Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Notes on Individuation

After I ranted a bit in a personal exchange Faber suggested that I write up a bit on individuation. First a quick recap: here of course Faber reproduced a bit of Scotus on whether a relation can individuate. "Don Paco" of the blog Ite ad Thomam linked to it here, where commenter Aquinas 3000 asked what he thought of it. Don Paco replies,

I hold the Thomistic view: "The principle of individuation, i.e., of numerical distinction of one individual from another with the same specific nature, is matter designated by quantity. Thus in pure spirits there cannot be more than individual in the same specific nature." (Thesis 11, from the 24 Thomistic Theses).

So the soul is individuated through its body. This is the case, even when the soul no longer informs its body body: even then, this soul is still the soul (form) of that body (matter) and of no other.

On Edward Feser's blog Aquinas3000 puts the position this way:

The soul still has a relation to the body as it is the soul of this particular body. It also has its own separate act of esse. The matter individuates it as this particular human being. Once it is separate from the body it is no longer a human being as such, since this refers to the composite. It is an incomplete substance that is capable of subsisting due to its spiritual character that has a relation to this particular body i.e it is the soul of this body.

Some comments later our own Lee Faber replies:

So immaterial human souls have a different principle of individuation out of the body than in the body? So really for Thomas there are lots of principles. At one time it's matter, at another time it's a relation. But a relation requires two fundamenta. How can there be a relation to a non existent (the body)? All you've got is one term and a relation to nowheresville.

First of all I want to clear up the matter of the foundations of relations. Faber's remark, and Scotus' comment reproduced in the first post just cited, "every relative form presupposes something absolute in which it is founded," needs to be qualified. There can be a real relation with one nonexistent foundation, in the case of opinion, memory, anticipation, understanding, will, etc, regarding a non-existent, no-longer-existent, or not-yet-existent object. That is, there can be a real relation between something with subsistent (subjective) being - the mind - and something with merely objective being - the object which exists only in thought and not in itself. However, that's not really relevant to the present case.

In my view, which is the Scotist view, the Thomist account of individuation is involved in insuperable difficulties, which the case of the separated soul merely highlights. Consider the fact that the human body, upon decomposition, no longer exists, while ex hypothesi the human soul continues to exist apart from the body. The matter does not cease to exist, in the sense that prime matter is never naturally created or destroyed according to the principle of the conservation of energy; but individual bodies certainly do cease to exist. This flesh, this blood, these bones, these ashes, this carbon and oxygen, these electrons etc., can all dissembled into their components, be converted to energy and dissipated, and enter into composition with other matter and assume new forms and become new individual substances. This happens all the time. So "this body," the human body that the separated human soul once informed, ceases to exist. As Faber points out, the principle of individuation for an existing concrete substance cannot be something nonexistent, since no non-being can be the real principle of a being. But upon the decomposition of the body, "this" body no longer exists. According to the Thomists, therefore, the separated soul is individuated by something non-existent. But this is impossible, ergo etc.

Perhaps, however, the Thomists do not mean that the soul is individuated by this human body, but by the "signate matter" which individuated the body. So upon the destruction of the body, the "same" matter continues to exist, and the soul is individuated by its relation to this particular bit or chunk or amount of matter which, if it were informing it, would be its body. Sadly, however, this is no better. For the same quantity of matter, when it loses the form of "this" body, takes on some new form. It then becomes a new substance, "this(2)" body, which is numerically distinct from the first "this(1)" body. (Of course what really happens, and which I think strengthens the Scotist case, is that this quantity of matter enters into composition with an indefinite number of new bodies, but talking about it this way is simpler and clearer.) Then, according to the Thomists, this signate matter "this(0)" is the principle of individuation of "this(2)" body; but the principle of individuation for this soul "this(3)" is its relation to "this(1)" body, which is grounded in "this(0)" matter as well. So "this(0)" is the principle of individuation of both "this(2)" and "this(3)", through the latter's relation to the now-nonexistent "this(1)". This sure seems to imply that "this(2)" and "this(3)" are numerically identical, since they share a numerically identical concrete constitutive principle. This is, as a good scholastic would say, inconveniens.

However, a more fundamental objection to the Thomist account arises when we consider the famous Ship of Theseus problem. Any living organic substance, like a constantly repaired ship of Theseus, is constantly excreting old and absorbing new matter. They say - I don't know with how much truth - that we replace all our cells something like every seven years. (In any case particular quantities of matter are exchanged with my environment with every breath, effort, drink, bite, and trip to the restroom.) In that case every seven years all my proximate matter is replaced, and thus of course all my signate prime matter is replaced. But I am the same individual and my body is the same body as it was when I was an infant. Therefore signate matter is not the principle of individuation for my body. Are we really supposed to accept on anyone's authority, even that of a great saint such as St Thomas, that I only remain myself because somehow my body never excretes the little initial collection of atoms making up the chromosomal strings of the sperm and the egg that joined in my conception, and that that self same core of signate matter constitutes my individuality? The notion is absurd. What if that little core were surgically extracted? Clearly I would remain myself. The truth of the matter is that the continuity of the individual existence of any body is insured not by continuous possession of any given bit of matter, or of the whole quantity of its matter, but by the identity and continuity of its form. This is the case even for inanimate bodies, so that souls need not come into it at all. A lake is not individuated by its water; it remains the same lake even though fresh water is continually trickling in and out.

If you want to read more about individuation, the best Scotus texts are in Book VII of the Quaestiones Metaphysicae and in Book II, Dist. III of the Ordinatio, in both of which he discusses a vast range of possible positions and arguments. The best and most comprehensive secondary source is Individuation in Scholasticism, edited by Jorge Gracia. I haven't read all of the latter, I have to admit, despite meaning to get to it for some years now.


Brandon said...

A few thoughts, more about the arguments here than the question of individuation, and not very dogmatic.

signate prime matter

I don't think it makes any sense to talk about signate prime matter in this context; signate matter is differentiated matter, and therefore precisely not prime matter.

On the many principles of individuation point, in De E&E St. Thomas as much as says that the disembodied soul is not individuated in precisely the same way as the embodied one. As he puts it, quoting Avicenna, the soul is individuated by the body in its beginning but not its end. (I'm inclined to think the Thomistic reading in which the disembodied soul is taken to be individuated by a relation to its former body is incorrect as an interpretation of Aquinas, though.)

As a matter of tidying up an argument without changing anything essential to it, you don't need to appeal to the decomposition of the body when dealing with Thomists; the human body is destroyed at death, in becoming a corpse, long before the corpse decomposes, since the corpse is this human body in a different sense than the living human body was this human body. Talking about decomposition seems to complicate the argument unnecessarily.

Edward Ockham said...

Just a reminder that the Logic Museum now includes some of the text of II.D3 (namely qq1-3) together with a draft English translation. Any comments welcome. It’s in wiki format so anyone who applies for an account can edit.

The format also aims to provide placeholders for all of Scotus’ work. Again, all comments welcome.

Any offers to scan in out of copyright work (I am using the Quaracchi edition) would also be gratefully received. Work such as these have been lying neglected in paper copies in obscure corners of libraries for too long. Or is difficult to obtain (example: there is no London university library that contains the Latin of Scotus’ Quodlibeta).

I am also working on a system whereby contributors who want to keep their own copyright (for translations, commentaries, transcriptions etc) can do so. Let me know.

RP said...

I'm breaking my rule and habit about not posting comments, but so it goes.

Here's a note to myself I wrote this morning before I read your post:

When I die I will leave no trace upon the earth. That's true for most of us.

When my children die even the memory of me will be gone.

Yet, if I'm in heaven God remembers. If not, it's as if I was never created, because there is no longer an "I".

So, the presence of God in this life is not only hope, but our "I", too.

It's a thought related to eternity as God's memory that I've been considering on my blog. What relates it to your post is that something happens to the "separated soul" at the moment of death called the particular judgment.

And here's a "poem" I posted several months ago called The Resurrection:

If my body makes me me,
Who am I when I die?
Who is judged?
Who Sees or fails to See?

Ah! But in the end
I am whom I am again I.

It follows from the thought eternity is timeless and our bodies are restored (for the saved) at the moment of death.

But philosophically speaking the soul has its own individuality and Scotus is clearly right on this.

Daniel A. Duran said...

Excuse me, this is off-topic,but I would like to know if anyone has an answer.

I came across this passage on the life of duns scotus at EWTN: "He is chiefly known for his theology on the Absolute Kingship of Jesus Christ, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his philosophic refutation of *evolution.*"

I never read or heard anyone mentioning Scotus' so called refutation of evolution until now. Can someone tell me what the article is talking about?

Thank you.

Please Mr. Faber keep up with the great site.

Lee Faber said...

Mr. Duran,

I have noticed this (evolution) as well and have no account for it. I guess it is a better myth than that Scotus was buried alive, despaired of heaven, and chopped his own head off (according to the Dominican chronicler Bzovius). Scotus is often linked to the kingship of Christ, but this is not entirely accurate either. All he does say is that the incarnation would have happned even if Adam had not sinned, and that Christ is the pinnacle of creation.

Lee Faber said...

Michael, yes, clearly I was talking about relations of which the fundamenta are both real, ie. both in possession of esse subiectivum.

Another dodge I've seen Thomists make with respect to quantity is that it is actually "indeterminate" dimensions of quantity that individuate. But even these are posterior to the generation of a substance, as far as I know, and anyway, accidents themselves are generally individuated by their subjects.

Lee Faber said...


I've never actually seen Aquinas make the claim that souls are individuated by their relations after death. I think this was a common dodge after Aquinas, which is why it comes up in Scotus/Gonsalvus.

Edward Ockham said...

According to the Smithy itself, it was Matenesius, no? I always wondered about that story.

Edward Ockham said...

Regarding Thomas's view. According to Philips, after Thomas first accepts the theory of Avicenna that the principle of individuation is matter designated by determined dimensions, (De ente et essential c2), he abandons it in favour of the Averroist opinion that it is matter affected by unterminated dimensions which is this principle. (In Boethium de Trinitate, Q. 4, A. 3, et ad 3um). He makes considerable use of this second theory, only in the end to throw it over and return once more to the view that the dimensions are determined ones (Quodlibet, XI., a. 6, ad 2um).

Michael Sullivan said...


I suppose you're right on "signate prime matter"; what I meant of course was a determinate bit of matter prior to the adoption of any substantial form; as Faber hints at, this notion is in itself problematic, since it makes substances dependent in some sense on primal accidents rather than vice versa.

You're also probably right that I don't need to bring decomposition into it, except insofar as it seems evident to me, even if it doesn't to a Thomist, that a body is numerically the same before and after death, but to talk about this explicitly is to open the whole can of worms about the plurality of substantial forms, so I suppose my formulation was a little sneaky.


thanks for your comments. It seems outrageous that no library in London contains Scotus' quodlibet. I don't have a copy myself, only a hard-to-read pdf of the Wadding text; I'd sure like to rectify that sometime.


thanks for sharing. I don't think we can say, Berkeley-style, that the being of our souls after death lies only in being remembered by God. This is to say that we have only objective being and not subjective being, that is to say, that we don't exist in ourselves. Then upon the resurrection there would be no continuity of existence and so no numerical identity, rather a new creation of a closely similar person. This seems to be the position or implied position of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and is clearly heretical.

Edward Ockham said...

To be fair, two of the London libraries have 'God and creatures', which is the English translation of the Quodlibetal questions, by Wolter and Alluntis. But I believe this contains only the English. There is a Latin version in Spanish translation by Alluntis, but that is in no library.

None of the London libraries appear to have the Wadding at all. Terrible.

Michael Sullivan said...

Terrible indeed. Despite Wolter's enormous benefits to Scotus studies he's not always a reliable translator and one really needs the latin.

The Alluntis one in the BAC is the edition I wish I had, but it's very hard to find.

I like those BAC books. I have five of the six volumes of their Selected Works of St Bonaventure in spanish and latin and it's great, as well as their Sacrae theologiae summa and Thomas' ST in latin only; but most of them I stumbled across by happy accident. I'm not sure if they're no longer printed or if they're just hard to get here in the states.

Lee Faber said...

The BAC Scotus Quodlibet is just a reprint of the Wadding. I got it on interlibrary loan once and was surprised to learn that. My advisor has two (!) copies in his personal library.

D'oh! by the way, on Bzovius.

Michael Sullivan said...

I thought you'd told me, Faber, that the BAC was at least cursorily re-edited. Is that wrong? Also, would your advisor like to sell one?

Edward Ockham said...

I have the BAC ST. Interesting about the Alluntis being a copy of Wadding. I shall get the Wadding then.

Problem: a search of internet booksellers for the Vives reveals nothing for sale, except for a paperback print on demand service. At $20 per volume and about 20 volumes (is that right?) that means $400 for a set of paperbacks, printed cheaply by a publisher using a scan of an out of print work. Can that be true?

Lee Faber said...

Michael, yes I thought that based on remarks in the Wolter/Alluntis English translation, or some other place where Wolter said this. But I've actually examined the volume and read the brief intro and there is no mention of any mss. sources backing up the text. He basically just rearranged a few paragraphs based on the sense.

Ockham, you could just print out the Quodlibet volumes and bind them yourself. Inelegant perhaps, but the revivified Scotist Commission of America is not going to get to the Quodlibet anytime soon (they're doing the entire reportationes first).

RP said...


I didn't mean anything close to what you took me as saying.

Eternity as past I sum up as: for God, the future is yesterday's news. The rest of my note to myself is conjecture about a difference between heaven and hell (I take hell to be everlasting time while heaven is eternity); also, about why no one living, even atheists, suffer anything close to the pain of loss that is said to be the chief agony in hell (just how is God present now that he isn't in hell?).

Michael Sullivan said...

Thanks for the clarification, RP.

Edward Ockham said...

Ad principale. Scotus often uses the word 'this' (hoc, haec) as though it were a common noun, as though 'a this'.

Do we know of any scholastic writers before Scotus who use the word in this sense? Or any writer who was quite as obsessive about the relation between demonstrative pronouns and singularity?

Michael Sullivan said...


That certainly is a noteworthy feature of Scotus' language. I can't think of anyone who talked that way before him, but I haven't looked for it either.

Scotus argues against the Thomist etc idea that all intellectual knowledge is of universals by pointing to this concept of "this" as applied to a given particular. The fact that I can think as well as sense or imagine "this" man shows my thought-process is not merely an apprehension of humanity applied reflexively to a phantasm.

James Chastek said...

Individuation is less of an issue among Thomists these days, and that's certainly for the best. People have largely lost interest in fan-based Scholasticism, which was never good discipleship anyway. I love Cajetan, but I doubt that St. Thomas would have read Scotus like Cajetan did.

My initial reaction to your argument is to say that individuation belongs to members of some species, but the separated soul has no species. Per se subsistence does not suffice to make something a substance, it also needs a completeness of nature, and the soul in separation does not have that(the article to read is Q.d. de anima, no. 1). It wouldn't be out of place to simply deny that the separated soul needs a principle of individuation.

Again, among hylemorphic beings, individuation is of the composite, and so when there is no composite there is no individuation. This does not mean that the soul must therefore be a universal or a non-being, it only raises the question of what this "individuation secundum quid" might be. De ente appears to say that this individuation is from some order to physical existence, which is a less involved claim than saying that the separated soul has a real relation to its former body.

That said, Thomism does need to have a more robust theory of the individual. It certainly won't do to see hylemorphic individuals as merely materially distinct.

Michael Sullivan said...

Mr Chastek,

You write: My initial reaction to your argument is to say that individuation belongs to members of some species, but the separated soul has no species. . . . It wouldn't be out of place to simply deny that the separated soul needs a principle of individuation.

I don't think this can be maintained. The separated soul may have an incomplete existence, but it still exists and has a nature in common with all other separated human souls, but what shares a common nature needs a principle of individuation, ergo etc.

Per se subsistence does not suffice to make something a substance, it also needs a completeness of nature, and the soul in separation does not have that

You may be right about the mens Thomae - I'm not checking your reference right this moment - but you might be aware that whether the soul should be considered a substance was quite the disputed topic in 13th century theology and there was no general consensus. A lot of controverted issues are involved in how you answer it. This includes:

Again, among hylemorphic beings, individuation is of the composite, and so when there is no composite there is no individuation.

Ah, but perhaps the soul is a composite, whether you find spiritual matter plausible or at least defensible (and I find it at least defensible, even if in the end I don't accept it), or whether you hold to an essence/existence composition in all creatures as Thomas does. (There is a tertium quid but I'll leave that aside for now.) At any rate it's not so simple that one can merely deny that there's an issue here.

That said, Thomism does need to have a more robust theory of the individual. It certainly won't do to see hylemorphic individuals as merely materially distinct.

We certainly agree here!

Thanks for your comment.

James Chastek said...


The separated soul may have an incomplete existence, but it still exists and has a nature in common with all other separated human souls, but what shares a common nature needs a principle of individuation,

I distinguish the minor (I didn't need to say that, but how often do you get the chance?): The community of the separated soul is a logical one as opposed to an intrinsic or natural one. The soul in separation is defined by a privation, and privations do not constitute natures. If they could, evil would be a substance and being.

Michael Sullivan said...

The community of the separated soul is a logical one as opposed to an intrinsic or natural one. The soul in separation is defined by a privation . . .

I'm afraid I can't agree with you here. I do agree that privations do not constitute natures, but the separated soul is not a privation and it does have a nature, i.e. human nature, incompletely expressed. The "separated" is not a specific difference, of course, but "soul" denotes a positive entity, a subsistent intellect ordered to substantial union with an organic body. So I don't mean to say that separated souls make up their own species apart from human beings; but they are all souls, and they are all human, so they do all have a nature in common; they also happen to have the common accidental privation of being incompletely expressed.

Michael Sullivan said...

I distinguish the minor (I didn't need to say that, but how often do you get the chance?):

Argue with us more and you'll get plenty of chances!

I find that the more scholastic works I read the more their modes of expression start to sound natural to me, as the most concise and efficient way to communicate an argument precisely, without a lot of muddying rhetoric.

Michael Sullivan said...

I guess I should emphasize that in my view the separated soul does not have a different nature from the incarnate soul, because it is numerically the same individual; so what individuates the incarnate soul must be numerically the same principle as what individuates the separated soul. If the separated soul exists without matter, then, the principle in question cannot possibly be matter.

Edward Ockham said...

>> I can't think of anyone who talked that way before him, but I haven't looked for it either.

I'm asking because this is a noteworthy feature of his Questions on the Perhermenias, and is one of the few places where there is a clear continuity between his early (it clearly is an early work) and his mature philosophy.

Now, given that the Questions is largely a derivative work (we've sourced much of it to work in Paris in the 1250s and Oxford in the 1270s), we have to ask where the idea of 'thisness' came from.

It's also a point where Ockham engages continuously with Scotus, as you know.

Fripod said...

Garrigou-Lagrange has something rather interesting to say on this topic, though I'm unsure what to make of it:

"The Averroistic question was this: How can the soul, separated from the matter which gave it individuality, remain individualized, that is, remain as the soul of Peter rather than the soul of Paul? It remains individualized, answers St. Thomas, by its essential, transcendental relation to that human body which originally gave it individuation, even though that body is now buried in the dust. Were this relation merely accidental, then it would disappear with the disappearance of its terminus, as does, e. g.: the relation of a father's paternity when his son dies. But the separated soul is individualized by its relation to an individual body, a relation comparable to that between the soul and the living body, and this relation remains in the separated soul, which by that relation remains individualized. Thus St. Thomas against the Averroists, who, holding that the soul is individualized only by actual union with matter, went on to say pantheistically that all men together have but one immortal and impersonal soul. [676].

We must note that soul and body form a natural composite, which is one, not per accidens, but per se. Were the human soul united only accidentally to the body, then it would have only an accidental relation to its body, which relation could not remain after the dissolution of the body. Quite otherwise is the case if the human soul is by nature the form of the body."


Any thoughts on what exactly an "essential, transcendental relation" might be?