A Look at the reality of simple Apprehension




By Fr. Raymond Taouk,

I. description


1.    Apprehension is the act of understanding stg wo affirming or denying.  And since the object of h. int. is the quiddity, apprehension is the act which knows an abstract quiddity, clearly or confusedly[1]Actus quo intellectus cognoscit quod quid est.  Actus qui apprehendit quidditatem aliquam.


2.    This knowledge is obtained by a concept, whereby it is called also a conception. 

·      The concept is not the same thing as apprehension : it is only the means by which the mind grasps (apprehends) an essence.

·      In order to know, the int. needs to produce within itself a ‘representation’ of the object : conceptus, verbum, mentis, species expressa.  This dictio verbi is so essentiel to the intelligence that it is found even in God.  God does not think in abstract terms, but His knowledge is done necissarily by a Word[2].  The concept is id quo intellectus apprehendit quidditatem.


3.    The concept has a double aspect :

·      the objective concept (the objective aspect of the cpt) is the cpt seen as it represents an object : the object thought.

·      the formal concept (subjective aspect of the concept) is the cpt seen as conceived by the int. : the thought of the object.  Since the formal concept is simply the vital and immanent act of the int., it needs no explanation.  We need to speak of the objective concept.



ii. existence of the concept


1.    SQ.  We need to establish the existence of the cpt in the int., against nominalism which reduces it to a mere image or a word (position of Occam in 14th century, passed to the empirical schools, Locke, Berkeley, Hume). 


2.    Concept and image

·      we can sometimes conceive objects without forming an adequate image of them.  E.g. relations (equality, dependence), qualities (justice, goodness), metaph. notions (possibility, necessity, existence).  Equality is distinct from the math. sign ‘=’; justice (virtue by which one renders each one his due) is more than a mere scale.

·      The image is not necissarily linked to a concept.  From any type of triangular image we form the concept of a triangle.

·      The image is always concrete and sensible, even the composite or schematic image.  The concept, even singular, is abstract from its sensible characters.  The schematic image of a man, a ‘gentleman’ is still a sensible representation quite different from the essence ‘man’, object of the concept


3.    Concept and word.

·      the written or spoken word is a ‘verbal image’.  But is has a special role in the functioning of the intellect : it fixes the thought, determines it and communicates it.  Yet it is radically distinct from the idea.

·      the word and the idea are independent.  There are ideas wo words (no word corresponds to our thought) and words wo ideas (parrot speech).

·      they are indifferent to each other.  The same idea can be expressed by different words (diffrt. languages, or synonymous in the same lgg), and the same words have different senses (homonymes).

·      in many cases, we do not make an act of intelligence : we say we understand the word when we evoke an image, the gestures for usual things (fork, spoon, ladder, staircase).  To define them int., we would need much reflection, although we vaguely know they are instruments.


4.    Conclusion.  There is no thought without concept.  And the concept is essentially abstract and universal.  Universality is a consequence of abstraction : by abstracting from individual characters, the object is applicable to a number of particular cases.


iii. formation of the concept.



1.    Critique of inneism

·      Th. the concept is abstracted from sensible experience (see above, we need only show the inconsistency of the inneist theories).  Vs. all types of inneism, rationalist or idealist. 

·      Plato admits some sort of inneism of ideas : the ‘reminiscence’ recalls the memory of ideas the soul had before it was united to the body.  

·      Descartes said that the fundamental ideas (God, extension) were innate to the mind ‘I draw them out of the treasure of my spirit’.

·      Leibniz says they are virtually innate, i.e. produced by the mind on the occasion of experience.

·      Kant and co. affirm that a priori forms and categories are all innate, being laws of the knower.

·      Inconsistency of the inneist theories

·      it is wo proof, i.e. arbitrary.  Its objections to the aristotelian theory of abstraction are resolved :

·      a) How could a body cannot act upon a spirit?  That is true, and that is one of the bases for the theory of abstraction;

·      b) the idea of infinite, says Desc., cannot be drawn from the sensible: true, but it is obtained from the sensible by the analogical method, wo being innate;

·      c) the necessary and universal laws cannot be experimental, says Kant: true, but they can be grasped by the int.

·      inneism is illogical unless it develops into an absolute idealism.  If all int. knowledge originates from the subject, how can it not terminate in the subject?

·      inneism is false.  Locke rightly argues agst Descartes : we cannot admit actual ideas which would exist perfectly formed in the mind. The ideas are maybe only virtual, but we need to explain the passage from potency to act, the actualisation of ideas formed by the int.  Leibniz recognises that experience is necessary as giving the occasion for this actualisation : if the exp. brings stg to the mind, moving and exciting, it brings it the object of thought, but that is the theory of abstraction.


2.    Forms of abstraction

·      Broadly speaking, to abstract is to consider one element of a given thing apart from the rest.  Thus, the senses do abstract as they perceive one aspect while excluding the others.  This is how the empiricist speak of abstraction.  In reality, there is no abstraction since the given element is as concrete as the whole : a face is not ‘abstract’, it is as concrete as the other parts of the body.

·      Proper abstraction is the consideration of a particular sensible object according to its nature apart from its individual elements, the proper of the intellect (85,1).  There are 2 forms of abstr [3]:

·      the total abstraction (better called by ST ‘abstractio totius’) abstrahit totum a partibus, the genus from the species or individuals (e.g. we abstract from diverse men the human genus).

·      the formal abstraction (better called by ST ‘abstractio formae’) abstrahit formam a materia, a type from its individuals (humanity from Socrates).  This formal abstraction has various degrees which constitute the great types of h. knowledge[4]


3.    The 3 degrees of abstraction :

·      in physical abstraction, the mind considers the sensible qualities apart from the individual qlties (weight, color, heat, reactions).

·      in math. abstrct., the mind considers quantity apart from all its sensible qualities (length, width, surface, volume, numbers), etc.

·      in metaphysical abstr., the mind considers the being of the object apart from any qtty and qlty (existence, substance or accidt, pot or act,etc.: being as being).  Brunschvicg, saying that there is no science except of things measurable, condemns any metaphysics and restricts sc. to maths.  That is an error : the fact that a thing exists is important and very interesting, although it escapes the mathematician.

·      order : these 3 degrees of abstraction are not produced sucessively by the mind.  Faced to an object, we consider it the way we wish. 

·      Genetically, the metaph. intuition seems prior to the 2 others, a child is a born metaphysician[5].  After, the mind loses its freshness and becomes stifled by the ‘instruction’, and interested in things immediately useful, and metaphysics ‘is good for nothing’ at least directly.

·      to accede to the level of metaphysics it is not ncssy to pass the inferior levels.  Vs. the motto of the Academy “No one enters here who is not a geometer”, that of the Liceus would be the opposite.  Ar. would consider that the mathematical spirit, like the positive spirit, renders inapt for metaphysics.  This is bec. metaph. offers neither the riguour of demonstration of maths. nor the experimental verification of physics. 

·      To try to model  metaph. on mathematics (Descartes) or on physics (Kant) is to confuse the order of science and their respective objects.


4.    The question of generalisation [6]

·      being abstract, a concept is necessarily universal.  But it is yet only negatively universal, or potentially universal (it can be applied to various individuals) : this is the direct universal.

·      a concept is known positively and formally as universal if it can be compared with the individuals from which it was traken.  This reflection is intentio universalitatis, which gives the reflexive universal (really the same as the direct universal : it only recognises as universal what was already so).



iv. metaphysical explanation of abstraction


            After giving the description of the abstract thought, we still need to explain its principles.  The difference between Kant and us is the starting point. Kant exludes right from the beginning the metaphysical knowledge (Intro. to the Critique) and considers only the math. and physical science.  The problem for us is to explain the act by which the int. grasps an essence abstracted from the sensible and represented in a concept.  We will decompose the act of intellection into3 steps, more logical than successive.


1.    The possible intellect.

·      Intellectus possibilis.  The intellect is a passive potency, like a tabula rasa without any innate ideas.

·      The possible intellect is actuated by an intelligible object, which is the impressed species called also intelligible species.


2.    The impressed species.

·      The species (the activator of the poss. int.) must come from sense experience, since nothing comes to the int. which is not given through the senses.  The highest degree of sensible elaboration is the phantasm : the intelligible object will be drawn from the phantasm.

·      The difficulty is that the phantasm is sensible and material, and not intelligible as such.  But what is not intelligible cannot actuate a purely spiritual faculty[7].  The initiative to elevate the object from the sensible to the intelligible level must come from the superior element, the int.  We must therefore admit the existence of an active function, the agent intellect.  The agent int. renders the phantasm intelligible, i.e. renders actual the intelligible elements contained in potency within the phantasm.  ST compares it to an illumination ‘intellectus agens illustrat phantasmata’.[8]

·      Thus, 2 causes are coordinated to produce the species impressa : phantasm and the agt int.  Since there can be no coordination wo subordination, one of them is the instrument, the other the principal cause.  The instrument cannot act or move by itself, but only under the motion of the main cause.  These 2 elements explain why the impressed species is objective, as fruit of the phantasm, and intelligible, as fruit of the agent intellect. 


3.    The mental word

·      The possible int. receives the impressed species and reacts to it.  Passive potency does not mean absolutely passive, but that it must be actuated or impressed and from this impression, is produces an immanent activity.  This activity consists in expressing to itself the essence in a species expressa, mental word or concept.

·      The concept is not the object known by the intellect, id quod cognoscitur.  It is the means by which the essence is known, id quo objectum cognoscitur[9].  The species expressa is the expression or reaction of the int. about the object previously assimilated as impressed species[10].  That is the only way to understand how an immanent act can reach a transcendent object : since the int. is apt to receive within itself the form of the object, its knowledge is both immanent and extatic.  Thus we safeguard what is right about the principle of immanece ‘we know only what we are’, so cherished by the idealists but wrongly bec. they imagine the mind locked within itself.

·      The reason for the production of the word.  In the same C.G. I 53, ST gives 2 reasons for the existence of the mental word (not found in sense knowledge) : 1º to know stg absent, it has to be made present by a representation acting as vicegerent of the object known; 2º in order to be known intellectually, the object material needs to have an immaterial mode of existence, which it can receive only from and within the intellect.  Such reasons are based on the imperfection of the h. intellect and as such cannot render account of the analogy with the Trinitarian doctrine of generation in terms of a mental word.  That is why Jn of ST argues that an intellect has a natural propensity to express what it understands, so much the more that it is more perfect.[11]


4.    Remarks

·      The crux of the matter is the illumination of the phantasm by the agent int.  As St. Thomas Aquinas remarks, neither Democritus nor Plato needed an agent int. in their theory o knowl; Democritus brought all knowledge to sensation, Plato admitted intelligible object separated from the sensible.  Aristotle, because he needs to explain how a material object can be object of an intellect, has to render account of the passage of the sensible plane to the intelligible.

·      The Agent int. does not spiritualise the phantasm which is and remains sensible.  The h. mind cannot transform ontologically things, cannot add to the phantasm stg which would not be already included : it would be the creator of the intelligible object and knowledge would reach only what the intellect would have added.  The only role of the agent int. is to actualise the intelligible, to reveal it, bec. the quiddity is present in the sensible, but not object of the sense : Socrates is man, but as I see Socrates, I do not see the essence ‘man’, only the int. is capable of revealing it.

·      this metaphysical theory of the subject supposes a metaphysical theory of the object.  The way a thing is, the same way it is known.  The aristotelian theory of knowledge cannot subsist without admitting firstly hylomorphism.  Such a theory supposes that, in every sensible object, there is an idea, an intelligible and immaterial form.  This is the conclusion Aristotle had to draw from his critique of Plato’s theory of Ideas : the idea is not separated from, but immanent to, the sensible.  Once we admit hylomorphism, there is no difficulty in admitting that the intellect abstracts the intelligible essence present in the sensible phantasm.



[1]If, looking at stg, you do not grasp anything for it, there is no int. yet, but as soon as you realise : ‘this is a machine, a man,’ then there is intellection.

[2]The mysterious aspect of the H. Trinity consists in the fact that this ‘word’ which proceeds from God is a distinct Person from the Father.

[3]I 40,3.

[4] 85,1 ad 2.

[5]Brunschvicg is not wrong when he says that metaph. corresponds to the mentality of a 8 y.old child.

[6]De Anima II 12, #378; Meta VII, 13, # 1570.

[7]Nihil corporeum imprimere potest in rem incorpoream.  This difficulty raised by Descartes was known to ST who formulated it clearly.  To eliminate one of the 2 terms of the relation of knowledge simplifies greatly the problem : idealism  denies the material object to the int, and materialism (empiricism) denies the spirituality of the int.  But both fall into greater problems : idealism cannot explain the apparent ‘thing-in-itself’ of the sensible things, and materialism cannot explain how physical forces can beget thought.

[8]C.G. II 76.

[9]the concept is known only by reflection.  John of ST, followed by Maritain, have developed the distinction of instrumental concept and formal concept.  The red disk is the instr. cpt which is firstly known and makes the object known, the train.  In the case of the formal concept, it is a pure sign, i.e. it does not stop the sight to itself but points out to the object.

[10]ST speaks of species (similitudo) of the object and of the intentio intellecta which is the ratio/nature of the object as expressed in its definition (instead of impressed and expressed species) in C.G. I 53.

[11]Yet, the prod. of the mental word, he says, is not an absolute and universal necessity, since the Son and the H.Ghost understand wo producing a word, and the production of the word is not the ultimate term of intellection, since it must be intellection itself (?).  Even for man, there is one case in which he understands wo word, in the beatific vision since God is totally intelligible in himself and never adequately represented by any created similitude.