The Image Account: Position A

An analysis for such an illusive philosophy-of-mind entity as a phantasm, of course, results in the construction of different and alternative accounts. One alternative interpretation of the phantasm is as an image or imago. There are two categories, however, for this image interpretation. The first position, ‘Position-A, was developed by Sheehan and also suggested by Kenny in an early essay.[1] Both philosophers attempt a structural account of the phantasm, which leads to equating the phantasm with an image produced during the process of direct awareness. This position, in effect, reduces Aquinas to a representationalist. This is Sheehan’s purpose, as he indicates in the following passage:

For it has become clear that if Aquinas’ doctrine is applied to our problem, then what makes my thought one of this X rather than some other X (of this man or horse rather than some other man or horse) is the fact that certain phantasms or images are somehow involved. This account, however it is more fully filled out, would seem to be susceptible to the arguments already brought forward against the image or symbol view.[2]

Throughout his analysis, Sheehan attempts to reduce Aquinas to a representationalist. Since, in the beginning of his article, he argues in principle against representative views of perception, it follows that if Aquinas’s theory of intentionality reduces to a representational account, then Sheehans philosophical refutation befalls Aquinas’s theory.

Kenny provides the following account of Position-A: ‘There are some passages in which St. Thomas seems to suggest that whenever we see something we have at the same time a phantasm of what we see.’[3] This image position still holds sway in discussions of Aquinas on perception. For example, Kemp adopts this position: ‘The images produced in the common sense are stored in the imagination.’ He also writes: ‘in normal waking life the images that are presented to the common sense [. . .] arise from perceiving the world [. . .].’[4] Kemp refers several times to ‘images in the common sense’. Gilson too places images in the sensus communis: ‘Let us suppose that subsequent to the operations described above, a sensible body impressed its image in the common sense.’ His discussion of the role of inner sense in Thomas is somewhat muddled. In addition, he defines a phantasm, like many neo-Thomist philosophers of the mid-twentieth century, as an image: ‘What, indeed, is a phantasm? It is the image of a particular thing: similitudo rei particularis. Still more accurately, phantasms are images of particular things, impressed or preserved in corporeal organs.’27 It is unclear how Gilson reconciled this placement of an image in the sensus communis with Aquinas’s overall theory of direct realism and its dependent externalism. Furthermore, Pasnau, in translation and commentary on Aquinas’s theory of human nature, appears to adopt the same position. In an illustration of the internal senses, Pasnau holds that phantasms belong to the sensus communis.28 In his Metaphysics of Mind, Kenny refers to phantasms as ‘the images of inner vision’.29 However, Kenny remarks that Aquinas is far from clear regarding an exact account of a phantasm. In his Aquinas on Mind, Kenny writes: ‘it seems clear that [Aquinas] did not mean by “phantasm” simply a mental image.’30 Furthermore, Kenny notes: ‘how much else is covered by the word (phantasm) is difficult to determine.’31 In his ‘Intentionality: Aquinas and Wittgenstein’, Kenny wrote: ‘it is not altogether clear what Aquinas means by phantasmataP2 Given this textual evidence, it is fair to say that Position-A is exemplified in the writings of Sheehan and Kemp, and at times in Kenny and Pasnau, among others. These various texts suggest further that while phantasm is an often-used term in the writings of Aquinas, nonetheless the ‘logic’ of this concept is difficult to unravel. This chapter attempts to unravel these conceptual muddles.

What the passages noted above suggest is that the awareness of a ‘complete whole’ by the sensus communis is done by means of a phantasm. In other words, the ‘conjunction’ of discrete proper and common sensibles accomplished by the sensus communis produces a phantasm, which is the object of the awareness of the sensus communis itself. In effect, this entails that the sensus communis has for its direct object a phantasm. These commentators construe the phantasm as a necessary condition in direct perception involving the external senses. They conclude that a phantasm is either produced in the external senses or else is the ‘synthesis’ produced by the sensus communis from the discrete data—the proper and common sensibles—from the external senses. Accordingly, the phantasm is the direct object of the mental act of sensation.

  • [1] Peter Sheehan, Aquinas on Intentionality’ in Kenny, Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays, 307-21;Kenny: ‘Intellect and Imagination in Aquinas’.
  • [2] Sheehan, ‘Aquinas on Intentionality, 320-21.
  • [3] Kenny, ‘Intellect and Imagination in Aquinas’ 294. Concerning the image position, Kenny remarks:‘it is hard to be sure whether St. Thomas held it or not’ However, Kenny suggests that the image position isone possible interpretation of the nature of a phantasm.
  • [4] Simon Kemp, ‘The Inner Senses: A Medieval Theory of Cognitive Functioning in the Ventricles of theBrain, in Wolfgang G. Bringmann, Helmut E. Luck, Rudolf Miller, and Charles E. Early (eds), A PictorialHistory of Psychology (Chicago: Quintessence, 1997), 9. See also Simon Kemp (with Garth J. O. Fletcher),‘The Medieval Theory of the Inner Senses’, American Journal of Psychology 106(4) (1993), 559-76.
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