Who Needs the Forms?
The whole realist/nominalist argument among the Medieval philosophers often seems arcane and pedantic to us post-moderns. I mean, who cares if the form is in the thing or somewhere else? The whole idea of a form in things is way too “spooky.” Reality is given to us; we don’t need forms right? Well, without answering that question directly I must point out that the import of the Medieval argument between the realists and nominalists can be seen when we realize that they were seeking an answer to the same question with which we are often plagued; the question, “How do I know that what I believe about reality is true?” Pilate asked a similar question to Jesus, recorded in John’s Gospel 18:38: “What is Truth?”
Obviously, Pilate was not asking Jesus how one comes to know the essence of a thing, but I can’t help but notice the irony of the situation. St. Thomas also noticed – it caused him to get sidetracked in his commentary on this Gospel. Here’s what he had to say:
Apropos of this [Pilate’s] question, note that we find two kinds of truth in the gospel. One is uncreated and making: this is Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6); the other truth is made, “Grace and truth came [were made] through Jesus Christ” (1:17). By its nature truth implies a conformity between a reality and the intellect. The intellect is related in two ways to reality. An intellect can be related to things as a measure of these things; that would be the intellect which is the cause of these things. Another intellect is measured by things, this would be an intellect whose knowledge is caused by these things. Now truth is not in the divine intellect because the intellect is conformed to things, but because things are conformed to the divine intellect. While truth is in our intellect because it understands things, conforms to them, as they are. And so uncreated truth and the divine intellect is a truth which is not measured or made, but a truth which measures and makes two kinds of truth: one is in the things themselves, insofar as it makes them so they are in conformity with what they are in the divine intellect; and it makes the other truth in our souls, and this is a measured truth, not a measuring truth. Therefore, the uncreated truth of the divine intellect is appropriated, especially referred, to the Son, who is the very concept of the divine intellect and the Word of God. For truth is a consequence of the intellect’s concept.
Pilate’s question about Truth interrupted Aquinas’s train of thought. Perhaps he asked himself the same question and needed to reiterate it in relation to what he saw in the text – a man asking Jesus, “What is Truth?” Aquinas immediately thought to himself that Truth is a conformity between reality and the intellect. But that’s not all. Man’s conception of Truth cannot be all there is. This would mean that Truth is relative. There has to be one who establishes Truth, one who makes the things in his mind exist in reality as they are in his mind. This One is God and his Son is the eternal Idea who sustains the life of all things. This is where the forms come in – the essence/quiddity/nature of things. If God makes them the way he thinks them then they are true. If they are true then they cannot change. If they do not change then they cannot be reduced to matter. Therefore, we need the forms. We need our immaterial minds to get to the immaterial thing behind the thing. We need the “spooky” stuff. The Medievals knew this (some of them liked it way too much). I fear that we’ve become too materialistic to recognize it.