Home Economics Aquinas’s theory of perception: an analytic reconstruction
The Phantasm and the Vis Cogitativa
This extended interpretation of the workings of the vis cogitativa in perceiving the individual primary substance can be looked upon in a twofold manner. First, there is a labelling process in which the individual thing is given a name. Secondly, this name, which in this case will be reminiscent analogically of a Russellian use of a ‘proper name’ attached to a definite individual subject, will be further joined with a conditioning or structured awareness which places the individual into a certain class or kind. As Aquinas noted, it is through the vis cogitativa that we recognize Diarus, not as a bundle of sensations, but rather as Diarus the individual man.
In his discussion of the vis aestimativa and the vis cogitativa, White argues that what Aquinas adopts in explaining perception is a holistic theory of perception. White’s suggestion for holism is in opposition to any form of an atomistic theory of perception—often called ‘psychological atomism’—in which the ultimate data of sensation are discrete, simple, sensible particulars that are combined through some other sensitive power or faculty. White acknowledges this comparison between Aquinas and Hume: ‘One very significant difference between the two [Aquinas and Hume], however, is that Aquinas’s theory of perception is, at the level of the vis cogitativa, thoroughly holistic, while Hume’s analysis of the laws of the mind is at its foundation atomistic.’ What, of course, needs to be explained is how this mental act takes place in the vis cogitativa. It is in providing such an explanation that the structured mental act utilizing Phantasm-II falls into place. Because of this structured awareness, Aquinas is able to provide for a perceptual holism or a substantive unity transcending the limits of psychological atomism.
In many places in this present treatise on Aquinas and perception, the concepts of a formal analysis have been contrasted with a material analysis. In his Quaestiones Disputatae de Virtutibus, Aquinas renders a conceptual elucidation regarding how this Aristotelian distinction holds for sensation. One will note that here Aquinas distinguishes between the formal aspect of the sensible object and the primary substance— the hoc aliquid—in which the sensible object belongs as an accidental quality.
In the sensible object, there is something considered as formal and another considered as material. What is formal in the object is that according to which the object is referred to the sensible power or habit; the material aspect on the other hand, is that in which this formal aspect is founded or grounded; in other words, if we speak of the object of the power of vision, its formal object is colour, because insofar as something is coloured, it is visible. On the other hand, what is material in the object is that body in which the colour is found. From this it is clear that a power or habit is referred to the formal aspect [formalis ratio] of the object per se, and to that which is material in the object per accidens. And since what is per accidens does not differentiate something but only what is per se, it follows therefore that the material diversity of an object does not diversify the power or habit; this, however, is accomplished only by the formal aspect. For the visual power by which we see stones, men, and the heavens is one, because this diversity of objects is material, and not according to the formal aspect [formalis ratio] of the visible. (Quaestiones Disputatae de Virtutibus, q. 2 a. 4)
What is important in this passage, which appeared earlier, is that Aquinas argues explicitly that the formal aspect is a necessary condition for an act of knowing to occur. Of course, here Aquinas considers the sensible objects, which have as a formal aspect the proper sensibles; this is why these sensibles are called ‘proper’ or ‘objecta propria. The question now comes into play: what is the formal element in the mental act of the vis cogitativa? For Aquinas, there is no form of individuation for the primary substance such as one finds in the writings of Scotus with the form of haecceitas, often translated as ‘thisness’ The suggestion put forward here is that the Gestalt-like mental act of the vis cogitativa provides this formal aspect in permitting this act of inner sense to perceive this hoc aliquid as an existing primary substance. The Phantasms-1 stored in the vis imaginativa provide the material component for which the vis cogitativa provides the structural awareness by means of its mental act through Phantasm-2. In a similar manner, the mental act of abstraction central to the intellectus agens provides the formal aspect of interpretation in making the species intelligibilis that then informs the intellectus possibilis so that intellectual understanding can take place. One can understand the structural account offered by Aquinas in terms of powers, acts, and objects. The formal aspect of colour—a ‘designata’, as Aquinas would say—determines the structure of the visual power so that the act of seeing might occur. Since there is no formal principle of individuality for the hoc aliquid—for Aquinas, the principle of individuation is materia signata quantitate—a formal element must be provided. This is the important role for the vis cogitativa in human perception. A similar case occurs in intellectual understanding, which is (as both Aristotle and Aquinas propose) about the universal and not the singular. There are no universalia ante res in Aquinas’s ontology; hence, in Aquinas’s ontology, unlike in that of Plato, subsisting universals in a mind-independent realm are not possible. If there are no universalia ante res in Aquinas, then how is it possible to have an understanding of a universal if there is no subsistent object external to the mind? It is for this reason that the intellectus agens is a necessary condition for Aquinas’s philosophy of mind. The intellectus agens provides the formal aspect to the array of Phantasms-3 stored in the vis memorativa. Both the vis cogitativa and the intellectus agens are two innate cognitive structures that are necessary conditions for Aquinas’s Aristotelian philosophy of mind to fit together holistically. To remove either of these innate cognitive structures renders Aquinas’s philosophy of mind unworkable and explanatorily vacuous.
Michon adopts a different strategy for offering an analysis of the vis cogitativa, remarking that some sense ofjudgement is necessary for the workings of this cognitive faculty of inner sense: ‘The presentation of phantasms to the intellect, for abstraction or conversion, does not involve any kind ofjudgement. However, the cogitative power is needed for a direct and non-intellectual knowledge of the singular, which is a complex knowledge, a judgement.’ Michon incorporates recent work in analytic philosophy from Davidson and others on the matter of proto-thoughts. He suggests that the workings of the vis cogitativa would be an example of a proto-thought mechanism. What this chapter argues, however, is that while a proto-thought mechanism might be appropriate for Thomas’s analysis of the vis cogitativa, nonetheless the awareness is not a judgement. Rather, it is a direct awareness through a Gestalt-like structure enabling the perceiver to be aware of an individual as a member of a natural kind. Michon is correct in suggesting that there is a non-intellectual knowledge—i.e. not pertaining to the intellect—of the particular individual, which would be an awareness of a primary substance. However, the claim of the analysis in this chapter is that this awareness is not a judgement but rather a Gestalt-like perception based on a structured mental act using Phantasm-2. In these texts, Aquinas does not refer to a ‘judgement’ in the same sense that he considers this mental act of the possible intellect. The proposal here, on the other hand, is that a ‘conditioning’ or ‘structuring’ of the mental act in a Gestalt manner provides for the awareness of an individual of a natural kind. In this way, Aquinas saves his epistemological realism and his ontological realism. This is a direct, structured act of awareness analogous to Gestalt awareness. The analysis of these texts suggests how Aquinas goes beyond the ‘magic’ of the situation proposed by Reid and offers an explanation of how human nature can accommodate this epistemological work. Deely too refers to this conceptual similarity with Gestalt psychology: ‘The argument here anticipates, more or less completely, the famous notion of “Gestalt” that would be introduced into scientific psychology in the early decades of the twentieth century. [. . .] The field of perception reveals objects in a way and according to properties that cannot be derived from a mere summation of its purely sensory components.’ The famous ‘duck-rabbit’ illustration from Wittgenstein comes to mind. This is not an act of judgement but rather a direct awareness of the particular concretum. Following the Wittgensteinian analogy, the mental act of the vis cogitativa using Phantasm-2 is an instance of ‘seeing as’. In her Aquinas, Stump, on the other hand, ascribes ‘seeing as’ to a cognitive state requiring as a necessary condition the working of the intellectus possibilis. Stump is correct in suggesting that this distinction common to analytic philosophy pertains to Aquinas’s account of knowing. However, since she does not develop any substantial cognitive role for the vis cogitativa in the process of intentional awareness, she is forced to reduce ‘seeing as’ to a combination of the faculties of the phantasia and the intellectus possibilis.25 The position developed here, however, is that because of the structured mental act of the vis cogita- tiva, the attribution of ‘seeing as’ can be predicated of this faculty of inner sense on the level of sense perception using the internal sensorium. The mental act of the vis cogitativa elucidated in the manner undertaken in this analysis is sufficient to account for instances of ‘seeing as’.
In the Commentary on the Soul, Aquinas writes: ‘The vis cogitativa is also called particular reason, because it joins individual intentions in the way that the universal reason joins universal concepts’ (no. 396). In his Quaestiones Disputatae de Anima, Aquinas writes much the same way: ‘In human knowers, there is a cogitative power that “collages” particular intentions; this is why it is called both particular reason and passive intellect’ (a. 13). Since it is correct that at times Aquinas refers to the vis cogitativa as the ‘ratio particularis’ (particular reason), obviously this might suggest that there is some act of judgement associated with the workings of this internal sense faculty. However, if any sense of judgement is connected with the vis cogitativa, it is at best some form of an immediately apprehended intuitive judgement. This intuitive judgement is reducible to the ‘Gestalt-like structure’ that is the focus of the present analysis of the vis cogitativa. This in turn may be coextensive with Michon’s account of the role proto-judgement might play in terms of an elucidation of the mental act of awareness of the vis cogitativa.
In the matter of perceiving an individual directly, this analysis gives meaning to Aquinas’s oft-repeated example of a child who in the beginning calls all men he sees ‘daddy’. It is only after a while that the child can distinguish his own father from his uncle, his older brother, and the neighbourhood postman. This recognition is accomplished only through the structured awareness of the vis cogitativa. It must be kept in mind, however, that Phantasm-2 is not an object of knowledge. It is a conditioning or structuring of the act of awareness of the vis cogitativa so that a perceiver can get beyond the limitation of the external sensorium. Accordingly, the force of the vis cogi- tativa is to enable a human perceiver to transcend the limits of the external sensorium. In an explanatory manner, Aquinas accounts for the possibility of human perceivers transcending the limits of the proper and common sensibles. This possibility permits perceivers to have an awareness of individual things as individuals of natural kinds and not merely as bundles of sensible qualities. This internal cognitive structure in terms of Actuality-II provides the philosophy of mind machinery that enables the vis cogitativa to transcend classical empiricism as well as provides an explanatory content of how this is possible. The vis cogitativa, as a built-in cognitive power, is always ‘on the go’, as it were, seeking to be aware of individual substantive things—the hoc aliquids—in the external world. 
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