Samuel Cooper discusses essays and letters between Anscombe and Foot, now held in the Somerville college archive. (Post 1/3)

Formal and Material Aspects of Action in Aquinas

“what exactly does Aquinas mean? What does it mean to speak of not knowing an end as an end or a means as a means to that end? It is not, after all, as if human beings see something that is their quarry glowing in a special way… We must not hope to find something extra—our awareness of the ratio, of an end, or of the relationship of means and end—by Lockean introspection. We must rather ask, as Wittgenstein teaches us, for the wider context in which the puzzling idea belongs.”
– Natural Goodness, pp.54-55

Both Foot and Anscombe talk about Aquinas quite often, and both of them seem to take it for granted that Aquinas’ thought can be elucidated by thinking about it from directions provided by Wittgenstein; not just that Aquinas can be corrected or improved by the addition of a Wittgensteinian perspective, but rather that what Aquinas himself actually thought can be elucidated by looking at his work from such an angle. Both of them do this quite often, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, but almost always very casually, as if it is quite obvious that this is how it should be.

This strikes me as very interesting. Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophical problems, as we most often meet with it today, seems at first glance to be radically at odds with Aquinas’. Wittgenstein is therapeutic, he reduces problems to questions of language, he looks at interior existences through external criteria, he deflates unwieldy metaphysical constructions. Aquinas is densely metaphysical, massively systematic, proceeds through definitions, and fond of doing things like trying to prove the existence of souls as immaterial substances from features of their proper activity. (I’m not trying to make a point about Wittgenstein interpretation here – more or less regardless of what he himself thought, a picture of what it is to proceed in a ‘Wittgensteinian’ way has come down to us which seems to exclude a Thomistic one.) So in what sense in Aquinas Wittgensteinian, such that we can help to explain what he meant by appealing to Wittgenstein’s ideas or methods?

I think that at least part of the answer lies in Aquinas’ understanding of intention; and a starting-point for understanding this is his distinction between the formal and the material objects of action.

To get the most out of the discussion, it will be useful (though not necessary) to read a few short sections from the Summa Theologica: second part of the second part, Question 1, article 1; and first part of the second part, Question 18, articles 6 and 7.

Aquinas’s formal and material objects of action come in the first place from an analogy with the formal and material causation familiar from Aristotle. Just as the formal cause of a substance is what determines its species, i.e., what kind of thing it is, the formal object of an act is what determines the species of that act: what makes it that kind of act rather than another kind of act. Likewise, just as the material cause of a substance is what matter the substance is made out of, so the material object of an act is what movements and so on which the act is made out of.

For an example, imagine a geometer constructing a proof, and his little child copying him. The mathematician and the child could in this way draw an identical series of lines and circles: the material component of the action would thus be the same in both cases. However, only the mathematician is doing geometry. The small child, who can draw out the proof but doesn’t know what it means, can’t be said to be doing geometry in the way that the mathematician is. Thus, though the material is the same, the kind (species) of action that is being completed is different; and we can express this by saying that the formal object of the geometer’s action is the proof or demonstration, whereas the formal object of the child’s action is copying.

The formal object of an action even determines its type in cases in which the material object does not fulfil it: for example, if I go out to buy sausages and post a letter, buy my sausages, and then walk over and put the sausages into the post-box, what I’ve just done is correctly characterised as a ‘failed letter-posting’, not as an action of sausage-posting (compare Anscombe’s discussions of practical truth).

We can already see here that the formal object of an action is bound up with intention, and in normal cases the formal object of an action is the end which we intend to achieve by acting. What makes the mathematician’s act geometry when the child’s isn’t, is that the mathematician intends to do geometry. Likewise, if the mathematician screws up sufficiently that his act is only ‘failed geometry’, it will be this intention that makes it ‘failed geometry’ and not ‘drawing for fun’ or ‘copying’. (It is worth remembering, though, that ‘intend’ is a modern word. St Thomas will either talk of formal objects, ends, or the disposition of the will.)

Formal and material objects can be accidentally or essentially related (‘related of itself’). For example, taking what belongs to another is accidentally related to giving alms: one might filch bread in order to give it to someone who is starving, but there is nothing about taking what belongs to another which necessarily relates it to giving it away to someone who needs it: this connection holds only in the particular case. Sometimes, however, a material object is such that it contributes to a given end by its nature. For example, eating relates essentially to relieving hunger (or staving off hunger). This doesn’t mean that on all occasions that I eat, I do so in order to relieve hunger, but rather that these other cases will be ones in which the material and formal objects are only accidentally related, as in the example above. I am not missing something essential about the nature of eating if I don’t realise that you can eat something with the intention of seducing someone; but I am confused or mistaken about the essential nature of eating if I don’t realise that eating has to do with relieving hunger. That I would be mistaken or confused in this kind of way if I didn’t have a grasp of the connection is what we mean by saying that the connection is an essential one.

If you’ve read much Anscombe, much of this will of course already be familiar.

The formal/material distinction appears everywhere in Aquinas, and in the following posts we will see some of the uses to which he puts it. St Thomas’s primary interest seems to be to use it to help build a systematic ethics. To take an example that will be relevant in the following posts, St Thomas uses it to distinguish between a starving man and a man who has enough to get by each stealing an identical loaf of bread from a man with a surplus. In both cases the material object of the action is ‘taking what is not yours’, but only one of them, says St Thomas, would be guilty of the sin of theft, because in the other case the formal object ‘relieving starvation’ determines the species of the action: and to take in order to relieve starvation is neither sinful, nor (says St Thomas) is it theft properly speaking (he has previously defined theft as contrary to justice: and in this case it is the man who withholds bread from the starving who does an injustice, rather than the starving person who takes it). Aquinas makes use of distinctions on these sort of lines to distinguish both kinds of actions such as ‘doing geometry’ which have no obviously essential moral character, and kinds of actions that do, such as ‘almsgiving’, ‘acts of mercy’, and ‘acts of justice’.

Though Aquinas is always interested in systematising, the core idea that the species or kind of an action is determined by the intention (formal object, disposition of the will) which was behind it, gives us an opening for a way of looking at his categorisations which is more in line with the Wittgensteinian way that we are familiar with.

One of the distinctions which turns up quite frequently in Aquinas is his distinction between what is most knowable (or most desirable) in itself, and what is known (or desired) first or most knowable to the soul. This can sound like a very strange idea, and it is also most often introduced in the context of Aquinas’ arguments about human knowledge of God, which is not the easiest place to understand it; but really it is quite easy to get a handle on. The distinction is more easily explained, I think, by illustration than by deduction from principles (though such a deduction is possible), so I’ll give an illustration here.

A young man wishes to win the big race. He trains hard for it. He assesses the people he’s up against. He works diligently, he takes advice from the people he trusts, he does as well and as seriously as he can. The day comes: he wins the race; he is elated. Later, he discovers that the race was fixed – his most serious competitors threw the race, it was a betting scam, this was, indeed, the only reason that he was allowed to win. We can see at once that it would be strange if the young man’s response to this was just to go: well, my goal was to win the race and I did, so there is no issue here, I’m still just as happy. We would understand completely if he was crushed, if he felt angry and cheated. I find it very natural to say here that, before he discovered the scam, he thought that his desire was to win the big race (i.e. this was the desire that he sincerely professed) but he has now discovered that his desire was more complex than that: he wanted to win the race in a certain way, to win fairly or properly or truly.

Aquinas would cash this out by saying: winning the big race is the thing that is desired first or is most desirable to the soul: it is the first desire apparent to the mind. Winning the race properly or truly, on the other hand, is the thing that is more desirable in itself: it is the desire that comes later to the mind, but is more correct or full or true. Both of these desires were in some sense present within the man from the start, the first as the one that he would profess, and the second as what would actually satisfy him.

This distinction may well be useful to bear in mind later, but my main reason for bringing it up is to show that Aquinas is well aware that human beings are mixed-up animals. He knows that intention is bound up with the beliefs presupposed by an action, and he knows that those beliefs may not be explicit to the person acting, and indeed that trying to make them explicit may prove impossible. What is most knowable in itself is clearer, more simple (in the sense of unitary, non-composite), and more easily related to other things in logical order (think, for example, of mathematical concepts). Terms like ‘justice’ and ‘good’ are like this. But those things which are most knowable or desirable to the soul, which in most cases means concrete particulars (some food, this job, this loved person, and so on), are not only less known in themselves, but less knowable: the kind of knowledge that one can have of them even in principle is of a less precise and less stable kind. Further, they can deviate from what is most knowable in itself in an indeterminately large number of ways, as a particular edge can deviate from straightness in any number of different ways.

St Thomas’s system of human acts is built from features of what is most knowable in itself; but throughout his work he remembers that it is the actual particular intentions of human beings that give human acts their formal character. What unites these actual intentions and supporting beliefs are constellations of similarities and logical links which connect them to more central guiding concepts. For example, the charitable giving of a thoughtful utilitarian and a person moved by emotion to an act of compassion are both seen as genuine but imperfect versions of the more central caritas, love of neighbour; and this may reflect nothing about how the individuals concerned see their own actions or the actions of the other. What connects such actions to this deeper logical structure may be to do with features of their internal character (St Thomas, after all, is concerned with goodness and sin and with the state of one’s soul), but is more often explained in terms of external criteria and in ‘what can be said’ about an action: in the case of the man and the race, for example, it is not something internal to the desire that the man has first that connects it to the fuller desire which he might discover later. Generally Aquinas will set out the structure of such actions (or beliefs, desires…) with reference to external criteria, and with awareness that what a person might be inclined to say or able to say about their own inner states may not illuminate the deeper logic which their actions nevertheless follow.

This is why Foot is able to use a Wittgensteinian method of attention to context to explain what Aquinas means when he discusses ideas such as choice, conscience, and knowledge of ends.

Of course, this is barely scratching the surface of all the interest there is in the way Anscombe and Foot make parallel use of Aquinas and Wittgenstein and only a small fraction of the answer to how they are able to get away with doing so. But it is a start. I hope it does something to illustrate how these connections function, and to encourage more systematic thought about how the two philosophers make use of Aquinas’ way of seeing things.