The universal in imagination, and in intellect

Thomists must be careful about explaining the universal. The when confronted with a series of things that are more or less alike, the imagination spontaneously makes a generic image, the way an anatomy textbook draws a picture of a generic looking body. When confronted with a vast multitude of things that it can’t assimilate into a single general image, imagination spontaneously groups them into a class marked by a symbol or token. Both of these things are prerequisite to forming the universal of the intellect- but neither of them is a properly rational activity. As soon as one admits that animals have imagination, and that this imagination does not retain images completely randomly but with some order and priority, he has to admit that the animal has some kind of “group image” or “class”.

Human beings have a much more powerful image making power, but this power is still not intellect. Intellect does not meld or symbolize many images into a single symbol or generic image- it is capable of looking at a single thing  and seeing that it is something that can be studied. Just look around you. What is there that couldn’t be the subject of many different scientific investigations? You sense the particular in its universality, or universality in the particular. When I look at my foot and see it as a podiatrist, I don’t have to see the class of many feet, or a vague general foot, or the heavenly form of foot, or the symbol or set of a foot. I don’t have to see the word “foot”. All this is unnecessary mediation.  The thing the podiatrist understands is in my shoe.


  1. January 19, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Perhaps it is too strong to say what is in your shoe is understood, since it is particular. “The thing the podiatrist understands (is exemplified by what/ can be abstracted from what) is in my shoe” ?

    Would you say ‘imagination’ is used analogously, or is that too strong?

  2. January 19, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    A podiatrist doesn’t understand my foot as mine, nor does a cardiologist understand my heart as mine, but if I wanted to understand something about my foot (a pain in it, or a peculiarity of its structure, or whatever) I would still go to such a specialist, because he would understand it. I think we can take anything we understand as an example.

    However we explain this knowledge of particulars or abstraction, it has to be done in such a way as to allow for how, if we want to understand this particular X, we go to an X specialist.

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