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Distinction, Kinds of


Distinction is opposed to identity and to confusion. Objectively, a distinction is any degree or kind of nonidentity or nonlikeness by which one thing or aspect is not another (Thomas Aquinas, C. gent. 1.71). Operationally, it is the act of distinguishing, i.e., the act or state of the mind discerning a nonidentity or dispelling the confusion in a precedent act that fell short of such discernment. The foundation of this twofold usage is itself twofold: the plurality of things and of conditions and aspects of things, both static and in process; and the stages and conditions in the development of the mind as it passes from potency to act. Whether there is a one-to-one correspondence between the distinctions operationally drawn by the mind and the ontological perfections of things in themselves anterior to the mind's attention to them has historically been a divisive question in scholasticism. Thomists and Aristotelians generally maintain the negative; Scotists and Suarezians, the affirmative (see aristotelian ism; scotism; suarezianism; thomism).

Related Terms and Classical Sources. Distinction may be said to bear to definition a relation somewhat the inverse of the relation that collection bears to division. For just as definition is a summary or synthesis of the comprehension of a concept and collection is a like synthesis of the extension of a concept, so distinction is an analysis or breakdown of concepts on the basis of the nonidentity in whole or in part of their contents and division is an analysis of their extension. Accordingly, just as "plant" and "animal" must be divided in order to be united in the collection or universalization of "body," so "living body" and "sentient" must be distinguished in order to be united in the definition of "animal." Note from the example that this proportion holds particularly for the essential definition and for the distinction of reason (see below).

Distinction is related also to both of these sets of opposites: (1) the identical or same and the diverse or other and (2) the like or similar and the unlike or different. Distinction obtains between the different as well as between the diverse. Hence it is opposed to likeness, or similari ty, as well as to identity in the strict sense, and, consequently, to confusion based on nondiscernment of either difference or diversity.

The statements of aristotle on this topic, as is often the case, give verbal indication of various kinds and shades of distinction that later were canonized and profoundly elaborated upon by the scholastics. Apart from discrimination (διάκρισις in the De anima, bk. 3) there seems to be no one technical term for distinction in his writings or in those of plato. The more metalogical words used for distinction also serve more properly and significantly for division and abstraction (διαιρε[symbol omitted]ν; ωαιρε[symbol omitted]ν, χωρίζειν). There is, however, the direct way of expressing distinction by denying identity: μ τ α[symbol omitted]τ ε[symbol omitted]ναι (not to be the same); λλο κα[symbol omitted] λλο ε[symbol omitted]ναι, λλως χειν (to be other, to be otherwise). Discussions of distinction are mostly incidental to discussions of definition, as in bk. 7 of the Metaphysics. It should be noted that when Aristotle says that two things, though one in being, are diverse κατ λόγον (secundum rationem ), the implied distinction is more the ancestor of the scholastic modal distinction than of the scholastic distinction of reason. The classical source for the scholastics' theories of distinction of reason, virtual distinction, and actual formal distinction lies more probably in the Stoic theory of the λεκτόν (see stoicism), which came to them mainly through boethius. An indirect but special source of the Scotistic formal distinction is Plato's Sophist. The influence of this came westward via neoplatonism and ara bian philosophy.

Thomistic Distinctions. For St. thomas aquinas, the term distinction is often almost synonymous with diversity and difference; when he wishes, however, not to impute diversity or difference to the essence under consideration and yet to indicate that meaningful distinctions can be drawn that have bearing on it, he resorts to the term distinction (Summa theologiae 1a, 31.2).

Formal and Material Distinction. Distinction is either formal or material, i.e., numerical; the former indicates a difference of species or form, a difference properly so called, and the latter, a difference in number, i.e., a diversity (De pot. 2.4, 9.8 ad 2; ST 1a, 47.2). This basic but often slighted Thomistic division partially overlaps with the more famous division of distinction into real and rational; it subdivides the real distinction but not the rational distinction, all of whose subtypes are formal in some extended sense.

Real Distinction. Objects distinct according to a real distinction are nonidentical as things in their own right, prior to and independent of any objectifying insight or construction elicited by the human reason. The ultimate case of this would be two individuals of the same atomic species: they are not at all formally distinct but are distinct from each other by a real, absolute, material or numerical (and entitative) distinction. They are diverse as beings, though altogether alike in essential form. If the two individuals differ also in species, then they are distinct by a real, absolute distinction that is both material and formal. They are diverse and different. If one abstracts from the individuals as such and considers their essences either as natures in themselves or as so-called metaphysical universals, then these essences are distinct from each other by a real, absolute, formal distinction.

The real distinction may be either absolute, as in the three ways just enumerated, or modal. The modal distinction seems to have been employed by St. Thomas but is not fully discussed by him or even by his commentators. The question of modal distinction in Thomism requires further study, if only because of the multiplicity of meanings associated with the term mode. Briefly, whereas the unqualified or real absolute distinction, as has been seen, obtains, for example, between Peter and Paul in the same species and between Peter and Fido in different species, the modal distinction, of which there are two types, holds (1) between a thing and its mode of being or acting or (2) between two modes of the same thing (ST 1a, 85.4; 1a, 5.5; 1a2ae, 27.6; C. gent. 3.97, 100). To illustrate the two types of modal distinction Thomists give examples such as (1) the distinction between Socrates and his being seated and (2) that between his being seated and his being in prison (john of st. thomas, Ars logica, 2.2.3).

More significantly, the distinction, drawn in natural philosophy, between a continuum and its actual indivisibles is a modal distinction and, analogously, the distinction, drawn in metaphysics, between an essence and its act of subsistence is also modal. In each case the latter term is in its own way an intrinsic term and not a part. The actual indivisible, not being itself a continuum, is not a part of the continuum; yet it is the point of both continuance and termination of any such continuous part with respect to the next part; thus it renders each part unmixed with and impenetrable by the next (Aristotle, Phys. 527a 1016; Aquinas, In 6 phys. 1.5). The distinction between an essence and subsistence as its intrinsic term is a real modal distinction, whereas the distinction between an essence and its act of existence, which in some sense can be called a real extrinsic term or completion outside the line of essence, is a real absolute distinction.

In the Thomistic theory of real distinction, the separation of two objects is a sufficient but not a necessary sign that a real distinction obtains between those objects. An object may be a principle rather than a thing. Real principles, e.g., primary matter and merely informing substantial form (forma informans ), are really distinct, though neither can exist apart from the other (see matter and form). As a cardinal example, the essence of a creature and its existence are really distinct for St. Thomas; yet this does not mean that they can be separated, even by the absolute power of God, so that, absurdly, the essence would somehow be without existence and the existence would somehow be without its being the existence of something. Clearly, then, St. Thomas does not mean that essence and existence are two things (De ver. 27.1 ad 8; De pot. 7.7).

giles of rome, however, in placing a real distinction between the creature's essence and its existence, goes so far as to say that they are distinct "as two things" (In 1 sent. 4.4.1; Theoremata de esse et essentia 9). F. suÁrez, in reaction (Disp. meta. 31), rejects any real distinction between the essence and the existence of a creature, insisting that there is not even a modal distinction between them, as he reports Scotus, henry of ghent, and Domingo de soto to have held (Disp. meta. 31.1.11;31.6; 31.10.2). There is only a distinction of reason with a foundation in reality (31.6.23, 24).

Distinction of Reason. The rational distinction, or distinction of reason, is of two sorts: the lesser of the two is titled the distinction of the reason reasoning, because it originates exclusively in the mind that understands or reasons; hence it is called also the distinction of reason without a foundation in reality. The greater is titled the distinction of the reason (or object) reasoned about, because it has a double foundation, viz, in the reasoning mind and in the thing affording rational analysis. It is to be noted that the word reason (ratio ) does not mean quite the same in the titles of the two rational distinctions: in the former case it has the more usual formal or mental sense; in the latter, the more peculiarly scholastic usage of object or objective content.

Thomistic scholarship bases its division of the distinction of reason on St. Thomas, who, treating of God (De pot. 7.6; C. gent. 1.35), insists that the names for His attributes are not synonyms. Though signifying the one Being, they signify different intelligible contents (non secundum eandem rationem )hence the distinction of reason reasoned about; but, since the divine intellect is always in act, the distinction between God's intellect and His act of intellection is merely one between ways of signifying (ST 1a, 41.4 ad 3)hence the distinction of reason reasoning.

The foundation of the distinction of reason reasoning is extrinsic to the thing being distinguished. Yet it seems to be more than the illusion of a distinction, caused by the mere repetition of a verbal or mental term (formal concept), as G. vÁzquez and Suárez maintain. For example, there is a distinction of reason reasoning between the object that is subject and the object that is predicate in either of the following two propositions, "Man is man" and "Man is a rational animal," but this posits not the least nonidentity intrinsic to the object or objective concept "man." Yet that object, precisely as an object of the reason, presents to the reason a duality or distinction resulting from its extrinsic comparison to the two moments of the reason itself in taking that same object materially as subject and formally as predicate. Thus the intellect sees the object "man" as subject to be extrinsically affected by the rational condition of being subject, and sees the same object as predicate to be extrinsically affected by the rational condition of being predicate. This is an objective duality, not a mere doubling of formal concepts, and it is enough to find between "man" and "man" both the distinction of reason reasoning and the radical relation of reason, that of identity. Accordingly, neither distinction nor relation of reason posits in the object any intrinsic difference in intelligibility. The distinction of reason reasoning is not a distinction between objective contents intrinsically taken as such.

The distinction of reason reasoned about, however, is just such a distinction. Its mental foundation is the mind's passage from potency to act through a series of concepts such that not all the features revealed in one objective concept are revealed in the other. Thus the successive essential predicates of one and the same subject reveal progressively more actuality about the subject. For example, in the porphyrian tree, for Socrates the predicates "body," "living," "animal," and "man" are all distinct from each other and from Socrateswhom they, in act, areby a distinction of reason reasoned about (ST 1a, 85.3). Because they all indeed are Socrates in point of fact, there is no real distinction between them. Or, even when the objective concepts cannot be thus ordered in a categorical or predicational series of mental progress, so long as each brings out features that the other does not, they are in diverse respects in a potency-act relationship to each other.

Later Thomists speak of two sorts of distinction of reason reasoned about, the major and the minor. The distinction just given between the predicates or so-called metaphysical grades of the same being illustrates the major distinction. It obtains between two objective concepts, i.e., objective contents or reasons, one of which necessarily implies the other, but not vice versa; e.g., all instances of man are instances of animal, but not conversely. The minor distinction of reason reasoned about holds between two objective contents, each of which necessarily implies the other without simply being intelligibly the other, e.g., 5 + 7 and 12.

Analogously, some contemporary Thomists see degrees even within the distinction of reason reasoning. Between subject and predicate in the proposition "Man is man" they see a minor distinction of reason reasoning, but between definitum and definiens in the definitional proposition "Man is a rational animal" they see a major distinction of reason reasoning. The former would thus be of more rhetorical, the latter of more logical, significance (Material Logic of John of St. Thomas 618, n.14).

Scotistic Formal Distinction. Speaking doxographically, Suárez places the famous Scotistic "actual formal distinction from the nature of the thing" as midway between the lesser real or modal distinction and the greater distinction of reason, that of reason reasoned about. Hence it is frequently called the intermediate distinction. It was surely one of the features of his teaching that earned for John duns scotus the title of Subtle Doctor. He was not the originator but the perfecter of the "formal distinction from the nature of the thing" or "on the side of the thing (a parte rei )." Like the Thomistic distinction of reason reasoned about, it seems to have arisen first in theological contexts out of an epistemological need to safeguard the objectivity of human concepts that express partial insights into a nature rich in intelligibility, such as that of God. These two distinctions in fact seem to have a common origin in gilbert de la porrÉe; but by the time of Henry of Ghent (Quodl. 5.6 L), a "distinction of intention" is spoken of as obtaining between two intentions or conceptual contents by reason of the fact that the thing, though unaffected by any actual distinction or composition, has the capacity or "virtue by its very nature" of giving rise to these concepts of formally different content (see intentionality; species, inten tional).

It is to be noted that Thomists also commonly speak of a virtual distinction in the thing as grounding the objectivity of the distinction of reason reasoned about. The difference is precisely the virtuality and nonactuality of the distinction in the thing and its having been rendered actual by the mind in the act of drawing the distinction between those aspects that the thing affords (In 1 sent. 2.1.3; De ente ch. 3; Cajetan, In ST 1a, 39.1). This part of the Thomistic theory of distinction parallels the Thomistic theory of the universal; i.e., the nature as in a plurality of individuals is not actually but virtually one, and it is rendered positively and actually one by the abstractive power of the mind. In both areas the mind has a more existentially actualizing, unifying role in the school of St. Thomas than in the school of Duns Scotus.

In controversy with Henry of Ghent, Scotus does not deny Henry's intentional distinction but attempts, by means of the doctrine of objective intentions that he borrowed from avicenna and that he calls "formalities" or "real reasons," to ground Henry's actual distinction between intentions in an actual distinction or distinctness between these formalities or "somethings" (In 7 meta. 19.5), viz, one that already obtains between them in the thing anterior to the mind's attending to them. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the essential perfections of the thing and the mind's intentions of them. Because of its actuality on the part of the thing, the Scotistic distinction is not the virtual distinction of Thomists and of other scholastics; nor is it the consequent distinction of reason reasoned about, rendered actual only in the mind; nor is it a modal distinction, since the distinction is formal, i.e., obtains between two formal perfections, not between a form and its mode or intrinsic term. Being both actual and formal, the distinction falls between the real modal distinction and the distinction of reason reasoned about. It is closer to the real distinction in being actual in the thing, though the formalities are said to be neither things nor parts of things, but closer to the rational distinction in being intended, like the virtual distinction, to supply a foundation for it.

Scotus sees this as the only way to avoid rendering the predicate concepts all synonymous (or, what is the same thing, fictitious) in their claim to supply any advance in knowledge one over the other in the categorical series or Porphyrian tree. It is also the only way of avoiding what would be worse, i.e., rendering the predicates expressive of the divine attributes as fictions too (Op. Oxon. The actuality in reality of this distinction between formalities is thus, for Scotus, the ultimate bulwark against nominalism and hence the only guarantee of the mind's possibility of developing a science (scientia) of metaphysics and of theology. From the standpoint of doxography and doctrinal coherence, the reason for this stand is Scotus's necessary coupling (in the Platonic tradition) of perfection and positive unity: if an ontological perfection, be it a metaphysical grade of the essence of Socrates or an attribute of God, were not to have a degree of positive unity within its essence, then that perfection would simply not be in the essence. Consequently, the fullness and integrity of the essence would be destroyed. These formalities, it is asserted, are actually distinct from each other as metaphysical perfections, because each of them in itself has a "positive unity less than numeric" (In 7 Meta. 19.5). This position in metaphysics closely parallels the doctrine of the plurality of forms in the philosophy of nature (see forms, unicity and plu rality of).

Thomists distinguish between the substance, as it were, of a unit, or something positive on the part of an entity that is one, and something negative on the part of the formal element that unity adds to the entity, i.e., the negation of division (De ver. 1.1). Now there may be many ways of negating division without there corresponding to each such negation a positive entitative unit (In 1 sent. 19.4.1 ad 2; 24.1.3; ST 1a, 11.1 ad 2; John of St. Thomas, Ars logica 2.3.3). Hence there does not have to correspond to each of the mind's units of thought, or intentionsformed as they are implicitly or explicitly by negation of division (i.e., by abstraction or by precision)something positively one in the nature of the thing.

Among Scotus's most able early disciples, Francis of Meyronnes elaborated the theory still further and extended its application, whereas william of alnwick rejected it in its radical testing ground, the realm of the divine ideas. Many modern Scotists tend to accommodate the actual formal distinction to the virtual distinction.

Bibliography: Thomistic. thomas aquinas, st, ed. t. gilby et al. (New York 1964) 1:113119; 2:220221, notes on distinction. john of st. thomas, The Material Logic, tr. y. r. simon et al. (Chicago 1955) 2.3, "On the Distinctions of Reasoned and Reasoning Reason, and on the Corresponding Unities," 7688; 3.3, "Whether Formal Unity, as Distinct from Singular Unity, Belongs to the Nature Prior to the Operation of the Intellect," 102114; 3.6, "Whether in any Nature Whatsoever Metaphysical Degrees are Distinguished only according to a Distinction of Reason, or Whether Their Distinction Results from the Nature of the Thing," 130140; and 618, n. 14. r. garrigou-lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature, tr. b. rose, 2 v. (St. Louis 193436) 2:2132; ch. 2; epilogue, 548558. j. gredt, Elementa philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae, ed. e. zenzen, 2 v. (13th ed. Freiburg 1961). b.s. llamazon, "Suppositional and Accidental Esse: A Study in Bañez," The New Scholasticism 39 (1965), esp. 184187. b. miller, The Range of Intellect (London 1961), app. Scotistic and Suarezian. m. j. grajewski, The Formal Distinction of Duns Scotus (Washington 1944). b. jansens, "Beiträge zur geschichtlichen Entwicklung der Distinctio Formalis," Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 53 (1929) 317344, 517544. a. b. wolter, The Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus (Washington 1946); "The Realism of Scotus," Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962) 725736. f. suÁrez, On the Various Kinds of Distinctions, tr. with introd. c. vollert (Milwaukee 1947), disp. 7 of Disputationes Metaphysicae. a. b. wolter, "The Formal Distinction," in John Duns Scotus, 12651965, ed. j. k. ryan and b. m. bonansea (Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy; Washington 1965) 4560.

[j. j. glanville]

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