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Introduction to Scholastic Latin

Tuis ergo obsequiis, lector, si quis veritatis, non novitatis amator occurreris, haec quaecumque sunt, offerimus tuoque iudicio mancipamus, certi, quod si quid boni repereris, non nostrum esse, facile poteris apprehendere. Vale.

John Poinsot, Cursus Philosophicus – “Lectori”, Quarta Pars Philosophiae Naturalis

The study of Scholastic Latin—by which specifically we mean the Latin which emerged from the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th century and which lasted until the decline of the schools in the 17th century—presents several unique challenges. Most critical, however, is the philosophical and theological complexity which developed over its centuries. The great thinkers of the Scholastic tradition were often subtle, not only in their ideas but in how they expressed their thoughts.

One cannot truly learn Scholastic Latin, then, apart from some learning of its philosophy. Our Introduction to Scholastic Latin course—open to all enrolled members—has been designed with this truth in mind.

Overall Course Structure

This course is not intended for the faint of heart! Students should be generally familiar with the basics of Latin grammar and in possession of a core vocabulary before beginning the course. Enrolled members who have completed our Latin II course with a B+ or higher or Latin III with a B- and higher are eligible to participate. All others may take a placement test. (If you are not a member of the Lyceum Institute and wish to take our Scholastic Latin course, enroll by 22 August 2023 to take a placement test. Elementary courses will be offered starting in January 2024.)

We have divided this course into two parts, each of which will run for eight weeks. The first part will run from September 4 (9/4/23) through November 5 (11/5/23). The second will run from January 8 (1/8/24) through March 11 (3/11/24). In Part I, we will highlight several of the key grammatical and syntactical differences between Scholastic and Classical Latin. Students will become familiar with the structure of Scholastic writings and engage with key terminology of the Thomistic tradition. Part II will continue expositing some of the differences (particularly the “loosening” of several conventions) and introduce students to a wider variety of Scholastic authors.

The primary objective of the course is to instruct students in the competence of translating Scholastic Latin into English. Such focus will help us to unveil the philosophical insights of the texts examined. This is not a spoken-language course. Students will, however, have the opportunity to practice reading and pronouncing Latin, with focus on the Ecclesiastical pronunciation.

Weekly Schedule

Each week will feature a combination of readings and translation exercises. Translation exercises are to be completed and submitted before the week begins. Readings should be completed before class. Classes will focus on reading from assignments, sight-reading new material, and discussing the assignments, both as to grammar and philosophy. The instructor will provide expository materials on particularly difficult points of grammar and philosophy alike each week as well.

Required Texts

The primary text for this course is Randall J. Meissen, LC’s Scholastic Latin: An Intermediate Course.  This text includes H.P.V. Nunn’s Introduction to Ecclesiastical Latin, a grammar which succinctly illustrates many of the ways in which Scholastic Latin differs from Classical (and which students may wish to purchase separately for the sake of convenience).  Supplemental notes and readings will be provided by the instructor.  Students may also wish to purchase a copy of Dylan Schrader’s very brief Shortcut to Scholastic Latin.  All additional readings, including those used for Translation Exercises, will be provided by the instructor.

All of our Introductory Latin courses—including Introduction to Scholastic Latin—are included in every level of membership for the Lyceum Institute. See enrollment options here. Enroll by 22 August 2023 to participate in Scholastic Latin!

Lifelong Intellectual Development

The Lyceum Institute is dedicated to nurturing the habits of lifelong intellectual development through the use of digital technology, making high-quality education accessible to a meaningfully diverse community of like-intentioned persons. As a non-profit institution, we rely on the generosity of our supporters to continue providing exceptional learning experiences that foster genuine thinking and self-improvement. How do we provide this education and how can you help?

Higher Education

All of our programs are structured and conducted with the intent of building key habits of intellectual virtue: studiousness, diligence, orderliness, focus, knowledge, insight, and the humility to recognize, respect, and adhere to wisdom. These habits are cultivated in an atmosphere that emphasizes forming and asking questions—questions asked of others, of the tradition, of the present world, and most of all, of oneself. We cannot improve without knowing what we lack, and we cannot discover answers if we do not know the questions.

Traditional institutions of higher education remain invaluable, but insufficiently meet our current needs. Students must overcome obstacles of time, place, and considerable financial expense to attend such programs. Moreover, wars of ideological opposition, serving only to distract from an honest pursuit of the truth, have decimated the courses and curricula of many universities. By contrast, the digital environment of the Lyceum is flexible, affordable, and concerned with the inquiry into and discovery of what is true, regardless of its provenance or associations.

Members and Studies

Members of the Lyceum Institute come from a wide range of backgrounds and with a diversity of experience: factory workers and truck drivers, PhDs and medical doctors, students and retirees, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim; with backgrounds in the humanities and the sciences, with decades of study or just beginning—we all seek the same good and are bound by the common desire to know. Humility before true wisdom, possessed by none but loved by all, provides the foundation for our community.

Thus we commonly engage in studies of philosophy, literature and the arts, the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (though continually revising our understanding in light of the new technological paradigm), languages (with an emphasis on Latin), and keep open our doors for new thoughts.

Together we are building a new way of learning: one not constrained to a course of months or years, but which integrates itself into the whole of human life.

Since joining [the Lyceum Institute], I feel that I have found a place in the digital wasteland to call home: a home where I learn and discuss more about philosophy, the classics, art, theology and psychology; a home where my interests are taken seriously and given room to grow; a home where I find others living consciously, respectful of the thoughtfulness of others, motivated by the wisdom of the past, and wrestling with the answers for the future.

-Mark [see more testimonials here].

Broader Community

At the core of this new way of learning stands a principle of financial subsidiarity. Put simply, we do not want financial barriers to stand in the way of individuals serious about integrating their love of wisdom into daily life. Thus, we encourage all of our members who can to pay more, so that those who cannot, may still participate. But we also rely upon donations from the broader community to supplement this model of subsidiarity.

Every member that we gain is another light in the dark—brightening not only our own digital community, but bringing that light to friends and family and their local communities. Every donation we receive is fuel for those flames.

Even if membership is not right for you, you can help us to brighten the world. Donate to our Spring Fundraiser by 8 June 2023, Better Self-Critics, to help us reach our quarterly goal, or set up a recurring donation here.

On Definition and Language

“Nothing properly signifies itself.”

To signify: this is to convey something other, to something other. Signification thereby contrasts with representation by their respective extensions, which can be either “other-representation” or “self-representation”. When you see a portrait, this represents something other than itself, namely, the person portrayed. When you see that person herself, her visible being represents her very self. The good portrait accurately captures something of what is found in the self-representation. We measure portraits by their iconic sameness with their objects.

By contrast, when we read or hear words, an iconic sameness does not enter into their fittingness of other-representation. The word “sadness”, whether spoken or written, has nothing within its own being that corresponds to the emotion which it signifies. How then, does it signify that emotion? Some—deconstructionists—have opined that all such signification consists essentially in a willful imposition of the individual speaker; such that any auditor can willfully impose to the contrary. Were this true, it would be a disaster for human beings, for all solid meaning would disappear from our use of language. Definitions would be always ephemeral, always fragile. Thankfully, we do not need to fear the deconstructionists. We can, in fact, meaningfully define words. But we have to recognize that these definitions, though meaningful, are not absolute, nor do they possess an absolute fixity.

The Structure of Definition

John Poinsot—or John of St. Thomas—gives a definition of definition itself in his elementary logical texts. Here, I will ask some indulgence, for this is dry… but it also gives much-wanted precision. He writes:

Definition is “a linguistic expression explaining the nature of a thing or the signification of a term”. As for instance, if I say: “The human being is a rational animal”, I explain the nature of the human being, which is not explicated in the term “human”. And if I say: “White is having whiteness”, I do not explain the nature of “white”, but the signification of the noun, because this is the same as if I were to say: “‘White’ is a verbal signification of that which has whiteness”. The definition corresponds with the defined as its object, with which it is itself converted.

1631: Cursus Philosophicus, Artis Logicae Prima Pars, Summulae Lib.2, c.3 (R.I.19a 6–18): “Definitio est « oratio naturam rei aut termini significationem exponens ». Sicut cum dico: « Homo est animal rationale », naturam hominis epxlico, quae in illo termino ‘homo’ non explicabatur. Et cum dico: « Album est habens albedinem », non explico naturam albi, sed significationem nominis, quia idem est ac si dicam: « Album est vox significans id, quod habet albedinem ». Definitioni correspondet definitum tamquam obiectum eius, quod cum ipsa convertitur.”

In itself, this may not seem useful. But subsequently, Poinsot explains the conditions required for a good definition; the conditions required in order that something be defined; and finally, the divisions of definition into different kinds.

The three conditions for a good definition are: first, 1) that it proceed through genus and difference. Second, 2) that it be clearer than that which is being defined. And third, 3) that it should be neither redundant nor explain anything lesser in extension than the object defined.

The three conditions for something to be defined are: first, 1) that the object be one through itself, i.e., that it have a singular intelligible essence. Second 2), that it be universal and not include any conditions of individuality. Third, 3) that it be of a specific formal entity contained under some broader genus.

Finally, the divisions of definition fall into two categories, the second of which further subdivides into three. First, 1) there are nominal definitions. This is the kind of definition with which we are most familiar, for they are ubiquitous in our modern dictionaries. These definitions, like that given of “white” above, explain the signification of a term. Nominal definitions prove very useful: they help us to triangulate the meaning of words. And as Poinsot adds, etymology serves us greatly in producing good nominal definitions. But as he also writes, “often we are not able to explain the signification of a name except by making clear the thing itself.”

Thus, second 2), we have definitions of what things are (“quid rei”). These definitions divide into three categories: essential, descriptive, and causal. Essential definitions identify the intrinsic causal parts of a being: form and matter (also genus and species). Descriptive definitions orient toward what the essential being by identifying its proper accidents. Causal definitions specify extrinsic causal constitution: efficient and final causes.

Beyond the Structure of Definition

Merely stating the conditions and divisions of definition, however, gives us only the grounds for considering what makes definitions truly good. Many, for instance, might object to Poinsot’s conditions as being stuck in an antiquated cosmology of fixed and determinate biological species. Others might say, particularly given this apparent unfixity of the material cosmos, that our definitions never signify things, but only our ideas or concepts of them. Can we, that is, truly produce definitions that are essential? Can we have any definitions that are “real”—of things as they are in themselves? Or are all our definitions merely nominal—merely subjective?

Many today despair of being able to attain truth. The use of language appears as a pragmatic tool for communicating wants and needs, and painfully often, for manipulation of the audience. Artificial languages—those constituted by pure stipulation to signify with mathematic or programmatic precision—seem exemplary as means of such pragmatic and manipulative communication. But perhaps this despair springs not from the fallibility of our definitions, but our misunderstanding of definition itself. Perhaps, we ought to argue, a recovery of definition may be the only means to a recovery of truth.

Philosophical Happy Hour

If you would like to join us for a discussion of definitions, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

Exploration through Practical Signs

I apologize to the folks at the Lyceum for my long absence!  A new project that I’m beginning with my friend Fr. Cajetan Cuddy will hopefully help me to spin off some of this kind of content as I write on various Thomistic topics online.  But… I realize, also, that I’m not much of a “blogger.”  This is too long-form to be called that.  But, it is somewhat half-baked (perhaps three-quarter-baked), so it’s not quite “an article” either.  Ah, well….

Over here at the Lyceum, there is a great interest in the world of semiotics. And well… Here I find myself back close to the topic of the posting I made last year regarding extrinsic, formal causality and practical signs. For the upcoming annual American Maritain Association conference, I’m going to be giving a paper on the notion of practical signs, as a kind of draft for a chapter in a book I am (slowly….) writing.  I apologize for the conceptual overlap, but I think that an article laying out the theme in an essay by Maritain will be of use to the readers here.

Recovering the Practical Sign

The importance of doing this kind of recovery work regarding this topic is particularly clear to me. Based on conversations I had with our dear John Deely during his last days.  I’m sure a number of the readers here at the Lyceum are aware of the fact that early on in John’s life as an academic he had an important experience reading Maritain’s essay “Sign and Symbol,” published in French in Maritain’s Quatre essais sur l’esprit dans sa condition charnelle and in English in Redeeming the Time.  Although it was not the only factor leading to his later semiotic reflection, it was an important occasional cause that determined his later intellectual work.  In short: if John Deely could miss it, so will (and have) many others. 

Given the love of Deely here at the Lyceum, allow a bit of personal musing to open up this article.  One day at his house in Latrobe, John and I were talking about this or that—wherever his mind wished to traverse during those days when his powers had been hampered by his terminal illness.   As we were talking, I asked him: did you ever write anything explicitly about practical signs in John of St. Thomas?  He was a bit puzzled while trying to recall, and basically could not recount whether or not he did, though he did not believe that he did.

Truth be told, I somewhat expected this answer from him. I already had a sense that I couldn’t find this in his works. But afterwards, I went and checked as much as I could in his texts themselves and by way of a digital search of his works.  Obviously, his oeuvre is massive, so it is always possible that one might easily overlook something that is, in fact, contained somewhere in his works.  However, I could not find any substantive discussion of the topic of signa practica in those express terms and at any lengthy detail.  (It’s implicit in many places, but treatment of this theme in the Cursus theologicus of John of St. Thomas seems lacking.  I welcome any recovery projects that can show me where it is taken up by John in detail.  It would be an important point of continuity between his semiotic project and my own thought.)

Maritain’s “Sign and Symbol”

Thereafter I went back to read “Sign and Symbol” both in English and in French.  I was quite blown away by the central role, played by the topic of practical signification early in the essay, as well as in the lengthy endnotes included with the chapter.  I could not believe that John had overlooked this point, concerning which Maritain goes on at great length in the footnotes to the text.

As I work on this topic, I will be gathering together the various sources that I have stumbled across regarding the notion of practical sign.  Elsewhere, I will develop (in outline) some of the broader history of the language of “practical signs” as found in modern and medieval authors.  Here, in the spirit of connecting things to John Deely’s work, I am merely going to attempt to lay out Maritain’s own use of the term in “Sign and Symbol.”

If you have read this essay by Maritain, you are likely most familiar with the final section, dedicated to the notion of magical signs and “the nocturnal kingdom of the mind.”  In this latter section, Maritain is interested in developing the notion of functional “state” / “status” in order to provide a kind of epistemology of the human mind in a more primitive state, where the imagination (and cogitative power and memory) play a more emphatic role in the elaboration of knowledge than in a civilization in which abstract intellectual discourse has become culturally diffused.  The section is intended to develop certain themes in Lucien Lévy Bruhl and other authors concerned with questions of anthropology, as well as in Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Although this closing section of Maritain’s essay includes some important points regarding practical signs, I will be focusing on his earlier remarks therein, as well as his citations and comments in the end notes to the chapter.

At the start of the essay, Maritain opens with some standard discussion of signs as we find it in John of St. Thomas (Poinsot).  The readers here at the Lyceum are, deeply exposed to this topic, so I’m going to presume that you are at least generally aware of the important general outlines of Poinsot’s semiotics, especially as found in the Material Logic.  If I would point out one additional element, that is rather important here, Maritain notes how the (vicarious) objective causality involved in signs involves a kind of new mode or presence, the presence of knowability: through and in signs, precisely in their role of being signs, that which is signified becomes present, in a new manner of existing (p. 193).  Interesting developments of this theme can be found also in Maritain’s essay on language, found in the latter’s definitive form in the edition put together by Deely.  Through and in signs, other beings are themselves present, though in alio modo esse, through a cognitional (intentional-objective) presence.

Definition of the Practical Sign

Now, what is it that is signified by practical signs?  Action. For our purposes right now: human action involving above all the practical intellect, which judges and commands concerning the order that a human will should and must have in its activity.   Here it is important to note that technically the will plays an important role in constituting practical signs.  (So important is this factor that some, like Bl. Duns Scotus, would even go so far as to say—incorrectly to the Thomist’s eyes—that there are certain relations created by the will.) Nonetheless, insofar as the object of the practical intellect “is a known object, is something to be put into existence, something to be made concrete in action” (p. 195), the will plays a special role in the objectivity of practical signs.  Practical signs are destined to manifest “an intention of the intellect and the will” (197).  In other words, such signs are those which are used by the intellect in practical knowledge—whether artistic or moral—and are those signs which derive from the practical intellect’s activity (p. 197), which is destined, by its very nature, to be the (extrinsic-formal) source of the very intelligibility of the will.

So, practical signs are used by the practical intellect and also derive from its activity.  Thus, everywhere that there is human activity, we could say that the intelligibility of moral reasoning (and technical-artistic reasoning as well…) leaves an entire train of intelligibility in its wake.  You might think, for example, of something as simple as the plants that are sitting in the bay window of my office. They were put together by my mother-in-law for my kids to have something to watch grow as we enter spring this year. Technically, those plants have their own intelligibilities that can be manifested to intellects that are prepared to see such data.  However, we can also understand these plants as calling to mind the moral choice (and command) effected by my mother-in-law.   In other words, the planter (constituted as a kind of “moral whole”) can bring to mind something other than itself: not merely my mother-in-law, not merely other plants, but an act of human moral-intellection and freedom.  And what is more, this kind of sign represents a sort of “invitation” for my own moral intellection: “go and do likewise.”  In other words, we can apprehend the little planter as having a unified moral species, being as it is the embodiment of a past action.  It is not merely a physical specimen.  It is a moral specimen, and it signifies something other than itself, namely a particular kind of beauty-infused generosity toward by children.

Now, in “Sign and Symbol,” Maritain notes both natural-practical signs and conventional ones.  (One cannot help but think of Thomas Reid here, but ultimately Maritain is doing something much more speculatively grounded.)  Natural signs would include, he says, things like “gestures of supplication and command; smiles and glances laden with some intention or other,” etc.. (There are important connections here to what John Deely says, in Introducing Semiotics, about the various “entia rationis” that are formed by animals’ powers of estimation.)   Among conventional signs, Maritain includes “signs employed for the control of traffic or to aid navigation; gestures and formulas for taking oaths; military insignia; religious rites; etc.” (p. 197). (Here too, related topics can be found in Introducing Semiotics, and peppered all throughout Deely’s works.  Moreover, too, there are some examples of interest in the works of sacramental theology by Louis Billot, whose theory of sacramental causality is, however, problematic.)

Causality of the Practical Sign

At this point, however, it is very important not to commit the error that one finds all too often in more-superficial accounts of what practical signs are.  Under pressure from the needs of sacramental theology, especially regarding sacraments in the Christian order (in contrast, for example, to “sacraments of the Old Law”), quicker summaries of the divisions of sign will tend to ambiguously slur together sign-causality (which is “vicarious objective causality”) and efficient causality.  A good example of this can be found in the relatively schematic and sketched-out words of the 16th-17th century Irish-Bohemian Franciscan Friar Francis O’Devlin: “A speculative sign is that which causes its significate [in knowledge], as smoke in relation to fire and words in relation to things.  A practical sign is one that together causes and signifies, as the sacraments in relation to grace” (Philosophia Scoto-Aristotelica Universa [1710, p. 450]).

Or, in a more rigorously structured form, consider the following objection and response in John of St. Thomas’s Cursus theologicus.  In the argument he proposes against his own position, it is denied that the notion of sacrament as such (thus in its broadest acceptation, including more than the sacraments of the New Law) would be a practical sign, for this would seem, the “interlocutor” says, to foist efficient causality even on to sacraments of the Old Law, which, in fact, did not themselves involve efficient causal power. They did not of themselves confer such grace but, instead, merely signified the salvation that was to come in Christ (see ST III, q. 62, a. 6; q. 60, a. 2, ad 2; q. 61, a. 3).  They were be external signs of the internal working of God; however, they were not (according to the Thomist jargon), separated efficient-causal instruments of the Incarnate Word.

We are not here concerned with the details of the scholastic-theological theories of sacramental causality but, instead, with the particular claims regarding practical signs deployed in such debates.  Thus, Poinsot presents to himself this objection:

The notion of practical sign consists precisely in the fact that it brings about what it signifies (efficiat id quod significat).  However, not all sacraments bring about what they signify. Therefore, not all of them are practical signs.  The major premise of this argument is proven as follows: if a practical [sign] does not bring about what it signifies, it is, then to be numbered among speculative signs (invenitur in speculativis signis). Therefore, it is necessary that it involves something more than merely representing what it signifies; now, this additional element is to effect, that is, practically bring about (practicare) and enact (operari) that which it signifies.  Thus, it is necessary that a practical sign bring about what it signifies, for otherwise it is not clear what the notion of “practical” involves in such signs (Cursus theologicus, vol. 9 [Vivès], q. 60, disp. 22, a. 2, no. 116).

To this Poinsot responds, retaining the notion of practical sign for all sacraments, whether of the “law of nature” (outside of the Mosaic Covenant), the “Old Law,” or the “New Law”:

That a practical sign brings about what it signifies must not be understood as referring to physical and productive efficacy in esse (for this is not required for the notion of that which is practical) but rather refers to a quasi-moral efficacy—that is, a causality directing and ordering to an end.   And thus, the fact that a practical sign brings about what it signifies cannot involve something different than what holds true for the practical intellect.  Now, just as the practical intellect does not need to productively bring about something in order that it be practical but, rather, does so, as it were, by ordering and directing (and according to a moral ratio), the same holds true for the sign derived from practical intellection.  Thus, when a given sign is practical, this consists in the fact that it signifies, though not having representation as its end but, rather, sanctification or a holy work (opus sanctitatis).  However, that it bring about what it signifies and have [this] as its end is not of the essence of precisely what it is to be practical sign (non est de essential practice ut practicum est), though it is possible that such causality be found with it (ibid., no. 117).

Pushing the point, however, the objector says that such moral causality must, nonetheless, be in the genus of efficient causality:

A moral cause is truly efficacious.  Now, the practical intellect is concerned with deeds as its end, precisely as a moral cause, for it morally brings about what it signifies.  Therefore, by being practical, it is to be placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least morally.   Thus, just as it is of the essence of the sacrament to be a practical sign, it will also be of the essence of a sacrament to be a cause, and thus placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least moral efficient causality (ibid., no. 118).

In response to this:

Absolutely speaking, it does not belong to the nature of that which is practical that it be the moral cause of its object.  For as St. Thomas says in ST I, q. 14, a. 16, God has, simply speaking, practical knowledge of evils, but is not said to be the moral cause of evil.  Therefore, it suffices that the practical intellect order its object to a given work and not come to its end in knowledge of a reality, having it as its end.  However, it does not require that such ordering function as a cause in the manner of an efficient-causal principal but, rather, as ordering to an end that is a work, whether or not from this fact it is said to cause the latter (ibid. no. 119).

Thus, by way of summary, we might take his remarks earlier in the disputation in question:

The ratio of practical sign merely requires that it signify its significate as something to be given in practice, not by the causality of the sign itself but by the causality of another cause, though signified by this sign. For the ratio of sign merely requires the signifying of causation, not the causing of that which is signified. In other words, it suffices that it signify a reality not precisely so that it be represented or precisely as it is representable [as would be the case in speculative signs] but, instead, as it is caused and given [through practical agency] (ibid., no. 83).


The ratio of practical sign does not come from the fact it would exercise efficacy precisely because of its very nature as a sign (ex ipsa ratione signi), as though it had in itself the power of effecting but, rather, that is ordered to a work as to its principal end, whether this work is brought about by means of a power communicated to the sign itself, or joined to it from without, that is, by means of a disposition by the one who uses it, or something similar, as was explained earlier, especially since it is not of the nature of the practical intellect that it should have efficiency in the external object itself (ibid., no. 43; on the last point, cf. nos. 119–120).

Therefore, the point is clear: efficient causality is one thing, signifying causality is another.  And no matter how much one increases the force of the vicarious objective causality of signs, one will not get, from the causality of signs precisely as signs, a causality belonging to a different genus of causality. Although someone like Louis Billot, SJ had much of interest to indicate regarding the way that practical signs can, for example, bestow particular ranks and functions upon those designated by those signs (cf. Billot, De ecclesiae sacramentis [1914], 66ff), nonetheless, his solution, which posits a kind of half-way house of “intentional” causality seems to buy its sacramental causality on the sly, by trying to fuse together aspects of vicarious objective causality and efficient causality into a kind of hybrid. (On this topic, see Maquart, “De la causalité du signe: Réflexions sur la valeur philosophique d’une explication théologique.”)

Now, all that has been said here is summarized well by Maritain in “Sign and Symbol”:

In order to be practical, the intellect does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as intellect.  It is within these limits, remaining intellect and without passing over to nervous motor influx that the intellect exercises its practical functions and deserves to be practical.

So also, in order to be practical the sign does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as sign and thus become an efficient cause.  It is by remaining within the genus proper to signs (formal causality) that it exercises a practical function and deserves to be called practical: as making manifesting not precisely a thing but an intention and a direction of the practical intellect.  It is not as itself causing or operating something that the sign is active; it is as conducting or directing the operation by which the thing signified is produced or caused (Maritain, “Sign and Symbol,” 197).

For the purposes of this “article”, I will leave things here. As I keep writing, I will put together the various sources that are implicit in much of what I have said. There are a number of exegetical, historical, and philosophically speculative issues involved in these matters. They are of pivotal importance for articulating the nature of cultural realities. It is a great disappointment that the topic has not been discussed in any significant detail in the Thomist mainstream. Let us at least hope that those of us who take John Deely as a kind of master will do him the homage of filling out this important aspect of our day-to-day life amid the activity of the semiotic animal that is man.

Note from Dr. Kemple: if you are interested in John Poinsot’s semiotic, sign up for this seminar!

Semiotics: The Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot

What is a sign? It is a deceptively difficult question—deceptive because we think we know when we have never bothered truly to ask the question. We believe that we see and hear signs everywhere: guiding our use of streets, telling us where to exit, the location of the bathroom, what dangers might lie ahead, and so on. But in truth, though we experience signification in these instances, the things we identify as the “signs”—the on the street corner, the glowing plastic “EXIT” over a fire door, the nondescript white silhouette of a representatively feminine shape over one door, the print of a large clawed mammal in soft dirt—are only a part of the signs that we experience. The truth hides in a reality far more complex and far more interesting. Discovery and understanding of this hidden reality impacts our understanding of the whole universe, and of ourselves not least of all.

We name this a seminar in “semiotics”, and so one might expect that it concerns thinkers and issues raised no earlier than the late 19th or early 20th centuries, at which time Charles Sanders Peirce (10 September 1839—1914 April 19) retrieved the term from its neglected proposal in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. But—while certainly we will be concerned with many of the issues that preoccupied Peirce and his successors—we find their genesis not in the twilight of modernity, but the twilight instead of the Latin Age. For Peirce was inspired in much of his thinking by the Conimbricenses, a 16th-17th century semi-anonymous group of Jesuit scholars who wrote extensively and profoundly on signs. These same Conimbricenses were, moreover, the teachers of João Poinsot, variously known also as Juan de S. Thoma, Joannes a Sancto Thoma, John of St. Thomas, or, in our usage here, John Poinsot (9 July 1589—1644 June 15).

Poinsot, who took the religious name Joannes a Sancto Thoma upon entering the Dominican Order in 1610 to signify his fidelity to the great saint’s thought, died just six years before René Descartes (31 March 1596–1650 February 11) and yet, despite a much greater profundity of thought and insight, has remained relatively unknown (at least when compared to his French counterpart). Indeed, where Descartes began in earnest the Modern Age of philosophy, with its characteristic Way of Ideas, Poinsot brought to a close the Latin Age. Their relative fame and obscurity to history follow from complex causes. One of these, no doubt, is that while Descartes wrote short and accessible texts, Poinsot crafted both a Cursus Philosophicus and an (incomplete) Cursus Theologicus—each many thousands of pages.

Within this Cursus Philosophicus we find a textually-dispersed but nevertheless conceptually-united Tractatus de Signis, a Treatise on Signs [required]. This treatise has been extracted, arranged, translated, and editorialized in an edition by John Deely (26 April 1942—2017 January 7), first published in 1985 and again in 2013. A careful examination of this text reveals that, while Poinsot may have been the “evening star” of the Latin Age, he proves also the “morning star” of the new, genuinely post-modern era, the Age of Relation. In this seminar, we will study this Tractatus de Signis with close attention. Access to the seminar begins on 18 March 2023.


Discussion Sessions

2:15pm ET

(World times)
Study Topics &

(required in bold)
Copy of the Tractatus de Signis is required. Available from St. Augustine’s Press or other booksellers (1st edition acceptable).
18 March—April 8Preparatory Phase:
All participants are expected to read widely from a selection of articles and texts—including reading required texts in advance—while joining in communal textual discussion.

No discussions are scheduled during this phase, but it is pivotal for entering correctly into the active discussion phase (15 April—June 10).
Week 1: Preliminaries: Entry into the Tractatus
Lecture: An Abbreviated History of Semiotics
» Poinsot 1632: Tractatus de Signis (TDS) 4–39.
» Deely 1994: “A Morning and Evening Star”
» Deely 2009: Augustine & Poinsot, 3–59.
» Kemple 2022: “Augustine: Instituting the Given Sign” and “Aquinas: The Metaphysics behind Semiosis”.
Week 2: Cognition-Dependent Being
Lecture: Entia Rationis and the Constitutive Acts of the Mind
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 40–76.
» Maritain 1959: Degrees of Knowledge, 118–44.
» Doyle 1994: “Poinsot on the Knowability of Beings of Reason”.
Week 3: Relational Being
Lecture: The Nature and Kinds of Relation
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 78–112.
» Deely 1985: “Editorial Afterword” in TDS, 472–89.
Week 4: Sign-Relations
Lecture: The Being Proper to Signs
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 114–52.
» Deely 1990: “Signs: The Medium of Semiosis” in Basics of Semiotics.
» Kemple 2022: “Poinsot: The Essence of the Sign”.

Week 5: Triadic Elements of the Sign-Relation
Lecture: Cognitive Powers and Objects
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 153–92.
» Deely 2009: Purely Objective Reality, 14–37.
Week 6: The Causality and Extension of Signs
Lecture: The Degrees of Specifying Causality
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 193–219.
» Deely 1994: New Beginnings, 151–82.
Week 7: Division of Signs, Part I
Lecture: Toward an Understanding of Concepts
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 220–61.
» Beuchot 1994: “Intentionality in John Poinsot”.
Week 8: Division of Signs, Part II
Lecture: Toward an Understanding of Language
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 262–83.
» Maritain 1957: “Language and the Theory of Sign”.
10 June—July 2Writing Phase:
All participants in the seminar are not only encouraged but expected to submit an essay of no less than 3000 words pertaining to the Tractatus de Signis of Poinsot.

The essay may be evaluated for publication in Reality.


Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

One payment covers all 8 weeks.

This is an advanced seminar, tantamount to a graduate course in difficulty and intensity. Students should be familiar with the Scholastic and especially Thomistic traditions, or at the very least, with the semiotic work of John Deely.

Registration is closed — thank you for your interest and perhaps we’ll see you in one of our upcoming seminars!

Pricing Comparison

Standard priceBasic Lyceum
Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
Benefactor$200 per seminar$903 seminars included
$90 after
8 seminars included
$90 after
Patron$135 per seminar$653 seminars included
$65 after
8 seminars included
$65 after
Participant$80 per seminar$403 seminars included
$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after

Seminar Catalog for 2023

The year 2022 saw the Lyceum offer a spate of diverse and fascinating seminars. so how can we top this wonderful past year of seminars? Why, with a new year of wonderful seminars, of course! We are covering a broad range of thinkers and ideas this year: Aristotle, Aquinas, John Henry Newman, John Poinsot, Yves Simon, Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy—and more. Introducing our seminar catalog for 2023:

2023 Seminar Catalog

W I N T E R (JANUARY—APRIL)Instructors
» Ethics: Virtue» Dr. Brian Kemple
» Aquinas’ Cosmological Vision» Dr. Brian Kemple
» Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate – Part I» Dr. Kirk Kanzelberger
» John Henry Newman in Four Books» Dr. Scott Randall Paine
» Semiotics: The Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot» Dr. Brian Kemple
» Phenomenology: an Introduction» Drs. Daniel Wagner and Brian Kemple
» Politics: A Thomistic Defense of Democracy» Dr. Francisco Plaza
» Ethics: The Moral Noetic of the Natural Law» Dr. Matthew Minerd
» Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate – Part II» Dr. Kirk Kanzelberger
» Thomistic Psychology: Habits and World» Dr. Brian Kemple
» Phenomenology: The Contribution of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy» Dr. Scott Randall Paine
» Phenomenology: Heidegger’s Method – Part I» Dr. Brian Kemple

These seminars are open to the public, but enrolled members of the Lyceum Institute are offered discounted fees. Each lasts 8 weeks and includes the opportunity for an in-depth engagement with important philosophical questions. Anyone with a serious commitment to the truth is welcome. Our instructors are among the very best and bring decades of insight, wisdom, and experience in teaching. Download the Seminar Catalog for full descriptions of each seminar.

Details (dates, times, syllabi, required books, and in-depth descriptions) and registration for each seminar will be posted approximately one month before they begin. Keep your eyes here for news about Ethics: Virtue and Aquinas’ Cosmological Vision this weekend—and consider enrolling!

Pricing Comparison

Standard priceBasic Lyceum
Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
Benefactor$200 per seminar$903 seminars included
$90 after
8 seminars included
$90 after
Patron$135 per seminar$653 seminars included
$65 after
8 seminars included
$65 after
Participant$80 per seminar$403 seminars included
$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after

Latin Courses for 2023

If you have ever wanted to learn Latin, or to improve your already-existing abilities with the language, we have lots of options for you in 2023! We have set the calendar for our Latin Courses in 2023. This includes three Foundations Elementary courses (comprising a total of 36 weeks), which teach the basics and three Selected Readings courses, which comprise a variety of selections in prose and poetry, Scholastic writings, and the Moral Epistles of Seneca the Younger. Our wide range of Latin offerings enables students to grow in understanding and confidence of the language.

Elementary Latin I10 January – April 18 (Tuesdays)6:00–7:00pm ET (New York)
Elementary Latin II10 January – April 18 (Tuesdays)7:30–8:30pm ET
Elementary Latin III9 May – July 25 (Tuesdays)7:30–8:30pm ET
Seneca’s Epistles13 April – June 22 (Thursdays)6:00–7:00pm ET
Scholastic Latin29 August – November 21 (Tuesdays) 10:30–11:30am ET
Prose & Poetry14 September – November 16 (Thursdays)6:00–7:00pm ET

All of our class sessions are recorded, so if a student must miss a session or two, they can still review the material. However, because language requires practice, attendance at classes is required. This policy also helps students keep pace with one another and builds community among participants.

Participation in all three Elementary courses and in Scholastic Latin is included at every level of enrollment, while a nominal fee is required for Seneca’s Epistles and Prose & Poetry. Elementary courses are offered annually, and can be re-taken as often as desired. One cannot enroll for these courses without being a member of the Lyceum Institute.

If you are interested in Latin, you can learn more about our approach here (and contact our Director of Languages, Richard Sharpe). We hope you will consider enrolling and studying with us in 2023!

Education and Digital Life

The Founding Declaration of the Lyceum Institute, Education and Digital Life, has now been published in paperback, along with a series of related essays written by Faculty and Board Members of the Institute. This slim volume (117 pages) outlines the why for the Lyceum Institute’s existence as well as the manner in which it pursues its goals for education.

Here is an excerpt from the Declaration itself:

“All human beings, by nature, long for knowledge.”[1]  Composing the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, these are words familiar to many, and have rightfully inspired reflection for millennia: reflections on human nature and operations, as well as the good at which we, commonly human, are aimed.  To long for knowledge: this is not merely to want knowledge for some ulterior motive—making money, gaining power, defeating your enemies—but for its own sake.  We want to know because knowledge fulfills us, because it satisfies a need we experience, a need we suffer in every encounter with our own ignorance.  This longing is what Aristotle meant, and this fulfillment by knowledge, indeed, is what we long for by nature.

Many, both in the present and in decades and ages past, have suffered a diverting and anesthetizing of this longing by the proliferation of easier and lesser pleasures: why read, when you can watch a documentary; and why watch a documentary, when you can watch a comedy?  In the ubiquity of immersive entertainment media—radio giving way to television, to the internet, to streaming shows and movies seeping through every device in our homes—the slide into the ease of unthinking pleasure appears obvious.  But the diversion of our natures from their proper good occurs not only through our entertainments and pleasures, but is further fostered today even by the supposed institutions of learning—even, or perhaps especially, the most vaunted—which have themselves departed the path along which knowledge is sought, and instead flung themselves down the slippery slope of merely conveying standardized sets of information, or, far worse, disguising social activism in the garb of intellectual enrichment (the latter being merely the logical conclusion of abandoning, among other truths, the centrality of classical logic).  Rather than learning to discover what is through their own efforts, therefore, students are taught to receive and retain pre-packaged information about what is (or what is purported to be—no matter how discordant those claims from the cognition-independent reality), so that they might serve as functionaries for how we want ‘what is’ to be: information discovered, interpreted, and arranged by others, to the occlusion of—and thereby depriving us the freedom to ask—that most-human of questions, “What is that?”

Is this knowledge?  Is it learning?  We desire to know; but is that the same as receiving information, pre-determined, pre-packaged for us?  The currently common view of the universe—a reductionist view that posits the most-elemental parts of matter to be the truest reality, such that all other phenomena are merely various configurations thereof—holds that knowledge amounts indeed to nothing more than an organization of information; that our ability to know consists in the right configuration of parts in our minds, or even more reductionistically, our brains; and that what we signify by “information” is only a certain abstract descriptor of this configuration…

Is the mind “what the brain, body, and world around us” collectively do?  Perhaps that is true, in some way; but it is not very helpful for understanding what the mind really is, especially as something distinguished from the brain, body, and world.

No.  No thinking person can accept this flattening, this levelling out of what we know from our own experience to be different.  The mind is manifestly something more than any of its contributory sources or its necessary, integral parts, and—rather than by an enumeration or description of its materially-constitutive parts—we know any object of our inquiry best by discerning its characteristic action.

The action of the mind consists fundamentally in the seeking and understanding of the world in the light of knowledge; and knowledge subsists as a relation to the intelligible truth of objects themselves—the relation whereby is grasped the articulable reality of what is.  This seeking unfolds through observation and a questioning after what is observed: that is, observation and questioning which begets recognition that the things observed have explanations, causes, beyond what the observations themselves entail; and the subsequent attempt to discover those causes to better explain the observed effects.  The phenomena of our experience, in other words, are not self-explanatory, and what we mean by “knowledge” is just such explanation: the grasp of the causes, not merely inchoate, but in a manner that both the causes themselves and the grasp of them can be verbally expressed.  These explanations must be worked out with trial and error, with continued recursion to certain principles—which themselves must be discovered with some difficulty—with experimentation, reflection, and most of all a habit of inquiry; to continue questioning, again and again, seeking always to better understand what we have revealed, always seeking better to grasp the relation between cause and effect.

It is this knowledge, which grows into wisdom, that all human beings desire.

[1] i.348-30bc: Μετά τα Φυσικά, 980a21.
[2] Steven Pinker 1997: How the Mind Works, 21.

Education and Digital Life – purchase your copy today!


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Reclaiming Wisdom – Summer Fundraising Campaign

Reclaiming Wisdom – Perennial Truths for the Digital Age

Once the center of Western culture, the University has lost its way.  For centuries, it was a force both stabilizing and civilizing, training young minds to discover the perennial truths by which they were elevated above the merely material concerns of our baser nature.  The University was a center of wisdom, guiding us to the principles by which we ought all to live. 

Today, however, we observe a culture in decay, and the root cause is the University itself… [read more]

The universities have abandoned the pursuit of wisdom for that of skills, for profits, for worldly success, for the latest ideological fashions.  What they have abandoned, we will reclaim.

The past two years have seen the Lyceum Institute continue to grow, develop, and has resulted in excellent work being done by our Faculty Fellows.  As our members and friends alike know, the Lyceum has not only already accomplished a great deal, but has the potential to do much more.  While money makes nothing happen of itself, it does help to remove some impediments for those striving to realize that potential.

And so, this summer, from June through August, we are ambitiously striving to raise $10,000.  We would be enduringly grateful to anyone who helps us reach that goal—or even just to reach towards it.  As a not-for-profit organization, we rely on the generous donations of supporters like yourself.  

Reclaiming Wisdom

Support the Lyceum Institute in providing access to perennial truths for the digital age and fostering a love and pursuit of wisdom through a community dedicated to bettering our philosophical habits.