restricted access 6. Act versus Idol
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121 chapter six Act versus Idol B y the middle of the thirteenth century, Aristotle’s natural philosophy was firmly implanted in the faculty of arts, which all university students attended for some years. Religious reticence and local but repeated condemnations did not succeed in containing it, and theologians themselves now appropriated its concepts and principles. In the psychology of De anima, in particular, they found powerful tools for analyzing cognition, and the question then became inevitable: where should the mental word of Augustine be located within the intellectual framework described by Aristotle? A long debate would develop on this subject, beginning in the 1280s, above all in reaction to the brilliant and daring theses on this point by Thomas Aquinas. This will be the subject of the present chapter. At first sight, an attractive possibility was somehow to identify the interior word with the intelligible species that, according to Aristotelian psychology, is abstracted from sensible images by the agent intellect and is then deposited in the possible intellect. For Alexander of Hales, for example, “one calls word, that [intelligible] species itself insofar as it is subject to a volition of manifestation.” A similar thesis was advanced—not without some hesitation—in the first of Thomas Aquinas’s grand theological works, his Commentary on the Sentences, written in Paris in the 1250s. Yet this identification of the interior word with the Aristotelian species, however nuanced it might be, fails to do justice to certain of Augustine’s most salient affirmations about the verbum cordis. The mental word in the strict sense, for the bishop of Hippo, was something the soul actively engenders out of the knowledge deposited in the soul and does not exist except insofar as the soul thinks it. Only with great loss, then, could the mental word be confused with knowledge itself or with one of its components. The distinctive solution Thomas Aquinas would develop beginning in the late 1250s and throughout his later work was to add a step to the Aristotelian process: the production by the possible intellect of an internal object for conscious intellection—namely, the mental word; to this he attributes a special mode of being that escapes the Aristotelian categories: that of a pure object of thought. It was not a novel idea to thus enrich ontology to accommodate intelligibles in the soul. Abelard had already proposed that concepts (intellectus) and 1. Alexander of Hales, Summa theologica II.149, ed. B. Marrani (Quaracchi: Coll. Saint-Bonaventure, 1928), 198; see also I.419, 611. 2. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, In I Sententiarum, dist. 27, q. 2, a. 1–3. On this conception of the mental word in Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences, see above all Paissac 1951, chap. 2, and Chênevert 1961. F6925.indb 121 F6925.indb 121 10/24/16 12:52:26 PM 10/24/16 12:52:26 PM 122 Thirteenth-Century Controversies propositional contents (dicta) were pure products of the soul and had no claim to the robust existence of real things such as substances and qualities. Others after him proposed that the “enuntiable” (enuntiabile)—that is, that which is signified by a sentence—could not be a real thing; that it pertained to none of the Aristotelian categories and exhibited a distinctive mode of existence. We could even trace all of this further back, if we like, to the old Stoic idea of the lekton. However, the originality of Thomas was to mine this vein in order to develop a detailed theory of the interior word. Confronted with Aristotelianism , Augustinian psychology thus engendered through the Angelic Doctor a new doctrine, at once epistemological and ontological, that caused great controversy in the decades that followed. Aquinas was criticized for introducing between the intellectual act and the exterior thing an intermediary representation , a sort of “idol,” which is an obstacle to cognitive contact. Well before William of Ockham many authors, especially Franciscans, will propose instead to identify the mental word with the act of the intellect, which itself is a quality of the soul and not an improbable, purely ideal object. I will first expound on this controversial position of Thomas Aquinas and then examine the criticisms to which it was subjected in the late thirteenth and early fourteenthcenturies. The Thomistic synthesis Although he was not the only one, Thomas Aquinas was the most influential theorist of the verbum mentis in the thirteenth century. The theme recurs frequently in his work, and it most often serves (as it did...