Simplicius and Aquinas on Aristotle’s Categories

Written by on September 16th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Simplicitus Aquinas Aristotle Logic

|||Simplicius. On Aristotle’s Categories 1-4. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press, 2003.|||

Simplicius Text on Aristotle It is clear, however, that if [the goal of the Categories] is about expressions insofar as they signify, it is necessary that the signified realities (pragmata) and the notions (noêmata) which come about in accordance with significations also be involved. This is why [Aristotle] teaches us what each expression signifies, and defines realities in accordance with each category. Moreover, he uses the same division both here, where the goal (skopos) is primarily about significant expressions, and in the Metaphysics, where he teaches about beings qua beings…For neither are significant expressions wholly separate from the nature of beings, nor are beings detached from the signs which are naturally suited to signify them. Nor, finally, are notions extraneous to the nature of the other two; for these three things were previously one, and became differentiated later. For Intellect, being identical with realities and with intellection, possesses as one both beings and the notions of them, by virtue of its undifferentiated unity, and there [sc. in the intelligible world] there is no need for language.” p. 29

|||Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. Edited by Ralph McInerny. Translated by Richard Berquist. Revised Ed. Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 2007.|||

Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics The parts of logic must therefore correspond to the different acts of reason, of which there are three. The first two belong to reason insofar as it is a kind of intellect. The first of these is the understanding of indivisibles or simple things, the act by which we conceive what a thing is. (Some call this act “intellectual representation” or “intellectual imagination.) Aristotle’s teaching in the Categories is ordered to this act of reason.” Proemium

Although there are some Thomists that are more amenable to the Neo-Platonism found in Aquinas’ writings, among more sober, Aristotelian Thomists, there is a tendency to scoff at the words of “the Platonists.” Indeed, when one compares the lucid words of St. Thomas quoted above with those of Simplicius (a late Neo-Platonic commentator on Aristotle), also quoted above, one likely senses a certain dissonance when each author speaks of Aristotle’s Categories. Indeed, one might wonder if one is speaking of the same text. Aquinas, very quickly remarks that the Categories deals with the first operation of the intellect and then proceeds (in the remainder of the Proemium) to deal with matters more proximate to his commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. It is not surprising that Simplicius’ text gives much more considered reflection to the Categories, as the text cited above is taken from his commentary on that very text. Nevertheless, in comparison with Aquinas’ sober remarks, we are little tempted to see a close relationship between these two thinkers, given Simplicius’ soaring rhetoric, dragging in the “Intellect” of Plotinian fame. The reader is tempted to feel about Simplicius as William James did of the post-Kantian Idealists of his day: “It was reserved for his Fichtean and Hegelian successors to call [the ego] the first Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if they were going up in a balloon, whenever the notion of it crossed their mind.”1 The sentiment is understandable. The judgment, however, is unfair and, to my sight, unwarranted.

Now, when Thomas makes the innocuous remark, “The first two belong to reason insofar as it is a kind of intellect,” he is saying something much more than might first appear. In several places of places,2, Thomas asks, “Are the intellect and reason distinct powers in man?” This question is odd to our modern eyes, but what he is asking is, “Is the principle of intellection separate from that which makes the human person string together syllogisms?” In a sense, this question ultimately leads to the correlated questions, “Do all of the long chains of reason end in actual acts of understanding or instead in some kind of constructive product that separates us from that which is known? Are our ideas–born in the discourse of reason–merely like signs that point to reality but are more like a veil between direct knowledge and understanding of individual things?”

I would have you note that in Simplicus’ text the commentator remarks that the Categories is about significant expressions. Earlier in the text, he is clear that such expressions are not external spoken words but the words of the mind. This is noteworthy in light of the development and formalization of Thomistic logic (particularly by John of St. Thomas), in which there is a significant development given to the problem of signs, particularly hinging on the distinction between “formal signs” as opposed to “instrumental signs.” The “instrumental sign” is much like the everyday use of “sign”–e.g. the footprint that is a “sign” indicating the recent passage of an animal. The intellect first knows “footprint” then passes on to the thing known consequently–“such and such an animal, having recently been here.” Unsurprisingly, since a good deal (though certainly not all) of this discussion occurs in the treatment of the De Anima, it is focussed on human intellection. However, as Thomas states elsewhere in his theological works (though the principle is of metaphysical importance), if there are beings like the angels, there are two very important epistemological criteria that hold, even though such beings would not need to know by abstracting from the senses. 1) These beings would not know other things by knowing themselves. That is only God’s prerogative.3 2) Though such knowledge would never need abstraction, this or that infused concept would not be always considered, meaning that the angel (not being as perfectly one as God) does consider this or that infused natural species at various times.4 Therefore, there is something correlative to judgment possible in such beings. For humans, the truth of judgment is often formulated by scholastics by the formula, “Truth is the conformity of the act of the mind unifying two concepts in a judgment with the (actual or possible) existence of the same thing in which these two concepts are realized.”5 As Maritain once perspicuously noted, this really needs to be altered to include the case of any intellectual being (rational and incarnate or purely spiritual). The form of such a redacted version would be: “Truth is the conformity of the mind with being, according to which it states to be that which is, and not to be that which is not.”6

For the Thomist, any created being must know through an intermediary, though that intermediary is a formal sign–a “mental word” that functions purely as a sign. Here, we are still talking about what Porphyry had to say about the categories (though his remarks are concerned with human intellection). In the case of the angels, there is no ratiocination, but still there are multiple concepts and judgments (of sorts). Therefore, for humans and angels, there is a distinction between the thing signified and the signifier. Because of this, one can ask whether these mental words, considered as categories, have any relation to being itself.

I must assure you that there are principles that can avoid idealism, but the metaphysics become rather scholastic, soaring to “nose-bleed” heights very quickly. However, I can for now give you a convincing argument that such a relation exists and at the same time show you that Aquinas and Simplicius are not quite so distant from each other. (This attests to the very dicey expressions that are thrown around by neophytes in philosophy, desiring to parcel up the history of philosophy too precisely.) In the jargon of medieval epistemology, the concept (or mental word) is called the “intelligible species.” In the course of arguments in the Summa contra gentiles7, Aquinas gives a rather accessible argument for the proposition: “God knows himself through himself.” That is, the “concept” of his knowledge is Himself. Whereas even the angel must know itself through a sign8, in the case of God alone is knowledge pure self-presence. In this case, the distinction between sign and signified completely drop away. The only “language” is the very being of God–such likewise is the traditional position regarding the Beatific Vision. This notion of “presence” is essential to the the prime analogate or “focal meaning” of all knowledge, though it is only analogically similar to the cases of intellection in created beings.

I will close by inviting you to return to Simplicius’ text, hoping that you will ponder them in light of the more sober thoughts of Thomas. Certainly, I have not given you a complete epistemology here, but I hope that I have provided you with an apt “pointer” and somewhat rousing indicator about the path on which the way of wisdom passes from the humble Categories to the heights of metaphysical contemplation, all without going up in the pejorative Jamesian balloon. See above where Simplicius states: “For neither are significant expressions wholly separate…”

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (New York: Holt, 1905), 365. 

  2. See (e.g.)Aquinas, De veritate q.15 a.1, ST I q.79 a.8. 

  3. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.54 aa.1-3. 

  4. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.58 a.1. 

  5. Jacques Maritain, Réflexions sur l’Intelligence et sur sa Vie Propre (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer), 25 (my translation). 

  6. ibid. 

  7. Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles 1.46 

  8. See Aquinas, Summa theologica I q.55 a.1