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common process b}^ which the primitive vague intel-
lectual apprehensions of being, extended being, moving
being, coloured &£^ni>;r-'-aftd' the" like, are contracted and

^ Max Muller, who argues for the inseparabihty of thought and
language, gives a history of the dispute in his Science of Thought,
pp. 32 — 64. Cf. also Mivart, On Truth, c. xvi.; James, Vol. II.



elaborated into the specific ideas and scientific con-
ceptions of later life, the question still remains : How
are these most indeterminate notions themselves
originally obtained ? What are the relations between
the sensuous and the rational functions of the mind in
the initial act of intellectual cognition ? Some able
scholastic psychologists reply that the operation is
incapable of further analysis. Consciousness assures
us that the intellect lays hold of the abstract and
universal aspect in the concrete sensible phenomenon ;
but we cannot penetrate beyond this ultimate fact/^
The schoolmen, howeveir, in general, answered this
question by the theory of the Intellectus A gens, therein
developing the Aristotelian doctrine of the abstractive
activity of the intellect. This theory is thus an attempt
to explain Jiow intellectual activity is evoked, and in
what ivay the primitive abstractive operation is exerted.
It is therefore a hypothesis put forward to give a fuller
account of certain well established facts ; and its value
is to be measured like that of any other hypothesis by
its success in explaining the phenomena. It accord-
ingly stands on quite a different level from that of the
tenet that intellect is a spiritual abstractive faculty
essentially different from sense. This latter doctrine
we believe to be a demonstrated truth, whilst the
former can only claim to be a probable or plausible
theory ; and it seems to us very important to recognize
clearly the relatively subordinate character of this very

^ Dr. G. Hageman thus writes: "The soul must be endowed
with the facuhy of abstraction. The mind immediately abstracts the
essence of the object, just as in sense-perception the soul imme-
diately apprehends the stimulus. But we are just as incapable of
obtaining an insight into the process of the spiritual abstractive activity as
of deducing the nature of sensuous activity from the essence of the
soul." (Psychologic, §. 93, Sechste Auflage, 1897.) Similarly Abbe
Piat : " Notre avis a nous, est que I'acte original par lequel I'intel-
ligence opere sur les donnees empiriques, resiste, comme I'emotion
ou I'acte libre, a toute definition vraiment positive ; il y reste uii
n'sidu impenetrable." {L'Idee, p. 244 ; cf. L'lntellect Actif, pp. 134, 135.)
"Patet nil certum remansisse apud Scholasticos in hac difiicili
quaestione, nisi solam formationem harum idearura per vim abstrac-
tivam intellectus . . . Quicunqueenim per vim intellectus abstractivam
idearum originem explicat, verc intra schclam viaiiet." (P. J. Mendive,
S.J., Psych ologia, p. 301.)


speculative discussion. Modern writers with the most
superficial information regarding mediaeval thought, are
wont utterly to mistake the weight assigned to different
questions ; and they would fain identify the fate of the
grand fabric of the whole scholastic S3'stem with a few
ingenious and very speculative solutions of subtle meta-
physical problems of comparatively inferior significance.
Accordingly, with fair warning to those not familiar
with the Scholastic Philosophy that this is amongst the
most obscure and difficult of the discussions of the
schoolmen, we shall give an exposition of the subject
for the sake of those who may wish to go deeper into
mediaeval metaphysics.

Aristotelico-Scholastic Theory of Abstraction. — This starts
from the truths already established, that in mature life the
mind is in possession of truly abstract and universal ideas
which transcend the range of the lower or organic faculties,
and thus force upon us the admission of a higher, supra-
sensuous power. These ideas represent under an abstract
and universal form the essence or nature which exists indi-
vidualized by material conditions in sensible objects. We
have thus two grades of cognitive faculties, sense {aia-Orjais],
the lower ; and intellect (vovs), the higher or spiritual power.

I. Formal objects of Intellect and of Sense. — The formal object
of sense — that which it is ordained to apprehend — is some
particular phenomenon, some concrete quality or material
thing. The formal object of intellect is being in general, the
essence or quiddity of things in its widest sense. i*^ Within the

^'^ The student must be constantly on his guard against inter-
preting "essence" to imply all that is contained in "specific
nature." Amongst its synonyms in scholastic literature are : Quod
quid est ; or, What any thing is ; the Quidditas, Whatness, Washeit,
rh rl liv fJvai; or the nature of an object, the ratio interna, la raison
intime, the realized idea or plan, the actualized internal possibility
of a thing, the sum of the notes which constitute it. Every positiv^e
answer to the question, What is that ? reveals the essence. The
answer may vary in definiteness from: "It is something," to
" It is a dark-extended-four- footed-long-necked-hump-backed-hairy-
skinned-self-moving-being." The former expresses the essence in
its most indeterminate form ; the latter approximates towards the
conception of the specific essence of a camel. Some of the above
synonyms — e.g., nature, are more frequently used to designate the
specific essence ; but there is no fixed usage. When it is said
that the intellect abstracts the essence, this term must be understood
in its widest sense ; the more determinate specific essence, as before
stated, is attained by observation, comparison, and induction.



sphere of being is included substance and accident, body and
spirit, creator and creature, actual and possible reality ; in
fact, everything capable of being in any measure understood.
It is under this aspect that every object of thought is
apprehended, it is the simplest and widest of notions, and
into it all notions are finally resolved. But, although the
formal object of intellect embraces all forms of being, yet the
human intellect has for its connatural, inimediate, or propor-
tionate object) the abstract and universal essences of sensible
or material things. The connatural object of a faculty signifies
that towards which it directly tends, as opposed to that which
it can cognize only mediately and indirectly, or by analogy.
God and other pure spirits are thus not the connatural object
of the human intellect. They are known not by intuition,
but by inference and analogy ; whilst our earliest intellectual
ideas are all of sensible objects.

2. All knowledge starts from experience. — At the beginning of
life the mind is in a purely potential condition with respect
to knowledge. There are no innate cognitions, whether sen-
suous or intellectual. The mind is described as a tabula rasa —
a clean tablet on which nothing is yet written — although this
term is not completely appropriate, since such a tablet is
entirely passive, whilst the intellect is endowed with an
innate, or a priori active power of modifying itself, so
as to generate abstract or immaterial representations oi
sensible objects. In order to apprehend any of these objects,
there must be wrought in the mind a form, modification, or
determination by which it is assimilated to the object. This
modification or form, is called the species impressa, and we
have described in chapter iv., how material objects acting
upon the senses produce modifications by which the lower
faculties are determined to the sensuous apprehension of these
objects. But for intellectual cognition the higher faculty must
be similarly determined by a form of a higher order — a
species intelligibilis impressa — to elicit a conception of the
universal nature or essence of the object.

3. Intellect us Agens. — The action of the material object
awakens sensuous perception, which results in a concrete
phantasm of the object in the imagination from which the
intellectual concept is derived. But neither this sensuous
perception of the object nor the resulting phantasm can
directly effect the species intelligibilis impressa or generate an
intellectual concept. They only contribute the " material "
elements or conditions to the elaboration of the concept. For
neither the physical thing nor the phantasm can directly
reveal itself to the cognitive intellect. Both are individual,
concrete, material, whilst the object of the intellect is


universal, abstract, and immaterial. They contain, indeed, a
universal essence, but individualized in its material deter-
minations. It is in this state only fundamentally universal,
and therefore not apt to be immediately taken up into the
intellect. It is, according to the scholastics, as yet only
potentially intelligible, somewhat as red or green is only
potentially sensible in the dark ; it needs to be made actually
intelligible, in order to be apprehended by the intellect. It
has to he abstracted ^^ from its individualizing corporeal con-
ditions. Indeed, it was the conviction of this incapacity
of the sensible material thing to directly manifest itself to
the intellect and thus modify the spiritual faculty that induced
Plato to assume the existence of real abstract immaterial
essences separate from sensible phenomena.

It is in order to account for this modification of the
spiritual faculty, or, which is the same thing, for the excita-
tion of the intellect to the generation of the abstract repre-
sentation of the essence existing individualized in the
phantasm that the schoolmen ascribe to the intellect not
merely the capacity of being modified so as to represent the
various objects in an abstract or spiritual manner, but also an
active energy or force of its own, which is chief agent in the
production of this modification. The only other alternative

^^ It should be noted that the schoolmen employed the words
abstraction, and, to abstract, in the converse signification of that
which has prevailed since Kant. With modern writers intellectual
abstraction primarily signifies the ignoring or omission of the
attributes not attended to ; with the schoolmen it was understood
to primarily mean the positive side of the operation — the assumption
by the mind of the part selected, of the attributes which are attended
to. A process of abstraction, therefore, formerly signified the
taking up of something : now it would signify the neglect of some-
thing. (Cf. Logic, present series, pp. 102.) Still, by the " abstraction "
of the essence or species from the sensuous representation, the
schoolmen did not mean the physical extraction of certain parts of
the latter, but the reproduction of its essential features in an
abstract manner in a higher form of consciousness. Thus, Suarez :
" Observandum est, speciem non dici abstrahibilem, vel abstrahi, a
phantasmatibus, quasi ipsa species prius esset immixta phantas-
matibus, unde postea separetur ab intellectu agente, ac transferatur
in possibilem ; hoc enim puerile esset cogitare. . . . Intellectum
ergo abstrahere speciem, nil est aliud quam virtute sua efficere speciem
spiritualem repraesentantem eandem naturam, quam phantasma
repraesentat, modo tamen quodam spiritual! ; illaque elevatio a
materiali repraesentatione phantasmatis ad spiritualem repraesenta-
tionem speciei intelligibilis dicitur abstractio ; ex quo aperte constat
abstractionem non esse actionem distinctam a productione speciei."
{De Anima, Lib. IV. c. 2, § 18. Cf. Sum. i. q. 85, a. i, ad 3, 4.)


is to assume that the intellect is determined to apprehend its
object by an external spirit, angelic or divine. This, however,
is a fanciful and gratuitous hypothesis incapable of proof,
and in conflict with much of the evidence adduced against the
doctrines of innate ideas and of ontologism. We are, they
argue, thus compelled to attribute the generation of intellectual
ideas to an inherent force of the intellect itself, which, reacting
on the occasion of sensory stimuli, effects in itself the modifica-
tion by which the object is apprehended under a universal
aspect. This force is the active intellect, the Intellectiis Agens.
They define it as : /I certain instinctive spiritual force or energy of
the mind, which acting spontaneously on the presentation of objects
in the imagination, generates ''species intelligibiles'' of them, or,
an active faculty whereby the intellect modifies itself so as to
represent in a spiritual or abstract manner ivhat is concretely
depicted in the phantasm.

The argument is put briefly by other scholastics thus:
Neither the object itself, the sensuous impression, nor the phan-
tasm can generate species intelligibiles, by which the intellect
is determined to cognize the object, for this modification is a
spiritual accident, and none such can be produced by material
agencies. It is a fundamental axiom, that no being can efl"ect
in another what is not contained in itself, either formally
or eminently, and a spiritual accident is contained in a
corporeal agent, neither formally nor eminently. Therefore,
the modification of the intellectual faculty must be imme-
diately due to a spiritual, not an organic agency.^'^

4. Intellect us Possibilis. — The mind's capability of being
modified so as to express the essence of the object in a
concept is termed the intellectus patiens vel possibilis. It is the
intellectus patiens which formally understands. The intel-
lectus agens must be conceived as instinctive or blind ; its
" abstractive " action is productive of intelligence, not formally
intelligent itself. Its function is to effect the modification by
which the act of intelle tual consciousness is immediately
awakened.^"' It may be here asked if the action of the intel-
lectus agens be instinctive, why does it issue into the precisely
appropriate activity ? Why does it effect exactly the right
modification to represent the object of the sensuous impression

^- Cf Kleutgen, op. cit. §§ 18—32, 45—49, 776, 777 ; also Peillaube,
op. cit. pp. 294 — 300.

^^ The different functions ascribed to the intellectus agens and
patiens illustrate the scholastic distinction between an active and a
passive faculty. Both together constitute the actually intelligent
mind ; but the former actuates its object, makes it pass from a
potential or virtual condition to one of actualization, whilst the latter
ii actuated by its object.


when the latter cannot directly act upon it ? The answer lies
in the fact that both sense and intellect have their source in
the same indivisible soul, which is so constituted that on the
stimulation of the former the latter sympathetically responds
by a higher reaction of its own — somewhat as the appetitive
faculty, which conceived as such is blind, tends towards an
object apprehended by a cognitive faculty as good. In both
cases it is the soul itself which acts through the faculty.

Distinction between the Active and Passive Intellect. — It was
disputed among the schoolmen, in what way and to what
extent the intellectus agens is to be distinguished from the
intellectus patiens. The Arabian philosopher Avicenna and
certain of his disciples interpreted Aristotle's somewhat
obscure language on the point, to mean that the intellectus
agens is "separate" not merely from the human body, but
also from each individual soul. They, accordingly, conceived
this power, after a pantheistic fashion, as one universal spirit,
which in some mysterious way operates upon the passive or
recipient intellects of all men. This gratuitous and fanciful
hypothesis was unanimously rejected by the schoolmen, who
all deny to the intellectus agens any existence separate from
the individual soul. But here the agreement ends. The
majority conceive the intellectus agens and intellectus patiens as
two real subjectively distinct faculties of the soul, on the
ground that they are opposed as agent and patient, mover
and moved. The function of the one, it is urged, is to effect
the species impressa, whilst that of the other is, when thus
modified, to apprehend the object. Other scholastic philo-
sophers, however, argue very forcibly against this multipli-
cation of faculties as excessive. They object that the
hypothesis of two intellects is unnecessary, and they maintain
that these terms only designate different aspects or aptitudes
of the same power. The name, intellectus agens, denotes the
mind as capable of modifying itself, whilst the intellectus patiens
signifies the same mind considered from the other standpoint
as capable of being modified. In this view they are sub-
jectively merely virtually distinct powers.^'*

5. Species Intelligibiles: Verhuni Mentale. The modification
of the mind viewed as wrought in the intellectus patiens
by the intellectus agens, constitutes the species intelligibilis
impressa. The union of this species imprcssa with the intel-

^^ " Intellectus agens rcalitev a passibili non distinguitur. Nam
intellectus dicitur agens, quatenus actionem cognoscitivam producit ;
patiens vero, quatenus banc ipsam actionem in se recipit hsec autem
duo munera ad unam et eandem potentiam pertinent." (J. Mendive,
S.J., Psychologia,% 514. Cf. Boedder, op. cit. §§ 162,163; Pesch,
op. cit. §838.)


lectits patiens results in the conception of the abstract essence,
the generation of the abstract idea of the object, which is
called the species intelligibilis expressa, inasmuch as it is the
intellectual expression of the object. The same act looked at
under a somewhat different aspect as the realization or utter-
ance of the thought of the object by the mind to itself is called
the verbiim mcntale, or mental word.^'^ Finally, this same product
considered as the intellectual expression of the essence of the
object abstracted from the individualizing notes which accom-
pany it in the physical world is called the direct, or potential
universal. It is not as yet an actually or formally universal
concept. It prescinds alike from universality and individuality.
It merely expresses in an indeterminate manner the essence
of the object, omitting all individualizing conditions. More-
over, it is not the object of cognition, but the instrument or
means by which the intellect apprehends its object. It is the
medium quo, not the medium quod percipitur.

Formally Universal Ideas. — It is only by subsequent re-
flexion that this potentially universal concept, thus reached
by the spontaneous, direct, abstractive action of the intellect
is elaborated into the reflex ov formally universal concept of the
logician. The schoolmen, as we have already observed, are
extremely brief on this latter part of the process ; but under
the term "reflexion,' they must intend to include conscious
abstraction,^" ideal comparison, involving analysis and
synthesis, and also generalization. For, in the reflective
operation by which the primitive abstract conception is

^•^ The allusions of modern writers to the vcrhuui mentalc of the
schoolmen exhibit an amusing ignorance of the meaning of the term.
The phrase simply signifies with mediaeval writers, the mental act
corresponding to a common noun — e.g., triangle, man, responsi-
bility. These words, it may be presumed, have a meaning or con-
notation. The thought by which the mind comprehends that
meaning is the verhum mcntale, just as the vocal sound by which it
communicates this thought to another mind is the verhum orak.

^^ The reader must be careful to distinguish two forms of
" abstraction" in the scholastic account of the process. The first
consists of the initial act spontaneously exerted by the intcUectus agens.
It is instinctive being preceded by sensuous but not by intellectual
cognition. It is called "abstraction," because it effects ihe abstract
representation of the concrete object. It is not preceded by but
productive of the abstract concept. In the second stage the intellect
already in possession of this representation consciously adverts to
the essential features contained in it, whilst it deliberately ignores
or withholds attention from concomitant accidents. The first stage
is an act of instinctive election by the intellect, the second is one of
conscious selection. (Cf. Peillaube, ibiil. pp. 293 — 300, also Boedder,
op. cit. §§ 159—163.)


formally universalized, it must be held before the mind by a
deliberate act of attention. The collection of notes, which
constitute its internal possibility, must be consciously realized,
and then it must be judged capable of representing an inde-
finite number of ideal or imaginary individuals, or of being
actualized in the various possible members of a class. But
such ideal comparison and generalization is the natural
outcome of our rational nature ; it may take place with great
rapidity, and the. constant check of careful observation and
experiments is needed to secure that our conceptions and
generalizations are in harmony with reality, after the manner
described in the earlier part of this chapter.

Summary. — The scholastic theory, then, may be thus
briefly stated : An object produces an impression on a sen-
sitive faculty. This results in a sensuous phantasm in the
imagination, and here the work of the lower power ends.
Since, however, in man the sensuous faculties of cognition
have their source in a soul also endowed with intellectual
aptitudes, the latter now issue into action. The presence of
the phantasm forms the condition of rational activity, and
the intellect abstracts the essence ; that is, by its own active
and passive capabilities generates the concept which expresses
in the abstract the essence of the object. By a further
reflective act it views this abstract concept as capable of
representing any member of the class, and thus constitutes it
a formally universal idea.^''

^' Mercier formulates the scholastic doctrine in the three fol-
lowing propositions: (i) " U intelligence est originairement en puissance
a regard de son acte de pensee ; pour qu'elle soit en etat d'accomplir
son acte, il faut qu'elle soit informee par une espece intelligible
(species intelligibilis), substitut del'objet a connaitre. Aussi I'entende-
ment, s'appelait-il, dans I'ecole, intellect possible ou potentiel. (2) La
formation de I'espece intelligible demande t(ne double cause, I'image (le
phantasma) fournie par I'acte del'imagination, et une force d'abstrac-
tion appelee intellect actif ov intellect agent, capable de degager I'image
de ses caracteres d'individuation et de rendre ainsi I'objet assimil-
able par la puissance cognitive de I'entendement. L'image est
ainsi la cause instrumentale — i.e. la cause efficiente subordonnee ;
I'intellect actif, la cause principale de la production de I'espece intel-
ligible. (3) Lorsque la puissance intellectuelle est informee par
une espece intelligible appropriee a sa nature et qui lui rend I'objet
present, elle passe de la puissance a I 'acte, elle se dit a elle-meme ce que
la chose est [quod quid est) ; en un mot, elle connait. La connaissance
ou la pensee n'est pas, en effet, autre chose que cette parole mentale
qui nous dit ce que quelque chose est." [Psychologie, pp. 321, 322.)
The phantasma is rather causa formalis vel exemplaris than efficiens.
The true causa principalis is the soul, or rather the man; but the
intellectus agens may fairly be described as the cliief active energy
(agens principalis) in the process. (Cf. lioedder, op. cit. §§ 167.)


Doctrine of St. Thomas.— For the convenience of the
student desirous of a better understanding of the scholastic
philosophy, we shall here give a selection of extracts from
St. Thomas bearing on this abstruse and difficult question.
We shall mark them with numbers corresponding to the
paragraphs in our own exposition. It will, however, be
useful to premise them by the explanation of certain scholastic
terms and phrases.

The Intellcctus Agens is said : (i) to convert or diyect itself
towards the phantasm {se convevtere ad phantasma), and (2) to
abstract from it the essence (abstrahere essentiam), or, (3) to
iUuminate and make actually intelligible what is, potentially intel-
ligible in the phantasm ; moreover, (4) throughout the process

Online LibraryMichael MaherPsychology: empirical and rational → online text (page 31 of 63)