A Revised Set of Terms

This analysis of the above passages in Aquinas’s Commentary offers new terminology, which will assist in understanding Aquinas’s account of dispositional properties and their corresponding perfections as used in his thesis of intentionality.

In reference to states of knowledge, the first sense of potency shall be called ‘Disposition-1’. Disposition-1 is the state in which any given potential knower finds herself when she has the ability or capacity to know. This ability has not yet been perfected or advanced in any manner. The development of the capacity is yet to be realized. Furthermore, Disposition-1 is the basis for Aristotle’s claim that the intellect is, in a sense, all things. Aquinas refers to this Aristotelian claim: ‘Aristotle writes that the soul is in a manner all things’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 14 a. 1). The following passage from Aristotle’s On the Soul provides the historical referent for this claim: ‘The mind is in a sense potentially whatever is thinkable, though actually it is nothing until it has thought. What it thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing tablet on which as yet nothing actually stands written. This is exactly what happens with the mind’ (On the Soul, no. 430a).

Aquinas develops this Aristotelian insight in the following passage from his On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists:

Likewise, if the nature of the things, which the intellect knows, for example, earth or water, what is hot or cold, or anything of this kind, were intrinsic to the intellect, that nature within the intellect would hinder and in some way prevent the intellect from knowing other things. Because, therefore, the intellect knows all things, Aristotle concludes that ‘it cannot itself have any nature’ which is determined by the sensible natures that it knows; ‘but it has this nature alone, that it is possible’; that is, in potency to those things that it knows, so far as its own nature is concerned. But it becomes those things in act during the time in which it actually knows them. In a similar fashion, the sense in act becomes the sensible in act, as Aristotle had said above in Book II of De Anima. Aristotle, therefore, concludes that the intellect ‘before it understands (in act), is actually none of those things’. This is contrary to what the ancient philosophers said, namely it is actually all things. (On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists, ch. 1, sec. 21)

Aquinas next considers going from Disposition-1 to its corresponding act or perfection. Disposition-1 is actualized or perfected by means of the acquisition of what Aquinas calls a habitus of knowledge, which is an acquired ‘habit’ or ‘skill’ in knowing. More specifically, Aquinas refers to this type of habitus as an intellectual conceptus or concept. By acquiring a habit of knowledge, a knower actualizes Disposition-1 and the state of ‘Actuality-1’ is produced. This is the state in which the knower acquires a knowledge disposition. This claim acknowledges a substantial difference, for example, between a person who knows Hungarian—i.e. a person who has the developed habit and has acquired the mastery of the Hungarian language—and a person who may have an innate language ability or capacity to learn Slavic languages but who has yet to embark on this study. For example, there is a difference between a professor of Hungarian in a Slavic languages department and a first-year student who aspires to learn Hungarian but who knows nothing yet of the Hungarian language. The existence of Actuality-1, as an acquired disposition or knowing skill, is what distinguishes the professor from the neophyte.

Actuality-1, however, when it refers to the habit of acquired mastery of a ‘piece of knowledge’—a ‘concept—also may be used as a disposition. In this context, this will be referred to as ‘Disposition-2’. This distinction is made because a knower may have the acquired mastery of a parcel of knowledge but at a specific time not actually use this ability. The professor of Hungarian language, for instance, might be watching a lacrosse game with his daughter. Hence, he might be far removed from any situation in which his ability to function well with Hungarian grammar and syntax could be used. However, even though the language professor may not be here and now using his acquired ability, it does not follow that he is on the same knowledge level as the first- year student who knows nothing about the Hungarian language. In other words, the professor of language has an acquired skill that he is not here and now exercising. The first-year student, on the other hand, has only a disposition to acquire a further disposition. The acquired disposition of the language professor—Disposition-2—is one type of actuality. On the other hand, it is also a disposition or capacity in that it is not always being exercised. Accordingly, Actuality-1 is identical with Disposition-2. This can be referred to as ‘Disposition-2/Actuality-1’.[1]

  • [1] In considering Aquinas’s account of dispositions, Kenny comments: ‘The notion of disposition is bestapproached via the notions of capacity and action. Human beings have many capacities which animals lack:the capacity to learn languages, for instance, and the capacity for generosity. These capacities are realizedin action when particular human beings speak particular languages or perform generous actions. Butbetween capacity and action there is an intermediate state possible. When we say that a man can speakFrench, we mean neither that he is actually speaking French, nor that his speaking French is a mere logicalpossibility. When we call a man generous, we mean more than that he has a capacity for generosity incommon with the rest of the human race, but we need not mean that he is doing something generous at themoment of our utterance. States such as knowing French and being generous are dispositions. A disposition, said St. Thomas, is halfway between a capacity and an action, between pure potentiality and fullactuality’. Kenny’s terminology differs slightly from the terminology used above. What this chapter calls‘Disposition-1’, Kenny calls a ‘capacity’. What will be called ‘Actuality-2’ later, Kenny refers to as ‘an action’or ‘full actuality.’ What is referred to here as ‘Disposition-2/Actuality-1’, Kenny calls a ‘disposition’. Despitethese minor differences in terminology, the meaning of the terms remains constant. See Anthony Kenny,‘Introduction, in Summa Theologiae, vol. 22: Dispositions for Human Acts (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode;New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. xxxi.
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