The operation by which the intellect apprehends a quiddity without affirming or denying anything of it. In this operation the intellect simply grasps what a thing is, that is, its essence, without attributing any predicate to it. thomas aquinas described this activity as an indivisibilium intelligentia, understanding of indivisibles or of essences (In 1 perih. 3.3).
Explanation. Three things should be noted in the definition of simple apprehension. (1) It is an operation, that is, the second act or activity of an operative power. As in most creatural activities, four really distinct factors must be recognized: the operative power itself, its operation, its internal product, and the external sign of that product. The operative power or faculty involved in simple apprehension is the possible intellect; the first activity the possible intellect performs is that of simply apprehending a quiddity; its internal product is a formal concept or mental word; the external sign of that concept is an oral or written term. (2) It apprehends a quiddity, an essence. Simple apprehension knows merely what man, or white, or learned is. Such "whatnesses" or quiddities are called indivisibles in the sense that a definite group of notes is required for their comprehension—if any of these is missing, the quiddity is not attained. For example, the quiddity of man requires the inclusion of the notes of substance, body, living, sentient, and rational; none can be eliminated and still leave as remainder the quiddity of man. Furthermore, simple apprehension is not limited to merely substantial and accidental essences, formal acts; even when it knows something that is not itself a quiddity, it knows this as if it were one (per modum quidditatis ). (3) It does so without affirming or denying. This feature distinguishes simple apprehension from judgment. This first act rests in the knowledge of what man, or white, or learned is; it does not go on, as judgment does, to assert the existential identity or non-identity of two notions, such as "man is white" or "this man is not learned."
The act of simple apprehension is not simple, for it involves three prerequisite steps and then the act itself. The first step is the operation of the external senses, since nothing comes to be in the intellect that was not first in some way in the senses. The external senses supply various unrelated bits of information about the external thing and thus supply the material for intellection and its bridge of contact with extra mental reality. The second step involves the activities of the internal senses. The central sense combines the data received from the external senses into a common sensible image or percept. The other internal senses either estimate the thing thus perceived or reproduce the thing's image in its absence. The common sensible image of the internal senses is, in general, called a phantasm. Then begins the third step in the process, the functioning of the active intellect; this gives a dematerializing illumination to the phantasm, rather like an X-ray. Using the phantasm as its instrument, the active intellect produces a determinate immaterial impression on the possible intellect, called the impressed intelligible species (see species, intentional). At this stage comes the act of simple apprehension itself. Thus determined and specified by the reception of the impressed species, the possible intellect actually knows by producing an expressed species or mental word in which it attains its abstracted object (see abstraction).
When the possible intellect moves on to its second type of operation, forming judgments, simple apprehension is required to present the concepts of the possible subject and predicate. Likewise, simple apprehension is required in reasoning, which basically is only a special coordination of judgments.
How Effected. The perfection of human knowledge is a gradual process; it is not fully accomplished in one swoop. Simple apprehension does not grasp an object in all its richness at first thrust. It attains it first in its most general aspects, then gradually proceeds through the more proximate genera and differences, down to its most special species, and finally its individuality. St. Thomas illustrates this by an analogy: "When a thing is seen afar off it is seen to be a body before it is seen to be an animal; and to be an animal before it is seen to be a man; and to be a man before it is seen to be Socrates or Plato" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 85.3). Similarly, human knowledge proceeds from confused notions, wherein an object is known only generically, to distinct notions, wherein it is known in its proper and specific features. It must be recognized, however, that even if man does succeed in attaining an explicit knowledge of the inmost constitution of some few things, in most instances he has to be content with imperfect knowledge through external signs.
Apprehension of Singulars. The above description of the process of simple apprehension indicates that the human intellect directly proceeds by abstracting from the individuating conditions with which an object is represented in the phantasm. Consequently, in its state of union with the body the intellect directly knows only universals. However, since the universal has been drawn from the sensed singular, the intellect can, as it were, retrace its steps and through reflection see an essence as it is individualized in the phantasm. This dependence of intellect on phantasm precludes the possibility of imageless thought in such knowledge. Yet the intellect is only one of the instruments by which man knows. As Aquinas observes, "Man knows singulars through the imagination and sense; and therefore he can apply the universal knowledge which is in the intellect, to the particular: for, properly speaking, it is not the senses or the intellect that know, but man through both" (De ver. 2.6 ad 3). Ordinarily, human knowledge of a singular material thing is, therefore, a complex of contributions: man's knowing through what is contributed by both the intellect and the senses.
Apprehension of Self. In the light of the abstractive process, how does man know himself and his spiritual aspects? First of all, he knows himself and his acts through the act of knowing something other than himself. When, in signified act (in actu signato ), he knows something extramental, such as a tree, he is concomitantly aware of himself and of his activity in knowing the tree. Such concomitant knowledge is called by scholastics exercised knowledge (in actu exercito ) and, by psychoanalysts, coconsciousness.
Likewise, man knows the existence of his soul experimentally and immediately through its activities. When he perceives that he is exercising any vital operation, such as intellection or sensation, he vaguely perceives that he has a principle of intellection, of sensation, and so on, which is his soul. In knowing the existence of the soul, he has an obscure and confused knowledge of its essence. However, a clear and distinct knowledge of the essence of the soul is arrived at only after a careful and diligent inquiry based on the objects and acts of the vital principle (see soul, human).
Moreover, man has a rational appetite called a will. He is vaguely aware of its existence and essence in the exercise of its acts. This knowledge becomes clarified and perfected by inferences from activities that indicate the nature of the principle from which they spring. It is in the same manner that man gains a knowledge of habits, for these are but further determinations of operative powers, disposing them to act easily and stably in a certain manner.
Apprehension of Spiritual Entities. The proper object of the human intellect while united to the body is the abstracted essences of material things as represented in a phantasm. Since pure spirits, such as angels and God, are by definition immaterial beings, man can rise to a knowledge of them only by analogy. He affirms of such spirits some positive perfections (called pure perfections) noticed in inferior beings; these perfections he affirms of them in a higher degree, while denying the imperfections involved in "mixed" perfections. Thus the presence of intellection is affirmed of such spirits in an eminent degree, for this involves no imperfection in its proper concept. On the other hand, sensation is denied of pure spirits, for this is a mixed perfection that involves organicity, an imperfection, in its proper concept.
Relation to Intuition. Some contemporary thinkers, especially under the influence of H. bergson, tend to devalue conceptual knowledge as gained through simple apprehension in comparison with that gained through intuition. Such antipathy is better directed against Kant than Aquinas. Aquinas frequently used intuition in the broad sense of understanding anything whatsoever. He also used the term analogously with reference to the omniscience of God, the nonabstractive knowledge of angels, and human abstractive knowledge. Concepts arrived at through abstraction are called intuitive if they represent a thing that is present precisely as it is present. Conceptual knowledge gained through abstraction does not necessarily distort or falsify; it can well be thoroughly accurate as far as it goes, even though it does not grasp the full richness of the object. In this regard, St. Thomas noted that "the understanding of mathematical notions is not false, although no line is abstracted from matter in reality" (In 1 sent. 30, 1.3 ad 1). Abstraction and conceptualization is simply the lot of a human intellect while united to a body.
See Also: knowledge, process of; understanding; insight.
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[j. f. peifer]