Category Archives: Humanity

Supplement on Causes in Culture

(Supplemental to A Thomistic Account of History)

Since knowledge of culture is the proper and highest object of history as part of moral scientia, as was said above, an investigation of causes in human culture is necessary to complete this account of history. But first a few qualifications. Since a culture is defined by its idea of human flourishing, in so far as that idea changes over time, so does the culture. Hence the need for periodization in the study of culture, although no periodization can be particularly precise because human affairs do not admit of precision; it seems, for example, that the different understandings of human flourishing between Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, in so far as we understand them correctly, indicate that periodization of Egyptian history does reflect a genuine shift in what human flourishing was thought to be. Likewise, no social group perfectly shares the same idea of human flourishing either through time or at any given time, so an account of culture is partly an account of the differing ideas of human flourishing within a culture. But the very fact that they are within a given culture indicates that these differing ideas share essential similarities. The different periods of Ancient Egyptian history, for example, are recognizably Ancient Egyptian in a way that the periods after the Islamic conquest are not, despite the fact that these later periods have the earlier periods as part of their causes. (If this were not the case, then knowledge of a given culture or society through time would be impossible.)

The material causes of a culture are what make that culture possible, both at its origins and at any given period; this is chiefly human nature, the given human population, its environment, particular actions and things made, and cultural and material inheritance from predecessors.

A culture is a group’s way of realizing its idea of flourishing through an ordering of habits and actions, and this is the formal cause of the given culture. Now, within this way ordered to an idea of flourishing are many habits, and among these, some are higher than and more determinative of others. A group’s understanding of the gods or nature, for example, and its ways of living in a given environment exercise profound influence on the culture and thus are most determinative of the group’s habits. The habits highest and most determinative are those that either are caused in some way by things higher than humanity (supernatural, natural, etc.) or are simply outside this social group’s control (environment, invasion, cultural inheritance, etc.) or those that are caused by what the social group considers to be higher than humanity or outside the group’s control. A group’s considerations of these matters are sometimes the most determinative, sometimes not; this is because beneath their consideration of a thing lies the real thing itself with a real nature which they may not understand; so, their culture may be affected by the real nature of the thing without their being aware of it. For example, Egyptian culture was affected by the fact that the Nile River is not a god and so cannot answer prayers or be relied on to respond to sacrifice, even though the Egyptians did not know this; the Egyptians, thinking the river a god, would respond to the Nile’s lack of answering prayers in certain ways, and those responses shaped Egyptian culture in certain respects.

Second to these, the group’s idea of human flourishing specifies which other aspects of culture are more determinative than others for that group. In general, these are of two kinds, as human beings create their own order either, first, in themselves or, second, in things external to them. Thus, with respect to the order human beings have created in themselves, there are those habits either in some way caused by what members of that social group do and have done (family, organizations and institutions, skills, communication, inquiry, particular acts, etc.) or those in some way caused by what members of that social group consider that its members do and have done. Then, with respect to the order human beings have created in things external to them, there are those habits either caused in some way by what members of that social group have made (texts, art, craft, engineering, things destroyed, etc.) or by how members of that social group consider what its members have made.

The final cause of this culture is human flourishing as the members of the culture understand it. This is related to human flourishing in general as an inquiry is related to its object.

The efficient cause is hard to specify in any one case, but it is that whereby a social group comes to develop its particular means of reaching its particular understanding of flourishing. History as a narrative of great deeds is chiefly a study of efficient causes.

— Return to A Thomistic Account of History.

Supplement on the Relationship between History and Other Disciplines

(Supplemental to A Thomistic Account of History.)

Within the contemporary secular (and Catholic) academy, there is for the most part no agreed-upon synthesis of all the academic disciplines, and in fact each discipline tends to be undertaken in ways not explicitly coordinated with other disciplines at all. This supplement will presume a Thomistic ordering of the disciplines and show informally where history and related disciplines fit. History, understood as the science of human affairs, includes all the humanities and social sciences, and contributes to every other discipline, not by considering the objects of those disciplines as such, but by considering what human beings have thought of those objects. (This breadth of history as a discipline has been noticed before by Thomists, for example, M. Buckley, “A Thomistic Philosophy of History”, The New Scholasticism 35.3 (July 1961): 342-362.)

Academic Disciplines as Inquiries

Of particular note among objects that history studies are inquiries. An inquiry is an activity aimed at discovery. Inquiries, then, produce knowledge about the world. But an inquiry is also, like other activities, carried out as ordered to the end of human perfection in the way that perfection is understood by the inquirers who themselves are members of a given culture and whose understanding of human perfection has their culture as part of the account of its causes. Thus, the discipline of history studies every human inquiry in order to understand those inquires and thus to render them capable of being ordered to their respective ends (and so to human perfection) in the best way. And this explains why Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, begin many of their treatments with a history of the subject (e.g. Poetics 4-5).Benedict Ashley confirms this (The Way toward Wisdom (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2006), 318): “The best way to attain a degree of objectivity and freedom to think critically is to become aware of the limitations that our own personal and social histories (‘narratives’) impose on our thinking and that of others.”

Now, since knowledge of an inquiry requires knowledge of the object of the inquiry, a historian studying a given inquiry must also know how to undertake, or participate in, that inquiry. He must be an inquirer after knowledge of that object as well as an inquirer into the history of that inquiry. So, the historian of natural science must also be a natural scientist. And in order for the natural scientist to undertake to study the objects of his inquiry in the best way, he must learn what the state of that given inquiry is and what account of its objects is the best account given so far; this means knowing the history of the inquiry. This applies to all the academic disciplines in general, but especially to theology in one way and the humanities and social sciences in another. 


Obviously, the highest disciplines is theology. Theology as an inquiry is, properly speaking, the knowledge we have of God. Because God reveals Himself to human beings within time, such revelation can only come as revelation to a culture or set of cultures. Some knowledge of history, namely sacred history, is, therefore, necessary for every human being to realize his or her potential in the best way. This can only be true knowledge of history if one understands the cultures, habits, and actions that are part of sacred history. For this reason, a true knowledge of sacred history implies knowledge of the life and thought of the Chosen people and those who interacted with them as well as of Christians and those who interact with them down to our own day, since Christian doctrine continues to develop and such developments cannot be understood in the best way without reference to their historical context (Fides et Ratio 87), in particular the purposes of those who developed the relevant doctrines. If such knowledge, needed to understand revelation itself, were not possible, the value and purpose of revelation would be negated. Since grace perfects nature, we can see that even our knowledge of history is perfected by revelation; indeed, the desire to understand revelation has motivated many advances in the study of history (for example, the study of the Ancient Near East, archaeology, etc.).


Generally, the humanities seem to be the study of human life in all its aspects in the past. The humanities then are simply history, but of a wide variety of aspects of human life and not limited to politics in the way that history was traditionally understood. In the case of literature, for example, in so far as the study of literature aims to know the causes of literary works it is subordinate to history, as understood above; but in so far as one reads literature for the sake of enjoyment, such reading is not properly a study of literature at all, although it presumes such knowledge. It is subordinate to ethics directly, since the purpose of reading for enjoyment is enjoyment, obviously a part of happiness. The other humanities similarly are both studies of the past (and so parts of history) as well as other activities related to happiness in some other way.

Social Sciences

Now, the social sciences undertake to do more or less the same kind of study as the humanities except that they are carried out on the present culture for the clear benefit of present culture; studies of the past are also undertaken for the benefit of present culture, but typically such historical studies do not figure in policy making decisions, whereas the social sciences do. Ultimately, though, the goals of both the humanities and the social sciences are understanding human nature and human culture. It is sometimes said that history is one of the social sciences. If one means by this that history is dependent on and subordinate to the study of human nature and the study of human action in general, this is true. Now, in so far as the social sciences focus on nature, they are properly parts of natural philosophy, namely philosophical anthropology; in so far as they treat of culture and habits, they are properly part of the discipline that studies culture and habits, and this is history. This is so because sciences are differentiated by their objects; now, history’s object is the understanding of culture and the causes of human action; this is likewise the object of the social sciences; and therefore they are the same science.

It might be objected that history studies the past and the social sciences the present. But this is strictly speaking false, since every social scientific study is always of actions that are in the past and thus they could equally well be investigated by the historian. A historian trying to understand, for example, President Obama’s rise to the highest office would need both what we normally think of as history but also he would need what we nowadays normally think of social science; for example, he would need to look at studies of reactions to and perceptions of race among the American electorate at that time, which he could best get from the sociologist. There is no substantial difference between these studies of race used by the historian of the very recent past and the work of sociologists now studying race, except that the historian integrates everything in his work, whereas the sociologist does not—but both are aimed at knowing causes. The historian can investigate everything and put sociology, literature, art, etc., to use in understanding a culture, movement, period, etc., whereas the social scientist (properly speaking) only investigates within a narrow range of these topics and only by certain methods. Hence, history is the architectonic discipline among the humanities and social sciences.

Nor are history and social science distinguished by the use of experiments, since history can likewise use experiments to determine many things; for example, in the 1950s, historians determined that a hunter-gatherer group could gather enough wild grain in six weeks to feed a group of fifty people for an entire year; they did this by carrying it out in Turkey, known to have had such grain and such inhabitants, and by using only the tools then available; since the historians were able to do it, they concluded that hunter-gatherers in the same circumstances could too. We see, therefore, that the humanities and social sciences are both then part of the same discipline, history, which is and must be done for the sake of human perfection.

— Return to A Thomistic Account of History.

A Thomistic Account of History

“Is history a science in the Aristotelian sense?”

Answered by Timothy Kearns, Editorial Director,


History and related disciplines have no clearly established place within the Thomistic framework. There is evidence of this in the conflicting things Thomists say about history, particularly on the question of whether history is a science in the Aristotelian sense. Some Thomists (for example, Jacques Maritain, Charles De Koninck, and Glen Coughlin) argue that history is not a science because it treats of singulars which are unknowable.[1] Others (principally Benedict Ashley) claim both that it is not a science but that it can provide intellectual knowledge and a degree of certainty, although they offer no systematic account of why and how.[2] Still others (Charles De Koninck again, William Wallace, and Michael Buckley) argue that for various reasons history is a science, for example, because of the rational connections among acts (De Koninck), because of the necessity of the past (Wallace), or because of the influences of human beings on each other (Buckley).[3] Others (here we find most contemporary Thomists) refrain from addressing the question of whether or not it is a science in the Aristotelian sense but treat history as a discipline producing intellectual knowledge and limited certainty.[4] The only one of these views with wide acceptance is the fourth, that of most contemporary Thomists who draw on history but do not have an account of it.

This state of the Thomistic account of history is problematic for at least four reasons. First, since Thomism is based upon the system of thought articulated in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas, it is necessary that Thomists make coherent claims about how we can be said to know the past. Second, if Thomism is to integrate the disciplines, it will be necessary for Thomists to have an account of those disciplines related to the study of the past. Third, the interpretation of revelation, both in scripture and in the tradition of the Church, is a key activity for Thomists, but, since historical disciplines like textual criticism and archaeology have not been adequately integrated into the Thomistic framework, it is not clear what we are to make of those disciplines or how they relate to exegesis and theology. Fourth, if Thomists aim to solve the key problems of our time and renew Catholic intellectual life, then the marginalization of Thomistic thought since the Second Vatican Council must be understood and convincingly explained, and it will not be possible to accomplish this in the best way without an adequate understanding of history.

My goal in this paper is to outline an account of history within the Thomistic tradition that will solve the first two problems, making clear the status of historical knowledge and history’s place in the Thomistic framework of disciplines.[5] Since most Thomists seem to draw on history without claiming either that it is or is not a science, I will not primarily deal with opinions on that question; instead, I aim to provide an account of history that fits best with contemporary Thomistic practice. To do that, I begin with an analysis of the notion of history.


The term “history” in English has at least three key senses: first, the past itself; second, an account of the past; and, third, a discipline of learning.[6] Let me take each in turn, considering first the sense of the term in English and then the relevant senses of the related terms used by Aristotle and Aquinas.

By “the past” I mean anything that has been in any sense before the present time, anything that has had being before now. So, anything that has ever been actual in any sense is part of the past. Aristotle does not use the term ἱστορία in this way; instead, to refer to the past he uses phrases like τόδε γέγονε (Posterior Analytics II.12). The Greek term ἱστορία at his time meant inquiry in a general sense, and only later and in a secondary sense did it come to refer to accounts of the past. This sense, when the word was adopted into Latin, became the main sense of the word, and from there the Latin word historia came to mean, not an account of the past, but the past itself. Uses of historia in Latin to mean inquiry were secondary. Thus we see how Aquinas came to use the term historia to refer to the past; for example, in many commentaries on scripture he uses ordo historiae (e.g. at Exposition of the Psalms, Prologue) to mean the order of past events.

In the second sense, history, as an account of the past, can be either the written or oral account of something in the past, or it can be the understanding that an inquirer has of something in the past and its causes. Since any written account of the past is derived from the inquirer’s understanding of that past, history as the understanding of something in the past is prior to and more universal than history as a written account of that thing in the past. Aristotle uses ἱστορία to refer to a written account of the human past when in Poetics (9) he discusses the genre of written or oral accounts of what has happened in the past. This is where he points out that poetry is more philosophical than history, since history treats of what has happened and poetry treats of what may happen, poetry therefore expressing what is more universal. Aquinas too uses historia to refer to histories as written accounts of the human past (for example, at Summa theologiae II-II 2.7). Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas have occasion to refer specifically to the understanding of something in the past as opposed to the written account of it.

In the third sense, history is a discipline of learning. By “discipline”, I mean anything that is itself an art, science, practice, or skill, or may be said to be part of some larger art, science, practice, or skill; a discipline of learning seems to be one ordered to understanding in some central way. Now, it is not always clear what we mean when we talk about history as a discipline, but we must mean something like what is carried on in academic history departments by professional historians. What historians do is inquire into the specifically human past in order to understand it. That reveals a key restriction for history in this sense: historians focus on acts carried out by human beings and on what is related to such acts. Within history departments particularly, history is carried out as a discipline in two ways. First, as an activity whereby one understands the human past. This is the principal and defining activity of historians. But, second, history is also carried out as the explanation and development of the methodology of producing accounts of the past; this is what we usually call “historiography”. Significantly, neither Aristotle nor Aquinas use the term “history” in precisely either of these senses. This fact is particularly relevant to a consideration of history within the Aristotelian tradition because introducing the notion of history as the activity of understanding the past allows us to see that, although history as a written account of the past is not as universal as poetry, nevertheless, history understood as the activity of understanding the past is more philosophical than poetry because history in this sense aims to discover truth, which poetry does not.

We can now see an order among these different senses of history. Since the activity of understanding the past is what produces accounts of the past, and since historiography is the explanation and justification of the activity of understanding the past, all of which lead to the description of the past itself as “history”, every sense of the term “history” derives from the activity of understanding the past.

But there is also an even more general sense of history, one less commonly noted: that of the non-human past. History, when it seeks to understand the human past, investigates the contingent particulars of the human past as well as everything causally related to those particulars. But we can just as well inquire into the contingent particulars of the past of any contingent subject: the past of our universe, the geological past of our planet, the past of living things. We can and often do call these inquiries and the accounts that result from them “histories”. So, the term “history” also has this wider sense, inquiry into the past in general, from which the human past emerges as a special subject of inquiry into the past in general. Since the other senses of the term “history” are derived from history as inquiry into the human past and since we have now seen that inquiry into the human past is just a special case of inquiry into the past in general, it is clear that inquiry into the past in general is the most universal and proper sense of the term “history”.

How is this general notion of history related to the Greek term ἱστορία and the Latin term historia that Aristotle and Aquinas used? Both knew of history as an account of the human past, as we saw above, but this is not the most general sense of the relevant Greek and Latin words. In general, ἱστορία means inquiry or research, for example, an inquiry about the soul (De anima I.1 402a1-3). For Aristotle’s account of ἱστορία in general, a key passage is in the Prior Analytics (I.30 46a18-27). There he says that experience gives the principles of any science, and if we have apprehended all the attributes of the thing under consideration, then we can make the demonstrations relevant to the science; then, he goes on (46a24-27), “For if nothing that truly belongs to the subjects has been left out of our collection of facts [κατὰ τὴν ἱστορίαν], then concerning every fact, if a demonstration for it exists, we will be able to find that demonstration and demonstrate it, while if it does not naturally have a demonstration, we will be able to make that evident.”[7] This indicates that ἱστορία for Aristotle is something like general inquiry into the matters under study, the beginning of a science.[8] It seems related to but higher than experience, since experience tends to be inchoate and unsystematic, and Aristotle indicates that a general account resulting from an inquiry should, in the ideal case, not omit any of the true attributes of the thing.[9] We see, then, that for Aristotle ἱστορία is a general inquiry that is in some sense part of and subordinate to a science.

Drawing as he does on the Aristotelian tradition, Aquinas has nearly the same sense for the Latin word historia. In his commentary on the De anima (I.1.6), for example, Aquinas says that Aristotle uses the term historia to describe his treatise on the soul “because he is going to discuss the soul in a general way, without attempting in this treatise a thorough examination [finalem inquisitionem] of all its properties.”[10] Similarly, in his commentary on the De coelo (III.1.547), Aquinas notes that the greater part of historia naturalis is about bodies. Here, historia naturalis gets quite close to the older English term “natural history” referring to the activities of observational biologists and geologists in the field.[11] Aquinas also picks up on the more precise way Aristotle uses ἱστορία, namely as a stage in the movement toward scientific knowledge. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (II 11.2.3), Aquinas says that just as through locutio we do not acquire full knowledge of the subject being discussed, so too through historia we come to know something not known beforehand, but our intellect is not fully enlightened. Historia, then, in the key sense for Aquinas, is much like Aristotle’s notion; in particular, it gives knowledge of the subject in some sense but not knowledge of the highest kind. Although Aquinas and Aristotle do not emphasize this connection of historia with the beginnings of science, that aspect was picked up and developed by later Aristotelians in the renaissance.[12]

This Aristotelian notion of ἱστορία as inquiry in general does not match up perfectly with any of our contemporary notions of history. This is because, even in its widest modern sense, as inquiry into the past, history is specifically related to the past, which is not the case with Aristotelian ἱστορία and terms derived from it. Nevertheless, Aristotelian ἱστορία, since it is simply inquiry in general, includes inquiry into the past within it. If inquiry into the past is part of inquiry in general, then, inquiry within any discipline includes inquiry into the past relevant to that discipline and its subjects. This suggests that for Aristotle and Aquinas inquiry into the past relevant to a given discipline is a part of that discipline. A confirmation of this is that Aristotle and Aquinas often begin their inquiries with an account of the past of the relevant inquiry.

Having briefly surveyed the senses of the term, I propose a definition of history in the most general sense: history is inquiry both into singular contingents in the past and into everything that is causally related to those singular contingents, an inquiry that is for the sake of understanding the things themselves and their causes.


Each of the problems related to history that I began with raises a corresponding question. The question that the possibility of the knowledge of the past raises is this: since on the Aristotelian understanding of knowledge the subjects of intellectual knowledge are universal and necessary, can we be said to know contingent singulars at all? On this point, Aquinas is quite clear that we can.[13] He asks explicitly whether our intellect can know singulars (Summa theologiae I 86.1), and he answers that, although the intellect cannot know the singular as such, it can know the singular indirectly. He distinguishes: to know the singular directly is to know it as perceived by the senses, as existing now in front of me; but to know the singular indirectly is to know it as represented by the phantasm. Elsewhere, Aquinas clarifies in what way singulars are intelligible to human beings (Quaetiones disputatae de anima 20, ad 16): the singular in so far as it is sensible does not become intelligible, but the singular does become intelligible in so far as an immaterial form can represent it. So, for Thomas, material singulars are intelligible and are capable of being known by human beings, just not as such. Similarly, we can also know contingents, as is clear from the fact, Aquinas says (Summa theologiae I 86.3), that we have sciences of contingent things, like the moral sciences and natural sciences like biology. Such knowledge of contingents is, however, imperfect, since contingent things only have imperfect being and can thus only be known imperfectly (Summa theologiae I 79.9). (For a complete treatment of this question, see Book VI, Lecture 1 of Aquinas’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics.)  So, we do have intellectual knowledge of contingents too, albeit imperfect.

In so far as history studies the singular contingent, it can only produce indirect and imperfect knowledge of its subjects. In so far as history studies universals related to singular contingents, the knowledge it produces is direct and derives its perfection from its subjects. Now, the knowledge we can have of things in the past is conditioned by the fact that those things are in the past and so are no longer directly accessible to our senses. Knowledge of things in the past is always predicated upon knowledge of things in the present. This is the essential limitation of historical knowledge qua historical. Before we can indicate the methods of knowing the past by means of the present, we first need to lay out where knowledge of the past fits within the Thomistic framework of disciplines. This is to ask the question corresponding to the second problem I began with.


History as defined above (inquiry into the past in general) clearly pertains to the investigations of the subjects of any discipline that treats of contingents, in so far as those contingents are in the past. This is because history in the wide sense simply is the investigation both of contingents in the past and of things related causally to those contingents. Since contingents in the past possess their intelligibility from their forms, not from the fact that they are in the past (since that is accidental)[14], any given past contingent is already the proper subject of some discipline, namely the discipline that studies that kind of thing in that respect. A confirmation of this is that key aspects of what we use to discover the contingent past related to a given discipline are proper to that discipline: for example, the astronomer uses the methods of astronomy to investigate the origins and history of a star. As we saw above, this view of history as a part of every discipline is implied in the Aristotelian notion of ἱστορία. So, every past contingent is studied by the discipline that studies that kind of thing; for example, the history of living things is part of biology, the history of the earth is part of geology, etc. This implies that we know the past through the present, not by a general method, but by means of the methods specific to a given discipline. History in the wide sense, then, is not a discipline of its own; it is an aspect of other disciplines.

Further, it might seem that inquiry into the past only pertains to those disciplines that study contingents, but this is not the case. Consider: in addition to investigations into past contingent subjects of a discipline, there are also investigations into the past related to the discipline itself, for example, how that discipline was discovered and articulated and how it has developed down to the present. In such cases, history in the wide sense investigates, not the subjects of the discipline, but the past of the discipline itself as a human activity. And this investigation into the past of a discipline is always possible even for a discipline whose subjects are necessary, since the past of the discipline is the result of human acts and is therefore contingent—one need only think, for example, of the contingency in the history of mathematics. The inquiries into the past of a given discipline study certain human acts in the past, not in general, but in so far as those human acts are ordered to understanding the subjects of the discipline; otherwise, such acts would not be part of the past of that discipline. Since it is clear that studying the past of a discipline is often undertaken for the sake of a better understanding of the subjects of the discipline and since whatever is aimed at the understanding of the discipline’s subjects is part of the discipline, then inquiry into the past of the discipline as such is part of the discipline itself. [15] A confirmation of this is that anyone investigating the past of a discipline must know the discipline’s principles, methods, and conclusions in order to understand human acts in the past related to them; thus, the historian of a discipline must also be a practitioner of that discipline.

So, we arrive at two key conclusions relevant to history’s place in the Thomistic framework: first, inquiry into the past relevant to a contingent subject is part of the discipline that studies that subject in general; and, second, the study of the past of a given discipline is part of that discipline too. This shows how to answer the question of whether history is a science: history as the activity whereby one understands the past in general is not a separate science, but it is a part of every discipline; history is not a science, but we can have historical knowledge; knowledge of the past is part of the disciplines that study the various aspects of the past. Thus we see history’s place in the framework of disciplines.

One important implication of this account of history’s place among the discipline is that the activity by which we understand the specifically human past (the third and most common sense of “history” above) is also not its own discipline nor is it studied for its own sake. Which discipline is inquiry into the human past part of? The answer is the discipline that studies properly human action, namely moral science. This is clear in the case of the past relevant to a given community or tradition, since, as Aristotle points out (Rhetoric I.4), because one must know the details of how one’s community came to be the way it is in order to direct that community well, the knowledge of the past of a political community is part of politics.[16] But the scope of history’s investigations of the human past must be wider still. Aquinas argues (Summa contra gentiles III.85) that customs and habits, those acquired from childhood especially, determine in key part the choices that human beings make. So, inquiry into the human past, being part of moral science, does not only include things like the history of ethics or accounts of key political events; it also includes knowledge of customs and habits and the causes of both. Aquinas could easily have added here that, since human beings live by seeking what they perceive to be good, an account of how goods have been perceived and understood throughout time is also relevant to moral science, as are those things causally related to accounts and perceptions of what is good, i.e. concepts, ideas, arguments, languages, texts, individual persons, etc. What are generally called “the humanities” also seem largely to be parts of moral science. To see this, consider the art of literature: one can read literature to be formed (which is the end of the art); one can study literature to know how to make it (studying it as an art, part of the traditional liberal art rhetorica); or one can study literature in order to understand key aspects of the society that produced that literature (studying it as part of moral science, which is what we usually mean when we include literature among the humanities). To elaborate on this last point, the genres of literature, for example, will be related to the social conditions of the given society; likewise, literature presents an account of something good, and that account is always related to the notion of the good life as lived in that community, even if it is a negative response to that community’s account of the good life. In the study of the past, we can also discover general features of a given community or tradition and we can aim to understand how such features relate causally to individual acts or to customs and habits or to other communities or traditions. A community orders its common life not arbitrarily but according to the conception of happiness that its members have (in general); and so every community has a manner of realizing its members’ idea of human happiness through an ordering of customs and habits. This is one way to understand what culture is, a community’s manner of realizing happiness through an ordering of customs and habits. Cultures in this sense seem to be the highest objects of that part of moral science that investigates the human past. This is for two reasons: first, cultures are history’s most intelligible aspects (customs, habits, and their ordering to a set of ends are more universal and thus more intelligible than particular acts); second, it is through a knowledge of specific cultures that such investigations contribute most to moral science, since we need knowledge of our own culture to order our community well. The key principle from which the above considerations follow is that human beings pursue happiness and perfection in political community in everything they do, and, hence, we see that the scope for the investigation of the human past is wide-ranging and covers every aspect of that past.[17]

The fact that the study of the human past is part of moral science can be confirmed from the contemporary discipline of history itself. In the first place, history began with a clear focus on politics in authors like Herodotus and Thucydides and progressed slowly to widen out its purview to such an extent that among contemporary historians anything in the human past can be the subject of historical inquiry; its scope, then, slowly expanded from what is narrowly politics to what is broadly moral science.[18] Likewise, since history is part of moral science, one would expect to find in the study of the human past the kinds of disagreements that are common in ethics and politics; and this is just what we do find, as arguments over how to interpret the past reveal.[19] Again as part of moral science, history should only be able to attain a limited and imperfect degree of certainty in its acts of understanding, and this too is what we find, since history does not admit of mathematical certainty and historians know this very well. Even in discussions, not of specific parts of the past, but of the historiographical method itself, the various approaches to the relevant questions divide along largely political and ethical lines.[20] Inquiry into the human past, then, however wide its scope, is part of moral science.

Although by no means a complete account of the study of the human past, the above outlines the place of history in moral science, its certainty, methods, and the subjects of investigation of the properly human past.


The account of history I have argued for here can be summarized as follows. History is inquiry both into singular contingents in the past and into everything causally related to those singular contingents, for the sake of understanding the things themselves and their causes. It is possible to understand such singulars and what is related to them because, although the intellect knows singulars indirectly and contingents imperfectly, it still does know them. Inquiry into the past relevant to a contingent subject is part of the discipline that studies that subject in general, as is the study of the past of a given discipline. It follows from this account that the study of the human past is chiefly part of moral science, with all that implies. History, then, is not a discipline in its own right, much less a science in itself, although historical knowledge can be scientific. Such an account solves the first two problems presented above, the status of historical knowledge and the place of history in the framework of disciplines. This account confirms the validity of drawing on history to elucidate various aspects of contemporary Thomistic projects and suggests some useful directions to expand those projects. In later work, I hope to use this notion of history in order to show how the historical disciplines like textual criticism and archaeology fit into theology’s central task, the interpretation of revelation. This will be an attempt to answer the challenge of historical biblical criticism and its relation to theology.

[1] Jacques Maritain, On the Philosophy of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957); Charles De Koninck, “A Note on History” (unpublished manuscript; accessed on September 23rd, 2015 at; R. Glen Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education”, The Aquinas Review 5.1 (1998), 1-40.

[2] Benedict Ashley, The Way toward Wisdom: An Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Approach to Metaphysics (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 315-321.

[3] Charles De Koninck, “The Nature of Man and His Historical Being”, Laval Théologique et Philosophique 5.2 (1949), 271-277: narration of past events “may also reveal more or less rational connections that exist among [those events], and … the term ‘history’ also serves to designate the kind of knowledge ordained to the discovery of such connections. … History tends towards a certain universality and thus towards the estate of a ‘science’” (271); Michael Buckley, “A Thomistic Philosophy of History”, New Scholasticism 35.3 (1961), 342-362; William Wallace, The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1977), 183-185, 268.

[4] The most obvious example here is that of Alasdair MacIntyre, in particular in After Virtue, Third Edition (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

[5] The state of history and how to classify historical knowledge is hardly a problem only for Thomists, though. For the crisis in history within the wider academy at the end of the last century and into this one, see Georg Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997; with a new epilogue by the author, 2005).

[6] This is a more general version of the set of distinctions Jorge Gracia makes in his Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography (Buffalo, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 39-107. Wallace also begins with something like this distinction (Elements of Philosophy, 268).

[7] Aristotle, Prior Analytics, translated with introduction, notes, and commentary by Robin Smith (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 49. Aristotle Loeb edition for the Greek. !!!!!!

[8] George Kennedy makes this point in his translation and commentary on the Rhetoric (Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, translated by George Kennedy, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 52.

[9] For an in-depth discussion, see T. Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 29-32.

[10] Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De anima, translated by K. Foster and S. Humphries, introduction by Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1994), 3.

[11] Aquinas also has another general Latin word for inquiry, namely inquisitio; it seems that he prefers historia in those cases in which he is drawing directly on the translation of Aristotle, which tend to use historia. For example, the word historia in this more Greek sense does not appear in the Summa theologiae.

[12] For details of this trend, see the collection of papers Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe, edited by Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005).

[13] For the full range of texts in Thomas’s corpus treating the issue, see George Klubertanz, “St. Thomas and the Knowledge of the Singular”, New Scholasticism 26.2 (1952), 135-166.

[14] Aquinas is clear (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, 10.3) that the difference between past and present is accidental to what is intelligible.

[15] The past of a discipline may be studied from any number of perspectives (ethics, politics, philosophical psychology, etc.), but what is most determinative about the human acts in the past related to the discipline is that they are aimed in some way at understanding the subjects of the discipline; such acts are most properly studied, then, by the discipline itself.

[16] In outlining what were commonly the five main topics of rhetoric in his day, Aristotle includes in each case the historical knowledge relevant to the topic in his description of what the orator needs to understand; at the end of his treatment of the five topics, he says, “But all these subjects belong to politics, not to rhetoric” (On Rhetoric, Kennedy translation, 52).

[17] The past of the various disciplines can be studied in more than one way. Typically, such past is studied for the sake of the discipline itself, in which case such study is part of the discipline. But we can also investigate the past of a discipline with respect to how it relates to other aspects of the past more directly part of moral science, e.g. ancient physics and its relation to ancient politics.

[18] This is clear from any broad survey of the development of historiography, for example, Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[19] For examples of this related to the study of antiquity, see Neville Morley, Theories, Models, and Concepts in Ancient History (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[20] The book that brings this out most clearly is Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1999). Bentley pays particular attention to the historical context of the theories of history and how their proponents developed those theories in part as a response to their own circumstances.

Hylomorphism and Modern Physics

Question: “Thomistic hylomorphism is often ‘sold’ to contemporary audiences as the best solution to contemporary problems in the philosophy of mind. But is Thomistic hylomorphism compatible with contemporary physics? For if not, then it’s a non-starter.”

Answer by Andrew J. Jaeger and James D. Madden

(Benedictine College Department of Philosophy)

We have been asked to consider the plausibility of a hylomorphic philosophy of mind in light of the results of modern physics. We begin by applauding the insight behind this question. Many contemporary presentations of hylomorphism emphasize the theory’s supposed virtues in the philosophy of mind, but we worry that in many cases this sort of presentation puts hylomorphism to uses for which it was never designed. For this reason hylomorphism frequently suffers charges of obscurantism and incoherence, even from contemporary philosophers one might otherwise expect to be sympathetic to the conclusions of a broadly Thomistic philosophy. One of us has touted hylomorphism as a way of dissolving the vexations of contemporary philosophy of mind in great deal (see Madden, James D., Mind, Matter, and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind, CUA Press: 2013), but even there it is emphasized that hylomorphism should first and foremost be taken as a philosophy of nature, and only secondarily should it be applied to other philosophical arenas. We agree that, if indeed hylomorphism were unable to accommodate the well-verified results of modern physics, its plausibility for the philosophy of mind would be greatly diminished, because its plausibility as a philosophy of nature would be greatly diminished.

In what follows, we will argue that a common version of hylomorphism is not in fact in tension with the results of modern physics. Though we will have little to say about the philosophy of mind here, we will begin by presenting a version of hylomorphism we believe alleviates the stresses imposed by the modern mind-body problem (see Mind, Matter, and Nature for the details). We then consider the results of modern physics most likely to be taken at odds with hylomorphism. In each case we argue that there is no, to borrow a phrase from Alvin Plantinga, “deep conflict” between hylomorphism, as we have construed it, and modern physical theories.

Before proceeding, four clarifications are in order. First, we make no claim that the version of hylomorphism presented below represents in detail that defended by any particular historical individual. Certainly, we believe that our version of hylomorphism is something akin to what St. Thomas was actually up to, but our intention is produce a “Thomistic hylomorphism,” as opposed to “Thomas’s hylomorphism.” We will leave questions of historical accuracy for another day. Second, by “hylomorphism” we do not have in mind theses defended in classical and medieval Aristotelian science regarding projectile motion, celestial bodies, the nature of time and space, etc.   The degree to which these theses can be divorced from the hylomorphism also held by their historical proponents is likely a matter of some controversy, but for now, however, we leave those questions aside. Third, we will not attempt to demonstrate or otherwise defend this version of hylomorphism on philosophical ground, though we are confident such a justification is available (see Mind, Matter, and Nature, along with Jaeger’s “Back to the Primitive: From Substantial Capacities to Prime Matter,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 2014, vol. 88, no.3, pp. 381-395). Rather, we will simply present the essentials of hylomorphism while discussing some of its virtues. Finally, when we speak of “modern physical theories” we have in mind primarily the fundamentals of classical physics (viz. the Theory of Relativity) and quantum mechanics. Granted, the really interesting stuff comes only after one has mastered the nuances of such theories (and their various interpretations), but this is something we cannot hope to establish here. Therefore, we will content ourselves with investigating the relationship between the fundamentals of such physical theories and hylomorphism.


We define hylomorphism as the conjunction of the two following theses:

Metaphysical Composition Thesis (MCT): material substances are compounds of certain metaphysical parts, viz. matter and form.

Substantial Simplicity Thesis (SST): material substances do not have material substances as proper component parts.

There are certainly influential versions of hylomorphism whose proponents happily deny both MCT and SST, but these are principles affirmed generally by Thomists. As for MCT keep in mind that the hylomorphist of the stripe we have in mind sees this doctrine as first and foremost an attempt to answer the classical problem of change. By “matter” the hylomorphist simply means the principle of potency that pre-exists and survives a change; whereas by “form” the hylomorphist means the principle of actuality that comes to be as a result of a change. Thus, anything subject to change is – in the sense just described – a compound of matter and form. It is crucial for the overall plausibility of hylomorphism to emphasize that matter and form are first and foremost functionally defined (which is not to say that hylomorphists are functionalists in the philosophy of mind!). To reiterate, “matter” refers to whatever does the work of providing the potency and continuity in a change, and “form” refers to whatever does the work of providing the actuality of the change (see Brower, Aquinas’s Ontology of the Material World, Oxford: 2014, pp. 66-9, for a recent detailed defense of defining matter and form functionally in the context of change). Notice that whatever does the work of potency for a change cannot be essentially contrary to the form that comes to be, otherwise the change would be impossible. If some matter were essentially non-F, then it could not provide the potency and continuity for becoming F.   In a case of accidental change, i.e. the coming to be of a substance with a non-essential attribute, there is seemingly no difficulty in this vicinity. Since Smitty is not essentially short, there is no problem posed by Smitty being the underlying matter in a case of his becoming the contrary of short, i.e., Smitty may gain the accidental form of being tall because the matter of such a change is neither essentially short nor essentially tall.

Substantial change, the coming to be of a substance with an essential attribute, however, is a bit more difficult. Smitty is in some sense subject to substantial change, as his mortality obviously attests. Moreover, whatever composes Smitty materially could compose essentially different substances, e.g., Smitty’s matter might have composed several squirrels or a small pony. Nevertheless, Smitty cannot be the matter of such changes, because Smitty is essentially not a squirrel and essentially not a pony. The problem lies in the fact that anything possessing an essential attribute cannot be characterized by a contrary essential attribute. Thus, the principle of potency for a substantial change cannot itself possess any essential attribute. Since every natural substance is subject to coming to be and passing away, all such substances are not only composed of substantial forms, but also prime matter, an underlying principle of potency that possesses no essential attribute intrinsically.[1]

As for SST, keep in mind that Smitty is not only subject to change by alternation of contrary attributes, but also division, e.g., Smitty might, sadly, lose his pinky finger in an unfortunate encounter with a can opener. Attempts to solve the problems of division have spawned a proliferation of co-located or overlapping entities, e.g., Smitty-minus-pinky or even a distinct Smitty-minus for each quark currently in his composition, simultaneously occupying the space roughly outlined by Smitty’s (or Smitties’?) skin. Hylomorphists, or at least those who are more traditionally Thomistic, prefer to avoid this multiplication of entities by arguing that parts that can be divided from a substance are not substantially present (i.e., present as substances) but are rather virtually present in Smitty (or nominally present, as a Patrick Toner puts in “Emergent Substance,” Philosophical Studies, December 2008, vol. 141, no. 3, pp. 281-297). The point here is that Smitty’s parts, including his hands, feet, organs, etc. right down to his subatomic particles, do not exist as individuated substances while they compose Smitty. Rather, the parts of a substance, however fundamental, only exist through the substances. Some hylomorphists who accept PT claim that such parts can be retrieved as individuated substances, though while “they” are in the composition of a material substance, these parts exist only as powers or potencies of such a substance. Other proponents of SST emphasize that the subatomic particles that are virtually present in a natural substance belong to a different substantial kind from those that are substantially present. So, in a real sense, atoms stop existing when they become parts of a substance. On the view, it is at least an open question whether those same atoms can be retrieved or not, for such “retrieval” would amount to a substantial change (see Toner “St. Thomas Aquinas on Mixture and the Gappy Existence of the Elements,European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 3 (1):243 – 248 for an argument in favor of retrieval). We grant, of course, that the doctrine of virtual presence strikes the contemporary ear with scandal, but this doctrine is no less scandalous than the notion that Smitty is actually a whirling conglomeration of billions of overlapping human organisms, something that is claimed by many contemporary metaphysicians without blushing. To mitigate this appearance of scandal, keep in mind that SST doesn’t entail that material substances lack parts entirely, just that anything that is a part of a material substance can’t be a material substance and so must be ontologically posterior to the whole of which it is a part.


Explaining what relationship holds (more importantly, ought to hold) between metaphysics and physics is a significantly complicated affair. To do it justice, one ought to weigh in on various debates in epistemology and the philosophy of science; however, we will not do so here. Our current goal is not a defense of any one account of the relationship between the two, but rather a discussion of the various ‘live options’ on the table for hylomorphists to consider. With that said, and in the interest of space, we will not consider objections to what we say below – we offer something of an abbreviated menu rather than the real four-course meal.

Before turning to special relativity (SR) and general relativity (GR), let’s quickly consider the principle that underlies them both – a principle dating back several hundred years. This principle – which is somewhat misnamed – is often stated as follows.

The Principle of Relativity: the physical laws hold in all inertial reference frames.

What implications does the principle of relativity give rise to? Well, this seems to imply that one cannot determine by physical experimentation from within a single inertial reference frame, which reference frame one is in. To borrow an example from Peter Kosso (see Appearance and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics, OUP: 1998, pp. 33),

When you wake up on the train and the window shades are closed, you cannot tell if the train is moving or not. Similarly, when the adjacent train at the station begins to move relative to you, it is hard to tell who is moving away from the platform, you or they.

This – rather old – phenomenon has given rise to several concerns among Thomists regarding the analysis of local motion in hylomorphic terms (i.e., in terms of matter/potency and form/actuality). Whether one is moving might then turn out to be a matter as to which reference frame(s) an object is being observed from. But, this would seem to imply that whether a potency is actualized is a relative affair (i.e., an issue relative to a reference frame). Fearing relativism (of the bad variety), some hylomorphists have been averse to embracing the quite simple (and apparently obvious) principle of relativity at face value.

For various interesting reasons pertaining to the physical laws and the speed of light, the principle of relativity has given rise to a couple of theses that are integral to the theory of special relativity. The first thesis being that space (or location) turns out to a relative property. From one inertial reference frame, two events can be said to occur in the same location, but from a second inertial reference frame, the two events can be said to occur in different locations. So, “being-located-at” turns out to be a property relativized to an inertial reference frame. The second thesis holds that time is a relative property. Two events that occur at the same time from within one inertial reference frame occur are different times from a different reference frame. This is sometimes referred to as the “relativity of simultaneity.” That simultaneous events are only relative to some inertial frames but not to others. So, “occurs-at” is yet another property that turns out to be relative on the SR. From here, it seems that in order to describe the world and its events accurately, given these two consequences of SR, one must make reference to the world’s objects and events in (or at) particular inertial frames. One implication of this is that there is no true reference-frame neutral description of the world; how long something is (both spatially and temporally), when something occurs, where something is, are essentially relativized features of the world.

In light of this phenomnon, a hylomorphist might be tempted to skirt a realist interpretation here, allowing for a privileged reference frame that is explanatorily prior to the others. However, this will likely carry with it severe costs. Another option for hylomorphists is to hold that there are many more truths in the physical world than one had previously thought. Prior to Einstein, one would have thought that the explanation of Smitty’s location required no more than indicating his place within our reference frame. However, unbeknownst to us at the time, there are a multitude of other facts we never fathomed existed (and hence in need of explanation). After Einstein, when asked ‘Where is Smitty located?’ we’ve come to realize that that question has several answers rather than one. This certainly doesn’t entail to Smitty’s location is relative in the sense that it is a matter of human convention where he was located; SR does not entail a sort of subjectivism or idealism. There is an absolute fact of the matter where Smitty is located in reference frame K. It just so happens that in a different inertial frame, say K’, Smitty has a different location. To answer “Where is Smitty really?” one would have to describe his location in all reference frames where Smitty exists.[2] Each description of his location in a reference frame is an absolute truth. There is no threat of subjectivism here.

Lastly, just as some contemporary philosophers are inclined to speak of time-indexed properties (or time-indexed-instantiations of properties), a hylomorphist could easily speak of reference frame potencies and actualities. Rather than an object having a potential to be green, it would have the potential to be green-in-frame-K (or one might say it has-in-frame-K the potential to be green). This would allow for a material substance to actualize a potential in one frame, but not in another (alleviating what one might call “the problem of referential intrinsics”).[3] One can still account for change in hylomorphic terms while taking SR at face value. In short, within any given frame, SR does nothing to cast the basic hylomorphic account of change we have sketched above into doubt. All that is required is that the hylomorphist admit that there are more hylomorphic changes occurring than meets the eye, but that is no “deep conflict” with hylomorphism as such.

The general theory of relativity (GR) introduces questions deserving of more space and time than we can manage here (this pun is fully intended); however, a brief remark is in order. The general theory of relativity requires one to confront debates over the nature of spacetime, resulting in significant implications for the substantivalist vs. relationalist debate. It isn’t obvious whether a hylomorphist – in virtue of affirming MCT and SST – need take a stand on that debate, and we are inclined to think that no deep conflict arises between hylomorphism and either account of spacetime. One might find spacetime substantivalism inconsistent with hylomorphism for the following reason. It is typically held by hylomorphists (ultimately stemming from SST and a doctrine known as the unicity of substantial forms) that no two substances can be collocated. But, if spacetime is a substance, then it would seem to follow that no material object in spacetime (e.g., Smitty) would be a substance.[4]

Although substance monism (or more commonly known as priority monism) is one interpretation of substantivalism, there are others. One could regard spacetime as a substance, but only analogously to material substances. Spacetime and Smitty should be regarded as belonging to different modes of being. Therefore, what the substantivalist hylomorphist should say is that no two substances of the same mode of being can be collocated. Moreover, this is likely what classical hylomorphists intend to hold in the first place. General relativity involves much more than the debate over the nature of spacetime. All we have done in this paragraph is to open the door for ways of allowing a hylomorphist to begin to think about one of the common debates that has been affected by general relativity. We hope to examine the relationships between general relativity, the topology of spacetime and classical hylomorphism elsewhere in greater detail.

One might suppose that a further problem for the hylomorphist is posed by various well-known experiments, e.g., most famously the split screen set-up, that seemingly show things in “the quantum world” to be “in superpositional states, composites of incompatible attributes. The indeterminate quantum properties are made determinate by us in the act of observation, by the physical interaction with our big, classical bodies and machines with the quantum things” (Koso, Appearance and Reality, p. 153). That is, it appears that, for example, photons are intrinsically neither wave-like nor particulate, and their “collapse” into one such attribute occurs only after observation or incorporation into a larger, macro-determinate system. We agree that the empirical evidence for quantum indeterminacy is overwhelmingly strong, so we are prepared to follow its ultimate philosophical consequences come what may. At the very least we will grant the experimental results as settled science.

That being said, there is a good bit of controversy as to what the experiments actually show. Certain interpretations of quantum mechanics do claim that there is a metaphysical indeterminacy in the quantum world, e.g., the photon’s nature is in fact indeterminate, while other interpretations argue for more modest epistemic conclusions, e.g., the intrinsic nature of the photon is in principle beyond our ken, even if we can estimate its current state within a range of probabilities.   There are also issues as to what counts as “observation.” Using the split screen experiment again, in this case observation is made by applying a laser beam to a photon stream. As far as we know, it is an open question as to whether the laser beam in fact interacts causally with the photon stream in a way that explains the experimental results without the need to posit an actual indeterminacy in the quantum world, though such interaction is as yet unknown to us. We will not weigh-in on these issues, not only because they go beyond our meager scientific pay grade, but because our view is that quantum indeterminacy, even under a strongly metaphysical interpretation, should really be taken as good news for the overall plausibility of hylomorphism! Let’s stipulate then that, per the metaphysical interpretations of quantum indeterminacy, the intrinsic natures of the most fundamental physical elements are in-themselves in superpositional states with respect to certain incompatible attributes.   That is, quantum particles, when separated from broader determinate systems suffer certain indeterminacies.

To see why this stipulation poses no problem for the hylomorphist, begin by remembering that the hylomorphist argues that matter, when considered in precision from its compositional role in a determinate substance, is indeterminate among a certain range physical attributes, even otherwise essential attributes. The intrinsic indeterminacy of matter to contraries is what provides the potency for the sorts of change substances can undergo at various levels of composition, e.g., the indeterminacy of Smitty between running and walking is what makes it possible for him to pick up the pace, or the indeterminacy of certain amino acids between the different types of muscle tissue is what makes eating meat a means for muscle growth for various types of animals. Moreover, the broader the compositional role of a certain kind of matter, i.e., the more types of substances that it can compose, the greater its range of intrinsic indeterminacies, and ultimately the hylomorphist claims all material beings are the beneficiaries of the universal indeterminacy of prime matter. Thus, the hylomorphist is not at all surprised to find that as more fundamental types of matter are discovered so too are greater levels of intrinsic indeterminacy. Indeed he or she should expect as much. In other words, the “closer” we come to prime matter, the more we expect proximate matter to resemble prime matter’s indeterminacy.

Moreover, the fact that interaction with or incorporation into determinate macro-substances serves to move otherwise indeterminate quantum entities toward determinate attributes is likewise exactly what the hylomorphist would expect. For the hylomorphist, the substantial form does the determining work necessary for matter to realize definite, essential attributes. The more fundamental the elements (the greater their compositional potency), the “less” form there is to do this determining work. Thus, as fundamental particles are removed from their incorporation into determinate systems (or as we would put, as elements are removed from governing substantial forms), the hylomorphist would expect indeterminacies to abound. That is part of what hylomorphists have always meant by the slogan that the substantial form is the principle of actuality of a substance, and that matter exists (determinately) through the substantial form.

One last – albeit incredibly brief – point of comparison between hylomorphism and quantum theory is in order. Some metaphysicians (most notably Jonathan Schaffer) have made use of SST as providing the best means for explaining the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. SST is more often than not regarded as the more contentious of the two theses we use to define hylomorphism, but the ability to explain such tricky phenomena would do much to help the hylomorphist motivate this controversial point. So, not only is hylomorphism compatible with quantum physics, it apparently garners rational support from it. The details are essential to evaluating the strength of the justification, but that story will have to wait for another day.

[1] Some have worried that to speak of prime matter as a type of being lacking essential attributes is to predicate of prime matter an essential attribute, viz. lacking essential attributes, and so have concluded that prime matter as pure potency is incoherent. However, this objection turns on the false assumption that all true predications refer to a form which needn’t be endorsed. See Brower, Aquinas’s Ontology of the Material World, for a helpful discussion and defense of this possibility.

[2] This allows for the possibility of there being reference frames where in Smitty isn’t located and so doesn’t exist. This is due to the fact that the light cones of objects in those reference frames are ‘outside’ of the Smitty’s light cones.

[3] How can one object have incompatible intrinsic properties in different reference frames; or even worse, how can an object exist in one inertial frame, but not in another? For a discussion of this problem in relation to the problem of existence and change, see Jaeger and Madden, “Existence and the Problem of Referential Intrinsics” (in progress).

[4] This view of spacetime substantivalism naturally gives rise to various forms of monism. Jonathan Schaffer has defended this version of monistic substantivialism at great length, see “Spacetime the one substance,” Philosophical Studies, 2008, vol. 145, no. 1: 131-148.