Imagination as ‘the Master of Falsity’

Because of the imagination’s creative capacity, Aquinas does not trust completely its veracity:

Regarding the apprehension of the senses, it must be noted that there is one type of apprehensive power, for example, a proper sense, which apprehends a sensible species in the presence of a sensible thing. But there is also a second type, the imagination, for example, which apprehends a sensible species when the thing is absent. So even though the sense always apprehends a thing as it is, unless there is an impediment in the organ or in the medium, the imagination usually apprehends a thing as it is not, since it apprehends it as present though it is absent. Consequently, the Philosopher says: ‘Imagination, not sense, is the master of falsity.’ (Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, I, 11)

Aquinas appears concerned about items that worried Descartes in the First Meditation, namely dreams and hallucinations:


Now, although the first immutation of the imagination is through the agency of the sensible, since the phantasia [imagination] is a movement produced in accordance with sensation, nonetheless it may be said that there is in the human person an operation which by division and composition forms images of various things, even of things not perceived by the senses. (Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. 6 ad 2)

The imagination can be quite involved in non-veridical awareness. ‘Non-veridical’ is here used to denote an act of awareness without an obj ect present in the external world. It is not surprising that Descartes and Locke, with the conceptual blurring they maintain in relation to Aquinas’s faculties of the sensus communis and the vis imaginativa, emphasized the function of the imagination with its built-in non-veridical nature. This forces them to claim that one can never be assured that the idea represents the external world veridically. Hence emerge the foundationalist worries rooted in an internalist position on knowing, which became common in early modern philosophy and remained prevalent even in late twentieth-century of Western philosophy. To read this paradigm on explanation into Aquinas’s philosophy of mind account is, however, a misunderstanding of Aquinas. Hence, it may well be the case that the conceptual blurring of the imagination with the sensus communis combined with the need for a phantasm as a tertium quid for the imagination led to the representationalism so common in modern philosophy. Furthermore, with the emphasis on representationalism comes the pervasiveness of internalism, along with an emphasis on foundationalist epistemology and its accompanying scepticism. This emphasis probably led to the excessive concern over introspection conjoined with what Wittgenstein and Ryle appear to hold in the Philosophical Investigations and The Concept of Mind regarding the private language problem. That Aquinas kept these matters under control is certainly part of the history of medieval philosophy. What is interesting, however, is that the distinction and separation of internal sense faculties between the sensus communis and the phantasia as imagination may have contributed fundamentally to Aquinas’s epistemological realism.

The final chapters build upon the analyses undertaken so far. The telos of this present work, like an Aristotelian final cause, is directed towards a block-by-block construction through an explicatio textus of the role that inner sense, with special reference to the vis cogitativa, plays in Aquinas’s account of the perception of individual things—the primary substances of his Aristotelian ontology. This account of perception will depend upon a consistent elucidation of the concept of phantasm in these cognitive processes.

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