The abstraction of imagination and intelligence

St. Thomas everywhere says that human knowledge consists in “abstraction from phantasms (i.e. images in the imagination)”. He further says that abstraction means considering one thing without considering another, the way we can consider the color of an apple without considering what it tastes like (or even knowing what it tastes like).

When we try to imagine this we ruin everything. We imagine a taste, and then imagine a color, and then imagine ourselves picking one and leaving the other. We do in fact do this, but this is not what abstraction means. When “abstraction from phantasms” means simply considering one image and ignoring another, it describes a process common to all sentient beings. It simply means “to pay attention” or “to focus”, and nothing could be sentient without paying more attention to some images or aspects of sense data and leaving  others aside. Sheep and cats clearly do this, mosquitoes might well do so also.

If we must have a different image to distinguish mental abstraction from imaginary abstraction. When the imagination abstracts it moves from many given images to one image it focuses on. The process is therefore one of moving from a greater to a lesser. The abstraction of the intellect is a way of  seeing more of a thing, so if we must imagine it  should imagine some kind of multiplication, not of removal.

But then why does St. Thomas use an image of  removal and not multiplication? Why does he say that it is like considering a taste without considering a color? Because the abstraction that the intellect does consists precisely in removing an impediment to knowledge. If a large stone is resting on a pillar, and we kick away the pillar, the stone will strike the ground with more force than it previously pressed on it with. Intelligibility is like the force and our abstraction is what kicks away the pillar. Abtraction turns the light on the world an allows us to see distinctions and realities that we could not see before.

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