On the Cogitative Power and the Second Operation of the Intellect

What function does the cogitative power perform in the second operation of the intellect?

The answer to this question is intimately related to a host of interlocking problems within Aquinas’s philosophical anthropology and his approach to Aristotelian noetics. I want to point out its connection to the Aristotelian claim that the intellect only understands material things in their quidditative universality, and the general requirement for the intellect to turn to the phantasms in order to understand, judge, and reason about particulars.

Nearly every Thomistic explication of this doctrine ignores the cogitative power, and I really do mean practically every Thomistic interpretation you read makes no mention of the cogitative power’s function within this context.

Then there are the many Medieval and recent critics who say, quite rightly, “Thomists hold that the intellect does not know individuated material singulars, but we have intellectual thoughts and judgments about singulars all the time, hence the Thomistic view is false.”

Thomists will reply, “While it is true that the intellect does not understand material things in their singularity, it does know them by way of reflection and also through the intellects conversion to the phantasms. By turning to the phantasm the person forms pictures of singulars and that is how we intellectually know singulars.”

The proper retort is: “But that is not to think about singulars, that is to picture or imagine singulars which you are also thinking about universally. We want to know how the Thomist can account for the quotidian experience of thinking about individuals. How does the Thomist explain the fact that we do think about individuals?”

If the Thomist does not turn to the cogitative power (or memory) there is no answer to be given to this.  This quite similar to the point I addressed in a paper on linguistic apprehension in Aquinas.

But the turn to the cogitative power will not have the same exegetical force if we do not first make a distinction in Aquinas and other Aristotelians use of the term phantasm.  Phantasms as well as the power of phantasia is commonly used in a broad and strict sense. The broad sense refers to the three internal senses of imagination, cogitative, and memory, the strict sense refers to the power of imagination alone.  This usage is common to Avicenna, Averroes, Albert, Aquinas (cf. SCG II.73.n.14) and John of St. Thomas addresses it explicitly.

If we wish to answer this question—how do we think about individuals?—we must recognize that Aquinas often uses phantasia or imagination and phantasm in the broad sense. In short the phantasms Aquinas must have in mind here must be those formed by the cogitative power and NOT the phantasms of imagination. The two kinds of phantasms here are absolutely NOT the same.  They have formally different objections. Imagination retains the per se sensible forms of the external senses and sensus communis; the cogitative power apprehends particular intentions, which are per accidens sensibles when apprehended simultaneously with external sensation (cf. ST I.78.4; In de Anima II. lt. 13; SCG II.73.14).

Let us return to our question by starting with a more general question:

What function does the cogitative power perform in the operations of the intellect considered generally?

Aquinas provides a straight forward answer to this question in a number of passages. Here is one locus classicus on this question. “Can the mind know material thing in their singularity?”

DV 10.5 (the last section of the response and a few replies to objections)

… this conjunction is found in the movement from the soul to things, which begins from the mind and moves forward to the sensitive part in the mind’s control over the lower powers. Here, the mind has contact with singulars through the mediation of particular reason, a power of the sensitive part, which joins and divides individual intentional likenesses, which is also known as the cogitative power …. The mind’s universal judgment about things to be done cannot be applied to a particular act except through the mediation of some intermediate power which perceives the singular. In this way, there is framed a kind of syllogism whose major premise is universal, the decision of the mind, and whose minor premise is singular, a perception of the particular reason. The conclusion is the choice of the singular work, as is clear in The Soul

ad 2. The wise man arranges singulars; by the mind only through the mediation of the cogitative power whose function it is to know particular intentions, as is clear from what has been said.

ad 3. The intellect makes a proposition of a singular and a universal term since it knows the singular through a certain reflection, as was said.

ad 4. The intellect or reason knows universally the end to which it directs the act of the concupiscible power and the act of the irascible power when it commands them. It applies this universal knowledge to singulars through the mediation of the cogitative power, as has been said

Consider also In II de Anima 6, lt.13.

396. But, speaking precisely, this is not in the fullest sense an incidental sense-object; it is incidental to the sense of sight, but it is essentially sensible. Now what is not perceived by any special sense is known by the intellect, if it be a universal; yet not anything knowable by intellect in sensible matter should be called a sense-object incidentally, but only what is at once intellectually apprehended as soon as a sense-experience occurs. Thus, as soon as I see anyone talking or moving himself my intellect tells me that he is alive; and I can say that I see him live. But if this apprehension is of something individual, as when, seeing this particular coloured thing, I perceive this particular man or beast, then the cogitative faculty (in the case of man at least) is at work, the power which is also called the ‘particular reason’ because it correlates individualised notions, just as the ‘universal reason’ correlates universal ideas. …

398. Note, however, that the cogitative faculty differs from natural instinct. The former apprehends the individual thing as existing in a common nature, and this because it is united to intellect in one and the same subject. Hence it is aware of a man as this man, and this tree as this tree; whereas instinct is not aware of an individual thing as in a common nature, but only in so far as this individual thing is the term or principle of some action or passion. …

Another nice passage is found in ST II-II.2.1.

I answer that, “To think” can be taken in three ways. First, in a general way for any kind of actual consideration of the intellect  …. Secondly, “to think” is more strictly taken for that consideration of the intellect, which is accompanied by some kind of inquiry, and which precedes the intellect’s arrival at the stage of perfection that comes with the certitude of sight. … In this way thought is, properly speaking, the movement of the mind while yet deliberating, and not yet perfected by the clear sight of truth. Since, however, such a movement of the mind may be one of deliberation either about universal notions, which belongs to the intellectual faculty, or about particular matters, which belongs to the sensitive part, hence it is that “to think” is taken secondly for an act of the deliberating intellect, and thirdly for an act of the cogitative power.

In brief, the cogitative power provides the particular and circumstantial intentions, i.e., aspectual, actional, and affectional intentions, required for specifying or placing the universal quiddity of the intellect within the particularized context of the here and now. These are the phantasms needed by the possible intellect, and they are principally, though by no means exclusively, formed by the cogitative power, not imagination in the strict sense.

Now we can ask:

What function does the cogitative power perform in the second operation of the possible intellect?

First by judgment we should distinguish between the simple composition or division of concepts which is found in acts of supposing, from acts of judgment that assert and verify such is the case by way of composition and division of conceptions (cf. ST I.85.5).  Our question asks us to consider both kinds of judgments inasmuch as they bear upon the application of universal intelligbilities to their particular instances (cf. ST I.86.1; DV 10.5; In II de Anima II. lt. 13).

In addition to the general functions just mentioned, the cogitative power provides the individual context of any intellectual judgment of attribution or existence.  I affirm that “Socrates is a man” or that “Socrates is” or “Socrates exists.” Both are judgments involving aspectual intentions of the cogitative power, “Socrates” and the first uses the universal quiddity of the possible intellect “man.”  The possible intellect understands “horse” and “stone” the possible intellect with the cogitative power can understand (well the person can understand by both) “this horse” and “this stone” and can form the judgment “this is a horse” and “this is a stone.” The “this” is particular content—an aspectual intention—from the cogitative power, “horse” qua common nature is from the possible  intellect, and the “is” is the synthesis achieved by the second operation that is properly to the possible intellect but is achieved by the human person who deploys both their possible intellect and cogitative power in one confluent operation. (cf. Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, ch. 7, 183-193).

A digression. We should recall that the unity of this confluent operation is not inferred; it was given long before we differentiated the formal objects and operation of the two powers.  That is, long before we began to philosophically reflect on the nature of understanding particulars we were understanding particulars in a unified operation that synthesized the particular and universal intentions of the two powers before we ever heard of or considered the notion that there is a formal difference between particular intentions and universal intentions. Philosophy begins with the quoad nos, and it is not the business of philosophical precision to get into tangles about the quoad nos while dealing with the quoad se. Further we should avoid the temptation to reject wholesale the quoad nos for the sake of some proposition we take to be more known in itself. Such temptations lead to sawing off the very branch we are sitting on. The confluent operation of the two powers was a point of departure from the more known to us, we have simply returned to it again at the end of our analysis of the quoad se to re-affirm this initial truth with the conceptual refinement that has been gained through philosophical contemplation. Yet these insight would not have been acquired if the more known to us had not set us on the right initial path.  With a nod to Maritain, we should say that we only distinguish in order to unite once again.

Such unified confluent operations of the cogitative power and possible intellect also occur in reasoning—the third act of the intellect—and in particular, in practical reasoning.

ST II-II.49.2ad1
Reply to Objection 1. The reasoning of prudence terminates, as in a conclusion, in the particular matter of action, to which, as stated above (47, A3,6), it applies the knowledge of some universal principle. Now a singular conclusion is argued from a universal and a singular proposition. Wherefore the reasoning of prudence must proceed from a twofold understanding. The one is cognizant of universals, and this belongs to the understanding which is an intellectual virtue, whereby we know naturally not only speculative principles, but also practical universal principles, such as “One should do evil to no man,” as shown above (Question 47, Article 6). The other understanding, as stated in Ethic. vi, 11, is cognizant of an extreme, i.e. of some primary singular and contingent practical matter, viz. the minor premiss, which must needs be singular in the syllogism of prudence, as stated above (47, 3,6). Now this primary singular is some singular end, as stated in the same place. Wherefore the understanding which is a part of prudence is a right estimate of some particular end.

This right estimate of some particular end is carried out by the estimative, i.e., the cogitative power.

ST II-II.49.2ad3
Reply to Objection 3. The right estimate about a particular end is called both “understanding,” in so far as its object is a principle, and “sense,” in so far as its object is a particular. This is what the Philosopher means when he says (Ethic. v, 11): “Of such things we need to have the sense, and this is understanding.” But this is to be understood as referring, not to the particular sense whereby we know proper sensibles, but to the interior sense, whereby we judge of a particular.

AND this is the cogitative power.  Se also the parallel passages in the commentary on Nico. Ethics, VI. lt. 7 and 9, they are way more explicit than this.

We think about individuals of a material nature by way of our particular reason (i.e, the cogitative power) and universal reason (i.e., possible intellect).  This is not to think universally about individual pictures, it is think, form, and affirm or deny propositions about individual material things through the cogitative power and the intellect. The cogitative forms the individual intentions containing thinkable content inaccessible to the operations of the intellect, this content is synthesized with the universal quiddities formed by the possible intellect within the second operation of the intellect of a unified and integrated human person.

In a doctrine in which man, in a way, conceives the singular and perceives the universal because in their constant and instantaneous exchanges thought and sensation collaborate in the unity of the same act, intellectual knowledge is just the opposite of the empty, abstract thought of which Aristotelianism has been accused. Far from being reduced to a pure logical form, in Aristotelianism the concept is always conceived in and by means of the concrete.  (Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, ch. 7, 192)

More could be said, but I’ll leave it at that.