Aquinas’s Abstractionism

Aquinas’s Abstractionism

Houston, Smit (University of Arizona)

Medieval Philosophy and Theology 10 (2001)


According to St. Thomas, the natures of material things are the proper objects of human understanding. And he holds that, at least in this life, humans cognize these natures, not through innate species or by perceiving the divine exemplars, but only by abstraction from phantasms (ST Ia, 84.7, 85.1) More precisely, the human intellect’s active component, the agent intellect, produces cognition of the natures of material things by abstracting intelligible forms from phantasms and informing them on its passive component, the possible intellect, to actualize the latter’s potency to understand.

The aim of the present piece is to clarify Thomas’s account of thisintellective abstraction, and thereby the precise force of the conceptual empiricism it asserts. Examining his distinction between sensible and intellectual cognition, and his account of the way the former, in phantasms, supplies the data for intellective abstraction, will lead us to reassess the nature of Thomas’s antinativism—arguably the most important historical and philosophical legacy of his cognitive psychology.

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