The Predicable Universal as Mental Word

(A section from the diss. Presumes some things said earlier which are not posted. Some details added which didn’t fi in the original.)

In the eighth question of de potentia, St. Thomas argues that:

The conception [of the intellect] is considered as the term of an action, and as something constituted by it. For the intellect forms the definition of a thing by its action, either an affirmative proposition or a negative. But this conception of the intellect in us is properly called “a word” (verbum)[1]

This word is understood in this manner:

The intellect understands something in two ways: in one way formally, and in this way it understands the intelligible species by which it is in act; in another way as an instrument which it uses to understand something, and in this way the intellect understands by the by the word.[2]

Notice that the word is not what is understood, but that by which something is understood. But how far are we to press this opposition? St. Thomas pushes the opposition as far as it can go: the interior word or concept is, in its very nature, a “by which” something is known as opposed to “that which” is known. A likeness might be helpful: if something is outside our room, we can use two different instruments or means to know it; we can either have someone take a picture of it and bring it into the room, or we can put a window in the room so that we can look at the thing itself. In the case of the picture, what is understood (the quod of knowledge) is inside the room. In the case of the window, what is understood (the quod) is first outside the room, and we next reflect (if at all) about the properties of the window. For St. Thomas, the interior word is like the window and not the picture. If it were like the picture, we would properly and first know only things within the soul, but:

[I]t would follow that all science would not be of things outside the soul, but only of the intelligible species in the soul; as according to the Platonists all sciences are of ideas, which they posit as being in the intellect in act. Second, because it would follow from this the error of the ancients, saying that everything which appears is true and thus contradictories would be true at the same time.[3]

If we must imagine the predicated universal, therefore, we should imagine it as a window and not a picture. There is an immediate objection to this, however, for in the very same article, St. Thomas says:

The known is in the knower through its similitude. And “the known in act is the knower in act” is said this way, inasmuch as the similitude of the thing known is the form of the intellect, just as the similitude of the sensible thing is the form of the sense in act. So it does not follow that the abstract intelligible species might be that which is understood in act, but that it be its similitude.[4]

Clearly, St. Thomas is stressing that the similitude of the thing is in the intellect. Here again there is a familiar difficulty, for the imagination spontaneously offers us the idea of a picture or photograph to explain what is going on: if the mind has similitudes, it has pictures of things. But this image must be explicitly negated for several reasons. First, it is not in line with the clear argument in the body of the article. More importantly, however, to see similitudes as pictures is not in keeping with St. Thomas’s use of the word “similitude”. Consider this passage from the commentary on Peryermeneias which speaks to exactly the sorts of similitudes in question:

Letters are signs of words, and words of the undergoings[5] [of the soul] which do not have the notion of similitude but only the notion of institution, as with many other signs: as a trumpet is a sign of war. In the undergoings of the soul there needs to be the notion of similitude for the expression of things, because they naturally designate them, not by institution.[6]

In other words, St. Thomas does not use the word “similitude” so as to speak of an image of something as opposed to the reality of it, but to speak of a natural union between knowledge and the thing known as opposed to an instituted union, that is, a union that comes about by an act of the will.  When St. Thomas speaks of the similitudes of the mind he wants to convey the idea of them coming to be by generation[7] as opposed to art. Generation conveys the idea of a single species for the knowledge and the thing known, which cannot be said of the picture and the thing pictured. The image that we spontaneously form of the “similitude” of the intellect must be negated and replaced with the intelligible notion of a union in species between knowledge and the thing known. If we must form an image of the relation of the thing known to the universal, it is better to see it not as “something in the real world making a picture of itself in us”, but as an act of perfect generation, whereby a father (the external world) begets a son (the concept) that is perfectly like him in every way, so much so that the son gives us an immediate knowledge of the father through himself, the way an object is immediately seen through a window. The image is piecemeal, however, and has as many important negations as affirmations.

Worst of all, this image fails to take into account the role of the agent intellect, which empowers the world to form a properly intelligible image in us. So considered, the father (agent intellect) empowers the son (the world as illuminated) such that concept might come forth, making both the world known, and the intellect through reflection on the world.

[1] Questiones disputatae de potentia, q. 8 a. 1 co. “conceptio consideratur ut terminus actionis, et quasi quoddam per ipsam constitutum. Intellectus enim sua actione format rei definitionem, vel etiam propositionem affirmativam seu negativam. Haec autem conceptio intellectus in nobis proprie verbum dicitur”

[2] Quaestiones de quolibet V, q. 5 a. 2 ad 1 “intellectus intelligit aliquid dupliciter: uno modo formaliter, et sic intelligit specie intelligibili qua fit in actu; alio modo sicut instrumento quo utitur ad aliud intelligendum: et hoc modo intellectus verbo intelligit.”

[3] Summa theologiae I q. 85 a. 2 co along with the first part of the elided sentence:“[Si igitur ea quae intelligimus essent solum species quae sunt in anima, sequeretur] quod scientiae omnes non essent de rebus quae sunt extra animam, sed solum de speciebus intelligibilibus quae sunt in anima; sicut secundum Platonicos omnes scientiae sunt de ideis, quas ponebant esse intellecta in actu. Secundo, quia sequeretur error antiquorum dicentium quod omne quod videtur est verum; et sic quod contradictoriae essent simul verae.”

[4] Summa theologiae I q. 85 ad 1 “intellectum est in intelligente per suam similitudinem. Et per hunc modum dicitur quod intellectum in actu est intellectus in actu, inquantum similitudo rei intellectae est forma intellectus; sicut similitudo rei sensibilis est forma sensus in actu. Unde non sequitur quod species intelligibilis abstracta sit id quod actu intelligitur, sed quod sit similitudo eius.”

[5] “Undergoings” translates “passiones”. A transliteration would use the word “passions”, but English does not use “the passions of the soul” to express what St. Thomas is talking about here. He means to speak of the soul receiving or undergoing some influence from things. There is certainly no reference to the emotional life being made. “That which the soul is undergoing from things” might have more captured the sense.

[6] Expositio libri Peryermeneias, lib. 1 l. 2 n. 9 “Litterae autem ita sunt signa vocum, et voces passionum, quod non attenditur ibi aliqua ratio similitudinis, sed sola ratio institutionis, sicut et in multis aliis signis: ut tuba est signum belli. In passionibus autem animae oportet attendi rationem similitudinis ad exprimendas res, quia naturaliter eas designant, non ex institutione.”

[7] St. Thomas frequently speaks of the similitude that proceeds from generation.XXXXXX



  1. Peter said,

    May 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    What is your dissertation thesis?

    And I’m curious: do you benefit much in your work from comparing or supplementing St. Thomas with St. Albert? (I wonder because the papers that I have read from D. Berquist derive a lot from both sources, and you have remarked fondly regarding his wisdom.)

  2. May 5, 2009 at 3:24 am

    “Imagination as a cause of error in metaphysics”

    This is a first draft, but it helps me to post things.

    St. Albert is a true master. I should do far more to compare him with St.Thomas as they are very powerful when combined. The great impediment is the difficulty of getting the texts. Usually only libraries have copies.

  3. May 5, 2009 at 3:25 am

    Until I clicked on that link, that is.

  4. Peter said,

    May 5, 2009 at 3:47 am

    “Imagination as a cause of error in metaphysics” — Ahh, I should have known.
    What a fantastic topic.

    Besides Albert’s stuff, there have been a lot of interesting additions on Google Book Search that I have stumbled across recently. I’ll post some of them here according to period.

    — 1400s
    Defensiones theologiae divi Thomae Aquinatis, v. 3
    Defensiones theologiae Thomae Aquinatis (v. 1, 1483 ed) [images]

    Peter of Spain
    Textus Summularum Petri hispani [images, hard to read]

  5. Peter said,

    May 5, 2009 at 3:49 am

    — 1700s
    Guerinois O.P. [Writes against Descartes]
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Logica 1 (vol. 1, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Logica 2 (vol. 2, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Physica 1 (vol. 3, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Physica 2 (vol. 4, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Physica 3 (vol. 5, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Metaphysica (vol. 6, 1729)
    Clypeus Philosophiae Thomisticae: Ethica (vol. 7, 1729)

    Rentz, Placidus
    Philosophia Ad Mentem Angelici Doctoris Divi Thomae Aquinatis?: Logica (1)
    Philosophia Ad Mentem Angelici Doctoris Divi Thomae Aquinatis?: Physica (2)
    Philosophia Ad Mentem Angelici Doctoris Divi Thomae Aquinatis?: Metaphysica (3)

    Alfonso María de Ligorio
    Theologia moralis? (1)
    Theologia Moralis (2)
    Theologia moralis? (1-2)
    Theologia moralis? (3)
    Theologia moralis? (4-5)
    Theologia moralis? (5)
    Theologia moralis? (6)
    Theologia moralis? (7)
    Theologia moralis? (8-9)
    Theologia moralis? (9)

    Cursus Theologiae: De Deo (T. 1)
    Cursus Theologiae: De Trinitate, angelis, opere sex dierum, incarnatione (T. 2)
    Cursus Theologiae: De Incarnatione, Mysteriis Christi, Gratia (T. 3)
    Cursus Theologiae: De ultimo fine, actibus humanis, passionibus et virtutis, peccatis et legibus (T. 4)
    Cursus Theologiae: De fide, regulis fidei, spe, de charitate (T. 5)
    Cursus Theologiae: De prudentia, jure et justitia, statu religioso (T. 6)
    Cursus Theologiae: De contractibus cum appendice, religione et vittis oppositis (T. 7)
    Cursus Theologiae: De caeteris virtutibus justitiae annexis, de fortitudine, temperantia, de sacramentis in communi et baptismo (T. 8)
    Cursus Theologiae: De extrema unctione, ordine, matrimonio (T. 10)
    Compendium theologiae: De fide, spe, charitate, jure, justitia

    Vera Ecclesia Christi signis (1)
    Vera Ecclesia Christi signis (2.1)
    Vera Ecclesia Christi signis (2.2)
    Veritas religionis christianae (3)
    Veritas religionis christianae (4)
    Veritas religionis christianae (5)
    Veritas religionis christianae (6)
    Veritas religionis christianae (7)

  6. peeping thomist said,

    May 5, 2009 at 4:20 am


  7. May 5, 2009 at 4:40 am


    This is going to take a while.

    About the Albert Links: The files are massive, does anyone’s computer download them? Does it just take hours?

    Re: Duane Berquist: I heard second hand there is a Monestary (Maronite?) he gave lectures at, and a guy named bill dunn recorded them all. He has several hundred hours of audio talks about the Summa theologiae. I heard this from a guy named Evan Simpkins but I’ve since lost track of him. THAT would be something to find. Berquist is much better recorded than in writing.

  8. Peter said,

    May 5, 2009 at 5:22 am

    I downloaded most of them a while back. So, it should work. I think it needs to be done one at a time or a few at a time; otherwise the bandwidth of the server gets used up and it stops. If you have problems, which I did at one point, I can easily skype them — if you have/get skype. Just let me know (my skype name is the first part of my fake email).

    (Also, I haven’t yet tried printing the Albert stuff, but I think it would ultimately be better than reading them on the screen. The Adobe reader displays them much fuzzier than they actually are.)

    About the lectures at the monastery: I remember seeing a pamphlet that mentioned him talking there in some official capacity (I’m assuming it is the same place). I didn’t think of saving it at the time to get in contact with anyone. Hmmm.

  9. Peter said,

    May 5, 2009 at 5:35 am

    Yup, it was a Maronite monastery. The November Bulletin for 2003 has this:

    “It is impossible to exaggerate,” says Fr. Hardon, “the
    power which Christ confers on those who receive him in the
    Blessed Sacrament with deep faith and corresponding love.”
    Ironically neglected by the majority, Holy Communion is in
    fact God’s greatest gift to mankind. Our philosophy
    instructor, Dr. Duane H. Berquist
    , has the proper
    perspective. “Occasionally,” he says, “someone will
    commend me for assisting at daily Mass. I respond with a
    question: ‘If you knew a certain bank was giving $1000.00
    to each person who showed up at a specified time, would
    you find time to go?’” He notes most respond in the
    affirmative. He then says, “You receive something infinitely
    greater at each Mass.” Indeed, Mass is the highest action that
    can be performed in this life. It is the divinely ordained
    means to “perfect happiness.” At times, duties of state may
    prevent attendance, but do not neglect this treasure lightly.

  10. May 5, 2009 at 6:18 am

    They recorded him. It used to be online somewhere, I heard, but I can’t track it down.

  11. Brandon said,

    May 6, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Good stuff; I particularly liked:

    In other words, St. Thomas does not use the word “similitude” so as to speak of an image of something as opposed to the reality of it, but to speak of a natural union between knowledge and the thing known as opposed to an instituted union, that is, a union that comes about by an act of the will. When St. Thomas speaks of the similitudes of the mind he wants to convey the idea of them coming to be by generation[7] as opposed to art.

    This is one of those things that can be seen to be obviously true as soon as it’s stated but is so very easy to overlook if you’re not thinking things through carefully (or if someone else isn’t doing it for it, as here!).

  12. berenike said,

    September 2, 2011 at 1:36 am

    I have copies of some of Bill’s recordings of Berquist. Somewhere. Unless I gave them back to the chap who left them in my keeping. If you can see my email and are interested, drop me a line in about a month (have overload of overdue work at the mo.)

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