The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter V: Scholastic Psychology


Experimental Psychology is a new-born science still seeking its definite path. After numerous hesitations and partial failures, it has come to the conviction that its true aim is not to supplant the old metaphysical psychology, but to walk side by side in the most peaceable manner. Experimental psychologists know full well to-day that the worth of the results they will obtain will be inversely proportional to the metaphysical preoccupations they cherish. Wiser than their older brethren, they limit themselves to measuring on the skin of the forehead the degree of fatigue produced by an intellectual work, and abstain from all hypotheses concerning the materiality or the spirituality of the mind.

Metaphysical psychology enjoys therefore an independent existence. It remains a branch of philosophy, whereas its younger sister is a positive science.

Scholastic psychologists adhere to Aristotle's definition of the soul: "Anima est actus primus corporis physici organici, potentia vitam habentis," regard the soul as the substantial form of the body, and maintain that it is essentially simple, spiritual and immortal.

Their proofs of the spirituality and of the immortality of the soul will find their place at the end of the present chapter. Before we expound them, it is necessary to discuss a question which may be said to lie at the very foundation of Scholastic psychology: the question of abstraction.

The theory which regards the mind as capable of abstracting from all particular determinations and of forming general ideas has received in modern times many severe blows. The celebrated British philosopher, George Berkeley, regards the overthrow of that theory as a necessary presupposition of his system. In the Introduction to his Principles of Human Knowledge, he gives, in a somewhat jocose fashion, a minute account of what he understands by abstraction. He tells us, for example, that, by the abstract idea of body is meant "body without any particular shape or figure, without covering, either of hair, or feathers, or scales, etc., nor yet naked: hair, feathers, scales and nakedness being the distinguishing properties of particular animals, and for that reason, left out of the abstract idea."[1] He thereupon confesses that he cannot, by any effort of thought, conceive the abstract idea thus described. His conclusion is that an abstract general idea is an absurdity and that the only ideas we are entitled to regard as general are particular ideas which are made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort.[2]

Berkeley's rejection of abstraction rests upon a lamentable confusion which has originated in Locke and pervaded the whole body of modern philosophy: the confusion of the two terms Phantasm and Idea.

A writer who feels little sympathy for the schoolmen, John Stuart Mill, confesses that they were unrivalled in the construction of technical language, and that their definitions have seldom been altered but to be spoiled.[3] Nowhere perhaps does his remark apply more justly than in the present case.

A phantasm is the imaginary representation of a particular object previously perceived. It is a kind of mental picture which reproduces more or less faithfully what we have experienced in the past. Besides the power of reproduction, we possess the faculty of combining the objects of our previous experience in an infinite variety of forms. Now an imposing structure we have admired during the day is present to our mind. We endeavor to reproduce it faithfully, to reconstruct one by one its minutest details. One moment has elapsed and our imagination is wandering in the most capricious fashion. Horace's monster sits triumphingly on the ruins of the monument so carefully constructed in the previous instant, and which has now crumbled to pieces and disappeared forever with the instant of time which brought it forth. The range of our imagining power is thus unlimited. Each one of our mental pictures, however, represents one single particular object. However blurred may be the image, however indefinite its features, it is always singular. I cannot form a mental picture of a triangle without giving it a definite size and shape, by which it becomes one individual, distinguishable from all other possible triangles.

It is to the phantasm thus described, and improperly called idea, that Berkeley's criticisms apply. That ideas of this sort cannot be abstract goes without saying. No triangle can be imagined that is not either scalene, isosceles or equilateral; no body that is not either covered or naked. But it is not an idea of this sort that the great masters of Scholasticism considered as the product of abstraction.

Besides the power of reproducing and combining our past sensations -- a power we possess in common with the lower animals -- there exists in us a faculty of conceiving the universal as such, of forming true ideas.

The idea, which, to avoid all confusion, it would perhaps be better to call concept, is no mental picture whatever. It is a notion of our mind, the knowledge of what something is. We know that a triangle is a geometrical figure consisting of three sides and three angles. This knowledge is the idea of the triangle. It is clear and distinct, and is also universal, inasmuch as it applies to all triangles we may happen to conceive. It is an abstract idea, because it is not limited, like the phantasm, to one particular object, but may be truly predicated of a whole class. The essential characteristics which separate it from the phantasm may be reduced to the following three:

1. The idea is one. The idea of a triangle is one and the same for all possible triangles. The phantasm, on the contrary, is multiple. The imaginary picture of a right triangle is unlike that of a scalene triangle.

2. The idea is universal, inasmuch as we predicate it of all existing and possible objects of a class; the phantasm is singular and concrete, because it applies to a determinate object and to no other.

3. The idea is necessary and immutable. The elements of the concept of a triangle are invariably three sides and three angles. The phantasm is mutable and contingent. It changes as rapidly as the objects which present themselves to our senses.[4]

The confusion we have thus described may be readily accounted counted. Our intelligence cannot easily operate without its concomitant phantasm. Although a reasoning about a triangle might be effected without the help of a sensible image, it could not be but at the cost of the most strenuous mental efforts. This is the reason why text-books on geometry exhibit sensible images side by side with the demonstrations. It is the reason why Locke and the whole British empirical school have been led to a confusion which even such a clear-minded man as Berkeley has been unable to detect.

One of the most interesting pastimes of a scholar is the perusal of the works of the great masters of human thought with the purpose of reading between their lines what they themselves have not read, of deducing from their principles the logical consequences they have not deduced. Berkeley in particular may offer as some delicious hours of entertainment. Talented as he was, he could not but recognize that the conceptions of our minds are not copies of sensible impressions, that the ideas of God and of the soul are not mere reproductions of the data of sense-experience. Unwilling, however, to give up his theory of ideas, he thought he could save his position by using the word notion:

"So far as I can see," said he, "will, soul, spirit, do not stand for different ideas, or in truth for any idea at all, but for something which is very different from ideas, and which, being an Agent, cannot be like unto, or represented by, any idea whatsoever. Though it must be owned at the same time that we have some notion of soul, spirit, and the operations of the mind, such as willing, loving, hating, inasmuch as we know or understand the meaning of these words."[5]

We must confess that in these few lines the author of the Principles utterly overthrows the elaborate controversy of his Introduction. Let him call his idea phantasm and his notion idea, and his agreement with us will be absolutely perfect. He has thus proved that an abstract phantasm is an impossibility, which we readily grant him. He has proved nothing against the Scholastic doctrine of abstraction, and would even probably admit with us that his notions of soul and spirit are truly general, and that they apply to all existing spirits or souls.

Closely related to the theory of phantasms and ideas, is the division of our mental faculties into organic and inorganic.

Organic faculties are those we possess in common with the lower animals. In their nature and operations, they depend upon our bodily organs. Such are the imagination and the sensitive memory. Inorganic faculties, on the other hand, depend upon the soul alone. They are essentially spiritual, and would continue to exist and to operate if our mind were separated rated from its bodily frame.

Upon this classification of our mental powers is based the essential distinction maintained by Scholastics between men and brutes. Lower animals possess only organic faculties. They can form phantasms, but no ideas. They never reach the universal because they lack intelligence, by which alone the universal is reached.


Scholastic philosophers regard the soul as the substantial form of the body, from which it is intrinsically independent, though united with it in a manner characterized as substantial and personal.

By the intrinsical independence of the body is meant that the soul is an activity by itself, that it is not determined by material conditions, and hence that it will continue to exist and to exercise its operations after the death of the body.

By the substantial and personal union is meant: (a) that the human compound is a substance by itself; and (b) that man is the compound, and not the soul alone. The nature of this union is very clearly expressed by St. Thomas in the following formula: "In each one of us, by the soul and body, is constituted a double unity, of nature and of person," "ex anima et corpore, constituitur in unoquoque nostrum duplex unitas, naturae et personae."[6]

The doctrine of intrinsical independence separates Scholastic philosophy from materialism. The doctrine of substantial and personal union sets it apart from the dualistic systems of Plato and Descartes, which regards man as a spirit accidentally united with the body, and governing it as the pilot governs his vessel.

The human soul is further described as possessing the three characteristics of simplicity, spirituality and immortality.

The proofs of the simplicity of the human soul may be condensed in the following form: The nature of a being is known from its operations. The operations of the soul are essentially simple. Hence the soul itself is by nature essentially simple.

Examples of simple operations of the soul may be adduced and multiplied at will. There are the simple ideas of being, truth, virtue and the like, which cannot, by any effort of thought, be conceived as divisible. There are the intellectual acts of judgment, which presuppose a simple subject and can hardly be explained in any other hypothesis. If the mind which apprehends the subject and the predicate is not one and indivisible, we have no judgment whatever, but merely two different impressions without any possible connection. Kant was perfectly aware of this truth when he formulated at the basis of his philosophy the principle that experience by itself furnishes only detached and unconnected facts, and that no judgment is possible without a mental synthesis.

The doctrine of the simplicity of the soul has been attacked by David Hume in a most ingenious manner. He describes it as a true atheism, capable of justifying all those sentiments for which Spinoza is "so universally infamous."

"There are in my experience," says he, "two different systems of being, to which I suppose myself under a necessity of assigning some substance, or ground of inhesion. I observe first the universe of objects or of body: the sun, moon and stars; the earth, seas, plants, animals, men, ships, houses, and other productions either of art or nature. Here Spinoza appears, and tells me that these are only modifications; and that the subject, in which they inhere, is simple, incompounded, and indivisible. After this I consider the other system of beings, viz., the universe of thought, or my impressions and ideas. There I observe another sun, moon and stars; an earth, and seas, covered and inhabited by plants and animals; towns, houses, mountains, rivers; and in short everything I can discover or conceive in the first system. Upon my enquiry concerning these, Theologians present themselves, and fell me, that these are also modifications, and modifications of one simple, uncompounded, and indivisible substance. Immediately upon which I am deafened with the noise of a hundred voices, that treat the first hypothesis with detestation and scorn, and the second, with applause and veneration. I turn my attention to these hypotheses to see what may be the reason of so great a partiality, and find that they have the same fault of being unintelligible, and that as far as we can understand them, they are so much alike, that it is impossible to discover any absurdity in one, which is not common to both of them. We have no idea of any quality in an object, which does not agree to, and may not represent a quality in an impression; and that because all our ideas are derived from our impressions. We can never, therefore, find any repugnance betwixt an extended object as a modification, and a single uncompounded essence, as its substance, unless that repugnance takes place equally betwixt the perception or impression of that extended object, and the same uncompounded essence. Every idea of a quality in an object passes through an impression; and therefore every perceivable relation, whether of connexion or repugnance, must be common both to objects and impressions."[7]

The objection so clearly exposed by Hume, and which, from his own point of view, seems unanswerable, loses much of its force if we bear in mind the distinction pointed out above between ideas and phantasms. The phantasm, being a copy of a previous impression, is no doubt composed of parts, just as well as the impression is. If I picture in my mind the frontispiece of Columbia University, ten different columns stand there before me, the length of each of which may be divided into two parts; and these may again be subdivided at least as easily as the real columns could be. I believe everybody would agree with Hume on this point; but such are not the operations from which the simplicity of the soul is deduced. The sun, moon and stars Hume describes as existing in his universe of thought are as truly multiple as those of the universe of nature. The rivers he imagines are made of drops of water, the trees of branches and leaves. But the conclusion to which he is led by these considerations, his conviction that the soul is not simple, but divisible like the universe of matter; is that conviction divisible also? Can it be mentally cut into two parts, two half- convictions; or, similar to the river, is it made up of an infinite number of drops of conviction? These are, however, the absurdities from which we cannot escape if we are unwilling to admit the essentially simple character of intellectual ideas.

A great number of concepts, it is true, are in a certain sense divisible. Upon their divisibility is based the Scholastic division of concepts into simple and complex. Complex concepts are made up of several simple elements. The concept of

man, for example, may be resolved into the elements of animal and rational. This sort of division is, however, quite different from that of material beings, or of their reproduction in our mind. The red surface I see or imagine may be divided into two red surfaces, identical in nature with the first, and differing from it only in quantity. The elements of the concept of man are of an entirely diverse order. They are not merely two halves of a whole. They differ from each other and from the whole in quality, and the entire process of division rests upon their specific differences. But as qualitative division cannot, like quantitative division, be continued ad infinitum, we must finally arrive at essentially simple concepts, and conclude that they are produced by an essentially simple being.

The questions of the simplicity and of the spirituality of the soul, although closely connected, must be carefully distinguished. Every spiritual being is simple; but a simple being is not necessarily spiritual. Scholastic text-books give as an instance of a simple, non-spiritual being the soul of the lower animals, which depends upon the body in all its operations, comes into existence with the body, and ceases to be as soon as the body dies.

The spirituality of the human soul may be defined as its intrinsical independence of matter. In virtue of that independence, it is not affected by the death of our organism, it does not disappear with our last breath. When this mortal life of ours comes to an end, our spirit springs forth; and, free from material bonds, starts a new and purer life, a life that shall know no death.

The spirituality of the soul is proved from the nature of its faculties: the intelligence and the will. These faculties have for objects the universal and the necessary. It is to the universal as such, to a nature conceived with an absolute -- not an individual character, that our intelligence tends. It studies the essence of the object, abstracting from the individual characteristics of "this" object. A peculiar aspect of the universal is its necessity. This necessity, human intelligence does not fail to grasp. It directs its efforts to the immutable aspects of things, and abstracts from the contingent character they possess as individuals.

Our will likewise tends to the universal manifested in the form of the absolute good. No limited and relative good can satisfy us. It is in the union with an absolute perfection that out will would rest, that it would find its perfect happiness. Now, these characters of universality and necessity unequivocally separate our mental faculties from the pure forces of matter. Matter is essentially individual, and envelops in individual conditions all objects of which it is an essential constituent. Our mental faculties are thus independent of matter, and the soul, the substance they constitute, is necessarily endowed with the same independence.[8]

Several other arguments of lesser importance are adduced to confirm the same view. The act of self-consciousness, for example, is said to separate the soul from all material agents; for, whereas matter can act upon itself only in the sense that a certain particle can act upon another particle, the human mind can and does reflect upon itself in such a manner that the Ego reflecting and the Ego reflected upon are one and the same.[9]

A third proof very much insisted upon is deduced from the contrast between the effects produced upon the intellect and the senses by their respective objects. When the excellence of the object of sense increases beyond a certain limit, the organ undergoes corruption, and is eventually destroyed. A vivid light impairs our eye-sight; a prolonged contemplation of the sun may result in blindness. Our intellect, on the contrary, becomes keener and more penetrating when the object it ponders becomes more sublime.

The characteristics which separate sense from intellect are reduced by Urraburu to the following six:

1. (Which is essential and the root of the others.) Intellect is an inorganic or spiritual faculty; sense is organic and material.

2. Sense is found in all animals; intellect only in rational animals or men.

3. Sense knows only the singular; intellect knows the universal.

4. Sense extends only to material objects; intellect to immaterial objects as well.

5. No sense knows itself or its own operation; the intellect knows itself and its operation. 6. The senses are corrupted by the excellence of the sensible object; the intellect remains uncorrupted, however excellent its object may be.[10]

The remaining property of the soul, its immortality, follows from the previous two as a logical consequence. The soul, being essentially simple, cannot, like the body, perish by dissolution of parts; and, on the other hand, being spiritual, having its peculiar, independent life, not being conditioned in its existence and operations by the bodily organism, it cannot cease to exist simply because the organism is destroyed. The theological belief in another life is thus not only shown to harmonize with reason, but is deduced from the fundamental principles of philosophy. Whether human reason can likewise prove the eternity of this new life, is considered a debatable question. Maher, in his Psychology, answers it negatively. As a theologian, he believes in eternal life; as a philosopher, although he sees no reason why the soul should ever perish, he admits that "leaving Revelation aside and arguing solely from reason, be does not see any perfectly demonstrable proof of the everlasting existence of human souls." "Almighty God," adds he, "could by an exercise of His absolute power, annihilate the human soul as well as any other object which He has created."[11]

I believe that most neo-Scholastics would disagree with Fr. Maher on this point. They would be inclined to maintain that the human soul can be proved, not only to endure for a certain time after death, but to endure forever. This view is clearly exposed and defended in the works of Urraburu. Starting from the ordinary arguments of the school, the learned Jesuit demonstrates that the soul cannot perish like the body by a natural death, and he reaches Maher's conclusion that the soul can cease to exist only through an act of annihilation of an all-powerful God. But, whereas Maher stops at this point, and leaves human reason uncertain whether God will destroy or not the spirit he has created, Urraburu shows that such an annihilation would involve an inconsistency in God's own nature. His argument may be outlined as follows: God has constituted the human soul in such a way that it is naturally immortal. If he should choose to destroy it by an act of his will, there would be a contradiction between the creative act by which he gave the soul an immortal nature and the destructive fiat which would reduce it to nothingness. As no such contradiction can be supposed in an absolutely perfect being, the soul will exist forever. Urraburu corroborates his teaching by the authority of St. Thomas. The annihilation of the soul would be a miracle, and a miracle never takes place except as a manifestation of God's glory. But, St. Thomas says, "redigere aliquid in nihilum non pertinet ad gratiae manifestationem, cum magis per hoc divina potentia et bonitas ostendatur, quod res in esse conservetur."[12]


The title of this section suggests a venerable formula, frequently derided nowadays and more frequently misunderstood, the famous Tota in toto, et tota in qualibet parte, which has been recently pronounced "disconcerting but to the chosen few who have embraced a philosophy of contradictions, and rejoice in the absurdity of the conclusions to which their reasonings conduct them."

The words I have just quoted are from Mr. Fullerton. In a chapter of his System of Metaphysics, entitled "The Atomic Self," he exposes the semi-materialistic opinion of the plain man about mind, and traces it back to the philosophies of the most ancient times. He holds that the teachings of those old systems have become incorporated into theology and ethics, have left their traces upon language and literature, have become a part of the common thought of the human race, and are now accepted by the great mass of men as self-evident truths.

"Ancient philosophers believed the mind to be material and unequivocally in the body. It was composed of fine round atoms, highly movable atoms, etc. It could be inhaled and exhaled, and might escape through a gaping wound, as wine spouts through the rent wine-skin. It was a kind of matter and nothing more, having the same right to occupy space that has any other form of matter. Afterward it was for centuries still in the body, but in a much more indefinite and inconsistent fashion. It was wholly in the whole body, and wholly in every part."[13]

The Scholastic formula is thus regarded by Fullerton as the direct offspring of old materialism. It is materialism still, although somewhat transfigured. It is materialism aware of it's inner incongruity, and trying to save its own life by means of vague subterfuges. The mind is still located in the body, but its presence there is regarded as immaterial. Descartes who emphasized the presence, but neglected its immaterial character, located the soul in the pineal gland. The scholastics emphasize both sides of the inconsistent doctrine. They "stir up the contradiction and make it growl, striking fear to the heart of the beholder."

Fullerton's doctrine on the locus of the soul is identical with Hume's. Although we differ from the author of the Treatise on Human Nature in many essential points, we cannot but fully agree with him here, and even regard his teaching as irrefutable. Location in a determinate place is a property of material beings, and has no sense except if applied to such. The chair upon which I am sitting is said to be located between the walls of my room in so far as it can give rise to tactual and visual impressions spatially related to the impressions caused by the walls themselves. When we assert that the point A is between B and C, we mean that a line going from B to C would pass through A. Location in space, thus applied, to material beings, is perfectly intelligible; but, as Hume and Fullerton maintain, it loses all meaning if predicated of mind. It sounds nonsensical to assert that a thought is placed between a desk and a blackboard, that ten different volitions are actually crossing the street; but if we express the same idea in different words, if we say that the human mind is placed in a certain portion of our organism or in our whole body, the absurdity of the assertion becomes less apparent and may be easily overlooked. It exists, nevertheless, and to say that our mind is located in our body, or that God is located everywhere -- if we take the word located in its proper meaning -- is no less preposterous than to say that a benevolent desire took the ferry-boat, and was slowly carried from Now York to Brooklyn.

Where is our mind then? And where is God? Such questions cannot be answered but in the following way: Our mind is nowhere, and God is nowhere. The "where" implying parts outside of parts, and being a property of matter alone, cannot be predicated of immaterial things. And if it sounds odd to say that spirits are nowhere, it is because we are so immersed in material thinking that we cannot believe that a thing can exist without material relations. The existence of our mind is an immediate fact of consciousness. It is an ultimate fact upon which all our knowledge is grounded, and which itself needs no proof. It is the center from which we have to start in our investigations concerning reality. But the relations which our mind bears to the rest of the universe cannot be assimilated to the relations of particles of matter. We fully agree with Hume and Fullerton that a philosophical system tending to localize mind in a definite portion of space must be rejected as absurd.

What becomes of the Scholastic formula then? Must we, without more ado, regard it as the outcome of an illogical materialistic conception of an immaterial thing? Some powerful motives at once come forth and give to this view the greatest uncertainty. St. Thomas's doctrine of the soul, inspired by Christian theology, is more decidedly immaterialistic than the theories of Locke, Hume, and the whole British empirical school. For whereas sensism resolves ideas into sense-impressions and admits only a difference of degree between sense and intellect, St. Thomas and the schoolmen maintain that the difference is not of degree but of kind, that between the sensuous impression and the intellectual thought there is an impassable chasm. How strange would it sound then that he who might be described as the foremost adversary of materialism, should himself fall into the very errors he constantly opposes!

A careful study of the doctrines of St. Thomas suffices to absolve him from all charges of materialism. The Angelic Doctor not only did not intend to localize the mind in a definite portion of space, but he was as fully aware as Hume of the evident truth that position in space is a property of matter and of matter alone.

In the Summa contra Gentiles, St. Thomas examines how an intellectual substance can be united to the body, and teaches that there are two kinds of contact: a contact through quantity, which is proper to material beings alone, and a contact through virtue, which may belong to immaterial beings as well. This latter kind is however described as contact only metaphorically. A spirit is said to touch only in so far as it acts, only in the sense in which we are entitled to say that a sad news touches us:

"Si igitur sint aliqua tangentia quae in quantitatis ultimis non tangant, dicentur nihilominus tangere, in quantum agunt; secundum quem modum dicimus, quod contristans nos tangit."[14]

Further on, the Christian teaching of God's ubiquity compels St. Thomas to take up the same question again. And now as before, his teaching is unmistakably clear:

"Res autem incorporea in aliquo esse dicitur secundum contactum virtutis, quum careat dimensiva quantitate. Sic igitur se habet res iucorporea ad hoc quod sit in aliquo per virtutem suam, sicut se habet res corporea ad hoc quod sit in aliquo per quantitatem dimensivam. Si autem esset aliquod corpus habens quantitatem dimensivam infinitam, oporteret illud esse ubique. Ergo, si sit aliqua res incorporea habens virtutem infinitam, oportet quod sit ubique. Est igitur ubique."[15]

We thus see that, in St. Thomas's view, the words: God is everywhere, simply mean that he acts upon all beings. We also see that the presence of the soul in the body must not be regarded as a material presence. It is not in the body as the blood is in our veins. Properly speaking, it is not in the body at all. It simply acts upon the body, and touches it as a piece of bad news touches our heart. The formula: Tota in toto et tota in aliqua parte, thus understood, loses all its material flavor. Instead of appearing as a nonsensical collection of words, worthy of derision and scorn, it steps forth as a flash of genius, as a profound truth which commands our admiration and our assent.

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