My paper, “Mitigating the Magic: The Role of Memory, the Vis Cogitativa, and Experience in Aquinas’ Abstractionist Epistemology” is forthcoming in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. It is the winner of the 2022 ACPQ Rising Scholar essay contest.

Dissertation Abstract

In the canonical text on the so-called “interior senses” in the Summa (I.78.4), Thomas Aquinas identifies memory as one of four such senses. Here, he gives the prima facie puzzling definition of memory as the “storehouse” of the “intentions” that are cognized by the estimative (in animals) or cogitative (in humans) power. Clearly, however rooted in Aristotle Aquinas’ theory of memory may be, it is by no means straight-forwardly Aristotelian.

My dissertation is a comprehensive study of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of memory. The thesis is divided into two sections. In the first part, consisting of the first three chapters, I seek to establish what memory and related concepts such as remembering, reminiscence, trained memory and “intellectual memory” are for Aquinas. In the second part, I explore how Aquinas conceives of memory as being operative in the cognitive and ethical life of the agent.

In the first chapter, I survey the teachings of those figures who exerted the most direct influence on Aquinas on this topic. This includes Cicero, the anonymous author of the Ad herrenium, Aristotle, Augustine, the anonymous author of the Arabic-language adaptation of the Parva naturalia, Avicenna, Averroes, and Albert the Great.

In chapter two, I examine Aquinas’ theory of sensation, giving an account of each of the other three interior senses – i.e. the common sense, imagination, and the estimative/cogitative. A particular problem for any study of Aquinas on memory is the nature and function of the estimative/cogitative and the intentiones it cognizes (which memory is then tasked with preserving). This latter topic has historically been shrouded in perplexity. Given this, I conduct a careful study of the estimative/cogitative, arguing that its role is far more significant and pervasive in Aquinas’ psychology than has often been surmised.

In chapter three, I construct a taxonomy of memory and memory-related concepts in Aquinas’ philosophy. I argue that for Aquinas memoria is a polyvalent term, with broader and narrower meanings, referring to one or more of a number of tightly-related concepts. Uniting these three meanings, however, are three factors: the sensible phantasm, the “intention” of past time, and the individual intention cognized by the estimative/cogitative.

In chapter four, I argue that memory plays a key and underappreciated role in Aquinas’ abstractionist epistemology. Most accounts of Aquinas’ theory of abstraction mention the role of the senses in acquiring sensible forms, the imagination in preserving a phantasm, and the agent intellect in abstracting the universal species from that phantasm. Rarely do memory or the cogitative make an appearance. One consequence of this reductive model, is that the agent intellect seems to perform a sudden, and uncanny, “leap” to the universal. As I show, however, Aquinas conceives of the acquisition of universals as a gradual process, mediated by a stratified set of sense powers, in which a sensible is progressively “prepared” for abstraction. At its highest level, i.e. the conjoint operations of memory and the cogitative power, sense generates so-called “experience (experimentum)”, which Aquinas conceives of as a probabilistic, pre-universal form of knowledge that emerges from the comparison (or collatio)of multiple intentions preserved in memory. In this way memory helps bridge what Aquinas calls the “extreme” divide between sensible being (esse sensibile) and intelligible being (esse intelligibile).

Aquinas reliably frames his theorizing about memory in terms of memory’s role as an “integral part” of the virtue of prudence. In chapter five, I examine memory’s contribution to prudence. As in chapter four, I argue that the notion of “experience (experimentum)” provides the key. Memory, for Aquinas, is necessary to stabilize and amass a host of discrete sense intentions, from which the cogitative power extracts the probabilistic, pre-universal knowledge of experimentum. This, in turn, enables the agent to make well-informed predictions about what will happen in a new set of circumstances. By enabling foresight in this way, memory empowers the agent to translate abstract, immaterial universal principles into prudent action within the ever-shifting realm of contingent, material singulars.

%d bloggers like this: