable us to grasp the existence
of such things only accidentally. In a way, when we have only a nominal
definition of a thing, we cannot even be said to really know that the thing in
question exists. This reading of the text is supported by Aristotles explicit
reference, at 93b33-35, to Ch. 8s distinction between two ways of knowing the
existence of a thing, i.e. accidentally and by grasping something of the thing.
If the expression in this way is read as I have suggested, Df1), nominal
definition, goes with the account that makes us know the existence of a thing
only accidentally. On Account A, therefore, we have four kinds of definition
in Post. An., II, 10. The reason why Df1), i.e. nominal definition, is not
mentioned in Aristotles final list is simply that it is scienfically uninteresting,
in that it does not even provide us with a proper knowledge of the existence
of the thing we are after.
Of course, as always happens, supporters of Account C are not without
solutions to this difficulty. One might, for instance, read in this way
differently and connects it with the mention, in the immediately preceding
lines, of the knowledge of the explanation of a thing
16
. In other words, one
might take Aristotles passage to mean that it is difficult to know a thing in
this way, i.e. to know the explanation of its existence, without knowing that
it exists. And when we have only accidental knowledge of a things existence, we
cannot properly be said to know that it exists. On this reading, the mention of
the accidental knowledge of a things existence has nothing to do with Df1), i.e.
nominal definition, but is just a quick reminder of Ch. 8s doctrine, intended to
exclude accidental accounts from the kinds of account Ch. 10s discussion is
interested in. Thus, Df1) can be still associated with the account which grasps
something of the thing itself and hence it becomes possible to take Df3) as an
instance of nominal definition. This interpretation of the Greek text is perfectly
possible. However, Aristotles reference to accidental knowledge in the nearby,
as it were, of Df1) is somehow disturbing for supporters of Account C.
15
Cf. BARNES, Aristotle. Posterior Analytics cit., p. 223.
16
Cf. DEMOSS, DEVEREUX, Essence, Existence cit., p. 148.
278 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
What about account B), Boltons view? Bolton sticks to the traditional
idea that Ch. 10 presents four kinds of definition. He also reads the section on
Df1) in line with Account A and so connects Df1) with the account which
mentions only accidental features of the thing defined. Bolton insists, however,
that nominal definition is not confined to Df1) and hence both Df1) and Df3)
introduce kinds of nominal definition. Df1) is a nominal definition which
mentions only accidental features of the thing defined. Scientifically, it is the
least interesting kind of nominal definition and somehow slips from Aristotles
final list at 94a11-14. Df3), by contrast, is described as the conclusion of the
demonstration of what something is. Thus, Df3) must include only the kinds
of nominal definition which can figure as conclusions of a syllogism. In other
words, Df3) includes the other two kinds of nominal definition Bolton
attributes to Aristotle: the nominal definition which gives part of the essence
of a thing and that which mentions some of its per se accidents. For per se
accidents too usually figure in the conclusions of syllogisms. I must confess
I find Account Bs reading of Ch. 10 the most difficult to defend. For the text
does not seem to suggest that there is any other nominal definition apart from
Df1). Thus, we seem to be left with two alternatives: either to take Df1) as
Aristotles nominal definition and contrast it with Df3), i.e. the definition
containing something of the essence of a thing, or to take Df1) as Aristotles
nominal definition and identify it with Df3). Account B wants to have it both
ways, but the text does not support this reading.
II. AQUINASS READING OF POSTERIOR ANALYTICS, II, 8-10
a) The general picture
Aquinas presents a thoroughly consistent interpretation of Aristotles
doctrine of definition in the second book of Posterior Analytics. As I shall try to
show in the following, his interpretation should be read along the lines of what
I have labelled Account A. In particular, Aquinas makes four points, which
are characteristic of Account A. (i) He interprets Aristotles distinction in II, 8
between two ways of knowing the existence of a thing as a distinction between
an account which points only to accidental features of the thing and an account
which grasps something of the things essence. (ii) He recognises in Aristotles
classification in II, 10 four kinds of definition, i.e. Df1), Df2), Df3) and Df4),
which I have described above. Actually, Aquinas reserves the title of definition
only for Df2), Df3) and Df4), whilst he describes Df1) as a formula or account
which does not meet the strictest requirements for something to be a definition.
Aquinass terminological choice is due to his taking a definition to signify in
279 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
some way or other the essence of the thing defined. As we shall see, Df1), on
Aquinass interpretation as well as on Account A, does not meet such a
requirement. (iii) The Dominican Master clearly identifies Df3) with Ch. 8s
second kind of formula, i.e. with the formula which grasps something of the
essence of a thing. Such a formula is the one that can figure as the conclusion
of a syllogism. (iv) The fourth point concerns nominal definition and may be
thought to be more controversial. As a matter of fact, Aquinas does not
straightaway identify nominal definitions with Ch 8s first kind of account, i.e.
the account which only points to the accidental features of a thing, nor does he
identify Df1) with nominal definition. On the contrary, in his commentary on
Post. An., II, 10, he considers Df1) as a large class including both nominal
definitions and accounts showing only the accidental features of a thing, that
is including all the accounts that does not signify in any way the essence of a
thing. Thus, it might seem that Aquinas in fact distinguishes nominal definitions
from accidental accounts. My analysis, however, will try to show that this is not
actually the case. For in his commentary on Ch. 10, Aquinas starts off with a
very strict understanding of nominal definition, according to which a nominal
definition is an account which explains only the meaning of a certain name
without mentioning any real characteristic of the thing corresponding to the
name. In other words, Aquinas admits of the possibility of there being an
account which only explains the meaning of a term without mentioning any
real feature of the thing defined something very close to the modern notion
of nominal definition. Such a notion of nominal definition fits in particularly
well with the case of non-existent objects: since non-existent objects are simply
not there, they do not present any real characteristics, be they accidental or
essential, to be mentioned in an account. Aquinass strict sense of nominal
definition, however, fits also the case of those items whose degree of unity is so
low that they cannot be classified as things, properly speaking: an account of
the Trojan War can certainly explain the meaning of its name, e.g. Ylias, but
it would be hard to say that the Trojan War is a thing to which we can attribute
essential or accidental properties in the same sense as we attribute essential or
accidental properties to an eclipse. Aquinass strict notion of nominal definition
does not do, by contrast, for the case of things that exist and also have a
sufficient degree of unity, i.e. things such as thunders and eclipses. For it seems
that the definition which explains the meaning of the name of such things must
mention at least some of their real characteristics, however external and
superficial they may turn out to be. Thus, the nominal definition of things that
are existent and have a sufficient degree of unity is after all an account which
mentions some of their accidental features. Aquinas, therefore, does not want
to contrast accidental accounts with nominal definitions taken generally, but
simply accidental accounts with nominal definitions in the stricter sense of
280 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
the term, i.e. those nominal definitions which do not mention any real
characteristics of the thing defined. This, however, does not rule it out that
accidental accounts as well can count as nominal definitions. All things
considered, on the issue of nominal definition as well, Aquinass interpretation
is not very different from Account A. For on Account A too, nominal definitions
are not confined to existent objects, nor are they restricted to things that
possess a sufficiently high degree of unity.
In the following, I am going to flesh out each of the foregoing claims. Let
me start with Aquinass reading of II, 8.
b) Two ways of knowing existence
In his commentary on Post. An., II, 8, 93a14 ff., Aquinas starts from
Aristotles claim that it is impossible to know the essence of a thing without
knowing in advance its existence
17
. However, he rightly takes the essence
to mean the full essence of a thing, i.e. the essence which is captured in a full,
complete definition
18
. Thus, Aristotles words leave room for there to be some
account of a thing, which falls short of a full scientific definition of its
essence, but still enables us to come to know its existence. As a matter of fact,
later on in his commentary, Aquinas remarks that it is impossible to come to
know the existence of a thing without any previous account of what it is
19
. As
we have seen, Aristotle distinguishes in Ch. 8 two different ways of knowing
the existence of a thing, i.e. two different accounts of a thing which fall short
of scientific definition but may enable us to grasp the existence of a thing.
Aquinass interpretation of Aristotles distinction is in keeping with Account
A, as can be seen simply by reading through his remarks on the text:
And [Aristotle] says that we can know that a thing exists without perfectly
knowing what it is, in two ways. In one way, in so far as we know some
accident of it, as in the case in which from the speed of the movement we
judge that there is a hare around. In another way, by knowing something of
the essence of the thing (...)
20
.
17
Cf. SANCTI THOMAE DE AQUINO Expositio Libri Posteriorum, Lib. II, lect. 7, Opera Omnia, t.
I*2, Cura et studio fratrum Praedicatorum, Commissio Leonina-Vrin, Roma-Paris 1989, p. 199,
lin. 109-124.
18
Cf. ibid., p. 199, lin. 126-127.
19
Cf. ibid., Lib. II, lect. 8, p. 203, lin. 92-99.
20
Cf. ibid., Lib. II, lect. 7, p. 199, lin. 126-131: Et dicit quod aliquam rem esse possumus
scire absque eo quod sciamus perfecte quid est, dupliciter: uno modo secundum quod cognoscimus
aliquod accidens eius, puta si per velocitatem motus estimemus leporem esse; alio modo per hoc
quod cognoscimus aliquid de essentia eius (...). The translation is mine.
281 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
According to Aquinas, therefore, Aristotle distinguishes two different ways
of knowing the existence of a thing. We can come to know a things existence by
means of an account which only mentions an accident of the thing ; or we can
come to know a things existence through an account which grasps something of
thing itself, which Aquinas interprets as an account which mentions some (but
not all) of the elements in the very essence of the thing. The first kind of
knowledge of existence is merely accidental knowledge and does not contribute
anything towards understanding the full essence of a thing and acquiring a full,
scientific definition of it
21
. In a way, when we know the existence of a thing only
accidentally, we cannot even be said to really know its existence. The way
Aquinas explains this latter remark of Aristotles is interesting. He observes that
when we know only an accident of a thing we do not really know the thing itself,
but something else. For accidents, though being truly predicated of a thing, are
not the thing of which they are predicated
22
. Thus, Aquinas takes accidental
predication to be an ontological relation obtaining between two really, i.e. mind-
independently distinct things, whilst presumably essential predication obtains
between things that are not really, i.e. mind-independently distinct. The subject
and predicate of an essential predication express one and the same thing, though
in different ways. The second kind of knowledge of existence consists in knowing
the existence of a thing by grasping something of its essence. In this case, we
truly know the existence of the thing and so are in a position to seek its full
essence and its scientific definition
23
. Aquinas regards the examples Aristotle
provides in 93a21-24 ( Thunder is a sound in the clouds , Eclipse is a
privation of light , Man is an animal , Soul is a self-moving thing ) as
examples of definitions which mention some essential features of the thing
defined, i.e. as examples of partial definition of a things essence
24
.
In conclusion, Aquinass interpretation of Ch. 8 perfectly squares with
Account A. The distinction Aristotle has in mind in the chapter is that between
an account which mentions only some accidental features of a thing and a
partial account of a things essence, i.e. an account which mentions some but
not all of the essential features of a thing.
c) Aquinass interpretation of Post. An., II, 10
According to Aquinas, in Post. An., II, 10 Aristotle admits of four different
accounts of a thing, which perfectly correspond to Df1), Df2), Df3) and Df4)
21
Cf. AQUINAS, Exp. Post., Lib. II, lect. 7, p.199, lin. 156-152.
22
Cf. ibid., p. 199, lin. 160-162.
23
Cf. ibid., p. 199, lin. 164-168.
24
Cf. ibid., p. 199, lin. 139-154.
282 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
above
25
. Of these four accounts only the last three can be properly characterised
as definitions. The first i.e. Df1) is not a definition, strictly speaking, but
only a formula (ratio) of the thing which falls short of definition in the strict
sense of the term
26
. This also explains why Df1) is not mentioned in Aristotles
final list at 94a11-14, which is confined to formulae which can be properly
described as definitions. What distinguishes definitions from other kinds of
account is the fact that definitions signify the essence of a thing, i.e. presumably
they mention at least some of its essential features
27
. Thus, from Aquinass
reading there clearly emerges that Df1) however it should be further
characterised is an account of a thing which does not mention any of its
essential features. Since Df1) is, on Aquinass reading as well, the most
problematic case I shall first say a few words about the other three kinds of
formulae, i.e. the formulae which can be properly characterised as definitions.
Then I shall try to explain how Aquinas understands Df1).
Now, Df4) is taken to be an indemostrable definition of immediate
terms
28
. As I said, I am not chiefly interested in this kind of definition and
so we can l eave it once again out of our consideration. Aquinas s
understanding of the relation between Df2) and Df3) is not particularly
problematic. Df2) is the full, scientific definition of the essence of a thing,
i.e. the definition which contains the cause of a things existence
29
. Such a
definition can be obtained by re-arranging in an appropriate way the terms
of a special kind of syllogism, the syllogism which shows what a thing is.
Thus, Df2) is a formula which differs from a syllogism (i.e. the syllogism
which shows what a thing is) only for the position of the terms involved
30
.
Df3) is precisely the conclusion of a syllogism showing what a thing is
31
.
Aquinas characterises Df3) as a definition which only signifies the essence
of a thing
32
. What he means is that, like Df2) and Df4), Df3) points to some
essential features of a thing and so it signifies its essence but, unlike
Df2) and presumably also Df4), it does not express the whole essence of the
thing defined and so it only signifies the essence, i.e. confines itself to
pointing to some essential features but not to all of them. What Df3) lacks
is a mention of the cause of a things existence, which should be included,
25
Cf. AQUINAS, Exp. Post., Lib. II, lect. 8, pp. 203-204, lin. 91-191.
26
Cf. ibid., p. 203, lin. 99-104.
27
Cf. ibid., p. 203, lin. 91-92; 115-116.
28
Cf. ibid., p. 204, lin. 173-183.
29
Cf. ibid., p. 203, lin. 133-134; 150-155.
30
Cf. ibid., p. 203, lin. 133-143; 150- 204, 169; p. 204, lin. 183-189.
31
Cf. ibid., p. 204, lin. 166-169.
32
Cf. ibid., p. 204, lin. 191-192.
283 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
by contrast, in a full scientific definition. Therefore, there is no doubt that
Df3) must be identified with the second of Ch. 8s two accounts by which we
may come to know the existence of a thing, i.e. the account which grasps
something of the thing by mentioning some but not all of its essential
features. Admittedly, Aquinas in his commentary on Post. An., II, 10 does not
mention existence in connection with Df3). However, as we shall see shortly,
Aquinass description of Df1), where existence can at best be known only
accidentally, makes it perfectly clear that Df3) gives us a true grasp of the
existence of a thing and so should be identified with Ch. 8s second account.
So far, Aquinass reconstruction of Ch. 10 is perfectly in line with Account
A. But what about Df1)? Should it be straightaway identified with the
nominal definition of a thing? And should nominal definition be identified
with Ch. 8s first kind of account, i.e. the account which mentions only the
accidental features of a thing? In a way, it is difficult to give an unqualified
answer to these two questions. Therefore, I prefer to spell out in some detail
Aquinass understanding of Df1) and see how it can provide answers to the
two questions I have just mentioned. What is certain about Df1) is that
Aquinas does not regard it as a definition in the strict sense of the term. For
definitions in the strict sense of the term must signify the essence of a thing,
that is, presumably, must mention at least some of the essential features of a
thing, and Df1) does not mention any of such features according to Aquinass
view. Thus, clearly, Df1) at least includes Ch. 8s first kind of account, i.e. the
account which mentions only the accidental features of a thing. However, for
Aquinas, accidental accounts are not the only kind of accounts included in
Df1). The Dominican Master says in fact that an account or formula of a thing
which falls short of a definition can be of two different types: either it is an
account which explains only the meaning of the name of a thing; or it is an
account which bears upon some real features of a thing, even though it
mentions only its accidental ones
33
. Taken at its face value, Aquinass comment
seems to distinguish nominal definitions from accidental accounts. Both are
formulae that fall short of definition, in that neither of them make reference
to the essential features of a thing. And so both can be classified as instances
of Df1). However, nominal definition, i.e. the definition explaining the
meaning of a things name, seems to be a formula that does not mention any
of the real features of a thing, be they accidental or essential, but only
confines itself to explaining what the name associated with the thing means.
Accidental accounts, by contrast, mention some of the real features of a thing,
i.e. some of its accidental properties. They are explicitly identified by Aquinas
33
Cf. AQUINAS, Exp. Post., Lib. II, lect. 8, p. 203, lin. 99-104.
284 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
with the first kind of account Aristotle discusses in Ch. 8, i.e. the formula that
gives us only an accidental knowledge of a things existence
34
.
So, should we believe that, according to Aquinas, the nominal definition
of thunder or eclipse does not even mention some of the accidental features
of thunder or eclipse? I do not think so. On my view, Aquinass distinction
when presenting Df1) is a different one, which does not force us to distinguish
in the case of eclipse and thunder between nominal definition and accidental
account. Let me try to explain my view. First of all, Aquinass point is that
nominal definitions as such have no existential import. In other words, we
can give a nominal definition, i.e. a formula specifying what the name of a
thing means, both of things that exist and of things that do not exist. So, at
least some nominal definitions do not even mention accidental features of the
thing defined: for instance the nominal definitions of things that do not exist
do not mention any real features of such things, be they accidental or
essential, simply because things that do not exist have no real features there
for us to mention. So, if Aquinas believes, as he does, that nominal definitions
do not have existential import, he is perfectly right to distinguish nominal
definitions as such from accidental accounts. For surely, at least some
nominal definitions are not accidental accounts. There is also another case to
be taken into account. In addition to things that do not exist, there are also
items that can be certainly said to exist in some sense, but do not have the
sufficient degree of unity for them to be classified as things in the strict sense
of the term. Take for instance the case of the Trojan War, which is narrated
by Homer in the poem Ylias. There is certainly a sense in which the Trojan
War can be said to be something that exists or existed: it is presumably a
series of events and facts that we group together on account of certain
relations (of causality, temporal proximity and so on) they bear to one
another. For Aquinas, however, as for Aristotle, the Trojan War does not have
the sufficient degree of unity for it to be described as one thing. Its unity, in
other words, is only accidental: even if the parts of Trojan War are somehow
related to each other, the war as a whole is not one thing possessing certain
essential and accidental properties in the same way as the things possessing
a non-accidental degree of unity. Of course, there are many things that can be
truly predicated of the Trojan War. But such things are not essential or
accidental properties of the Trojan War in the same sense as being an animal
or being pale are, respectively, an essential and an accidental property of a
man. Thus, Homers poem, even if we take it to be in some sense an account
of the Trojan War, could not really count as an account which mentions
accidental or essential properties of it, but at best as an account which
34
Cf. AQUINAS, Exp. Post., Lib. II, lect. 8, p. 203, lin. 104-114.
285 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
explains in some detail, to be sure the meaning of the name corresponding
to the Trojan War, e.g. Ylias. Therefore, since even the nominal definition of
things that we can say exist in some sense but do not have a sufficient degree
of unity, does not mention any accidental features of the thing defined, it
seems that Aquinas is once again right in distinguishing nominal definitions
as such from accidental accounts.
All this, however, does not rule it out that the nominal definition of things
that exist and have also a sufficient degree of unity does in fact mention some
of their accidental features. After all, it is difficult to imagine a nominal
definition of an eclipse which mentions none of the characteristics an eclipse
really possesses, should they even be the most superficial and external to its
essence. Thus, I conclude that, according to Aquinas, the nominal definition
of things which are the objects of scientific investigation, that is things that
exist and have a sufficient degree of unity, are accidental accounts of such
things, which only mention some of their accidental and superficial
characteristics. In the case of the objects of scientific investigation, Df1) is a
nominal definition and an accidental account. On this point too, therefore,
Aquinass interpretation is in line with Account A. It should be remembered in
fact that, according to Barnes too, nominal definitions as such do not have
existential import. We can give a nominal definition of all sorts of things, for
instance of non-existent things, of things that exist but have a very low degree
of unity as well as of proper objects of scientific investigation. Presumably,
however, the nominal definition of an object of scientific investigation will
point to some real features of the thing, although some merely accidental ones.
3. CONCLUDING REMARKS: AQUINAS AND ARISTOTLES ESSENTIALISM
We have seen that the second book of the Posterior Analytics contains
several remarks on the relation between essence and existence. I have discussed
for instance in some detail Aristotles claim in Chs. 2 and 8 to the effect that
it is impossible to know the essence of a thing before knowing its existence.
Another important passage on the relation between essence and existence is
Post. An., II, 7, 92b4-11. The text belongs to Aristotles dialectical discussion
of the relation between demonstration and definition. One of the main themes
of discussion is the question whether definition can be demonstrated, i.e.
whether there is a syllogism whose conclusion is a definition. The question
along with some others is discussed dialectically in Chs. 3-7 and then
positively solved in Chs. 8-10. We have briefly touched upon Aristotles
solution to this difficulty. What can figure as a conclusion of a syllogism is
only a partial definition of a thing, i.e. Df3), a definition which only mentions
part of its essence. The full, scientific definition of a thing can never be the
286 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
conclusion of a syllogism, but can nonetheless be obtained by re-arranging
the terms of the syllogism which has as its conclusion a partial definition of
the thing. Thus, the scientific definition of a thing is not demonstrated, but
rather as Aristotle expresses himself revealed through a demonstration.
In the course of his dialectical discussion (II, 7, 92b4-11), Aristotle
presents a particularly interesting argument against the claim that a definition
can be demonstrated. The structure of the argument is the following. (i) If one
knows what x is, one must know that x exists; (ia) for if no such a thing as x
exists, one cannot know what it is, but can know at most what the name of x
means; (ii) thus, if one demonstrates what x is, one thereby demonstrates that
x exists. (iii) But one demontration demonstrates only one thing and (iv) what
x is and that x exists are two different things. (v) Therefore, one cannot
demonstrate what x is. Aristotles argument is dialectical. So, we should not
assume that Aristotle necessarily believes in the truth of its premisses or of its
conclusion. However, some elements in the argument seems to correspond to
Aristotles genuine doctrine. For one thing, the distinction in (ia) between an
account which explains the meaning of the name of a thing and an account
which reveals what a thing is seems to support Account As and Aquinass
intuition that nominal definitions have no existential import: in the case
of things that do not exist there is no definition revealing what they are for
they are nothing but only an account which explains the meaning of their
name. For another, Aristotles general point that what something is and that
something exists are two distinct objects of knowledge seems to be put to
much use in Post. An., II, 8, as we have seen. And it is precisely this second
aspect of Aristotles argument which Aquinas picks up on in his commentary:
Just as definition is introduced in order to make known something which is one
in that from the parts of a definition there results something which is one per
se and not accidentally so it is necessary that demonstration, which uses
definition as middle term, demonstrate something which is one (...) And thus it
is evident that things that are different cannot be demonstrated through one and
the same demonstration. But that a man exists and what a man is are different
things (Only in the first principle of being, in fact, which is being essentially,
being itself and quiddity are one and the same thing; in all other things, by
contrast, which are beings only by participation, it is necessay that being and
quiddity be different). Therefore, it is not possible for someone to demonstrate
what something is and that it exists through one and the same demonstration
35
.
35
Cf. AQUINAS, Exp. Post., Lib. II, lect. 6, p. 194, lin. 35-50: Sicut diffinitio inducitur ad
manifestandum aliquid unum, in quantum scilicet ex partibus definition fit unum per se, non
per accidens, ita etiam oportet quod demonstratio, que utitur diffinitione tamquam medio,
287 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
Although Aquinas provides a faithfull reconstruction of Aristotle s
argument, he also injects into it an ontological consideration which does not
seem to be explicitly present in the text. According to the Dominican Master,
Aristotles argument suggests that essence and existence are not only two
different objects of knowledge but also two distinct ontological principles or
constituents of things. In the first principle, i.e. God, such two costituents are
identical, whereas in all created things essence and existence are two mind-
independently distinct constituents. In other words, all creatures display a
real, i.e. mind-independent composition of essence and existence. We do not
need to think that Aquinas regards Aristotles passage as an argument for the
real distinction between essence and existence. However, he is clearly of the
opinion that the general tenor of the passage as well as Aristotles general
doctrine in the second book of the Posterior Analytics is quite compatible
with taking essence and existence to be two ontological components of a
thing. Thus, even if Aristotles remarks in II, 7, 92b4-11 are not strictly
speaking an argument for the distinction, they should clearly be taken,
according to Aquinas, at least as an intuitive ground for such an argument.
But is Aquinas right? Does the spirit of Aristotles doctrine in Post. An., II,
go in the direction of an ontological distinction between essence and existence?
Of course, a detailed analysis of Aquinass celebrated doctrine goes much
beyond the scope of this paper. I shall confine myself to indicating the general
reasons why I believe that Aquinass interpretation is not right and Aristotles
general doctrine in Post. An., II, goes rather in the opposite direction. Now,
Aquinass view on essence and existence clearly represents a major departure
from a certain essentialist treatment of existence. According to essentialim,
to exist for a thing simply means to belong to a certain kind, i.e. to be such-
and-such kind of thing. A things membership in a kind and its existing are not
two distinct facts about a thing: when a thing exists, its existence can be
totally explained by its being a member of a certain kind. And being a member
of a certain kind means possessing a certain essence, i.e. displaying certain
essential characteristics and behaving in the way appropriate to the kind the
thing belongs to. It should be noted that the essentialist view is a view about
ontology and not about epistemology, i.e. it concerns the way things are and
not the way we come to know things. In other words, it may well be the case
unum aliquid demonstret(...) et ita patet quod per unam et eandem demonstrationem non
possunt diversa demonstrari; set aliud est quod quid est homo et esse hominem (in solo enim
primo essendi principio, quod est essencialiter ens, ipsum esse et quiditas eius est unum et
idem; in omnibus autem aliis, que sunt entia per participationem, oportet quod sit aliud ens et
quiditas eius); non est ergo possibile quod eadem demonstratione demonstret aliquis quid est
et quid est. The translation is mine.
288 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
that to know that something is and to know what something is are two distinct
pieces of knowledge we come to acquire separately and at different stages.
However, regardless of how we come to know the essence and the existence of
a thing, the fact remains that a things existence simply consists in its belonging
to a certain kind, and so existence as such does not add anything to the
ontological structure of a thing. Aquinass view, by contrast, presupposes a
more metaphysically loaded notion of existence. For him, to exist for a thing
does not simply mean to possess a certain essence and so to be a member of a
certain kind. Of course, everything that exists does have a certain essence and
is a member of a certain kind, but the existence of a thing is a further fact that
cannot be totally explained by the things having an essence or being member
of a certain kind, but rather requires further explanation. In other words, in
addition to a things having an essence we also need to explain why a thing
possessing the properties which characterise a certain essence actually exists.
Thus, on Aquinass view, every existing thing (with the exception of God) does
not only possess an essence, but also a further principle explaining why such
an essence is an actually existing thing. And this further principle is precisely
the act of being or existence. In contrast with the essentialist view, therefore,
Aquinas maintains that there is a certain parallelism between the ontological
structure of things and the way we come to know them. Just as we come to know
what something is and that a thing exists separately and at different stages, so
essence and existence are two distinct ontological constituents of a thing, in
that they explain two distinct and irreducible facts about a thing, i.e. the fact
that a thing possesses certain essential characteristics and the further fact that
a thing with certain essential characteristics actually exists.
Does Aquinass ontological reading of the essence/existence distinction
find any support in Aristotles doctrine in the second book of the Posterior
Analytics? I do not think so. In general Aristotle has very little to say about
existence as such. He seems to hold on to a strictly essentialist treatment of
existence, according to which to exist for a thing simply consists in being
such-and-such a kind of thing and so in possessing a certain essence. His
famous doctrine, for instance, that there are different senses or ways of
existing should be probably read according to an essentialist paradigm. There
are different ways of existing precisely because there are different kinds of
thing, the kinds corresponding to the categories. To exist for a substance is to
have the essential characteristic traits of a substance, and to exist for a
member of any other category means to have the essential, characteristic
traits of the category in question, be it a quantity, a quality or any other kind
of thing. The sense in which a substance exists is primary and that in which
the members of the accidental categories exist is secondary because
accidents depend on substance in a way in which substances do not depend
289 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
on accidents. Admittedly, such a dependence also involves what we may call
existential aspects such as for instance the fact that accidents exist in
substances whilst substances do not exist in accidents. However, the reason
to introduce a distinction among different senses of being or existing in the
first place is motivated by essentialist considerations: there are different
senses of existing precisely because there are different kinds of thing.
Now, the second book of the Posterior Analytics is the place in Aristotles
corpus where he distinguishes more sharply between essence and existence.
However, Aristotles considerations do not go farther than the epistemological
level. He says that to know that something exists and to know what something
is are in fact two distinct pieces of knowledge: we must know that something
exists before we come to know the complete essence of a thing. But nothing
of what Aristotle says seems to have implications for the ontological level. In
other words, nothing of what he says seems to suggest that to exist for a thing
consists in anything more than being a member of a certain kind and that the
fact that something exists needs to be explained by having recourse to
principles other than the essence itself
36
. On the contrary, even some of the
things Aristotle says about our knowledge of the existence of a thing seem to
betray an essentialist treatment of existence. In Post. An., II, 8 and 10 he
remarks that those who possess only an accidental account of a thing, i.e. an
account mentioning only some of a things accidental features, cannot really
36
Of course, in one case, i.e. the case of substances, the fact that a thing comes into existence
must be explained by having recourse to some further principles in addition to the things
essence, for instance the agent that brings about the generation of the thing in question. For
Aristotles view is clearly that the efficient cause of substances does not enter into the account
of their essence. However, it must be observed that the things Aristotle investigates into in the
Posterior Analytics are not only substances (and perhaps not chiefly substances), but also events
such as thunder or eclipse. And Aristotle himself suggests in Post. An., II, 10 that the agent that
brings about a thunder or an eclipse is at least part of these things essence (a doctrine Aristotle
seems to re-state in Met., Z, 17 as well). Moreover, even if we confine ourselves to the case of
substances, to say that a substance comes into existence in virtue of principles other than its
essence is different from saying that when a thing exists it is actually composed of two different
principles, one accounting for the things possessing certain essential features and the other
accounting for such a things actually existing. In other words, the distinction between essence
and existence mainly concerns the static, ontological structure of things and not the way in
which they come into being. Finally, it is also true that a thing comes into existence in virtue of
principles that bear a certain relation to its essence. For the agent that brings a thing into being
transmits to the product the form which is the essence of the product itself. If one takes it as
I was doing that for Aristotle the essence of sensible substances only includes their form, the
only distinction in the structure of things which Aristotle makes room for is that between the
essence of a thing and its matter. However, Aristotle never connects such a distinction to the
distinction between essence and existence and, given his general essentialist treatment of
existence, there are no reasons to think that he should.
290 GABRIELE GALLUZZO
be said to know the existence of the thing in question. Actually, only those
who come to know the existence of a thing by grasping something of the thing
itself, i.e. by an account which mentions some of a things essential features,
can be said to properly know the existence of a thing. Aristotles distinction
clearly suggests that our knowledge of the existence of a thing is somehow
connected with our identifying the thing as a member of a certain kind. Only
by grasping some of the things essential features and so only by recognising
the thing as an instance of a certain kind, can we come to have a proper
knowledge of its existence. Of course, our knowledge of a things existence
does not involve for Aristotle, but rather excludes a full understanding of a
things essence. So, also our identifying the thing as an instance of a certain
kind will be only partial at the moment at which we actually know its
existence. For instance, we may come to know that a thing exists only by
knowing the genus to which such a thing belongs. However, to know the
existence of a thing by grasping its genus or some other of its essential
features still counts as an instance of knowing the thing as a thing of a certain
kind. Further investigation will specify and determine the nature of the kind
a thing belongs to, but it is clear that from the very moment we properly know
that a thing exists we also know that such a thing belongs to a certain yet
to be fully specified kind. Thus, Aristotles doctrine seems to be that to exist
for a thing simply means to be such-and-such, i.e. to be a thing of a certain
kind, even if we come to determine the precise nature of the kind the thing
belongs to only by degrees.
Aristotles essentialist line is confirmed by another piece of doctrine we
have touched upon in Section I, namely the view that the essence of a thing
is the cause or explanation of its existence. In Post. An., II, 8 and 10, Aristotle
tells us that there are accounts of a thing that mention some of its essential
features but not its cause or explanation. This implies that, technically, the
cause or explanation of a things existence is only part of a things essence and
does not straightaway identify with it. However, Aristotles considerations in
Post. An., II, 2, suggest that there must be a less technical sense in which
a things essence as a whole is the cause or explanation of its existence. For in
Ch. 2 Aristotle simply identifies the essence of a thing with the cause of its
existence. Presumably, Aristotles remarks should be read in the light of his
essentialist treatment of existence. To exist for a thing simply consists in
being such-and-such a thing, i.e. in being a member of a certain kind. Thus,
once we know the essence of a thing, there is no other cause or explanation
of its existence for us to look for. For the cause or explanation of that things
existence simply is that things having the essence it has and so being a
member of the kind it belongs to. No additional factor is required to account
for a things existing let alone some extra ontological constituent.
291 AQUINAS ON NOMINAL AND REAL DEFINITION
I conclude, therefore, that Aquinass ontological reading of Aristotles
distinction between knowing the essence and knowing the existence of a thing
is not warranted by the text of the Posterior Analytics. In other words, Aquinas
reads back into Aristotles text a doctrine which is one of the cornerstones of
his metaphysical thought. This aspect, however, does not diminish the merits
of his otherwise careful and insightful reading of Aristotles doctrine in the
second book of the Posterior Analytics.
ABSTRACT
The paper illustrates Aquinass reading of Aristotles doctrine of definition in Post.
An., II, 8-10, with particular reference to the distinction between nominal and real
definition. The analysis of Aquinass interpretation is set against the background of
the contemporary debate over Aristotles understanding of the relations between
demonstration and definition. The main thesis the paper argues for is that Aquinas
provides a consistent interpretation of Post. An., II, 8-10, which mainly centres on the
claim that nominal definitions do not have existential import. In the final part of the
article, some light is also shed on how Aquinas exploits Aristotles considerations in
the second book of the Posterior Analytics to give further support to his distinction
between essence and existence.