Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.


[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Augustine’s “linguistic turn”

A while back I argued that Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio (“utterance,” “expression”) helped resolve an ambiguity at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of the divine Verbum, namely his ambivalence between a more verbal or linguistic model for understanding the second person of the Trinity on the one hand and a more visual and hence intellectual model on the other. Related to this is another ambiguity in Augustine’s thought, this time within his philosophy of language itself. To develop, for the time being, just one side of that tension, John Milbank has argued that there are significant elements in Augustine’s theology of language which push against the kind of “linguistic rationalism” that dominated much ancient, patristic, and medieval reflection on the subject. Milbank draws particular attention to the Aristotelian and Stoic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent, which he criticizes as implying an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[2] Yet it was also the Stoics who first “decisively modified” the semantic triangle “by interpreting the meaning-content (semainomenon) [of words] not as eternal “Idea,” nor as psychological “thought,” but rather as a lekton, a position within a system of signification.” One of virtues of this revised understanding of the relationship between words and their meaning, on Milbank’s view, was its insight into the irreducibly linguistic character of the act of signification, such that “the lekton, as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… The ‘incorporeal’ character of these lekta does not indicate any Platonic, eternal status, but rather a ‘temporally indefinite’ character.”[3] Put in modal terms, in the place of Aristotle and Plato’s “semantic possibilism” (as we might deem it), according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought and eternal ideas that provides the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic doctrine of lekta substituted a “semantic actualism” according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence may be connoted within the dynamic “continuum” of a given “system of signification.” They are traces of this Stoic modification of the semantic triangle, finally, that Milbank finds evidence of in Augustine when, for example, and following the Stoics, he “speaks of a verbum cordis or verbum mentis, rather than just ‘a thought’,” or when “Augustine is so aware of the sign-character of words, and the indispensability of the artificial system of language for thought, that in De Magistro he declares that one can give the meaning of a word only by another word, or else by a gesture which is still a sort of sign.”[4] Elaborating on Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner word” in particular, Milbank finds here that Augustine “construes thought as ‘intentional’, or as having a sign-character (the Stoic lekton) which, especially in the De Trinitate, promotes a non-substantive, relational ontology…”[5]  (This move is paralleled, as we shall see later, in his commentary on Genesis, where he likewise shifts the source of creaturely possibility from the Platonic divine ideas to the less substantive, more relational and immanent ontology of the Stoic rationes seminales or “rational seeds.”) Indeed, Milbank suggests that

Augustine actually goes further than the Stoics in one respect, by becoming the first person in history unequivocally to place the linguistic word itself in the category of sign: verbum est uniuscuiusque rei signum. For the Stoics the word itself still stood in a relationship of definitional equivalence to the lekta, if not to referential res (as for Aristotle). As Umberto Eco has pointed out, Augustine’s conflation was a potentially momentous innovation, because by bringing words under a category traditionally to do with ‘natural’ relationships of typical implication (as the sequence fire/smoke, considered generically) Augustine opened the way to seeing that word and ‘dictionary definition’ are never fully reciprocal. Quite to the contrary, words can only be explicated ‘intensionally’, through a process of semiotic inference which relates no longer (as for the Stoics) more or less readily to nature, but only to a particular cultural-linguistic ‘segmentation’ of reality.[6]

In each of these ways, in sum, Augustine dimly foreshadows the later Renaissance humanist view of thought as sign—a “Trinitarian redefinition of the ideas as ‘word’ or ‘art’”[7]—and beyond that, the eighteenth-century insight of such Christian philosophers as Berkeley, Hamann, Herder, and Vico into the “indispensability of language for thought,” the ultimate “impossibility of distinguishing ‘sign’ from ‘thing’,” and the recognition of “reality as constituted by signs and their endless ramifications”[8] that anticipate and hence which allow for a more “positive assessment of language.”[9]


[2] Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 89-90.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 96.

Could the Father or Spirit Have Become Incarnate?

In his Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, Robert Jenson critiques the Augustinian legacy in Western theology that tends to flatten out the differences between the respective agencies of the persons of the godhead. For Augustine, Jenson says, “there is no difference at all between the agencies of Father, Son, and Spirit. Either, he thinks, Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things” (and Augustine rejects the latter) (111). One of the most “disastrous” applications of this principle, in Jenson’s view, was Augustine’s teaching (in the words of Peter Lombard) that “As the Son was made man, so the Father or the Holy Spirit could have been and could be now” (Sent. 3.1.3). If the agency among the divine persons, in other words, is univocal among them, then it stands to reason that the act of incarnation cannot be proper or unique to any one of the persons, but must be shared by each. Against this view Jenson pits the “authentically Nicene analysis” of John of Damascus, who wrote that “It was the Son of God who became the son of man, so that his individuating property might be preserved. As he is Son of God he became a son of man…” (Expositio fidei 77.5-8). As Jenson summarizes the problem with the Augustinian position, the

supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative. (112)

My response: the conflict might also be viewed in terms of the theistic possibilism-actualism debate I have been developing here of late. On the Augustinian view, the “possibility of Incarnation” seems at some risk of becoming an abstract, uncreated possibility simply given to or for God, not simply as Creator, but now more specifically as a Trinity of divine persons. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, God’s will ranges over all the possibilities that are his with respect to creation. On the Augustinian view of the univocal agency of the divine persons, the classic Augustinian voluntarism and possibilism receive an even further, deeper, more problematic application, as the divine will is here allowed to range over possibilities that reference not only created being per se, but also how the persons of the Trinity in particular may (or may not) relate to that created being. (Consistent with this position is the later “personal properties” debate of the high and late Middle Ages, which was waged over whether it was the property of relation (the Dominican position) or the property of emanation (the Franciscan position) that was primarily responsible for constituting the persons in their distinct personhood. Either way, this is to posit a prior ontic framework that afterward makes the Trinitarian persons “possible.”)

As for the Damascene position tying the possibility of Incarnation to the Son only, while this conclusion could be drawn as the result of an even more limiting possibilism (i.e., the possibilities for Incarnation are still viewed as prior to and determinative of all Trinitarian action, as per the Augustinian position, it’s just that the range of available options have now been narrowed from three to one), the thrust of Jenson’s discussion, as I understand him, would seem to be to see the divine Son simply as God’s own possibility of Incarnation. If the Father or the Spirit are able to become Incarnate, the Son is that possibility for them. The possibility of Incarnation is not, accordingly, something that precedes or co-exists eternally with the persons of the Trinity, distinguishing them (or not, as the case may be) from each other; rather it is the prior actuality and givenness (and giftedness) of the divine persons for each other that afterwards determines the character of the possibility of their givenness for creation.

Divine Ideas: God looking at himself looking at creation

One of Anselm’s argument for the utter unity of the divine locutio centers on its status as the supreme truth and likeness, not of the creatures that are spoken through it, but of the divine being by which it is spoken (Monol. 31).[1] Anselm recognizes that, whereas the words we humans mentally speak are the very likeness and image of the extra-mental objects which are conceived through those mental words, the divine locutio cannot be a likeness or image of those things spoken through it, for otherwise the locutio would not be truly consubstantial with the divine being itself. Rather, they are the created things conceived and spoken by the divine locutio that are the likeness and image of it. For the divine locutio to be the supreme truth, it must be perfectly conformed to what supremely and unchangeably exists, namely the divine essence, and this means that that the locutio must be supremely one and unchanging.

Contained in this argument (whether consciously or not) is an implied critique of Augustine’s divine ideas, inasmuch as the latter’s plurality was argued to be necessary in order to account for the plurality of forms found amongst creatures. For Augustine, God must have a different divine idea by which he makes a horse from the idea he uses to make a man, for a horse is different from a man. From the Anselmian perspective, however, this is effectively to make the divine ideas as exemplar causes in the image and likeness of their created effects. Although Augustine argues that it would be irreligious to suppose that God (after the fashion of Plato’s demiurge) looks outside of himself for his plan for creation, there is a sense in which what Augustine has really done is merely relocate or specify the precise vantage point from which God does precisely that: the divine ideas, in short, are God’s looking at himself looking at his (possible) creatures. Given these contortions, it is little wonder that in the fourteenth century William of Ockham, wielding his razor (and in the name of Augustine) would seek to cut through the Augustinian knot by re-interpreting God’s ideas as simply God looking at his creatures. Once again, Anselm endeavors to avoid such later consequences of the Augustinian teaching by more perfectly affirming the divine locutio’s identity as the supreme truth, image, and likeness of the divine essence itself.


[1] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 125.

Tolkien vs. Augustine on Difference of Sex

In book six of his De Genesi ad Litteram (Literal Commentary on Genesis) St. Augustine addresses the question of whether human souls might have been created simultaneously with the rest of the world at the beginning of creation, with their bodies being formed only later on. Augustine gives two arguments against this view:

first, because of that completion of God’s works, I do not see how these could be understood to be complete if anything was not there established in its causes which would later on be realized visibly; secondly, because the difference of sex between male and female can only be verified in bodies. (De Genesis 6.7.12)

According to Augustine’s second argument, sexual differences are not psyche-logical differences, but physio-logical differences.

Compare this now with Tolkien’s account of the Valar in the Ainulindale:

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.

For the Valar, “sexual” differences are more than–because prior–to bodily differences, being a mater of “difference of temper” that is then “bodied forth” afterward in the physical appearance the individual Valar choose for themselves.

From Augustine’s theological to Scotus’s logical possibility

The previous post ended with Simo Knuuttila’s observation that, for Augustine, divine possibility, rooted in the divine ideas, was therefore rooted in the divine being or nature in which the ideas resided, and that this was the theological modal paradigm that prevailed until Duns Scotus departed from it in the early thirteenth century, replacing the theological source of possibility with his notion of a bare “logical” possibility.[2] Be that as it may, one may well ask what role the possibilism latent in Augustine’s philosophical theology might have played in the eventual dissolution of his own theological synthesis. As Knuuttila himself observes, for Augustine,

God’s free choice of the universe is conceptually preceded by knowledge about alternative possibilities… [H]is conception of divine possibilities contained an intuitive idea of alternative worlds of which only one is actualized. He thought that God could have made various worlds, and hence he saw God’s eternal decision as free and voluntary… [T]he conception of God as acting by choice between alternative universes… played an important role in the emergence of the intuitive idea of modality as referential multiplicity with respect to synchronic alternatives. This modal paradigm hardly occurred at all among ancient thinkers. It was introduced in early medieval discussions which were strongly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical theology.[3]

Thus, while Augustine viewed the divine ideas as located in, and hence as inherently revelatory of, the divine essence, if Knuuttila is right, Augustine’s possibilism nevertheless involved him at some level in viewing God’s creative activity in the proto-voluntarist terms of a divine will ranging over and electing possibilities that are simply there for God as given, brute facts of his existence. Insofar as we can only conceive of these hypothetical, unrealized possibilities by mentally abstracting from those concrete actualities and potentialities observed in the real world, however, it doesn’t seem that large of a step, however significant, from these already de-existentialized possibilities to the eventual de-theologized, logical possibilities postulated by Scotus. Not surprisingly, we see the beginnings of just such as disjoining of divine possibility from the divine being when Augustine, for example, says that God could do a thing “through his power, but not through his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam).[4]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

[2] Conor Cunningham similarly sees the decisive shift in modal thinking as taking place with Scotus when “that which exists was taken outside the divine essence. Consequently, that which was expelled became nothing, a nothing that allowed the invention of a priori realms, and tales of things called logical possibilities (a Scotist fantasy).” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 171.

[3] Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 109.

[4] Augustine, Contra Gaudentium 1.30.35, cited in Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29. In other, more circumspect moments Augustine conflates God’s power with his wisdom and hence, one may suppose, with his justice, as when he says that “God’s Word and Wisdom and Might are all one and the same reality.” Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 6.12.22.

The Ideas are the Possibles

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

In overview, then, the divine ideas are those principles which account for the rationality and hence wisdom and non-arbitrariness of God’s creative and providential activity: when God acts, being good and wise he necessarily acts according to a preconceived plan, and these plans are the divine ideas. Implicit in this view, accordingly, is the notion that what is possible for God to do or make is determined by his ideas: God can do or make anything for which he has a divine idea, making the ideas the origin or source of divine possibility. Inasmuch as the ideas are located nowhere else than in the divine mind and essence itself, it follows that God’s own being is ultimately the origin and source of divine power and possibility. As Simo Knuuttila has put it, for Augustine the ideas provide an index or register of

all finite beings which could serve as partial imitations of the highest being. The ideas are divine thoughts and refer to possible actualization in the domain of mutability. They define the finite modes of imitating the infinite divine being. In this sense the possibilities have an ontological foundation in God’s essence… This was the dominating conception of modal metaphysics until Duns Scotus departed from it.[1]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Divine Ideas

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 1

The person whose name has become almost synonymous with the tradition of theological exemplarism in the Christian west is, of course, the good Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (354-430). Perhaps the central doctrine where a theology of the possible is concerned is Augustine’s famous and influential teaching on the divine ideas which witnessed the effective Christianization of Plato’s theory of forms, placing them within the mind of God himself. Augustine’s fullest and most direct treatment of the subject, and the one that would serve as the chief patristic source on the topic throughout the subsequent Middle Ages, occurs in the forty-sixth of his Eighty Three Different Questions (De Diversis Quaestionibus LXXXIII).[1] His brief but formative discussion opens with Plato whom he identifies as the first to have used the name ideas, but not the first to have grasped the universal, divine reality signified by the term, something Augustine believes always and everywhere to have been understood by men deserving the title “wise.”[2] Augustine takes inventory of the some of the other names given to the ideas—“forms” (formae), “species” (species), and “reasons” (rationes)—using the latter in particular to characterize the ideas as the “original and principal forms of things, i.e., reasons, fixed and unchangeable, which are not themselves formed and, being thus eternal and existing always in the same state, […] contained in the Divine Intelligence.” Eternal and unchanging, it is through and by the ideas that “everything which does come into being and pass away is said to be formed…. It is by participation in these that whatever is exists in whatever manner it does exist.” After summarizing how the rational soul comes to know the ideas—namely through an act of divine illumination which he describes as a “certain inner and intelligible countenance” possible only after the soul has been made “holy and pure”—Augustine gives his influential argument for both the existence and the multiplicity of the divine ideas. No devout and religious person, he says, would deny that those things existing in their own, natural order, have God as their cause, or that God is the cause not only of the things themselves but also of their order and the laws of operation. Nor, having admitted this much, would anyone say that God has created these things and their order without any kind of rational plan. Having created all things according to such a plan, moreover, it is absurd to think that God created distinct individual things, such as a man and a horse, according to the same rational plan. Everything, Augustine concludes, must therefore have been created according to a rational plan, reason, or idea unique or proper to each thing. Having thus established the existence and plurality of the ideas, Augustine returns to the question of the location of the ideas, namely the divine mind of God, asserting that it would be “sacriligious” to suggest that God had to look to something outside himself to get the pattern for what he was going to create.[3]


[1] Boland, Ideas in God, 38-9, 47.

[2] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, trans. David L. Mosher (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 79-81.

[3] It is tempting to assume that Augustine saw himself as critiquing Plato’s Timaeus here, which, as we have seen, mythically represents the demiurge as looking to a reality apparently distinct from himself, namely the “eternal model,” for the plan of creation. It is important to realize, however, that Augustine didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the Timaeus but knew him through the textbooks of later Platonists who, like Augustine, also placed the ideas in the mind of God. As Vivian Boland suggests, Augustine probably thought that the notion of the divine ideas in the mind of God was the authentic teaching of Plato himself. Boland, Ideas in God, 45-6.