Aquinas’s Distinction between Natural Being and Intentional Being

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB

In Aristotle, De Anima, 3, 4, 430a 3-4, one finds a discussion which argues that in human cognition, if material coordinates or material properties are somehow omitted or abstracted out (perhaps one can say “bracketed”), an identity exists between an act of understanding and what is understood.  The act of understanding possesses a spiritual or immaterial nature as does also what is understood as this refers to a spiritual or immaterial intellectual nature.  According to an editorial translation of Aristotle’s text (as this is given in Lonergan’s Verbum, p. 84, n. 118), it is said that “in the immaterial order, the understander and the understood are identical.”  Another translation reads: “…in things separated from the material, intellect and what is understood by it are identical.”  Cf. Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, trans. Kenelm Foster and Silvester Humphries, p. 216.  In the Latin of a translation which Lonergan gives both in “Christ as Subject: A Reply,” Collection, p. 179, n. 50 and in Verbum, p. 84: in his quae sunt sine materia idem est intelligens et intellectum.  Turning to Aquinas’s commentary, however, one finds an elaboration and specification of meaning which goes beyond what Aristotle had said when, in a more simple way, he had spoken about the presence of an identification.  Citing Aquinas’s Latin: species igitur rei intellectae in actu, est species ipsius intellectus; et sic per eam seipsum intelligere potest.  Cf. Sentencia Libri De anima, 3, 9, 724.  In a more accurate English translation than would otherwise the case if species were to be translated as “concept,” because of a real distinction which exists between an intellectual form or nature and a concept as an inner word (species and concept do not refer to the same reality), one best avers that, according to Aquinas: “the species or form of something which has been understood [referring to the intelligible nature of a given thing] is also a species or form [an intelligible nature] which exists within one’s understanding.”  An identity exists between what is being understood and one’s act of understanding (provided, as Aquinas notes, that what is being understood through one’s act of understanding is what is being truly or actually understood in one’s act of understanding). One’s act of understanding should not be understanding something else (something which is other than what one’s act of understanding should be understanding).   The introduction of a qualification in Aquinas points to a difference which opens up a discussion on what distinguishes Aristotle’s understanding of cognition from that which one finds in Aquinas and Lonergan.

In terms of the difference between Aristotle’s understanding of human cognition and what Aquinas and Lonergan understood about understanding, it is to be noted as a point of departure that, in Aristotle, a human knowledge of reality occurs through a kind of participation which gradually reaches down into the depths of a person’s soul.  If, on the other hand, knowing were to be understood as something that is akin to some kind of confrontation which occurs between an act of sense and what sense experiences in terms of some kind of datum (a datum of sense), in this kind of knowing, all knowing would occur through an externalized sensible form of extroversion.  Reality would exist as some kind of external world which one sees or contemplates.  Now, if one shifts into an Aristotelian interpretation about what happens when acts of sense are operative in a human person as a subject, one begins to get into an understanding of human cognition which begins to think in terms of identity.  On the level of sense, knowing occurs through an interchange which occurs between acts of sense and the various possible data of sense.  Aristotle would more familiarly speak about agent objects who act from without to move or elicit an act of sense in a human subject.  In any given act of sense, what is sensed exists as the term or the content of an act of sense.  In the familiar Latin phrasing which summarizes this position: sensible in actu est sensus in actu (“the sensible in act is the sense in act”).  Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 14, a. 2, cited by Lonergan, Verbum, p. 84, n. 115.  By identity at a sensible external level, a human subject begins to participate in something which is other than himself.  To a sensible degree, this other becomes part of a person’s subjective being, part of a person’s subjective life (through a form of consciousness which is characterized by acts of sense).

However, later, through an act of abstractive understanding (or “simple apprehension” as many Thomists would say), in abstracting a form from matter, at an intellectual level, a second kind of identity is experienced and known.  The inner sense or meaning which belongs to something that is other than a knower begins to live within the inner life or the inner consciousness of a knower.  The intelligible in act is the intellect in act.  Intelligibile in actu est intellectus in actu.  Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 14, a. 2, cited by Lonergan, Verbum, pp. 83-84, n. 114.  At a deeper level within the human soul, at an intellectual level, a person is joined with something that is other than himself.  A sensible material identity is succeeded by an intellectual immaterial identity.

However, as questions arise which now ask if a knower knows that he or she is cognitionally joined to something which is other than him or herself and which is truly known (something which exists independently of whether or not it is being known by him or her as a knower), a species of reflection is initiated which begins to reveal that the principle of identity cannot be employed as a sufficiently satisfactory explanation for the kind of knowing which occurs in human cognition.  By itself, the principle of identity cannot explain why, in human knowing, a form of self-transcendence exists (a form of self-transcendence which unites human knowers as subjects to objects which are other than subjects but which, through knowing, are participated in by human subjects).  Admittedly, as questions arise about truth and as individuals engage in acts of inquiry which can lead to acts of judgment about the truth of a given idea or theory, through a truth that is rationally affirmed, a person is joined to a world of real things which is ontologically other than one’s being (either as simply a being or as a being who also exists as a subject).  In the reflective understanding of judgment, a second form of immaterial identity makes its presence felt.  Through the mediation of a truth, something of reality enters into a person’s soul.  In a judgment, a person knows that he or she is joined to something which exists in its own right (it is real) and that such a thing does not exist as a function of its being known by one’s activity as a knower.  The reality of something, however, which exists independently of whether or not it is being known by a knower is not to be exactly equated with the reality which comes to exist within the knowledge of a given knower.  A cognitive identity exists between a knower and what is known but this cognitive identity is not to be equated with a perfect form of identity which would exist if adverts to the meaning of an ontological or metaphysical identity.

 The distinction which exists here is a real distinction that Aquinas adverts to when, in the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 56, a. 2, ad 3, he distinguishes between the natural being of a thing and the intended being of a thing as this exists within the cognition of a knower: esse naturale versus esse intentionale. The intended being of any given thing, by its being intended, points to the intentionality or the spirit of inquiry which exists within human cognition.  A cognitive desire works through an ordered set of different cognitional acts to move a potential human knowers toward a knowledge of real objects (or real things) which are other than a given knower.  Knowing occurs through an immaterial form of appropriation which creates an identity between a knower and what is known.  However, at a more fundamental level, one cannot provide an adequate account of human knowing if one cannot speak about the role of intentionality within the performance of human cognition.  Through various forms of reflection that are intended by the questions that one asks, certain distinctions can be made which, otherwise, would not be made.  Cf. Verbum, p. 84, n. 116.  In the distinction which Aquinas draws, one finds a point of departure for the intentionality analysis which Lonergan undertakes in his Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas although this analysis is most fully done in his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding where one finds that a clear distinction is drawn between a notion of being and a concept of being.  Lonergan’s notion of being, as a cognitive intention, is directed toward knowledge of reality and this notion is to be identified with Aquinas’s esse intentionale.  

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