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Source: pp 158-159, The Cambridge Companion to Anselm, by Brian Davies, Brian Leftow

What Anselm describes himself as looking for here he believed he had found when reflecting on the idea that God is "something than which nothing greater can be thought" (aliquid quo maius nihil cogitari potest).

The bolded looks wrong. How can something (a pronoun) precede than (a preposition)?
Why was the bold not written as: something OTHER than which?

Surprisingly, Google reveals no other context with this syntax (which I first encountered here)

PS: I reorder the first two sentences in the quote to facilitate understanding:

[Anselm] believed he had found
[w]hat Anselm describes himself as looking for here[,] when reflecting [...]

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  • books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Jun 16, 2015 at 21:52
  • "...of which" would probably be the best choice.
    – Dog Lover
    Jun 16, 2015 at 23:42
  • @DogLover No ... the construction is greater than, not greater of. Jun 16, 2015 at 23:55
  • @StoneyB OK, I see what you mean. I was thinking of "greater" as in "something better" instead of a comparison.
    – Dog Lover
    Jun 16, 2015 at 23:59
  • 1
    (This is actually similar to the two existing answers. I'd like to make the structure more obvious.) God is something than which nothing greater can be thought == [ God is something ] + [ Nothing greater than (that thing) can be thought ]. -- BTW, transitive think is common enough, e.g. We think the same. You think what? Think Green. Jun 17, 2015 at 7:17

3 Answers 3

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(This is actually similar to the two existing answers. I'd like to make the structure more obvious.)

The clause in the question should become obvious if we rewrite it as two clauses:

God is something than which nothing greater can be thought
= [ God is something ] + [ Nothing greater than (that thing) can be thought ]

(Also note that, as LePressentiment suggests below, God is something which nothing greater than can be thought would be another possible rewrite.)

Another note: think being used transitively is common enough, e.g., We think the same. You think what? Think Green.

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  • +1. Thanks again. Just to check: Does your answer above imply the following intermediate step: God is something WHICH nothing greater than + can be thought ?
    – user8712
    Jan 29, 2016 at 2:59
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    You're welcome. Though I didn't think of "which nothing greater than" as an intermediate step, I agree that they're equivalent. Jan 29, 2016 at 10:21
  • Thank you again. Please feel free to copy and paste my comment into your answer.
    – user8712
    Jan 29, 2016 at 21:01
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It is a word order that was once far more common than it is today.

[Source:] He suppressed all his letters of recommendation, which he justly concluded would subject him to a tedious course of attendance upon the great, and lay him under the necessity of soliciting preferment in the army, than which nothing was farther from his inclination;

Tobias Smollett on Google

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God is something.

What kind of something?

We talk about this something, so with a relative clause

1. it is something which we think about.

We have a name for this something, so with a relative clause and pied-piped preposition

2. it is something for which we have a name.

Now let us reconstruct the sentence questioned in the OP:

  1. We cannot think anything [to be] greater than this something.

  Since cannot ... anything = can ... nothing, 3 is equivalent to

  1. We can think nothing greater than this something.

  By passivization 4 becomes

  1. Nothing can be thought greater than this something

Finally, rewrite 5 with a relative clause and pied-piped preposition

  1. it is something than which nothing can be thought greater.
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  • 1
    This is a really good answer. However, when I learned this argument it was always "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". i.e. the whole point of Anselm's argument is that you cannot think of anything greater, rather than 'nothing can be thought greater than this something'. It's a small semantic difference, but such things are quite important in logic and I think your parsing here would send his original argument a little awry. Here endeth the philosophy lesson :P
    – Au101
    Jun 17, 2015 at 1:24
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    @Au101 Actually, my [to be] is just a concession to modern sensibility, but think's been used that way for centuries, and it represents cogito in the original. Jun 17, 2015 at 10:34
  • Does 3 contain a typo? If not, please feel free to revert my edit, and I shall ask a separate question.
    – user8712
    Oct 7, 2015 at 0:57

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