An Introduction to Definitions

The object of the first act of the intellect is the "what" of things, that is, the essence or nature of things. That is why the intellect tends to define things. A definition expresses the essence of a thing, which is why a good definition will contain only that which belongs to a thing's essence. For example, blond hair does not belong to the definition of man, because blond hair is a non-essential trail of a human person. If it was not, then anyone without blond hair would not be a man. Rationality, on the other hand, is found in the definition of man, because man is essentially a rational creature.

Note 'fin' in the word 'definition'. The word finis is Latin for 'end', 'term' 'limit' or 'boundary'. To define is to determine the meaning of a thing, to determine the intelligible limits or boundaries of a thing. In other words, a thing with a nature is a determinate, limited thing that is intelligible and definable. This means that one can establish what a thing is essentially, allowing us to distinguish that from the many non-essential aspects of the thing.

A definition is composed to two parts: a genus and a specific difference. Together they give us the species, that is, what the thing is specifically.

The genus tells us what a thing is generally and indeterminately. More accurately, the genus is that which is predicated essentially of several things that differ in species. For example, when it comes to things like birds, dogs, cows, horses, chickens, etc., we can ask: what is it that can be predicated essentially of the all? Certainly not that they all fly, or they all run fast, or that they are all gray, etc. Rather, they are all essentially animals, that is, various species of animals. And so animal is the genus of the definition of man, horse, chicken, etc.

The specific difference is that which reduces the genus to a species, making one species different from another within a genus.

For example, consider the definition of man: rational animal. This definition tells us what man is generally, namely, an animal. But so too is a horse, cow, bird, or dog. How does man differ specifically from these latter? The answer is: rational. Man is essentially a rational animal. Hence, whatever is not rational is not a man. And since animal is included in the definition of man and an animal is a living sentient creature, whatever is not sentient is not a man. And so an angel, who is intelligent but not sentient, is not a man.

Animal: Living sentient creature
Triangle: A plane figure with three sides.
Temperance: The virtue that moderates the pleasures of touch.
Fortitude: The virtue that moderates fear and daring.
Bird: warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrates characterized by feathers and forelimbs modified as wings.
Polygon: A closed plane figure made up of several line segments that are joined together.

The Three Acts of the Intellect

At this point it should be evident that intelligence is essentially different from sensation. The intellect can define things because it can apprehend what things are essentially. The senses do not grasp the "what" of things, but only their sensible properties. Hearing, for example, does not grasp the nature of sensation, nor does seeing grasp the conditions for perceiving color, or the nature of light, electromagnetic radiation, etc. What we see are particular colors and what we hear are particular sounds.

But a definition is more than the simple apprehension of a thing's nature. It is complex. And so there is more to intelligence than the simple apprehension of essences. The first act is that by which the intellect grasps the essence of a thing, that is, what a thing is, and this is called simple apprehension. It is through simple apprehension that the intellect conceives ideas or concepts, which are universal ideas within the mind (eidos), for example, apple in general, or quantity, or man, triangle, intelligence, number, beauty, vegetable, animal, etc.

The second act of the intellect is not simple, but complex and thus depends upon simple apprehension. This act is called judgment, which is either a composition or division. For example, Polly is a bird, or a bird is an egg-laying vertebrate with wings. Here we have the concepts 'bird', 'egg-laying', 'vertebrate' and 'wings' and we are composing them, that is, bringing them together in the judgment that a bird is an egg-laying vertebrate with wings. A judgment might also be a division, such as: A bird is not rational. Here we are dividing bird from rational.

The third act of the intellect is called Reasoning, which is the act of drawing a conclusion from two judgments, such as:

All birds lay eggs.
Jimmy is a bird.
Therefore, Jimmy lays eggs.

Concluding Thoughts

If there were no difference between intelligence and sensation, then one would not be able to apprehend universal natures, and if one could not understand universal natures, one could not make universal statements, such as universal affirmative or universal negative statements. And if one could not make universal statements, one could not reason, that is, one would not be able to draw rational conclusions. In other words, science would be impossible.

Recall our brief glance at some of the principles of post-modernism. For Nietzsche, knowledge is impossible because all is in a pure state of change. In other words, there are no stable natures that render things intelligible. Reality is nothing but an unintelligible network of pure becoming. All science is a fiction, including logic, which is a construct, founded upon the illusion of being, that is, the illusion of permanency. There are no things, no intelligible essences, and no self-evident first principles, such as the principle of identity, non-contradiction, etc. And so the rules of logic are purely arbitrary, all of them lacking the force of necessity. And yet if one reads Nietzsche carefully, one is struck by his logical consistency as he reasons from the premises he establishes to conclusions having the force of necessity. In other words, he uses logic in order to deny it, employs universal propositions containing universal concepts in order to deny the possibility of universal ideas, and draws conclusions that deny the very possibility of determinate knowledge at all.

Next Page: Chapter 10: An Introduction to the Idea of Happiness
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