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Home arrow Economics arrow Aquinas’s theory of perception: an analytic reconstruction

Aquinas and the Concept of ‘Imago’

Translators often render phantasmata into English as ‘image’.[1] Textually, however, as far as research into this topic has been able to determine, Aquinas does not use the Latin term imago when developing discussions in the philosophy of mind elucidating his own theory. Aquinas, however, had the term imago in his philosophical lexicon. When discussing Democritus’s position in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas, quoting Augustine and Aristotle, does use imago in one text and then idolum in the next:

Democritus enim posuit quod ‘nulla est alia causa cuiuslibet nostrae cogitationis, nisi cum ab his corporibus quae cogitamus veniunt atque intrant imagines in animas nostras’, ut Augustinus dicit. Et Aristotles etiam dicit quod Democritus posuit cogitationes fiere ‘per idola et deflux- iones’. (Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. б)[2]

Theoretically Democritus, like all atomists, is a representative realist. Both imago and idolum are suitable objects for an atomist perception theory.

Beyond the limits of his strictly epistemological and philosophy of mind discussions, however, Aquinas does make use of the term imago. Imago is found in several theological discussions in the Summa Theologiae. In this case, Aquinas offers an interpretation of how human beings are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’: ‘Ergo, imago in divines relative dicitur (Summa Theologiae, I q. 35 a. 1, sed contra). The structural analysis of imago is connected directly with an ontological representation. If Aquinas had chosen imago to be the object of perception, then given the logic of imago, he would be a representationalist. Necessarily an imago is a derived entity, which will become clear as this analysis unfolds. This elucidation does not pretend to deny, as noted earlier, that, when reading various English translations of Aquinas’s different treatises on knowledge and mind, one discovers that the term ‘image’ frequently occurs. In the Summa Theologiae, however, often this is a translation for the Latin term similitude. Furthermore, the Latin term idolum occurs at least twice in epistemological discussions. Different translators often render idolum into English as ‘image’. The point remains, however, that even though the English term ‘image’ occurs often in different English translations of Aquinas’s epistemological texts and discussions in the philosophy of mind, this is the translator’s preference for phantasmata, similitudo, or idolum and possibly other terms too. Research undertaken into this topic suggests that the Latin term imago is distinctly absent from any of the texts in which Aquinas elucidates his own theory of sensation and perception.

More importantly, there appears to be no textual evidence that Aquinas defined a phantasm as an imago. Contrary to Kenny’s suggestion, texts in which Aquinas writes that a phantasm is an image in the Cartesian sense are difficult to find. For example, in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas defines the phantasm in the following manner: ‘the phantasm is the likeness of an individual thing’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. 7 ad 2). Furthermore, the term translated here as likeness is similitudo and not imago. The term similitudo occurs frequently in Aquinas’s texts and several translators have rendered similitudo into English as image. However, this is nothing but a translator’s interpretative preference. This English rendition has no textual basis in the Latin work. The point of this discussion is that when developing his own position on sensation and perception, Aquinas never uses the term imago. Moreover, this omission on his part is not accidental. Quite the contrary, there are significant structural differences between the analysis of a similitudo and the analysis of an imago. It is to a careful elucidation of these structural differences that this chapter now turns.

That Aquinas definitely had the term imago in his philosophical lexicon is not difficult to establish; its use is evident in the Summa Theologiae. In the following passage, he describes the function of an imago:

The idea of image includes likeness. Not any kind of likeness, however, suffices for elucidating the nature of an image, but only likenesses of a species, or at least of some specific sign. In corporeal things, the specific sign seems to be especially the figure. For we see that the species of different animals are of different figures, but not of different colors. Hence if the color of anything is depicted on a wall, this is not called an image unless the figure is likewise depicted. But neither the likeness of species nor that of figure is enough for an image for it requires also the idea of origin; because, as Augustine has claimed, ‘One egg is not the image of another, because it is not derived from it.. Thus, for a true and adequate image, it is necessary the one thing proceeds from another like it in species, or at least in specific sign. (Summa Theologiae, I q. 35 a. 1; empasis added)

Aquinas continues: ‘Image, properly speaking, means whatever proceeds forth in likeness to another. That from which something proceeds and to which it is a likeness is called the “exemplar” ’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 35 a. 1 ad 1). In the succeeding article in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas makes the following twofold distinction: ‘An image of a thing may be found in something in two ways. In one way, it is found in something of the same specific nature; for example, the image of a king is found in his son. In another way, it is found in something of a different nature, as, for example, the image of the king is found on a coin’ (Summa Theologiae, I q. 35 a. 2 ad 3.

These rather lengthy passages are included because it is important, first of all, to demonstrate unequivocally that Aquinas possessed the term imago in his philosophical vocabulary. Secondly, it is necessary to spell out conceptually the structural and logical differences between imago and similitudo. The logic of each concept is important. Not only is the first claim self-evident upon reading the above passages, but it is important to realize that Aquinas did not use the term imago just once or twice. On the contrary, he wrote two articles about the structure of images, under the title De Imagine, in question 35 of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae. Therefore, if he had need to utilize the term imago when referring to direct perception involving the external sensorium, he could easily have made that choice. The term and its unique meaning were at his disposal. Given Aquinas’s customary cautious care in using appropriate language in philosophical discussions, that he did not use imago is not without significance.

The above texts indicate, it would appear, that in Aquinas’s ontology and philosophy of mind, imago has a unique function. This function is as a derivative entity dependent upon another entity. Although an imago is a derived entity, it is still a separate entity distinct from the entity of its origin. This is brought out explicitly in the second passage quoted above from the Summa Theologiae. There Aquinas refers to the ontological entity from which an image proceeds as an ‘exemplar’. The image itself, which is the likeness/similitudo derived from the exemplar, is an ontological entity in its own right. An imago is necessarily a similitudo, but a similitudo need not be an imago. In order for representationalism—Position-A above—to hold in Aquinas’s theory of perception, every similitudo, which is a phantasm, must necessarily be an imago.[3] Aquinas, however, neither articulates nor defends this position. Beyond the actual appearance of this term in his texts, one must realize the ontological function of an imago. In effect, his position on the nature of imago is coextensive with Descartes’s account on the precise epistemological import of an image. An imago is an additional entity, which not only resembles the original as a similitudo but is necessarily derived from the original entity. The logical structure of ‘being derived’ is a necessary condition for an imago. In any discussion of an image, therefore, it is a necessary condition that there are two entities under analysis: the image or copy itself—the imago; and the thing from which the image or copy originates—what Aquinas refers to as the exemplar. An imago is not only a similitudo. Rather, it is a similitudo, which necessarily is derived from an originating principle and which exists, in the philosophy of mind, as an additional, separate intentional entity. Obviously, this is important for the present discussion. If Aquinas had intended to be a representationalist and not an epistemological realist, he could easily have used imago when referring to the direct object of sense perception. An

imago in intentionality would be a separate intentional entity—a tertium quid—whose existence depends upon a set of causal factors in the external world. An imago is an entity separate from and uniquely distinct from the causal factors. Aquinas, to the contrary, never uses the term imago when discussing his own theory of sensation and perception. It is obvious, however, that when analysing sensation and perception, he could have used this term if it expressed what he meant to convey. The result of this analysis suggests that, for Aquinas, there is no distinct tertium quid entity in sensation or perception. A phantasm can function as an image, when it is the direct object of the vis imaginativa—the ‘golden mountain’ or ‘leprechaun’ examples; nonetheless, research undertaken for this project has not discovered any text where a phantasm is equated with an imago. The point remains, nonetheless, that Aquinas did have the term imago in his philosophical lexicon.

A similitudo used in direct perception functions as an ‘intentional modification’ (esse intentionale) of a sense faculty and never as a distinct, separate intentional entity. Aquinas does use the term similitudo when discussing direct sensation. However, this is to be taken as a species impressa, if one uses the terminology of John of St Thomas; a species impressa is that by means of which the sense faculty is rendered able to be aware of a proper or common sensible. The species impressa, however, is not the direct object of knowledge itself. In other words, the species impressa is not what is perceived (the id quod) but rather that by which or the means by which (the a quo) the sense faculty is rendered disposed to perceive.[4]

This analysis concerning the function of imago is important in illustrating why Aquinas purposefully did not use this term when he developed the intentionality of sense perception. However, when discussing sensation and perception, there are important structural reasons for his not using imago. The burden of proof for any claim of representationalism in Aquinas’s theory of perception, therefore, is placed on the one making this claim. This claim of indirect realism, however, must take into consideration the texts in which Aquinas defines the nature of an imago. Furthermore, if one places him in the camp of representationalists, then one must argue successfully why he did not utilize imago in explicating his epistemology and philosophy of mind, because this concept is tailor-made for elucidating a position of representative realism. In effect, an imago in sensation theory destroys Aquinas’s epistemological realism and his externalism.

In the next section, the point will be made that Aquinas uses similitudo in discussing both sensation exercise and phantasm formation. Nonetheless, this intentional use of similitudo is neither identical nor coextensive with the use of similitudo Aquinas spoke about in the passages elucidating the nature of an imago. A similitudo as imago is necessarily a separately existing intentional entity—a tertium quid—whereas the

similitudo used in sensation does not entail this separate intentional existence as an intermediary entity.

  • [1] In vols 1 and 12 of the Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae, Suttor and Durbin translate‘phantasmata’ as ‘images’: Summa Theologiae (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode; New York: McGraw-Hill,1964, 1976).
  • [2] According to Augustine, Democritus held: ‘There is no other cause for knowledge than from the factthat images come into our souls from the bodies about which we think.’ Aristotle also says that Democritusheld that knowledge comes about by means of images and emanations.
  • [3] (ipsum phantasma est similitudo reiparticularis’: Summa Theologiae, I q. 84 a. 2.
  • [4] The epistemological structure of the species impressa is discussed later. See John N. Deely, NewBeginnings: Early Modern Philosophy and Postmodern Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1994), 133-4.
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