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Aquinas as Dependent upon yet Distinct from Aristotle

The relation of the work of Aquinas to his important Greek forebear, Aristotle, is a topic of some dispute. A resolution of this arduous investigation is beyond the limits of this study. Nonetheless, this analysis argues that Aquinas, in his account of inner sense in his Commentary on the De Anima, in at least one important way, differs from Aristotle’s own analysis in De Anima.10 In discussing phantasia, Aristotle appears to use this term as a generic concept covering any mental act of inner sense. Aristotle, in this conceptually muddy account, does not articulate any differentiated or separable faculties of inner sense. Aquinas, on the other hand, in both the Commentary and the Summa Theologiae, renders a threefold set of internal sense faculties; one also finds this multiplicity of faculties in the Summa Contra Gentiles, especially Book 2. Aquinas uses phantasia in his Commentary as a generic term covering three distinct faculties of inner sense: imagination: (vis imaginativa); vis cogitativa; and sense memory (vis memorativa). In discussing the faculties of inner sense, Aquinas does not refer only to what modern and contemporary philosophers call ‘introspection’. Rather, this is the complex of internal sense powers or faculties that Aquinas deemed necessary in order to explain sensation and perception.

There are significant differences in the various medieval accounts of inner sense derived from Aristotle. The path-finding research undertaken by Wolfson unearthed how Aristotelian philosophers in the Middle Ages discussed the faculties of inner sense is noteworthy. For example, Wolfson indicated four different ways in which Albertus Magnus alone classified the internal sense faculties.11 It almost appears as if each Arabian, Jewish, and Christian philosopher had his own take on how to grapple with inner sense. Often faculties, for example, get multiplied, and the functions of the faculties of inner sense embark on different mental acts.[1] [2]

In summary, this discussion on the relation of Aristotle’s work to the philosophy of Aquinas is in general agreement with MacIntyre, who in Dependent Rational Animals wrote: ‘I remain in general convinced by those commentators who have stressed the extent to which Aquinas in his philosophical enquiries was not just an Aristotelian, but often a keenly perceptive interpreter as well as an adapter of Aristotle.’[3] Furthermore, in his Introduction to his translation of the Commentary, Pasnau writes the following about the importance of Aquinas’s Aristotelian commentaries:

Scholastic philosophy in general and Aquinas’s work in particular have not always been accorded the respect that they now receive. But there has never been doubt about the value of Aquinas’s Aristotelian commentaries. (The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola is said to have remarked that ‘without Thomas, Aristotle would be mute’.) Aquinas brings to his commentaries a thorough familiarity with the Aristotelian corpus, a deep appreciation and understanding of Aristotle’s philosophy, and, of course, an acute philosophical mind. But beyond making a contribution to our understanding of Aristotle, the commentaries contain some of Aquinas’s most sustained reflections on central philosophical topics.[4]

The arguments below will suggest how Aquinas was a ‘keenly perceptive interpreter as well as an adapter of Aristotle’. Both the ontological realism and the epistemological realism articulated by Thomas will be discussed in some detail. This indicates a realism that is opposed both to a representational philosophy of mind and to a foundationalist epistemology as well as a rejection of Kantian transcendental idealism.

This study is not part of the Transcendental Thomist stream in twentieth-century neo-scholasticism; nonetheless, a careful analysis of the relevant texts suggests that viewing the vis cogitativa through a non-empiricist lens is the most fruitful approach.

This book introduces and develops a sustained argument on inner sense in Thomas, which will substantiate this claim of a modest non-empirical or modest rationalist structure. Part of the thrust of this study of Aquinas on sensation and perception offers a modified non-reductionist approach to empiricism for a consistent interpretation of Aquinas’s internal sense faculty of the vis cogitativa. This is at best a modest suggestion. Nonetheless, lest problems of textual criticism and interpretation as well as historical analysis arise, it is important to disassociate this study from what some philosophers might understand as the relation between Aquinas studies and Kant studies, or Aquinas as having too close an affinity with Cartesian innate idea methodology.

This study is neither a part of nor takes sides in the ongoing historical squabble in neo-scholasticism over the role Kant plays in providing a proper interpretation of Aquinas’s ontology and philosophy of mind. This study argues that fundamental ontological issues differ between Aquinas and Kant. It is instructive to note what McCool wrote: ‘from the early years of the century, Kantian idealism and the usefulness of Kant’s Transcendental Method had become another apple of discord in the Neo-Thomist movement.’[5] On the one hand, Gilson argued that Kant’s method leads directly to idealism, and this is opposed to the metaphysical realism found in Aristotle and Aquinas. In fact, McCool noted that Gilson once argued that any reading of Aquinas through Kantian lenses came either from ‘historical ignorance’ or ‘intellectual confusion’. On the other hand, the Transcendental Thomists adopted what McCool suggested was a ‘more optimistic view’ of reconciling Kant and Thomas. The Transcendental Thomists argue that taking Kant’s method farther than the Critique of Pure Reason leads one to a realist ontology consistent with the writings of Aquinas. Kenny noted that the Jesuits—Marechal, Hoenen, and Lonergan—would fall under the umbrella of the Transcendental Thomists.[6] This present study disassociates itself from this metaphysical/transcendental umbrella.

This brief historical note is intended to avoid possible misinterpretations over the nature of this present study. It also reaffirms the position that serious students of scholastic philosophy in the twentieth century put forward widely divergent interpretations of the texts of Aquinas. There is (contrary to several contemporary Thomists) no monolithic scholasticism in general or in Aquinas Thomistic studies in particular. As McCool rightly suggests, by the middle of the twentieth century, ‘the Neo-Thomist movement, understood as the quest for a single, rigidly unitary, philosophical system, came to an end.’[7] And, to be sure, that is as it should be. These discussions suggest the import of Thomas O’Meara’s claim that ‘there has never been one Thomism’,[8] and

MacIntyre’s assertion that there are ‘too many Thomisms’.[9] Kerr contends that the ‘reception of Aquinas’s work has been contentious from the beginning’.[10] It follows that an ‘orthodox’ reading of Aquinas, especially on the philosophy of mind, is fraught with historical and theoretical difficulties. Furthermore, as Boland argued, the many articles in the Summa Theologiae should be read as a dialogical inquiry rather than as an authoritarian, monological treatise. ‘Each article . . . [is] a short, formalized dialogue: space is given to a range of voices, there is an appeal to one or more authorities, there is time for the teacher to present his own understanding, as well as responding to the earlier speakers in the dialogue.’[11] This book introduces Aquinas as a significant player in contemporary analytic philosophy of mind largely in accord with the positions articulated by many contemporary Analytical Thomists.

  • [1] Harry Austryn Wolfson, ‘The Internal Senses in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew Philosophic Texts’Harvard Theological Review 28(2) (1935), 116-18. Wolfson’s article is a classic historical analysis of thedevelopment of the various positions medieval philosophers affirmed in discussing the function ofthe internal senses.
  • [2] One must mention the historical work undertaken in medieval psychology by Simon Kemp. Wolfson’sand Kemp’s works on Averroes have been revisited recently by Taylor’s analysis of Averroes’s treatment ofAristotle’s De Anima: Richard Taylor, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) of Cordoba: Long Commentary on the De Animaof Aristotle (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).
  • [3] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (London:Duckworth, 1999), p. xi.
  • [4] Robert Pasnau, ‘Introduction’ to Thomas Aquinas: A Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima (New Haven,Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. xii-xiii.
  • [5] Gerald A. McCool, ‘Is Thomas’ Way of Philosophising Still Viable Today?’ Proceedings of the AmericanCatholic Philosophical Quarterly, Supplement, 64 (1990), 6.
  • [6] Anthony Kenny, ‘Aquinas Medalist’s Address’, in Intelligence and the Philosophy of Mind: Proceedingsof the American Catholic Philosophical Association 80 (2006), 25.
  • [7] McCool, ‘Is Thomas’ Way of Philosophising Still Viable Today?’, 7.
  • [8] Thomas F. O’Meara, Thomas Aquinas, Theologian (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press,1997), 155.
  • [9] Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition(Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press), 58.
  • [10] Fergus Kerr, ‘Varieties of Interpreting Aquinas’, in Kerr (ed.), Contemplating Aquinas: On the Varietiesof Interpretation (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 27.
  • [11] Vivian Boland, OP, ‘Kenny on Aquinas on Being’, New Blackfriars 84(991) (2003), 389.
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