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Is Boethius Platonic, Aristotelian or Stoic in his View on Foreknowledge?

The medieval philosopher Boethius became puzzled by the problem of divine foreknowledge and attempted to answer this conundrum in the form of a dialogue between him and philosophy that is given the guise of a lady known as Lady Philosophy. Being educated in the Neo-Platonic tradition Boethius had knowledge of Platonic and Aristotelian modes of thought, both of which can be seen within his arguments on the topic of divine knowledge. However the purpose of this essay is to determine whether Boethius’ position is Platonic, Aristotelian or Stoic, as elements of Stoicism can also be found throughout Boethius’ dialogue with Lady Philosophy.  In order to achieve this I shall begin by highlighting the parallels between Plato and Boethius, then the parallels between Aristotle and Boethius before moving onto the parallels between the Stoics and Boethius.

However the issue is a complex one due to the complications within Boethius’ style of writing so I shall draw my conclusion to two possibilities, one being based on the notion that the character of Boethius and Lady Philosophy are the same person that is Boethius the author, with the other being centred around the idea that they are two separate entities; Boethius and a manifestation of the views he argues against played by Lady Philosophy. I do not intend to answer the question as to whether or not we ought to or ought not to read the text as two separate entities or as both belonging to the same person, I merely acknowledge that this is a concern which can confuse my main focus so needs to be made clear. By the end of this essay I hope it shall become clear than Boethius can be argued to be Aristotelian in his views on divine foreknowledge regardless of whether you take Lady Philosophy’s arguments to be views separate or part of Boethius’ own views.

First let us look at the similarities between Plato and Boethius starting with one which although may seem trivial could hold deeper implications later on. The style in which Boethius goes about writing, in the form of a dialogue, is characteristic of Plato within a number of his works including The Republic and Timaeus, suggesting that Boethius has some Platonic leanings. Although by writing in this way it does also raise the issue as to whether we can attach what is said by Lady Philosophy to Boethius or whether he is using this second character in order to distance himself from views separate from his own.

In the first book of Consolations of Philosophy we are provided with an account of the character of Boethius’ early life as a public figure, which does bear some small resemblance to Plato’s concept of a philosopher king in book seven of The Republic, although it also shares some similarity to Aristotle’s argument that the life of the philosopher is a political one within The Nicomachean Ethics [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b-1097b ]. So it can be said that in his earlier years Boethius showed some Platonic tendencies. Equally it can be argued that Boethius, in his early years, showed some Aristotelian tendencies, however, in order to determine which is more prevalent more evidence is required.

There are a number of passages within book three which hint at the possibility of Boethius being a Platonist, firstly there is the line “to that true happiness your soul dreams of but cannot see because your sight is distracted by images” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pp.59-60] the notion of man being distracted from the truth by way of images is one which appears in The Republic, specifically in the simile of the divided line [Plato, The Republic, 509d-511e].

Also a little further on in the dialogue appears the line “it isn’t the human body then, that is attractive, but only the weakness of human vision that makes it seem so” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.78], this could be interpreted to be an attack of those who concern themselves with aesthetics rather than truth in itself as they allow themselves to be carried away by the senses instead of appealing to reason. This is also argued similarly by Plato when he attacks the lovers of art, “for those who love looking and listening enjoy learning about things…but they’re a peculiar lot to class as philosophers, because nothing would induce them to spend time on any kind of serious argument” [Plato, The Republic, 475d].

Thirdly it is argued that “everything that exists is unitary, and that oneness itself is good” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.118], which in this case Boethius argues to be God and so a section of his argument for God’s foreknowledge is because we are part of him and he of us that he possess knowledge of us in the present, past and future and to him all occurs simultaneous being an atemporal being [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.170]. Plato also argues that everything is unitary “since beauty and ugliness are opposites, they are two…and as they are two, each of them is single…the same is true of…all qualities, each of them is in itself single, but they seem to be a multiplicity because they appear everywhere” [Plato, The Republic, 476a], even though at the beginning it looks like Plato is saying that everything is divided into individual pieces the final phrase “but they seem to be a multiplicity because they appear everywhere” [Plato, The Republic, 476a] shows that Plato realises that every individual is connected to something more unified higher up the chain of order within the cosmos, for Plato this would be the form of the Good within the intelligible realm of the Forms, for Boethius it would be God both of which are considered the Good which links back to the end part Boethius’ statement “and that oneness itself is good” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.118]. However all of these lines are written for Lady Philosophy so as to whether we can attribute these to Boethius as his views or not remains at question.

There is one line which has Platonic resemblances and is spoken by the character of Boethius within the dialogue, “the universe is composed of so many different parts that it could never have come together unless there was one to join all these elements” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.99]. Again this hints as the idea that Boethius accepts Plato’s view that everything is part of a unity which is higher than any of its individual parts, but also it hints at the idea that Boethius argues that there is an intelligent design to the universe, for if there were no grand intellect to design such a perfect system then the parts would not work as smoothly with each other than they appear to do. A similar concept is forwarded by Plato in Timaeus “in his delight planned to make it still more like its pattern; and as this pattern is an eternal Living Being, he set out to make the universe resemble it in this way too as far as was possible” [Plato, Timaeus, 37d], thus Plato argues that the universe is made to be as similar to the perfect pattern of the Forms as is possible, just as Boethius argues the universe is made to be as similar to God’s perfection as possible.

 It would seem then if we are to take both Lady Philosophy and the character of Boethius as representing Boethius’ views then we do not have a worthy case for Boethius being a Platonist on the subject of foreknowledge, since there are no actual arguments on divine foreknowledge based upon Platonic ideas. Alternatively if we take only what the character of Boethius says within the dialogue to be the views of Boethius we still do not have a worthy case to argue that Boethius is a Platonist, as he argues against Lady Philosophy who is made, at least to some extent, to represent the views of Plato. The only part in which both characters are in agreement is that everything is part of unity, although given the nature of what Boethius is discussing within this text should he argue against a divine unity to the universe, denying God’s existence in the process of doing this, then any discussion on divine foreknowledge becomes a moot point, therefore Boethius must accept this point within this context whether he agrees to it or not.

Now we have observed the case for Boethius being a Platonist, which is unconvincing, let us look at the evidence which may suggest Boethius is an Aristotelian. Again I shall first look at the statements made by Lady Philosophy starting with book two where she utters the line “avarice is not admirable, but liberality is generally praised” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.43]. Here it shows a sympathy for Aristotelian ethics, although it does appear to be somewhat out of place within a text on divine foreknowledge, which argues that any characteristic when in excess is considered a vice [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a, 1104b and 1173a], and avarice being an excess of desire for power or material objects would be considered a vice under an Aristotelian system of morality. Since Boethius seems to show Aristotelian ethics a case, albeit a weak one as there is little evidence to show it to be the case, could be made that Boethius may be Aristotelian in other areas, although to do so off this piece is troublesome given Boethius’ background as a Christian and some models of Christian ethics, particularly Catholic based doctrines, preach that it is a sin to partake in avarice. Thus it is unclear here as to whether Boethius argues in support of an Aristotelian ethics or a Christian ethics.

Another line used by Lady Philosophy is “since men want happiness, and since happiness is in itself divinity, then it follows that men in the pursuit of happiness are actually in the pursuit of divinity” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.89] which bears resemblance with Aristotle’s view that “we assume the gods to be blessed and happy” [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b] but also that happiness for Aristotle comes from living a contemplative life and a contemplative life is the life of the gods [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a-1178b]. What this does is brings up the idea that we are somehow joined to God in that he is happy and we wish to join him in his happiness although this holds no direct relation to divine foreknowledge so even though it does link Boethius to Aristotle it is not a strong argument to claim Boethius is Aristotelian in his stance of divine foreknowledge.

 Marenbon points out “Philosophy considers that…only what is necessary is certain. It follows that…future contingent events are not certain. But Philosophy also believes that…if someone knows something, he thereby knows it as something certain. If God knows future contingent events, it follows…that he judges them as being other than they are. But…if something is judged otherwise than it is, it is not known” [Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy, pg.44]. Meaning that if God knows future contingents then he knows them as certain which they are not, yet if he does not know future contingents then he cannot be omniscience and therefore cannot possess foreknowledge. Consequently Lady Philosophy must be mistaken on this occasion, which Boethius points out in his argument through the mouthpiece that is Lady Philosophy, “God has an eternal and omnipresent nature, his knowledge surpasses time’s movements and is made in the simplicity of a continual present” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.170], hence God does not know future contingents because for him there is no future so all events must be necessary from God’s perspective. This can be supported by Aristotle who says “what is, necessarily is, when it is” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 19a] and since everything is present for God then everything is when it is so everything must be necessary.

 The point of God knowing future contingents means he knows them as something they are not, for he would know what is uncertain as being certain, if he holds foreknowledge is expressed by the character of Boethius when he states “if anyone thinks that something is different from what it really is, then that is not knowledge but a false opinion” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.154], this can be taken to mean two things. Firstly Boethius is arguing that should God think future contingents are known with certainty then God is mistaken. Secondly if God thinks future contingents are known with certainty then it is us who are mistaken when we say they are uncertain, what we should be saying is that they are future necessities. Given that in the end Boethius accepts God as having foreknowledge then it is likely that Boethius is arguing for the second meaning rather than the first. In which case when we talk of future contingents as being uncertain we speak falsely for we are saying that they are known certainly and uncertainly (or to put it into a simplified formula F is X and not-X).

 This would mean that Boethius is accepting Aristotelian logic in his approach to determine whether God holds divine foreknowledge because, according to Aristotle, to say something is both X and not-X simultaneously goes against the law of non-contradiction so one of the claims must be false. The law of non-contradiction can be found in Aristotle’s metaphysics where he states in chapter three of book gamma of Metaphysics, “It is impossible for the same thing at the same time to be-in and not be-in the same thing in the same respect” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b]. The character of Boethius then goes on to say “once we have accepted this…there cannot be punishment for evil or reward for good if there are no free and voluntary actions” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.155], this suggests that he takes the second interpretation of the previous passage so that it is us who are mistaken when we talk about future contingents. Since God sees them as future necessities or simply just necessities as from his viewpoint there is no future, as pointed out earlier, then the notion of free will cannot be accepted as there is no room for random action coming about as a result of choice or chance. Again this is similar in a sense to Aristotle’s take on foreknowledge when he argues “nothing of what happens is as chance has it, but everything is and happens of necessity” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 18b], however Aristotle later makes room for free will as he states “it is not necessary for there to be or not to be a sea-battle tomorrow; but it is necessary for one to take place or not take place” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 19a]. This is where the similarity between Boethius and Aristotle stops since Boethius has trouble holding free will and divine foreknowledge whereas for Aristotle the problem does not appear to cause too much difficulty.

 There is a line within De Anima which may be able to link Boethius to Aristotle as it states “the soul knows everything” [Aristotle, De Anima, 405b]. If we are to assume that Boethius believes Plato’s claim that the universe is made from parts, and each soul then being be a part, joined together in and by God then God, knowing everything and having made the universe as close as possible to his own state of nature, would have handed down as much of his omniscience as possible. Also as our souls are part of God then through the soul he knows us and the decisions we have made, are making and will make, this would allow God to possess foreknowledge.  However as a consequence of accepting Plato’s claim of all being joined as part of a unity this passage only links Boethius to Aristotle so long as it links Boethius to being a Platonist

 Based on what has now been said on the parallels between Boethius and Aristotle it would seem that Boethius is Aristotelian, to a degree, within his stance on foreknowledge as he uses the same laws of logic set up by Aristotle and comes to a similar conclusion, although fails to reconcile free will and divine foreknowledge. Also Boethius makes statements which sound close to Aristotelian ethics which as said previously suggests that Boethius has Aristotelian sympathies. Although the passages relating to Aristotelian ethics are expressed by Lady Philosophy so may not be the views of Boethius, but instead be views he opposes which would suggest that he more Platonic in his ethical views, which could explain why Boethius has trouble accepting free will since Aristotelian ethics relies on free will to a certain extent. Whether or not the views are to be taken independently of each other or not there is a stronger case for Boethius as an Aristotelian than there is for him being a Platonist.

 Now the evidence for Boethius being Platonic and Aristotelian has been covered it is time to look at the small traces of evidence which highlight arguments which sound Stoic. First I shall look at the Stoic passages, before moving onto the sceptical ones. Once this has been done we can draw the whole thing together to determine whether Boethius is a Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic or sceptic in his stance on divine foreknowledge.

Very early on in the text we see a direct reference to Stoicism as Lady Philosophy, when questioned about the state of her dress, which the character of Boethius refers to as being “a miracle of fine cloth…some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress…bits of fabric had been torn away” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.3] , answers Boethius by saying “the squabbling mobs of Stoics and Epicureans fought to claim his[1] legacy and each side tried to carry me off, tearing this lovely dress” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.8]. What is being shown here is contempt for the Stoics and Epicureans, both by Lady Philosophy and by the character of Boethius. Furthermore is shows Boethius’ view that the Stoics and Epicureans are not to be considered philosophers in the same sense that Plato and Aristotle are, if at all, since Lady Philosophy is portrayed to be the manifestation of philosophy and it is said that the Stoics and Epicureans have damaged philosophy. This contempt for the two schools suggests that Boethius would try and argue against them and therefore prove that he is nether Stoic or Epicurean in his view on divine foreknowledge.

What happens instead is that Boethius offers no further argument against either the Stoics or the Epicureans and does not argue against Lady Philosophy with arguments from either school, even though Lady Philosophy tries to reason with him using Stoicism during book two. Lady Philosophy reprimands Boethius by saying, “you thought you were a philosopher, but let me tell you a story. There was a man who made such a claim…somebody came along to taunt him…this critic said that he would believe the claim if the man could bear all the injuries fate heaped upon him in calm and in silence” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.54-55]. This bears some semblance to Stoicism in the sense that it asks the character of Boethius to face the hardships of life without letting his emotions overpower his reason as according to the Stoics the “definition of the good, as follows: that which is perfectly in accord with nature for a rational being, qua rational” [Diogenes Laertius 7.94] and the Stoic concept of the soul is divided into eight parts; “the five sense organs and the vocal part and the thinking part[2] and the generative part. And corruption afflicts the intellect because of falsehoods and from such a mind there arise many passions…passion itself is, according to Zeno, the irrational” [Diogenes Laertius7.110], thus we ought to not allow the emotions[3] get in the way of reason.

 However this brief section of Stoic argument bears no significance on the main argument on divine foreknowledge thus is out of place within this text. Secondly the Stoicism comes from Lady Philosophy so if we are to take the two characters as being separate then Boethius is removing himself from Stoicism, either way we cannot make any claim to Boethius being Stoic in his view on divine foreknowledge therefore it is fair to say that Boethius is not Stoic whether we take Lady Philosophy’s arguments to be part of Boethius’s views or not.

To conclude if we take the two characters, Boethius and Lady Philosophy, to be holding the views of Boethius then we have a stronger case for him being Aristotelian in his view on divine foreknowledge than the case for him being Platonic. Alternatively if we consider the views of Lady Philosophy to be separate from the character of Boethius then even though Boethius argues more in line with Platonic modes of thinking there is little which is significant to the argument at hand against Lady Philosophy. Whereas the arguments made in line with Aristotelian modes of thought against Lady Philosophy are stronger due to their relevance, then we still have a strong case for Boethius being an Aristotelian in his view on divine foreknowledge. As for the brief resemblances to Stoicism there is so little and of what there is it fails to bear any relevance to the argument at hand, therefore there can no defendable argument that Boethius is a Stoic in his views whether or not we take the two characters to be separate or not.


·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘De Anima’, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’, Chichester: Princeton University Press

·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘De Interpretatione’, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’ Chichester: Princeton university Press

·         Aristotle, 2004, Metaphysics (translated by Lawson-Tancred. H), London: Penguin Books

·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘Nicomachean Ethics, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’, Chichester: Princeton University Press

·         Boethius, 2008, Consolations of Philosophy (translated by Slavitt. D), Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

·         ‘Diogenes Laertius’ in, 1997, Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (second edition (translated by Gerson. L and Inwood. B)), Indianapolis: Hackett

·         Marendon. J, 2007, Medieval Philosophy an Historical and Philosophic Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge

·         Plato, 2007, The Republic (second edition (translated by Lee. D)),London: Penguin Book

Plato, 1970, Timaeus and Critias, London: Penguin Books

[1] Referring to Socrates

[2] which is the intellect itself

[3] Or passions as the Stoics called them


The Medieval Problem of Universals: Boethius and Ockham

First off a big Happy New Year to you all and I hope 2014 brings you a proprous year ahead 🙂

To kick off 2014 here is some medieval philosophy, a look at the problem of universals has debated between William of Ockham and Boethius. It was this argument that helped push metaphysics forward from the classical teachings of Aristotle and Plato into its next age where it would soon make way for Renaissance thinkers to revive philosophy in a glourious burst of light surging forward Western Civilisation:

In his categories Aristotle says that things can be named in three ways: equivocally, univocally and derivatively. By equivocally he means two things that have a shared name but their definition is different like a bear and a cuddly bear, they are both animals but plainly are not the same thing. Univocally is when two things share a name and a definition like cat and dog, they are both animals and share that name and definition. Finally things that are named as derivatives are objects that get their name from an unrelated subject like a musician, a musician is still an animal and a human etc. they just happen to play a musical instrument but they do not fit into the category of music (Categories 1). There are also two types of speech, simple and composite, this is pretty straight forward, simple is individual words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘eats’, and ‘sleeps’, and composite is when they are combined to form sentences like ‘the cat sleeps’ and ‘the dog eats’. The other semantic confusion that is cleared up is that when he writes ‘present’  he means a thing being incapable of existing without it’s subject, like colour (Categories 2).

            Aristotle then goes on to discuss the four fold division (Studtmann 2007). Firstly when something is predicable of a subject, but never present within it e.g.  ‘cat’ is predicable of an individual cat and is never present in the subject. Others are present in a subject and never predicable of a subject like the tabby pattern of a cats coat, it is present in a tabby cats coat but without the cat there would be no tabby pattern. The third possibility is being present in an subject and predicable of a subject, Aristotle’s example here is very good, he says that knowledge is present in the human mind and at the same time is predicable in grammar. Lastly there are things that are neither present in the subject or predicable of a subject like an individual cat. (Categories 2)

             Section 3 of the categories discusses how predicates work and how they relate to genus and species. “When one thing is predicated of another, all that which is predicable of the predicate will be predicable also of the subject” (Categories 3). So a cat is predicated of an individual cat, and at the same time ‘animal’ is predicated of ‘cat’ and therefore it’s predicable of the individual cat as well, this is because a ‘cat’ is both ‘cat’ and ‘animal’.

            If we look at the genus ‘animal’ and ‘knowledge’ as examples to help the explanation. ‘four footed’, ‘has a tail’ ‘aquatic’ are all differentiae of the genus ‘animal’, and whilst ‘knowledge’ is not defined by the same differentiae does not stop it from having both ‘knowledge’ and ‘with tail’. This shows that genera are different and co-ordinated, and their differentiae can be different in kind. Genuses are subordinate to each other in a certain respect, they can also share differentiae because “the greater class is predicated of the lesser class” (Categories 3). For instance ‘cat’ will be part of the genus ‘animal’, ‘with instinct’, and ‘living’ but we know that ‘living’ will contain the genius ‘animal’ which in turn will contain the genus ‘instinct’. This means that all differentiae  of predicables will also be differentiaes of subjects. (Categories 3)

            Aristotle’s  fourth chapter in the categories does warrant a mention, more to list his categories and clear up a few semantics than to clear up his argument on universals. His ten categories are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action and affection.  Statements that only contain one of these does not involve an affirmation of that statement, a combination of the categories must be present to be able to get a positive or negative statement. Every assertion has to be true or false meaning that composite statements cannot be true or false because they have no quality to judge them on as they are not quantified in any way.   

            Boethius was an Italian philosopher writing around 480-524/5. He translated  Aristotles logical works from the Greek to Latin to give more people access to them. Among these he translated Aristotle’s categories and Porphyry’s third century Isagoge (meaning ‘introduction’) to Aristotle’s categories, this is where the problem of Universals is first bought up, Porphyry says “I shall decline for the present to say (a) whether, if they subsist or are posited in bare understandings only, (b) whether, if they subsist, they are corporeal or incorporeal, and (c) whether they are separated from sensibles or posited in sensibles and agree with them.” (Spade 1994 pg20). Porphyry says that there are five main categories or predicates; genus, species, difference, property and accident and also their possible combinations. These come from  Porphyry who states that there are three levels of Aristotelian predication, the first is the genus and their differences, the second species and how the differences from the first level influence this, and the third is the subject or substance of which they are predicated (Categories 1b15-24). These possess the properties of accidents and essentials. Species and genus are secondary substances, that can be predicated of the subject or substance proper (Categories 2a13-18). Each increase in generality must have a corresponding decrease of substantiality, within the category of substance, because it is in the primary substance that these individual substances are predicates.

            In his secondary commentary Boethius first argues that the likenesses of members of a species is what the mind tells us constitutes said species, secondly that a genus is made of similarities that are perceived in our mind between member species, and, thirdly that both genera and species exist only in our minds but they must be thought of as real or else they would be empty and inconsequential.

            In section 10 Boethius said that “Genera and species either exist and subsist or are formed by the understanding and by thought alone” (Spade pg 21). This outlines the problem that Boethius faces. He then puts forward his arguments against universals, he says that their existence is not possible because things that are common to a number of objects at the same time cannot possibly be one. Boethius then argues that if there are more than one genera which gets round the separability problem there will still be no genera that everything belongs to. This would result in each individual thing having it’s own genera as must each similarity, by this Boethius means that if an object is both red and round e.g. a ball and there is a balloon that is both red and round then there needs to be a genera for red and for round as well as one for ball and one for balloon etc. this process unfortunately continues ad infinitum and is the main problem with this theory.

            Boethius follows this with the case for universals,if genera and species are grasped by understanding alone, and that these understandings come from subjects, then they are not in understanding alone but actually exist in reality. He quickly counters this with the claim that if this understanding comes from the object itself, but not as it is in itself, then the understanding itself is false and that as genus and species don’t exist, then debating the existence of the five predicables must be discarded. He claims that it is “not inquiring about a thing that exists, or about a thing about which something true can be understood or stated” (Spade pg 23).

            Boethius’ solution agrees with Alexander (of Aphrodisias), false reasoning does not necessarily occur when we misinterpret a subject, but occurs when composition is mistaken, when we compose something in our brain that is not possible in nature e.g. horse and horn results in unicorn, we know this is a false impression. But if division and abstraction is where this understanding arises from, then the object is not understood in the way that it is in itself,  but the understanding is still not false. This is because there are several things which exist only as part of something, if they are separated from that object they can no longer exist but our minds can see them separately even though they cannot be e.g. the marking on a tabby cats coat, it cannot exist apart from the cat. The sense faculty gives us all the incorporeal things which subsist within such objects, the mind then sees the incorporeal qualities along with the corporeal ones and can separate them or join them as it decides. This is because the incorporeal qualities are separate from the corporeal ones even if they cannot be separated and both still exist in physical reality.

            Boethius says that because of that, genera and species can be found in both corporeal and incorporeal things. When found in incorporeal things then an incorporeal understanding of the genus is gained. However if the genus and species of corporeal things are observed then the mind separates them and sees them as pure form. Everything we learn from incorporeal qualities is not false and falsity should not be assumed, in fact it is through the minds division and abstraction that we can discover what is actually true. Therefore things like this are understood separately from sensibles but they do exist in corporals and sensibles, this means that they can be observed and their individualities understood. Because of this when we think of genera and species the information we consider is always sourced from the individual objects they exist in. “For example, from single men, dissimilar among themselves, the likeness of humanity is gathered.” (Spade pg 24). This similarity is the species and this likeness which cannot exist except in the species or it’s individuals is what makes up the genus.

            Consequently these things exist in singulars and are thought of as universals, so species is simply the likeness of if individuals that are unlike in number whilst genus is what the mind gathers as the likeness between species. “This likeness becomes sensible when it exists in singulars, and becomes intelligible when it is in universals” (Spade pg 25)

            Boethius gives succinct answers to the three questions that Porphyry decided to omit from his Isagoge. The answer to (a) is that both genera and species are understood one way and subsist in another. For (b) he says that they are incorporeal but are a part of sensibles and therefore joined to them but they are understood as individuals that are separate from the individual objects. Finally for (c) Boethius outlines Plato’s theory that these exist as universals but contra to what both Boethius and Aristotle say, Plato thinks that they also exist as physical entities separate from their original objects, where Aristotle thinks that they are understood as incorporeal and universal whilst subsisting in sensibles as parts or qualities of objects, not apart from them.

            William of Ockham begins by setting up the case for realism, before arguing against it until he is in a position to advance his nominalist account. Ockham is the author of ‘Ockham’s Razor’ which is a simple rule where we must not multiply entities beyond necessity; this rule allows Ockham to build on the Aristotelian criticisms of Platonic Ideas within the third man argument.

            To do this he uses three main arguments. The first argument concerns single substances in regard to universals. A universal cannot be a single substance else every single substance would require a universal. This cannot be the case else universals would be meaningless. Also there is no reason for some single substances to have universals and not others. This leads to his second argument. If single substances are not universals then universals must contain multiple single substances of the same type, but this would be a collection of particulars rather than a universal so this does not work either. The other way to understand this would be as multiple universal things. However as has been shown with Platonic forms this leads to infinite regress and as a result is still not a satisfying answer. This again leads us to the final argument, if universals are neither single nor multiple substances, it appears to lead to a dead end. Ockham suggest a novel way of resolving what universals could be. He poses the idea that universals can be a single substance within multiple single things. If we take the universal cat and apply this idea , two objections arise, the first is that the universal will pre-exist each instantiation of itself, so the cat would exist before the cat exists. This clearly is not an option. The objection is that when a cat dies part of the universal will be destroyed with it. Again this doesn’t work.

            So Ockham comes to the conclusion that universals do not have substance, they are incorporeal to tie it in with Boethius’ terms. Ockham argues that the universal is not a product of the mind but is really in the things that share it as it is one and the same in each, and is really distinct from each of them. A second argument of his follows the same point but rejects it is one and the same but multiplied an argument similar to Boethius’.

            Later on Ockham changes his argument again so that all that remains from the original position is the only difference between universals and particulars is the difference in our reason not in reality.

            After this Ockham starts to advance his own theory on metaphysics by claiming that universals are inside the mind and they are only universal in the sense of being predicated of many. A claim which reflects Aristotle’s nominalist position,

            Ockham’s next stage is to pose the question ‘Is a universal really outside the soul, distinct from the individual, although not really distinct?’, this question is an attack against Scotus who argued that universals are the subjects existing outside the soul where are different from the individual but only because each is made of a different type of material.

            Ockham answers his question by saying that anything which is individual by nature cannot be universal, which contradicts Scotus’ argument. Ockham then goes on to demonstrate how a substance can either be or not be a universal but never both as it breaks the law of non-contradiction, if (on the off-chance) that it is possible for universals and particulars to be one and the same then one will be left incomplete due to the nature of the other, thus we end up with something that is less that what we grasp of it.

            Ockham provides four ways that the universal nature causes contradiction either: it is a particular, or it is a numerical unity, if not then it is a universal, and finally if none of the first three then it must be a less than numerical unity. By rejecting the notion that it is a singular Scotus argues that the nature of the substance is prior to the contradiction so that its nature and contraction form two separate things. Hence the nature is not a numerical unity, yet is numerically one breaking the law of non-contradiction. Therefore it must be a universal in which case the nature of the universal is less than universal (according to Scotus). Hence the nature of a universal cannot be singular, numerical or universal leaving only the possibility that it is less than numerical but still many things.

            One of the prevalent theories of Ockhams time was that of Walter Burley who was like Scotus a moderate realist. He appeared to try and soften both Ockham and Scotus. Burley agrees with the first half of Scotus’ argument but not the later here he reverts to Aristotle by saying that the “Indiscernibility of Identicles is our chief criterion of distinction among real things.” (Kretzmann 1982 pg423).

            Burleys next step is to state that universals exist or partake in many particulars and are defined, but that particulars do not and are not defined either. This means that for Burley universals and particulars are distinct from each other. He still holds that different categories are distinct from one another and like Scotus thinks that these differences and indeed similarities must also have something in common but that this thing is again distinct.

            Added to this Burley states that it is universals and individuating principles that make up particulars, but that they do not separate the particular, instead “The whole universal (secundum se totum) exists in each of it’s particulars and is not numerically multiplied  by its existence in numerically distinct particulars” (Kretzmann 1982 pg423).

            Ockham has two main criticisms of this theory, firstly that arguing that universals and particulars are distinct and that “both the nature and the contracting differences exist in reality as constituents of a particular and they can exist in reality only as such” (Kretzmann 1982 pg414) would mean that universals can exist without particulars and vice versa. Now the one side of this is perfectly acceptable, for example courage can exist without an individual particular exemplifying it at a particular moment. The second statement taken from this by Ockham that he rejects is that the individual adds to the nature of a thing and that added with the universal which then makes the ‘one’ this leads to the statement that given that there is no universal nature there is no reason why God should not preserve what is added. Whilst these criticisms are interesting and do apply, they do not dismiss Burleys position completely, they more cause him an inconvenience

            For Ockham, the only universal entities it makes sense to talk about are universal concepts, and derivative on them, universal terms in spoken and written language. Metaphysically, these universal concepts are singular entities like all others; they are universal only in the sense of being predicable of many. So to conclude it is stated that there are particulars and universals, however universals exist only within the mind and particulars within nature, therefore Ockham is a nominalist and agrees with Boethius.


  • M. M. Adams, ‘Ockham’s Nominalism and Unreal Entities’, Philosophical Review 86 (1977), 144-76
  • P. Boehner, Ockham: Philosophical Writings (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1957; repr. Hackett, 1990)
  • A. Hyman & J. J. Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1973)
  • A. Kenny, Medieval Philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005),
  • N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny, J. Pinborg, eds, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)
  • J. Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2007),
  • J. Marenbon, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Boethius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  • M. J. Loux, Ockham’s Theory of Terms: Part I of the Summa Logicae (South Bend: St Augustine’s Pres, 1998)
  • P. V. Spade, Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals (Indianapolis:

Hackett, 1994)

  • P. V. Spade, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1999)


An Evaluation of Kant’s Arguments in the Analogies of Experience

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant throughout his book Critique of Pure Reason argued that time and substance are permanent, this being the case then they must be the foundations for an objective understanding of the world as opposed to the subjective understanding we are currently following based on our perceptions of phenomena. He also argues that for us to make the connection between the manifold of subjective perceptions and objective understanding we require a synthetic unity which comes to us in the form of cause and effect a tool of cognition which combines phenomena with a priori reasoning. But just how valid are Kant’s arguments? It would seem the evidence supports his claims although a small number of philosophers fear what would happen should we gain access to an objective understanding of the world and try to put us off any attempt from moving towards it.

Kant established a set of three analogies named the ‘analogies of experience’ in order to demonstrate that “experience is possible only through the presentation of a necessary connection of perceptions”[1], or in words experience is the a posteriori synthetic unity of all our perceptions merged into one single consciousness. Kant goes about proving this by making three arguments revolving around the three aspects of what he terms the ‘inner sense’ or ‘inner intuition’, to which we commonly refer to as time. These three aspects of time are thus; permanence, succession and community, with each relying on the former aspects in order for the whole argument to remain valid. Before evaluating Kant’s arguments within the analogies it is best to first give a brief summary of the arguments.

Throughout the first analogy Kant argues “in all variation by appearances substance is permanent, and its quantum in nature is neither increased nor decreased”[2] the reasoning behind this claim is that all our appearances occur within, and only within, time, therefore time must itself be a permanent fixture in the universe allowing substance to flow in sequence or form unities leading to the ever changing appearances we have. He also adds that even though time itself cannot be perceived only conceived as it is the inner sense then it must be a priori to the universe and all substance within it both of which must therefore be a posteriori by necessity. Kant also argues that substance is permanent by referring to an example about smoke, “substance endures and only the accidents vary”[3] as when wood is burnt it leaves smoke and ash but the total mass of the smoke and ash will always be equal to the mass of the wood prior to it being burnt, hence substance is a permanent fixture yet its form changes in time. Since it is only accidents that vary then it must be the case that, for Kant at least, “our apprehension of the manifold of appearance is always successive, and therefore is always varying. Hence…apprehension alone…can never determine whether this manifold considered as experience is simultaneous or sequential…unless something underlying in experience is there always.” Or in other words, the combination of our perceptions will change from moment to moment so our understanding of the world alone is not enough to construct knowledge of how the external world really is as it fails to grasp the constants hiding within it. So the first analogy Kant has argued that substance and time are the only constants in the universe with all other things undergoing change and for this reason we cannot understand the world by empirical means alone.

The second analogy is dedicated to the temporal mode of succession in which Kant tries to convince us that “All changes occur according to the law of the connection of cause and effect”[4] because all appearances succeed one another because we apply our cognition to connect our perceptions in time, thus cause and effect is a synthesising product born out of our cognition. However Kant later adds to this point “But a concept carrying with it a necessity of synthetic unity can only be a pure concept of understanding”[5] thus cause and effect is a key part of our faculty of understanding and therefore needed if we our to obtain knowledge of phenomena, this is because when we perceive phenomena we never actually perceive the object in itself. For example say you were to read the analogies within Critique of Pure Reason you would not actually be perceiving the book itself, only the manifold of all the appearances it presents to your sense of perception, thus objects in themselves remain unknown to us. This isn’t the only thing Kant believes to be beyond our comprehension he also states that “an actuality succeeding in empty time…cannot be apprehended any more than empty time”[6] the reasoning behind this is that to have empty time there must be non-existence yet in the previous analogy he concluded that substance is permanent, hence persists in every point of time making the notion of empty time absurd, from this we can make the inductive leap that cause and effect (probably) relies on substance being permanent. To conclude Kant has argued that cause and effect is the necessary synthetic unity binding time to phenomena via succession which relies on the permanence of substance if a posteriori knowledge of phenomena is to be possible.

The final analogy is concerned with community. Kant uses this analogy to argue that “All substances insofar as they can be perceived in space as simultaneous are in thoroughgoing interaction”[7] meaning that existents although seen to be existing individually, yet simultaneously, are actually existing within a community where they constantly affect one another within each instance in time. For Kant “Things are only simultaneous if their perception can…succeed one another reciprocally”[8] for example placing a ball on a cushion would cause an indentation in the cushion as the indentation makes room for the ball being placed upon the cushion, thus both occur within the same instance. This led to Kant arguing that “substances in space cannot be cognized in experience except under the presupposition that they interact with one another…Therefore every substance…must contain within itself the causality of certain determination in the other substance and simultaneously must contain within itself the effects of the other substance’s causality”[9], hence substance must contain every possible connection of cause and effect within it simultaneously so that they can be perceived as if they are in constant interaction with one another. In conclusion every substance affects all other substances as all other substances affect the substance first in question, thus substances are held in a community linked by cause and effect within time.

Gardner argues “The Analogies proceed to show that the…categories of substance and causality perform a transcendental function…tied specifically to the circumstance that we are subjects…in time”[10] because when thinking about objects as being things outside our representations we must think of them as existing within time, but beyond the assumed mental flow of our representations. If we cannot do this then objects, that is to say substance, falls back into the temporal flow making then vulnerable to change which goes against Kant’s argument that substance is permanent. Following from this we can assume that Gardner is trying to support Kant in the claim that substance is, in fact, permanent. Yet Kant holds that time and substance cannot be perceived only conceived making them a priori as Scruton argues “every category corresponds to a principle, whose truth is presupposed in its application”[11] and is therefore a priori, hence how the world is objective via necessity even if we cannot perceive it to be as such.

This notion of having time and substance as beyond perception, yet permanent and objective, implies that there must be something else outside, and beyond, phenomena where all objective knowledge must reside. Scruton states this to be the case as “we find causes only by postulating a realm of enduring things”[12], Kant adheres to this by referring to a realm of objective knowledge which he calls noumena, thus we now have what Gardner referred to as the ‘transcendental function’ of Kant’s analogies. The transcendental function being the analogies were set up in order to prove the existence of noumena in what would seem to be a dualistic epistemology similar to Plato’s concept of the Forms in the intelligible realm and substances in the sensible realm. Gardner also accepts the notion of an objective realm as all things are bound by a single objective nature, he argues “we inhabit a world…in which all objective empirical facts have a particular form, and all appearances collectively compose ‘one nature’”[13] or a manifold which Kant would say lights up an a priori resemblance to that form within noumena, as opposed to being a relative, and therefore subjective, manifold as Hume argues for.

One argument against Kant is ‘if this knowledge is beyond our perception maybe there is a good reason as to why this is the case’ a view held by Prymus who argues that “madmen were feared because it was supposed that they were driven crazy by stumbling upon hidden secrets of the universe…knowledge that no human could comprehend”[14] so for any of us to gain access to noumena would prove dangerous. We have been given warnings of this within popular culture, for example in the sci-fi series Doctor Who an evil villain known only as ‘The Master’ when placed in front of the temporal schism to see time for what it is in itself lost his mind and began plotting away against creation. Similarly in the video game Final Fantasy VI we encounter a clown called Kefka who after being infused with magic to enhance his knowledge of the universe becomes homicidal as he attempts to reduce creation to a state of non-existence. Prymus argues the reason as to why objective knowledge makes us act in such a way is because objective knowledge makes us ‘arational’, that is to say we become entities outside the sphere of rationality (neither rational or irrational), whilst outside this sphere we realise “most of us see existence as necessary, as an imperative…existence is really only…a hypothetical imperative”[15] meaning that existence is only necessary so long as it adheres to our idea of what we seek in the world.

However Prymus’ argument on first sight doesn’t seem to correspond to Kant’s analogies but only to his concept of there being a realm known as noumena, nor does it argues against any of Kant’s arguments as being true. But if we were to take Prymus’ use of the word existence in her essay and ask ‘what is existence?’ then we can answer it by looking at Aristotle who argued that existence is what exists and what exists is substance. Thus we can now deduce by the logical procedure that if X is equal to Y and Y is equal to Z then by necessity X must be equal to Z to state that existence is substance. Now we can see that Prymus’ argument actually relates to the first analogy where Kant argues that substance is permanent. Now if these warnings are true and someone does gain access to noumena and tries to destroy substance then they would also take down cause and effect and the interaction between substances making knowledge, be it a priori or a posteriori impossible. We can therefore conclude that we should not seek objective knowledge but be satisfied with the subjective empiricism offered to us by Hume, unless Kant is mistaken.

Kant originally set up the analogies in response to Hume’s arguments of cause and effect in hope that it would disprove Hume, but just what was Hume’s argument? Hume argued that “It is evident, that there is a principle of connection between the different thoughts…in the mind…To me, there appear to be only three principles of connection among ideas…resemblance, contiguity in time and place, and cause or effect”[16]. It appears that Hume, like Kant, accepts that time must be permanent and cause and effect must also exist if knowledge derived from our perceptions is to be obtainable. However this is where the similarity draws to an end as for Hume knowledge must only be based on empirical methods, and therefore we can only hope to achieve a posteriori knowledge which is subjective due to our own relative experiences of the world, the reasoning behind this is that if “we must enquire how we arrive at the knowledge of cause and effect…knowledge of this relation is not…attained by reasonings a priori[17] it is only through our experience of phenomena that we conceive the concept of cause and effect, for example if given two billiard balls we would never accept that the first would cause the second to move if it rolled into it unless we had seen this to be the case on a number of previous occasions so that it became a fixed continuity of how things are in accordance with the laws of Newton’s physics. Yet Hume never accepts that cause and effect exists as part of phenomena as it can not be perceived, instead it is a cognitive synthesiser uniting two separate events together consistently to produce a manifold of presentations. So if we cannot perceive cause and effect yet it still does the same job as Kant believes it does, then we can say that cause and effect lies within noumena along with time and substance, thus Hume and Kant although go about it by alternative methods seem to reach similar conclusions as to the nature of time, causality and substance.

To conclude even though Kant set off to argue against the subjective empiricism of Hume he actually constructed a set of arguments similar to Hume based upon a transcendental empiricism (otherwise known as transcendental idealism). A framework supported by, to some degree, Plato, Scruton, Hume and Gardner. However as Prymus pointed out there may be hidden dangers lurking within this realm of objective knowledge, so it might be advisable to remain contented with the subjective empiricism of Hume until we know as to whether there is any truth in Prymus’ claims or if they are just scare tactics to keep us all in the dark about how the world really is.  


  • Aristotle, 2004, Metaphysics, London: Penguin Classics
  • Gardner. S, 1999, Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, Abingdon (Oxfordshire): Routledge
  • Hume. D, 2008, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Kant. I, 1999, Critique of Pure Reason (Abridged (Translated by W. S. Pluhar)), Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Kant. I, 2007, Critique of Pure Reason (Reissued Edition (Translated by Smith)), Basingstoke (Hampshire): Palgrave Macmillan
  • Plato, 2007, The Republic (second edition), London: Penguin Classics
  • Prymus. K, 2009, ‘Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucault: Madness and Nihilism in Final Fantasy VI’, in Beaulieu. M and Blahuta. J, ‘Final Fantasy and Philosophy the Ultimate Walkthrough’, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc, pp 20-33
  • Scruton. R, 2001, Kant a Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

[1] Kant. I, Critique of Pure Reason, 1999, B218

[2] Ibid, A182

[3] Ibid, A184

[4] Ibid, A189

[5] Ibid, B234

[6] Ibid, A192

[7] Ibid, A211

[8] Ibid, B257

[9] Ibid, B258-B259

[10] Gardner. S, Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, 1999, Pg. 171

[11] Scruton. R, Kant a Very Short Introduction, 2001, Pg. 47

[12] Ibid, Pg. 51

[13] Gardner. S, Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, 1999, Pg. 177

[14] Prymus. K, ‘Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucault: Madness and Nihilism in Final Fantasy VI’, in Beaulieu. M and Blahuta. J, ‘Final Fantasy and Philosophy the Ultimate Walkthrough’, Pg. 24

[15] Ibid, Pg. 27

[16] Hume. D, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2008, Pg. 16

[17] Ibid, Pg. 19

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