Hayen on Intention, II

The theory of the intentional in the instrumental cause. Whatever may have been the hesitations in the very words of St. Thomas, the notion of the intentional plays a fundamental role.  An efficient cause subordinated to a principal cause that always dominates it, and which communicates to it an effect that goes beyond what is of the [second] cause, can only act as such by means of the actual influence of the principal cause acting on it and through it. What makes it an instrument is the intentional presence in it of the principal cause.


Light and sensible knowledge. It is not difficult to ridicule the theory of species as “spiritualized”, which, after being received in the exterior sense, are thereafter capable of exercising a spiritual action.  Suarez and other Scholastics have believed that they could renounce this theory and the difficulties that it involves, but it seems that this abandonment compromised the objectivity of sensible knowledge and the direct knowledge of the exterior world as a consequence.


St. Thomas would not have accepted this. The “spiritualization” of the species through the medium that separates the sensible object from the organ is given a strong and plausible explanation. Light [on this account] plays a necessary role in all sensations and is what spiritualizes the intentional species. It is capable of exercising this action because it is nothing other than the participation of the medium in the nature of the celestial bodies, which in turn participate in the pure spirituality of the separated substances. The intentional presence of the separated substances to the celestial bodies with which they are in contact, and the intentional presence of the celestial bodies to the medium that they illumine is the explanation that S.t Thomas gives of the intentional species in the medium.


This explanation is coherent, though it is evident that the physics of today cannot allow for it. Perhaps a more powerful and systematic study of the intentional will suggest a means to replacing his theory without being unfaithful to St. Thomas.


The hierarchy of sensible faculties. The intentional theory that we have been examining, which plays an indispensible role in sensation properly speaking, is also necessary to understand the activity of a knowing subject.


One encounters an incoherence and a seeming contradiction in the Thomistic formulas of sensation, which is the proper operation of external sense. Some attribute to external sensation a true knowledge, judgment, and the beginnings of reflection. Others refuse it this privilege and nevertheless hold to exterior sense for the same of the power of knowledge. The difficulty is dissolved by a distinction: of itself, the external sense is incapable of reflection, judgment, and so of knowledge, though it is capable of the intentional presence of the internal sense within it. The hierarchy of sensible faculties which touch each other and are rooted in one another, is only explained by the intentional presence of the superior within the inferior faculties.


We ascend through the successive levels from the common sense to the imagination until finally attaining to the border of the intelligence with the cogitative sense and the sense of memory. The point of junction is particularly important and particularly delicate, and the theory of the intentional plays a decisive role: the cogitative is the sensibility that is in contact with the intelligence which is next to it and which the intelligence subordinates it: this cogitative sense is constituted by the intentional presence of human intelligence to sensibility.


On the level of the intelligence. Here again, the theory of the intentional plays an essential role. The objectivity of knowledge is explained by a double presence: the intentional presence of the thing to the mind; and the intentional presence of the mind to the things. We will show this in a brief manner.


We begin by distinguishing with St. Thomas the intention of the mind and the intention of the thing, which is, generally speaking, the act of attention and the concept (or mental word) produced by this act of attention. This need not lead us to the error of separating the intention of the mind, and its inclination from the intention of a thing no longer existing, for we do not define knowledge by its formal conditions alone, but by the conditions adjoined to its exercise.


There is a double intentional character to the intention of the thing. A distinction allows us to oppose it to the ratio of the thing, an opposition that is quite clear, despite its subtlety. The ratio of the thing is the very intelligible object itself, as opposed to the one contained in knowledge that is corresponding to the object. But this is the object so far as it is relative to my intelligence. The ratio of the thing is in the mind, but it comes from the thing. The intention of the thing, on the contrary, is contained in my act of knowledge, it is in the mind and comes from the mind, though it corresponds to the object. It is the objective contents of the subjective act that constitutes the conception of the thing. When you compare the intention of the thing and the ratio of the thing, you see that both are immanent to the mind and that the two correspond to the object. But the first comes from the mind and the second from the object; the second gives my knowledge an objective being; the first gives it the being of a knower.


Is it necessary to admit a metaphysical sense in this series of concepts? What is this correspondence that we are speaking of? What is the objective and subjective origin of the ratio and the intention of the thing?


The theory of the intentional clarifies a more delicate and apparently more obscure point in the Thomistic noetic: the intention of the thing is the common act or rather it immanently produces an act common to the object and the subject; and this communion of the subject and the exterior object in the unity of the same act is possible thanks to the action that the intelligible object exercises on the subject by the mediation of sensibility and thanks to the reaction that, by this same intermediary, the subject exercises on the object in making it intelligible in act. This is to say that objective knowledge is exercised by a double intentional presence of the intelligible object upon the subject, and the intelligent subject on the object.


Such, it seems to us, is the profound thought of St. Thomas. The reader no doubt will find it obscure. It will only be meaningful in a systematic exposition which we have only given a sketch of at the moment.


Transition. If we were to object that (except for the case of an instrumental cause and perhaps for light) the theory of intention is only used by St. Thomas to explain the objectivity of sensible and intellectual knowledge, it would no doubt suffice to quote back to us our own words at the head of this section (where it was said intentional had many meanings –ed.)


And yet there are still other responses to this objection. We could, for example, invoke the intentionality of the operative powers emanating from the substance and specified by their formal object, which is to say by their relation to an object that in turn specifies a correlative relation to such and such a power.


One could also certainly bring up the Thomistic doctrine of the creative presence of God to the world. There are passages where St. Thomas clearly underlines that the constitutive character of this presence to the world which would be unintelligible if we refused to allow the intentionality of finite being that is constituted in its proper reality by this creative presence. One of the more striking illustrations of this doctrine is the comparison (which St. Thomas did not discover) between God and the sun. God is the sun of spirits and of the world, since both spirits and the world depend in a very intimate and actual manner on his creative presence, just as the light of the atmosphere depends on the light of the sun. Place a screen between the sun and the earth immediately it is plunged into shadows. Suspend the presence of God to the world for an instant, and immediately it will fall back into nothing. The reality of the world is constituted by the intentional presence of its creator. Thus we see, it is without fear of infidelity to the thought of St. Thomas how we could organize a metaphysics of the intentionality of being.

Quixote and the modern world

In writing Don Quixote, Cervantes could only succeed in the measure that  he described the modern world, since the story only hits its mark by showing to extent that Quixote is out of place in the modern world. But Cervantes wrote a classic, and so gave the classic description of the modern world.

One instance of this description (chosen almost at random) is from chapter 32, in which a group of people in an inn discuss Quixote’s calamity and the value of the stories that drove him mad.  At the center of the dispute are a priest, who wants to burn the books of knight errantry, and an innkeeper, who says he would sooner “burn his own children” than lose the stories. It’s striking that the priest does not want to burn the books because they are immoral or even because they led to a case of madness, but simply because they speak of events that never happened. This sort of argument is familiar to us – the value of a book is being gauged entirely by how it stands up in the face of historical critique. In innkeeper’s response is also familiar – he doesn’t challenge the priest’s criterion for what is valuable, or suggest that there might be another criterion to judge literature by, he simply appeals to his own enjoyment and recreation in the stories. At the end of the debate, we are left to conclude that the only truth value or intellectual value a thing can have is that which is able to survive a critique or test; and the only value outside of this is what appeals to the sentiments.

In light of this, the next chapter serves as a particularly powerful counterbalance. At the end of their debate, both the priest and the people of the inn decide they will read a story – and they choose the “Curious tale” of Ambrosio. Ambrosio marries a woman but desires to have a perfect knowledge of her fidelity, and so tries to talk his friend into trying to seduce her. Predictably, the whole affair turns out badly. But it’s striking to note that Ambrosio is simply appealing to the modern criterion of knowledge. You don’t know anything about the world until you test. Ambrosio can’t just sit around and wait for some circumstance to prove that his wife loves him – this would be laziness or even presumption. He must submit her claims to critique and test just like any other hypothesis. Love must be taken as just another hypothesis, that is, a kind of ignorance that needs to look to make experiments.

Ambrosio is a fool, of course, but his stupidity is illuminating. The distinctively modern idea that truth is only what survives critique or test has some weaknesses in the face of interpersonal relationships. This is perhaps because such things are unrepeatable, unable to be universalized, inseparable from peculiar circumstances, and based on freedom. Once we see the folly of Ambrosio, it becomes very difficult to contain the damage the principle can do to our modern idea of truth: if the interpersonal is an exception, much of morality will be too; and if this is the case then politics falls soon afterward; along with our general notions of truth, goodness, etc.

Andre Hayen’s Essay on Intentionality

(I’ve been reading Hayen’s celebrated essay on intentionality in St. Thomas. I’ve lost the citation, but I found it online here. What follows is a hatchet-job translation.)

After having given rise to facile caricatures for a long time, the scholastic theory of the intentional today seems to have recovered more and more of the favor that it had lost. This is fitting and entirely to the profit of modern philosophy; which could be easily discovered from studying the notion of the intentional, its importance, and its fecundity of application in the works of Husserl and the philosophers and psychologists that he inspired. This article strives to speak of the same topic, considering it from a different point of view…

Idealism comports itself most of all to the work of that philosopher who entirely eliminates transcendence. A realist metaphysic, on the other hand, needs to deal with a double problem: the problem of the real world exterior to my knowledge, and the problem of the true God, both personal and superior to my mind.  In the philosophy of the School, the theory of intentional species allows for an easy resolution to the first of these two problems. It explains the objectivity of our knowledge of the world by relating it to a world exterior to our knowledge by means of a resemblance of the things themselves to the immanent species of things.

Such a solution strikes more than one philosopher as purely verbal. What is this intentional being that one attributes to species and which is opposed to the nature of the thing? …We will be careful of not losing sight of the second problem, since the theory of the intentional will not be strong enough to escape the objections raised against it unless it establishes itself as a metaphysical doctrine accounting for both the relative transcendence of the exterior world and the absolute transcendence of God.

To be sure, in some of the manuals, and sometimes even in good authors who, on this point, have not given a foundation to their thought, the theory of the intentional represents only a vain escape. In the Thomistic system, on the other hand, the intentional occupies a special place, and it is inserted at the very heart of a solid and coherent system, along with the doctrine of participation and the analogy of being.

We want to briefly give some indications in what follows, in summary fashion, of the importance of the notion of the intentional in Thomism, and how the intentionality of material being and of every finite being allows for a resolution of the double problem of the world and God.

The central place of the intentional

in Thomistic philosophy

The Words of St. Thomas: The term intentional receives diverse senses from the pen of St. Thomas. A few years ago, an excellent article by Simonin sorted them out and neatly classified them. The distinct senses nevertheless have very close relations between them. The examination of the vocabulary of St. Thomas shows that in his thought the concepts of voluntary intention and attention have a close affinity, likewise the concepts of of instrumental intention and the intention of knowledge; voluntary intention and the instrumental intention; and the intention of knowledge and of the will.

The same property is found in the diverse intentions: in the activity of an instrument as in the will, and likewise in objective knowledge- and this common property is a tendency towards something beyond: from the will that fixes in attention or impulse towards an end, of an instrument that obeys the impulse of its principal cause or the sense and intelligence which attains a distinct, exterior object.

This tendency results in a motion, or in an overflow: the instrument, the sense, the intelligence, the will are all bearers of a force which causes because it is superior.

This makes it possible to give a more precise account of the general sense of the concepts of intentionality and the intentional presence.

We will call the intentionality of a being the presence in that being of a force or perfection (and in the metaphysics of act, the two terms are perfectly synonymous and both signify a principle of activity) that goes beyond itself and causes beyond itself. This overflow and causality, in turn, demands to be made more precise by a definition of the intentional presence: an intentional presence is to be a perfection which is neither confounded with it (for then it would be a presence of pure identity, in the way that God is present to himself) and nevertheless is not radically distinct from it (for then the presence would reduce to a pure spatial contiguity) To be perfectly clear: the intentional presence of a perfection to a being is a real identity, though imperfect, between the being and the perfection. More completely, since in the metaphysics of act every identity is necessarily an active identity the intentional presence of a perfection to a being will be defined by an active, though imperfect identity of the being and the perfection.

This last definition allows us to give a precise, clear, and analytic relation (though analytic in the Scholastic and not the Kantian sense) between the concepts of intentionality, tendency, and participation.


The intentionality of being, which we come to define by an active but imperfect identity is exactly the tendency of the being toward the perfection that attracts its dynamic motion (that is, through the mode of a final cause) a perfection intentionally present to a being is thus present and acting in a being in the mode of a final cause.

Secondly, intentionality is also given an exact definition under another aspect: the participation (that is, the reception of a particular superior act that belongs to another) to a being of a perfection that is intentionally present to it. A perfection intentionally present and acting in this manner is an efficient cause.

Participation and tendency, agency and finality, do not exclude each other by mutually imply one another. When after ascending the ladder of subordinate causes to ultimate causes, the first cause according to agency and the last according to finality coincide in an identity such that the production of the one is not really distinguished in its origin from the motion of the other.

Intentionality = participation = tendency. Why, one might ask, should we introduce the crude pretence of intentionality when it would suffice to express our thought to speak of participation and tendency, or, if one prefers, of a dynamic participation?

This is true, but the crudity can be defended, since it makes explicit an aspect of participation that would be unfortunate to lose from view.

Exactitude of terminology and thought is important here. We have spoken until now of the intentionality of a being, but the analysis which we have done allows us and even requires us to speak of the intentionality of finite being, that is, of the being that participates in esse or of a material being that participates in the form.

Suppose it was only necessary to speak of participation and tendency. When you speak of sufficiency, you risk exaggerating the sufficiency of the being that you are considering: it actively tends to an end, you might say, but are you assured of not losing sight of the end that subjects this being, and which is the very principle of its active tendency? The term participation underlines the truth of the immanence of the participated perfection with the being that it participates in, but is it not also necessary to underline the transcendence – whether relative or absolute – of this perfection?

When, on the other hand, we speak of the intentionality of being and of an intentional presence of a perfection to the being in which they participate, this draws attention to the intimate and total dependence of these beings on a on a transcendent perfection that is intentionally present to them and nevertheless profoundly immanent to them since this intentional presence creates and is constitutive of the participated being…

Dialogue on what we know

A: Is there a difference between what a human being knows and what an animal knows?

B: No. How could there be? A human being is an animal.

A: Aren’t human beings defined by a cognitive power beyond what animals have?

B: Absolutely – but it doesn’t change what they know, only how they know it. The thing we know is the same thing any animal knows, but we don’ know it in the way that animals know it. There is a modal distinction between human and merely animal knowledge, and not a difference of what is known.

A: What does it mean to be modally different?

B: To be a different way. Ways are different by diversity with respect to some one end or some one beginning. If we say the ways to Paris and London are different, we are assuming a common starting point; if we say two ways are different, we tend to mean that they share a common goal, but are diverse in the order of their means. At any rate, it’s what I mean here. Human beings and animals tend to the same known object as a goal – a sensible thing. They differ in that the human being does not have to know it in the way that sense knows things while an animal must know it in this way.

A: What difference does this modal difference make?

B: A great deal of difference. For example, it’s what allows the human mind to know about God, the soul, and truths of metaphysics.

A: But these are all objects that animals can’t know! How can you say that there is no difference between what humans and animals know if one knows God and the other doesn’t?

B: Because God isn’t what is known. We know is the same thing an animal knows, but we can know it as a creature. It’s not that we see God and the creature in one glance, then relate the one to the other: God is simply what is known as other than creature as cause.God is not some new thing in consciousness, but a judgment about a relation common to all creatures to another.

A: But then you need a sense of cause that animals don’t have. I don’t see how you avoid the problem.

B: I’d say the same thing I just said since God just is the cause of the creature; if God need not be some new thing in consciousness beyond the creature, then the cause need not be some new thing in consciousness beyond the creature.It’s not that we need some account of cause that we know is transcendent, we know it is transcendent when we conclude to God being the cause.

A: This seems like wordplay. How can you say God is not included in what man knows?

B: Because if you speak like this you are not true to your own experience and it allows for a synthesis of Post-Kantian thought and a more classical metaphysics that argued for the cogency of theistic proofs. God just isn’t what you know, and if you had to back this up with arguments, there are hundreds in various philosophers. But if we distinguish between what we know and how we know it, we allow for a synthesis.

Polytheism, the fundamental theology

I wondered what Brandon was up to in reviewing John Michael Greer’s World Full of Gods, bit the answer becomes very clear in his account of the book’s fifth chapter, which contains an absolutely marvelous argument for polytheism, which summarizes as:

It’s extraordinarily implausible, however, to suggest that an experience of the Risen Christ, an experience of Kali, and an experience of a buffalo spirit are just all experiences of one supernatural thing or amorphous divinity. If we just take the religious experiences at face value, then, the natural conclusion is polytheism.

What I love about the argument is that it’s the first time I’ve been able to see why (setting aside Eden) polytheism had to come before monotheism. Polytheism is the simplest account of the variety in religious experience. All of our knowledge has to be led back to some experience or another, and religious experience first suggests that we have our god and you guys have yours.

Both atheism and monotheism should recognize that they simply are not taking the variety of religious experience at face value. Both are in the dangerous position of taking an argument for granted that they have long forgotten; both could only grow after another more knowable theology had been critiqued or at least passed over. Irrespective whether the atheists or monotheists are right, their doctrines are secondary and can come only after a development.

I’m reminded that the some of the other ways in which the pagan world saw a greater diversity among peoples than we allow: there was no one calendar and so “world history” could only be seen as a self- contradiction. If it meant anything, could only mean the same thing as “world cuisine”, namely that there is a great diversity of foods that don’t reduce to some most fundamental meal.

Note on matter and form

The miller sees flour in one way, the baker in another. For the miller, it is a finished product, a complete whole, something ready to go out into the world and do its thing; for the baker it is an incomplete part which stands to some other whole. The baker doesn’t see the flour as anything remaining in itself- it is not what is most real, but something that only has reality by relating to some other thing.

Interior dialogue about neo-positivism

W: You don’t know anything about the world until you test.

J: Doesn’t that have the same problem all Logical Positivism has? The statement itself is untestable.

W: Not at all: it’s not a statement about the world, but about our knowledge of it. It is a logical statement, taken in the broad sense of “logic”. It’s not a statement about the world except so far as it relates to our knowing it. Therefore there is no problem of “how is that statement testable?”

J: So there are logical statements, and statements about the world?

W: Yes

J: And the latter must be testable?

W: We must be able at least to relate the statement to something testable.

J: So what has come to be called “a philosophy of nature” can’t tell us any facts about the world then.

W: That’s right. This idea that you could just think real hard about time and figure out that it was “the number of motion according to in front of and behind” or that everything that moves must be an extended body (which is crucial for Aristotle’s proof for the existence of a Prime Mover), or that things must be made out of two principles (matter and form) is all unknowable stuff. The sort of reasoning that comes to such conclusions isn’t capable of giving us real facts about the world. And all the claims that I’ve just made are logical claims, not claims about the world, including this one.

J: And how did you figure this all out?

W: Not by science, but by the logical reflection on it. Look at it this way: lets say you are Aristotle, and you’ve just come up with a spectacular argument, absolutely air tight, that whatever moves must be a body. He’s right, for example, that if something had no extension, and still went from here to there, then it would have to have moved even though it never was moving. But what if you discover that there is some particle that clearly moves from here to there, but has a mass of zero? What then? Our explanation of the world has to explain our experience, and if the best explanation of our experience is that things with no extension are moving, then so much for the linguistic inconvenience about things having moved without moving.

J: So Aristotle’s argument is all about words? Why is his not the reality and the scientist’s just words? Is this where the test comes in?

W: Yes. The test is what makes the difference between mere linguistic tricks and statements about the world. If you’re talking about the world, I’ll listen; if you’re talking about words, then I’m going.

J: So experience is always capable of critiquing our experience. We can never know a priori what we will discover about the world. If we have no way of letting experience critique our ideas, then either our ideas are not about the world.

W: Yes, and the test is nothing but finding a way to open our idea to the critique of experience. Get rid of this, and you don’t even have any knowledge of the world. It is no longer an investigation of experience.

J: And what about a claim like this: motion is not a fish. Is this the sort of thing that needs to relate to a test?

W: I don’t suppose so, but this sort of negative claim is not exactly a claim about the world.

J: I don’t see why not – and at any rate is seems to be based on some sort of positive awareness of things: motion is something things have, or some sort of property while a fish is not.

W: But this is a very minimal knowledge of things. Motion is a property. Big deal.

J: But we could develop this idea, I suppose. Couldn’t we ask “what sort of property”?

Losing your soul to help others

When Christ asked rhetorically “what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” the first image that suggests itself is the tyrant gathering all the goods of the world to himself by immoral means, or the person whose willing to sacrifice principle to gain wealth and power. But Christ is clearly condemning anyone who would sacrifice his soul for any good, which includes the safety and benefit of others. I was reminded of this when I read this quotation from Donald Rumsfeld:

“Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques — let’s be blunt: waterboarding — did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that evening on Fox News’s Hannity program. “Three people were waterboarded by the CIA away from Guantanamo and then later brought to Guantanamo,” Rumsfeld continued. “The information that came from those individuals was critically important.”

Crucially important information. Great. All Rumsfeld had to do to get it was perform an operation (and involve others in it) that anyone could immediately spot as wicked and degrading to everyone involved if it were done to a farm animal, irrespective of any desirable outcome we might get from drowning an animal (like a pelt).

Moral autonomy and the absolute value of the individual can be misunderstood in a thousand different ways, but one way in which the individual really is absolute is in this: there is simply no outcome that justifies making oneself a monster. Anyone can see this about outcomes that are merely self- interested or carnal, but it’s just as true with ones that benefit others or are done for the good of the nation. This is the one sense in which we can never choose another good before our own good, even the good of a nation.

Approaches to the odd images in Scripture

Some of my students are reading the book of Revelation, and the rest of them are reading Ezekiel. This makes for a double barrel shot of striking an odd images: men with swords coming out of their mouths; wheels “as it were inside wheels” with a hundred eyes on the rim; a white-haired Jesus; creatures that look like men and have hooves, wings, four faces, and hands under their wings, etc. Our first attempt to figure out what was going on was to try to translate each of the striking features of the image into something more mundane, or at least more coherent: the students brainstormed that the four faces might be the four Gospel writers, the sword coming out of the mouth might be the Gospel, etc. One upside of this approach is that the texts themselves interpret their own images at times (…and the seven candlesticks were the seven churches, etc.) and so one can never wholly do away with this sort of interpretation. But there is also something particularly unsatisfying about this approach. In explaining the image in this way one more or less explains it away, and, worst of all, one fails to explain the very oddness of the image that provokes us to question what it means. It goes too far to say that the oddness should just be explained away, or that it was nothing other than a ploy to pique our interest.

We also considered that it might be out-of-place to question what these revelations mean. They are simply things seen, and things seen do not “mean” something. If I’m looking out the window and watching the traffic go by, it is not an occasion for asking what that scene “means”. This does not mean the scene is not meaningful but simply that it does not signify something else.  This option was satisfying in certain ways too, but it had the obvious drawback that Scripture often does interpret the things given in visions.

Another line of interpretation came from comparing the vision to a dream. Everyone is familiar with the sort of dream logic where we, say, are in our old middle school but we know that it is really our own house. Within the consciousness of the one dreaming, this image makes perfect sense, but in relating it to another it can become contradictory or even monstrous. This opened the door to the idea that these visions are attempts to articulate a fundamentally different sort of experience which is not limited either to merely signifying or simply seeing something.

Notes on “I should be able to do whatever I want, so long as I don’t hurt anyone”

– If “hurt” means “what you have committed whenever someone vehemently asserts that you are causing them some hurt” or even “what you have committed whenever someone has a large number of very reasonable arguments proving that you have harmed them”, then is it possible or even desirable to seek not to harm others? But if this isn’t what we mean by harm, then what can we mean except that we claim to know what really harms others in spite of what they might think?

– The premise permits us to harm ourselves, even to hate ourselves. This puts a very large asterisk next to any claim that we cannot harm a human being.

– While it goes too far to say that every moral axiom is vacuous, something like this is true since they cannot decide moral questions. Orwell said more than he knew when he had the animals start with “no animal will kill another”, and then had it later change to “no animal will kill another without a reason”. There is more going on then just the corruption of the law – such axioms themselves do not suffice to ensure justice, and we eventually have to put some qualification on them that makes them of little value in any actual moral judgment. “Harm no one” has to come to mean “harm no one unjustly”.  But then all our axiom amounts to is “do the right thing and don’t be unjust”. This is an axiom too, of course, but not one that we would ever think we could use to decide a moral question.

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