Thursday, May 1, 2008

Existence and substance

For a chair to exist is simply for a particular bunch of particles, or maybe larger chunks like pieces of wood, to be arranged chairwise (which may refer both to physical arrangement and to the purpose). To put it in Thomistic terms, a chair's esse, its to be, is the arrangement of a bunch of things. Notice that the esse of a chair, then, does not mention the chair—for a chair to exist is for some other things to have a particular arrangement. The chair, thus, is a second class citizen of Thomistic ontology: claims of the existence of the chair can be reduced to claims about the arrangements of particles or chunks. Chairs are not substances.

What is the esse of a contingent substance? Aquinas does not tell us as far as I know. But we can speculate that the esse of a substance is one of the following:

  1. participating in God's esse
  2. being caused
  3. being caused by complex of causes C.
(Perhaps some of these come to the same thing.) Whichever of these is right (my current favorite is (3), which neatly fits with the essentiality of origins), in each case the esse of a substance is expressed in a way that includes that substance—it is the subject of the participating or the subject of the being caused. On the other hand, the esse of the chair was something else's being arranged a certain way, with the chair itself not playing a role in its esse. Is this the defining feature of a substance (contingent or not), that it plays a role in its esse, that for it to be is not just for something else to be a certain way? Maybe.


Skeptical said...

The esse of a chair surely isn't its arrangement — it must includes its being for something, say, supporting sitting in a particular way. (A chair-shaped lump of wood produced by natural forces does not have the esse of a chair.)

If that is right, then perhaps there is a fourth option: the esse of a contingent substance is its being for something, say, its mode of activity. There may, of course, be nonteleological constraints on what must be the case for something that is for something to exist.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

@ Skeptical

If an object's being for is included or essential, doesn't that rule out objects or concepts with purely intrinsic value as having an esse?

Also, does that mean that certain objects can share an esse? I'm not sure I understand why something made by natural forces is ruled out as a chair, but it seems that I can sit on a desk (even if it's not its intended use) because it is a possible use of it in the same way I can sit on a chair. In that sense, a desk and a chair are both for sitting on. Therefore, they share a same element of each other's esse.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The esse of a chair is not its arrangement, on this view, but the chairwise arrangement of other things (chunks of wood, particles, whatever). I agree that reference to purposes is needed. I was thinking that a part of what makes an arrangement of pieces be a chairwise arrangement is that the pieces are put together to support sitting. So I view the arrangement as not just a physical configuration but a purposeful physical configurations (albeit with extrinsic purpose). So I think we basically agree.