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Journal Title: Revue internationale de
Volume: 52
Issue: 2 [204]
MonthNear: 1998
Pages: 249-68
Article Author: Aertsen
Call#: 8 2 .R3281
Location: 13
Article Title: The Philosophical Importance of CUSTOMER HAS REQUESTED:
the Doctrine of the Transcendentals in Thomas
Emiliano Cuccia (ecuccia)
Imprint: Medievallnstitute
37 Fischer Graduate Residences
Notre Dame, In 46556
Is there a philosophy in Thomas Aquinas ? The question is not a
rhetorical one. Thomas, like most of the thinkers who figure in histo-
ries of medieval philosophy, did not see himself as a philosophus, but
as a theologian, and most of his works were never intended as purely
philosophical reflections. As Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump
observed, "the most formidable obstacle to contemporary philoso-
phers granting medieval philosophy the attention it deserves is the stiB
widespread suspicion that it( ... ) simply is theology" (1).
The founder of the modern study of medieval philosophy, Etienne
Gilson, reacted against this misconception in his renowned book The
Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, originally the Gifford Lectures of
1931-2. He acknowledges that medieval thought was deeply in-
fluenced by Christian revelation, but this influence did not lead to the
denaturing of philosophy. On the contrary, medieval thinkers renewed
and transformed anc'ient thought in all domains. Gilson therefore
understands medieval philosophy as "Christian philosophy" (2).
I want to adopt another strategy than Gilson's. I focus on one par-
ticular doctrine, the doctrine of the transcendentia (for which the
( l) Norman KRETZMANN and Eleonore STUMP, The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas,
Cambridge 1993, Introduction, pp. 6-7.
(2) Cf. Jan A. AF.RTSEN, "Gibt es cine mittelalterliche Philosophic?", in : Philo-
sophisches Jahrbuch I 02 ( 1955), 161-176.
C> Revue lntemationale de Philosophie 2/1991! . no 204- pp. 249-268.
- I
expression "transcendentals" has been customary since the sixteenth
century), which was formulated for the first time in the Summa de
bono of Philip the Chancellor, written ca. 1225. My objective is to
show that this doctrine provides a special insight into the proper philo-
sophical dimension of Thomas's thought, since it concerns the foun-
dations of human knowledge and science (3).
In Thomas's doctrine of the transcendentals several philosophical
motifs can be distinguished, of which the primary one is the epistemo-
logical motif. He develops his theory of the transcendentals through a
reflexive analysis of human intellectual knowledge. "Being", "one",
"true", and "good" are the "firsts" (prima) in the cognitive order, "the
first conceptions" of the intellect (
). This motif is neglected in
scholarly literature, which usually contrasts the ontological character
of "The Transcendental Philosophy of the Ancients" with the trans-
cendental way of thought that was inaugurated by Kant (5). The
cognitive approach is, however, central in Thomas's most complete
account of the transcendentals in De veri tate 1.1.
In this text, Thomas prepares his account through a reductio or
resolutio of human knowledge to first principles. In reply to the ques-
tion "What is truth?" he argues:
Just as in demonstrable matters a reduction must be made to princi-
ples known to the intellect per se, so likewise in investigating what
something is (quid est). Otherwise one will fall into an infinite regress
(3) For a complete account of Thomas's doctrine, see J.A. ARTSEN, Medieval
Philosophy and the The Case of Thomas Aquinas, Leiden and New York
(4) In Boethii De trinitate 6.4: "Omnis consideratio scientiarum speculativarum reduci-
tur in aliqua prima( . . . ) Et huiusmodi sunt ( ... )primae conceptiones intellectus, ut enti s, et
unius". Quod/. VIII, 2.2: "Et similiter in intellcctu insunt nobis etiam naturalitcr quaedam
conceptiones omnibus notae, ut entis, unius, bani, et huiusmodi; ( ... ) et sic quousque per-
veniamus usque ad primas conceptiones humani intellectus, quae sunt omnibus naturaliter
(5) The expression "The Transcendental Philosophy of the Ancients" is used by K ANT
in his Critique of Pure Reason B 114.
in both cases, with the result that science and knowledge of things
will perish entirely (
In the argument he distinguishes two forms of acquiring know-
ledge. The one form is the demonstration of a proposition; that is the
order of scientia, for science in the strict sense is knowledge on the
basis of demonstration. The other form is the inquiry into what some-
thing is; that is the order of diffinitio, for the definition states the
essence or quiddity of something. The two orders are presented as
parallel (sicut ... ita), because both require a reduction. In Thomas's
argument for this requirement, an idea that is indispensable for under-
standing his train of thought remains implicit. The premise is more
fully formulated in his commentary on Boethius's De trinitate 6.4:
ln the theoretical sciences we always proceed from something pre-
viously known (ex aliquo prius noto ), both in demonstrating proposi-
tions and also in finding definitions ( ... ).
But it is impossible to go on to infinity in this case, because then all
sciences would perish, both with respect to demonstrations and with
respect to definitions, since the infinite cannot be traversed( ... ).
So every inquiry of the theoretical sciences is to be traced back
(reducitur) to some firsts (prima) (1).
The necessity of pre-existent knowledge is implied in the notion of
scientia as Aristotle describes it in the Posterior Analytics. Scientia
designates not so much a system of propositions as a mental state or
habitus that is produced by a demonstration (
). Scientia is grounded
knowledge; only the conclusions of demonstrative syllogisms are
scientifically knowable in the proper sense. That scientia is demon-
strative means at the same time that it is derivative, for the knowledge
(6) De veritate 1. 1: , sicut in demonstrabilihus oportct fi eri reductionem in aliqua prin-
cipia per sc intcllectui nota ita investigando quid est unumquodquc, alias utrobiquc in
infi nitum iretur, et sic periret omnino scientia et cognitio rerum".
(7) In Boetllii De trinitate 6.4 : "in scientiis spcculatiuis semper ex aliquo prius nolo
proceditur, tam in demonstrationibus propositionum, q u ~ t m etiam in inuentionihus diffini-
tionum ( . .. ) Hie autem non est possible in infinitum precedere, quia sic omnis scientia
periret et quantum ad demonstrationcs, et quantum ad diffinitiones, cum infinita non sit
pertransire ; unde omnis considerat io scientiamm speculatiuarum reducitur in aliqua
(8) In I Post. Anal., lect. 4: "cum scire nihil aliud esse uideatur quam intellif?ere uerita-
tem alicuius conclusionis per demonstrationem". Cf. In VI Ethic., lect. 3: "scientia est
habitus demonstrativus, idest ex demonstratione causatus".
of the conclusion is derived from propositions previously known, the
premises of the demonstrative syllogism. Scientia has the structure of
coming "from" or "out of' (ex) something antecedently known (
This structure raises a problem concerning the foundation of
science. If science is derived from something prior, then how can
there be scientific knowledge of the principles of science? Aristotle
discusses this problem in the first book of the Posterior Analytic.\' (c.
3) and Thomas's reasoning in De veritate 1.1 is a succinct summary
of his discussion. Aristotle concludes that there cannot be scientia of
everything. The demand for demonstration of all human knowledge
would lead to an infinite regress, but the infinite is not traversable. The
analysis must end at a principle that is no longer known through
something else, but per se, immediately (
The core of the opening passage in De veritate 1.1 is the analogy
posited between the order of scientia and that of forming definitions.
Tracing back to something first is necessary in the latter domain as
well. One does not find this idea in Aristotle's Analytics, but it is
essential for Thomas's argument. Cognition of the quiddity of some-
thing also requires antecedent knowledge; it too is derived from
something known previously, for a definition is formed from the con-
cepts of the genus and of the differentia. Anyone who wants to know
what human being is traces what is to be defined back to something
that is more general and hence prior, namely animal. This tracing
back to what is previously known cannot proceed indefinitely. An
infinite regress would render the formation of definitions impossible,
and we do have definitions. The analysis of what something is comes
to an end in "the first conceptions of the human intellect", which arc
the first because they arc no longer understandable on the basis ol'
something else. To these first conceptions all definitions must he
reduced (
1 1
(9) Both structural clements of scientia - its being demonstrative and derivative-
arc indil.:atcd hy THOMAS in In Boethii lJc trinitatc 2.2 : '"ratio sdcntic cons1stat in hoc
quod ex a\iquihus notis alia ncccssario condudantur''.
(I 0) Sec Anal. Post. I, c 3. Cf. THOMAS, In I Post. Anal., lcct. 7.
(II) In Rot'lhii J>c trinitate nA: "primae conccptioncs intcllcctus. ut cnt is, ct unius, ct
huiusmodi, in quae oportet rcdm:crc ornncs dif1initioncs scicntiarum prcdictarum". Quod/.
VIII, 2.2: "De qui bus etiam quid sint, sc1re non possumus, nisi resol vcndo in aliqua prius
nnta; et sic 4uousquc pcrvcniamus usque ad prirnas conccptioncs humani intcllectus".
The para1lelism between the order of demonstration and the order
of definition that Thomas puts forward in De veritate l.l was some-
thing new in comparison to Aristotle, but not an original idea. Thomas
derived it from Arabic philosophy, In the fifth chapter of the first
treatise of his Metaphysics, Avicenna introduces his doctrine of the
primary notions. 'Thing" (res), "being" (ens). and the "necessary" are
impressed on the soul by a first impression and are not acquired from
other and better known notions. Later in the same chapter, Avicenna
presents another list of primary notions, including ''thing", "being",
and "one." His argument showing why it is necessary to accept pri-
mary notions is based on the structure of scientific knowledge and the
parallelism between the orders of " assent" (or judgement) and of
"conception". Just as there are first principles that are known through
themselves in the realm of assent, so in the realm of conception also
certain principles that are conceived per se are required (
Avicenna' s conclusion that our concepts must be reduced to primary
notions had a decisive influence on Thomas's doctrine of the transcen-
dentals. There are first intelligibles that are the foundation and the
seeds (semina) of all knowledge acquired through the discourse of
reason (
The first conceptions are the horizon of human knowledge. Even
if Thomas recognizes a plurality of "first conceptions" (being, one,
true, and good), "being" (ens) clearly has priority: it is the first
among equals. the maxime primum (
). The reason for the conceptual
priority of being is that it is included in the concept of the others,
hut not conversely. "Without being nothing can he apprehended by
the intellect", for something is only knowable insofar as it has
( 12) 1\viccnna Latinus - /,ilwr de (lhilosophia tJrima .It\'(' dili111r I. <.:. S (C'd. S.
V AN RtET) Louvain/Lcidcn 1977, pp. 31 -:B : .. Di<.:emus igitur quod res et ens ct nee esse
talia sun! quod statim irnprimuntur in anima prima imprcssionc, quae non acquiritur ex
aliis notiorihus sc, sicut crcdulitas 4uac hahct prima principia, ex quihus ipsa provenit per
sc, ct est alia ah cis. sed ca ( ... ). Similita in imaginationihus sunt tmrlla lJUac sunt
prim:ipia imaginandi. quae imaginantur per se ( .. . ) Si aut em omnis i magi nat in cgcrct alia
prac...:edcntc imaginationc. proccdcrct hoc in infinitum vel cin.: ularitcr. Quae autcm promp-
tiora sunt ad imaginandum per scipsa, sunt ca quae eommunia sunt omnihus rchus, sicut
res ct ens ct unum. ct cetera .. . Cf. M.E. M i.t{MII RA, "Aviccnna on Primary Concepts in the
Metaphysics of hi s ai-Shifa'', in: R.M. S AVORY and D.A. Ac;urs (eds.), / ,ogo.\' /slmnikos.
Studio ls!amica in Hmrort'lll ( itorgii Michal'fis Wickens. Toronto I YH4. pp. 21 Y-23Y.
( 13) Cf. /)e l'eritatt' I 1.1 .
( 14) /)(' (1fllf'ntia lJ. 7 ad 6.
being. Everything we apprehend we understand first of all as a
"being" (
In his commentary on book IV of the Metaphysics, Thomas goes a
step further in comparison with both Avicenna and his own account in
De veritate 1.1. Not only is there a parallel between the orders of
conceptual knowledge and of demonstration, but that which is the
principle in the order of conceptions is the foundation of that which is
first in the order of demonstration. The context of Thomas's commen-
tary is Aristotle's inquiry into the first principle of demonstration. The
Philosopher states several conditions which such a principle must
meet. One of them is that it must not he hypothetical - Aristotle
employs the phrase anhypotheton (I 005b 14) that Plato used for the
Idea of the Good - that is, it must not presuppose something, but
must be self-evident (
). This condition is met by the principle of
non-contradiction : "the same thing cannot at the same time belong
and not belong to the same thing in the same respect". Thomas calls
this principle (for which he in his lectio also gives the version "it is
impossible for a thing both to be and not to he at the same time" ) "the
axiom of all axioms" (dignitas omnium Those making
demonstrations reduce all their arguments to this principle as the ulti-
mate one in analysis (resolvendo) (
). This is the principle he had in
mind, when in De veritate I .I he stated that in demonstrable matters
there must be a reduction to self-evident principles.
Thomas continues his latio with a personal excursus that goes far
beyond the littera of the text. In this exposition he provides a founda-
tion for Aristotle's anhyporheton, the principle of non-contradiction.
He shows that it is <.kpendcnl (dependel) on something else. The point
of departure of his argument is the Aristotelian view that the intellect
has two operations. The first is the operation hy which the intellect
( ])) In I Smt. X.I .J. <.'f. 1)(, l'erilate 1. 1 : " illud quod primo intd lcctus concipit
quasi noti ssimum ct in quod cotH.:cptioncs omncs rcsol vit ens. til /\viccnna Jkit in pr in-
cipio suac
( 16) lrr IV Metaph .. led. 6. 5Y7-5YY.
( 17) Ibid .. kct. fl. t-.03 : " Et propter hoc omncs dcmonstrationcs rcducunt suas proposi-
tioncs in hanc.; prop<>sitioncm, in ultimam opinioncrn omnihus communcm : ipsa cnim
est natural iter principium ...:t di!!nitas omnium dignitatum" ; 604 : " inquanlum in ham: redu-
cunt dcmonstrantcs omni a. sicu\ in ullimum rcsolvcndo".
Sec for Thomas's different versions of the pru11:iplc: In I Po.1r Anal .. lcct. 5, 50 ; In X
Metaph .. lcct. 5, 2211 ; S.th. 1- 11 , 94.2; 11- ll , 1.7.
knows "what something is", the other the operation by which it com-
poses and divides, that is, by which it forms affirmative and negative
statements. In both operations there is something first. In the first
operation the first that the intellect conceives is "being" - nothing
can be conceived by the mind unless "being" is understood. The prin-
ciple "it is impossible for a thing to be and not to be at the same time''
depends on the understanding of this first. For that reason this prin-
ciple is hy nature the first in the second operation of the intellect ( IK).
The new development in Thomas's commentary is that he grounds the
first principle of demonstration on what is absolutely first. i.e ..
"being". He provides what we might call a "transcendental" founda-
tion for the principle of non-contradiction (
1)) .
Thomas's foundation of rational knowledge on the hrst conceptions
of our intellect has an anti-Platonic aspect . On Thomas's view
Platonism identified the prima intelligibilia and the first principles of
reaiity. Plato posits an order in the Forms (species), according to
which the more simple (simplicius) something is in the intellect , the
more separate and prior it is in the order of things. That which is first
in the intellect is "one" and "good'', which include each other. Hence
Plato holds that the Form of the One or Good is the first principle of
things. which he called "God" eo).
In reaction to the Platonists, Thomas stresses the difference
between the cognitive order and the ontological order. That which is
first conceived by the intellect is not that which is first simpliciter, that
is, God. but being in general (2
). The reso1ution to the first cause of
things is rather the final end of the human desire for knowledge. The
(I K) /11 IV Ml'fii(J/i. , kcl. (1 . 605 : " Ad huius autcm CVILkntiillll scicndum quod, l'lllll
duplex .-;it O[lL'ratio intclkctus: Ull<l. qua toguuscit quod quid est ( ... ):alia. qua l'o111po111t
ct dividit: in utroquc est aliquod primum : in prim;1 quidcm opcratiunc L'St aliquod pri -
mum. quod L' adit in t:llnccptionc intdln:tus. scilicet hoc quod dico ens: n-.T a li quid haL
opcrationL' potest lllL'IltL' nmcipi. ni s i intc lli!!atur ens. Et qu ia hoc priucipium. impllssihik
est esse ct non esse s imul. dcpcndL't ex intcllcctu cntis ( ... ). ideo hoc et iam prin .. ipium est
naturaliter primum in sccuml;: opcrationc intcllcctus. sLi lin:t component is ct dividL' ntis".
( llJl Thomas himself uses the tcrm.fimrlatur in Srmmw thC'o/ogiw I-ll. q. 94.2. ('f. the
third section below.
(20) /)to .mhstwrtii.\ .ltpomti.\ c. I : " ld autclllLJUm! primo est in intdlectu est unun1 ct
honum. nihil cnim intclligit qui non intclligit un111ll: unum autcm ct bonum sc t:ousc.:quun-
lur : umh: ipsam primam idcam unius. quod nmninahat sccuudum sc unum ct scnmdum Sl'
honum. primurn rerum ponchat. c l hunt: sunHuum dcum esse dicchat'' .
(21) Cf. In Hoctlrii /)(- trinittrlt' 1.3.
first in the order of our intellectual knowledge is not transcendent, but
transcendental. Thomas's doctrine of the transcendentals functions in
this respect as a critique of knowledge.
"Being", "one", "true", and 'good" are the first conceptions of the
intellect because they signify the maxime communia, which are com-
mon to all things (
). These most general features of reality transcend
the Ari stotelian categories in the sense that they are not restricted to
the categories (substance, quantity, quality, etc.) and are therefore
called transcendentia (2
The opposition between categorial and transcendental appears from
the structure of Thomas's account in De veritate 1.1. From the thesis
that being (ens) is the first known, he immediately draws the conclu-
sion: "Consequentiy aii other conceptions of the intellect must be
gained by an addition to being". "Being" cannot, however, be dif-
ferentiated by the addition of something lying outside of being, for
being excludes nothing. A differentiation of being is only possible as
an expression or explication of what is contained in being in an
implicit way. Other concepts can add something to being in the sense
that they express a mode of being (modus essendi) that is not yet
expressed by the term "heing" itse]f. This modal explication can come
about in two ways. The one explication expresses special modes of
being, which contract being to some nature or essence. This occurs
through the highest genera, which Aristotle called the "categories".
The other explication concerns general modes conse4uent to every
being; it occlirs through the transcendentia (2
) . Here we find a second
(22) In De hebdom. , !eel. 2: '"ca autem que in intcllectu omni um cadunt sunt maxi me
communia, que sunt ens, unum ct honum" .
(23) Cf. De l'irtu:ihus in comm. 2 ad X: " .. in lranscendcntibus. quae circumcuni
omnc ens".
(24) De w:ritate I . I : .. sed secundum hoc al iqua dicuntur addcrc super ens in quantum
c ... primunt modum ipsius entis qui nomine enti s non C-"'f>rimitur, quod dupl i citcr contingit.
Uno modo ut modus e-"'pressus ~ t aliquis special is modus en tis (. .. ). Alio modo ita quod
modus C-"'pressus sit modus generalis consequcns omne ens" .
motif of the doctrine of the transcendentals. It is a doctrine of being
and an explication of the attributes that belong to being as such. The
ontological motif is closely connected with Thomas's concept of
The reception of Aristotle's Metaphysics in the thirteenth century
led to an extensive discussion among medieval commentators on the
question of the proper subject (subiectum) of this science, for two
reasons. The first reason is that in the collection of books we call the
Metaph_vsics, Aristotle made different statements about the subject
matter of "first philosophy" or "theology". The second reason is that
the Middle Ages was also concerned with another theology, a science
of the divine based on revelation by scripture. The fact that - in
Thomas' s terms- theologia sive scientia divina est duplex raises the
question as to the proper place and foundation of first philosophy vis-
a-vis Christian theology (2
In the prologue of his commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics,
Thomas discusses the subject of metaphysics. His point of departure
is the idea that there must be a firsi and highest science, for when
several things are directed to one end, one of them must be director or
ruler and the rest directed or ruled. This finality obtains for the
sciences, too, since they arc directed to one end, namely to the perfec-
tion of the human being (2
). The thesis that science is the perfection
of human beings is not developed here by Thomas. The background
of this view is the opening statement of Aristotle's Metaphysics: "All
men by nature desire to know" (980a 21). Science is the good of man
as man, for it is the fulfillment of his natural desire for knowledge.
But what is the first and highest science? That must he the science
that is "rnost intellectual", that is, the one that treats of the "highest
intclligibles" ('-
). Thomas explains what the most intelligible is on the
basis of the operation of the human inte1lect. His "cognitive" approach
to metaphysics is one of the most remarkable aspects of the prologue.
(25) CC In Hul'lhii Dt trinitalt' 5.4.
( 2o) In Mttopli .. prol. : ''yuando ahqua pluru ordinantur ad unum, oportet unum eorum
esse n:gulans, sivc rcgcns. et alia rcgulata. sivc recta. ( .. . ) Omnes autem scientiae et
artcs ordinantur in unum. s<.:i liccl ad homini s pcrfcctionem, quae est cius beatitudo. Undc
neccssc est, quod una carum sit aliarum omnium rcctrix.
(27) /hid .. proL : ita scicntia debet esse naturalitcr aliarum regulatrix, quae maxime
intcllcctualis est. Haec autem est, quae cin.:a maximc intelligibili a versaLUr" .
____ _____________________________ ...................... ...
"Highest intelligibles" can be understood in three ways. (i) The first
way is taken from the order of understanding (ex ordine intelligendi).
Here intelligibility relates to causality, in that the intellect derives its
certainty from the knowledge of causes. "To know scientifically"
(scire) is, according to Aristotle in his Posterior Analytics (1, c. 2), to
have perfect knowledge of the cause. Therefore that science is the
highest which considers the first causes (2!!). (ii) "Highest intelligibles"
can be understood by the comparison of intellect to sense (ex compa-
ratione intellectus ad sensum). From thi s viewpoint intelligibility
relates to universality, for the difference between intellect and sense is
that sense provides knowledge of the particular, while the intellect
comprehends universals. Hence that science is pre-eminently intellec-
tual which deals with the most universal principles. "These are being
and that which is consequent upon being (ens et ea quae consequun-
tur ens), such as one and many, potency and act" (2
) . (iii) "Highest
intelligibles" can be understood from the very cognition of the intel-
lect (ex ipsa cognitione intellectus). From this viewpoint intelligibility
relates to immateriality, for something has the power of intellect by
virtue of being free from matter. "Highest intelligibles" are therefore
things which are altogether free from matter, such as God and the
intelligences (30).
The three types of "highest intelligibles" correspond to the three
definitions of first philosophy that are to be found in Aristotle's
Metaphysics. First philosophy is knowledge of the highest causes
(book I); it considers, in contrast to the particular sciences, being-as-
being (book I V ~ it is "theology", since it deals with the immaterial
and the di vine (book VI). How Aristotle himself conceived first
(2H) Ibid. , prol. : " Nam ex quibus intellcctus certitudinem accipit, videntur esse intelli-
gibili a magis. Undc, cum certitudo scicntiae per intellectum acquiratur ex causis, causarum
cognitio maxime intcllcctualis esse videtur. Untie ct ilia scienti a, quae primas causas con-
sidcrat, videtur esse maxime ali arum regulatrix" .
(29) /hid., prol. : ' ' Nam, cum sensus sit cognitio particul arium. intcllectus per hoc ah
ipso differre videtur, quod univcrsalia comprehendit. Unde et ilia scientia maxime est
intelleclualis, quae circa principi a maxime univcrsali a versalur. Quae quidem sunt ens, ct
ea quae consequuntur ens, ut unum et multa, potentia et actus".
(30) /hid., prot. : "Nam cum unaquacque res ex hoc ipso vim inte llcctivam habeat,
quod esl a materia immuni s, oportct ilia esse maximc intelligibilia, quae sunt maximc a
materia separata. ( .. . ) Ea vero sunt maxime a materia separata, quae non tantum a signata
materia abstrahunt ( ... ), sed omnino a materia sensibili. Et non solum secundum rationcm,
sicut mathematica, sed etiam secundum esse, sicut Deus et intelligentiae".
----- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ~
philosophy is a controversial question among scholars and a basic
problem in studying his work. Joseph Owens, having considered the
recent discussions, concludes : "This revisit strengthens the stand that
the science of being qua being in Aristotle is a theology only" (3
) . By
being-as-being, Aristotle means the divine substance, to which all
other beings are related. Owen's position is in agreement with the
theological interpretation that prevailed among the Greek commenta-
tors in late antiquity and was transmitted to the Middle Ages by
The most important element of Thomas' s prologue is his attempt to
synthesize Aristotle's divergent statements about the subject of first
philosophy. He argues that the threefold consideration of "the highest
intelligibles" should not be attributed to different sciences, but to one.
For the immaterial substances (the third type) are the first and univer-
sal causes (i) of being (ii), and it belongs to the same science to
consider the proper causes of any genus and the (subject-)genus itself.
So it must belong to the same science to consider the separate sub-
stances and being in general (ens commune), which is the genus of
which these substances are the common and universal causes (3
Thomas's argument applies the Aristotelian model of scientia to
metaphysics. The structure of every science is that it has a subject-
genus and that it considers the causes of its subject. With the help of
the logician Aristotle, Thomas invests first philosophy with a unity
that it never had in the Philosopher himself.
This approach from the theory of science also appears unambi-
guously in the remainder of the prologue, in which Thomas deter-
mines the subject of metaphysics. Although this science is concerned
with the first causes, with being in general , and with the immaterial
substances, it does not study any one of them as its subject, but only
(31) J. OwENS, "The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics - Revisited",
in : P. MOREWEtxi E (ed.), Philosophies of Existence, Ancient and Modern, New York 1982,
pp. 33-59 ; p. 54. Cf. m., The Doctrine of Bein[< in the Aristotelian 'Metaphysics'. A Study
in the Greek Back[<round of Medieval Thouf?hl, Toronto 1963.
(32) In Metaph., pro!. : " Haec autem triplex consideratio, non diversis, sed uni scientiae
attrihui debet. Nam praedictae substantiae separatae sunt universales et primae causae
essendi. Eiusdem autem scientiae est considerare causas proprias alicuius generis et genus
ipsum ( ... ). Undc oportet quod ad eamdl!m scienliarn pc:rtineal considerare substantias
separatas, et ens commune, quod est genus, cuius sunl praedictae substantiae communes et
universales causae".
ens commune. "For the subject of a science is that whose causes and
properties we seek, but not the causes themselves" (3
The outcome of the prologue is that Thomas does not adopt the
theological concept of metaphysics. The subject of first philosophy is
not the first being, that is transcendent, but being in general and that
which is consequent upon being. Against this background the impor-
tance of the doctrine of t11e transcendentals becomes understandable,
for this doctrine concerns being and its properties. Thomas's concept
of metaphysics itself is transcendental. From this perspective he
explains the name "metaphysics". This science is called "meta-
physics" because its subject matter is discovered after that of physics,
at the end of the process of resolution (resolutio ), as the more com-
mon after the less common (3
). Thomas reserves the name "meta-
physics" for the study of the communia.
On the basis of his discussion of the subject of metaphysics,
Thomas is able to distinguish philosophical theology from Christian
theology. The two theologies have a different scientific structure. The
subject of metaphysics is being in general ; God is considered in this
science insofar as He is the cause of being in general. In Christian
theology, however, the divine itself is the subject (3
). Everything in
this science is considered sub ratione Dei.
In De veritate 1. 1, Thomas presents a derivation of the transcenden-
tals "thing" (res), "one" (unum), "something" (aliquid), "true"
(verum), and .. good" (bonum). The most original aspect of this deriva-
tion concerns the last two transcendental s. I will therefore restrict my
analysis of the text to "true" and "good".
Thomas's ordering principle of his explication of the general modes
of being is that the expressed mode pertains to every being either in
itself (in se) or in relation to something else (in ordine ad aliud). \Vith
(33) Ibid., pro!.: "Ex quo apparel, quod quamvis ista scientia praedicta tria consideret,
non tamen considerat quodlibet eorum ut subiectum, sed ipsum solum ens commune. Hoc
enim est subiectum in scientia, cuius causas et passiones quaerimus, non autem ipsae
causae alicuius generis quaesiti".
(34) In Metaph., prol.
(35) See In Boethii De trinitate 5.4.
respect to the relational group of transcendentals, Thomas introduces
a subdivision. The relarion of one being to another can be regarded
first of all according to their division (secundum divisionem) . This
aspect is expressed by the transcendental "something" (aliquid), a
name that means literally "another what" (quasi aliud quid): "being is
called 'something' insofar as it is divided from others" (3
). In addi-
tion to this mode there is a more positive relational mode of being,
namely, the conformity (convenientia) of one being to another. The
condition for such a relation is something that is suited by nature to
conform to every being. The human soul is such an entity; according
to Aristotle it "is in a sense all things" (De anima III, 8, 431 b 21) (3
The conformity of being to the soul is twofold, for in the soul there is
both a cognitive faculty and an appetitive faculty. The conformity of
being to the appetite is expressed by the name "good", its conformity
to the intellect by the name "true" (3ll).
Thomas's important innovation in the doctrine of the transcenden-
tals is the anthropological motif, that is, the correlation he introduces
between anima and being. In De veritate 1.1, he understands the
transcendentality of "true" and "good" in relation to the faculties of
the human soul. The introduction of relational transcendentals as such
is not something unique to Thomas. Albert the Great already
acknowledges the relational character of the true and the good, but he
seeks to account for this relationality from a theological perspective.
He refers the true and the good to the divine cause of things insofar as
it is their exemplary form and final end. All reference to the human
soul is absent from Albert's explanation (3
06) De veritate l . l : "Si autem modus entis accipiatur secundo modo. scilicet secun-
dum ordinem unius ad alterum, ho\.: potcst esse dupliciter. Uno modo secundum divi sio-
ncm unius ab altero et hoc exprimit hoc nomen aliquid : dicitur enim aliquid quasi aliud
quid, unde sicut ens dicitur unum in quantum est indivisum in se ita di citur aliquid in
quantum est ab ali is divisum".
(37) Ibid. I. J : "Aiio modo secundum convenientiam unius cntis ad aliud. et hoc qui-
dem non potest esse nisi accipiatur aliquid quod natum sit convenire cum omni ente; hoc
autem est anima, quae 'quodam modo est omnia', ut dicitur in Ill De anima".
(3H) Ibid. I . I : "in anima autcm est vis cogniti va et appctitiva; convenicntiam ergo
entis ad appetitum exprimit hoc nomen honum, ut in principio Ethicorum dicitur quod
'bonum est quod omnia appetunt ' , convenientiam vero entis ad intellectum cxprimit hoc
nomen verum".
(39) ALBERT THE GREAT, Super De divin. nomin. c. 4 (Opera Omnia vol. 37/ l , ed. P.
Simon, Munster 1972, pp. J 15-16).
. I
In his derivation of the transcendentals Thomas recogmzes the
special place human beings have among other beings in the world.
The human anima is "in a sense all things'' . The perfection of an intel-
lectual substance is that it is able to assimilate also the forms of other
things. An inte11ectuai substance has "more affinity" to the whole of
things than does any other substance. Through its intellect the human
being is able to comprehend the whole of being (totius entis compre-
hensiva) (
). Its hori zon is unlimited; a human being is marked, we
might say, by a .. transcendental" openness.
Thomas' s recognition of the correlation between anima and
being is in fact the explication of a basic assumption in the doctrine
of the transcendentals. When the transcendentia are the prima of
human intellectual knowledge, and the first intelligibles are commu-
nia, the distinctive mark of human beings must consist in their
transcendental openness. This openness is the condition of the possi-
bility of metaphysics as human science. The intellect has the most
comprehensive object (obiectum communissimum); its object is ens
universale (
) . In Thomas's philosophy, the subject of metaphysics
corresponds with the proper object of the intellect, for both concern
being in general.
Another aspect of Thomas's correlation between anima and being
is that it provides a foundation for the science of ethics. The connec-
tion between transcendentality and morality is clearly put forward in
Thomas's classic exposition of natural law in Summa theologiae I-ll,
94.2 (
In this text Thomas elaborates a structure for practical science
that runs parallel to that of theoretical science. The analogy between
theoretical and practical reason forms the starting point of his exposi-
tion : 'The precepts of natural law are to practical reason as the first
principles of demonstration are to theoretical reason, for both are
self-evident principles (principia per se nota)". Thomas works out
this parallelism at various places in his work. Man possesses in
both the theoretical and the practical domain a non-discursive know-
ledge which forms the basis of all his further knowledge. Just as
(40) ScG Ill, 12.
(41) S.th.l.78.1.
(42) For this text, see G. GRISEZ, "The First Principles of Practical Reason", in : A.
KENNY (ed.), Aquinas. A Collection of Critical Essays, London 1970, pp. 340-82.
theoretical reason proceeds from principles which are naturally
known, so practical reason proceeds from principles which are the
precepts of natural law. The habitus of these practical principles is
called synderesis (4
The analogy between theoretical and practical reason, which is an
original element in Thomas's ethics, is indicative both of their agree-
ment and of their difference. Practical and theoretical reason have the
same formal structure of rationality : both proceed from first prin-
ciples to conclusions. At the same time, the domain of practical
thought is distinct from that of theoretical thought , for each has its
own first principles. The analogy is therefore an indication of the
autonomy of philosophical ethics.
Both theoretical and practical reason proceed from self-evident first
principles. Thomas discusses the nature of these propositions and
introduces a distinction between them that is derived from Boethius's
De hebdomadibus. Some propositions are self-evident only to the
learned, who understand the meaning of the terms of such proposi-
tions. Other axioms are universally self-evident, because the tenns of
these propositions are known to all (
). Thus Thomas enters the
domain of the transcendentals by reducing the universally self-evident
principles to the first intelligibles.
The next part of the argument is focused on the order among the
transcendentals. That order is related to the apprehension of the most
common notions. That which the intellect first conceives is "being",
for its understanding is included in all things whatsoever that a human
being apprehends. In this context Thomas advances an idea that he
elaborates in his commentary on book IV of the Metaphysics, as we
have seen. He eslablishcs a relation of foundation between the first
conception of the human intellect, "being", and the first principle of
theoretical reason. The principle of contradiction, i.e., that "the same
(43) De verit. 16. 1 : "Sicut autcm ani mac humanae est quidam habitus naturalis quo
princ ipia speculativarum scicnli3rum cognosdt , quem vocamus 'intellectum princi-
piorum': ita in ipsa est quidam habitus naturalis pri rnorum principiorum operabilium,
quae sunt naturalia principia iuris naturalis; qui 4uidem habitus ad 'syndcrcsi m' pcrlinct".
Cf. In II S,-m .. 24.2.3 : S. th. l , 79. 12.
(44) S.th. I-ll. 94.2: "sicut dicit Boctius, in libru de H(bdom. , quacdam sun! dignitalcs
vel propositiones per se notae communitcr omnibus: ct huiusmodi sunt iliac propositioncs
quarum termini sunt omnibus noti (. .. ). Quaedam vcro propositioncs sunt per se notae
solis sapie ntihus, qui terminos propositionum intelli gunt quid signiticent" .
thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time", is founded on
the notions of "being" and "not-being" (
Thomas then makes the transition from theoretical to practical
reason, a transition that comes along with a change in what is first
known: "as 'being' is the first that falls under the apprehension
absolutely (simpliciter), so 'good' is the first that falls under the
apprehension of practical reason". Being is the first known in the
absolute sense, but ''good" is the first concept of practical reason, for
practical reason is directed to action, and every agent acts for an end,
which has the nature of good (-1
The analogy between theoretical and practical reason enables
Thomas to establish a relation of foundation between the notion of
"good" and the first principle of practical reason. The ratio of good is
"that which all desire". Hence the first principle of practical reason is:
"Good is to be done and pursued, and evil avoided" (
). This principle
has the same structure as the principle of theoretical reason, insofar as
both principles are marked by an opposition (
) . But the first principle
of practical reason, based on the notion of the good, has a normative
character. The principal act of practical reason is to prescribe

first principle, "good is to be done'', is "the first precept of the law"
that directs human actions.
One of the main features of Thomas's account of natural law in
Summa theologiae I-II, 94.2 is the central role of the doctrine of the
transcendentals (
). They appear to have a founding function: the first
principle of theoretical reason is reduced to the first transcendental,
f4.'i) S.rh. 1-11. ll4.2: " In his quae in apprehensione omnium radunt. quidamurdo
invcnitur. Naill illud quod primo cadit in <lpprehensionc, est induditur
in omnihus quis apprehend it. Et ideo primum principium indcmonstrahi le est
quod non t'.l"f sinwl af.limwre el 11(',!4tlre. quod fundatur supra rationcm cntis ct non ct
super pri ncipio omnia alia fundantur, ut dicitur in IV Mttat'lrys. .
(46) S.1h. 1- 11. 94. 2: "Sicut autcm ens est primum quod in apprchensionc simpli-
citer, ita bonum est primum quod cadit in apprchcnsionc pra<:licac rationis, quae ordinatur
ad opus : omnc enim agcns agit propter tincm, qui hahcl rationcm boni''.
<47) S.th. 1- 11. IJ4.2 : "Et idcu primum principium in ratione practica est quod fundatur
supra rationcm boni, quae est. Bonum t'.\"1 quod omnia appetw11. Hoc t.!st t.!rgo primum prac-
ccptum legi s, quod honum t'sl./tlf' iendum et prostquemlum, ef mal111fl 1irandum".
(4X) <'f. f)c malo 10. I .
(49) S. rh. I-ll. 47. H .
l50) Cf. J .A. AEKTSEN, "Nuturul in the Light of the Doctrine of the Transccu-
dt.!ntal s" , in : L.J. Et.DEKS und K. Ht:IJWI (cds. ), Ltx t'l Liherws. Fnedom and IA:III'
Accord loSt. Thonw.1 Aquinas, Vatican City I YH7. pp. 99- 1 12.
being, and the first principle of practical reason to the good. Being
and the good are different prima but cannot be separated from one
another. The transcendental foundations of theoretical thought and of
practical thought point therefore to a connection between metaphysics
and ethics.
God is Being, One, Truth, and Goodness. Transcendcntals arc
divine names. Philosophical reflection on the divine nmnes. that is. the
motif, plays a prominent role in Thomas's doctrine. His
first account of the transcendcntals, in his commentary on the
Sentences (I, 8.1.3 ), occurs within the framework of a discussion
about the order of the divine names ("Whether the name ' He who is'
is the first among the divine names?"). In his reply, Thomas ascribes a
privileged position to ''being", "good", "one", and ''true" as divine
names. These names precede the other divine names "because of their
commonness (cmnmunitas)" . He grounds the order among the divine
names on the order of the communissima. When compared to their
concepts, "being" is simply and absolutely prior to the others. Hence
it is fitting that " He who is" is the most proper divine name (5
Thomas's view is an adaptation of Dionysius the Areopagite, the
authority for philosophical reflection on the divine names. The
thirteenth century was not only the century of the reception of
Aristotle, hut also that of the intensive study of the corpus dion_v-
siacum. In his work Oe divinis nominihus Dionysius intends to eluci-
date the divine names that manifest God' s causality with respect to
creatures. such as the Good, Beautiful, Being, Life, and Wisdom. In
the pluralily of names there exists an order. Dionysius regards "the
Good" as the first name, prior even to " Being". His reason for this
priority is clearly influenced by Neoplatonic metaphysics, in which
the first principle of reality, the One or Good. is "beyond heing". That
Dionysius regards "the Good" as the primary divine name is a result.
Thomas remarks, of his having followed the via Plmonica

(5 1) In I Smt. X.I.J.
(:'i2 ) /)t malo 1.2.
------- - - - - --------------------......
In the prologue of his commentary on De divinis nominibus,
Thomas explains the Platonic approach to reality. The Platonists want
to reduce aU that is composed and material to simple and "abstract"
principles (abstracta). Thus they posit the existence of separate Forms
of natural things, for example, Human-Being-in-itself. A concrete
individual is not human being by its essence, but by participation in
separated Human Being. This is called human being per se because it
is identical with the human nature or species. The Platonists apply this
"abstract" approach not oniy to the species of naturai things but also
to that which is most common (maxime communia), namely, "good",
"one", and "being". They hold that there is a first, which is the
essence of goodness, of unity, and of being, a principle that we,
Thomas says, call "God". The other things are called "good", "one",
and "being" because of their derivation from the first. Therefore the
Platonists called the first principle "the Good itself', "the Good per
se", or "the goodness of all good things" (
In the next part of the prologue, Thomas rejects the first application
of the Platonic method: there are no separate, subsisting Forms of
natural things. But with regard to the first principle of things, he
acknowledges the legitimacy of the Platonist's reduction. It is in this
respect that their opinion is "the truest" and in agreement with
Christian faith. Therefore Dionysius at times calls God the Good
itself, the supergood or the goodness of every good (
Thomas values the Platonic view of the relation of things to the first
principle positively. This principle is transcendent and is the essence
of goodness and being. Other things stand in a relation of participa-
tion to the first principle. Their being derives from the first, divine
being. Thomas advances no argument for the validity of the Platonic
method, but this can lie in nothing else than its application to the
(53) In De div. nomin. , prol. Note in particular : "Nee solum huiusmodi abstractione
Platonici considerabant circa ultimas species rerum naturalium, sed etiam circa maxime
communia, quae sunt bonum, unum ct ens. Ponebant, enim, unum primum quod est ipsa
essentia bonitatis et unitatis et esse, quod dicimus Dcum et quod omnia alia dicuntur bona
vel una vel entia per derivationem ab illo primo".
(54) Ibid. , prot.: "Haec igitur Platonicorum ratio non consonat nee veritati, quantum ad
hoc quod continet de speciebus naturalibus separatis, sed quantum ad id quod dicebant de
primo rerum principio, verissima est eorum opinio et fidei christi anae consona. Unde
Dionysius Deum nominal quandoquc ipsum quidem bonum aut superbonum aut principale
bonum aut bonitatcm omnis boni".
maxime communia, that is, to the transcendentals. The Platonic
approach is valid insofar as the first principle, God, is regarded as
common by causality he is the cause of what is most common.
Thomas endeavours to connect the Platonic-Dionysian tradition
with the transcendental way of thought. As we saw in the first section,
the doctrine of the transcendentals has an anti-Platonic aspect. That
which is first in the cognitive order is not first in the ontoiogical order.
This opposition can also be formulated in terms of commonness.
Thomas distinguishes two kinds of commonness: that which is
common by predication and that which is common by causality. That
which is first conceived by the intellect, being, is common by predica-
tion. That which is common by causality is the ontological first,
divine being. The two conceptions of corrunonness do not necessarily
exclude each other in every respect and can be understood as comple-
The relation between God and the maxime communia is a causal
relation. God can be known by natural reason only through his effects.
Thomas describes knowiedge by way of causality as "'the foundation"
(jundamentum) of his consideration of God in the Summa theo-
logiae (5
). Since that which is common to ail things is the proper
effect of God's causality, the maxime communia are the road for
human philosophical knowledge of God. Thomas explicitly draws thi s
The rational created nature alone has an immediate order to God, for
the other creatures do not attain something universal ( ... ). The
rational creature, insofar as it knows the universal ratio of good and
being, has an immediate relationship to the universal principle of
being (
It is on this point that the anthropological and theological motifs of
Thomas's doctrine of the transcendentaJs converge. The human soul
"is in a sense all things" ; an intellectual being is marked by transcen-
dental openness. Owing to this openness, human beings are "capable
of God".
(55) S. th. I, 32. 1. Cf. I, 12.12.
(56) S.th. 11-11, 2.3: "Sola autcm natura rationalis creata habet immediatum ordinem ad
Deum. Quia ceterac crcaturae non attingunt ;td a liquid universale ( . .. ) natura aut em ratio-
nalis. inquantum cognoscit universalcm boni et entis rationem, habet immediatum ordinem
ad universale csscndi principium" .
- ____ ._........ __ ..........
In summary, in Thomas's doctrine of the transcendentals four
philosophical motifs can be distinguished. First, his doctrine is moti-
vated by an epistemological motif: transcendentals are the "firsts" in
the cognitive order, "the first conceptions" of the intellect that are the
foundation of all scientific knowledge that is acquired through the dis-
course of reason. Tnomas founds Aristotle's anhypotheton, the prin-
ciple of non-contradiction, on the first transcendental, being. Second,
Thomas's doctrine has an ontological motif: transcendentals are com-
munissima, which form the proper subject of first philosophy. Thomas
understands metaphysics as the scientia communis, which deals with
being in general and the attributes that belong to being as such. Third,
characteristic of Thomas's doctrine is the anthropological motif. He
establishes a close connection between the anima and being. The
human soul is "in a sense all things", is marked by a "transcendental"
openness, which is the condition of the possibility of metaphysics as
human science and the foundation of the science of ethics. The fourth
motif of Thomas's doctrine is theological. Since transcendentals
signify the most common features of reality, they are to be reduced to
God as the universal cause of things. Transcendentals are therefore the
basis for human rational knowledge of God, who is "Being", "One",
"True", and "Good" by his essence.
Thomas Institute, Cologne