On Naming Unknowns

“It follows therefore that we can give a name to anything in as far as we can understand it.”
Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia, Q. 13, A. 1, co.

For Thomas, naming is preceded by understanding. But what if there is a second kind of naming, a naming of unknowns? This kind of naming is more algebraic, where the name is a placeholder for the unknown thing, until more knowledge is received about the thing in question. The best part about this kind of x-naming is that the name chosen will accrue extra layers of meaning over time as more and more is learned about the unknown thing.

I’ll take this one step further. Anytime we name anything, we are naming something that is at least partially unknown to us. Therefore, every act of naming is at least partially algebraic. Any time we use that word, we are plugging it into several larger equations of meaning, including the sentence, the paragraph, our lived lives, our shared cultural memory, etc. As we provisionally “solve” other parts of the equation of meaning, we attach more and more provisional meaning to a word which may have originally meant only “x = unknown.”

I’m sure many, many people have said this before me, but I don’t know what the terms are for this kind of x-naming. Do you know what it’s called? If yes, please tell me.

Stuffy Uncle Thomas and His Theological Boxes

[Disclaimer: this is one of those “I-haven’t-finished-the-book-yet-so-it-might-still-be-coming” posts. So please don’t reply with comments of the “you-idiot-just-read-this-section-that-comes-later” variety.]

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The natural desire of the rational creature is to know everything that belongs to the perfection of the intellect, namely, the species and the genera of things and their types, and these everyone who sees the Divine essence will see in God. But to know other singulars, their thoughts and their deeds does not belong to the perfection of the created intellect nor does its natural desire go out to these things…”

Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia, Q. 12, A. 9, Ad. 4

This sounds like a certain kind of intellectual dictating what is right and good to the rest of the world, namely, “knowing everything,” by sorting and categorizing things. There is another kind of knowledge, though, the knowledge that revels in particularity, or what Aquinas here calls “singulars.”

This passage is key for understanding a genre mistake of Thomas. His method of discourse has no conceptual space for history, fiction, poetry, contextualization, the depth of a human person, or any other kind of particularity, except the unintentional particularity of the Latin language. [Oops Thomas!] This is embodied in the very structure of his argumentation, organized as it is into little sorting boxes.

I know I have a long way to go in ST, but until we get to the Incarnation, Aquinas’ theology of history, or his explication of things in their particularity, it’s going to be tough going for me.

One final pea shooter shot at the greatest theologian of all time: Thomas, you say that “the natural desire of the rational creature is to know everything.” Well, that may be true for an enneagram 5, but surely it is not the only truth for all people everywhere? Why wouldn’t you say that “the natural desire of the rational creature is to be known, or to be loved?” And how, HOW, does sorting things into “species” and “genera” enable you to love your neighbor? It might in some occasional instances, but not as a general rule! On the contrary, what you say “does not belong” to us — “to know other singulars, their thoughts and their deeds” — is a basic action of Christian love!