concept vs. 'limiting idea'

On the difference between
concept and limiting idea 
from Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality [amzn] [ndp]
Chapter 10, section 6, p.224-227 (with minor edits)

Since our view is that God’s being can’t be conceived, perhaps some have mistakenly supposed this means we can't frame the idea of unconditional reality. Here's an explanation of the difference between a concept and a limiting idea that should help clarify.

When we form a concept we combine in thought a number of properties of whatever it is we’re conceiving. This is why the contents of a concept can be parsed, analyzed, and made specific. A concept, of course, also includes the relation(s) in which its content (properties) are taken to stand to one another, which is why a definition is the linguistic statement of the contents of a concept.

By contrast, a/n (limiting) idea of something is not a combination of its properties, but is our awareness of something that comes about via the relations in which it stands to other things. For example, the property 'red' is not able to be analyzed into any constituent elements because there aren’t any. That’s also why it can’t be defined in a so-called real definition.

A real definition of red would be one by which you could know its color quality from the definition alone. It will not do to offer a circumscription such as “the hue we see when our eyesight is normal and we are exposed to light of such and such wavelength.” We would already have to know what red looks like to be able to set its wavelength parameters. The same holds for other attempts such as “the color of blood or of a ruby” etc.

We know red by contrasting it to other colors, not by combining its constituent elements into a concept. The meta-properties that qualify the various aspects (spacial, physical, sensory, biotic, etc.) are similar in this regard to colors. We have limiting ideas of them, not concepts of them. We come to know them by encountering specific properties of things as further qualified by such meta-properties.

For example, we experience a particular shape as spatial, or a particular instance of hardness as physical, or a particular case of ingestion as biotic, etc. And we distinguish the meta-properties by comparing them to one another, unable as we are of forming even a limiting idea of any of them in isolation from all the others. We also need to keep in mind that limiting ideas can have more or less content; some can be formed by stripping away part of the contents and relations found in concepts. When we form an idea in that way we often use the same term for both the concept and for the idea derived from it, so it becomes important not to shift back and forth between the two sorts of knowledge without realizing it.*

If there is doubt about whether there really is such idea-knowledge as distinguished from concept-knowledge, consider the following example of a limiting idea: numbers no one ever has or will ever conceive of. Since the series of natural numbers is infinite, it is necessarily true that there will always be some numbers no human ever conceives of. But did we just conceive of such numbers by saying that? Surely not. It’s impossible to conceive of any of them, for any number we conceive of is thereby excluded from the class picked out by this limiting idea.

Here, then, is a case of a limiting idea, not a concept. We have the idea that there are such numbers, but no concept of exactly what any of them are. This idea has less content than ideas of, say, colors or the aspectual qualifiers I called meta-properties, but there is still some content to it. All unconceived numbers would still be quantities of some sort and stand in various mathematical relations to other quantities. (This fits with the earlier part of my account when I said that the content of an idea is known via the relations it has to other things of which we have concepts or ideas.) In this same way, yet other ideas can be formed that have even less content than these examples. But they are made possible by the fact that their contents stand in relations to the contents of concepts or ideas which have more content than they do.

Our awareness of existence is, I contend, one of these ideas. Now the idea of existence is a notoriously difficult one, and I will not pretend to resolve here the knotty debates that surround it. I will only try to make clear why I say that it is a limiting idea. No one doubts that we derive our awareness of existence from our experience of the world around us. The term “exist” literally means “to stand out from,” or be distinct from. It reflects the fact that we come to recognize that something 'is' by distinguishing it from other things.

But the existence of something cannot be defined as its ability to be picked out; that is at best a circumscription of it. The fact that we can distinguish a thing is made possible by the fact that it exists, not the other way round. As a result, even the literal meaning of the word “exist” does not name what we are really after when we use it, but points beyond its own meaning to the fact of existence which lies behind it and makes it possible.

To complicate things further, it seems that the existence of each thing we confront in experience is uniquely individual to that thing. It is not a quality a thing possesses alongside its other qualities, because a thing would have to exist in order to possess qualities. And it certainly is not a universal quality shared by more than one thing; two or more things do not have the same existence. (The distinguishability of things which forms the literal meaning of “exist” may be shared, but not the fact of their existence which makes them distinguishable.)

For these reasons, I think that existence is not something we ever really conceptualize. It is an unanalyzable, indefinable, basic factor of creation which we confront in our experience, which we are unable to grasp in a concept, and of which we have only a limiting idea.

When we speak of God’s self-existence, then, we are applying to God our limiting idea of existence which is thereby stripped even further of content: it is existence which does not depend on anything in any way, is outside time, and is not governed by any law that holds for creatures. It is thus a limiting idea that is almost entirely negative, for even the property of being “distinguishable” is true of God only in His relation to creation, since aside from what He has created there would be nothing for Him to be distinguished from.

What is left of the idea is only this: God’s unconditional being is what all else depends on for existence; God can be no matter what, while without God nothing else can be at all. Thus while it is beyond us to grasp conceptually what that being is, we can have the idea that there is ultimate, unconditional being upon which all else stands in the relation of total dependence. As a result, we are brought back to the statement of St. Basil that “We do not know what God is, but only what he is not and how he relates to creatures.”

The upshot is that we do have both conceptual knowledge and idea knowledge of God with respect to His creaturely adaptations to us, while we have only the barest limiting idea of His being aside from those adaptations. And that limiting idea is not of a primordial nature of His being, but only of the relation in which everything else stands to it. Its content, again, is only that God is the unconditional, ultimate source of the existence of everything else. Put the old-time way: God is the reality whose essence is existence.

To this it must be immediately added that (while the distinction between concept and limiting idea involves abstraction) we come to this idea-knowledge of God’s being not through philosophical speculation but by revelation. The idea of God’s transcendent being comes about because in the course of revealing His accommodated nature, God has also revealed that every feature of creation (visible or invisible) has been brought into existence by Him out of nothing.

That revelation, not theorizing, is the basis of the view that His unaccommodated, uncreated being is something we cannot conceptualize at all. Thus our view that we can’t have a concept of what God’s being is but only the idea that it is, is derived entirely from the revelation of His accommodations to us of which we have both concepts and ideas with definite content.


* For example, when we use the term “cause” to express that God is the creator of the world, it is as a limiting idea rather than a concept. No concept we have of causality corresponds to God’s creatorship: it is neither formal, nor final, nor material, nor efficient; neither is it any of the causal relations that are qualified physically, biotically, sensorily, historically, or economically, etc., since God is the creator of all the kinds of causality found in the cosmos.

But stripped of these and every other conceptual specification (time, and all laws), all that is left is the limiting idea of one thing bringing about another in an unspecifiable sense. Only in that way, by designating a limiting idea, can the term “cause” be used for the dependency of everything other than God on God.

Another example is the term “could” when applied to God. When we ask whether God could have created the world other than the way He did, or whether He could have made the laws governing possibility different from what they are for our experience, we are using “could” as a limiting idea, not a concept. Our concepts of “could” are all senses of possibility delimited by laws that hold in the cosmos—laws that God created. (Hence God didn’t create by choosing from among antecedently existing possibilities, but created every sense of possibility we can conceptualize.) Stripped of all aspectual (and other) specifications, however, we can use the limiting idea that God “could” have created other laws of possibility which we can’t now even form an idea of, since our knowing is governed by the laws He in fact did create.

This is why asking whether God could have made different laws does not amount to asking whether it’s logically possible that the laws of logic be other than they are. An affirmative answer to that question yields a contradiction. But that is not the right way to understand the question. Rather, the question uses “could” to refer to the limiting idea of the ontological basis of every kind of possibility found in the cosmos. That basis is, of course, the unknowable, originating being of God. The same goes for the idea that God “assumes” relations and properties to Himself. That, too, is a limiting idea meaning that He brings it about that they are true of Him in a way unspecifiable by us.