On Innate Cognitive Structures

The present discussion of acquired dispositions brings to the surface an important yet somewhat tangential problem: whether Aquinas adopts innate ideas in his philosophy of mind. Aquinas responds to this query: ‘But whereas a sense faculty is natural to every animal—so that through the act of being generated, it acquires a sense faculty with its own specific nature—the same does not hold for intellectual knowledge. Intellectual knowledge is not naturally inborn in human beings. It has to be acquired through application and discipline’ (Commentary on the Soul, no. 373; emphasis added). This passage indicates that innate ideas as traditionally defined are not components of Aquinas’s account of mind. However, a distinction must be made between Disposition-1 and Disposition-2. Aquinas suggests that there are no innate conceptual Dispositions-2. In other words, no human knower has inborn capacities—i.e. Disposition-2/ Actuality-1—for particular pieces of knowledge. In effect, it follows that there is no epistemological entity that is an inborn or innate conceptus. Every specific concept, i.e. every conceptus or habitus, must be acquired. The same holds for propositional knowledge, which is constructed from concepts. The structural need for postulating the intellectus agens is important for concept formation. Possession of a concept is knowledge ‘of a sort’—that is, knowledge of why some sort of thing is that sort of thing through its sortal properties. This is the foundation for sortal knowledge in Aquinas. If one were to call the intellectus agens an innate cognitive structure, this ascription would not disrupt Aquinas’s account of mind. His denial of the existence of innate structures for human knowers refers only to Disposition-2. Aquinas asserts: ‘intellectual knowledge is not naturally inborn in human beings. It must be acquired through application and discipline.’[1] For Aquinas, there are no innate capacities of a Disposition-2/Actuality-1 nature.[2] With his theory of innate ideas, Descartes held for the opposite theory. Acquired dispositions in Aquinas, moreover, apply to the intellectus possibilis:

[. . .] there are dispositions belonging to the intellectus possibilis. Acquired dispositions belong to things, which have potencies or capacities capable of actualization or realization in more than one way. The intellectus possibilis stands out among things of this kind. Therefore, it follows that mental dispositions (which are acquired) pertain to the intellectus possibilis.

Sometimes intelligible species are in the possible intellect only potentially, and then a human being understands potentially and needs something to actualize her; this can be either teaching or her own investigations. Sometimes, on the other hand, intelligible species are in the possible intellect in a fully actual way, and then the human being actually understands. Sometimes, however, the intelligible species are in the possible intellect in a way that is midway between potency and act, that is, as a habit, and when this is so, a human being can actually understand when she wishes to do so. And it is in this way that acquired intelligible species are in the possible intellect when someone is not actually understanding. (Questions on the Soul, q. 15)

Disposition-2/Actuality-1 capacities, therefore, belong to the intellectus possibilis as acquired mental skills. In the following text, Aquinas refers to the ever-famous ‘tabula rasa’: ‘It is the teaching of Aristotle, therefore, that the possible intellect is in potency prior to learning or discovery, like a tablet on which nothing is yet written, but after learning and discovery it is in act by the habit of science, thanks to which it can actuate itself even though it is then in potency to actually considering’ (On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists, ch. 4, no. 92). This Aristotelian concept of a tabula rasa differs substantially from what empiricists like Locke offered. In the case of Aristotle, a tabula rasa discusses how a certain kind of a potentiality is actualized. With Locke, however, this indicates how ideas become items of conscious awareness.

Disposition-1 is an intrinsic capacity; to refer to this capacity as an innate idea is misleading. Aquinas would accept this suggestion. In effect, this amounts to the claim that a knower has a generic dispositional, primitive, cognitive property, which differentiates the class of intellectual knowers from the class of non-intellectual knowers. Of course, this is a difference referring to cognitive dispositions on the conceptual level. On the other hand, it appears that in the above passage, Aquinas considered only Disposition-2 when discussing innate ideas.11 However, he denies that a human knower has innate capacities of a Disposition-2 variety. In his ontology, only angels have innate Disposition-2/Actuality-1 knowledge. It should be noted that the passage listed above also includes a reference to the innateness of sense faculties. The structural analysis of this claim must await the direct consideration of the external sensorium.

between innate ideas (i.e. concepts about what exists in rerum natura) and innate knowledge (i.e. truth about what there is in rerum natura); Aquinas’s position is not reducible to either of these interpretations of innate knowledge.

11 Accordingly, one might argue that Aquinas has innate ideas insofar as he distinguished, in a manner similar to Sartre, a pour-soi from an en-soi. Aquinas would appear to have no philosophical quarrel with the principle behind the structure of Sartre’s distinction.

  • [1] Of some philosophical interest is Aquinas’s consideration of knowledge in angels as comparedwith human knowledge. With angels, the knowing situation is different. In the Summa Theologiae,Aquinas spells out this difference: ‘In human beings, there are no dispositions natural either to thespecies or to the individual that are wholly the work of nature. In angels, however, there can be suchdispositions, because angels, unlike human persons, have innate mental species (i.e. innate ideas)’ (SummaTheologiae, I-II q. 51 a. 1). See Jacques Maritain, The Dream of Descartes (New York: Philosophical Library,1944), 179.
  • [2] Lest there be a misunderstanding on how ‘innate’ is being used in Aquinas, there is innateness insofaras there is ‘a built-in ability to acquire a further ability’. A strict defender of innate ideas might distinguish
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