The Problem of the "One and Many"

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In a quest to inquire into being, metaphysics is confronted by one fundamental question that; is reality constituted by one being or are there many beings? This question establishes the central problem of metaphysics that is known as the problem of the ‘one’ and ‘many’. Parmenides who first dealt with the nature of being and considered ‘being as being’ as the source of unification of all reality, held that “ultimately there exists a One Being”. It follows that this being is changeless, indivisible and is the source of sameness insofar as it is one; nothing differs from it. Hence, according to Parmenides, the senses deceive us in reporting reality as many. This doctrine of seeing reality as one is called ‘monism’. On the other hand, empirists also hold a pluralistic view of reality when they reject the notion of being and favour the reality of observable or concrete beings existing positively. Many philosophers endeavor to give a philosophical solution to the aforementioned problem that takes into account both doctrines, monism and pluralism. St. Thomas Aquinas is credited with providing such a solution to the problem of the one and many.

It is precisely the objective of this paper to discuss the one and many as a metaphysical problem vis-à-vis the solution proposed by Aquinas. To do this, we shall firstly present the nature of the problem in relation to Parmenides’ earliest view of being. Further we shall expose the standpoint of Plato who earlier made strides in a bid to solve the problem. Lastly, we will discuss the solution suggested by Aquinas. Exposition of the problem and Parmenides’ view of being

Common sense experience affirms that there are distinct beings existing in reality. Regardless of the differences subsisting among concrete beings, they are similar and related by one common denominator that is ‘actual existence’. Thus, beings are identical by the fact that they exist and distinct simply on grounds that each being ‘is’ insofar as it is not the other. From this observation we can derive two underlying elements that lie beneath the notion of being. These are distinction and similarity. When we analyze and assert the elements separately we are able to discover that each element constructs a concept of its own pertaining the nature of being. For instance, the affirmation of distinction within being implies multiplicity of being or being as ‘many’. Equally, when we approve of similarity in being, the resultant concept affirms being as ‘one’ insofar as nothing negates this sameness of being. Meanwhile, the simultaneous affirmation of the said elements demonstrates that, the sum total of being is both one and the many. The preceding observation poses a great challenge on how to reconcile the affirmation of distinction in being which imply plurality, on one hand, and similarity in the same being which signify oneness of being, on the other hand. The potential danger of affirming either one of the concepts results in a monistic or pluralistic conception of being. As noted earlier, Parmenides who negated diversity within being as this would imply that reality is a composition of distinct beings, fell prey to the former doctrine. Nonetheless, his contention that being cannot differ from being unless by non-being. And that, insofar as non-being is nothing, not real, it cannot differentiate being, thus reality cannot be many, exerts an enormous challenge on the task of philosophers to prove the reality of non-being so as to account for the multiplicity of being. Plato’s standpoint on the problem of the one and many

Plato somehow agrees with Parmenides that in order to account for the multiplicity of being, being cannot differ from being by being because it is the same being in question. Rather only by non-being can it differ. In contrast with the aforesaid Parmenides’ argument, Plato argues that “what 'is not' in some sense also 'is'”. According to Plato non-being is real in the sense that it is an...
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