Do Ideas Exist?

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the Ocean of Truth. We’re studying the doctrine of God in Christian thought right now and we’re on the topic of ideas. Our guide for this has been the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. You can read along in this study on an online copy of the Summa at The section on ideas has three articles. Let’s begin!

Ideas are essentially forms. What needs to be understood is that the question of forms comes from Plato’s philosophy. Plato tried to explain the essence of things by speaking of forms and there were forms for everything. Not only physical objects but such relations as “larger than” or the one one of my philosophy professors decided was his favorite form, “To the left of.”

Aristotle did not deny the existence of the forms, but he denied them the way that Plato presented them. Plato had the forms independent of God. For Aristotle, the forms were in the objects themselves and all objects partook of a certain essence that made them what they were.

In Aquinas, the forms are ideas in the mind of God, but the ideas are equal to his essence. His nature is his knowledge after all. It is by these that things are what they are. The idea of the cat is always in the mind of God. Of course, we could say the idea of a unicorn is as well, although in the world as far as we know, that idea has never been actualized.

But do the forms really exist in God? After all, forms are the way by which we apprehend knowledge. However, one objector quotes Dionysus as saying that God does not know things through ideas. After all, God does not understand things through something outside of himself.

Aquinas’s answer is that he agrees. However, the way of ideas in the mind of God is not that God may understand. In Plato’s philosophy, this would be the case. In Plato, the ideas existed of themselves and did not exist in the intellect as they did in Aristotle’s worldview.

God also knows all things through himself, but then the objector says that if this is the case, then God does not know things through ideas. Of course, Aquinas agrees that God does not know things through ideas but it is by the ideas that all other things are. Ideas in the mind of God are given actuality in the world outside of the mind of God and thus exist. God does not know himself through an idea.

The reason that this is the case should be obvious to those of you who have been paying attention. God is the one being who has his essence as his existence. Because of that, there can be no idea of God that is granted existence. Interestingly, some theologians did think of God the Father eternally thinking of himself and this thought would have to be absolutely perfect and thus would have to have existence, hence, the Son who would be as eternal as God is then. Second, there would be love between these two, hence the Spirit.

But that’s another debate.

We shall continue tomorrow.

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