The term disposition, as used in scholastic writings, always implies an order among the parts of a thing having parts. Although this is a simple notion, it has widespread application in philosophy and theology, for the concept of a "thing having parts" can be taken very broadly.
Disposition of Parts in a Whole. in its most concrete application, disposition is the same as the category of situation (situs), which defines the order in place that the physical parts of a body might have, e.g., the arrangement of its limbs by which an animal is said to be standing or sitting or lying down. Disposition is used also to denote the order of bodies or of any kind of units within an aggregate, as the disposition of an army or the disposition of funds. in this acceptation, disposition can be taken in an active sense to denote the ordinance by which the units are arranged, e.g., the disposition of the army that the general effects; or it can be taken passively, as the positions occupied by the troops in virtue of the ordinance. in all these instances, disposition refers to the ordering of parts in a whole. It can, however, be extended to include the ordering of things to an end or purpose; in fact, many orderings of parts in a whole include an ordering to a purpose. (see whole; part.)
Disposition as a Quality. Perhaps the most important use of disposition in scholastic writings is the sense in which it designates a quality. The category of quality is divided into four species, of which the first includes habit and disposition. A habit is a quality by which a thing is well or badly disposed either in itself or in relation to its operations. What is implied in this definition is that a thing has parts, that these parts can be variously organized among themselves, and that in virtue of diverse organizations the thing is well constituted or badly constituted, and operates well or badly. If the organization of the parts is by its very nature firm and stable, it is called a habit. If it is labile and easily disrupted, it is called a disposition. Thus scientific knowledge constitutes a habit of accepting one truth and rejecting its opposite, because the truth is certified, but knowledge based on rumor or hearsay constitutes only a disposition to accept an opinion, because by its very nature it is subject to easy disproof. A disposition, therefore, though it is like a habit is weaker by nature. in this acceptation of the term, disposition is something distinguishable from habit. However, the term disposition is sometimes used interchangeably with the term habit, and at other times it is used to designate a general category that includes both habit and disposition.
As used in connection with the concept of habit, disposition is subject to the same divisions as habit. Thus there are entitative habits and operative habits, and entitative dispositions and operative dispositions. As there are habits of intellect, will, and passions, so there are dispositions of intellect, will, and passions, and so on. Thus we can speak of dispositions to illness, benign dispositions, cruel dispositions, irascible dispositions, etc.
Insofar as dispositions are tendencies that can develop into habits if they become firm and stable, there can be a threefold relationship of disposition to habit. Disposition and habit can be, first of all, of the same nature and in the same subject, as a disposition to face dangers can be developed into a habit of courage. The disposition is of the nature of courage from the beginning, and in the same subject, i.e., the irascible appetite. Secondly, the disposition can be of a different nature but in the same subject, as the disposition to react violently to dangers can lead to physical illness. The violent reaction is not of the same nature as the illness, but it is in the same subject, namely, the organs that respond in strong emotions. and finally the disposition can be of a different nature and in a different subject, as the ability to remember well, which is a disposition toward acquiring science, is not of the essence of science, nor is it in the intellect, where science resides.
Dispositions of Matter in Relation to Form. According to hylomorphism, matter is the element of a thing that is potential and of itself without any characteristics, and form is what makes a thing be what it is, determining all its characteristics (see matter and form). Nevertheless, matter is spoken of as having dispositions to form. This means, on the one hand, that matter is by its very nature susceptible to being formed by form. Again, it means that in any given thing, the characteristics given by the form and received by the matter are those that are appropriate to the form. Thus the scholastics would say that matter must be organized to receive a living form, for life is exercised through organs, and the higher the grade of the living thing, the more complex its organization must be. These various grades of organization are material dispositions to various grades of living forms, although they are also, more strictly speaking, the formal effects of the forms.
In the case of substantial change in nature, when some agent acts on a body and changes it to a different kind of thing, the agent operates by changing the accidental features of the patient until the patient is no longer capable of retaining its substantial form, whereupon that form returns to the potentiality of the matter and a new substantial form takes its place. Thus when wood is burnt, the gradual heating of the wood to the point at which it ignites is an accidental change, which leads finally to the substantial change, from wood to ashes. The accidental changes in a body leading to substantial changes are called dispositions of its matter. The last accidents inhering in a subject before its substantial change are called the previous dispositions. The first accidents in the new subject produced in a substantial change are called the proximate dispositions of the substantial form of that subject. They are the characteristics of the body that make it proportioned to the new substantial form, although strictly speaking, they depend on that form for their own being.
Disposition in Theology. This concept of disposition as a preparation for a change is used also in theology. For example, the profound difference between the natural and supernatural orders makes it necessary to deny that there could be any natural dispositions to supernatural gifts, in the sense of preparatory acts or states that by their nature are proportioned to effects of the supernatural order. On the other hand, since the supernatural order does not operate without reference to the natural order, it is defensible to speak of natural dispositions to faith, grace, sacraments, and the like. Natural virtues and natural truths can be considered as remote dispositions to grace, at least insofar as they remove impediments to grace, although they cannot be conceived as eliciting or demanding grace. The proximate disposition to supernatural grace is the act of free will accepting this grace; but this act itself is prompted and caused by a supernatural movement divinely bestowed (see St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a2ae, 109.6).
See Also: temperament; virtue.
Bibliography: r. j. deferrari et al., A Lexicon of St. Thomas Aquinas (Washington 1948–53). v. e. smith, The General Science of Nature (Milwaukee 1958). j. gredt, Elementa philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae, 2 v. (12th ed. Freiburg 1958). p. h. j. hoenen, Cosmologia (5th ed. Rome 1956). john of st. thomas, Cursus philosophicus, ed. b. reiser, 3 v. (new ed. Turin 1930–37). r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1927–30) 1:287–89.
dis·po·si·tion / ˌdispəˈzishən/ • n. 1. a person's inherent qualities of mind and character: a sweet-natured girl of a placid disposition. ∎ an inclination or tendency: the cattle showed a decided disposition to run the judge's disposition to clemency. 2. the way in which something is placed or arranged, esp. in relation to other things: the plan need not be accurate so long as it shows the disposition of the rooms. ∎ the action of arranging or ordering people or things in a particular way: the prerogative gives the state widespread powers regarding the disposition and control of the armed forces ∎ (dispositions) military preparations, in particular the stationing of troops ready for attack or defense: the new strategic dispositions of our forces. 3. Law the action of distributing or transferring property or money to someone, in particular by bequest: this is a tax that affects the disposition of assets on death. 4. the power to deal with something as one pleases: if Napoleon had had railroads at his disposition, he would have been invincible. ∎ archaic the determination of events, esp. by divine power.
Act of disposing; transferring to the care or possession of another. The parting with, alienation of, or giving up of property. The final settlement of a matter and, with reference to decisions announced by a court, a judge's ruling is commonly referred to as disposition, regardless of level of resolution. Incriminal procedure, the sentencing or other final settlement of a criminal case. With respect to a mental state, means an attitude, prevailing tendency, or inclination.