The Role of Phantasms in Inner Sense Part 2

The preceding chapter was a propaedeutic exercise leading up to an in-depth discussion of the nature and logic of the concept of phantasm as used in Aquinas’s theory of sensation and perception. This chapter begins the somewhat laborious task of elucidating this concept. Once again, textual reference is a significant scholarly lode in this analysis. A listing of texts alone, however, is not a sufficient condition for beginning this project. This chapter undertakes the process of ‘reconstructing’ the nature and ‘logic’ of a phantasm, which is justified textually and verified consistently within the writings of Aquinas.


Having considered what a phantasm is not, next on the agenda is to propose a reconstructive analysis for the logic of this crucial yet highly nebulous epistemological concept. This conceptual elucidation dwells heavily on the previous discussions concerning phantasms as well as on some important passages from the Commentary on the Soul. Recall the following text:

Aristotle explains that the actions and passions of animals are governed by the phantasia. Phantasms dwell within the absence of sensible objects as traces of actual sensations. Thus, just as sensations arouse impulses of desire when a sensible object is present, so too do phantasms when these sensible objects are absent from direct perception. (Commentary On The Soul, no. 669; emphasis added)

In analysing this passage, attention needs to be focused on the following words: ‘phantasms [. . .] dwell within as traces of actual sensations.’ This analysis proposes that the term ‘phantasm’ refers to three different aspects of a process of ‘dwelling within’ in the internal sensorium:

  • (a) Phantasm-1 is connected with the imagination—i.e. the vis imaginativa.
  • (b) Phantasm-2 is connected with the vis cogitativa.
  • (c) Phantasm-3 is connected with the sense memory—i.e. the vis memorativa.

This is consistent with the proposition noted earlier that the sense faculties of the internal sensorium are the only faculties to which phantasms belong: ‘the powers in which the phantasms reside [. . . are . . .] imagination, sense memory, and vis cogitativa’ (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk II, no. 73). The Latin is: ‘sed a virtutibus in quibus sunt phantasmata, scilicet imaginativa, memorativa et cogitativa.’ All three divisions of phantasm, moreover, are grouped under the category of Likeness-2 as elucidated in the preceding chapter.1

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