Sunday, 5 January 2014

Question 89 – A Separated Soul’s Cognition.

Why this Question Matters

So far in the Treatise on Human Nature, Aquinas has been almost exclusively concerned with the operations of the soul whilst it is joined with the body during its earthly existence. We saw, however, that the soul is a subsistent form (Ia.q75.a2) capable of existing separate from the body. This fact raises some obvious questions about what the soul can understand when it is separated from the body. In such a state are there any cognitive operations at all, or does the soul enter some form of suspended animation? If it can have some sort of cognitive understanding, then what sort? What might the objects of such a post-mortem understanding be; can the separated soul gain new knowledge or is it restricted to reflection upon what it learned on earth? What of its knowledge of what is going on amongst those people and things that the soul left behind at death? This question is entirely dedicated to a consideration of questions of this sort.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Once the soul is separated from the body, the soul no longer has available to it any of the bodily organs associated with cognition; all that is left is the immaterial intellect. Can such a separated soul continue to have intellectual cognition? Certainly nothing new is coming in via sense organs, as they are bodily and no longer available to the separated soul. Even worse, there is no longer the power of the imagination available to the intellect, so the agent intellect can no longer shine a light on any phantasms in order to abstract quiddity. There may, of course, be the possibility of a supernatural form of cognition granted by a gift of grace; but if we are simply thinking in terms of the possible natural cognition available to the separated soul, then it is hard to see how this can function after death. The sed contra presents a perplexing counter-argument: one of the distinguishing aspects of the human soul is that it can exist separated from the body; it is a subsistent form. As a subsistent form it must have its own proper operations that do not depend on the separated body; surely therefore, the intellect must be able to operate once the body is gone because intellectual cognition is proper to the soul.

Aquinas agrees that this is perplexing but goes on to argue that the soul has two modes of understanding. The first mode of understanding occurs when the soul is united with the body and consists in the abstraction of form from material objects via the illumination of phantasms by the agent intellect. This first mode of understanding should be considered as the natural mode of understanding for a soul because it is natural for a soul to be united with a body. But still, a soul can subsist independent of a body; corresponding to this second state of being, there is a second operation of the intellect, a different mode of understanding. The first mode of understanding corresponds to the cognition of intelligible species after they are abstracted from their material being; the second mode of understanding is ordered to the cognition of those things that are intelligible absolutely speaking. That is, of those forms that do not have to be abstracted from a material mode of being.

Unfortunately this argument leaves Aquinas with an awkward question to answer. If the human soul is capable of a mode of understanding that does not require the abstraction of form from phantasms, why bother with a mode of understanding that does when the soul is united with the body? To deal with this Aquinas appeals to the hierarchy of intellectual being. Beings higher up the hierarchy understand things in more generality through simpler forms; beings lower in the hierarchy understand in more particularity through a larger number of more specific forms. It requires a stronger intellect to receive perfect cognition through simpler forms, so an intellect lower in the hierarchy, and therefore weaker, would receive a less perfect cognition if it were required to receive that cognition through simpler forms. As the human intellect lies at the bottom of the hierarchy of intellectual being, it is natural to it to receive the most specific of forms; that is, forms abstracted from material being.

In the reply to the third objection Aquinas makes an important clarification. The separated soul no longer has cognition through the abstraction of forms from material being, nor does it have cognition solely through the forms that are retained in the passive intellect from the time of its bodily existence. Its new mode of understanding is like that of the other separated immaterial substances, coming from a participation in the divine light of God. In this mode of understanding it is turned towards higher things. One might be inclined to say that the soul’s first mode of understanding is natural and that the second is supernatural; but this would be a mistake. The soul, although naturally united to the body, also has a natural mode of existence separate from the body; likewise the corresponding second mode of understanding is itself natural to the soul.

A2: We’ve seen that the separated soul has a secondary mode of understanding beyond the normal mode that operates when the soul is united to the body. The next series of questions to address must concern what the soul understands through the natural operation of this secondary mode. Does it, for example, have an intellective understanding of other separated immaterial substances?

When united to the body the soul has an understanding of itself only insofar as it is in act (Ia.q87.a1); when separated from the body it obtains understanding not from a turning towards phantasms but by turning towards things that are intelligible in their own right. Therefore, in such a mode of understanding, the soul understands itself through itself. We can generalize this observation to see how the soul in this mode of understanding has cognition of immaterial separated substances. Separated intellectual substances have an understanding of other separated substances in a mode in accordance with their own substance. Therefore a separated soul has perfect cognition of other separated souls; these being at the same level of the hierarchy of intellectual being as the soul. It has a less perfect and indistinct understanding of intellectual beings, such as angels, that are higher in the hierarchy.

A3: We recall that angels have a perfect cognition of natural things through species received from the divine light (Ia.q55). As the separated human soul looks a little bit like an angel, albeit lower in the hierarchy of immaterial intellectual being, perhaps we can say that the separated human soul has cognition of all natural things. This is true to a certain extent according to Aquinas, who will steer a middle course between the objections and the multiple counterarguments in the sed contra. Following the pattern established in the second article of this question, separated souls do have cognition of all natural things, but it is a general and indistinct cognition befitting the position of the soul in the hierarchy of being.

A4: We saw in Ia.q86.a1 that the human soul united with its body does not have cognition of singulars. Does the situation change when the soul is separated from the body? At first sight, as the objections point out, it would seem not. After all, the only cognitive power that remains in the separated soul is the intellect and it’s the same intellect that was present when united with the body. Similarly, we’ve seen above that the separated soul only has a general and indistinct cognition of natural things; therefore it surely cannot understand singulars. On the other hand, the intellect of the separated soul receives species directly from divine illumination; surely it must be up to God to determine what the separated intellect can conceive.

Aquinas treads a middle ground. The separated soul has cognition of some singulars but not all. To argue this point, Aquinas reminds us of the two modes of intellective understanding: the first is through abstraction of form from phantasms; the second is through an influx of forms directly from God in divine illumination. It is indeed through this latter mode of understanding that the human soul can understand singulars. We saw in Ia.q14 that God has cognition of all things, universal and singular, through His essence. He infuses knowledge of singulars and universals as He pleases into the angels, therefore He is able to do the same for the separated human soul.

Separated human souls are not as well off as the angels, though, in this regard. Although angels can have perfect and proper cognition of things, the separated soul is constrained by its mode of being. It is restricted to a cognition of certain singulars that have a particular relationship to the soul: those previously understood; those with an affective tie; those determined by a natural or by a divine ordination.

A5: This article and the next form a pair. Aquinas is concerned with the question of whether scientific knowledge (that is, demonstrative knowledge and reasoning) gained during an earthly life is retained after the soul is separated from the body by death. The second objection to the sixth article generalizes from scientific knowledge to any knowledge at all: “…there is no way in which a separated soul will be able to have an act of intellective understanding through intelligible species acquired here”. In this article, Aquinas asks whether the habit of scientific knowledge gained during the earthly life remains in the separated soul; in the next article he will ask the corresponding question about the act of scientific knowledge. If we recall the difference between habit and act then we will understand that in this article he is asking whether the expertize to reason scientifically is retained and in the next whether an actual act of scientific reasoning can occur, based on knowledge gained during the bodily existence of the soul.

The way that the intellect acquires habits of scientific understanding involves repeated acts of the intellect turning towards phantasms produced by the imagination; so the habit of scientific knowledge involves a habitual component that is proper to the passive intellect but also an aptitude within the sentient powers for working with the intellect, facilitating the act of scientific understanding. Of course, when the soul is separated from the body, this latter sentient aptitude is no longer present, but the habitual power within the passive intellect is. Aquinas supplies a small coda to his reply to answer those who might argue that the forms present in the intellect might be destroyed at the separation of soul from body; he argues that the mechanisms by which such destruction might occur simply do not apply in this situation.

A6: Having seen in the fifth article that the intellectual component of the habit of scientific knowledge remains in the separated soul after death, we must now ask whether this habit can be brought to an actual act of scientific knowledge. After all, the act of scientific knowledge in this life depends upon an interaction between the immaterial intellective powers of the soul and the material sentient powers. The latter are simply not present after death and so it is quite conceivable that such habitual knowledge remains dormant until the general resurrection!

Having set up the machinery of two different modes of understanding for the intellect in the articles above, it is not surprising that Aquinas turns to this in answer to this article. The intellect no longer turns to the retained species using phantasms of the imagination, rather it understands them in the light of divine illumination; that is, in the mode appropriate to the separated soul.

A7: When the soul is united with the body during our earthly existence we depend on our senses to gather information about material being. In these circumstances, spatial separation between our senses and a putative object of cognition impedes our coming to an understanding of that object. This remains true even in this age of tremendous technological advances in remote sensing; if the equipment is turned off or pointed in the wrong direction, we will know nothing of the remote object!

Does the same remain true when the soul is separated from the body? Aquinas claims that the situation here is quite different from that of our bodily existence. The separated soul has intellective understanding of singulars through an influx of divine light; the divine light is not subject to the restrictions of distance in the way that physical light is. Therefore spatial distance simply does not impede the cognition of the separated soul.

A8: One of the questions of perennial interest to people of many faiths concerns the relationship between the souls of the departed and those who remain in the land of the living. The Christian scriptures give answers that can be interpreted in multiple ways and it not clear that they unambiguously answer the question of whether, through the normal course of affairs, the souls of the dead have knowledge of what is happening amongst the living. Perhaps they do, but maybe their attention is fully turned to higher things and they only gather such knowledge when new separated souls arrive to join them or if God has some particular reason for enlightening them.

If we look at Aquinas’s understanding of the operation of the intellect after death, then this too is open to answers either way. On the one hand, the soul can no longer abstract new knowledge from phantasms derived from the senses; but on the other hand, as the soul is illumined by the divine light it is perfectly possible that this includes illumination about what is happening on earth. Perhaps the illumination includes information about those specifically related or involved with the separated soul whilst in earth. Aquinas turns to Gregory the Great and to Augustine to see if the opinion of the Fathers can offer direction on this question. Gregory seems confident that the souls of those in heaven do look down upon those on earth; but Aquinas argues with his reasoning. Augustine disagrees, though states that his opinion is precisely an opinion and others may wish to disagree.

At the last Aquinas leaves a definite answer to this question open, but the structure of his answer and the replies to the objection suggest that he favours the opinion that, in the normal course of affairs, separated souls have their attention turned to higher things and that they have knowledge of earthly affairs only through God’s ordination through the divine light.

Handy Concepts

  • The human soul has two modes of intellective understanding. When united with the body, the first mode of intellection occurs through the abstraction of forms from the phantasms provided by the senses. When separated from the body, the second mode of intellective understanding occurs in which divine illumination replaces the absent senses.
  • Through the second mode of intellective understanding the separated soul can have a direct intellective understanding of other separated immaterial substances. The perfection of this understanding depends upon the level of the object of intellection in the hierarchy of intellective being. So, the separated soul can have a perfect understanding of other separated souls, but its understanding of beings higher in the hierarchy is indistinct.
  • In the condition of separation from the body, the soul can have a general and indistinct cognition of all natural things and it can have a precise understanding of certain types of singular.
  • The habit and act of scientific intellection remain in the human soul after separation from the body insofar as these are particular to the immaterial intellect. The act of scientific knowledge can occur by means of the divine light.
  • The question of whether separated souls have knowledge of what is going on back on earth seems open to alternative opinions.


  • Although Aquinas does not explicitly say it in the first article, it would seem that a natural consequence of his argument is that the secondary mode of intellectual understanding available to the separated soul by necessity results in a less perfect and more indistinct cognition than that resulting from the primary mode. Although the blessed in heaven are in receipt of a perfection of their natures by supernatural means, their intellects remain human intellects restricted by their natures.
  • Aquinas talks of the separated soul as having a general and indistinct cognition of things through the species received by divine light; but he doesn’t elaborate what this actually means.
  • The second mode of intellective understanding operates after the separation of the soul from its body; but can it, and does it ever, operate whilst in this earthly life?
  • One might be concerned that Aquinas’s theory of the cognition of separated souls is in some ways arbitrary; designed to fit into his understanding of the hierarchy of intellectual being rather than being based on philosophical argument. But, as with his angelology, the data that he has to work with are sparse. Human cognition in this life is restricted to the abstraction of material forms from material beings and from what can be deduced from that. Our knowledge of cognition in the afterlife is only hinted at in the sources of revelation.


  1. "The second mode of intellective understanding operates after the separation of the soul from its body; but can it, and does it ever, operate whilst in this earthly life?"

    Would not the revelation of God's Word as the Bible be of the 2nd type. Also, the understanding that is the Grace of faith would be too, would it not?

  2. Interesting thoughts; could you expand upon these a bit for me? In particular, how would you see these examples as being part of the natural cognition of the soul as opposed to the supernatural?

  3. Well, the natural cognition of the soul would be through the senses and the process (procession) of reasoning,as Aquinas abundantly argues. But if the soul, after separation, can be informed by the action of immaterial substances, as well as through the illumination of God, why could it not be informed this way, in a lesser (but necessary, as I would argue) degree before separation. It is not clear to me whether Aquinas's "agent intellect" is supposed to be part of the human soul or whether it could be this contact with divine or angelic light.

    Modern enthusiasts of computation seem to think that all of the conclusions we draw from given premises are necessarily drawn through a process of pure deductive reasoning, but the fact is that given a small number of statements taken as true, an unlimited and divergent number of lines of reasoning (combining and dividing, as Aquinas puts it), almost all of them leading nowhere follow. Surely, some exterior illumination is needed (hence my 'necessary' above) as guiding inspiration (a 'muse' is another word for it from a different tradition) for the reason to aim at.

    I have long thought that the easiest leap of faith is the 'induction' of science, and the hardest, though always possible with the right heart, called Grace, is faith in our Lord Jesus.

  4. In this question, Aquinas is very much interested in the natural modes of cognition of the soul. He identifies two such natural modes: the one that we’re most familiar with, that involves abstraction from phantasms derived (eventually) from our sense organs; the second, applying to the natural cognition of a separated soul, is the one that he concentrates on in this question. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it here, I suspect that Aquinas would argue that this second mode of cognition does not apply while the soul is united to the body; and this simply because it has already has a perfectly good natural mode for this mode of being of the soul!

    Aquinas does take the agent (or “active”) intellect to be part of the soul; see Ia.q99.aa3-5. Article 4 of that question connects Aquinas’s theory of cognition with the idea of divine illumination. The agent intellect is the thing that is responsible for abstraction from phantasms (and being part of the soul ensures that our congestion genuinely is “our” cognition). But what is it that moves the agent intellect to act? Rather than divine illumination taking all the hard work out of cognition for us (spoon-feeding us abstract forms), it is the first mover that moves the agent intellect to act.

  5. Did you mean question 79? You referenced question 99?

    I agree that he means the agent intellect to be at least partly of the human soul. I expressed the alternate above as a "contact", which is probably not a word in the Thomistic tradition. Note, however, that in article 4, in "I answer that", he says "Therefore we must say that in the soul is some power derived from a higher intellect, whereby it is able to light up the phantasms". This is where I felt the ambiguity I mentioned on October 20th. Thinking further upon it, I see that there really is no ambiguity, just as the plug on a machine is both part of the machine and the point of contact of that machine with the source of power.

    Still, this would imply that what we understand through our senses requires a supernatural illumination, so do you not think this would imply that the second mode of understanding _does_ apply while the soul is united to the body, but usually (but not wholly) limited to understanding derived from the sense acquired phantasms.

    I say not wholly, because there remains the divine revelation to the prophets and the grace of faith to the rest of us. How, if not through the second mode, would we arrive at this kind of understanding?

    I am, of course, deeply interested in this (aside from Aquinas's particular theology), because, today, we have to deal with the challenge from computation to our ideas of free will and morality. If, as many keenly assert, a computer could fully simulate he operation of a human brain, then free will is a false concept, we cannot be responsible for moral action, and everything else goes down the drain, because computers are deterministic machines.

    I don't think it is the case, but I guess it's a bit off topic for this site.