'as that entity than which nothing greater can be conceived'

"We define ‘God’ as that entity than which nothing greater can be conceived. This concept of God exists in our understanding at least, even the atheist (Anslem’s ‘fool’) would acknowledge that he at least understands this. Therefore we can say that ‘God’ at least exists in one’s mind, if not in reality."

Source: http://www.oxbridgeessays.com/archive/services/undergraduate/custom-essays/examples/ex21-philosophy.pdf

I do not understand the function of "than" in the 1st sentence. I'm used to "than" being used in comparisons and when contrasting things ("other than", "rather than"), however this is something entirely different.

I get that the sentence is supposed to mean "We cannot conceive the existence of any entity greater than God/There is nothing greater than God" but I struggle with the expression than which.

Could you explain to me this peculiar use of "than"?
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    This famous definition is possibly the only time I have seen 'than which'. It's just treating 'than' as another preposition, and fronting it in a formal relative clause:

    Anselm defined God in these terms. -> the terms in which Anselm defined God __
    Nothing greater than this entity can be conceived. -> the entity than which nothing greater __ can be conceived

    It should be a perfectly normal use of 'than', so it's a little surprising that in fact it's virtually never used. A more complex variant yet brings the comparative adjective forward as part of the relative marker:

    Nothing greater than this entity can be conceived. -> the entity greater than which nothing __ can be conceived


    Senior Member
    That entity which guides us.
    That entity in which we trust. <-- we need the preposition before which, right?

    And now, get ready for the next one having in mind that it is a comparison and than must be inserted before which.

    Nothing greater can be achieved than that entity. <-- than which entity
    That entity than which nothing greater can be achieved.


    Senior Member
    English - British
    Unfortunately, that 'essay' from which the quote is taken is not well written as a matter of English.
    It actually omits the 'than' in a subsequent sentence.
    Thank you, entangled bank and boozer. :) So this is just a question of syntax, of a rarely used word order.

    Wandle, and there seems to be an apostrophe lacking in the last sentence, doesn't it? The funny thing is that this essay is supposed to be an example of an essay for which you'd get a 1st. :D


    Senior Member
    English - British
    A first? It is has several schoolboy errors in English. Hume's argument is not clearly expressed.


    Senior Member
    English - British
    In fact, apart from the errors of grammar and spelling, it omits the word 'not' in front of 'impossible', thus actually contradicting Hume.
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