Form as a Cause of Knowing in Aquinas and Lonergan

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB

When commenting on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas repeats what Aristotle says that form (forma) is ratio.  Cf. Sententia super Metaphysicam, 8, 1, 1687.   Form is an “intelligible structure.”  In Aquinas, species as “intelligible species” (species intelligibilis) commonly refers to form. Form as species, as Lonergan speaks about it, refers to the “intelligibility of data.”  Cf. Lonergan, Collection, p. 284.  Or, to use a term that originally derives from Aristotle, form is eidos or morphê.  Cf. Lonergan, Caring About Meaning, p. 45; Topics in Education, p. 171.  For both Aristotle and Aquinas, eidos as form refers to what is known not through sense perception but through an act of the mind, through nous.  Cf. Patrick H. Byrne, Analysis and Science in Aristotle (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 198, p. 200. Even if some intellects can engage in acts of understanding without using any images or phantasms, no intellect is able to understand anything apart from an intellectual species or form.  Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a, q. 11, a. 2, ad 1.  Form, like essence, refers to a principle of explanation but in a manner which says that by first understanding a form or intelligible species, one then understands what something is in terms of its essence.  Form is the quo est; it is that “by which something is” (quo aliquid est).  Cf. Sententia super Metaphysicam, 5, 10, 904.  As the cause or mover (movens) of understanding, it is that “by which the understanding understands” (quo intelligit intellectus).  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 85, a. 2.  It exists as a principle or cause of understanding (it is a causa cognoscendi) whereby one moves from the order of knowing toward the order of being, reality.  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 1, 53, 2 & 4.

As a cognitive tool or, more precisely, as a reason or explanation, form is not to be identified with what is understood or known, signified as the id quod intelligitur, which is the proper object of the human inquiry and the primary object of human understanding, and which also exists outside the mind as that about which questions are being asked.  In the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 56, a. 2, ad 3, Aquinas distinguishes between the form or species of a thing that exists within somebody’s  mind and the natural or real existence of a thing which exists apart from whether or not it is understood and known by anybody’s understanding (i.e., an intelligent being).  The form or species of a thing, as it exists in the mind of a knower, is referred to as an “intelligible existence” which is cognitively intended.  Hence, “intelligible existence” is to be associated with “intentional existence.”  See also Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 85, a. 2.  In discussing the difference between form as a reason or intellectual principle and what is being understood through form as a reason or intellectual principle, in “Intellectual Honesty in Aquinas and Lonergan,” (a paper presented at the Third International Lonergan Workshop, Erbacher Hof, Mainz, Germany, January 2-7, 2007),  p. 11, William Murnion elaborates on Aquinas’s meaning by distinguishing between what is secondarily understood and what is primarily understood.  A species or intentional likeness is what is secondarily understood while a thing to which an intentional likeness or species refers is what is primarily understood.  By means of form, an embodied form is understood and this embodied form refers to a world that exists beyond the reasoning of a human intellect although this same world is encountered in a self-transcendent way through a self-transcending acts of understanding. Cf. James B. Reichmann S. J., Philosophy of the Human Person (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1985), p. 106.  In attending then to what Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 85, a. 2, Aquinas draws a critical distinction which allows him to escape from a form of subjectivism that would regard the human knower as a self-enclosed subject whose understanding and knowing is a purely private affair that is disconnected from possibly understanding and knowing anything which exists outside the human mind.  Form as “that by which something is understood” must be clearly distinguished from “that which is understood” since their identification would imply that what is understood exists only within the operations of the human mind and not also outside of it.  Cf. Giorgio Pini,  “Scotus on the object of understanding,” pp. 6-10; “Scotus on concepts,” pp. 5-6 (two unpublished papers).

To understand a bit more clearly how form functions as a principle of mediation in human knowing, in his The Divine Initiative: Grace, World-Order, and Human Freedom in the Early Writings of Bernard Lonergan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 100-102, J. Michael Stebbins discusses how Lonergan explains how quod and quo are to be clearly distinguished from each other.  Quod refers to the object of a rational operation.  It is, for instance, something which is grasped in terms of its meaning or intelligibility.  However, quo refers to a reason which explains why something has been grasped as the term of an act of understanding or willing.  For one’s initial acts of understanding, for one’s judgments, for one’s acts of faith, hope, and charity, one has reasons of some kind.  Rational acts are distinguished from all other kinds of acts because of this difference in consciousness.  In every rational act, there exists an awareness or an experience of reasons and an awareness or an experience of the sufficiency of one’s reasons.  With respect, for instance, to ethical decision making, reasons specify a motive or purpose which explains why it is right and good that a given object should be desired and sought for in the willing which one does because of the understanding that one come to enjoy.  In Phenomenology and Logic: The Boston College Lectures on Mathematical Logic and Existentialism, ed. Philip J. McShane (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 105, Lonergan argues that, in both Aristotle and Aquinas, in explanatory syllogisms, one finds a middle term which refers to an act of understanding that apprehends a form or meaning and that through the mediation of an act of understanding (cognitively speaking) or through the mediation of a form (metaphysically speaking), persons move from sensible experiences of data to meanings as these are experienced in acts of conceptualization (which spring from prior acts of understanding).  Form, as a metaphysical principle, is to be correlated with a species of intellectual act which refers to acts of direct understanding that detach a form as an intellectual or spiritual component from matter which exists as a material principle or material component.

In contrast thus with form, the id quod intelligitur (the “that which is understood”) is an essence.  It is the quiddity of a material thing (quidditas rei materialis) which is constituted by a form joined to matter (i.e., matter as common matter).  While the form of a thing can exist both within a mind and within data of sense, its embodiment as essence precludes the proper functioning of any form of human understanding which ceases to be joined to a world that exists extramentally (outside the mind).

One Reply to “Form as a Cause of Knowing in Aquinas and Lonergan”

  1. Fr. Robidoux,
    I found this a very helpful analysis of Aristotle and Aquinas on form, and I would like to use it in my book on Aquinas.  Have you published this piece anywhere else, or shall I quote from the online version?
    Beth Toft (Fred Lawrence was my dissertation director — the book is a revision of the dissertation)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *