Date of Award

Fall 2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Wreen, Michael J.

Second Advisor

Prendergast, Thomas L.

Third Advisor

Adams, Noel


The doctrine of the conceptual priority of the perfect (CPP) is the claim that the concept of the perfect is prior to that of the imperfect insofar as possessing the latter presupposes a grasp of the former, but not vice versa. The goals of this study are to provide an account and defense of the Cartesian argument for CPP, to determine the consequences of this priority for the relationship between our concepts of human and divine properties, and to explore its implications for bottom-up accounts of theological concept formation. I argue that the predicates “perfect” or “infinite” in Descartes’ version of CPP are equivalent to “true” or “genuine” and thus function in the same way they would in geometrical examples where the perfection at issue is definitive of the kind and where imperfection constitutes falling short of the kind. I can thus be said to have the idea of a “perfect” circle (of that which is “infinitely” circular, as it were) merely by virtue of having the idea of a circle, yet I cannot apprehend something as imperfect or finite insofar as it resembles but fails to be a circle unless I already possess a concept of the kind in question—a true or perfect circle. CPP thus implies a qualitative distinction between the perfect and imperfect that, when applied to God and creation, is consistent with a theory of analogy. Unlike traditional ‘bottom-up’ theories of analogy, however, CPP entails a ‘top-down’ order of derivation in which concepts of creaturely perfections are derived (via a sort of ‘partial negation’) from concepts of divine ones. The ‘top-down’ order of derivation yields epistemological advantages over the traditional approach, which had always struggled to explain how we can derive analogical concepts of God from creatures. Further, CPP enables its proponents to address the classic anthropomorphism critiques leveled at practitioners of Perfect Being Theology. Though I acknowledge that CPP is not without its own weaknesses, I present a largely sympathetic account of the argument and its relevance for contemporary philosophy of religion.