Passive Powers and the Acts of the Cogitative

A common confusion (well I, at least, used to be confused about this) among readers of Aristotle and Aquinas concerns the operations of passive powers.  If powers are passive in what sense can they be said to have their own activities or operations, and not just one operation, but an apparent range of operations. An important distinction needs to be observed here.  Just because a power is passive does not mean it does not have operations of its own.  In fact, if it is a power (actus primus), whether it is active or passive it most certainly does have some operations (actus secundus) of its own.  To be a power or faculty is to be a principle of operation.  A power is an actual principle of potentiality which is teleologically ordered towards some specific range of activities.  The operational terminus of a power is its end (cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics Θ 5-8).

There must first be a principle of the cogitative and the other internal senses.  This principle or sensible species is required to place these passive cognitive faculties into their initial act.  Without the per se sensible species (and the per accidens sensible species embedded there within) the inner senses would be incapable of acting as the passive powers they are.  The internal senses presuppose the operations of the external sensorium which then satisfy the condition of providing objects for the the activation of the internal sensorium (imagination, cogitative, and memory).  There is no agent sense in Aquinas like the agent intellect (though it is often suggested that there is in Averroes and some others).  The object of these faculties is sufficient to place them in first act (actus primus) and then moves them (or the will moves these powers) into operation (actus secundus) (cf. ST. 77.1; In de AnimaII.c. 5 lects. 11-12).

This brings us to the topic of the range of activities attributed to the cogitative power by Aquinas.  Like all cognitive faculties it is a passive power (For one of Aquinas’ brief treatments of the taxonomical differentia between active and passive powers see: In de Anima II. lt. 6 nn. 304-308).  But just because a power is passive this does not mean it is without its own proper activity or operation.  The possible intellect is clearly passive (cf. ST I. 79.2) but we also distinguish the three acts of the possible intellect, viz., apprehension, judgment, and reasoning (cf. 79.6-13 & 85. 1-8).  The important differentiating factor is the way the object acts or is acted upon the faculty (again, cf. In de Anima II. lt. 6 n. 304-308).  Even the will, an active power, is specified by (and so in some sense in potency to) the object of the intellect according to final causality (cf. ST I-II. 9.1).

In ST I. 78.4, Aquinas distinguishes between inner sense faculties which are receptive and those that are retentative.  This is a basic taxonomical distinction which can be found inchoate in Aristotle and is developed by Galen and Avicenna.  Aquinas uses it to further distinguish inner sense faculties which seem to be related to the same formal object.  The per se sensibles (formal object) are received by the gestalt sense (sensus communis) and they are retained by imagination.  The per accidens sensibles or per se particular intentions (not-sensed) are received by the cogitative power and they are retained by memory.

Formal Object

Receptive Power

Retentative Power

Per Se Sensible

Sensus Communis


Particular Intention

Cogitative Power


Aquinas does not seem committed to what this taxonomical division would, at least, prima facie entail , since he goes on to attribute to the imagination, cogitative, and memory acts of forming and preparing phantasms for abstraction (cf. ST I.84.7-8 & 85.7) as well as the evaluative actional judgments to the cogitative and the quasi-syllogistic acts of recollection to the memory.  But these are not simply operations of reception and retention, here we have more involved acts being attributed to faculties which were initially differentiated on the mark of their different formal objects and what seemed to be distinctive operations of reception and retention vis-à-vis their formal objects.  Aquinas seems to have broken out of his initial taxonomical mode.  The receptive-retentative schema will be challenged even more when Aquinas attributes habitus or at least acquired dispositions to all three of these inner senses (cf. ST I-II. 56.5).

Here, we are concerned with the question, how is it that the vis cogitativa, a sensitive faculty, which is not an immaterial faculty like the intellect, is able to have a range of activities and not simply one? It is important to read the distinctions of ST I.78.4 in the context of de Veritate 15. 2 (and also 15.1) to see how Aquinas, following, Avicenna adopts some further qualifications of Aristotle’s taxonomical principle of faculty differentiation (objects –> acts –> powers).  A passive power, even of the inner senses, can have more than one kind of operation so long as its formal object remains the same. In memory, this is the distinction between remembering and recollecting (cf. ST I. 78.4 and In de Mem. & Rec. ch. 1 &2).  The cogitative has the same object (particular intention or singular per accidens sensible) which initially brings it into act.  On the basis of this formal object the cogitative can be directed (by the will – which moves all our powers to their ends, cf. ST. I-II. 9.1 & 9.3) to form phantasms (or experience) for the sake of agent intellect abstraction, and then possible intellect understanding (SCG II. 73.16; 76. 8 & 14).

I will not deal with this problem at any length here but will merely suggest an answer.  I think this latter Aristotelian-Avicennian principle is sufficient to give us one formal object which specifies a variety of operations of a single faculty; the taxonomical principle between receptive and retentative faculties is not required, is inherently problematic if its justification is based on an obsolete physiology (which it might be).  Further, psychological taxonomical principles need to justified on the basis of psychological data, and not physiological data, even though the latter can be illustrative or provide suggestions.  Imaginables of imagination are sufficiently different from the per se sensibles of the sensus communis, just as particular intentions of the cogitative are sufficiently different from the formal object of pastness, proper to memory.

The notion of a cognitive faculty forming an object should be considered in terms parallel to Aquinas’ doctrine of the formation of conceptus, intentione intellecta, and verbum mentis (cf. ST. I. 85.2; de potentia 8.1; SCG I. 53; IV 11).  The phantasm is formed as the terminus of an inner sense faculties operation of imaging, cogitating, or remembering.  This is what the cogitative does inasmuch as it is in act.  It forms an inner imaginative word, as distinct from the outer word of voice, and the inner word of the intellect (cf. In Sent. I. d. 27.2.1).

There are a number of operations which Aquinas attributes to the cogitative power which all fall within its formal object.

Mark Barker has identified six distinct operations of the cogitative. [1]


  1. Estimates intentions of harm or benefit[2]
  2. Perceives incidental sensibiles or individual intentions[3]


  1. Prepares phantasms for abstraction[4]
  2. Permits cognition of the singular by reflexion[5]


  1. “Forms the minor of the practical syllogism”[6]
  2. “Reasons from one thing to another”[7]

These distinct acts are not sufficient to cause a differentiation of a new faculty because they all deal with the same formal object, the per se particular intentions .  The cogitative also remains a passive faculty, which does not mean it has no proper acts, it simply means that it cannot initiate its proper operations without the simulation of its proper object, which activates the faculty itself.  The faculty, once activated, can then carry out its range of proper operations.


n.b. The question concerning passive and active faculties is treated at length in Quodlibet VIII. 2.1. (cf. In de Sensu 4. 438b21).

Utrum anima accipiat species quibus cognoscit a rebus quae sunt extra eam

Ad primum sic proceditur: videtur quod anima non accipiat species a rebus quae sunt extra eam.

[68404] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 arg. 1 Dicit enim Augustinus, XII super Genesim: imaginem corporis non corpus in spiritu, sed ipse spiritus in seipso facit celeritate mirabili. Non autem eam in seipso faceret, si a rebus exterioribus eam acciperet. Ergo anima non accipit a rebus species quibus cognoscit.

[68405] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 arg. 2 Praeterea, eius solius est dimensionem a re dimensionata abstrahere cuius est dimensionem corporibus dare, quod est solius creatoris. Sed ad hoc quod species a rebus accipiatur in anima, oportet quod ab ipsa specie dimensiones separentur, quia in rebus extra animam habent esse dimensionale, non autem in anima, maxime quantum ad intellectum. Ergo anima non potest accipere species a rebus sensibilibus.

[68406] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 s. c. In contrarium videtur esse tota philosophorum doctrina, quae sensus a sensibilibus, imaginationem a sensu, intellectum a phantasmatibus accipere fatetur.

[68407] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 co. Respondeo. Dicendum quod anima humana similitudines rerum quibus cognoscit, accipit a rebus illo modo accipiendi quo patiens accipit ab agente: quod non est intelligendum quasi agens influat in patiens eamdem numero speciem quam habet in seipso, sed generat sui similem educendo de potentia in actum. Et per hunc modum dicitur species coloris deferri a corpore colorato ad visum. Sed in agentibus et patientibus distinguendum est. Est enim quoddam agens quod de se sufficiens est ad inducendum formam suam in patiens, sicut ignis de se sufficit ad calefaciendum. Quoddam vero agens est quod non sufficit de se ad inducendum formam suam in patiens, nisi superveniat aliud agens; sicut calor ignis non sufficit ad complendum actionem nutritionis nisi per virtutem animae nutritivae: unde virtus animae nutritivae est principaliter agens, calor vero igneus instrumentaliter. Similiter etiam est diversitas ex parte patientium. Quoddam enim est patiens quod in nullo cooperatur agenti; sicut lapis cum sursum proiicitur, vel lignum cum ex eo fit scamnum. Quoddam vero patiens est quod cooperatur agenti; sicut lapis cum deorsum proiicitur, et corpus hominis cum sanatur per artem. Et secundum hoc, res quae sunt extra animam tripliciter se habent ad diversas animae potentias. Ad sensus enim exteriores se habent sicut agentia sufficientia, quibus patientia non cooperantur, sed recipiunt tantum. Quod autem color per se non possit movere visum nisi lux superveniat, non est contra hoc quod dictum est; quia tam color quam lux, inter ea quae sunt extra animam, computantur. Sensus autem exteriores suscipiunt tantum a rebus per modum patiendi, sine hoc quod aliquid cooperentur ad sui formationem; quamvis iam formati habeant propriam operationem, quae est iudicium de propriis obiectis. Sed ad imaginationem res quae sunt extra animam, comparantur ut agentia sufficientia. Actio enim rei sensibilis non sistit in sensu, sed ulterius pertingit usque ad phantasiam, sive imaginationem. Tamen imaginatio est patiens quod cooperatur agenti: ipsa enim imaginatio format sibi aliquarum rerum similitudines, quas nunquam sensu percepit, ex his tamen quae sensu recipiuntur, componendo ea et dividendo; sicut imaginamur montes aureos, quos nunquam vidimus, ex hoc quod vidimus aurum et montes. Sed ad intellectum possibilem comparantur res sicut agentia insufficientia. Actio enim ipsarum rerum sensibilium nec etiam in imaginatione sistit; sed phantasmata ulterius movent intellectum possibilem. Non autem ad hoc quod ex seipsis sufficiant, cum sint in potentia intelligibilia; intellectus autem non movetur nisi ab intelligibili in actu. Unde oportet quod superveniat actio intellectus agentis, cuius illustratione phantasmata fiunt intelligibilia in actu, sicut illustratione lucis corporalis fiunt colores visibiles actu. Et sic patet quod intellectus agens est principale agens, quod agit rerum similitudines in intellectu possibili. Phantasmata autem quae a rebus exterioribus accipiuntur, sunt quasi agentia instrumentalia: intellectus enim possibilis comparatur ad res quarum notitiam recipit, sicut patiens quod cooperatur agenti: multo enim magis potest intellectus formare quidditatem rei quae non cecidit sub sensu, quam imaginatio.

[68408] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 ad 1 Ad primum ergo dicendum, quod si verbum Augustini referatur ad intellectum, sic planum est quod res non faciunt sui similitudinem in intellectu possibili principaliter, sed intellectus agens. Si autem referatur ad imaginationem, faciunt quidem, sed non solum; quia ipsa imaginatio cooperatur, ut dictum est. In sensu autem facit corpus sui similitudinem sufficienter et solum; sed de hoc non loquitur Augustinus, quia sensum contra spiritum dividit, sive corporalem visionem contra spiritualem.

[68409] Quodlibet VIII, q. 2 a. 1 ad 2 Ad secundum dicendum, quod ratio illa procedit ac si illa eadem species numero quae est in rebus vel in imaginatione, postmodum fieret in intellectu: sic enim oportet quod auferrentur ab ea dimensiones; et hoc patet esse falsum.

[1]  Mark Barker, The Cogitative Power: Objects and Terminology. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation; Houston, TX: University of ST. Thomas Center for Thomistic Studies, 2007), p. 105. (Italics indicate mutually cogitative and estimative functions).

[2] In De Anima II. Lt. 13. ST. I. 78. 4.; 81. 3.

[3] In De Anima II. Lt. 13.

[4] SCG 2. 73, n. 28 and 2. 76. n. 9

[5] DV 10. 5c, ad 2, ad. 4

[6] “format minorem syllogismi practici.” Sent. ad 3 in contr.

[7] “…discurrit ab uno in aliud.” In EN 6.9, n. 1249.

This entry was posted in Aristotle, Avicenna, Cogitative, de Anima, Incidental Sensibles, Intellect, Internal Sensorium, Principle of Faculty Differentiation, Thomas Aquinas, Thomistic Philosophical Anthropology, Uncategorized by Daniel D. De Haan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Daniel D. De Haan

I am a graduate student at the Center for Thomistic Studies in Houston, TX, working on my doctorate in Medieval philosophy. My historical research focuses on the inner sense psychology of Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, and Averroes, the commentary tradition on Aristotle's de Anima up to Aquinas, and the metaphysics of Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas. My research in contemporary issues has focused on attempts to integrate Thomistic philosophical anthropology with the insights of phenomenology and Wittgenstein, like one finds in the work of Karol Wojtyła, David Braine, Peter Geach, and Elizabeth Anscombe. I am also interested in philosophical problems prompted by neuroscience, especially concerning the compatibility of hylomorphism with neuroplasticity. I will be taking my doctoral comprehensive exams in the Spring of 2012 and I should be submitting my dissertation proposal by April 2012. I will be writing on the doctrine of being within Avicenna's Metaphysics of the Shifā and the introduction of modal logic into Aristotelian metaphysics. In 2010 I presented conference papers at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, at the University of Marquette, University of St. Thomas, and the Annual Conference of American Catholic Philosophical Association in Baltimore, MD. In March, 2011 I presented a paper on Addiction and Thomistic Anthropology at The Catholic University of America. This summer I will participating in the eight week University of Wisconsin-Madison's Intensive Arabic program, and the 2011 Thomistic Seminar hosted by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton University. I will also be presenting a paper on the demonstrations for God's existence in Avicenna's Metaphysics of the Shifā' for the the Aquinas and the "Arabs" satellite session at the Annual ACPA meeting. I received the 2010 American Catholic Philosophical Association's Young Scholars Award for my paper: "Linguistic Apprehension as Incidental Sensation in Thomas Aquinas". This paper will be published in the Forthcoming: 2011, American Catholic Philosophical Association, Proceedings of the ACPA, Vol. 84.

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