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Sarah Ballard

In his writings, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the way in which human beings
acquire true and universal knowledge. Aquinas explains and reviews the beliefs about the
acquisition of knowledge held by earlier philosophers, such as Plato, using his own
understanding of the process of acquiring knowledge to affirm or discount these previous
viewpoints. Aquinas argues that the acquisition of knowledge for human beings is a
process, which begins in a humans passive senses, forming phantasms, or mental images,
from the corporeal matter of individual objects, and ends in the active intellect of the
soul, which uses these phantasms to arrive at universal truths and knowledge, which
extend far beyond the original individual object of corporeal matter. He concludes that
true knowledge is achieved by the senses transforming the material matter of individual
objects into immaterial phantasms, which are then acted upon and abstracted by the
active intellect, leading us to discover the unchanging, immaterial universal knowledge,
which can be found as a part of or as defining the object originally impressed on the
Aquinas argues that humans are born with little to no knowledge, but they start
their life with the potential to know all the material objects throughout their life, by
making use of their senses and intellect. Aquinas states, the soul is all things, after a
fashion, inasmuch as it is in potentiality to all--through the senses, to all sensible things;
through the intellect, to all intelligible things. (383). Aquinas explains that humans have
a potentiality to all things, a potential to interact with them, since humans are bodily
creatures, and a potential to gain knowledge of them, due to humans intellectual soul and
its ability to discover and understand the underlying universal knowledge that defines the

individual material objects in which it examines. Aquinas speaks of how humans have
potential to know all things. Aquinas explains this idea further, saying, [Man] is
reduced from such potentiality to act:--through the action of sensible objects on his
senses, to the act of sensation; by instruction or discovery, to the act of understanding.
(384). Humans transform from having a potential to have knowledge of a material object
to actually having knowledge of a material object through the intellect discovering the
immovable knowledge found in what the senses perceive. Humans begin as a blank slate
with only potential to interact with and understand the material objects we come into
contact with, but through sensible objects acting on our senses, man is able to use his
active intellect to discover the universal knowledge behind the objects he encounters.
Aquinas argues that information obtained from our senses creates a foundation for
intellectual knowledge, by turning individual material objects, into immaterial phantasms
stored in our soul. Human beings senses receive images of individual material objects
and store them as mental images, called phantasms. Aquinas elaborates on this point
saying, the sensible form is in one way in the thing which is external to the soul, and in
another way in the senses, which receive the forms of sensible things without receiving
matter. (379). Humans are able to create an immaterial phantasm, in themselves, of the
form of material objects that are external to the soul, exemplified in Aquinas statement,
the act of knowledge extends to things outside the knower (382). Humans are able to
create phantasms of external objects, which allow the intellectual parts of the soul be able
to examine and gain knowledge of things which exist only materially outside of the soul.
Aquinas argues that sense is an act of the composite, or the unity of both the body
and soul, allowing things outside the soul to affect the composite, making it possible for

the intellect to examine and gain knowledge from what the senses receive. Aquinas
speaks of the unity of the body and soul through sense, saying, the sense has not its
proper operation without the cooperation of the body; so that to sense is not an act of the
soul alone, but of the composite. (394) He continues saying that it is this way for all of
the functions of the sensible parts of the soul, allowing sensible things outside the soul to
have an effect on the composite, through sense, which uses both the body and the soul in
its operation. Aquinas continues, arguing that, The operations of the sensitive parts are
caused by the impression of the sensible on the sense (394). The human senses are
passive receivers, which the natural world constantly impresses new information and
images onto, through the physical body, which are then stored as phantasms in the soul
through the senses. Once these phantasms are immaterially stored in the soul, the
intellectual part of the soul has access to it, and has an active operation, that is not shared
with the passive body and corporeal organs. This active operation is to abstract and gain
knowledge from the phantasms. The intellectual operation of the soul cannot be started
just by the impression of sensible bodies onto the senses, but rather, humans possess an
active agent of intellect to begin the intellectual process, in order to gain intelligible
knowledge and understanding through abstraction of the phantasms received and stored
by the senses.
Aquinas argues that the knowledge of phantasms is different than the universal
knowledge of things, because for phantasms to become or reveal universal knowledge,
the phantasms must be abstracted by the active intellect. Phantasms are images of the
individual material objects perceived by sense. Once these phantasms are stored in the
soul, they are used as the source of information for the active intellect to act on, to

achieve universal knowledge in the end. Aquinas points out that if phantasms themselves
were accepted as universal knowledge, then the mental images, fantasies, and
hallucinations of people with mental illness, or other conditions causing the formation of
skewed phantasms, would be considered universal knowledge, even though it is far from
true universal knowledge. In order to acquire true universal knowledge from phantasms,
the phantasms need to be abstracted by the active intellect, allowing the discovery of
universal principles, which define objects, based on their unchanging, essential qualities.
Aquinas argues that the intellect develops knowledge and understanding of
corporeal objects by abstracting from phantasms, and finding the universal knowledge
that isnt subject to the matter of the individual object that was originally stored by the
senses in the phantasm. Aquinas supports this idea, stating, Knowledge is in inverse
ratio to materialitythe more immaterially a being receives the form of the thing known,
the more perfect is its knowledge. (382) The less the information or image that is used to
abstract knowledge from is tied to and confined by corporeal matter, the better the
universal knowledge can be understood. Because of this, the intellect cannot truly
understand individual things, because it perceives them through the use of phantasms, not
directly. On the other hand, the intellect can truly know and understand universals,
because through abstraction of the phantasms, it directly perceives the universal truths.
Aquinas exemplifies this as he states, the intellect, which abstracts the species not only
from matter, but also from the individuating conditions of matter, knows more perfectly
than the senses, which receive the form of the thing known, without matter indeed, but
subject to material conditions. (382). In order to gain intelligible knowledge, our
intellect needs to remove the corporeal matter from the object, to better view the

immaterial universals, which are constant and unmoving truths. This movement away
from individual corporeal matter allows humans to acquire a more universal knowledge,
supporting Aquinas idea that the less a form is tied to corporeal matter, the purer the
knowledge of it is. Aquinas speaks of the knowledge, which allows souls to know
corporeal bodies outside of itself, saying, the soul knows bodies through the intellect by
a knowledge which is immaterial, universal, and necessary. (379). The soul gains
knowledge of natural bodies by removing the original object perceived by the senses
from its individual matter, allowing the intellect to discover and extract the immaterial
universal truths, which define the species, and its form in corporeal matter, regardless of
the individual objects of corporeal matter, which were first perceived to begin the journey
toward true immaterial, universal knowledge.
Aquinas argues that this abstraction is possible and is achieved due to the nature
of sense and the nature of human intellect, along with matter existing in multiple forms.
Aquinas describes the difference between sense cognitive power and human intellect
cognitive power. He describes how senses are from the acts of corporeal organs, making
the object of any sensitive power an object in a form made of corporeal matter. Because
of the object of its power being of individual corporeal matter, it follows that, every
power of the sensitive part can have knowledge only of particulars. (401). The senses
can only perceive an individual object with a physical body, causing it to only be able to
know of that individual object, and restraining it from discovering the knowledge which
transcends that objects individual circumstances. Aquinas then moves on to describe how
human intellect is not caused by the action of a corporeal organ, however, it is still a
power in the soul, which is found in humans to be in bodily form. This immaterial

intellect, allows humans to understand and gain knowledge of an individual form made of
corporeal matter. However, because the objects that it uses its powers on are the
immaterial phantasms, it allows humans to gain a knowledge that transcends the
individual corporeal matter of the object perceived by the senses. Aquinas then continues
on explaining how the human intellect is able to remove and abstract universals from the
matter that the senses perceived. He describes how matter exists in two different
categories, common and individual. The intellect is able to abstract the species of a thing
from its individual sensible matter, such as its individual flesh and bones, but it cant
abstract it from commonsensible matter, such as flesh and bone as general substances not
belonging to any individual object. The differentiation in particular matter and general
matter, coupled with the intellects ability to transcend the particular corporeal matter of
the things perceived by the intellect, allow for the phantasm created by the senses to be
abstracted into true and pure universal knowledge.
Aquinas fills his writings with support, examples, other philosophers opinions,
and logical reasoning, showing the strength of his position. For example, when discussing
whether the soul has innate species or not, he uses a blind man as an example that there is
no innate species, writing, if a sense be wanting, the knowledge of what is apprehended
through that sense is also wanting. For instance, a man who is born blind can have no
knowledge of colors. Thus would not be the case if the soul had innate likeness of all
intelligible things. (385). Aquinas uses an even clearer example when proving that
material things could be comprehended by abstracting the universal truths from the
particular object being reviewed, saying, if we consider color and its properties, without
reference to the apple which is colored, or if we express in word what we thus

understand, there is no error in such an opinion or assertion; for an apple is not essential
to color, and therefore color can be understood independently of the apple. (402)
Aquinas uses common things that everyone would recognize and understand to explain
how this process of acquiring knowledge is achieved, making his point clear for everyone
who reads or hears it, whether they be a common worker, or a fellow philosopher.
Beyond examples and reasoning, the factor that adds the most strength to Aquinas
positions, is the fact that he discusses what other philosophers have said in the past either
in support of his position, or in opposition to his position, in which case he would explain
and show the faults in the previous philosophers positions. Beyond just explaining other
philosophers views in the article and either validating or discounting it, Aquinas begins
each article with objections which other philosophers had previously used to discount
what he believed was the path to knowledge, and finished every chapter with counter
arguments and responses to these objections, proving the validity of his position.
Aquinas easy to understand examples, along with him discussing other philosophers
views and either using them as support for his position, or disproving them, and going
even beyond that to give the objections to his position other philosophers have had, and
giving a response showing the validity of his position compared to their objection, make
his position a very powerful and convincing one.
Even with the strength and convincing power of Aquinas position there would be
objections from other philosophers, who held different positions. One of these
philosophers would be Descartes, who states that,
From this I knew I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which
is simply to think, and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place

nor depends on any material thing. Thus this I, that is to say, the soul
through which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is
even easier to know than the body, and even if there were no body at all, it
would not cease to be all that it is. (Descartes, 19)
Descartes believed that the soul and body were not connected, except for as a pilot in a
plane, because he could not prove that his body existed, the only thing he could prove
was that he was a thinking being. Another philosopher who would challenge his theory
would be Plato, who believed in innate species, or knowledge of things already in us,
before we learn about or understand those things. Plato would object to Aquinas position
because he believed the intellect and sense were separate things, and the incorporeal
intellect could not be affected by the corporeal senses. There would be many other
philosophers with different positions, which would raise objections to Aquanis position.
One would be that the soul cannot know sensible bodies through the intellect, especially
bodies, since the intellect is concerned with things that are necessary and unchangeable.
But all bodies are moveable and changeable. (377) Another objection would be that our
intellect is not able to gain knowledge from material objects by abstraction from
phantasms, because if our intellect abstracted it and understood something, not as it
actually is in nature, than the intellect is false.
Aquinas has laid down in his work ways in which he could respond to the
objections from others. To Descartes and Platos objection of the intellect acquiring
knowledge from the senses, Aquinas would say that sense is an act of the composite, or
the unity of body and soul, because sense cannot operate properly without use of the body
and the soul. The soul needs the body in order to perceive and receive the phantasms to

abstract and form knowledge, since it is clear that there is no innate species, because if a
man knew something it is unreasonable to thing he wouldnt know he had that
knowledge, and also because it is natural for the soul and body to be united. Also, he
would say innate species is false because, if a sense be wanting, the knowledge of what
is apprehended through that sense is also wanting. For instance, a man who is born blind
can have no knowledge of colors. Thus would not be the case if the soul had innate
likeness of all intelligible things. (385) Aquinas would respond to the objection of the
soul not being able to know bodies through intellect because their in motion by saying,
Every movement presupposes something immovable. For when a change of quality
occurs, the substance remains unmoved; and when there is a change of substantial form,
matter remains unmoved. Moreover, mutable things have immovable dispositions. (379)
Lastly, Aquinas would respond to the objection that humans couldnt acquire knowledge
from abstraction from phantasms, or it would be false, by saying, if we consider color
and its properties, without reference to the apple which is colored, or if we express in
word what we thus understand, there is no error in such an opinion or assertion; for an
apple is not essential to color, and therefore color can be understood independently of the
apple. (402) Showing that humans can indeed gain knowledge by abstracting. Aquinas
responses are sound and convincing responses, which show the fault in his objectors