Monday, February 28, 2011

Translation: Aquinas on powers 2

Thomas Aquinas
Disputed Questions on the Mind
Article 12
Is the mind the same as its powers?

[Translation note: I translate 'anima' as 'mind', but by that, I do not mean to exclude animal minds. On the contrary, I mean to include both the sentient minds of animals, and the rational minds of humans.]

With regard to this question, it should be said that there are diverse opinions. Some say that the mind is [the same as] its powers, but others deny this, saying that the mind's powers are certain properties of it.

In order to understand the differences between these opinions, I should point out that a power is nothing other than the source [principia] of some operation, be it an operation that is done or an operation that is undergone. But the 'source' I am speaking of is not the agent or recipient [of the operation]. Rather, it is that by which the agent acts or that by which the recipient undergoes [the operation in question]. For just as the builder's skill is the power in the builder by which he builds, so also is the heat in a flame that by which the flame heats [other things], and dryness is the power in a log [by which it is combustible], for things are combustible insofar as they are dry.

Thus, those who postulate that the mind is [the same as] its powers understand this to mean that the very essence of the mind is the immediate source of all the operations of the mind, saying that a human understands through his or her mind, a human senses and [performs] other such operations [through their mind], and the mind is given diverse labels according to the diversity of these operations: [it is called] the 'sense' [or 'sentient power'] insofar as it is the source of sensation, [it is called] the 'intellect' [or 'intellective power'] insofar as it is the source of understanding, and so on for all the other [operations for which the mind is the source]. Whence, we label the heat in a flame as its power to heat, melt, and dry other things because it performs all of these things.

But this opinion cannot stand. First because everything that enacts anything --- and here I mean to refer to the thing which acts --- it does so only insofar as it is actual in the way [in which it acts]. For a flame heats not insofar as it is actually bright, but only insofar as it is hot, and hence every agent brings about something similar to itself. Whence, it is necessary that that by which something acts be considered as the source by which it acts, for it is necessary that each be in conformity. Thus, in book II of the Physics, it is said that the form and the generator are the same in species. Therefore, when that which acts does not pertain to the substantial being of the thing, it is impossible that the source by which it acts is something of the essence of the thing, and this is obvious for natural agents.

For when it comes to generation, a natural agent changes matter into form, and that happens because the matter is first disposed to that form, and eventually the form follows, according to which generation is the terminus of the alteration. It is necessary that, on the part of the agent, that which immediately acts is an accidental form corresponding to the disposition of the matter. But it is necessary that the accidental form acts in virtue of the substantial form, as an instrument of it, so to speak (otherwise, it would not induce a substantial form by acting).

On account of this, the only apparent source of action in the elements are their active and passive qualities, which nevertheless act in virtue of the substantial forms [of the elements]. Consequently, their actions are not directed only to accidental dispositions, but also to substantial forms. For in the making of artifacts, the activity of the instruments are directed at the form intended by the artist.

But if some agent were, by its action, to directly and immediately produce a substance (just as we say of God, who by creating produces the substances of things, and just as Avicenna says of the Agent Intellects, from whom (according to him) the substantial forms of inferior things flow), an agent of this sort would act through its essence, and in that case, its active power would not be distinct from its essence.

But regarding passive powers, it is obvious that a passive power for a substantial act belongs to the genus of substance, and a passive power for an accidental act belongs to the genus of accident --- by reduction (as a principle rather than as a complete species). For every genus is divided into potentiality and actuality. Whence, a human belongs to the genus of substance, and a human's potential whiteness belongs to the genus of quality.

However, it is clear that the powers of the mind, be they active or passive, are not spoken of directly with respect either to something substantial or to something accidental. Similarly, a being that is actually intelligent or sentient is not actually intelligent or sentient in a substantial sense, but rather in an accidental sense, to which the intellect or sense are directed, and similarly, to be large or small, to which the power of growth is directed.

But generative or nutritive powers are directed towards producing or conserving a substance, though through changing matter. Whence, such actions, just like all the other actions of natural agents, come about by a substance through intermediate accidental principles. Whence, the powers of the mind are not [the same as] the very essence of the mind, but rather are properties of it.

Thereafter, it is apparent from this that from the diversity of the mind's actions that they belong to diverse genera, and they cannot be reduced to one immediate principle, for certain of them are actions and certain of them are passions, and other of them differ by further differences, which differences must be attributed to diverse principles.

And so, since the essence of the mind is a single principle, it cannot be the immediate principle of all of its actions. Rather, it must have many diverse powers that correspond to the diversity of its actions. For a power is said to be correlative to its act, whence according to the diversity of actions there must be a diversity of powers.

Hence, the Philosophy says in Ethics VI that when it comes to things that belong to the mind scientifically (i.e., when it comes to those features that we identify by our scientific investigations of the mind), those things belong to the mind necessarily, whereas the things that belong to the mind's ratiocinative features belong to it in a contingent way, and so these two classes of things must be reduced to diverse powers, for things that are necessary and things that are contingent differ in kind.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Translation: Aquinas on powers 1

Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologiae
Part I, question 77, article 1
Is the mind the same as its power?

In response, it should be said that it is impossible for the essence of the mind to be its power, although some postulate this. For our present purposes, this can be shown in two ways.

First, since potentiality and actuality divide every genus of being, it is necessary that potentiality and actuality refer to the same genus. For this reason, if an act is not in the genus of substance, then the power which is spoken of with respect to that act cannot be in the genus of substance either. However, an operation of the mind is not in the genus of substance, with the sole exception of God, in whom his operation is his substance. Whence, the power of God, which is the source of his operation, is the divine essence itself. But this cannot be true of the mind, nor can it be true for any creature, as I said above when I discussed angels.

Second, that this is impossible for the mind is obvious. For the mind, in terms of its essence, is actual. Thus, if the essence of the mind itself were the immediate source of its operation, it would perform vital operations so long as it were actually existent, just as the mind is always living and actual [so long as it exists].

For insofar as it is a form, it is not an actuality that is ordered to the final act, but it is the ultimate terminus of generation. Whence, even when it exists, it is still in a state of potentiality with respect to some other actuality, and this belongs to it not in terms of its essence, i.e., insofar as it is a form, but rather in terms of its potentiality. In this way, then, the mind, insofar as it stands under its power, is said to be the 'first actuality', and it is ordered to its 'second actuality'.

However, one can easily see that everything which has a mind is not always actually performing its vital operations. Whence, even when the mind is defined as the actuality of a body that has the potential for life, nevertheless, that potentiality is not destroyed by the presence of the mind. It must be the case, then, that the essence of the mind is not the same as its power. For nothing is potential on account of its actuality, insofar as it is actual.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 9

I want to conclude this series of posts with one final consideration. In the 15th and especially in the 16th century, mind-body dualism begins to develop, and the interesting thing about that is this: mind-body dualism is defined in pretty much exactly the same way that Scotus defines angel and demon possession.

For instance, if you look at Rene Descartes, our minds are joined to our bodies in the sense that (a) they occupy the same region of space that our bodies occupy (I feel the air condition here, in this spot where I am standing, not over there in that corner where I am not standing), and (b) they make our bodies move as puppeteers. So according to mind-body dualism, our minds ‘possess’ our bodies in much the same way that Scotus thought angels and demons possess our bodies.

Scotus would likely have been appalled if he heard anyone suggest that our minds occupy our bodies in that way. For Scotus, angel and demon possession is a very weak kind of mind-body connection. At best, it can only simulate organic life --- the implication being that our minds must therefore be joined to our bodies in a much tighter, much more organic way.

What does that tell us about the medieval imagination, or at least the scholastic imagination? Well, as a close reader of texts, I’m very cautious about generalizing from particular instances, so I want to be careful here. But it may be that the scholastics, at least in the early 14th century, saw themselves as organic unities, and therefore as much more a part of the organic world of plants and animals than the Modern world of Descartes. According to the Modern mind-body dualism, humans are much more removed from the organic world.

So what happened between the 14th century, the days of Scotus, and the 16th century, the days when mind-body dualism was on the rise?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 8

If you pick up a scholarly monograph that deals with the development of early modern witchcraft theory, you will most likely find a section titled something like ‘The Scholastic Origins’. And if you start to read that section, it will most likely begin by saying something like this: ‘Early modern witchcraft theorists derived many of their ideas from medieval scholastic writers, the most important of which is Thomas Aquinas’, and then the section will proceed to discuss of some of the ideas that Aquinas had about angels and demons.

Now, sometimes you find discussions of earlier scholastic writers, but nobody discusses scholastic writers who lived after Aquinas, and virtually everybody makes the assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice.

Well, as a historian of medieval thought, that gives me pause. For one thing, Aquinas lived in the middle of the 13th century, and witchcraft theory developed in the 15th century. So what happened in the 14th century? Why are we skipping a whole century here?

But I also wonder why all these historians think Aquinas is the most important voice. One would expect the historians of witchcraft theory to offer some sort of justification for this claim. But alas, you don’t find anything of the sort. In monograph after monograph, what you see is the mere assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice. Why is that?

Part of the problem, of course, derives from the fact that historians of witchcraft are not specialists in medieval scholasticism. That’s perfectly understandable. Historians are a variegated bunch: we all have our own specializations, and we can’t be experts in everything. So when witchcraft historians are researching their books, they have to go to the library, find the best scholarship on medieval scholasticism, and then rely on that.

Now, that would be a rather trivial point, if it weren’t for the fact that there is a problem with the scholarship on medieval scholasticism. All the best studies on scholasticism that we have today grew out of a movement that is often referred to as ‘neo-thomism’. (To call the whole movement ‘neo-thomist’ is actually a vast oversimplification, but for the lack of a better label, please allow it of me here for the sake of brevity and simplicity.)

Neo-thomism got a huge blast of wind in its sails back in 1879, when the head of the Catholic church at the time, pope Leo XIII, issued a papal bull which encouraged Catholic educational institutions and scholars to begin researching and teaching Thomas Aquinas fervently. As a consequence, a body of research on medieval thought, and especially on Thomas Aquinas, began to amass.

Much of this neo-thomist research, however, tells a very particular story about medieval scholasticism. According to the neo-thomists (not surprisingly), Thomas Aquinas is the high point, the crowning achievement, of the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, this body of literature was propogated rather successfully, so any non-specialist who goes to the library to look for good scholarship on scholasticism --- someone like a historian of witchcraft, for example --- is going to find these neo-thomist studies. And then they’re going to repeat the neo-thomist story. And why shouldn’t they? They don’t know any better.

The problem is, the neo-thomist story is just plain false, or at least it is highly misleading. As far as I can tell, Aquinas is of secondary importance for medieval scholasticism. For example, if you read 14th century writers (especially Franciscans, not suprisingly), you find that Aquinas is often treated as the whipping boy: he was the George Bush of his day, so to speak; someone who was easy to make fun of.

So when we attempt to trace the development of witchcraft theory back to its scholastic roots, we need to be very cautious about assuming that Thomas Aquinas must be the ‘most important’ voice. Aquinas may have had some important things to say in the 13th century, but there were other voices, and besides, as I’ve already pointed out, witchcraft theory does not develop until the 15th century, and we can’t just skip a century.

If we want to get a clear picture of how witchcraft theory actually developed, we need to take a fresh look at its scholastic roots, and in particular, we need to look at what happened in the 14th century. That’s the real story that needs to be told.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 7

In the last post, I pointed out that for Scotus, when an angel or a demon possesses a physical body, it can only move the parts of that body. It cannot cause that body to perform any of its basic biological functions (nutrition, growth, and reproduction). This does not mean, however, that a possessing angel or demon cannot simulate these basic biological functions, and there are some wonderful passages where Scotus describes how this could be done.

For instance, a possessing demon could make a body appear to consume and process food. The demon could make the hand put the food in the mouth, then make the jaws grind up the food, and then make the tongue and mouth send the food down the throat into the stomach. And then, Scotus explains, the demon could excrete those tiny bits of food through gaseous excretions.

Similarly, Scotus explains that a possessing body could take the food that it makes its possessed body eat, and then add that material to the body, thereby making it appear to onlookers that the body is growing.

But perhaps the most interesting biological function here is reproduction. According to Scotus, since a possessing angel or demon can do nothing more than make a body move, it obviously cannot make the body of, say, a human male produce semen. But the angel can pull of a sneaky trick to bring about reproduction.

A possessing spirit can make the body that it possesses appear to be a woman, and it can then use that female body to seduce a man. When that man deposits his semen in the female body (traditionally called a succubi), the spirit can preserve that semen within its body (though many medieval thinkers were careful to point out that the demon would have to keep its semen deposit warm, for without its vital heat, the semen would become inefficacious --- I guess they didn’t know about the possibilities of freezing sperm in those days). Then, once the spirit has a warm semen deposit trapped within its body, it can then transform its body into a man (traditionally called an incubi). As a man, it can seduce a woman, at which point it can deposit the preserved semen into her. She might then become pregnant, and viola! The possessing spirit has brought about reproduction.

So, even though Scotus maintains that angels and demons can be nothing more than puppeteers of the bodies they possess, Scotus takes the time to point out that, with a little bit of ingenuity, angels and demons can certainly generate rather life-like behavior in the bodies that they possess. Still, even though a possessed body might appear to behave in rather life-like ways, Scotus insists that the real mechanics of this comes down to nothing more than occupying the same space as, and being the puppeteer of, a physical body.