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Recent Work in Aristotelian Perception Theory

This discussion on Aquinas is connected with the general resurgence of interest among analytic philosophers in Aristotelian theories of intentionality. General worries in the philosophy of mind have been associated with discussions of inten- tionality theory. The last fifteen years have witnessed much interest in Aristotle. Names like Sorabji, Burnyeat, Putnam, and Nussbaum, and now a newer generation including Miller, Shields and Caston, are among those unearthing what insights Aristotle offers in the general area of sensation and perception conjoined with inten- tionality theory. The discussions of Aquinas’s theory follow on the coat-tails of these Aristotelian discussions.[1]

In beginning this metaphilosophical discussion, Haldane suggests that there is a different architectonic of proceeding in the philosophy of mind as elucidated in the texts of Aristotle and Aquinas from what one finds in most modern philosophy: ‘Our knowledge of the external world is the starting point for philosophical reflection, the task of which is not to justify this knowledge but to explain it; to give an account of the scope of cognition, its genesis and its operations.’[2] Haldane reflects on this issue regarding how Aquinas’s metaphilosophy differs radically from the Cartesian starting point:

[One] will not begin to see merit in [Aquinas’s position] unless one also adopts a non-Cartesian standpoint on the issue of knowledge. For Aquinas, and the Thomism I subscribe to, the idea that we begin with the burden of skepticism and must forever be justifying ourselves is a misconception based on a quite false assumption about the nature of knowledge. Thought begins in the world and then has the task of enquiring into the metaphysical conditions of its own possibility. The question for epistemology is not whether we know anything but rather, given what we do know, how does cognition work?[3]

Haldane accordingly spells out the differences between metaphilosophy adopted by Aquinas and Descartes and that of much modern and contemporary philosophy—a difference that is important in understanding Aquinas’s approach to issues in the philosophy of mind, especially inner sense.

This book adopts the working paradigm suggested by Haldane and also found in the writings of Joseph Owens. The emphasis is on articulating the way Aquinas ‘explains’ how cognition might take place. Aquinas is concerned with explaining ‘the possibility of knowing’. Of course, this study is not a mere rendition of facts and texts about Aquinas’s discussions on the matters of sensation and perception. Given the present state of affairs in working with the texts of Aquinas on these matters, however, even that activity alone would be a useful scholarly endeavour. This study belongs to that field of historical studies in philosophy once commonly known as ‘the structural history of philosophy’. At mid-century, Henry Veatch, Gustav Bergmann, and Herbert Hochberg, among others, articulated this method or procedure for approaching philosophical issues in the major figures of Western philosophy. According to Veatch, the structural history of philosophy suggests that philosophical insights and theories as put forward by philosophers often involve structural implications and requirements. Bergmann himself wrote about this way of approaching the history of philosophy: ‘What I am speaking about is structural history which, in a sense, is neither factual nor causal. Rather it is a comparative analysis of ideas in their logical interdependence.’[4] At times, as he suggested, philosophers themselves are not aware of these presuppositions and entailments. Moreover, Bergmann wrote that these issues are not stated clearly in the written record of the history of philosophy. Hence, the structural history of philosophy demands analysis and interpretation. It has its roots in Broad’s proposal regarding the differences between speculative philosophy and critical philosophy. In his Scientific Thought, Broad offered the following account of critical philosophy: ‘I call Critical Philosophy: the analysis and definition of our fundamental concepts and the clear statement and resolute criticism of our fundamental beliefs.’[5] The methods common to the practice of analytic philosophy are used in elucidating the principal issues in the history of philosophy. The explicatio textus undertaken in this study of Aquinas on perception follows the general principles for doing structural history of philosophy.[6] While not referring to or explicating this philosophical method directly, nonetheless many analytic philosophers who undertake substantive work in the history of philosophy have developed their philosophical sensibilities on Bergmann’s method. In particular, Bergmann wished to distinguish his approach from what he referred to as the ‘scholarly’ undertaking of tracing historical causes, rooting out substantive texts, and so forth. Bergmann never denied that this historical approach is important work; but he did wish to distinguish this historical approach from what he considered to be a necessary condition for analytic philosophers in approaching the texts of the great figures in the philosophical tradition.

Chapter 2 begins the analysis of Aquinas on sensation and perception. The first topic is how Aquinas incorporates the principles of what contemporary philosophers refer to as an intentionality theory into his epistemology and philosophy of mind. The contemporary thrust of Aquinas on the philosophy of mind becomes more apparent in considering his theory in the light of an intentionality theory. The differences in contemporary intentionality theory from what Aquinas proposed with his account of esse intentionale need elucidation beyond what one normally finds in such discussions of medieval philosophy of mind. The importance of Franz Brentano is, of course, legendary in discussions of intentionality, but there are differences between Aquinas and Brentano that cry out for analysis and discussion. As this next chapter unfolds, Aquinas will be introduced as a significant player in contemporary analytic philosophy of mind—a position often articulated in the writings of Kenny, Haldane, Stump, Pasnau, and Christopher Martin, among others.

  • [1] As noted earlier, Kenny, Haldane, Stump, and Pasnau, along with O’Callaghan and Martin, have beenparticularly effective in approaching Aquinas on mind within analytic philosophy.
  • [2] John Haldane, ‘Insight, Inference and Intellection’ in Proceedings of the American CatholicPhilosophical Association 75 (1999), 38; also see Joseph Owens, ‘The Primacy of the External in ThomisticNoetics’ Eglise et theologie 5 (1974), 155-69.
  • [3] John Haldane, ‘A Thomist Metaphysics’, in Richard M. Gale (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics(Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 104.
  • [4] Gustav Bergmann, The Philosophy of Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 9.
  • [5] C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927), 11-22.
  • [6] Henry B. Veatch, For an Ontology of Morals (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 4.Contemporary historians of philosophy in the analytic tradition are mostly silent about this modus operandi,but it is a useful paradigm from which to approach serious work in the history of philosophy.
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