The Problem of the “One and Many”
The Problem of the “One and Many”
Introduction In a quest to inquire into being, metaphysics is confronted by one fundamental question that; is reality constituted by one being or are there many beings? This question establishes the central problem of metaphysics that is known as the problem of the ‘one’ and ‘many’. Parmenides who first dealt with the nature of being and considered ‘being as being’ as the source of unification of all reality, held that “ultimately there exists a One Being”. It follows that this being is changeless, indivisible and is the source of sameness insofar as it is one; nothing differs from it.
Hence, according to Parmenides, the senses deceive us in reporting reality as many. This doctrine of seeing reality as one is called ‘monism’. On the other hand, empirists also hold a pluralistic view of reality when they reject the notion of being and favour the reality of observable or concrete beings existing positively. Many philosophers endeavor to give a philosophical solution to the aforementioned problem that takes into account both doctrines, monism and pluralism. St. Thomas Aquinas is credited with providing such a solution to the problem of the one and many.
It is precisely the objective of this paper to discuss the one and many as a metaphysical problem vis-a-vis the solution proposed by Aquinas. To do this, we shall firstly present the nature of the problem in relation to Parmenides’ earliest view of being. Further we shall expose the standpoint of Plato who earlier made strides in a bid to solve the problem. Lastly, we will discuss the solution suggested by Aquinas. Exposition of the problem and Parmenides’ view of being Common sense experience affirms that there are distinct beings existing in reality.
Regardless of the differences subsisting among concrete beings, they are similar and related by one common denominator that is ‘actual existence’. Thus, beings are identical by the fact that they exist and distinct simply on grounds that each being ‘is’ insofar as it is not the other. From this observation we can derive two underlying elements that lie beneath the notion of being. These are distinction and similarity. When we analyze and assert the elements separately we are able to discover that each element constructs a concept of its own pertaining the nature of being.
For instance, the affirmation of distinction within being implies multiplicity of being or being as ‘many’. Equally, when we approve of similarity in being, the resultant concept affirms being as ‘one’ insofar as nothing negates this sameness of being. Meanwhile, the simultaneous affirmation of the said elements demonstrates that, the sum total of being is both one and the many. The preceding observation poses a great challenge on how to reconcile the affirmation of distinction in being which imply plurality, on one hand, and similarity in the same being which signify oneness of being, on the other hand.
The potential danger of affirming either one of the concepts results in a monistic or pluralistic conception of being. As noted earlier, Parmenides who negated diversity within being as this would imply that reality is a composition of distinct beings, fell prey to the former doctrine. Nonetheless, his contention that being cannot differ from being unless by non-being. And that, insofar as non-being is nothing, not real, it cannot differentiate being, thus reality cannot be many, exerts an enormous challenge on the task of philosophers to prove the reality of non-being so as to account for the multiplicity of being.
Plato’s standpoint on the problem of the one and many Plato somehow agrees with Parmenides that in order to account for the multiplicity of being, being cannot differ from being by being because it is the same being in question. Rather only by non-being can it differ. In contrast with the aforesaid Parmenides’ argument, Plato argues that “what ‘is not’ in some sense also ‘is’”. According to Plato non-being is real in the sense that it is an exclusion of other possible beings beyond a certain point. In other words, non-being is that which lacks in a given being, thus making it differ from the other.
For instance, the exclusion or lack of rationality in a dog is something real as it differentiates it from a man. Thus, Plato identifies non-being with the principle of limitation in being. This principle of limitation denotes an exclusion of no-more being or a confinement of this being within its nature so that it is distinct from the other. Thus far, we can then infer that the principle of limitation in being according to Plato allows each being to participate in existence in a certain manner as determined by its limitation in it.
Consequently, the participation of each being in reality as determined by its principle of limit entails distinction and thus, indicates the plurality of beings. Apparently, we may deduce that Plato has given a preliminary solution to the problem; however his solution remains basic and vague in relation to what really is meant by the principle of limit. ST. Thomas Aquinas solutions Aquinas begins by analysing the structural composition within the dimension of being. This inquiry into the inner nature of being is ignited by Aquinas’s contention that “every real being compared to every other is both like other being in that it actually ‘is’ […] and unlike it in that it is this being and not that one”.
The idea of likeness and unlikeness perceived in real beings correlates precisely with an assumption that within each being there exists a composition of two co- principles that accounts for the likeness and the unlikeness of beings. Aquinas identifies the co- principles as limitation and the act of to be or simply existence. According to Aquinas the principle of limitation is further linked to the principle of passive potentiality that receives a certain degree of the perfections of existence as it permits. In other words, the principle of passive potentiality limits the received act of to be or existence.
Thus, each real being has the potency within it to be this kind of being as determined by the principle of passive potentiality in it. Aquinas names the principle of limitation or passive potentiality as essence. He further calls the combination of essence and existence in finite beings as ‘real metaphysical composition’. Accordingly, he argues that the two principles in finite beings, essence and existence have to be distinct so as to denote their potentiality to be and that existence is not proper and intrinsic to their nature.
Contrary to this assertion however, the two principles in God are not distinct because God as Aquinas observes “[…] has no admixture of potency but is pure act”. From the forgoing observation we are able according to Aquinas, to deduce that there are many existing beings in reality because in each being, actual existence, which in itself implies no limitation, is received into a distinct principle, essence, which limits the received act of existence. Hence, essence in this sense, becomes that which makes a being what it is and without which, it would not be that being.
In a similar vein, the act of existence is a positive principle with unlimited perfections through which real beings as permitted by the essences receive perfections. Furthermore, Aquinas develops a very important principle pertaining the act of essence or passive potency to receive the act to be, in a being. The principle is called participation. He contends that “each being participate in the perfections of existence, which in itself is unlimited; that is, each being has a share or degree of perfections of existence to the extent the limiting essence will permit.
” For instance, the existence and activities of a man are confined within man’s nature or essence. Therefore, owing to the fact that there are inexhaustible number of potentialities for existence, the principle of passive potentiality as passive potency results in a multitude of beings; each distinct by the degree of no-more being as placed by its essence on the act of existing when each being participates in existence. Conclusion It is thus clear that Aquinas has given a true solution to the problem of the one and many.
He has demonstrated and justified the harmony of the one and many as inseparably constituting being. However, in as much as the two principles are inseparable, they are also distinct so much so that neither of them can exist without the other. Thus, the union of the act of existing and the principle of passive potentiality or essence forms a composition in which the two principles are mutually the determination of each other and of the whole being. Further, the solution of Aquinas highlighted the principle of participation of each being in the perfections of existence as determined by their essences.
Existence possesses unlimited perfections that are received into distinct essences so that the same existence which implies no limitation in itself becomes a limited act upon being accommodated in a particular potentiality to be. We therefore conclude by acknowledging the comprehensive and substantial solution of St. Thomas Aquinas to the problem of the one and many as discussed in this paper. Bibliography CLARKE, N. W. , The One and Many: a Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 2001. CONFORD, F. M. , trans.
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University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 23 November 2016
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