(This blog post is not a book review! I do, however, give an overview of pretty much everything that is covered in the book referenced below. On the contrary, this blog article serves more as a brief philosophical commentary on Maritain's book, Philosophy of Nature, and an explanation and elaboration of the views contained therein.)

            Jacques Maritain, in the work Philosophy of Nature, translated by Imelda Choquette Byrne, has published a series of lectures concerning that science that the ancient and medieval philosophers called the philosophy of nature. This book is divided into 4 chapters, each of which (with the exception of the 4th chapter) is divided into 2 sections. The 4th chapter, which we will not discuss in this article, is an article by Yves R. Simon concerning Jacques Maritain’s understanding of the philosophy of nature. In the first two chapters Maritain gives us a philosophical-historical overview of the way in which the philosophy of nature was understood by the Ancient, Medieval and Modern philosophers and scientists. The primary purpose in these chapters is to show that philosophy of nature, though it has often been misunderstood, is entirely distinct from what are today known as the natural sciences. The relationship between the philosophy of nature and the natural sciences has often been so misunderstood that in tracing its history from ancient to modern times the descriptions of this relationship vary from vague to non-existent. 

            In the first chapter Maritain introduces us to the problem of the philosophy of nature by noting that the philosophy of nature is flanked by two dangers: (1) to be absorbed by the natural (experimental) sciences, (2) to take the place of, or to be replaced by, Metaphysics. Maritain begins by noting that there are two ways by which the real enters into man: (a) by the senses, (b) by the Spirit of God. Whereas theology discusses that which is known by the Spirit of God, there are a number of different sciences that interact with what enters into man by the senses. He then notes, briefly, the distinction between Metaphysics and the philosophy of nature. In the first section of the first chapter Maritain begins by explaining the way in which the first philosophers (Heraclitus, Plato & Aristotle) interacted with nature.[1] He begins by noting that “The intellect, as we know, is made for being: it seeks it and in seeking being which is its connatural object, well, it comes upon the sensible flux of the singular, of the changing singular, and naturally it is disappointed. It seeks being, it finds becoming, becoming which it cannot grasp.”[2] This human desire to know being, which is discouraged by the flux of sensible nature which never ceases to cover being, is what pushed Heraclitus to the claim that nature was unknowable as it was in constant flux. If nature is unknowable, then no philosophy of nature is possible (and neither are any of the natural sciences, philosophy, or any other form of knowledge). Plato, seeking to know truth, but also recognizing a certain truth in Heraclitus’s claim that it is impossible to know that which never ceases to change, sought to ground the possibility of knowledge in the unchanging and separate forms. “Plato confers these two characteristics: positive unity and separation from things…, upon the eternal objects contemplated by the metaphysician.”[3] In so doing Plato turns the real into the logical – that which is either, only in the mind, or only above nature, but, for Plato, not in nature. As such, there can be no philosophy of nature for Plato. Nature is only a source of opinion, the ideas are the source of science (the word used by the Greek philosophers to designate what we today call “knowledge”).

            Turning to Aristotle, Maritain notes that Aristotle criticizes the platonic understanding of the ideas as separate from the sensible world.[4] Maritain goes on to explain that Aristotle transformed the separate Ideas (as the unchanging ground of the things that are) into composing forms. In other words, Aristotle argues that the unchanging ground of the things that are is found not outside of sensible beings, but within. Maritain describes Aristotle’s metaphysics as follows: “The metaphysics of Aristotle…may…be called a metaphysics of the intra-real. Its object is not the world of separate ideas, of archetypes separate from things; it has a wholly different object: being itself secundum quod est ens, being taken precisely as being.”[5] As such, nature, as it presents itself to the knower, is knowable, because that which is intelligible is in the beings themselves. “The intelligible, instead of being transcendent to things as Plato thought, is immanent in them: it is one of the constitutive elements of reality itself, of the reality which is subject to sensible becoming.”[6] Maritain notes that if there is something in sensible being (the form) by which it becomes intelligible for the human knower, then not only are the natural sciences possible, but so is the philosophy of nature, and Metaphysics.

            In order to explain Aristotle’s understanding of the distinction between Physics and Metaphysics, as two distinct sciences that approach being differently, Maritain explains what is known as the orders or degrees of Abstraction. Knowledge, and therefore science, in Aristotico-thomistic philosophy, is explained through three degrees of Abstraction. Abstraction, as such, is a word which portrays the notion of separation with the purpose of analysis. The three degrees of abstraction “correspond to the degrees of immateriality or immaterialization of the object”.[7] The three levels of abstraction are: (1) Abstraction from individual matter, (2) Abstraction from sensible matter, and (3) Abstraction from all matter. These three levels of abstraction are the basis for three general sciences: (1) Physics (which is divided up into (a) the natural sciences and (b) the philosophy of nature), (2) Mathematics, and (3) Metaphysics. It is important to note that although Aristotle recognized certain sciences that correspond, roughly, to what we today call the natural sciences (i.e. – biology, astrology, etc.), these were included under Physics (The title Physics does not, for Aristotle, correspond to the contemporary mathematical science known as Physics. Roughly, the term physics is used to describe those sciences which deal primarily with physical or sensible being.) which englobed all the natural sciences and the philosophy of nature. There is, in Aristotle, a barely visible distinction between the natural sciences and the philosophy of nature. Each of these different levels of abstraction consider being in a different way. The first level of abstraction considers being insomuch as it is moved or sensible. “As long as we stay in this universe of the first order of abstraction, knowledge…remains held within the limits of sensible existence, of sensible mutability and its causes…The mind both depends on and finds its limit in this sensible data.”[8] The second level of abstraction considers being, in a sense, according to all the categories other than the first (ousia); namely, quantity, place, relation, etc.; though tradition typically relates this second level of abstraction primarily to quantity. “At this degree of intelligibility no longer implies an intrinsic reference to the sensible, but to the imaginable…In this case we are dealing with an intelligible sphere which is not that of the sensible real and which we may call the sphere of the mathematical preter-real.”[9] The third level of abstraction considers being just as being. “What we are dealing with here is real being (just the opposite of what happens in mathematical abstraction), real being disengaged from sensible existence; no longer vested in it as in the first order of abstraction but disengaged from sensible existence, grasped for its own sake in an original intuition.”[10]

Before moving on, it is important to note an important point that Maritain brings up concerning the “being” that is studied by each of the sciences that correspond to the different degrees of abstraction. Maritain notes that “When, in order to characterize the proper object of the sciences which are classed within these degrees, we say that at the first degree we consider sensible or mobile being, at the second degree quantified being, at the third degree being as being, we must note well that the word ‘being’ (ens) has, in each of these three cases, an analogical meaning…the word and the concept being are not used in the same manner in these three cases.”[11] This is evident when we consider that the first order of abstraction is considering being as really, human-mind-independent, changing, physical, sensible beings; that the second order of abstraction is considering being as it is mind-dependent, unchanging, and immaterial and non-sensible (though this consideration takes its depart in that which is material and sensible);[12] and, the third order of abstraction is considering being as being – that “being” which is common to all that can properly be called a “being”, but especially to those “beings” which are human-mind-independent. In each of these cases, there is both similarity and difference in the way in which the word being is used – which is why we say that “being” is used analogically in the description of these different degrees of abstraction.

Maritain notes that a second distinction between two types of abstraction should be made: “The distinction between what is called abstractio totalis, abstraction of the whole with respect to the parts…and abstractio formalis, abstraction of the form or formal type from matter.”[13] The abstraction of the whole, a first order abstraction, is what any rational being does when it classifies, by greater and more general groups, the beings that present themselves to the person. For example, upon seeing Peter, John and James, we arrive at the general classification “man”. Upon seeing a number of men, dogs, and horses we arrive at the general classification “animal”. There is no precision in these classifications. As Maritain notes, “I am simply trying to reunite the common traits, to set up a simple notional framework common to such and such individuals.”[14] Human beings begin engaging in first order abstraction, quite obviously, very shortly after birth. The abstraction of the form (or of the part), a second order abstraction, is what happens when we separate the essence or nature of the being in question from its materiality. In this second order abstraction we are no longer setting up general categories, we are trying to distinguish the essence of human beings from the essence of horses or dogs. As Maritain states, “here I am trying expressly to attain to the nature, the essence, the type of being, the locus of intelligible necessities; in brief to the object of science discernible in these individuals.”[15]

            From these observations Maritain concludes that it is reasonable to adhere to the following claim: “there is an essential distinction between the philosophy of nature (or ‘physics’) and metaphysics.”[16] He goes on to note that the error of the Ancient (and some of the medieval) philosophers was not to either replace natural philosophy with Metaphysics, or to absorb natural philosophy into Metaphysics; they kept them sufficiently distinct. The error of the ancients, on the other hand, was (except for some nebulous remarks in Aristotle) to fail “to perceive that this detail of phenomena [by “detail of phenomena” Maritain is referring to the way in which nature presents itself to the observer, especially as it is studied by the natural sciences] needs a science of its own, its specific science, specifically (I do not say generically)[17] distinct from the philosophy of nature.”[18] They did not distinguish the natural sciences from the philosophy of nature.

            In the second section of the first chapter Maritain addresses the “scientific revolution” or, as he calls it, the “Galileo-Cartesian revolution”. Maritain explains that the error of the modern[19] philosophers and scientists was, as he will proceed to demonstrate, the exact opposite of the error of the ancient and medieval philosophers: “the moderns will end up by absorbing the philosophy of nature into the natural sciences.”[20] Maritain explains that the error of the moderns happened in two phases, they began by mistaking the physico-mathematical sciences for natural philosophy, and they then excluded the possibility of any philosophy of nature. Maritain, in the second section of the first chapter, explains what happened in the first phase, and, in the first second of the second chapter, explains what happened in the second phase. In order to introduce the first phase of the modern error Maritain introduces the notion of a scientia media – intermediary sciences. Intermediary sciences, known to the ancient and medieval philosophers, was a type of science that straddled the gap between the first and the second degrees of abstraction. In other words, the intermediary sciences used mathematics (second degree of abstraction) to interpret physical phenomena (first degree of abstraction). Maritain describes this knowledge as follows: “although this knowledge is formally mathematical, it is materially physical because what it assembles and interprets by the help of mathematical intelligibility…is physical reality, physical data.”[21] The error of the moderns, starting with Descartes, was to replace the philosophy of nature with this intermediary science. Maritain points out that this major error in the sciences of the first degree of abstraction has devastating effects on Metaphysics. “Consequently physic-mathematical knowledge mistaken for philosophy of nature becomes the primary center of organization for all philosophy, and it is around this so-called philosophy of nature, confused with physic-mathematical science, that metaphysics will be constructed. From this we can see how metaphysics has been led astray since the beginning of the XVIIth century.”[22]

            Taking off from the error of the modern philosophers and scientists Maritain moves on to explain the second phase of the modern error: the absolute annihilation of the philosophy of nature. Maritain lists three factors in this second phase: (1) It became evident that integral materialism was incapable of explaining, through mechanistic systems, natural phenomena; (2) the natural sciences began to develop, and, over time, began to develop their own niches in the world of scientific research; (3) The Kantian critique by which he showed the incapacity of the natural sciences to fully explain certain phenomena. Through these three factors the natural sciences came into their own as individual domains of knowledge; and, at the same time, the natural sciences declared themselves the sole proprietor of all knowledge concerning sensible phenomena. Maritain notes that at this point in time, “Physico-mathematical science is no longer mistaken for philosophy of nature as it was in the XVIIth century but it continues to take its place. At first it was confused with the philosophy of nature and then it displaced it.”[23] This movement produced two major consequences: (1) the positive notion of science, which became scientism, which eliminated the philosophy of nature, and, thus, attempted to actually eliminate metaphysics; (2) the actual elimination of speculative metaphysics, which was replaced with “reflexive metaphysics”. Maritain notes that “there is only a reflexive metaphysics in which the philosopher’s task is not simply to reflect on the sciences in order to coordinate them into an objective synthesis…but also to seek in the sciences, in the knowledge of phenomena as such, something undiscerned by the scientist but discernible by the philosopher.”[24] In contemporary terms we might call this a philosophy of science, but it is most certainly not metaphysics (in the traditional sense), nor philosophy of nature. Maritain goes on to explain a number of different types of reflexive metaphysics: (1) “idealist reflexive metaphysics”,[25] as in the work of Brunschvicg; (2) a form of realistic reflexive metaphysics,[26] as in the work of Bergson (Martin Heidegger’s ontologism certainly seems, on a number of points, to fit into this category.). [27]Maritain then elaborates on a number of reactions against the positivistic view of science: (1) Pierre Duhem’s reaction,[28] (2) the reaction of Émile Meyerson and other French Epistemologists,[29] and (3) the reaction of the German Phenomenologists.[30] Again, Martin Heidegger probably fits into this third category, though Maritain only mentions such thinkers as Husserl and Max Scheler.

            In the third chapter of this book Maritain seeks to elaborate the thomistic understanding of the philosophy of nature. In order to understand this section one must keep the degrees of abstraction ever in mind, as well as the notion of an intermediary science. Maritain begins by explaining 2 ways of constructing concepts and of analyzing the sensible real. They are called, respectively, the empiriological (spatio-temporal) method of analysis, and the ontological method of analysis. Maritain explains these two manners of concept constructing and analysis in a number of different ways which, unfortunately, are either unclear in themselves or unclear to me. I will, however, do my best to explain them. Empiriological analysis has to do with sense knowledge of the sensible qualities of sensible beings,[31] and betrays a descending resolution – “toward the observable [and measurable] as such, insofar as it is observable.”[32] Ontological analysis, on the other hand, has to do with intellectual knowledge of the “ontological or thinkable core”[33] of the sensible being, and that it betrays an ascending resolution – “toward intelligible being, in which the sensible is always present and plays an indispensable role but does so indirectly.”[34] Now, both of these methods of analysis and concept formation belong to the first degree of abstraction, however there seems to be an important nuance here that Maritain does not himself make (though he does not deny it either), but which may help us better understand the distinction between the Empiriological and Ontological methods of analysis. In the first chapter Maritain mentions (and never comes back to it), a twofold distinction that the Ancient and Medieval philosophers made between two types abstraction: Abstraction of the whole and Abstraction of the formal part. As I mentioned above, abstraction of the whole is what any rational being does when it classifies, by greater and more general groups, the beings that present themselves to the person. As Maritain says, it is the setting up of “a simple notional framework common to such and such individuals.”[35] On the other hand, abstraction of the form (or of the part) is what happens when we separate the essence or nature of the being in question from its materiality. In this second order abstraction we are no longer setting up general categories, we are trying to distinguish the essence of human beings from the essence of horses or dogs. These two forms of abstraction seem to describe exactly what Maritain is talking about when he describes the two ways of concept construction and analysis of the real – the empiriological and the ontological. It seems possible that we can equate empiriological analysis with abstraction of the whole, and ontological analysis with abstraction of the formal part. Indeed, Maritain later notes that ontological analysis “seeks the essence above all else, an essence having a certain intelligible constitution.”[36] Both of these types of abstraction are used in the first degree of abstraction (abstraction from individual matter), but they both provide entirely different concepts, though they may use the same words – which is exactly what Maritain goes on to say.[37]

            Once it becomes clear that these two different ways of analysis produce two different types of knowledge, it also becomes clear that we are looking at two different “sciences”. So, we have two different sciences, both dealing with the first degree of abstraction (being as movable/sensible), and both giving different information. The next question must be, as Maritain goes on to ask, “what is the ultimate principle for the specification of the sciences?”[38] In other words, where do these two sciences fit into the hierarchy of the sciences that is determined by the degrees of abstraction? Turning to the unanimous cry of the thomistic logicians, Maritain answers that the ‘mode of defining’ – the manner in which a given science constructs its concepts – is the primary category that is used to specify the sciences.[39] How does all of this work out?

It is important to note, here, that a definition of the species of X, is composed of the genus and the difference proper to the species. The question that Maritain wants to answer (and by answering it determine the relationship between these sciences and the others) is, into what Genus and Species do these two sciences (the empiriological and the ontological analyses of sensible being) fit? We are told, first of all, that the generic ordering of the sciences is determined by the three degrees of abstraction.[40] He then notes that “Considered according to the typical ways in which it [the abstractive operation] constitutes the object at a certain determined degree of immateriality or knowability (terminus ad quem), it founds the specific diversities between the sciences; and these diversities can be found within a same generic order of abstraction.”[41] This fact allows him, and us (if we are following him), to put both of the two forms of analysis (and the scientific knowledge that they provide) under the genera of the first degree of abstraction. This of course means that we have one two different species of knowledge, both under the same genera. How do we distinguish the two species of knowledge (science)? By their proper ways of defining, in other words, by the ways in which they construct concepts and analyze their proper object. The natural sciences, therefore, are one species of knowledge under the first genera of abstraction, as they use the empiriological (abstraction of the whole) manner of analysis. Philosophy of nature, on the other hand, is another species of knowledge, also falling under the first genera of abstraction, as it uses the ontological (abstraction of the formal part) manner of analysis.

We now seem to have proven that there must be, alongside the natural sciences, a philosophy of nature. We also have proven, due to the fact that both the natural sciences and philosophy of nature fall under the first degree of abstraction, that neither of them are continuous with Metaphysics. Maritain summarizes wonderfully his argument, “If this is the case, if the ultimate principle of specification for the different kinds of knowledge is the mode of defining or the way in which notions are constructed, then it is evident that in the generic sphere of intelligibility of the first order of abstraction, the notions and definitions resulting either from empiriological analysis, wherein all is resolved into the observable, or from ontological analysis wherein everything is resolved into intelligible being, correspond to specifically distinct kinds of knowledge.”[42]

Maritain finishes his analysis of the natural sciences and philosophy of nature by showing that they are, indeed, complimentary, and in need of each other. After answering a possible difficulty for his analysis of these two sciences he goes on to discuss the relation (subalternation)[43] of these two bodies of knowledge to the intermediary sciences such as mathematical physics. Of course the major question is, are the natural sciences subalternated to philosophy of nature or to mathematics? After all, mathematics does seem to be applicable to most (if not all) of the natural sciences.[44] However, as Maritain points out, when it comes to the empiriometrical analysis,[45] “we are dealing simultaneously with a science which is subalternate to another and with an intermediary science.”[46] Maritain goes on to argue, followed by an example, that all of the sciences which engage in any form of empiriological analysis will be subalternate to philosophy of nature, at least in relation to the “regulative principles”.[47]

In the second section of the third chapter Maritain goes on to define the philosophy of nature in relation to Metaphysics. He notes that “the proper ‘subject’ or object of the philosophy of nature is being as mutable, ens mobile, being taken under the formal reason or from the proper perspective of motion or mutability.”[48] He notes that though the philosophy of nature is not Metaphysics, it is important for metaphysics. He then notes a couple of points concerning the relationship between philosophy of nature and the natural sciences.

He turns, finally, to the last aspect that we will consider in this already lengthy article, the notion of formal objects and perspectives. In this section he seeks to clarify the distinctions between the sciences that we have already considered in the previous sections. To do so he jumps into the distinction made by Cajetan, in his commentary on Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. The distinction that he is looking to develop is between the “ratio formalis objecti ut res or the ratio formalis quae[49] and the “ratio formalis objecti ut objectum…or the ratio formalis sub qua”.[50] In order to “modernize” this terminology, Maritain suggest using the term “Intelligibility appeal” as a modern translation of ratio formalis objecti ut res or the ratio formalis quae,[51] and “the objective light” as a modern translation of ratio formalis objecti ut objectum. By Intelligibility appeal is meant “the formal perspective of reality or the formal perspective of the object as a thing.”[52] In other words, and in a phrase that is sure to excite all true Heideggerians, Maritain explains that the Intelligibility appeal refers to “the aspect under which the thing presents itself to the knowing mind, the intelligible face which it shows to the mind and by reason of which a first cleavage or differentiation is produced in our intellectual activity, a first determination of our mind’s glance toward things and or our intellectual stable dispositions (habitus).”[53] In other words, the intelligibility appeal is that aspect of the being, as it is being known, that is presented to the knower, who is letting the being present itself to them. When the formal object has been determined, it is seen to be in its “Sphere of fundamental intelligibility”, whether this be that of sensible being, mathematical being, or other. By objective light is meant “the formal perspective of conceptualization”,[54] which refers to the degree of abstraction by which the being in question is known. In other words, the objective light is the way in which the being in question is abstracted in order to arrive at knowledge of it. With these notions in hand we can then point out that the philosophy of Nature and the natural sciences (using empirioschematic analysis) share the same intelligibility appeal,[55] but different objective lights.[56] On the other hand, the philosophy of nature and the natural sciences (using empiriometrical analysis) differ both in intelligibility appeal, and in objective lights.[57]

Using the above concepts Maritain defines the philosophy of Nature as follows: “Its intelligibility appeal (ratio formalis quae) is the moving, or mutability; its objective light (ratio formalis sub qua) is an ontological mode of analysis and conceptualization, a way of abstracting and defining which, the while it refers intrinsically to sensory perception, aims at the intelligible essence.”[58] Maritain finishes his work on the philosophy of nature with a consideration of the relationship between “facts” and the philosophy of nature, and a summary of the recent revival of interest in the philosophy of nature.

[1]By « nature », unless otherwise qualified (i.e. – human nature, nature of X), we mean that which presents itself to the human knower as: (1) being, (2) being independent of the human knower, and (3) as being composed of act and potency.

[2]Jacques Maritain, Philosophy of Nature, trans. Imelda C. Byrne (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1951), 4.

[3]Ibid., 6.

[4]Ibid., 7.

[5]Ibid., 8.

[6]Ibid., 9.

[7]Ibid., 13.

[8]Ibid., 27.

[9]Ibid., 28.

[10]Ibid., 31.

[11]Ibid., 20.

[12]This type of being is generally called a being of reason.

[13]Ibid., 15.

[14]Ibid., 19.


[16]Ibid., 32.

[17]This comment, seemingly unimportant, is extremely important, as we shall see, for arriving at a proper distinction between the natural (or empiriological, or experimental) sciences and the philosophy of nature.

[18]Ibid., 33.

[19]The term ‘modern’ refers to that period of thought which typically begins with Descartes and ends with Immanuel Kant.

[20]Ibid., 36.

[21]Ibid., 37-38.

[22]Ibid., 44.

[23]Ibid., 50.

[24]Ibid., 56-57.

[25]Ibid., 57.

[26]Ibid., 58-59.

[27]Maritain returns to this subject later in the book (Ibid., 121.), noting what happens when the philosophy of nature is abolished: 1. “reflexive and openly idealist” metaphysics like Brunschvicgs, 2. “covertly idealist” metaphysics like Husserl, 3. “Reflexive and ineffectively realist” metaphysics like Bergson, or 4. “Reflexive and tragic” metaphysics, “in which…the spirit endeavors to rediscover the sense of being and existence in the drama of moral experience or in the experience of anguish (like Heidegger?).”

[28]Ibid., 60-62.

[29]Ibid., 62-70.

[30]Ibid., 71-72.

[31]Ibid., 74.

[32]Ibid., 75.

[33]Ibid., 74.

[34]Ibid., 74.

[35]Ibid., 19.

[36]Ibid., 85. See also Maritain’s remark on page 88, “ontological analysis at the first degree of abstraction deals with sensible being but deals with it first and foremost as intelligible.”

[37]Cf. Ibid., 75-76.

[38]Ibid., 89.

[39]We noted above that a certain, seemingly banal, phrase of Maritain’s (in which he specifies that he is talking “specifically”, not “generically”. Cf. Ibid., 33.) was going to be important later. This is that latter point at which this note becomes important.

[40]Cf. Ibid., 89, 90.

[41]Ibid., 89.

[42]Ibid., 92.

[43]Maritain notes that “A science is said to be subalternated to another when it derives its principles from this other science, which is called the subalternant. The subalternate sciences does not by itself resolve its conclusions into the first principles of reason, into self-evident principles, but the subalternant science resolves its own conclusions into first principles and these conclusions of the subalternant serve as principles for the subalternate science. (Ibid., 103.)”

[44]Maritain makes a distinction between empiriometrical analysis: “that type of empiriological analysis which is subject to mathematical interpretation. (Ibid., 103.)”; and empirioschematic analysis: another type “wherein concepts are resolved into the observable but without being subject to the mathematical rule of explanation. (Ibid., 107.)”

[45]Cf. footnote 43.

[46]Ibid., 104.

[47]Cf. Ibid., 104-118.

[48]Ibid., 119.

[49]Ibid., 125.

[50]Ibid., 127.

[51]Ibid., 126.


[53]Ibid. On the next page he explains that it is “the perspective of intelligibility which the thing presents primarily to our understanding (Ibid., 127).”

[54]Ibid., 128.

[55]Cf. Ibid., 135.

[56]Cf. Ibid., 136.

[57]Ibid., 138.

[58]Ibid., 139-140.

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