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The Imagination and Phantasia. A Historical Muddle

The next internal sense faculty to be discussed in this building-block process is the imagination or what Aquinas sometimes refers to as ‘phantasia’. Philosophers in the analytic tradition have undertaken, at best, modest work on the internal sense faculties in Aquinas. To begin, it is important to recall a significant clarification regarding Aquinas’s texts. For the most part, this study has used as a principal source of texts Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Soul along with selected passages from the Summa Theologiae, the Summa Contra Gentiles, and the Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. Overall, the accounts given in these various texts have remained generally consistent. Concerning the classification of the internal senses, however, a somewhat baffling phenomenon occurs in the Commentary. Aquinas appears to be using the term ‘phantasia’ to apply to all three faculties of the internal sensorium—the imagination, the vis cogitativa, and the sense memory. This is strange textually, because earlier in this very work Aquinas has made explicit reference to the incidental object of sense, indicating that it is the specific sensible object of the vis cogitativa. This blurring of the three faculties of the internal sensorium is often overlooked by translators of the Commentary, since they repeatedly render phantasia into English as ‘imagination’. A reader unfamiliar with Aquinas’s work might conclude with good reason that, in this Aristotelian commentary, he considered only one internal sense.

On the other hand, often in various other texts ‘phantasia’ refers only to the imagination.1 Several passages found in the Summa Theologiae illustrate this claim: ‘But for the retention and preservation of these forms, the phantasia or imagination is appointed [...].’1 [1] [2] This Summa Theologiae text in which Aquinas discusses the internal senses asserts that the phantasia is identical and coextensive with the single internal sense faculty of the imagination. On the other hand, the structure of the argument in the Commentary suggests that while ‘phantasia’ is used repeatedly, this term refers to all three of the faculties of the internal sensorium and not specifically to the imagination alone. In the writings of Aquinas, accordingly, at least two textual uses ofphantasia occur:

  • (a) In the Summa Theologiae, ‘phantasia’ refers to the faculty of the imagination alone.
  • (b) In the Commentary, ‘phantasia’ is used regularly as a generic term referring to all three faculties of the internal sensorium: the vis imaginativa, the vis cogita- tiva, and the vis memorativa.

Furthermore, ‘phantasia’ refers only to those faculties of inner sense in which the phantasms are found. A phantasm never occurs with an act of awareness in the external sensorium alone. A necessary condition for the intentional existence of a phantasm is that it should be a mental act of the dispositional faculties or powers of the internal sensorium. A phantasm is never associated intentionally with the external sensorium, either the external or the internal sense faculties of the sensus communis.

  • [1] Pasnau refers to these as the ‘theological texts’ of Thomas. See Robert Pasnau, ‘Introduction, in ThomasAquinas: A Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), p. xx.
  • [2] The Latin version of this text is: ‘Ad harum autem formarum sententionem aut conversationem ordina-turphantasia, sive imaginatio, quae sunt idem (Summa Theologiae, I q. 78 a. 4).
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