Meaning and Material

Does matter have meaning? Aquinas thought that it is impossible to understand some instance of a material entity solely by the entity impinging on the senses. One needs to abstract sense data through the use of concepts. At the formation of concepts there is understanding. The object of understanding is an 'intelligible species' and resides within us. One understands a material entity, X, by understanding what it means to be X, but the object of knowledge is transformed from the material entity, X, to the mental entity, X: "a thing is knowable in so far as it is separated from matter" (De Veritate 2. 2.)



Aquinas thought that only mental entities can be understood. A mental entity is what is abstracted from sense experience. What is required is not only the ability to receive sense data, but to act upon it, deriving meaning via abstraction.

Attempting to find the meaning of the rock in the rock


A human agent, by nature, thought Aquinas, is an intelligent being. As such, he has within himself the light of reason. This is sometimes referred to as the "agent intellect" and is often associated with the immaterial part of human beings.

Others thought that human beings could only understand because they were dependent upon another source, a divine agent intellect. Without God, and his light, there would be no way to understand anything.

In our contemporary setting some, like Donald Davidson,  have argued that the light required for intelligibility is language dependent. By forming concepts through natural languages we are able to carve nature at its joints. The skeptics among us contend that such carving is purely subjective and we can have no guarantee that language gets anywhere near anything other than how we would like nature to be carved up.

I have been entertaining the idea that intelligibility requires language, but that language is God dependent in the sense that thought, being dependent on language, is passed on to us by the triune, and inter-linguistic God of the Bible. Language, and therefore thought, was taught  to the first humans by God directly. As God taught the first couple to discourse about reality he taught them the nature of truth. We inherit, no matter how distorted through sin, a set of natural languages that have their origin in the divine intra-trinitarian, and eternal, conversation. Language carves nature at its joint, but it is not a human subjectivity acting alone, but a divine language that ultimately carves nature at its joints.

I'm not sure I'm right about this. It leads to some complications. First, my attempts to find good arguments that show the dependence of thought upon language have been troubled by the fact that such a view, though only recently in vogue, is now largely rejected in favor of theories of "mantalese," a pre-linguistic language of brains.

Second, I'm sure, though I have yet to discover, that my theory will lead to some conflict with something else I believe. For example, perhaps I will have to work out what it means to say that all people know that God exists (Rom 1). I am committed to this because I am committed to inherency. However, it is difficult to see how everyone could know that God exists if the concept of God is language dependent. It seems possible that the concept of God would not get passed on to every person. Some family may never get around to describing the concept and thus leave someone with an excuse (read Rom 1 if you are not sure what I mean by an excuse). If it comes to it, I'm with scripture on the matter.

Any insight on this matter would be greatly appreciated. So thoughts on a post card comment welcomed.

Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 124-128.

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