Matter as a Cause of Knowing in Aquinas and Lonergan

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB

In conformity with Aristotle’s understanding of human cognition, Aquinas argues, with respect to human cognition, that “it is as ridiculous to say, the soul alone understands, as to say, alone it builds or weaves.”  Cf. Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 19, a. 1.  Knowing exists as a co-operative effort which involves both a formal principle and a material principle since human knowing occurs in a being that is formed by two principles.  Soul (anima) is united to body in a way which takes a body and then converts it into a certain kind of body which lives as a result of the soul’s causality.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 75, a. 1.  The body is needed by the soul if the soul’s intellectual operations are to occur (if they are to be in act).  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 129, 7; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 4.  In other words, through acts of sense, human beings have something to begin to think about, ponder, and understand; and also, through sense, human beings have something to go back to when they need to ask about the validity or the probable truth of an idea that has been grasped and understood in an initial act of understanding.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 12, a. 12, ad 6; q. 12, a. 3; q. 10, a. 9; Quaestio disputa De anima, a. 13, para. 7.  All human understanding and knowing begins with sensing and with what is known through acts of sense.  Cf. De Potentia, q. 3, a. 5, ad 1; Sententia super Physicam, 1, 1, 8; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 12, a. 12.  In the kind of language which Aquinas uses: sense knowledge functions as the matter of the cause.   Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 6, as cited roughly by Bernard Lonergan, Triune God: Systematics, pp. 577-579.  For these reasons then, it can be argued that what is known initially as matter through acts of sense functions serves as a first or initial cause of knowing.  As a point of departure, it can be viewed as both a remote cause and an extrinsic cause of human cognition (among other remote and extrinsic causes which can also be identified if one engages in cognitive self-reflection)

However, as one turns to thinking about material causality as one moves more closely to experiences of acts of understanding, one encounters an analysis in Aquinas which Lonergan takes up and formulates in his own way.  See, for instance, Lonergan, Caring About Meaning, pp. 1-2.  As Aquinas had argued: when a sense is acted upon by an external object, a phantasm or sense image is produced and this phantasm or immaterial sensible image exists in a bodily organ as an immaterial sensible trace, impression, or likeness that cannot exist without the receptivity of an incarnate, embodied sensing organ.  Cf. Quaestio disputata De anima, a. 1, para. 11; Sentencia Libri De anima, 2, 24, 551.  About phantasms, when Aristotle talks about the meaning of phantasia [N"<J"FÆ"], fantasy, or imagination in the De Anima, 3, 3, he notes that it is a word which derives from phaos, the Greek word for light since, of our five senses, sight is the “most highly developed.”  Hence, when we think about our five external senses (our seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling) we tend to think that seeing is paradigmatic and, so, we tend to take the words which aptly refer to seeing and apply them to our other senses.  In this context, “phantasm” immediately suggests an image that is derived from something that is seen although, subsequently, this term has been used to refer to any impression that has been created by the receptive activity of all our other senses.  However, as Aquinas argues in the Summa Contra Gentiles, 4, 11, 4 and in the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 78, a. 4, this sensible impression does not remain in the senses (the organs of sense).  Through the impact that it makes, it touches the human imagination and, as a consequence, it passes from the imagination into the recollection of things past which is human memory.

In his analysis, Aquinas distinguishes between phantasms which are produced by sense as a receptor and phantasms which are not produced by sense but by activities which transcend sense and which are not essentially passive but active.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 6, ad 2.  In a context that is formed by acts of inquiry and reasoning, the received matter of sense is taken and played with; its is reshaped and reconfigured in a manner which tries to encourage the reception of a possible act of understanding.  In his literal expression, in the Sententia super Metaphysicam, 7, 17, 1668, Aquinas speaks about “cause of the matter” which, in Lonergan’s interpretation, can be interpreted as a cause which disposes a phantasm or image to be ordered or to have a form or structure which than acts, as a material cause, to help trigger an act of understanding within the human intellect.  Cf. Lonergan, Triune God: Systematics, pp. 593-595.  See also Lonergan, Topics in Education, p. 171.  In other words, within a given thing which exists as a composite of matter and form, the intelligible ordering of things which exists within a given thing in terms of its form accounts for how conjoined matter is itself ordered or configured.  By imaginatively attending to possible configurations of matter in a manner which works initially from one’s acts of sense, conditions are created whereby possibly apt images can be discovered.

As Aquinas and Lonergan speak about what is happening, images function as necessary points of departure.  An object is imagined before it is understood.  Images are sought: apt images since apt images (as constructed by our acts of imagining) readily suggest a relation of parts or elements which cannot be sensed but which can be apprehended by an act of understanding.  An act of understanding emerges once one has constructed an image which moves one’s understanding to apprehend a meaning which goes beyond a particular image but which is somehow reflected by an image.  Images function here as representative carriers of meaning.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 2, a. 5, ad 5, ad 7.  Cognitionally speaking, they differ from any datum of sense (as matter) and, as a rarefied abstracted form of matter, they also differ from any form or nature that is understood through an image.  Within cognition, images communicate more than what is simply given in the likeness of an image.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, q. 180, a. 5, ad 2.

For a bit of corroboration and by way of examples, this symbolism of images which exists as a datum of human consciousness can be verified in aesthetic experience and in common religious practice where believers are encouraged to venerate images which function as icons to reveal an unseen, higher world of meaning.  In Aquinas’s words: motus autem qui est in imaginem, prout est imago, non consisti in ipsa, sed tendit in id cujus est imago (“movement to an image does not stop at the image, but goes on to the thing it represents”).  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, q. 81, a. 3, ad 3.  In other words, an imagined object reveals an object which cannot be entirely imagined but which is grasped because it is understood as imagination works to present an object that is understood within a proffered image or phantasm.  Cf. Aquinas, Quaestio disputata De anima, a. 15; Lonergan, Understanding and Being, p. 165.   An act of understanding grasps a meaning or an intelligibility that exists immanently within an image.  As through the medium of light, the sense of seeing beholds objects that are now seen, in the same way, through a form of intellectual light manifest in an act of understanding, a phantasm is informed by a meaning as, at the same time, this same phantasm triggers an intellectual act which grasps a meaning in the phantasm which has been imaginatively presented to it.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 15, a. 2; Lonergan, Verbum, p. 91; Triune God: Systematics, p. 579; Incarnate Word, p. 171.  The phantasm, as an agent object, moves the human intellect.  Cf. Lonergan, Verbum, p. 150.

However, about speaking about the role of material causality in human cognition, Aquinas and Lonergan both argue that acts of understanding cannot be adequately explained if one only attends to experiences of matter as these can be given through the action of material causes.  As Aquinas notes in the Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 26, a. 2, every act of understanding is an operation, and because it is an operation, it cannot be caused by something which is not itself an operation.  What a given thing is in terms of its nature conditions its operations since the reception of a form within a given thing specifies what kind of operation can properly occur in a given subject.  Cf. In 4 Scriptum super libros Sententiarum, d. 49, q. 3, a. 2 sol, cited by Lonergan, Triune God: Systematics, p. 551.  However, if one wants to identify all the different causes that account for acts of understanding as they occur in human subjects, beyond noting how the inquiries and questions of agent intellect play a positive role in leading a person to acts of understanding and how apt images help to trigger acts of understanding by working through one’s imagination, one must also look for operations which are correlative for the occurrence of acts of understanding in contingent human beings.  Like explains like.  Like causes like since what is less in being or reality cannot explain what possesses more being or reality.  What exists cannot be explained by what does not exist and so, for this reason, for a complete understanding of what happens in human cognition, other acts of understanding must be postulated and identified if human acts of understanding are to be fully accounted for: acts of understanding as these occur in teachers and instructors and the kind of understanding which already always exists in God’s understanding.  As Aquinas briefly states his position (in metaphysical terms): “potency is actualized by something already in act.”  Cf. Sentencia Libri De anima, 2, 11, 372.  Nothing in a state of potency is able to transcend its potency through its potency.  Hence, in the final analysis, since contingent acts of understanding are not able to account for themselves, a full explanation demands the postulation of an ever present non-contingent form of understanding within which all human acts of understanding participate.  Human understanding always exists as a participation in divine understanding (cited by Aquinas as a “remote cause” in the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 4, ad 3).

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