Applying a Thomist Principle: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB

Not infrequently, in different texts, Aquinas refers to a principle which he uses as a principle of explanation–a principle which avers that “whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the receiver.”  Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 75, a. 5; 3a, q. 5.  In the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 12, a. 4, a more specific application of this principle is proposed in terms which say that “a thing known exists in a knower according to the mode of a knower.” Cogitum…est in cognoscente secundum modum cognoscentis.  For further references, see Summa Theologiae, q. 14, a. 1, ad 3; q. 16, a. 1; q. 19, a. 6, ad 2; Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 79, 7; De Veritate, q. 2, a. 3.  In knowing anything, or in thinking that one knows anything, something is known by a prospective knower according to the mode of a knower’s being where what is understood and known is regulated or determined according to how a thing is known by a knower.  In the context of his systematic theology of the Trinity, Lonergan takes this Thomist principle and uses it to explain why ongoing development sometimes fails to occur in theology.  See Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, p. 25.  Seminal insights are not always well understood (as these insights come from major thinkers in the theological tradition as in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Cardinal Newman) and the result can be a tradition of misunderstanding (constituted by truncated understandings) which introduces a distortion into the development of later theology.  Pseudo-problems are generated and, to address them, provisional solutions are attempted which create new theological traditions, traditions which jar with the received theological tradition and which emerge as a miscast tradition.  As Lonergan argues his case in more than one context, Aquinas’s thought is replaced by Thomistic interpretations that present a sometimes consistent misunderstanding of things although it is claimed, at the same time, that everything is grounded in Aquinas’s texts and the true meaning of his texts.  False controversies take center stage as inquiries move toward apprehensions of meaning that lead to a sense of skepticism which acts to encourage an attitude of disbelief with respect to the sense or meaning of the Church’s teachings in matters having to do with faith and morals.

To cite only one notable example as one looks back into the history of Catholic theology, in the De ente supernaturali: Supplementum schematicum (On Supernatural Being: A Schematic Supplement), Lonergan argues that the dispute which irrupted in the 16th Century between Molinists and Bannezians about the relation between grace and human freedom should be regarded as a false controversy because it proceeded on the basis of a number of shared misunderstandings.  To cite a particular glaring instance, both schools adhered to a theory of human understanding which cannot be squared with Aquinas’s stated views.  When human understanding is understood as a vital act, it is said that human understanding causes itself.  It is essentially self-caused or self-willed.  Cf. J. Michael Stebbins, The Divine Initiative: Grace, World-Order, and Human Freedom in the Early Writings of Bernard Lonergan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 107-110.  But, the self-actualization of human knowing is not only a mistaken notion in itself but one which is doubly false if one tries to claim that it represents Aquinas’s understanding of human cognition.  As Aquinas himself says, “the knower as such is not an efficient…cause.”  Cf. Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 8, a. 6.  Human knowing is not to be equated with the activity or efficient causality of the agent intellect.  Human knowledge is not essentially a product of human effort (as a human knower moves from not knowing or not understanding to knowing or understanding).  As essential as is the reasoning process for moving toward understanding, no one can know if understanding will ever enter into one’s conscious experience.  The absence of any guarantees accordingly distinguishes understanding from any kind of human making or human producing.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 85, a. 2.  There is nothing which a person can do whose term is necessarily an act of understanding (even if an act of understanding is personally possessed by a knower when it is enjoyed).  Hence, as a consequence, understanding presents itself as something which can only be elicited (and not produced) by what human beings do.  It cannot be earned.  While given to persons who ask questions, understanding exists as essentially a reception.  It is a “being-acted-upon.”  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 79, a. 2.  It is an act, not an action.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 28, a. 3, ad 1; Sententia super Physicam, 3, 5, 320. While an action is something which is produced (it comes from a subject or agent as its source or point of origin), as an act, understanding is properly a passion (passio).  It is a passive potency.  It is something which a subject receives or accepts.  It is the act of a subject which exists within a subject who, as a patient, undergoes and experiences what is undergone and experienced, but who can only receive certain operations according to the form or nature which specifies a subject’s operations in terms of what can be received and what cannot be received by a given subject.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 26, a. 1; a. 3; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 41, a.1, ad 2; Stebbins, p. 107.  In Lonergan’s own words, “act is limited by the potency in which it is received.”  Cf. Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, p. 147. Every form possesses an inclination of its own which specifies what it may properly receive.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 6, a. 4, ad 2.  Hence, until understanding dawns, one must continue to work and hope for it and, until it dawns, one cannot say what one has understood.  The receptive character of human understanding accordingly explains why Aquinas speaks about understanding as a “movement to the soul” from an agent object instead of a movement “from the soul” to outer things.  Cf. De Malo, q. 6, a. un., arg. 14a.  Intellectual knowledge is received from external things in a way which shows that understanding operates “from things to the soul,” via a rebus ad animam.  Cf. De potentia, q. 9, a. 9.  If the receptive character of human understanding is not properly understood, it will lead to a false notion of human autonomy (an exaggerated notion of it) and, as a result, God’s grace will not be understood with regard to its full efficacy.

By attending then to the wording of Aquinas’s principle (“whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the receiver”)and as one thinks about its meaning, one can begin to sense that this principle probably explains why Lonergan moved into an intentionality analysis of the human subject after spending years reading into Aquinas’s thought.  Aquinas sometimes explicitly refers to inner experience which human beings can have of themselves when they are engaged in certain acts.  For instance, as a prime example which Lonergan often refers to in one or more various texts, in the ST, 1a, q. 84, a. 7, Aquinas avers: “Anyone can experience this for himself that when he tries to understand something, he forms certain phantasms to serve him by way of examples in which, as it were, he examines what he is trying to understand.  For this reason, when we wish to make someone understand something, we lay examples before him from which he can form phantasms for the purpose of understanding.”  Cf. Aquinas as cited by Giovanni B. Sala S.J., “From Thomas Aquinas to Bernard Lonergan: Continuity and Novelty,”; Lonergan, Understanding and Being, p. 44.  But, while Aquinas does not frequently refer to inner human experience in preferring to use a method of analysis which moves from exterior objects to inner human acts (our inner conscious experience of these acts), Lonergan prefers to work conversely through a form of analysis which moves from our inner experience of human acts toward transcendent objects that are intended by our desires and the different kinds of questions that we ask.  Where Aquinas distinguishes between different kinds of acts by distinguishing between different kinds of objects, Lonergan moves from our experience of questions and the existence of different kinds of questions to objects by way of acts.  By attending to questions and by distinguishing them, one can determine an order of different intended objects and then, by attending to this order of intended objects, one can specify the different kinds of acts which come into existence, or which can come into existence, in order to meet these different intended goals.  Differences within the order of human intentionality reveal a normative structure and a connatural order which exists within the larger world of being or reality–a connatural order which refers to a correspondence or a proportion which exists between the order of our human knowing and the order which exists within the world of being (as this is proportionate to the order of our human knowing).  Two types of analysis can be contrasted as we think about the kind of analysis that Aquinas prefers to use and the kind that Lonergan prefers to use.  But, within Aquinas, one finds principles which lead from one kind of analysis to another: from the metaphysics of Aquinas to the theory of human cognition present in the work of Bernard Lonergan.

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