Unity and Distinction within Being
By Jim J. McCrea
The problem of universals is long standing in philosophy. It is sometimes called the problem of the Many and the One. If you consider two objects of the same type; for example, two cats, this problem appears. It would seem that in calling each of them a "cat," they are the same. Yet in being two different things, they are not the same. On the surface, at least, there seems to be a contradiction.
Philosophers throughout time have attempted to address this problem. Plato claimed that although the cats are two, each could be called a cat because they participate in a perfect cat on a perfect ideal plane. Aristotle said that each one could be called a cat because each one has "catness" as its essence, and this essence is in the cats themselves, and not in a separate realm as Plato maintained. (essence is the fundamental constituent of a thing, or the "what-it-is," which makes a thing the particular type of thing it is). Both cats have the same essence, but different matter, which makes them two distinct individuals, but the same type of individual.
The thinking of many modern philosophers has been somewhat removed from the realism of Aristotle. Conceptualists maintain that these two entities are called cats because our mind applies the same concept to the two individuals. The sameness of the cats, according to this view, is in the mind and not in the reality of the cats themselves. Nominalists go even further. They say that the two entities are called cats because we simply assign the same name to each of them. To them, all things are totally unique. Our understanding of the nature of things, according to this belief, is based exclusively on our use of language. Monists (of, for example, the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism) say that all distinctions between things are mere illusion, and in reality all things are one thing.
There is, however, a solution which does strict justice to realism and solves the problem of universals. This solution is closest to the view of Aristotle. The "catness" in the individual cats, is an objective reality which constitutes a real element of them. This reality of catness, as their essence, is identical in each cat. This is why we call them both cats. A given name signifies a given reality. The two cats, therefore, are identical and distinct at the same time. This is not a contradiction because they are not identical in the same way that they are distinct. They are identical with respect to essence and distinct with respect to individuating matter. Individuating matter is that given matter which belongs to a given material individual alone, and is the basis for that individual's identity. A different material individual has different individuating matter. That is what makes it different. The identity of essence, in things of the same type, must truly be an objective fact. If this were not the case, essence would be something subjective and created by the human mind. If this were true, a vital part of our knowledge would be non-objective. This would be contrary to the nature of the intellect, which is to get outside of itself and grasp real being. The very definition of truth is the intellect's correspondence with being.
It may be asked how a single objective reality can exist in two (or several) different things at the same time. It would seem to be common sense that one objective reality would exist in one thing alone, and a different objective reality would necessarily exist in another thing. This objection can be answered by pointing out that the notion of "objective reality" may not necessarily be identical to the notion of "individual concrete object." A concrete (individual existing) object is one type of objective reality, but there are other types of objective realities as well. "Essence" constitutes such a type. Various essences such as "catness," "dogness," "chairness," and "tableness" are objective realities, but they are not concrete objects. They are the fundamental metaphysical constituents of the concrete objects of cats, dogs, chairs, and tables, respectively - which make them the type of things they are.
This concept of an objective reality, as not being a concrete object can be seen if we understand the notion of "objective reality" as being the truth of a thing (in the case of essence, it is the truth of what it is). This truth - of an essence subsisting in a thing - is an objective reality because it really exists in the thing itself. It is not a construction of the mind.
An analogy may be used to better clarify the fact that there are objective realities which are not concrete objects. For example, we can consider a number of floppy disks which have the same computer program on them. The program is an objective reality in its own right. It is a series of instructions in magnetically encoded bits to tell the computer what to do. We can see that there are a number of distinct realities as physical individual disks, but there is also one reality common to them, which is the one program which is on all of them. The program is an objective reality, but not a physical object. It is not a physical object, as the disks are, which contain the program.
In scholastic philosophy different individuals with the same essence belongs to the same species. This type of species is not necessarily identified with the idea of species that biologists study because it is a notion which includes all beings, not just biological beings. A species in metaphysics is simply the collection of all entities of a specific type. Another level of classification which scholastic philosophers study is known as genus. Genus is a broader category of things of a general type. All members of a given genus have a generic essence, common to them all, which is the one reality which makes that genus what it is. An example from modern technology may be used to explain this: "radio" may be a specific species; "audio-recording-device" may be a different species; and "computer" may be a different species still. We can see, however, that all three belong to the broad category "signal-processing-device." This collection of things belonging to this broad category is known as a genus. All members of this genus have the same reality - the same generic essence, "signal-processing-deviceness" which specifies it.
"Signal-processing-device" is part of the more general category "technological-object." "Technological-object" has "technological-objectness" as its essence. This more general category is a second level genus. "Technological-object" is part of a still more general category which is "inanimate-physical-object" which has "inanimate-physical-objectness" as its essence, which is the one reality which specifies it. This is a third level genus.
We can see here that there are multiple levels of abstraction applicable to a given object. The individual radio contains "radioness;" "radioness" contains "signal-processing-deviceness;" "signal-processing-deviceness" contains "technological-objectness;" and "technological objectness" contains "inanimate-physical-objectness." Each essence contains the more general essence after it: a radio is also a signal processing device, which is also a technological object, which is also an inanimate object. These levels of abstraction can be visualized as concentric rings, with inner rings representing higher levels of abstraction contained within outer rings representing lower levels of abstraction.
The ultimate level of abstraction is the notion of being-as-such. Being-as-such is any given thing, any given group of things, and all things. In short it is anything that is. The abstraction of being-as-such is not obtained by going to higher and higher levels of genera, so that we arrive at being-as-such as the ultimate genus. (Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas said that being-as-such is not a genus). It is not the smallest circle within the concentric circles of generic abstraction. You do not remove more and more from an object until you reach being-as-such at the center. This is because being-as-such, when applied to a particular object, includes all things about the object. We do not remove characteristics, as in the generic types of abstraction. It is still an abstraction, however, because being-as-such excludes the notion of what individual it is, and what particular essence it possesses. It includes, however, the notion that it is some particular individual and that it has some particular essence.
Finally, we will discuss the broadest categories of being. These broadest categories are the various levels of being. These are not genera in the ordinary sense. These genera differ from each other in their metaphysical properties. The essences applicable to different levels of being are of different types, whereas the essences of a given level of being are of the same type. In other words, when discussing the different types of essences applicable to the different levels of being, we are referring to essences of essences - that is, the common reality applicable to a given type of essence which makes that essence the type of essence it is, which defines the level of being that it is on. This shall be elaborated below.
First, we can consider the level of being of "atom." This can be considered a genus in itself, with the various types of atoms belonging to species within this genus (i.e helium atom, carbon atom, iron atom etc.). Atoms are on a different metaphysical level than that of, for example, radios, stars, planets, and boulders. This is because atoms constitute the material substratum of radios, stars, planets, and boulders. In this manner, the type of essence atoms possesses differs from the type of essence that objects possess which are composed of atoms.
Animals are on a different metaphysical level than that of inanimate objects: they possess life. The nature of the form of an animal is such as to be called a soul. Animals act within their environment with a spontaneity and freedom which transcends a mere mechanical program of movement - such as what you would find in a robot. Much more do they transcend the activities of inanimate objects operating in a cause and effect fashion (i.e. that of one billiard ball conferring momentum on another). The nature of the essences of animals must, therefore, transcend the nature of the essences of inanimate objects.
Angels are on a different metaphysical level than that of animals or inanimate objects. Unlike material beings, the essences of angels do not arise from material forms; angelic essences stand on their own (or may be the function of a spiritual form). That is, they are pure spirits. The nature of the essence of an angel is that it is identified with the individual angel. Unlike the essences of material beings, one angelic essence does not subsist in a number of individuals. That is, each angel is a distinct species in itself. We can see here that the nature of angelic essences differs radically from the nature of material essences.
Man himself is on a unique level of being. He is a hybrid of "animal" and "spirit." The immortal soul of man is his form. The soul is not, as Descartes maintained, a ghost in a machine. The soul is the form of the living body. Descartes erroneously said that body and soul were two different beings, with the soul animating the body. Body and soul are not two different beings which constitute man, but are two metaphysical components (matter and form) of one being which is man. The human soul is intrinsic to the body of a living man - in the manner that hardness is intrinsic to steel - but where the analogy breaks down, it can separate from his body after death and exist on its own. Even though the soul is the form of a man's living body, it is not merely that. The operations of intellect and will are contained within the soul, which are spiritual functions. The soul of a man is truly a spirit and is independent of space. Given that the soul is a spirit, and at the same time the form of a material body, man is distinct from both animals and angels - but has properties which are common to both. The true essence of man, common to all humans, is body and soul united in one being.
The highest level of being is God himself. The essence of God is his own existence. He is, therefore, infinite and possesses all perfections to an unlimited degree. The level of being which God is on, is identified with the individual, which is himself. That is, there is only one God. Of all the types of essences, God's is, by far, the most unique.
We will now discuss the distinction and unity between God and everything else that exists. It may seem that if everything pertaining to God is infinite, then there can be no "room" for anything else to exist, because everything applicable to being belongs to God. Besides the obvious fact that things other than God actually do exist, we can establish a theoretical point of distinction between God and other things which would allow things to exist other than God. It is possible for finite things to exist because they are in fact finite. This distinguishes them from God in his infinity. A second point of distinction is that finite things, from instant to instant, proceed from God's power and will, so that He continuously maintains them in existence. God, on the other hand, is self existent; He exists because it is his nature to exist. The self existence of God distinguishes him from things that are necessarily dependent on Him. These two points of distinction are merely two aspects of the same thing. To be self existent is to be necessarily infinite. To exist by the power of God is to be necessarily finite.
The point of unity between God and other things is that they are both manifestations of being-as-such. God and a rusty wrench lying on the ground have in common the fact that they are. Being-as-such is not an empty concept or a mere verbalization, but an objective reality. It is an "energy" or actualization which is at once ordinary and mysterious. Its nature is to be the opposite of nothingness. Because God and all other things have the reality of being-as-such in common, all things, in some manner, reflect God. This point of unity between God and all other things is richer in content than might first appear. Being has the transcendental properties of unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. These are so much properties of being that they are literally different names for being. As a result, when we perceive the unity, truth, goodness, and beauty of finite beings, we see a reflection of the unity, truth, goodness, and beauty of God.
When we have a concept or an idea of something - for example, of a cat - the very same essence which is in all cats is also in our mind as part of that concept we have of a cat. In our concept, this essence is in a mental mode of existence and is not embodied in a concrete individual cat. An identity must exist between the essence which exists in something and the essence which constitutes the concept of that thing in our mind. This is because the understanding of something real must imply a true contact of that thing with the understanding mind. If something were understood by a concept in our mind and this concept did not have the identity of the essence of that thing being understood, our mind would have no true contact with that thing, therefore, it would not be understood at all.
Similarly, for God to know all things, all essences which are in all things must also exist in God. There is an identity between the essences in things and the essences in God by which God understands other things. If this were not the case, other things could not be known by God. At the same time that this identity exists, there must also be a real distinction between these essences in God and the essences in things outside of God. This is because God is not identified with creation, but is "totally other." All essences of things, in God, in an infinitely mysterious way, are identical with the one infinitely simple idea which He has of all reality, which in turn, is identical with Himself. All these essences in God are one. The essences in things outside of God, on the other hand, are all distinct from one another. The concrete embodiment of essences outside of God depends on God, while the idea which God has of all things is self existent because this idea is identical with Himself who is self existent. It is the essences which are within God which are the source of the essences in created being. All things, therefore, reflect God's being.
** Endnote - Leibniz's famous principle states: things which are indiscernible are identical. Another principle can be derived from this as a corollary: things are identical in the measure they are indiscernible.