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Intentionality and the Curse of Representationalism

Several important aspects of contemporary work on intentionality theories and Aristotelian realism require discussion. Haldane’s insights on formal cause and Putnam’s denial that the mind is an ‘inner theatre’ are important in understanding

Aquinas.[1] This ‘inner theatre’ model is a direct reference to representationalism, which is familiar in all post-Cartesian philosophy of mind. The ‘inner theatre’ account entails that efficient causation is a sufficient condition to explain sensation and perception. Secondly, it assumes what Putnam calls ‘the highest common factor’ for two disjuncts: a veridical and a non-veridical awareness:

Aristotle has, like McDowell today, a ‘disjunctive account’, one that does not postulate any ‘highest common factor’ between an illusion and a veridical perception. (I suspect that McDowell, who is a fine Aristotle scholar, got his account from Aristotle, in fact.) Thus the ‘infallibility’ of sensation is a conceptual matter, not a problematic empirical claim. And the intentionality of sensation lies in the fact that it is a taking in of the very sensible quality that it is said to be ‘about’. Of course, the presence of that quality is one of the causes of its being taken in; but the cause is singled out by what sensation is.[2]

This account put forward by Putnam is helpful in the attempt to reconstruct Aquinas on intentionality theory and its relationship to a rejection of representationalism. Kenny too directs his attention to this set of issues.[3] Nonetheless, what analytic philosophers neglect to consider is a theory of intentionality based on formal identity. To reiterate an earlier claim, by his intentionality theory, Aquinas offers a middle ground between Cartesian dualism on the one hand and the physicalism and functionalism common to much contemporary work in the philosophy of mind on the other. Furthermore, Aquinas’s intentionality theory goes beyond the functionalist account of Aristotle on mind once attributed to Aristotle by Nussbaum and Putnam.

  • [1] Hilary Putnam, ‘Aristotle’s Mind and the Contemporary Mind’, in Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou,Jagdish Hattiangadi, and David M. Johnson (eds), Aristotle and Contemporary Science, vol. 1 (New York:Lang, 2000), 7-28.
  • [2] Ibid, 39.
  • [3] ‘Some people think of the mind as being a kind of inner environment, the polar opposite of the external environment of the physical universe. This, I shall argue, is not the correct way to think of the mind: theboundary between the mental and the material is not the same as the boundary between inner and outer’:Kenny, Aquinas on Mind, 15.
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