Imagination and Early Modern Philosophy

One might suggest that it is because of the creative capacity that Aquinas called the imagination the ‘phantasy’. The internal sensorium is that cache of internal sense faculties that (1) goes beyond the immediate data of sensation illustrated by conserving the forms of sensible objects in the imagination known through the sensus communis; (2) provides interpretations to the ‘concrete wholes’ of sensation by means of a Gestalt-like awareness through the vis cogitativa; and (3) stores the awarenesses of the vis cogitativa in the sense memory. Insofar as the imagination, in addition to conserving the forms of the sensible objects from the sensus communis, also has a certain creative ability, then it is entitled to be called ‘phantasy’. If the imagination were just to ‘retain and conserve’, then there appear to be fewer grounds for Aquinas to call it the phantasy; the imagination as such would not go beyond the object of direct sensation known by the sensus communis. Accordingly, this characteristic points to the essential nature of the internal sensorium, which is to go beyond the data of immediate sensation. This is not just a moot point. This cognitive characteristic obviously needs much explanation, which occurs with the vis cogitativa and the sense memory. Structurally the imagination, when used in its creative capacity as the phantasia, is probably what Descartes and Hobbes referred to as the ‘fancy’ in their writings. In his Essay, Locke too uses ‘fancy’ to refer to the activity of the imagination; he often uses ‘fancy’ as a verb—e.g. ‘Let me fancy as much as I will’. In addition, both Hobbes and Descartes blur the conceptual distinction over what Aquinas called the sensus communis and the imagination. By the seventeenth century, the precise distinctions between the sensus communis and the imagination used by Aquinas had become muddled. Moreover, this structural identity of faculties and functions expressed in the writings of several early modern philosophers accounts for the claim that the phantasm is the direct object of knowledge.

Frede suggested, in the same vein as Hamlyn and Weinberg, that ‘St. Thomas locates the phantasms in the common sense’.[1] She justifies her interpretation by an appeal to paragraph 773 in the Commentary on the Soul. However, a close reading of this text does not imply the role for phantasms that she suggests:

First then Aristotle remarks that colour-affected air itself modifies the pupil of the eye in a particular way, i.e. it imprints on it a likeness of some colour, and then the pupil, so modified, acts upon the sensus communis. Similarly our hearing, itself affect by the air, acts upon the sensus communis. And though there are several exterior senses, their reactions all come back to one point, which is a certain common medium between all the senses, like a center upon which lines from a circumference all converge. (Commentary on the Soul, no. 773)

This passage indicates that the sensus communis is the common point for the compiling of the various discrete awarenesses from the external senses. It does not propose that this compilation or conjunctive relation is a phantasm. This point needs to be emphasized continually. As Mahoney once noted, ‘[a] phantasm is not used of the sensible species as found in the external senses or the common sense’.[2] Frede, however, suggests otherwise: ‘For this reason, St. Thomas locates the phantasms in the common sense: there all the sensory information runs together and is synthesized to a comprehensive picture.’[3] Moreover, textual evidence confirms that Aquinas never used a phantasm as a sensible object with the cognitive functioning of the sensus communis.

One might suggest that these contemporary commentators incorporate seventeenth- century interpretations in their analysis while working with thirteenth-century writings. Of course, one must not push this suggestion too far. As noted above, one interpretation suggests that Suarez held that the phantasm functioned as the direct object of the sensus communis. In addition, there are texts, also noted above from Albertus Magnus and Avicenna, in which a similar account is provided. These accounts, however, are inconsistent structurally with the explanatory account Aquinas provided. Nonetheless, it is obvious to philosophers familiar with the writings of early modern philosophers that phantasms served as the direct object of perception. Locke, for example, offers a clear indication of this claim: ‘ “idea” [ . . . ] is that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks [ . . . ] [It] expresses whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species [ . . . ].’[4] Deely notes that by Locke’s time, the late medieval scholastic philosophers had about a dozen synonyms for the intentional object in the understanding or imagination.[5]

Furthermore, these claims are connected directly with representationalism. Insofar as Aquinas is an epistemological realist, the objects in the world are the objects of knowledge. But when representationalism came to the forefront of modern philosophical discussions in conjunction with the rise of the new science, there were good structural reasons for blurring the internal sense categories used by Aquinas. It is unclear whether Frede regards the placement of a phantasm in the sensus communis as entailing some form of representationalism. In her analysis, Frede is concerned about the image dimension of a phantasm in the process of understanding. In the end, her interpretation conflicts with Aquinas’s texts, which confirm that phantasms pertain only to the faculties of the internal sensorium.

In his study of late medieval and early modern philosophy of mind, Deely suggests the following helpful schema for three distinct positions that medieval philosophers articulated in discussing the ontological states of sense qualities:

(a) Aquinas, Scotus, and John of St Thomas: The proper and common sensibles have a causal structure outside the mind that acts upon the sense organ and faculty, which organ and faculty are biological and intentional dispositional properties. This is Aquinas’s form of epistemological realism and ontological realism, which grounds his externalism.

  • (b) Occam: The sensible qualities inhere in the material objects that act upon the senses and are present to the senses through this action. This is a form of naive realism, much less sophisticated than what Aquinas and Scotus proposed. South suggests, however, that Occam’s rejection of sensible species rendered a more sophisticated theory of sensation.
  • (c) Suarez: The sensible qualities are images (phantasms) formed by the sense faculties through the causal interaction of the thing with the sense faculty. This is epistemological representationalism. South, to the contrary, while acknowledging this is a common interpretation of Suarez,[6] argues against this position affirmed by Deely.[7]

The position articulated by Suarez as interpreted by Deely becomes the epistemological paradigm adopted by Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, and most modern and some contemporary British empiricists. What this conceptual turmoil indicates is a tremendous disparity of positions regarding the sensible qualities that developed from the late Middle Ages up to the rise of early modern philosophy.[8]

  • [1] Frede, ‘Aquinas on Phantasia, 168.
  • [2] Edward P. Mahoney, ‘Sense, Intellect, and Imagination in Albert, Thomas and Siger, in N. Kretzmann,A. Kenny, and J. Pinborg (eds), The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1982), 607, n. 18. See appendix to Ch. 11 for a further discussion of this set ofissues.
  • [3] Frede, ‘Aquinas on Phantasia', 168.
  • [4] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), no. 8.
  • [5] Deely, New Beginnings, 123; also N. J. Wells, ‘Descartes’ Idea and its Sources, American CatholicPhilosophical Quarterly 67(4) (1993), 513-36.
  • [6] James B. South, ‘Suarez and the Problem of External Sensation’, Medieval Philosophy and Theology10(2) (2001), 217-40.
  • [7] Deely, New Beginnings, 130.
  • [8] This discussion suggests a lesson that historians of medieval philosophy know all too well. It is a mistake to interpret medieval philosophers by the way their concepts were understood and used by theirdescendants in early modern philosophy. Regarding the sensus communis, the imagination, and the phantasm, this is one case where a ‘Whiggish’ interpretation of Aquinas proves dangerous. A misunderstandingof these three critical concepts can affect medieval scholarship dramatically. Locke, Descartes, and Hobbes,among others, were not using the epistemological categories elucidated by Aquinas in the same way Aquinashimself had used them. It is possible, therefore, that commentators like Hamlyn and Weinberg, and possiblyFrede, may have misunderstood Aquinas’s account of sensation because they transferred an understandingof terminology and structure from the early modern philosophers to the writings of Aquinas.
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