Home Economics Aquinas’s theory of perception: an analytic reconstruction
The Lacuna in Aristotle’s De Anima
In Book II of his On the Soul, Aristotle developed in detail his analysis of the external senses; however, he offers precious little substantive analysis of the internal senses. He refers to the phantasia, which is often translated as ‘imagination, but he writes little about the nature and scope of inner sense. Aquinas’s account, on the other hand, is far more developed and substantial. The principal textual referent for this study is Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul (Sentencia Libri De Anima), which is an often neglected yet vastly important Aquinas text for the philosophy of mind. In commenting on Aristotle’s masterful psychological text, Aquinas develops his own more sophisticated theory of mind. Martha Nussbaum wrote that Aquinas’s Commentary ‘is one of the greatest commentaries on the work’. Moreover, Haldane’s recent work in the philosophy of mind travels in the same direction as the overall goals of this inquiry. Hence, this study goes beyond the limits exhibited by several writers on Aquinas’s philosophy of mind, even important commentators like Kenny and Geach, who remain principally with the texts in the Summa Theologiae and who consider primarily the process of abstraction with the intellectus agens and concept formation with the intellectuspossibilis. This analysis goes beyond the texts of the Summa Theologiae in directing its focus towards sensation and perception. Accordingly, this study develops in a progressive manner, beginning with a general theory of intentionality in Aquinas, proceeding through the external senses, and using these materials as propaedeutic for an analysis of inner sense with special reference to the inner sense faculty of the vis cogitativa. Within each chapter, moreover, this study assembles textual referents for Aquinas’s claims in the philosophy of mind. In several ways this book, with its extensive compilation of substantial textual references, should prove a valuable source for scholars seeking Aquinas’s texts on various aspects of his philosophy of mind. In considering Aquinas’s texts, one must remember what Kenny once suggested; the scholarly output from Aquinas—referring only to those works generally agreed to be authentic—amounts to over eight and a half million words. Hence, the compilation of Aquinas texts in this volume should be useful to scholars working with the philosophy of Aquinas; furthermore, each text is located within the vast Aquinas corpus.
In a different but connected vein, the research undertaken in the writing of this book suggests that inner sense in Aquinas is more highly developed and cognitively significant than normally acknowledged either by English-speaking philosophers, especially in the twentieth century, or by neo-scholastic historians of philosophy. In the Aristotelian Commentary, Aquinas uses the phantasia as a generic concept, fitting under it the vis imaginativa (imagination), the vis cogitativa (particular reason), which is called the vis aestimativa when found in brute animals, and the vis memorativa
(sense memory). The important faculty for understanding the ‘logic’ of perception, especially the perception of individuals, is the vis cogitativa. In the literature, however, one finds little substantive work dealing with the vis cogitativa. One set of articles, written in the 1940s, perspicuously pondered this absence of serious philosophical work: ‘A Forgotten Sense: The Cogitative According to St. Thomas Aquinas’.  More recently, Dorothea Frede argued that the vis cogitativa is, for Aquinas, ‘an embarrassment’.11 The research undertaken for this book underpins an argument that a productive analysis of this ‘forgotten sense’, referred to as an ‘embarrassment’, offers an interpretation of an important cognitive aspect of Aquinas’s philosophy of mind in which he suggests a non-reductionist analysis of inner sense. In a manner akin to several versions of Gestalt psychology, the argument put forward suggests that the vis cogitativa is a structured cognitive act that provides an awareness of the individual as an individual of a natural kind. This analysis depends on a reconstructed interpretation of the role of phantasm in Aquinas’s writings. Later chapters in this book demonstrate that there exist at least three different uses of phantasm in Aquinas, with one connected structurally with each of the internal sense faculties with the exception of the sensus communis. This analysis of phantasm depends on a further explication of a much-used term in Aquinas’s writings, similitudo—often translated as ‘likeness. There are three distinct uses of similitudo, and one use is further divided into the three specific uses of phantasm. The following argument is that, quite the contrary, not only is this important inner sense faculty of the vis cogitativa no longer ‘forgotten, but without its functioning as an important cognitive faculty in Aquinas’s theory of intentionality, his philosophy of mind would be an embarrassment. The significance of this study lies in this reconstruction and interpretation of the varied texts found in the writings of Aquinas. The analysis in this book is, accordingly, made from whole cloth, and is not reducible to a patchwork of disconnected philosophical texts.
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