[4.4.5] Abelard’s Philosophy of Mind

Peter Abelard (1079?-1142 AD), in the Treatise on Understandings (Tractatus de intellectibus) and Logica Ingredientibus describes the faculties and way of working of the human mind:

  • The main faculties are the senses, imagination, and reason, but sensation, perception, abstraction, and intentionality also have importance.
  • Understanding is based upon sensation.
  • The mind works with mental images, but “the image is not the act of understanding, and so there is no formal identity between understanding and thing.”

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Abelard’s model of the human mind:

Abelard on the human mind
FacultyRelated use caseRelations
5 SENSESUsing 5 SENSES: tasteing, touching, smelling, hearing, seeingrelates to Extramental Item
SENSATIONGrasping sensibles with SENSATION:
● Abelard “viewed the power of sensation as a mental power by which the mind peered directly out at the world, as if ‘through a window’.”
● e.g. when we see a white horse, we sense the whiteness (an accident).
includes Using 5 SENSES;
extends (REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical
structure of the Item represented by the metal image
PERCEPTIONGrasping insensibles with PERCEPTION:
●”Perception would seem to be almost automatic and very closely related to sensation”
● the “initial grasp of insensible items is accomplished by an act of perception that is more than simple sensation but less than an act of reason.”
● e.g. when we see a white horse, we precieve the horseness (the nature of the thing, insensible).
includes Using 5 SENSES;
extends (REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical
structure of the Item represented by the metal image
IMAGINATION(IMAGINATION) creates/processes confused mental image of the Item (universal or particular) when that is not present or not sensible:
● we create confused mental images of items, because “our limited power of imagination precludes the formation of accurate images. Presumably we would be able to form accurate images were our imagination not so restricted by a dependence on sensation. We sense individuals as individuals; we do not sense the underlying metaphysical structure.”
● “At its more interesting the productive power allows the mind to form mental images of items that cannot be sensed – of immaterial objects, and perhaps of universals”
● e.g. Imagination is able to create the image of the particular horse “Spirit”, or of the image of universal “horseness”.
REASON(REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical structure of the Item represented by the mental image:
“A sound understanding is an understanding in concord or harmony with the status of the thing. […] A sound understanding is an act of attending to some nature or property of an item as that nature or property is found in the item.” (see also [4.4.1])
includes (INTENTION) directs attention Item sensed or to mental image;
includes ABSTRACTION of universals (forms)
ABSTRACTIONABSTRACTION of universals (forms):
● “Universals are not subject to sense, not because they are insensible, but because they do not exist.”
● “Universal understandings are formed by abstraction. Abelard does not describe the process of forming abstract understandings, but the end results are understandings that are alone (sola) or apart from sense; bare (nuda) or stripped of some or all other forms; and pure (pura) or conceived of in abstraction from individuating conditions”.
INTENTION(INTENTION) directs attention to the Item sensed or to the mental image:
“The attention of the mind in thinking about some item, and not the representative qualities of the image determine the intentional object of the act of understanding.”
REASONUnderstanding at the level of Opinion:
● Obviously, some understandings grasp a nature or property more fully and completely than others. To mark the degrees of accuracy Abelard uses the terms “opinion” (opinio), “knowledge” (scientia), and “intelligence” (intelligentia). The three terms mark, in ascending order, the depth or completeness of the grasp of a nature or property; opinion is the lowest level grasp, intelligence the highest. Knowledge is between the two.”
● “Abelard genuinely wavers in his use of ‘opinion.’ Sometimes ‘opinion’ is used to denote understandings with a very low-level grasp of the nature or property in question but which are nonetheless sound. Sometimes ‘opinion’ is used to denote unsound understandings. On either use opinion is at the opposite end of a spectrum from intelligence.”
inherits from (REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical structure of the Item represented by the mental image
REASONUnderstanding at the level of Knowledge:
● “Knowledge is an understanding in which a nature or property is grasped to a degree somewhere between opinion and intelligence. Abelard will also call the habit of having such understandings of
a nature or property ‘knowledge’”.
● “Discrete individuals are the objects of knowledge.”
inherits from (REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical structure of the Item represented by the mental image
REASONUnderstanding at the level of Intellectinherits from (REASON) produces understanding of the metaphysical structure of the Item represented by the mental image

Sources

  • All citations from: Guilfoy , Kevin, chapter “Mind and cognition” in The Cambridge Companion to Abelard, © Cambridge University Press, 2006, ed. Jeffrey E. Brower
  • King, Peter and Arlig, Andrew, “Peter Abelard”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 13/08/2020

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