The proper object of the human mind

When Thomists and other scholastics say that the proper object of the human mind is being concretized in the sensible, or the illuminated/abstracted phantasm, “proper object of the human mind” means “an object peculiar to the human mind”. The claim is that neither apes nor angels have ever seen being concretized in the sensible, or, if you like, the only time an angel has ever seen such a thing is when he was considering the immanent action of a human being. His awareness of such an object is entirely mediated by a consideration of the human mind – there is no immediate awareness of the object we spontaneously and immediately perceive. Even a divine nature has no immediate awareness of an illuminated sensible object, because apart from a human mind there is no such thing.

Notice that proper object is not the same thing as an object one is restricted to, or, even if one does take it this way, “proper object” is taken as located between limits of pure intellection and pure sensibility, and so one who speaks of a proper object is also able to speak of points of contact with higher and lower sorts of knowledge.  The contours of the proper object can only be given by the negative space of pure intellection and pure sensibility. While it’s clear to us that we can only understand an angelic object by negation or eminence, it is also true that to understand the conscious objects of non-human animals also requires negation and the emptying of something eminent from its object. Animals might, for all I know, see “brown”, and an analysis of some of their eye structures would seem to support this, but there is no evidence for (and nothing but evidence against) that they have ever seen a brown thing, or the thing called brown. Human beings all see some supporting reality “behind” or “underneath” brown, whether it is an Aristotelian or Nominalist substance, a Platonic idea, a Berkelian  or Idealist mind, a Pythagorean/ Galilean geometry-number, a positivist fact, etc. (The Buddhist sunyata or sense that “nothingness” is what is behind all things is still at least logically the same as those ideas that put positive reality behind the sensible. Does anyone think that rats, or even apes, could see sunyata?)  Even if one defined a thing in a functionalist or pragmatist manner, to be either of these is to take some fact about things on principle, and mere functional action is not the same thing as being functionalist on principle.

The world of sensible things is something only we can experience from within. We are in continual danger of collapsing the “sensible” into  “thing” (that is, into the reality “behind” or “underneath” it, a reality that includes even “emptiness”) and the thing into the sensible.



  1. raquinas said,

    January 22, 2013 at 11:28 am


    I enjoyed this post. One quibble

    You wrote:

    “Even a divine nature has no immediate awareness of an illuminated sensible object, because apart from a human mind there is no such thing.”

    However, given both the analogy of being vis-à-vis the divine intellect, and given that God is innermost to all things through the act of existence, it seems to me that God might well be “aware” of the human mind (in both its material and immaterial dimensions), as well as the objects which populate the human mind, in such a way that His “awareness” of illuminated sensible objects is richer and more “immediate” than our own: much the same way that one might argue God’s awareness of concrete particulars is more immediate and comprehensive than our own, despite the fact that we have sensate faculties and he does not. In short, I am hesitant about your claim here in light of the analogy of being and the act of existence. Thoughts??



    • January 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm

      It would be better to take your proof as showing that, given God is innermost to all things he cannot be in them in the same mode as the things themselves. Just as the intimacy of God within physical being is better achieved by the fact he is not physical (since this allows him to be present as a whole in every part of things, similar to the way the soul can be one with the body), his intimate awareness of a mode of knowing is better achieved by the fact that he knows in a more perfect mode.

      God knows our mode of knowing more perfectly because he does not know in the same way. For example, we cannot know what the sensible world is apart from our sensation of it, which means we cannot know how different the world that causes sensation is from the world which is actually sensed. God can know the extent of the difference – though he only knows it by looking at the proper object of our mind.

  2. Thomas said,

    January 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Not sure where to post this, so forgive me if this is the wrong place.

    Anyway, there’s an interesting (and important, I would aver) discussion going on over at The Smithy about Thomism, Scotism, and the Magisterium – 24 Theses, and all that. It would be nice to see you, Mr. Chastek, get involved directly. Here’s the link: . Hope to see you there.


    • January 23, 2013 at 9:35 am

      I read that post a while ago and liked it. Since then aegilius and his interlocutors are making a historical-textual argument that I have nothing to contribute to. I have no idea whether Pius X declared the 24 theses binding on all the faithful, how one would establish this, or what degree of probability to give to any of the arguments.

      On the general topic of Thomism, I would say this: thomism is the understaning and application of the priciples of St. Thomas, treated as a master,but there is a fundamental divide over what this means. Said concretely, when you read someone like Cajetan or Gerrigou, it is clear that “Scotus says” is a symbol indicating that whatever follows, no matter how convincing, is totally false and entirely extrinsic to Thomism. On this account, Thomism is principally viewed as a practice of excluding other ideas, and the dominant note is adversarial opposition, doctrinal purity, and uniformity of belief among all Thomists. Another model of what it means to apply principles sees the dialectical oppositions to Thomism as becoming intrinsic to Thomism. On this model, Thomas is a first among equals, and the dominant note becomes the power of Thomas’s principles to inform a synthesis, to illuminate the truth in various doctrines, and to contextualize the truths in the doctrines that are (often in manifest ways) opposed to Thomism. On this account, hearing “Scotus says” is not just a code word for “what follows is false”, but is seen as something that must fit in a synthesis, illumine a facile way of understanding a Thomist doctrine, and/or – yes – must work as an occasional corrective to an outright mistake in St. Thomas.

      These two models are not contradictory – even Cajetan and Gerrigou can’t help occasionally manifesting elements of the second model, and those of the second model (Rousselot, Gilson) still have to call winners and losers and, when they do, St. Thomas gets the benefit of the doubt. But the difference in attitude between the two models is infinite, and I know this from many-years personal experience. On the first model, Thomists can barely stand to read Petrus Olivi, Auriol, Bonaventure and Augustine (!), etc. and Laval Thomists, say, can’t stand to read Gilson or Maritain or JPII. One slogs through their books, if at all, only to find errors to dice up with ready-made distinctions and pre-approved shop talk. In one sense, I’m ashamed anyone has ever believed this, but I still think it is a necessary stage in intellectual development, and it is not always necessary for one to move out of it. Most people need to start in a mythological age of thought where one thinker has divine status and fights epic battles against the forces of total error and social corruption. Again, I can’t stress enough that I do not mean to denigrade those who view discipleship in this way, many of whom do some marvelous work. Still, I think it’s wonderful that I now read the Medieval Franciscans, Berkeley, Meister Eckhart, Descartes, Buber, Steven Pinker, etc. with pleasure and interest. St. Thomas is no longer a god-king but he still has primacy. He’s at the head of the discussion but it is still a real discussion, where the answer to the problem is not given in advance. St. Thomas stands to the others not like Jesus to other saviors but like Peter to the other apostles, like John and Paul.

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