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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: July 2017

1 - Through Species to the World: Aquinas and Henry of Ghent


In the extensive criticism of species that we find in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, species are often construed as devices via the apprehension of which we come to the cognition of external objects. But would defenders of the species theory such as Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent agree that species mediate our access to the world in this way?

The case of Aquinas (1225–1274) is particularly puzzling here. For on the one hand, there is a widespread agreement among commentators that Aquinas's species theory was a ‘touchstone for all subsequent discussions’, and that it was the ‘standard target of the critical discussions’ that would develop around species. But at the same time, most of his commentators deny that Aquinas held that we gain access to reality by apprehending species. There seems to be a mismatch, then, between Aquinas's canonical formulation of the species theory on the one hand, and the account targeted by the critics of species on the other. As one commentator has pointed out, if the standard reading of Aquinas is right, the criticism of species in later Franciscan writers may well be ‘far less interesting than one might suppose’.

In the first three sections of this chapter, I argue that, a majority of Aquinas's modern commentators notwithstanding, Aquinas likely was committed to the idea that we access objects in external reality by apprehending species that resemble them. This position was there in his earlier writings, and there are no compelling reasons to believe that he abandoned it in his later works. When they critically engaged the idea that accessing reality involves apprehending species, therefore, Franciscans such as Olivi and Ockham were not tilting at a straw man, but rather engaged an idea that has a basis in the philosophical psychology of Aquinas.

The case of Henry of Ghent (1217–1293) is more straightforward. When discussing species in the opening questions of his Summa, it is pretty clear that he takes them to be objects of apprehension, and that the apprehension of these representational devices is what makes the world present to us.

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Representation and Scepticism from Aquinas to Descartes
  • Online ISBN: 9781316855102
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