Sunday, 5 January 2014

Question 88 – How the Human Soul Understands Those Things Above it.

Why this Question Matters

We have some sort of understanding of the immaterial: on the one hand we understand material objects though the abstraction of immaterial forms from the phantasms produced by the senses; on the other hand, we can prove with certainty that God (who is most definitely immaterial) exists. In this question Aquinas asks for more precision about our knowledge of the immaterial. In particular, if we think about separated immaterial substances (such as angels), can we have a direct cognition of them through themselves; that is, can we perceive them directly as immaterial? Or is it rather the case that our understanding of the immaterial is necessarily indirect?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: According to Aquinas’s account, Plato’s theory of forms implies that the very first things of which we have intellective understanding are precisely the immaterial subsistent forms that provide the paradigms for all material things. On the contrary, Aristotle teaches that we arrive at an intellective understanding of the forms of material objects by abstraction from the phantasms that our sensory powers produce from what is received in the sense organs. Aquinas favours this view of Aristotle’s by which our primary mode of cognition involves such abstraction of material forms from the phantasms of material objects. Accordingly, we simply do not have direct access to knowledge of immaterial substances such as forms through themselves.

Aquinas is not satisfied by leaving the answer at this point. At the time he was writing other theories concerning the operation of the intellect were circulating; in particular, Averroes’s theory of the separated agent intellect. Given that Aquinas understands our intellect as abstracting the immaterial from the material, he appears to take Averroes’s theory as being the only candidate to posit the direct understanding of something immaterial through itself. For in this theory Averroes advances the idea that the agent intellect is itself an immaterial separated substance on the same level, so to speak, as other immaterial substances. Therefore it is natural to the agent intellect, thus understood, to have intellective understanding of immaterial substances. We then derive our understanding of immaterial substances through the union of the agent intellect with us.

Aquinas then goes on to describe Averroes’s mechanism for the union of the agent intellect with us. In this theory, the relationship of the agent intellect to the intelligible object (that is, of a material object) either has to be a relationship of a principal agent to its instruments or a relationship of matter to form. These might be better seen through analogy. If we think of the action of understanding something intelligible in analogy to the act of cutting something, then the agent intellect directs the intelligible in a way similar to the craftsman directing his instrument, the saw. Similarly if we think of the act of understanding in analogy to the action of heating where the form of heat informs its subject, the fire, then we see the agent intellect informing the intelligible object in making it actually intelligible. Either way, agent/instrument or matter/form, there is an actualization of potentiality in the reception of the intelligible in the passive intellect and it is in this actualization that the union of active intellect with us occurs. What is more, this union becomes stronger as more is received in the passive intellect, so that the perfect happiness of the human being lies in receiving all intelligible objects in the passive intellect. This union being complete, the active intellect’s direct understanding of separated immaterial objects comes with it.

Aquinas attacks this theory with six counter-arguments. The first two of these arguments return to an earlier theme: such an account where the passive and the active intellects are not considered powers of a soul that is the form of the body leads to a situation where it is not actually the human being that understands but something separated that understands for us. The second pair of counter arguments focus on the need to have received all material intelligible species before such a union is obtained. On the one hand, it seems that receiving the intelligible content of all material objects does not exhaust the capacity of the agent intellect (as it can understand the immaterial) and therefore it seems artificial to posit perfect union on only the reception of the material. On the other hand it seems rather harsh to say that humans can only attain happiness by knowing the all material intelligibles! Similarly, in the fifth counter-argument, this idea of human happiness as the possession of all material knowledge is hard to square with Aristotle’s attachment to the importance of the speculative contemplation of the immaterial as being foundational to human happiness. Finally, of course, according to Aquinas, the active and the passive intellects are powers of the soul ordered to the abstraction of the immaterial from the material.

A2: At this point we might be slightly puzzled by the progress of this question. Aquinas, by insisting that our cognitive abilities are ordered to the abstraction of form from material being, appears to be affirming that we have a certain sort of grasp on the immaterial but at the same time that we have no direct understanding of immaterial substances through themselves. After all, we have already seen that the human soul understands itself through its own act; and going right back to the beginning of the summa, we know that we can arrive at some knowledge of God by inference from His effects.

In this article, Aquinas clarifies exactly what he is arguing for. In his answer, he acknowledges that the process of abstraction from material being leads to cognition of the immaterial quiddity of material objects; but his concern here is with separated immaterial substances. Such a substance (an example of which is an angel) has a nature that is entirely different from the abstracted quiddity of a material object; they are simply different types of thing. Therefore there is no contradiction in claiming that we can have cognition of the immaterial quiddity of things whilst at the same time denying that we cannot have direct cognition of separated immaterial substances. We can know that God is, by using the arguments of Ia.q2.a3, but we do not know what God is by those arguments. We can know that angels exist, as they are revealed to us; but again, we do not know their quiddity from our cognitive apparatus.

A3: As if to amplify the point made in the previous article, Aquinas turns to our knowledge of God. As God is ontologically prior to everything, we might be inclined to think that He must be the first thing that we have cognition of. But this is simply not true; our cognitive faculties are ordered to the abstraction of quiddity from material objects, we have no cognition of created immaterial substances and therefore, a fortiori, we can have no direct cognition of God. What we know of God, apart from revelation, is inferred from His creation.

Handy Concepts

  • As the intellect understands things through the abstraction of material forms from the phantasms of material objects provided by the imagination, we have no direct access to an understanding of separated immaterial substance. We have to distinguish between the immaterial forms abstracted from material reality (which we can understand) and separated immaterial substances (which we cannot).
  • Our knowledge of God, the separated immaterial substance par excellence, is inferred indirectly from His effects in creation. Likewise, were we not to know about angels from the sources of revelation, or through their acts of power in the material world, we would simply not know about them.

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