The Role of Phantasms in Inner Sense Part 1

In reading the epistemology and philosophy of mind texts of Thomas Aquinas, one frequently encounters the term ‘phantasm. Thomas’s philosophy-of-mind account of the direct perception of individuals, inner sense, formation of a species intelligibilis, and concept formation and exercise is rooted fundamentally in the notion of phantas- mata. In order to understand better the intricacies of Aquinas’s theory of perceptual and conceptual intentionality, a careful and critical elucidation of the structure of a phantasm is of fundamental importance.

There are at least four significant reasons for undertaking a conceptual analysis of phantasms:

  • (a) An elucidation of the structure of phantasms is important in light of midtwentieth century and later critiques of Aquinas’s theory of perceptual intentionality. Several elucidations of Aquinas’s theory of perception reduce his perceptual theory to representationalism by means of a structural interpretation of phantasms. Often a phantasm has been interpreted to be either a sense datum or an image. Both the sense datum and the image are construed as the object of direct awareness. Accordingly, phantasms become the direct object of perception distinct from the physical object. Some interpretations given to his texts using phantasms lead to distorted accounts of Aquinas’s theory of perception.
  • (b) A phantasm is connected structurally with the functioning of the internal senses. That there has been much philosophical discussion about the nature of inner sense since the mid-twentieth century publication of Ryle’s The Concept of the Mind is obvious. If the internal sensorium of Aquinas’s epistemology is to be elucidated adequately, this will depend necessarily upon a correct analysis of phantasms. Aquinas means more by ‘inner sense’ than mere self-reflection and introspection. A passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles is illustrative of several texts in which Aquinas considers the locus of the phantasms: ‘the powers in which phantasms reside [ . . . are . . . ] the imagination, the memory and the vis cogitativa’ (bk. II, ch. 73, no. 11).
  • (c) Aquinas argues that phantasms are necessary conditions both for the formation of a species intelligibilis and for concept formation and concept exercise. The intellectus agens ‘scans’ the phantasms in the process of forming an intelligible species, from which the intellectus possibilis forms a ‘conceptus’. In many texts, Aquinas speaks of the abstraction of concepts from phantasms: ‘on the part of phantasms, intellectual knowledge is caused by the senses. But because phantasms cannot of themselves impress the intellectus possibilis, but instead require to be made actually intelligible by the intellectus agens’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. 6); ‘Therefore, material things must be understood only insofar as they are abstracted from matter and from material likenesses, namely, phantasms’ ( I q. 85 a. 1, sed contra).
  • (d) Phantasms, moreover, are necessary for the awareness of ‘essences’ by the mental act of the intellectus possibilis. Aquinas refers to this relation as the ‘conversio ad phantasmata’.1 One of the goals of the present inquiry will be to take some of the metaphorical nature away from an understanding of phantasms. The claim that phantasms are necessary conditions for concept exercise is expressed in the following passages: ‘we do not understand the things whose species are in the intellectus possibilis without the presence of phantasms disposed for this purpose’ (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, ch. 73, no. 40);

In the present conditions of human earthly existence, the mind cannot actually understand anything except by reference to phantasms [nisi convertendo se ad phantasmata] [ . . . ] Yet in understanding, either freshly or summoning knowledge already acquired, the mind’s activity must be accompanied by the activity of the vis imaginativa and of the other sense powers. (Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. 4)

A conceptual analysis of the nature and structure of a phantasm, therefore, is by no means a moot point. First, given the suggestions philosophers have put forward connecting phantasms with representationalism, if Aquinas’s theory of perception is direct realism, a thorough analysis of the role phantasms play in perception is necessary. Secondly, an elucidation of the intricate workings of inner sense require an analysis of the ‘logic’ of phantasms. And lastly, this study might shed light for a future analysis on the role phantasms play in the abstractive process of the intellectus agens and the mental act of the intellectus possibilis.

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