Home Economics Aquinas’s theory of perception: an analytic reconstruction
Back to Aristotle’s De Anima
If this analysis of Aquinas on inner sense is correct, especially in regard to the vis cogitativa, then this indicates at least one place where Aquinas, as a philosopher, is dependent upon yet goes beyond what he finds in Aristotle’s texts on the philosophy of mind. Modrak appears to be one of the few philosophers who suggest that Aristotle might have some sense of the intentiones non sensatae. In discussing the proper and the common sensibles in Aristotle (kath hauta), Modrak proposes that the incidental object of sense (kata sumbebekos) is categorically distinct from the proper and common sensibles. She writes: ‘The sensory basis for the perception of an individual object does not fully determine the content of the perception.’ She goes on to suggest:
the percipient plays an active role in shaping the content of an individual perception. Also, the perception of an incidental object arises spontaneously in the perception when past and present experiences are conducive to the apprehension of the incidental object in question. [. . .] Moreover, there is no textual evidence for attributing to Aristotle a narrow notion of perception that would exclude interpretation.
However, Aristotle, in his De Anima, does not build the philosophy of mind machinery needed to account for this act of awareness, but Aquinas does. Frede too notes this development in Aquinas’s analysis. Aquinas, in contrast to Aristotle, builds this mental machinery, and this explains the important cognitive role of the vis cogitativa.
This concludes the explicatio textus into the somewhat murky region of inner sense in Thomas Aquinas. This is a bit of philosophy of mind rooted in Aristotle’s De Anima,
but an account developed so much further. This account is sufficiently perspicuous so that it might help meet the charge that Haldane suggested as ‘one of the tasks for the next century’. In addition, this analysis suggests why the vis cogitativa is significant for Aquinas’s theory of mind and not what Frede called ‘an embarrassment’ To the contrary, without the vis cogitativa, Aquinas’s philosophy of mind would be an embarrassment. What remains now is an analysis of that elusive concept of ‘phantasm’ in Thomas. To that set of issues the final chapters turn. The vis cogitativa is far from the ‘embarrassment’ articulated by Frede, is different structurally from the proto-judgement suggested by Michon, and functions in an important manner neglected in Pasnau’s extended study.
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