Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Question 15 - Ideas in the Mind of God

Why this Question Matters.

As we saw in the background document on metaphysics, Plato thought that forms (which he called Ideas) exist in a realm of their own. However, Aristotle considered that forms only exist in so much as they are instantiated in the things they inform. St Augustine, taking a basically Platonic point of view, placed the realm of the Ideas in the mind of God. In this question, Aquinas attempts to reconcile the teaching of St Augustine concerning Ideas in the mind of God with an Aristotelian metaphysical framework.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas is quite happy to affirm that there are Ideas in God's mind. In order to do this in an Aristotelian framework, he claims that forms can exist apart from the thing that they inform in two ways: as the exemplar of the thing itself, or as the means of knowing the thing. Aquinas has already covered the idea of a form existing in the mind as a means of knowing something in question 14. But also, since God's knowledge is causative, it is quite natural for Aquinas to accept both ways in which forms can exist in God's mind. Therefore, what Aquinas achieves in this article is to show that Augustine’s placing of the realm of Ideas in the mind of God can be made quite consistent with the former’s Aristotelian approach to God’s causative knowledge.

A2: Having reconciled St Augustine and Aristotle in the first article, Aquinas now faces a tricky problem. God is entirely simple, so it would seem quite natural to assert that there is only one Idea in the mind of God. But this would seem to be quite foreign to St Augustine's conception of Ideas in the mind of God, so it might seem that Aquinas's reconciliation in article 1 is in vain. In his answer, Aquinas is quick to reject an idea (due to Ibn Sina) that would give him an easy way out of this conundrum. He denies that God simply created the first being that consequently created everything else. He asserts that the plans to everything in creation must be in God's mind and therefore there must be a plurality of Ideas in God's mind. Aquinas's answer to the problem of reconciling this with divine simplicity is so disarmingly simple that it may seem like a sleight of hand. He says that “the idea of a work is in the mind of the agent as that which is known, not as the species by which there is knowledge”. In other words, Aquinas is saying that Ideas are present in the mind of God not as a multitude of individual forms facilitating the creation of individual things act by an act, but rather as a single complex facilitating the creation of all things by God's single act of being. The many ideas are in God's mind as objects of his simple knowledge.

A3: Finally, Aquinas asks whether there is an idea in the mind of God corresponding to everything that He knows. The objections list several knowable things that may be considered not to have corresponding forms. Aquinas meets these objections by going back to Plato's fundamental concept that the ideas are sources of the knowledge of things and of their coming into existence. This sits perfectly well with Aquinas's idea of God's creative knowledge and allows Aquinas to claim that ideas and things known to God correspond.


  1. Simon Writes:

    While preparing the handy guide for this question I got a bit stuck on article 3, objection 4 and its reply. So I asked Steve what he thought. Here’s my question and his reply.

    I think that the general idea of this question as a whole is to reconcile Aquinas’s notions about knowledge in the mind of God from his Aristotelian metaphysical point of view with Augustine’s Platonic view. I think he does this by showing that his idea that God’s knowledge is creative is consistent with Augustine’s use of Plato. In article 3 he is concerned to show that there is a correspondence between God’s knowledge and ideas in the mind of God.

    In Objection 4 he suggests that there is some knowledge that doesn’t correspond to some Ideas (genera, individuals and accidents). In the answer to the objection, I get the impression that Aquinas meanders around without really coming to a decisive solution. He deals well enough with the case of substantial accidents and insubstantial accidents but for the rest he seems to be saying something along the lines that certain classes of knowledge go indivisibly together, like species/genus, and that that explains why there may be no corresponding Idea for genus. Do you think that’s right, or have I missed something?

  2. Steve Writes:

    Hypothesis: 'St Thomas fails to demonstrate that God has an Idea of all the things he knows'

    I found this tricky because Plato's 'Ideas' are different from my use of the word 'idea'.
    (a) For Plato 'Idea' = form, where form is the fulness of that which makes a thing what it is. Things are composites of matter and participation in Ideas whereby they come to 'have' form. My dog participates in Dog.
    (b) For me, 'idea' = anything that happens to be going on in my head at any particular moment.
    On the Platonic definition of Idea I think it makes sense to say that it is not the case that there is an Idea for every piece of knowledge. A composite of matter and the Idea of Dog results in Fido. I recognise the similarity between Fido, Lassie and Spot and invent a genus, calling it Canis, which helps everyone understand "man's best friend". However, genus is nothing but a relation in my mind between subjects that participate in Dog. What is going on in my head is some sort of grasp of Dog, but there isn't a separate Idea out there of 'Genus' in which my head participates to produce genus-dog.

    Equally there is only one Idea covering many individuals. Accidents that cannot exist independently I imagine are subsumed in the possibilities contained within the Idea. So, if you can know individuals and accidents, there can't be an Idea for each bit of knowledge. And we know individuals through the senses, and accidents through difference, both underpinned by Idea which provides the intelligibility on which sense and difference depend.

    So, on the face of it we have a problem because God doesn't have senses, he is not a body, and there is no 'difference' in God, so on that account God cannot know anything that is not an Idea. Of course St Thomas has already resolved these issues in Question 14 by arguing (a11) that God knows individuals because he is the cause of individuals and (a16) that God has speculative knowledge of things. Part of the truth of things, I would argue, is their commonality with other things, which would be part of God's speculative knowledge of individuals. On my account of Plato, it looks like these sorts of knowledge do not count as 'Ideas', therefore God cannot have an Idea of all the things he knows.

    The only satisfactory move I can think of is similar to those we find in replies to objections 1 and 3. (1) God knows evil through Good. (3) God knows matter through the Idea of the composite of matter and form. And so, God knows what is common between individuals through individuals, not because they exist, but because God created them. His creative act means he knows their substance and hence commonality in a way that transcends my view of genus (I know very little about dogs!). And in that way 'genus' and 'Idea' come back together as the principle of the production of things, uniquely, in God.

  3. Husserls "irreel"s (things that are neither in the world, nor percieved, but we can be sure exist) seem to be at least "the means of knowing the thing," for example in order to recognise a word, "dog", unless we had an irreel ("idea"? "form"?) at least of the word, then we would not even be able even to recognise even the word.

    This is what Derrida criticises as the metaphysics of "presence"

    The "metaphysics of presence" might be better rendered as "co-presence," that whenever we have a sign in our mind, typically as remembered or reproduced mental phoneme, then as well as that phenomenal something, that voice, the internal voice is accompanied by co present with the ideas, or irreels, of that sign, and were this not the case then we would not be able to recognise these remembered and recollected phonemes as words, just jumbles of sounds, each different from each other. The each instantation of a word in its phenomenological form is after all unique. The irreel, the idea, or shifting to Heraclitus' terminology, the Logos, guarantees the itterability, the recognisability and meaning of signs, of the word, accross a "river" of ever changing itterations.

    There seem to be two ways of providing this insurance, this template: statically in the form of some sort of system (Kant, Pinker, the Stoics), or dynamically in the person of some sort of copresence in the mind of an understanding other or God, or at least the belief in thereof - see Bakhtin's "Superaddresse," George Herbert Mead's "Generalised Other," and Adam Smith's "Impartial Spectator".

    While Derrida criticises the metaphysics of "presence" he seems to suggest that it is unavoidable, a sort of accidental theist.

    I happened here because I was interested to know how Plato understood "the mind of god" as something static or personal.

  4. Timothy,

    Thanks for your comment and sorry for any delay in approving it; real life has intervened to keep me away from the blog recently!

    I do intend to get round to a revision of this section of questions some time; one of the things I want to do is to connect the scholastic realism of Aquinas with some modern philosophers. You've given me some things to think about - thanks!