The intensive hermeneutics of Thomistic philosophy: the notion of participation, by Cornelio Fabro (II)

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Cornelio Fabro

In ordinary usage participation has a sociological meaning that can be extended to include all relations pertaining to the union of the members of a collectivity for the objectives and purposes that concern them in one way or another. This kind of participation may refer to knowledge or will, sentiment or activity, as the following expressions indicate: to participate in news, a happy or unhappy event. Such applies not to any person whatsoever but to one who can or must “take part,” that is, associate himself at least with the feelings of him who communicates the news or the event. Participation may also mean collaboration or joining together in the performance of a task for the achievement of a common objective. In this sense one is said to participate in an action, good or bad, in an undertaking, or in an enterprise. This is a kind of physical and moral solidarity that involves participation in the responsibility for the results of the collaboration itself. We likewise say, phenomenologically speaking, that one participates in the joy or sadness of someone else, in his projects or convictions, to express a subject’s association with the particular situation of another subject in the most intimate nucleus of his personality. Thus participation is the broadest and most effective term to express the relation of consciousness to reality in its manifold aspects: physical, moral, cognitive, artistic, sociological, economic, and so forth.

When considered from the semantic point of view, participation can be taken in an active transitive sense and then it means to give and communicate something to someone else, or to share something with someone else. In this sense we also say that God participates his being, his goodness, his truth to creatures. Taken in its intransitive sense, participation means to share or take part in something. It can be said then that participation embraces all kinds of objects from the physical world to moral life, from extended quantity to the life of the spirit. The only difference is that, whereas in the quantitative and material order participation attains directly to the object inasmuch as a certain “whole” is being divided and distributed in its parts, in the moral and in the strictly metaphysical order participation concerns properly speaking the mode of having and receiving, in the sense that the “whole” remains intact and undivided, while an aspect or form of the object is being participated. [453-454]

As far as the Latin term is concerned, participation means to take part (partem capere) or to have part (partem habere—German: teilnehmen, teilhaben). “To participate is like taking a part; thus when something receives a part of what belongs to another fully, it is said to participate in it.”[1] Grammatically speaking, we have the so-called participle, which acts like a mediator between the noun and the verb: “A participle is that which partakes of the noun and the verb. It partakes of the noun with regard to genera and cases, of the verb with regard to tenses and meanings, and of both with regard to number and figure.”[2]

The notion of participation was introduced into philosophy by Plato to explain the relation of the concrete sensible to the separate Intelligible (the Idea), of the singular to the Universal. However, Aristotle ascribes the first origin of the doctrine of participation to the Pythagoreans, or more generally, to the converging contributions resulting from the conflict between the solutions of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and their followers, which served as a springboard for Socrates’ philosophy.[3] In fact, in his search for the foundation of virtue, Socrates concluded that it had to be immutable, one, simple, and therefore have the characteristics of a Universal that exists in itself (το καθóλου) and apart from the sensible objects which are constantly changing. Plato accepted the Socratic solution and called the Universal “Idea” (ἰδέα, εἶδος). He placed all sensible things outside the Idea and explained the relation of sensible things (the “many”) to the Idea (the One) by the doctrine of participation. This means that all things that have the same name share the common nature of the species. As for Plato’s contribution to the notion of participation, Aristotle asserts that he only changed the name (τοὔνομα μετέβαλεν). Whereas the Pythagoreans said that things are or exist by imitation (μίμησις) of numbers, Plato coined a new term and said that they are or exist by participation (μέθεξις). Yet neither side, in Aristotle’s view, cared to explain what imitation or participation really meant.[4] [454-455]

The truth of the matter is that participation is found in Plato only in its nascent state, and receives a whole gamut of modes of having and being according to a certain relationship of dependence, similarity, coexistence, and the like. Already in the Phaedo things are said to participate when they “acquire”[5] or “receive”[6] something, or simply when they are what they are by a “presence” or “communion”[7] or even by “appertaining,”[8] with respect to the “model” in which many participate.[9] Thus the subjects of participation are the many and the manifold.[10]

The notion of participation was meant to be the solution to Zeno’s problem: if many things exist, they must simultaneously be similar and dissimilar, one and many, at rest and in motion.[11] The answer to this problem is that the “Ideas” do not mix with sensible things but exist “by themselves” (καθ’ αυτά) and are “separate.”[12] According to Aristotle, who must have been aware of the oral teaching of his master, Plato had inserted the mathematical beings[13] as intermediaries (τὰ μεταξύ) between the sensible objects and the separate forms. By this metaphysical mathematization attributed to him by Aristotle, Plato remained faithful to his fundamental inspiration of transforming mathematical relations into relations of constitutive logic. Indeed for Plato the object of knowledge is either the idea as an “exemplar” (παράδειγμα) or “that which completely is” (τὸ παντελῶς ὄν) and is therefore perfectly knowable (τὸ παντελῶς γνωστόν), so that it is the “one among the many” (τὸ ἕν ἐπί τῶν πολλῶν) and makes possible the knowledge from above of what is transitory and corruptible.[14] To the principal difficulties raised against participation in its twofold relationship of the intelligible to the sensibles and of the intelligibles (the genera) among themselves, Plato gave in his later dialogue a twofold answer of decisive importance for [455-456] the development of philosophy, including Aristotelian philosophy. On the one hand, he admitted the existence of non-being (μή ὄν) as the “subject” of participation or imitation, and on the other hand, he extended the relation of participation within the very realm of the Ideas (κοινωνία τῶν γενῶν) so as to make possible a multiple participation.[15]

One of the major difficulties inherent in the Platonic notion of participation based on the logico-mathematical relation of the universal to the particular as imitation-similitude, is the celebrated “third man” argument (τρίτος ἄνθρωπος), which is mentioned by Aristotle[16] but had already been discussed by Plato himself.[17] It consists in this. If the similarity among many sensibles presupposes the “form in itself,” then the similarity of the many to the forms presupposes another form, and so forth.[18] To this objection Plato has no answer. Aristotle’s reaction to the Platonic notion of participation is found in the works of his maturity, where he shows great firmness and an attitude that comes close to contempt.[19] However, one must bear in mind that Aristotle came to realize the inadequacy of the Platonic doctrine of participation only gradually, since he himself had adhered to it in his youthful dialogues of Platonic inspiration. The very titles of these dialogues (Eudemus, Symposion, Eroticus, Protrepticus, Politicus, Sophistes, etc.)[20] seem to bear out this view. Moreover, traces of that doctrine can still be found in the Organon where he discusses the logical relation of universals, i.e., of individuals to species and of species to genus.[21] From these latter there arose that important nucleus of the Thomistic doctrine of predicamental participation. [456-457]


[1] St. Thomas, In I Boeth. de Hebd., 1. 2, n. 24; ed. Taur., p. 396 b.

[2] S. Isidorus Hisp., Etymol. I, 21, c. II; PL 82, col. 88.

[3] Aristotle, Metaph. I, 5, 986 b 18ff. An accurate exposition of the sources of the notion of participation has been made by Sister M. Annice in her article, “Historical Sketch of the Theory of Participation,” The New Scholasticism, XXVI (1952), pp. 49-79.

[4] Aristotle, Metaph. I, 6, 987 b 10ff.

[5] μετάσχεσις: Phaedo 100 c, 101 c.

[6] μετάληψις: 102 b.

[7] παρουσίᾳ, κοινωνίᾳ: 103 d.

[8] ἐνεῖναι, παραγίγνεσθαι: 103 d, 105 c. Cf. Sympos. 211 b.

[9] τὰ τοῦ αὐτοῦ μετέχοντα τύπου: Rep. 402 d.

[10] εἶναί τι ἕκαστοντῶν εἰδῶν καἰ τούτων τἄλλα μεταλαμβάνοντα πολλά… : Phaedo 78 d. Cf. Rep. 476 a and ff., 479 a, 507 b.

[11] Parm. 127ff.

[12] χωρίς: Phaedo 129 de.

[13] Metaph. I, 6, 987 b 12ff.

[14] τὁ νοεῖν τι φθαρέντος: Soph. 248 e.

[15] μετέχειν δὲ πολλῶν οὐδἐν χωλύει: Parm. 161 a. Cf. P. Natorp, Platos Ideenlehre (Leipzig, 1921), pp. 231ff., 469f.

[16] Metaph. I, 9, 990 b 17 and XII, 1, 1059 b 8.

[17] Parm. 132 ab.

[18] See the ample exposition of the argument by Alexander of Aphrodisias, In Metaph. 990 a 15; Hayduck 83, 34-84, 1ff.

[19] μεταφορἀς λέγειν ποιητικάς: Metaph. I, 9, 991 a 20. See also pertinent texts in Metaph. XIII, 4, 1079 a 4ff., 5, 1079 b 24ff.

[20] De Philosophia. See Aristotelis Dialogorum Fragmenta, ed. R. Walzer (Florence, 1934).

[21] Topic. IV, 1, 121 a 11ff. See Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, pp. 145ff.

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