Intentionality in Aquinas’s Philosophy of Mind

The first part of this inquiry elucidates the principles presupposed in Thomas Aquinas’s theory of knowledge, which can be classified as ‘principles of intentionality’. Haldane reminds us: ‘the Thomist account of intentionality is more sensitive and more complex than is usually supposed.’[1] The concept of intentionality is used because Aquinas’s philosophy of mind and epistemology can best be elucidated and understood by contemporary philosophers in terms of a thesis of intentionality. Geach wrote extensively about Aquinas’s distinction between esse naturale and esse intentionale.[2] [3] Aquinas uses this distinction as a means of rendering a category difference between knowers and non-knowers. In turn, this distinction grounds the position that an intentionality thesis serving as a backdrop offers a fruitful method for analysing the difficult passages in which Aquinas considers the problems of knowledge, mind, and the role of cognitivity in mental agents. This discussion of Aquinas’s theory of intentionality follows much recent work in Aristotelian philosophy of mind.11

Part of the difficulty of reading Aquinas on mind and knowledge lies in the obscure metaphysical language in which the narrative is couched. The principal statement of this theory asserts that knowledge is the ‘having of a form of another without its matter’. In the Summa Theologiae, one finds a straightforward description of a knower in Aquinas’s system: ‘The difference between knowing and non-knowing beings is that the latter have nothing but their own form; the knowing being, on the other hand, is one whose nature it is to have in addition the form of something else, for the likeness (form) of the thing known is in the knower’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 14 a. 1).

Admittedly this is a difficult bit of philosophical language to analyse and explain. First, the concepts are not expressed in ordinary language. Secondly, and more importantly, to understand these concepts requires an understanding of other concepts from Aristotelian metaphysics that function as presuppositions for Aquinas’s philosophy of mind. The purpose of this section is to lay bare these metaphysical presuppositions, which provide the principles upon which Aquinas constructed his philosophy of mind; the expected result is a better understanding of Aquinas’s account of knowledge, mind, and cognitive agents through the lens of an intentionality theory. The following three presuppositions are fundamental to Aquinas’s theory of intentionality:

  • (a) The acknowledgment of an ontological distinction between mental phenomena and physical phenomena. This is an ontological theory of intentionality.[4]
  • (b) The basic characteristic of the mental as being one of ‘tending towards’ or ‘about- ness’ directed towards that which is known. This is Haldane’s ‘Aboutness-1’.
  • (c) The acceptance of some form of the act/object distinction.

A theory of intentionality need not entail a realm of subsistent objects. While it is true that some philosophers—most notably Meinong and, according to Chisholm, the early Brentano[5]—did postulate subsistent obj ects of intentional acts, nonetheless such a postulation is not a necessary condition for a theory of intentionality. In this analysis of Aquinas, intentionality is considered as the set of ontological characteristics distinguishing know- ers from non-knowers. This distinction entails no ontological commitment to subsistent objects. One vexing problem constantly remains with any ontological realm of subsistent entities: it requires extraordinary epistemological gymnastics to account for an awareness of such entities—one need only recall the theory of anamnesis in Plato’s ontology.[6]

A case will be made for the following three propositions:

  • (a) In principle, Aquinas agrees with Brentano’s distinction between mental or intentional states and physical states. This corresponds to Aquinas’s distinction between an esse intentionale and an esse naturale.
  • (b) In a manner similar to Moore and Russell,[7] Aquinas accepts the act/object distinction, especially as described in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
  • (c) The characteristic of ‘tending towards’ or ‘aboutness’ is built into epistemological dispositions discussed in Aquinas’s theory of knowledge and of mind. Geach once wrote that in Aquinas’s account of intentionality, the human mind ‘reaches right up to the reality’.[8]

This does not imply that Brentano had it all correct in interpreting Aquinas on inten- tionality. Several articles in the Nussbaum and Rorty volume suggest similarities and contrasts of the role Brentano’s account of intentionality played in offering differing interpretations of the Aristotelian and Aquinian principles regarding the immaterial reception of forms.17 Haldane argued for significant differences. Like Aquinas, Brentano was an anti-materialist, which is grounded in his thesis of intentionality. Considering Brentano’s account of intentionality, Haldane writes: ‘Nonetheless Brentano’s philosophy of mind does introduce a major problem, viz: that of how to explain the contentfulness of mental states without lapsing into some version of epistemological idealism, or adopting an extravagant ontology.’18 Haldane suggests that a contemporary analysis of Aquinas’s philosophy of mind offers a solution to this vexing set of issues faced by Brentano. Accordingly, one must not make too tight a connection between Brentano’s account of intentionality and Aquinas’s position on esse intention- ale. Following Haldane, Brentano’s classic account of intentionality noted above contains four features distinguishing the mental from the physical: ‘(i) Intentional Inexistence; (ii) Immanent Objectivity; (iii) Reference to a content; and (iv) Direction to an object.’19 Haldane also suggests that the first two characteristics refer to ontological properties of intentionality, while the latter two refer to psychological properties. Both the ontological and the psychological sets of properties are necessary conditions for rendering Aquinas’s account of intentionality consistent and workable. In Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, Brentano characterizes this fundamental intentional property: Characteristisch fur die psychischen Phanomene ist die Beziehung ein Object,’20

This intrinsic capacity of referring or ‘aboutness’ is the cornerstone of intentionality theory, which in turn grounds the externalism in Aquinas’s theory of mind. Given this necessary referring relation, Aquinas cannot be reduced to an internalist. Externalism normally suggests a cognitive theory in which at least some of our ideas and concepts are connected with and dependent upon facts or things in the external world. An internalist, for the most part, will deny this external connection, preferring instead to claim that justification in knowledge depends in some manner on a priori claims that are known immediately and upon which one’s theory ofjustification is constructed. While there are several offshoots of these two theories, nonetheless this account, while schematic in form, provides the background as this narrative on Aquinas unfolds. Simply put, a Cartesian epistemology with its criterion of certainty would be a paradigm case of an internalist position, while Aristotle’s cognitive theory rooted in his De Anima would be an externalist account.

The following propositions apply to Aquinas’s use of intentionality:

  • (a) Aquinas is an ontological realist, which entails that the world is structured in organized ways.[9]
  • (b) Aquinas is an epistemologist realist, which entails that knowers in some way are able to grasp these structures that organize the external world.
  • (c) ‘Esse intentionale’ is the cognitive content of an act of awareness; this is not the object of knowledge but the means by which a knower is aware of an object.
  • (d) ‘Esse intentionale’ depends on an ontological ability or power of a knower to attain knowledge states.
  • (e) Sense knowledge, both external and internal, and intellectual knowledge depend on ontological abilities or powers of the person to have knowledge and are expressed by the respective notions of esse intentionale.
  • (f) It follows that Aquinas is an externalist in matters of mind. It should be noted, however, that Aquinas probably did not consider internalist theories of the mind—what Veatch once referred to as ‘the transcendental turn’ in modern philosophy—even possible.[10]

In the context of contemporary discussions on the nature of the human mind and its epistemological connection with the external world, Stump argues correctly that Aquinas might best be described as an ‘externalist/reliabilist’; on this point, this study agrees with Stump’s characterization of Aquinas.

At times when considering esse intentionale in discussions of Aquinas on intention- ality, there is confusion between propositions (c) and (d) above. Esse intentionale refers to the cognitive content of the act of awareness; yet this act of awareness and its content depend on an ontological characteristic of the knower, which is a necessary condition for explaining the possibility of knowing. This in turn depends on a holistic theory of the human person with ontologically grounded dispositional properties able to exercise cognitive abilities at the levels of both sense and intellect. Introspection, contrary to the Cartesian paradigm, is not the hallmark of the mental, nor is the reality of a Cartesian immaterial ego a necessary condition for an intentionality thesis.

Haldane suggests correctly that an appeal to what Aquinas scholars call ‘the formal identity’ between the mental act and the object perceived or known—Aristotle’s formal cause—is a necessary condition to move beyond the limits of representative theories of perception. Perspicuously, Haldane then suggests that this formal identity requires the possibility of two distinct kinds of exemplification, one for esse intentionale and the other for esse naturale or reale.[11] This dual account of exemplification is needed in order to account for the possibility of a form existing both in rerum natura as well as in cognitive organs and faculties. In other words, a form in a thing requires an emmattered existence because a form as form cannot exist by itself. Yet the form itself is not material, although its ontological role is for physical objects; the form is exemplified in matter in order for a primary substance—an individual of a natural kind—to exist. In other words, a form in itself—forms in rerum natura—can neither exist nor subsist by itself.[12] This same form, insofar as it is not material per se, can exist intentionally in a cognitive faculty. In this way, Aquinas argues for knowing to be the having of a form without matter in a sense faculty or intellect capable or having the cognitive power of awareness. Hence, this dual notion of exemplification is a necessary condition for unpacking what Aquinas suggests with his theory of intentionality. The two forms—esse intentionale and esse naturale—exemplify two different modes of being, yet their formal structures are identical. Haldane sums up his instructive account of Aquinas in the following perspicuous way:

[This is . . . ] a philosophical theory in which the conceptual structure of our thinking is securely connected to the ontological structure of the world. The character of this connection is of such an order, viz., formal or structural equivalence, as to warrant the title ‘mind-world identity in a description of the theory within which it features.[13]

In Aquinas’s theory of intentionality, the concept of esse intentionale is critically important. For Aquinas, it is apparent that esse intentionale and the property of intentionality in a human knower are connected intrinsically. Put differently, in agreement with an observation put forward by Haldane, esse intentionale indeed constitutes the property of intentionality. This ‘mind/world identity’ determines the meaning of the oft-used Aquinas propositions: sensus in actu est sensible in actu and intellectus in actu est intelligible in actu. The analytic task is to render Aquinas’s ‘doctrine’ of inten- tionality ‘intelligible’. This elucidation of esse intentionale in terms of a unique set of dispositional properties grounding the possibility of intentionality is an example in Aquinas of what Chisholm called ‘a funny kind of characteristic that ordinary physical things don’t have’.[14] Chisholm’s ‘funny characteristic, however, appears referentially opaque. Aquinas, to the contrary, attempts to put ‘cognitive flesh’ on the bare bones of Chisholm’s ‘funny characteristic’. This is analogous to Haldane’s criticism of Putnam’s lack of a ‘metaphysical skull’ when referring to Aristotle’s intentionality. It follows that

Aquinas’s concept of intentionality is a de re claim and never reducible to a de dicto position.

  • [1] Haldane argues that contemporary Thomistic commentators like Maritain misinterpret Aquinas onintentionality, rendering Aquinas a representationalist. Haldane suspects that this misreading of theAquinas texts is rooted in the commentaries by John of St Thomas and Cardinal Cajetan. See ibid.
  • [2] G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Three Philosophers: Aristotle, Aquinas and Frege (Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press, 1961), 95ff. The term ‘esse intentionale5 occurs frequently in the texts of Aquinas.
  • [3] Names like Richard Sorabji, Myles Burnyeat, Hilary Putnam, Victor Caston, Christopher Shiels,Dorothea Frede, Cyrille Michon, John McDowell, Jonathan Jacobs, and Martha Nussbaum are included inthe list of those who have spent time trying to unearth what insights Aristotle offers in the general area ofintentionality theory.
  • [4] This analysis is in agreement with Bergmanns claim that an intentionality theory need not commitone to a particular view on the mind-body problem. Therefore, this first presupposition does not forceAquinas into accepting Augustinian-Cartesian dualism or any form of spiritualist ontology similar to whatBurnyeat argued in his criticism of Aristotle’s theory of mind. See Myles Burnyeat, ‘Is an AristotelianPhilosophy of Mind Still Credible? (A Draft)’ in Martha Nussbaum and Amelie Rorty (eds), Essays onAristotle’s De Anima (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 15-26.
  • [5] Roderick Chisholm, ‘Brentano on Descriptive Psychology and the Intentional, in Edward N. Leeand Maurice Mandelbaum (eds), Phenomenology and Existentialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,1967), 1-23.
  • [6] This difficulty appears to have bothered Brentano during much of his philosophical career.
  • [7] While it is true that Aquinas, like Moore and Russell, accepted the act/object distinction, nonethelessit is also true that Aquinas’s account of a ‘structured’ mental act is opposed fundamentally to the ‘diaphanous’ mental act espoused by Moore, Russell, and many other early 20th-c. British philosophers. For adiscussion of this difference, see Anthony J. Lisska, ‘Deely, Aquinas, and Poinsot: How the Intentionality ofInner Sense Transcends the Limits of Empiricism, Semiotica 201(178), no. 1 ( 2010), 135-67.
  • [8] Anscombe and Geach, Three Philosophers, 95.
  • [9] The term ‘structure’ refers to the ontological position that the primary substances—the individuals ofa natural kind—have a fundamental organization determined by the essential properties. This use does notrefer to the overall ‘world structure’ for the entire cosmos.
  • [10] Stump writes: ‘Like Aristotle, Aquinas is a metaphysical realist; that is, he assumes that there is anexternal world around us and that it has certain features independently of the operation of any createdintellect, so that it is up to our minds to discover truths about the world, rather than simply inventing orcreating them’: Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2003), 231.
  • [11] John Haldane, ‘Forms of Thought’ in Lewis Edwin Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of Roderick M. Chisholm(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 161-3.
  • [12] The rational soul’s immortality is a special issue in itself.
  • [13] Haldane, ‘Mind-World Identity Theory and the Anti-Realist Challenge’, in John Haldane and CrispinWright (eds), Reality, Representation and Projection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 33. Haldanefurther suggests that this position on Aquinas ‘may have counterparts in contemporary metaphysics’; onesuch counterpart is found in the writings of John McDowell: See e.g.: ‘. . . McDowell, “Scheme-ContentDualism, Experience and Subjectivity”, who in connection with Wittgenstein remarks that “We are (tostand) on the idea that the structure of elements that constitute a thought (a thought itself, in Fregeansense), and the structure of elements that constitutes something that is the case, can be the very samething” ’: ibid., 37, n. 44.
  • [14] Roderick Chisholm and Wilfrid S. Sellars, ‘Intentionality and the Mental: A Correspondence’,Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2 (1957), 524.
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