Sunday, 10 November 2013

Question 87 – How our Intellect Knows Itself and What Exists Within it.

Why this Question Matters

It’s clear that we have an understanding of ourselves understanding something. But how does this type of understanding come about and what exactly is it an understanding of? When we’re not thinking, but staring vacantly into the middle distance, what do we know of ourselves?

This question might be seen as a coda to Ia.q85, considering the intellective cognition of intellective cognition.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas’s first task is to enquire into whether the intellect understands itself through its own essence. Our first task is, perhaps, to understand what this question actually means!

We’ve seen that the intellect understands a material thing by a process of abstracting universal intelligible species from phantasms of the thing constructed by the sensory powers. The problem is that if the intellect is to understand itself, then it has to understand something that is immaterial. So we recall that the human intellect is an immaterial substance that is in potentiality to receive intelligible species. The actuality of its understanding (that is, when it actually understands something) is the very act of moving from potentiality to actuality in the reception of an intelligible species. So really all that the intellect can work with in understanding itself is its essence (in other words, what it is fundamentally, defined by its form) or its potentiality (that is, its ability to understand things) or its actuality (that is, what it understands in accumulating accidental intelligible forms). Which one is it?

The key to Aquinas’s approach to this question is the assertion that a substance bears the same relationship to being intelligible through its essence that it bears to being actual through its essence. In the case of material things this principle is clear: we can only have cognition of something insofar as it is actual; that is, insofar as its form is actualized. Aquinas carries this principle over to the immaterial.

Next he goes runs through some exemplar essences. God’s essence is perfect actuality, perfectly intelligible in itself; therefore God has perfect intellective understanding of all things, including Himself, through His essence. Angels are a little bit further down the scale of being. They have cognition of themselves through their essences, but they do not understand everything thereby; cognition of things other than the angel himself is supplied through impressed intelligible species supplied directly by God at the creation of the angel. When we get down to the level of humans we realize that the potentiality of the passive intellect to receive intelligible species parallels the ability of prime matter to receive form. So, considered in its essence, the human intellect only has intellective understanding in potentiality. Applying the principle that was outlined above, we deduce that the human intellect can only be understood intellectively in its act; that is, as it is actually understanding something.  It is through its act that the human intellect understands itself, not through its essence.

Aquinas goes on to identify two ways in which we have cognition of intellect. The first way, which he calls a particular way, occurs when any particular individual perceives himself to be having an intellective understanding. This happens when the act of the mind is in a way present to the person having the cognition and is an experience and knowledge available individually to anybody. On the other hand, there is a more general way in which we understand the mind’s cognition that is obtained through lengthy and diligent enquiry. This is the way in which we understand what is actually going on in the act of understanding; to understand this we have to discern the nature of the soul, understanding the derivation of our intellect’s light from God’s truth.

The third objection, derived from Aristotle’s de anima, argues that in the understanding of immaterial things, the intellect and what is understood are the same. In other words, what is impressed on the passive intellect is the form of the thing understood, which just is the thing understood. Therefore the intellect must understand itself (being immaterial) though its own essence. One might at this point worry about infinite regress (the form of the intellect being impressed in the intellect as understanding itself) but Aquinas takes the line that Aristotle is being misunderstood in the objection. Aristotle’s dictum applies differently in those things that exist entirely without matter (separated substances like angels) to those forms that exist in matter (like the soul). For forms that exist in matter, the intelligible species that exists in the intellect is a likeness of the actual material thing through which it is understood and is not identical to it. The objection would stand if we were talking about angels having cognition of their own understanding.

A2: A very important part of being human is our ability to accumulate expertize. Through years of training one might become a concert pianist, or a mathematician, or a linguist, or simply a virtuous person. Expertize seems to be present in us as a sort of stable disposition; in the absence of trauma, the expert does not simply lose expertize overnight. This type of stable disposition Aquinas calls habitus which is often translated as “habit”, although one must be aware that the modern use of the word is somewhat different to that used by Aquinas. It is a very important concept that he will turn to throughout the summa. Here he asks about how we have cognition of the soul’s habits; is this cognition through their essence?

If one thinks about the ability (in a non-native French speaker) to speak French, then one might recognize a number of stages in the development of that skill (or habit). One would at least recognize a period when the language is being learned, perhaps a period when knowledge of the language was being cemented and a period in which the speaker has become habitually as good as a native speaker. In terms of moving between potentiality and actuality one would also recognize that the absolute beginner has a potentiality to learn the language that becomes an actuality as an ability to speak the language that is itself in turn a potentiality to be actually speaking the language right now.

So, as Aquinas says, a habit lies somewhere between being a pure potentiality (the ability to learn it) and a pure actuality (actually speaking it right now). But we recall from above (Ia.q87.a1) that nothing is understood unless it is actual; so a habit is only knowable insofar as it is actual. So we have two ways in which we have intellectual cognition of a habit. In the first way we have cognition of it as we are actually producing the act proper to the habit (actually speaking French right now). The second way parallels the second way in which we saw how the mind understands itself; though diligent enquiry into the way that habits work.

A3: The first two articles of this question have shown us that we have cognition of our intellect and of its habits by means of its acts rather than through essences. But there would seem to be problems with this conclusion: the object of cognition would seem to be an external thing understood in its quiddity, rather than the actual act by which we have cognition of it. Again, if there is cognition of something, and we have cognition of that act of cognition then we must also have cognition of this latter act and so on to infinity. Third, shouldn’t we really recognize that there’s something analogous to the common sensory power lurking behind the intellect; the things that is actually the “I” having the cognition of cognition?

Following the pattern used in the first article, Aquinas runs through the examples of the cognition of God and of the angels before considering the cognition of human beings. What he is concerned with here is the different ways in which we should understand that the first thing to be understood about an intellect is its act of intellective understanding. When we consider the intellect of human beings we recognize that there’s a sort of trinity of things going on in an act of cognition. First of all there is the act of cognition of the external object itself, but simultaneously there is cognition of the act of this first cognition. We’re not finished yet: in these two modes of cognition there is cognition of the intellect itself, because the intellect, brought to its fullest level of actuality, precisely is the act of intellectual understanding.

Aquinas points to a too narrow understanding of the object of the intellect as being the root of the problem with the first objection. The actual object of the intellect is being and truth; and it’s clear that the act of intellective understanding falls under these as object of cognition. The second objection falls by recognizing that we could have an infinite regress of acts of cognition, but it is a potential infinity rather than an actual infinity. In an act of cognition of an external thing, the two different things cognized (the external thing itself and the cognition of that thing) are different. A further reflection on the act of cognition, presumably initiated by the will, would be required for cognition of the act of cognition. This we can do until we have had enough, but we would get bored long before we reached infinity. Aquinas answers the third objection by pointing out that the parallel between the senses and the intellect fails because the senses involve the use of material organs; intellectual cognition is immaterial and therefore there is no need to posit something behind the intellect.

A4: What about acts of the will? Do we have an intellective understanding of these? After all, it would seem that the will lies outside the scope of objects of the intellect. Aquinas points out that an act of the will is an inclination that follows upon a form that has been understood. He uses three examples to illustrate the different modes in which inclinations can exist. The form corresponding to the weight of an object inclines that object to move in a certain direction in a gravitational field, and we say that this inclination is natural to it. The form corresponding to a bowl of ripe strawberries inclines the sentient appetite to make a beeline for the cream and a spoon; the sentient desire exists in the sentient faculty. Likewise the intellectual cognition that the strawberries appear to be rather unripe leads to an act of the will to put a bit of sugar on them; this inclination exists intelligibly. So Aquinas concludes, following Aristotle, that there is a mode in which we can consider the various inclinations to exist in their corresponding faculties. So the act of willing, existing in the intellect, can be perceived in two ways: in a perception of willing something in general; but also in a perception of the nature of what is being willed.

Handy Concepts

  • The intellect has cognition of itself through its act rather than through its essence. Likewise, we have intellectual cognition of our habitual abilities through their act.
  • Acts of the will exists in some sense in the intellect, as it is at the very least supplying the object of the will. As such, acts of the will are understood by the intellect.


  • Aquinas’s argument that we have cognition of the intellect only in act seems reasonable from the point of view of introspection. We are only aware of our intellects when they are having intellectual cognition. In those periods in which we empty our minds, in meditation perhaps, do we have cognition of our minds?
  • In the second article Aquinas does not explain in any detail the second way in which the mind has cognition of habits; he simply says that it is through diligent enquiry. The parallel with the first article suggests that this is a diligent enquiry into how habits work but one might also ask whether there is another aspect of introspection at work here. If I have an intellectual reflection on a memory of having spoken French yesterday should this be considered direct cognition of my habit of French? Or does it fit into the schema of Aquinas’s second type of cognition of habit? Perhaps my simple recollection and reflection is not sufficient to be considered cognition of the habit but rather has to be supported by further reasoning. For example, I can recall that I was speaking French yesterday, but I have to reason that this was the act of a habit (rather than divine intervention or inebriated inspiration) and that if I had the habit yesterday, then I probably have it today.
  • Aquinas’s answer to the third objection of the third article may be disappointing to those who wish to identify some sort of separate faculty of the soul that is the “I” behind the intellect. For Aquinas, the intellect is where the show stops (bearing in mind, of course, God acting as first mover of the agent intellect). The actuality of the intellect in the act of cognition is itself cognized by the intellect. Perhaps it would have been helpful for Aquinas to say more at this point on the very human activity of reflection. After all, we often think that it is this very ability to reflect on experience, in a way that unites all the faculties of the soul, which defines the “I”.

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