If we are to explore what human conversation and thinking are, we must say something about the neurophysiology that underlies them. The brain, obviously, is involved in human experience and thought, and some people claim that thinking and consciousness can be completely explained as activities of the brain and nervous system. How shall we address this topic?
There are two ways of exploring the physiology associated with thinking. One is to pursue scientific research into the nervous system, to determine its structure and function, its chemical and electrical components and activities, and so on. Immense progress has been made in this project, and still greater advances are anticipated. The second way of exploring this issue is scientifically much more modest, but it has its own importance. It is to discuss how we speak about the brain and nervous system, and how our scientific speech about it can be integrated with our speech about ourselves as responsible speakers and agents. We can easily fall into confusion in this area; we might say, for example, that the brain feels pain, or that my brain recognizes my grandmother, or that the brain causes my thoughts. These statements are confused because it is not my brain but I myself who feel pain, recognize people, and think, just as it is I and not my brain that votes in an election or salutes an officer.
Categorial or syntactic structure makes it possible for us to rise from sensibility to reasoning and understanding. Philosophers have developed special words to name the various intellectual activities, such as apprehension and judgment. These words are used metaphorically at first. In the case of these particular terms, the original uses signify not mental activities but the bodily action of grasping something and the juridical action of declaring someone to be innocent or guilty. As time goes on and the philosophical problems become routine, the words take on the character of technical terms and we forget that they had a metaphorical beginning. We assume that they name obviously verifiable things, things that we can simply point out. We begin to think that the words have been devised in response to entities that we directly experience in our ordinary worldly involvements, as apple is devised to name an apple. In fact, the pre-philosophical overtone of such philosophical words is never entirely lost. Our access to a philosophical understanding of what it is to understand always remains closely tied to our pre-philosophical thinking, and all the words used in philosophy retain to some extent their pre-philosophical and pre-metaphorical significance. Philosophical language, furthermore, needs always to be revivified; we need to go back to the original meanings of the words and show how the words are tilted to function within the new stance introduced by philosophy.
We turn back to the distinction between accidentals and essentials, and more specifically to the distinctions among accidentals, properties, and essences. We have seen that the essentials of things must be distinguished into their properties and their essences, and both of these must be differentiated from the accidentals that occur to things and are predicated about them. More needs to be said about these three dimensions of speech and the interactions among them.
Step One: Predicating Accidentals
All three of these components – the accidentals, the properties, and the essences – can be predicated of things, but they are predicated of them in different ways. For that reason, they have classically been called the “predicables.” Thus, we might say to someone, “Susan was smiling when she entered the room.” In this case, we predicate “smiling when she entered the room” accidentally of Susan. Susan was smiling at that moment, but she might have been scowling or glaring instead. If we were to say, “But remember: Susan is capable of smiling,” we would probably be predicating the power to smile as a property of Susan. In the antique terminology, we would be saying that she is risible. (If we were reporting this as a mere fact, however, perhaps as the fact that she can now smile again after having been grieving for a month, the predication would be accidental; we would not be reporting on what she is essentially capable of doing, but on what she is now able to do in these circumstances.
We get a glimpse of the human person in the declarative use of the word I. For another perspective on the personal, we now turn to the phenomena of human choice and human intentions. To get a good view of these things, let us, like photographers, arrange a background, a context in which the target can be brought into sharper focus. We will not just speak about human beings, but will place them against plants and animals, and will discuss the logic of needing, wanting, and wishing. We will then explore the human person as an agent or an actor.
We will, therefore, highlight the human person by placing him against the background of prepersonal phenomena. Our procedure here will be analogous to what we did when we positioned language, with its syntax, against the background of protolanguage and mere vocalization. In this case, however, we will be dealing not just with cognition but with desire and conduct.
Needs, Wants, and Wishes
Plants need certain things: they need light, water, and nourishment. A plant takes in certain things from its environment and makes them part of itself in order to keep itself alive. It could not remain itself without metabolizing other things into itself; it needs these other things. Need is associated with life.
We gain a number of philosophical advantages if we consider syntax as originating in an intersubjective exchange, not in an operation performed by and in a single mind.
Four Benefits of Taking Syntax as Intersubjective
First, we start off with an obvious realism in the use of language. We avoid the egocentric predicament. The very establishment of language occurs between two (or more) speakers, and both speakers are talking about a thing that is presented to them in common. Their speech focuses both of their minds first on the thing as a whole and then on some attribute that they articulate within the thing. It is precisely in this double disclosure carried on between speaker and listener that the thing shows up as a substance: as that which presents itself in and through a feature, and also as that which has an essential structure, something that belongs to it in itself, in contrast with things that belong to it accidentally. The thing shows up, in Aristotle's terms, both as a substrate and as “what it is for this thing to be,” the two central meanings of substance. We will clarify these dimensions of things when we examine the content of speech.
The speakers, therefore, do not operate on their private mental representations, but on the thing they present to one another, the thing they have in common. Mental representations are a deadly trap philosophically: if you start with them, you never get beyond them. They lock us into subjective isolation.
In the last two chapters we have explored several dimensions of the content of speech, but one topic has remained largely undiscussed and must be approached now: the fact that we also speak about things when they are not bodily present. In Chapter 7 we used as our paradigm the case of two people, Henry and Jane, speaking to each other about an oak tree that is present to both of them; Henry points it out and says something about it. But most of our speech and conversation is about things that are not present: about what we did last week or what we will do tomorrow, about Tokyo or Buenos Aires, Napoleon or Charlemagne, quarks or the center of the sun. The names that designate things before us can also be used to designate things that are absent. An essential strength of speech and thinking is that they can reach into the absent as well as respond to what is present. The ability to deal with the absent is a constitutive element in rationality. One of the important philosophical discoveries of Edmund Husserl was the role of absence in human experience, thinking, and expression. We can distinguish four ways in which absence enters into our experience and thinking.
The description of knowledge given by Thomas Aquinas is largely a continuation of Aristotle's, but it is more complicated and greatly influenced by the work of St. Augustine. It was also influenced by some Muslim thinkers. Aquinas generally follows Aristotle in describing the external and internal senses, and he stresses the importance of the phantasm in human knowledge. He distinguishes between the passive and the active intellect, and he insists, in opposition to some other interpreters of Aristotle, that the agent intellect is a power within each human being; it is not separate and common to all humanity. Aristotle's own text, the short chapter De Anima III 5, is ambiguous on the separateness of the agent intellect, but it could be taken in the way Aquinas and other commentators take it. On all these points, therefore, Aquinas is in close harmony with Aristotle.
Thomas Aquinas on the “Internal Word”
Aquinas differs most clearly from Aristotle in the description of what the intellect does. In his mature works, he distinguishes two intellectual events that occur when we come to know things. In the first, the receptive intellect takes in the universal form that is freed or abstracted from the phantasm under the light of the agent intellect. Aquinas calls this received form the “intelligible species,” species intelligibilis, which is a very interesting term.
Mental images require more discussion. In Chapters 9 and 11 we tried to show that perception is better described without the involvement of mental pictures that mediate between us and what we experience. Still, there clearly is something that can be called mental imagery; we do experience “images” of some sort when we dream or daydream, whether in memory or imagination. We have tried earlier, in Chapter 9, to clarify such phenomena by saying that they involve not the viewing of an internal image but the reliving of an earlier perception. If I remember a home run in a baseball game that I saw yesterday, what I bring back is not a picture of the event, but myself perceiving the event. I reenact myself seeing the batter hitting the ball. But even in that reenactment, there is something like an image at work, not only an image of the ball being hit but also an image of myself seeing it. Or rather, there is one complex internal image involving both myself and the event. What sort of imagery can this be? How can it be related to our physiology without being taken as the viewing of pictures? How is this imagery materialized?
The Problem of Mental Images
The problem of mental images is not just a local or temporary philosophical problem. It is chronic; it has persisted throughout the history of philosophy, in regard to perception as well as imagination.
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