Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Problem of the Continuant: Aquinas and Suarez on Prime Matter and Substantial Generation

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Problem of the Continuant: Aquinas and Suarez on Prime Matter and Substantial Generation

Article excerpt

SOME PROBLEMS, ARISTOTLE REMARKS, are so deep it is hard not only to find solutions, but hard even to think out the difficulties well.(1) One such is what we here term the problem of the continuant. When something is generated in the unqualified sense of the term, that is, comes to be not just blue or hot or next to something, but is generated as an entity, what is it that survives the change from the original materials? This is a very old problem: it fascinated Aristotle, and was of endless interest to the medievals. Some very old problems--for example, about the nature of the matter of the unchangeable heavenly bodies--we now see rest on false presuppositions. There are other ancient problems, however, such as the problem of the continuant, which for all of our knowledge of physics and chemistry seem to retain their power to mystify and intrigue.(2)

Traditionally the problem is set up so it looks as if it first must be settled whether there is substantial generation; that settled, by whatever argument, one then goes on to analyze the subject of the transformation. This is quite misguided, however, if it is thought that one can dispose of the question "is substantial generation possible?" without dealing with the question "what survives?", for the strongest argument against the possibility of substantial transformation is that it is revealed upon analysis of any such putative transformation that the subject, the continuant, the survivor, would have to be a stuff too strange for anybody to accept.

Consider some parallels. Lamarckians believed in the transmission to offspring of characteristics acquired by the parents. There was, however, a mystery about the mechanism by which the transmission was supposed to occur--and absent a coherent description of what the mechanism might be, the alleged phenomenon is called into doubt. Take a second example: fans of astrology believe that our lives are affected by the disposition of the stars--but no one can describe a plausible mechanism by which this might occur, and the putative phenomenon is thereby rendered doubtful. Or again, consider the claim that one body's action is causally responsible for the motion of another body. If one cannot explain how it is possible that the action of one body can be causally responsible for the action of another, that may call into question the alleged phenomenon (remember Hume's idea that there is no secret connection between cause and effect, but rather a habit of connection).

Our point, then, with respect to substantial change is that if we cannot give an intelligible account of how the phenomenon is supposed to occur, if we can make neither heads nor tails of the nature of the continuant, then doubt is cast on the claim that substantial change does occur. It is a mistake to say that we have determined there is such a thing as substantial change; now let us ask about the nature of the continuant.

In section 1 of this paper we present the problem of the continuant in the form of an argument that there can be no substantial generation because there can be no continuant. In section 2 we set out Thomistic and Suarezian responses to the argument that there can be no continuant and hence no substantial generation, and sketch an evaluation of these responses. In section 3 we present three new responses to the initial argument which preserve the possibility of substantial generation, and we suggest that they are interesting and promising (though we do not aim to show that any one of them is definitively to be preferred to its rivals).


The Problem of the Continuant. The problem we will be considering can be generated in a number of ways. We follow Aquinas's setup here, though not slavishly; we put the problem in our own words, initially being colloquial and noncanonical about language in order to allow for understanding of the basic issue and to avoid being tendentious. As we move towards our final formulation of the problem at the end of this section we will work to make the casual language more precise. …

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