Aristotle through Aquinas to Hahnemann

Aristotle, Aquinas and Hahnemann

Why did the great Dr Hahnemann call his remedies potencies and powers? From where did he get this idea? I suspect he took it from Aristotle and Aquinas, who developed the ideas of form and matter and act and potency as a framework for understanding that objects are not just material instances of something. Matter alone can’t exist without form.

act potency essence being


Within this way of understanding is Aristotle’s understanding as to how things can change: due to the presence of act and potency. Potency is the potential for change and act is the actualisation of that change. Perhaps Hahnemann should have called his remedies actualities rather than potencies as he had actualised the potential of a substance to change by succussing and/or triturating it?

In a previous post I explained that we cannot have medicine without metaphysics. I often wonder from where Hahnemann got his idea of attenuation from and why there should be something to attenuate, thereby releasing (my word) the inner power of a substance. I’m convinced, having a great knowledge of philosophy and even calling one of his publications the Organon as Aristotle had done likewise, Hahnemann possibly got the stimulus for his ideas from Aristotle and Aquinas.

essence form substance

Thomas Aquinas

Act and Potency
“In everything which is moved, there is some kind of composition to be found” a composition of act and potency. (Aristotle had used the paired properties of form and matter, says Feser. (Ed Feser, Aquinas; page 13.)

Act is the realisation of a thing’s potential for change.
1. The potential for change is rooted in an object’s nature.
2. An external cause is required to realise this change (Essential cause according to Aquinas.) 
3. There is an asymmetry between act and potency. Act can exist on its own while potentiality cannot.

Act and potency are the basis of Aquinas’s entire metaphysical system.

Hylemorphism is the word that explains Aristotle’s way of understanding objects: form and matter. While Aquinas’s system, as stated above, allows for immaterial things to exist, say Angels and homeopathic remedies?, Aristotle likewise allows for the immaterial – we can have pure form without matter but not matter without form.

powers potency dispostion

Hahnemann monument Washington

Another familiar term found in the writings of Hahnemann is powers. Very similar to potency, power means certain effects belong to the nature of a substance, eg, opium causes drowsiness because substances have powers and potency.

Disposition is another concept found in Hahnemann’s medical system which is central to Aquinas. (See Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2, page 195ff.)

Disposition lies between a potency and actuality. If I know French but am not using it right now, this is a disposition. Likewise, generosity or any other virtues.

We’ve often heard the term essence before, especially from the great George Vithoulkas – a Greek like Aristotle! This idea was taken from Avicenna (980-1037), the Arab philosopher. Avicenna’s use of the concept of essence was general, eg, humanity, but Aquinas developed this along with the idea of existence and used the idea of essence more succinctly allowing for the individual humanities of, say, Joe and Bill.

Telos, final cause and purpose
To understand a substance (perhaps a remedy) fully, according to Aristotle, one needs to understand its purpose or final cause; its telos. The efficient cause is the thing that brings something about; the sculptor who transforms a block of marble into a statue. This is only made sense of by the final cause; not so much as its purpose but that end towards which a thing is inherently ordered – thus an acorn will grow into an oak tree.

Definition of Teleology; from

A philosophy of teleology sees purpose in ends rather than stated causes, making the outcome the actual, or “final” cause. When you see things in terms of teleology, you explain actions by their results.

We can trace the origin of teleology to the Greeks: to teleos, meaning “complete,” and its root telos, meaning “result.” Then we add the suffix -logy, which means “logic,” or “reason.” The philosophy itself suggests that acts are done with a foregone purpose in mind — people do things knowing the result they wish to achieve. As Aristotle said, “Nature does nothing in vain.”

We can now appreciate that the great Hahnemann didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere, that he had the shoulders of giants to stand on. But Hahnemann wasn’t just an “armchair philosopher”, he experimented as well as thought things through, trained by his father as a child when locked in his room until he had solved a puzzle his father had set for him.

The question remains; how, why did Hahnemann decide to attenuate?

Further Reading
Apart from Feser’s books and Anthony Kenny’s mentioned here, the review below and the commentary below by Prof Brendan Purcell, see also Metaphysics: The Basics by Michael Rea.

Dr Silvia Waisse Priven has published a related article: click here

William Carroll’s review of Ed Feser’s new book “Scholastic Metaphysics” is worth referring to. Feser’s book provides a good critique of scientism and an explanation of Aristotelian and Thomsistic philosophy. Prof Carroll’s review is available here. Here’s a snippet from the review.

Near the beginning of the book, Feser proposes scholastic metaphysics as an alternative to what many see as the bipolar philosophical distinction between Kantian idealism and Humean empiricism. The former grants the existence of necessary metaphysical truths but locates their source in the mind. The latter emphasizes the primacy of sense experience in our knowledge of the world, but relies on what Feser calls a “desiccated” notion of experience. According to Feser, neither rationalism nor empiricism is sufficient to understand the world. Scholastic metaphysics offers a better way, in part because it recognizes the primacy of existence over cognition. Metaphysics is prior to epistemology, and too often modern thinkers have reversed this order.

After an initial chapter dedicated to the presuppositions, limitations, and errors of “scientism,” Feser turns to fundamental concepts in scholastic metaphysics, examining them in the light of analytical philosophy. Thus, we have chapters on act and potency, causation, substance, and essence and existence—all key elements in scholastic philosophy. The organization of the chapters reflects what Feser thinks is the order in which these different topics need to be addressed, starting with the fundamental question of act and potency. The distinction between the actual and the potential is from Aristotle, who thought that the intelligibility of the world and, in particular, of change, requires a clear grasp of the distinction between act and potency.

Feser points out that recent analytic philosophy has come to see the poverty of a Humean analysis, especially of causality, and now speaks of dispositions and powers in different substances. Although some of the terminology is new, Feser thinks that the debate over how to speak of actual substances and their characteristic activities is anticipated in scholastic metaphysics.In the beginning of the book, Feser promises to write another book on the philosophy of nature. This will be a welcome addition to his publications. Indeed, a problem that lurks behind the confusion in contemporary philosophy’s encounter with scholastic metaphysics is the loss of the sense of nature that is a characteristic starting point for Aristotle and Thomas. The loss of an understanding of substance, of form and matter, and of similarly foundational ideas are all part of the larger loss of what we mean by nature.

In defense of form and matter (hylemorphism), Feser takes on various forms of contemporary materialism and atomism. He thinks that contemporary criticisms of reductionism suffer from accepting broader metaphysical assumptions that exclude the categories of analysis found in scholastic metaphysics, categories that Feser argues offer a better grasp of reality. Feser argues that David Odeberg’s book, Real Essentialism, effectively critiques contemporary naturalism and demonstrates the enduring value of scholastic metaphysics.

Commentary and explanation
Here’s a few quick lines of summation kindly shared by Prof Brendan Purcell who knows about these things better than I do.

“The Aristotelian distinction of matter and form is a heuristic category, simply noting that every time we understand anything in the material world we live in, there’ll be a component in that understanding provided by our senses/perception/imagination, and a component provided by our intelligence.

“Basically, what we perceive is the element corresponding to matter, and what we understand is the element corresponding to form. Let’s say, all the observed elliptical orbits of the planets in their movements around the sun is the data or matter that we understand hypothetically could be an entire interrelated system. That possible reality would be the form. Finally, we could try to verify whether it makes sense to subsume all that data under the hypothesis of a system, and if the data keep checking out, then we’ve verified our hypothesis in the data and that reality of the solar system we’ve affirmed corresponds to the 3rd metaphysical element that Aquinas added to Aristotle’s matter and form, namely existence.

“Given these are heuristic elements, they don’t in themselves have any content, but have to be established by whatever cognitive techniques are relevant for this or that level of reality: different for physical, chemical, biological, botanical, zoological and human levels. I’m not sure if the metaphysical elements can be of much use for any more empirical inquiries, they’re more to do with the cognitive and ontological status of all inquiries.”

Or put another way…
“I’m following Bernard Lonergan here, the notion of heuristic means a method for finding out something. A common sense one would be for me if I mislay my watch, specs, whatever: have I checked under the bed, the bathroom, my desk–a rough list of where I should look. So when Aristotle developed the notion of matter and form he was formulating a general framework you’d use for trying to understand the basic constituents of any matter-based thing. The presumption is that any matter-based thing can be understood as the kind of thing it is, and that presumed understanding is what generically could be seen as its form.

“While the matter would be what’s given to our senses, what we perceive within the material world. Let’s say what can be perceived (via multiple observations) of all the elliptical orbits of all 8 (or 9 if you want to include Pluto) planets around the sun is the matter, while the understanding of what those multiple orbits in relation to the sun is the form, where that understanding is expressed in terms of what we call the Solar System, united by gravity. Of course the Solar System itself would become the ‘matter’ along with countless other stellar systems of which the form is what Edwin Hubble first understood to be the Milky Way Galaxy–people knew about the Milky Way for yonks, but long after Newton gave us the key to understanding the Solar System in terms of gravity, it took Hubble’s grasp of how all the billions of star systems form a single galaxy…

“Only trouble is that the matter/form heuristic doesn’t work all that well for realities whose form is spiritual, like human beings and human societies. This is because the ‘form’ of what makes us human, our intellectual soul, isn’t just the form of the human body, but is capable of reaching out to God and being reached into and divinized by God. Nor is what Aristotle considered to be the ‘form’ of a human polis or political society to be its constitution adequate to explaining what a human society is. This is because the form of a human society itself includes [in] its essence, even if not in the constitution, that, like the wider entity we know as humanity, is itself oriented towards God, beyond space, time and matter, and reached into by God. So the Irish, or US or UK or Russian or Chinese people are more than a merely this-worldly entity, but are united for the sake of reaching a human fulfilment beyond the merely this worldly and political…”

Credits: Hahnemann photo: Wikimedia

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