Friday, February 27, 2009

William of Ware: a lesser mind?

Medieval philosophy does not consist only of Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. There were many, many more philosophers back then. But not all of them were anywhere near as sharp as those I just mentioned.

Scotus's alleged teacher is a character by the name of William of Ware. I don't really know much about William except that he followed Henry of Ghent's claim that the divine essence is like the quasi-matter or subject of the Son's generation. And I only know this because I read about it in an article.

So I was re-reading that article the other day, and for the first time I decided to pay attention to one of the quotations from William (before I had always just skipped over it). This paragraph struck me as such a bad piece of philosophy that it made me think William might be one of those lesser minds that are simply not as bright as the Anselms and the Ockhams. Maybe I'm wrong about this; I've only read this one little paragraph. But I had the thought nonetheless.

Here's the paragraph. William writes:
'In book 5 of The Physics, the Philosopher argues as follows to show that generation is not motion: "what is moved, is; what is generated, is not; therefore, generation is not motion". In the first premise, the word "what" is taken subjectively for the subject of motion. Therefore, it must be taken in the same way in the second premise, for if it were taken to refer to the end point of the generation [i.e., the substance that's generated], then there would be a variation in the argument, and it would not go through'. [Vienna, 1424, fol. 29vb]
The implied conclusion here is that the subject of generation -- i.e., matter -- is generated. Let me explain this in more detail.

Aristotle tries to distinguish generation and motion on the grounds that generation causes something that didn't exist to come into being, and motion causes something that already exists to move. The thrust of the quotation from Physics 5 is clearly that what's generated didn't exist before, while what's moved did.

But William looks at the logical form of the argument. Here it is:
(1) What is moved, exists [before the motion].
(2) What is generated, does not exist [before the generation].
(3) Therefore, generation is not motion.
As William points out, this argument is only valid if the term 'what' stands for the same thing in both (1) and (2). If it stands for different things in (1) and (2), then it commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Now, on a standard scholastic-Aristotelian analysis, motion and generation are both types of change. A change occurs when something x acquires a new property F that it didn't have before.

Motion fits this definition because an object moves when it acquires a new place, and so the object is x, and its new place is the acquired F. Generation also fits this definition because a living organism is generated when a lump of matter acquires a substantial form, so the lump of matter is x and its new form is the acquired F.

With this in mind, William points out that in premise (1), the term 'what' clearly stands for x, i.e., the subject that acquires a new F (where, in the case of motion, x is the object that moves, and F is the new place it moves to). But since 'what' in premise (2) has to stand for the same thing, it must also stand for x, i.e., the subject that acquires a new F (where, in the case of generation, x is the lump of matter, and F is the form it acquires).

So if we substitute the subjects of motion and generation for 'what' in (1) and (2), we get this:
(1*) The object that is moved, exists [before the motion].
(2*) The lump of matter that is generated, does not exist [before the generation].

William then looks at (2*) and infers that a lump of matter is generated, for (2*) states that the lump of matter did not exist before the generation, whereas (1*) states that an object that's moved does exist before it's moved.

So the conclusion here, as William sees it, is that matter is generated. (Or, to put it slightly more generally: the subject of a generation is itself generated.)

Now, that, it seems to me, is absolutely crazy. Apparently, William is here taking an argument from Aristotle so literally (in terms of its logical form) that he reaches a very un-Aristotelian conclusion. One of the foundational claims of Aristotelian philosophy is precisely that every change (even generation) requires a substrate or subject that persists throughout the change. If you claim that the subject of a generation is itself generated (as William is here), you have traveled very far from Aristotle indeed.

Surely William can see this. You would think that instead of denying a fundamental Aristotelian claim, he would instead say that Aristotle's argument is (at worst) either invalid or (at best) not to be taken so literally.

And indeed, the argument is, in fact, invalid. Premise (1) states that the subject of motion exists before the motion (or at least independently of the motion), while premise (2) states that the product of generation (i.e., the whole organism that's generated) does not exist before the generation (or at least not independently of the generation). But those two claims in no way entail the conclusion (3) that motion is not generation. So William could have had a nice point here if he would have just shown that Aristotle's argument is invalid when taken too literally.

But instead of doing that, William took the crazy route. Bad scholastic philosophy, if you ask me. As I said above, this is an example of the lesser minds you can find in medieval philosophy. The better minds like Scotus and Ockham would never even dream of such bad philosophizing.


Brunellus said...

If you want some seriously bad scholastic arguments, try Walter Chatton on indivisibles. Wodeham could barely stop laughing.

Shawn Stephens said...

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ePonyMous said...

If you ask me, Terry Jones is the WORST scholastic of them all!