I ended my last post a couple of months ago with remarks about a challenge which seems to have characterized human thought about the physical world from the very start: that, namely, of reconciling the Platonic logoi with the reality of physical being. Plato, as I noted, realized that there must be intelligible logoi if there was to be any philosophy at all. On the other hand, he consequently inclined to the conclusion that materiality was antithetic to the life of the intellect, because the logoi themselves seem to be necessarily immaterial. Our very bodies are therefore prisons to our minds, in Plato’s view. One of Aristotle’s great accomplishments was to see that matter is a genuine principle of natural beings, distinguishable from privation. Aristotle recognized that there must be forms which belong in matter, so that the logoi of natural beings includes both form and matter. This was virtually the inauguration of natural science itself.
One might consequently think that the only thing remaining to do is find out what the natural forms are, mentally juxtapose them with matter, and presto! — we will have natural science fully fledged.
But this can easily be recognized as implausible, even on the face of it. If matter is truly a co-principle of natural beings, it will not be possible to consider the forms of natural beings in abstraction therefrom. The developing grasp of how the material and formal principles are interrelated is, in fact, a guiding principle of the whole history of thought concerning the natural world. And most, if not all, of what I intend to write in the near future is about this.
Since I may not get to this right away, and since in any event one ought not to multiply words without reason, I should like immediately to call my readers’ attention to the writings of the great Charles DeKoninck. Much of what I shall write is based on his thought, though I shall perhaps not always agree with him. Much of what I am about to write is closely linked with two essays by him which every serious student of natural philosophy should read: Introduction to the Study of the Soul, and Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism. (Another, for those prepared to spend more time, is Le Cosmos.)
In his Introduction to his Commentary on De Caelo, Thomas Aquinas observes that there are several orders in which human thought naturally progresses. There is what is commonly known, among Thomists, as the “order of determination:” that is, proceeding from the more general to the more particular. This is not the same as the “order of demonstration,” which refers to the order in which one reasons from premises to conclusions. Sometimes these are confused in a rather superficial way, by those who suppose that premises must be more general than the conclusions drawn from them. They forget that demonstrations are to be drawn from causes which are “commensurately universal” with their effects.
But this is not the primary distinction which I want to focus on here. There is another distinction between two kinds of “more general.” We identify the generic with that which is less determinate according to form. “Closed curve,” for example, is a genus, to which “ellipse” and “circle” are species. Closed curve is generic because it is formally less determined than ellipse and circle. We naturally move from the generic to the specific because our minds naturally follow the order of formal determination of material objects themselves.
This is not the same as — but it is again often confused with — what we may call the “order of concretion,” which is a mental movement from something considered more formally to the same thing considered more materially. This order of mental progress is the one which, I shall maintain, most distinctively characterizes the entire history of science and natural philosophy. It therefore behooves anyone interested in the philosophy of science to understand this order as well as one can. (This is also the first of the several orders Aquinas describes.)
By way of a first illustration of this order, Aquinas himself notes in the passage cited above that it closely parallels a similar order found in the practical arts: “an artisan first apprehends the form of a house absolutely and then realizes it in matter….”
This comparison with the artificial is helpful, because one can see that, in the practical order, two things are necessary. One is that the form of the house should be considered “absolutely” first. There is a certain sense in which the meaning of house is only graspable if one begins by prescinding from the “messy” aspects of its account: “four walls and a roof” is a good first approximation. An architect or engineer, accordingly, will ordinarily begin whatever he designs by looking at more formal considerations, prescinded from matter. What shape should it have? How tall? How many floors? Or, how fast should it fly, and how many people should it carry? How big to make it? Later, those considerations will serve as the principles in deciding on more material factors, such as most obviously what to make the building or airplane out of. And one doesn’t really have a complete design, a full account of the artifact to be made, until the latter is done. And so it is also with natural things. In both the natural and the artificial, a full grasp and account even of the form itself requires understanding how that form will be brought to exist in matter.
… To be continued.