The state of being or acting in independence of matter. The term is applied in an ontological sense to any spirit, such as god, angels, or the human soul (see soul, human). It is used also in an epistemological sense in scholastic discussions of knowledge and the knower, and it is this sense that is the concern of this article.
Matter and Knowledge. The things that are directly apprehended with the senses and the intellect are things that exist in the external world and have their own natural being distinct from man's knowledge of them. They are sensibly various, extended, and multiple, in motion or at rest. Some are generated and come into being, whereas others become corrupted and cease to be. Such things are said to be material, that is, potential and capable of change. Although they actually exist, they are not completely actual, but include in their makeup something imperfect and passive, something potential and determinable, called matter. By reason of matter or the material principle in things, they are capable of becoming otherwise and even other than they are. Such things include also the formal determinations by which they are what and as they are, for instance, a red rose or a gold ring.
In their reflections on the mysteries of nature and knowledge, the early Greek philosophers assumed that only material things exist, and that both the knower and the things known are made of the same matter or material elements, which also constitute food and drink for the knower. These philosophers thought that like is known by like, namely, that man knows water in the outside world by water within himself, air by air, etc. Further reflection, however, on the order and harmony of the world convinced other thinkers that material things and material principles are not sufficient to account for nature and for knowledge. They decided that there must be something of a different kind, something simple and unmixed, indeed some divine intelligence that rules the world. In this intelligent principle man somehow participates by reason of his intellect, which is distinct from sense and much more perfect, because by intellect he knows not only sensible things but also relations and causes that are not sensible. Thus the problem of accounting for knowledge became more complex, and included not only the sensible and sense but also the intelligible and intellectual knowledge.
plato regarded sensible things as objects for opinion only, or likely interpretation, and maintained that the things known by intellect in a philosophical way are Forms or Ideas existing apart in a world of realities separated from sensible matter. Aristotle rejected this explanation as incomplete and unnatural, and held that even sensible things are intelligible. These things consist not merely of potential matter but also of sensible and intelligible forms or specifying principles by which they are what they are and as they are. Aristotle distinguished between the sensible in potency and the sensible in act. In the dark, something colored is sensible in potency, but in the light and with an eye present to see it, the colored thing is sensible in act. Likewise, he distinguished in the knower an organ and power for sensing that is sometimes merely in potency, that is, able to sense, and sometimes in the act of sensing. This occurs when the sensible is present and acting on the organ of sense. Indeed, the sensation is the very action of the sensible in the sense, and there are not two activities, but only one activity with two aspects. The very same action that proceeds actively from the sensible is received passively in and by the sense, but it is received by the sense according to its own manner of sensitivity, and this is the sensation itself. In view of this account, Aristotle did not simply concede that like is known by like, but maintained that the sensible thing acts upon the sense, and by its action makes the sense like itself, whereas the sense was previously in potency and unlike the sensible disposed for action.
Immateriality in Knowing. Considerations such as these lead to the question of what precisely is knowledge, or what is a knower, and whether one can determine the different kinds and degrees of knowledge and knowers. One can proceed to solve these questions by reflecting on acts of knowing, and by contrasting the knower with the nonknower. A nonknower, such as a piece of wood or of wax, is limited to itself and within itself. It is a material thing that is distinct from all others. It has certain formal determinations of color, figure, etc., that are its own, not another's, and it is capable of receiving other determinations in a passive and subjective way, as its own and not another's. A knower, on the other hand, is a distinct individual; it is not limited to itself, or closed within itself, but is open to others.
Indeed, a knower is open to all the others that it can know, and thus it is not only itself but also in some manner it is everything that it can know. A knower is somehow able to transcend the real distinction between itself and the others that are found in the natural world, and somehow becomes and is the other that it knows. This it does by way of increase: remaining itself, it becomes also the other. It receives formal determinations not merely as its own, but also as the other's. Thus it receives not only in a subjective manner, as material things receive, but also in an objective or intentional manner. Hence the knower has a certain preeminence over the potentiality of matter, an amplitude of being and perfection, a removal of the limitations of matter that is manifested by the objective, intentional, or immaterial way by which it receives formal determinations in knowing. This fullness or perfection of being by which the knower can overcome its own material limitations and its distinction from other things, so that it can become and can be in an objective or intentional way everything it can know, is called immateriality, that is, removal from the limitations of matter and eminence over the potentiality of matter.
The immateriality of the knower can be appreciated through the contrast between eating and knowing. The organism draws its food from the environment and by the processes of digestion and assimilation makes the food become part of itself. The organism consists materially of what it eats, although it does not become like the food but changes the food into itself. On the other hand, the knower also draws its knowledge from the environment, but not in a material way. It does not materially change the things that it knows, nor does it take them into itself materially. Rather, it is the knower that becomes changed in acquiring knowledge, yet in such a way that, without ceasing to be what it was, it becomes assimilated to the thing known. The knower becomes and is the thing known in a way that transcends the distinctions between them and unites them in the most intimate union of all, that is, in a kind of identity, not material or subjective but objective and immaterial. This eminent perfection of the knower, its immateriality or fullness of being and perfection by which it transcends material things as such and is able to become and to be other than itself, extending to everything it can know, is what essentially constitutes a knower and knowledge itself. A knower has a double mode of being, and leads a double life. A knower is what it is in itself materially, and it is immaterially, objectively, or intentionally all that it knows or can know.
Degrees of Immateriality. By reflecting on knowledge and by comparing the self with other knowers, one can distinguish various kinds of knowledge and various degrees of immateriality in knowledge and knowers. Because of the peculiar identity between the knower and the things known that is established in and by the act of knowledge, the degree of immateriality in knowledge and in the knower is proportioned to the thing known, as such. From this point of view one can differentiate between sense knowledge and human intelligence or reason. Sense knowledge is dependent upon the presence and action of sensibles on the senses, and is really the same as the action of the sensible in the sense. The sensible acts on the sense, not by means of its material being, but by means of a special quality, which is an active form in singular matter. The sensation, or act of sensing, is the action of the sensible through its special quality, by which the sense is assimilated to the sensible in act. When the sense is activated in this way, the knower receives an impression by which it is assimilated to the sensible and, by reason of its own immateriality, it becomes and is the sensible in act. This is the lowest degree of immateriality, according to which the knower is or can be immaterially or objectively identified with singular sensible things. Within this first degree of immateriality, however, many species of sense knowledge are found in man and other animals. These can be differentiated by their peculiar objects, and by the special ways in which various sensible things act on different sense organs, as the eye, the ear, the tongue, etc.
In addition to sense knowledge, man has intellectual knowledge of boundless scope. He understands not merely this or that in the particular case, but being in general, and also nonbeing, one and many in general, whole, and part in general. He understands not merely this or that natural body, but matter and body in general, plant or animal in general, man or human nature in general. The proper object of the human intellect is indeed something in the material world, but this man knows by intellect as universal, that is, as abstracted from singular matter. Thus the human knower enjoys a higher degree of immateriality, by which he becomes and is in an immaterial way not merely a singular material thing but something universal and transcendent or simply immaterial (see universals). Hence the human knower as intellective is simply immaterial, and the intellective power is anorganic or spiritual.
Above man as a knower are the angels and God. The angels are immaterial or spiritual creatures of limited being, and the proper objects of their knowledge are correspondingly immaterial. God is pure act, immateriality without any limitation, and so he is knower in the highest degree, incomparably transcending created knowers. In God, being and knowing are one and the same, and so He is subsistent intellection or comprehensive knowledge of Himself.
See Also: immortality; intentionality; knowledge, process of; species, intentional.
Bibliography: l. m. rÉgis, Epistemology, tr. i. c. byrne (New York 1959) 157–252. j. owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Milwaukee 1963) 217–219. j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite, or The Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan (New York 1959).
[w. h. kane]
"Immateriality." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/immateriality
"Immateriality." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/immateriality
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