Thursday, 2 February 2012

Question 56 - The Angel's Knowledge of Immaterial Things

Why this Question Matters.

It’s now time for Aquinas to become more specific about what the angels know. In the next question he discusses the angels’ knowledge about material things, but here he turns to the topic of the angels’ cognition of immaterial things. Since we’ve already seen that angels know things through intelligible species that are connatural to them (Ia.q55.a1) it might at first seem puzzling that Aquinas would tackle this question, as one might simply argue that what angels know is determined by what God lets them know. But the point of this question is to make a principled enquiry into particular categories of the angelic knowledge of immaterial things. The division of the articles follows these categories: what do angels know of themselves, of each other and of God?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: To ask whether an angel knows itself might appear to be a strange question. But what Aquinas is really concerned with is the metaphysical mechanisms underpinning the fact that an angel must know itself. As far as Aquinas is concerned, self-knowledge is the primary knowledge that knowing things have and which follows pretty much immediately upon the being of the knowing subject. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum would have appeared to Aquinas as simply begging the question; it assumes the existence of the thinking “I” within its premise. One cannot really get started on metaphysics without the recognition that the most immediate act of apprehension of the knowing subject is of the being of the knowing subject itself.

Aquinas’s argument proceeds by observing that knowledge is an immanent action caused by a form in an agent, and that this form (the intelligible species) is united with the agent. In the case of material beings knowing material objects (even parts of their own selves), the active intellect constructs an intelligible species from sensory phantasms; this intelligible species is united with, rather than exterior to, the knowing subject. The second step is to notice that knowledge, especially in the case of humans, often involves this form bringing some potentiality within the intellect to actuality, but that it doesn’t have to involve this. In fact, a form of intelligence higher than that of humans would not involve the actualization of a potential but would correspond to the forms informing knowledge always being present to the intellect. Angels don’t have to learn these sorts of things; they always know what they know. Finally, Aquinas argues that there is no inherent reason to suppose that a form that informs knowledge in the knowing subject has to be accidental (even though it is in the case of human knowledge). In fact, an angel is a subsistent intelligible form and it understands itself thorough this very form.

The second objection raises an important issue about cognition: it makes the striking claim that no singular is intelligible. What lies behind this claim is the idea that, when we apprehend something, our apprehension starts at a general level and then proceeds to the more specific as we gather more data about the object. Our knowledge of something that comes into our field of attention starts out the universal level (“that’s an animal”) and then proceeds to become more specific (“that’s a cat” and then “that’s my cat Felix”), but never reaches the level of complete knowledge of the individual. In the case of this objection, it would seem that since angels are singular within their species, they cannot be intelligible (to themselves or to anyone else). Aquinas answers that it is not the singularity that makes things unintelligible but rather their principle of individuation. In the cases of material objects this principle of individuation is their matter. Singular things that exist without matter, like the angels, are intelligible.

A2: As with the first article, the question of whether angels know other angels seems quite uncontentious. The issue is how and what do they know? Aquinas takes his lead here from St. Augustine. Augustine had argued that things that existed from eternity in the Word of God “flowed” forth from Him in two ways: firstly as existing in their own intrinsic natures and secondly as existing as known. So when we consider one angel, this flow of being terminates in it as its nature and its intelligibility but also terminates in all other angels as it is known.

In using this distinction in the answer to the third objection, Aquinas introduces in passing the difference between natural being (esse naturale) and intentional being (esse intentionale). The idea is that the angel both exists in its natural state but also “exists” in the intellect of other angels as known. This is similar to the idea that the intelligible species of an object that exists in our intellect is a form of the object perceived that is not instantiated in matter but only exists in the intellect.

A3: Right back at the start of the summa, Aquinas proved that humans have a natural knowledge of God (however weak and inadequate that may be). Our knowledge of God is gained by inference from our knowledge of sensible things. Angels do not have sense organs, therefore they do not have sensible knowledge of things, and therefore one might doubt that they have natural knowledge of God.

Aquinas answers that there are three ways in knowledge of God may be had. The cognition of God through His own essence is the first way, and of course this way is reserved for God Himself. The way we know God is a way of knowing in which we receive a likeness of Him not directly from Him but indirectly through what He has created. The third way, which lies “in between” these two ways, is to receive a likeness of God directly from Him and this is the way in which the angels know God. This is a “natural” knowledge of God inasmuch as the image of God is stamped on the very nature of the angel.

Handy Concepts

  • Angelic knowledge (in this case, of self) is different from human knowledge and more perfect in the sense that it doesn’t involve the reduction of a potency to act. What seems essential to knowledge is the existence of an immaterial form (that can, in the case of humans reduce a potency to an act of knowledge or in angels can inform from the very moment of their creation).
  • Natural being and intentional being account for the existence of an angel and for it being known by other angels.
  • Angels receive a likeness of God directly from God and thus have a natural knowledge of God impressed upon their nature.


  • It seems odd that Aquinas has not tackled the question of the knowledge that angels may have about the separated souls of the faithful and the damned. After all, they are the other example of created pure spirits.
  • The question of intentionality (or of intentional being) is a substantial one in philosophy. One of the major proofs of the immateriality of mind derives from the fact that minds have meanings for things (and meanings are not things that material objects have). For Aquinas, the knowledge of things goes deep into his theory of being; and hence the importance of the notions of natural and intentional being.

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