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  • The Places of "Thing" and "Something" in Aquinas's Order of the Transcendentals
  • Michael J. Rubin

AS JEAN-PIERRE TORRELL observes, the first question in St. Thomas Aquinas's Quaestiones disputatae De veritate, or Disputed Questions on Truth,1 is "universally and justly known" by scholars of Thomas for its treatment not only of truth, but also of "the transcendentals and their convertibility."2 It is not difficult to see why. The transcendentals have a truly immeasurable importance in Thomas's thought, since for him each transcendental expresses a distinct attribute of every being insofar as it exists, and therefore reveals [End Page 395] something unique about the nature of all reality.3 Moreover, the first article of this first question, and thus of the whole De veritate, contains the most extensive treatment of the transcendentals in Thomas's corpus. As a result, this article has been for centuries a locus classicus in discussions of these terms.4

In addition to the four transcendentals already recognized by other Scholastic thinkers—"being" (ens), "one" (unum), "true" (verum), and "good" (bonum)—Thomas here presents two more: "thing" (res), whose meaning is "that which has an essence"; and "something" (aliquid), whose meaning is "that which is divided from others." There is precedent for the addition since both terms appear in the discussion of the primary notions in Avicenna's Metaphysics.5 Nevertheless, it is a bold move since the traditional list enjoyed a considerable consensus among Thomas's contemporaries, including his own teacher Albert the Great.6

Yet, almost immediately after making this daring addition to the list of transcendentals, Thomas seems to take it back. In [End Page 396] question 21 of De veritate (aa. 1 and 3), Thomas gives two other derivations of the transcendentals from which both res and aliquid are entirely absent. In addition, each of these derivations seems positively to exclude the possibility of "thing" and "something" being added to them. Thus, in the very same work where Thomas adds res and aliquid to the list of transcendentals, one finds passages that make their status as transcendentals doubtful.

The difficulty of reconciling these texts, along with the fact that res and aliquid do not appear in any lists of transcendentals written after De veritate, has led Thomists over the centuries to argue (with varying degrees of success) that these terms are actually not distinct transcendentals and can therefore be reduced to other terms in the list.7 The most compelling hypothesis is that of Francisco Suarez, who claims that "something" can be reduced to "one" and "thing" to "being."8 [End Page 397]

Thomas could not have shared Suarez's view for several reasons,9 mainly because article 1 of the first question of De veritate makes clear that the terms listed there are distinct in meaning, in which case "thing" and "something" cannot be synonyms for any of the others.10 Thomas thus clearly considers res and aliquid to be distinct transcendentals in question 1 of De [End Page 398] veritate. If he were to reject this view in question 21 of the same work, this would be a dramatic reversal indeed.

The seeming conflict between Thomas's derivations of the transcendentals presents several problems for his thought regarding these terms. First, this divergence calls into question whether Thomas even had a coherent account of the transcendentals, since it implies that he either wrote contradictory derivations of these terms without realizing it or else changed his mind about their number and order within the three years that he wrote the disputed questions De veritate. Moreover, an essential part of Thomas's doctrine on the transcendentals is his claim that one of them is logically presupposed by all the others—"being," or "that which is"—and is therefore absolutely first in the conception of the intellect. Yet if "thing" and "something" cannot be fitted into Thomas's derivation of the transcendentals from "being," then they do not logically presuppose "being" and are therefore equally first in the mind's conception, as in fact was Avicenna's position.11 Hence, the uncertain positions of "thing" and "something" in Thomas's order of the transcendentals undermine his view that there...


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