A very general term variously used by philosophers. In its broadest sense, it designates all that can be thought, or supposed, or to which existence of any type can be attributed, whether this be real or apparent, stable or transient, known or unknown. More strictly, it designates either a particular kind of reality or a transcendental attribute of being. Although most common among realists, the term is employed also by proponents of other epistemological positions in their attempts to account for its general usage. This article treats the etymology and meaning of the term and its use for a special kind of reality; it discusses also the status of thing as a transcendental and concludes with a survey of various epistemological positions relating to its concept.
Etymology and Meaning. The English word thing is a translation of the Latin res, which is derived from the verb reor, to calculate or to judge. The parallel derivation in English would link the substantive "thing" with the verb "to think," just as in German it would link Ding with denken. In its primary etymological sense, therefore, thing becomes equivalent to thought and indicates anything that can be the object of thought or of judgment. From its Latin usage in such expressions as quam ob rem (for which reason) and qua re (why), however, res seemingly acquired a derived meaning roughly equivalent to cause (Latin causa ); it is this that has led to the neo-Latin and Italian cosa and to the French chose, both equivalents of the English "thing" and both having somewhat the same realist connotations.
Because the primary derivation leaves open the question of extramental existence, medieval thinkers noted the distinction between res realis and res rationis (see Saint Thomas Aquinas, In 2 sent. 37.1.1, De pot. 9.7; Saint Bonaventure, In 2 sent. 37.1). Res realis designates anything that exists outside the mind, whereas res rationis designates anything that has existence in the mind alone. It has been more usual, however, to restrict res to the meaning of res realis and to make it roughly equivalent with ens (being) in the ontological sense. In this usage, the word is said primarily of substance and only secondarily of any accident that inheres in substance; it is said also of a privation, although less properly, as when blindness and sin are referred to as things.
Particular Kind of Reality. As a particular kind of reality that is opposed to other kinds, thing designates a concrete existing individual (Greek τόδε τι), the first substance of Aristotle, which as concrete and existing is opposed to the essence of substance abstractly considered and as individual and substance is opposed to an accident or a group of accidents. More precisely, it applies to an entity that is complete in itself and is capable of subsisting, and as such is opposed to an intrinsic principle of being that is either incomplete or incapable of subsisting. Thus the tree and the cat are things, whereas the primary matter and substantial form of which both are composed are not (see matter and form). Similarly, both potency and act and essence and existence are principles of things but are not themselves things. The scholastics made this distinction more explicit by speaking of ens quod (the being that), which is equivalent to the thing, and the ens quo (the being by which), which is a principle entering in some way or other into the composition of the thing (see Saint Thomas, De virt. in comm. 11; In 7 meta. 7.1414, 1423; In 8 meta. 3.1716, 1721).
John duns scotus makes a distinction between thing (res or ens ) and entity (entitas ), regarding matter and form as entities and not as things, although his conception of matter and form differs from Aquinas's. For Scotus, entities are pure formalities or aspects of things by which they come under a species or genus (natura communis ). For him, as for Aquinas, a real distinction is not convertible with a distinction between things; Scotus, however, speaks of a special type of real distinction a parte rei (on the part of the thing) that exists between formalities and between the divine attributes, which is not admitted to be a real distinction by Thomists (see distinction, kinds of).
A more common philosophical usage is the employment of thing to designate a concrete existent individual that lacks rationality and as such is opposed to person. The scholastics refer to this as the suppositum, which as such is differentiated from the persona; they regard both as individual substances that are capable of subsisting (see subsistence). In contemporary thought this distinction has been revived, although along different lines, and it figures importantly in philosophies such as personalism and existentialism. L. W. Stern, for example, makes use of it in elaborating his personalist philosophy (Person und Sache, 3 v., Leipzig 1906–24). J. P. sartre touches on it when drawing a distinction between being-in-itself (l'en sol ) and being-for-oneself (le pour-soi ), the former corresponding to the thing and the latter to the human being or person. Somewhat analogous is the distinction made by M. Heidegger between the subject that has being or is in being (das Seiende ) and the subject who is peculiarly human (Dasein ).
Status as a Transcendental. Thing (res ) is sometimes said to be one of the transcendentals, i.e., one of the notions or properties that are themselves convertible with being. This identification is not made in the classical Aristotelian tradition, but appears in the West as early as 1232 in the Summa theologica of roland of cremona, who enumerates aliquid and res as transcendentals along with unum (H. Pouillon). Saint thomas aquinas draws on the teaching of Avicenna, who had previously used the terms, and explains the latter's basis for distinguishing between ens, res, and aliquid. As Aquinas explains Avicenna, the term ens is taken from the act of existing, whereas the term res expresses the quiddity or essence of what exists; aliquid, on the other hand, is regarded as being equivalent to aliud quid (the etymology is erroneous) and is related to unum —just as ens is said to be unum insofar as it is undivided in itself, so ens is said to be aliquid insofar as it is divided from others and thus is viewed as another quid (De ver. 1.1).
The questions arise (1) whether Saint Thomas actually taught that res is a transcendental and, if he did or not, (2) whether res is to be enumerated among the transcendental properties of being. Both questions are commonly answered by introducing a distinction between a transcendental notion and a transcendental property. A transcendental notion is any notion that is coextensive with the common notion of being, whether it itself designates a formality that is equivalent to the notion of being or a formality that is consequent on that notion. A transcendental property, on the other hand, is a notion that expresses a formality in some way different from the notion of being, but immediately and necessarily connected with that notion; it adds a modality that is not indicated in the notion of being, and yet that is found wherever being is found. From these definitions it follows that every transcendental property is a transcendental notion, but not every transcendental notion is a transcendental property.
The common Thomistic reply to the foregoing questions is (1) that Saint Thomas taught that res and aliquid are merely transcendental notions and (2) that, as such, they are not to be enumerated among the transcendental properties of being. Res is not a property of being because it signifies nothing more than ens itself, viz, that which has esse; its formality is thus equivalent to that of ens and is coextensive with it (see In 1 sent. 25.1.4; In 2 sent. 37.1.1). Similarly aliquid may be understood as "something," in the sense of "not nothing" (non-nihil ), and in this sense is equivalent to ens; or alternatively, aliquid may be taken to mean aliud quid and thus indicates only a general modality of being. In either case it indicates nothing distinctive that is immediately connected with the notion of ens and thus cannot be enumerated as a transcendental property.
Epistemological Positions. From the point of view of epistemology, three basic positions may be noted with respect to thing, viz, the realist, the phenomenalist, and the idealist.
The realist position maintains that things exist extramentally and can be known by the human mind as they exist (see knowledge; truth). This position necessarily entails a definition of truth as an adequation or conformity between intellect and reality, itself recognized or known by reflection, and ultimately dependent on the intentionality involved in the knowing process. It need not imply, however, that the human mind can know the extramental thing in all its essential notes or specific details. (see realism.)
The phenomenalist position dissociates the phenomena or the appearances from the thing, maintaining that the mind knows only the phenomena and is incapable of attaining the thing directly. Pushed to its extreme, phenomenalism degenerates into skepticism; in various forms it is refined and defended by the proponents of empiricism and positivism. It plays an important role in the thought of I. Kant, for whom the distinction between phenomena and noumena, or the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich ), is pivotal. As Kant sees it, man can know phenomena, but he is incapable of grasping noumena; he may know the existence of the thing-in-itself, but its essence always remains hidden from him. (see kantianism.)
The idealist position rejects the possibility of any reality transcending thought and thus regards the thing-in-itself as a contradiction. In its extreme form, it holds that the thing is nothing more than the activity of the ego, or of mind, or of Absolute Spirit. (see idealism.)
See Also: knowledge, theories of
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[w. a. wallace]