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Home arrow Economics arrow Aquinas’s theory of perception: an analytic reconstruction

Setting the Problem History and Context

The beginnings of analytic philosophy in the early twentieth century with the writings of Russell and Moore focused attention on questions concerning perception theory. These epistemological issues in turn became dominant in much twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy. Given the continuing interest in this set of topics, it is not surprising that analytic philosophers often used the tools and techniques of the discipline in order to elucidate conceptually the texts on perception found in the writings of philosophers central to the history of philosophy. Analytic philosophers writing about sensation and perception have frequently discussed these issues in the texts of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, and Kant, among others prominent in the history of Western philosophy since the seventeenth century.

The same cannot be said, however, about textual and structural discussions of medieval philosophers. Until recently, few analytic philosophers treated in detail the issues of sensation and perception as elaborated by their medieval counterparts. Moreover, such treatment, when it did occur, frequently utilized models drawn from early modern philosophy that were then in turn foisted upon the writings of the medievals. In opposition to this general ‘Whiggish’ trend in history of philosophy writings found in recent analytic philosophy, this book attempts to deal analytically with the epistemology and philosophy of mind of sensation and perception as discussed by one significant medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas (1226-74).[1] This approach in undertaking philosophical analysis is similar in structure to what Haldane has termed ‘Analytical Thomism’.

The term ‘philosophy of mind’ is a category convention of recent philosophical analysis. Ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophers discussed more than several issues central to what today is referred to as the philosophy of mind, especially inten- tionality theory and the structure of various mental acts like memory, imagining, and 1

knowing. These inquiries, however, pertained to studies of the natural philosophy of anima or soul, with Aristotle’s De Anima serving as the principal text for such philosophical work. In considering the history of what contemporary philosophers call the philosophy of mind, Haldane once wrote that the ‘classic text on the subject’ was Aristotle’s De Anima; ‘it is barely an exaggeration to say that medieval and renaissance philosophy of mind consists of commentaries and reflections on that work.’[2] This present study focuses attention on one such substantive commentary, that of Thomas Aquinas.

  • [1] The exact year of Thomas’s birth has been contested for centuries. This monograph is in agreementwith Simon Tugwell in asserting that sufficient evidence now exists indicating that 1226 is the correct year.Some documents state that Thomas was 48 when he died in 1274: Simon Tugwell, ‘Introduction5, in Albertand Thomas: Selected Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), 1-129. Torrell argues that 1225 is theappropriate year of Thomas’s birth: Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and HisWork, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).
  • [2] John Haldane, ‘History: Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy of Mind, in Samuel Guttenplan (ed.),A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 333.
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