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What Is a Smartphone?: A Thomistic Analysis

October 4th, 2021 | 14 min read

By Cody Moran

You understand almost nothing about your smartphone.

I can prove it by asking a simple question: what is a smartphone? I suspect you will find difficulty articulating a definition which avoids either tautology or obvious error.

But another simple question will illuminate the same point: can you name a single feature, which, when added to your smartphone, would compel you to consider it something other than a smartphone? Again, I suspect not even sudden flight, or the ability to bi-locate, or an app which cleaned one’s teeth by a flash of fluoride-infused light could convince one to claim with certainty, “This is no longer a smartphone.”

With the assistance of St. Thomas Aquinas, I will articulate the underlying, metaphysical truth at which these questions are gesturing. However, this underlying truth leads to the bolder conclusion that not only do we understand almost nothing about our smartphones, but that understanding our smartphones is practically impossible.

Aquinas, of course, has nothing to say explicitly about the smartphone. However, certain principles of St. Thomas’ philosophy can be applied relevantly to modern intellectual problems which he would never have encountered. Therefore, through a creative but careful interpretation of St. Thomas’s philosophy of substance, artifact, and cognition, Aquinas illumines for us why the smartphones with which we seem to be so familiar are opaque to our understanding, and why this is no small obstacle to the Christian life.

Substances and Artifacts

St. Thomas Aquinas makes a perplexing metaphysical claim at the end of Book VII of his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics; namely, that artifacts cannot be substances.[1] The oddity of this claim becomes more striking when we understand what Aquinas means by artifact and substance and recast his claim in more accessible, contemporary language.

For Aquinas, an artifact is an object which results from intentional human composition — from shovels to sculptures to smart phones. The category is wide, and its boundaries are disputed. However, for the purposes of our present inquiry, the broad philosophical category of artifact can be reduced to the contemporary term technological device, and I will use the terms interchangeably.[2] Therefore, with an eye to understanding the smartphone, we can recast Aquinas’ claim that “artifacts cannot be substances” as “technological devices cannot be substances.”

What, then, is a substance? A substance is what one intuitively thinks it is – an independently existing thing, an integrated whole, some entity which is definite and particular.[3] The case is somewhat more complicated, but this definition is sufficient to render Aquinas’ claim comprehensible. We can read “artifacts are not substances” as “technological devices are not independently existing things.”

With this, the claim that Aquinas is the “philosopher of common sense” seems strained to its limit. Surely Aquinas cannot claim seriously that technological devices are not existing things – or, more provocatively, that smartphones do not exist! Such a claim would certainly have the advantage of explaining why we cannot understand what they are, but has the unfortunate disadvantage of being absolutely absurd.

Yet, a closer look at how Aquinas understands substance dissolves the difficulty.

For Aquinas, substance is a unity composed of two principles, form and matter.[4] Matter is the stuff of which the substance is composed, and form is the principle which organizes the stuff into an identifiable unity. For example, a cat is a substance. It is composed of matter, like the rest of the world, but that matter is organized by an intrinsic cat-ness principle which makes it a cat and not a pineapple.

A full understanding of substantial form would take us far afield into a discussion of actuality and potentiality, analogy, and natural participation in the being of God, but a few points are especially relevant and therefore necessary to understand.

First, substantial form is the source of a substance’s unity. A cat’s foot, tooth, heart, and retinae are all “the cat” on account of the intrinsic and unifying principle of cat-ness.[5]

Second, substantial form is the source of a substance’s identity. In this way, substantial form is closely associated with a better known concept from Aquinas – that of essence – and is, as I stated above, what makes a cat a cat and makes it not a pineapple.[6]

Third, substantial form is the source of a substance’s intelligibility. We come to understand a cat as cat through an intellectual encounter with the cat’s substantial form. This last point is obviously the most complex, but we will return to it at length in just a moment.[7]

If substance is a unity of form and matter, in what way does an artifact fall short of this definition? Obviously we cannot claim either that technological devices lack matter or that they exist materially in a way distinct from substances. Matter does not permit of degrees; that is, the material principle of a lily pad is not less or more material than that of a smartphone.

The distinction between artifacts and substances lies in their form. Aquinas does not deny that a technological device has a form, but rather that its form differs from the form of a substance qualitatively. For Aquinas, the form of an artifact or technological device is accidental and extrinsic while the form of a substance is essential and intrinsic.

Therefore, though artifacts and substances both have material existence and form, the technological form is a kind of lesser form, for it does not impose the same thorough-going unity, identity, and intelligibility on the substances which are arranged to compose it as a substantial form does on the parts of the substance. Thus, technological devices do not exist as particular instantiations of an essential form, but only as accidental compositions loosely united for a specific purpose. In other words, the technological device has no distinctive organizing principle other than that one which is in the mind of the artificer and in the end for which she made it.

The image of a shovel manifests this point. A shovel does not have an intrinsic, essential form, but is composed of the substances of wood and metal by a shovel-maker for the purpose of digging. There is no such thing as shovel-ness outside of the mind of the artificer, and even this mental form of “shovel-ness” is arguably reducible to the purpose of digging.

Furthermore, we can examine the differing, qualitative levels of unity, identity, and intelligibility in artifacts and substances to compare their respective forms

First, the form of a substance is essential for its unity inasmuch as without the form that substance is incomplete — that is, not one. The incomplete substance lacks any unity, for it lacks the determination of a formal cause. In other words, one cannot remove the form of a substance from that substance and be left with anything at all, nor can one posit matter alone as a substance.[8] One can imagine the impossibility of separating the form of a tree from its matter. A substance without a form cannot exist.

But the form and matter of a technological device are not similarly inextricable. A technological device is composed of independently existing substances arranged in a new way, for a new purpose. If one were to remove the form of the technological device (i.e by taking one’s smartphone apart with a screwdriver) one would not find oneself blocked by an intrinsically inseparable unity of form and matter, but simply with a pile of bolts, wires, and plastic. The unity of the technological device is accidental, while the unity of the substance is essential.

So also, substances of differing identity are in general easy and intuitive to distinguish, despite even extreme similarity in the accidents. For example, it is very rare for someone of sound mind and in adequate light to mistake a dog for a cat. However, the accidents are remarkably similar: four legs, fur, comparable heights, domesticated, etc.

The case is quite the opposite with artifacts, and especially with smartphones. What really makes the smartphone identifiable as a smartphone and not as a tablet, or a laptop? One may be tempted to posit size, but then one must posit also of necessity that size — which seems obviously accidental — to be of the essence. The accidental similarities of the smartphone, tablet, and laptop totally obscure their real differences, if in fact there are any, and force one to nominally distinguish them by whatever attribute seems accessible and obvious enough to market them separately. The form of the smartphone clearly imposes a less distinct and recognizable identity on the substances of which it is composed than it would were the form of the smartphone substantial.

Form and Intelligibility

An examination of the intelligibility of an artifact in comparison to that of a substance provides an enlightening in-road to our guiding question: “What is a smart phone?” If the artificial form imparts on the artifact a lesser intelligibility, then it makes sense that we would have a hazier notion of what exactly a smartphone is. However, if we investigate how it is that an artificial form imparts a lesser intelligibility than that of a substance, we are led to the conclusion that not only is the essence of the smartphone obscure, but basically inaccessible.

According to Aquinas, we come to understand reality through a process called abstraction. All knowledge of the world is apprehended first through our senses. But, in order for that sense perception to become knowledge, our intellect must also come into contact with the world. For Aquinas, when the senses apprehend a substance, the intellect takes on (abstracts) the form of that substance, so that knowledge comes by similitude.[9]

How then are humans to have knowledge of technological devices, which have no substantial form? Though technological devices are less intelligible because they lack substantial form, they are still intelligible because of their artificial form. This form is not in the device as form is in a substance, but in the mind of the craftsman. The craftsman composes certain substances for a certain purpose, and that artificial form which exists in his mind is made known in the functioning of the device. In shorthand, a technological device is intelligible only with respect to its unity in the mind of the artificer and its consequent function.

The image of the shovel is again illuminating. The shovel, because it is an artifact, lacks substantial form. One could take apart a shovel and still have wood and metal. Because of this, as has already been mentioned, the only form which is attributable to the shovel is that form which exists in the mind of the shovel maker, knowable through its function.

However, the one who makes a shovel does not do so to make a shovel but rather to dig a hole. The shovel is not an existing thing, but rather a device which has a unity only in its function. A shovel is only intelligible as “a device for digging holes.” This is precisely why so many technological devices are simply named after their specific function (i.e. coffee maker, microwave, speaker, etc.)

The shovel, though an artifact, is still highly intelligible according to the unity of its function. A shovel is a device for digging. That is a thorough answer to the question, “what is a shovel?”

The Smart Phone as Unintelligible Artifact

But the smartphone presents us with a very different sort of device. The intelligibility of the smartphone is obscured in two important ways.

First, the unity of its artificial form is fragmented by the fact that the smartphone is a kind of communally engineered device. The smartphone is an artifact composed by a committee of experts, and therefore lacks any formal unity in the mind of the artificer. The form of the smartphone is a composition of composed technological devices which have their forms in the minds of their respective artificers. What is the form of the smartphone itself? Who can say! There is no single author of this device in whom such a form resides. If artifacts are less intelligible than substances because they are a composition of complete substances whose form resides in the mind of the artificer, then how much less intelligible will a composition of composed substances be, which functions without a unified formal cause?

Second, the potential functions of the smartphone seem virtually unlimited and totally undifferentiated. With a smartphone, one can call, text, email, take pictures and videos, watch movies, buy stocks, sell government secrets, etc. App developers have created a mind-boggling number of functions for the smartphone, but those functions which have been developed do not even approach exhausting the possible, legitimate function of the smartphone. If artifacts can only be understood according to their function, then the smart phone must be totally unintelligible, for one can only know a negligible fraction of its actual function, much less its potential functions.

Not only this, but one cannot even claim to know the smartphone’s most important or essential functions because there is no necessary, internal hierarchy by which to rank these functions. Is the smartphone essentially for calling and accidentally for texting, or vice versa? Or is its primary purpose to play Pokémon Go, and is its secondary or tertiary purpose to send emails? Therefore, the smartphone lacks a unity of function because it is capable of seemingly unbounded potential functions, none of which are ordered to some end or good which would unite them.

Notice, however, that this argument is not simply an appeal to complexity. The modern car, for example, is highly complex but also highly intelligible, because of the unity and singularity of its function: to drive on roads from point A to point B. The smartphone is practically unintelligible in a way distinct from some other modern technologies specifically because it lacks both elements by which artifacts are rendered intelligible: unity of form in the mind of the craftsman, and unity of function.

Prudence and Our Final End

The question that immediately follows on such a demonstration is: so what?

For the Christian, the issue is one of prudence. Prudence, for Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, and the whole of Christian virtue tradition is the ability to judge whether a particular action is an aid or hindrance to the attainment of man’s ultimate good.[10] This requires both a knowledge of man’s final end, and a knowledge of whether a particular object or action propels man on to that end.[11] How then can we use our smartphones prudently when we have no insight into what they are, and consequently whether they are an aid or hindrance to the pursuit of the vision of God?

It would be extreme and reductionist to claim that the use of a smartphone is an unqualified sin against prudence. However, because of the practical unintelligibility of the smartphone, it is impossible to live prudently and to interact with one’s smartphone without intentional discipline and caution, as is common among those who own them. It can only be foolish for the Christian to keep unreservedly close company with an object which is fundamentally opaque to our understanding.


You and I do not really understand almost anything about our smartphones. The unintelligibility of these devices presents a problem for rightly exercising the virtue of prudence in the Christian life.

What then is a smartphone and how can we use it wisely? I do not think even the Angelic Doctor could answer that. However, I do believe he would recommend the cultivation of a technological prudence, as much as such virtue is possible with regard to our smartphones, and would counsel strongly against the inordinate intimacy we keep with these objects about which we understand so little.

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  1. Commentary on Metaphysics VII.17.1680. All references to Aquinas taken from The Aquinas Institute’s online Latin-English edition of his omnia opera.
  2. The terms are not synonymous, but all objects denoted by “technological device” are artifacts and we are concerned with the essence of the smartphone specifically.
  3. Commentary on Metaphysics VII.2.1291.
  4. On Being and Essence 2.
  5. Summa Contra Gentiles II.58
  6. Though Aquinas is clear in On Being and Essence 2 that essence is not reducible to form, it is permissible to speak about the primacy of substantial form in the determination of a thing’s essence, for essence is “that which is signified by the definition of a thing.”
  7. See discussion of Aquinas on cognition below.
  8. Summa Contra Gentiles 2.54.
  9. Summa Theologica 1.85; the whole question is an elaboration of what I have summarized here.
  10. For a similar argument from prudence from a specifically Aristotelian standpoint, read Shannon Vallor’s “Knowing What to Wish For:Human Enhancement Technology, Dignity and Virtue” in Techne 15.2, Spring 2011, free for legal download at
  11. For a practical and insightful exercise in such reasoning, read L.M. Sacasas’ “The Questions Concerning Technology,”