Today’s Aquinas: Conceiving an Idea vs. Conceiving a Child

Today’s Aquinas: Conceiving an Idea vs. Conceiving a Child June 22, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

In the last chapter Thomas explained that God’s knowledge of Himself can be called His “Word”; and since His intellect is the same as His essence, His Word must necessarily be in Him rather than apart from Him.

What is contained in the intellect, as an interior word, is by common usage said to be a conception of the intellect.

As contained in the mind we refer to a word as an idea, or a concept.  In explaining Thomas’ philosophical assumptions about ideas and the human intellect, I used that word “concept” simply as the familiar English word; but it turns out that there’s more to the word “concept” than you might think.  One can conceive a thought…but one can also conceive a child:

A being is said to be conceived in a corporeal way if it is formed in the womb of a living animal by a life-giving energy, in virtue of the active function of the male and the passive function of the female, in whom the conception takes place. The being thus conceived shares in the nature of both parents and resembles them in species.

In biological terms, the conception of an embryo requires the actions of two parents.  We’d talk about the sperm and the egg, but if you can get past Thomas’ unfamiliar language you can see he’s saying the same thing.  And then, the embryo that is conceived resembles both of its parents.  Thomas uses this notion analogously to describe the concepts by which we understand the world around us:

In a similar manner, what the intellect comprehends is formed in the intellect, the intelligible object being, as it were, the active principle, and the intellect the passive principle.

When I perceive an apple, let’s say, the apple in the world acts upon my intellect to “conceive” the idea of an apple.  And like a reproductive conception, the resulting concept resembles its parents.

That which is thus comprehended by the intellect, existing as it does within the intellect, is conformed both to the moving intelligible object, of which it is a certain likeness, and to the quasi-passive intellect, which confers on it intelligible existence.

First, the resulting concept is a certain likeness of the apple (or, as Thomas terms it, of the intelligible object).  By reflecting on the concept, I am reflecting on genuine aspects of the real apple in front of me, the resulting concept genuinely exists as an object of thought in my intellect.  The thought has a real existence, and the same form or essence as the real apple.  This is what Thomas means by the word “intelligible”: a thing is intelligible if it has a form that my intellect can apprehend, thus conceiving an object or thought, or concept.

And that’s why we call it a concept:

Hence what is comprehended by the intellect is not unfittingly called the conception of the intellect.

The take-away here, other than a bit of linguistic history, is that an idea is an object of thought existing in my mind that has the form of the real world thing I’m thinking of.

To give a concrete example, a ripe apple has the essential form of the fruit of an apple tree, with all that goes along with that.  It is roughly spherical, reddish, crisp when bitten into, with a core containing seeds, and a dimple on the top and bottom, with a stem in one and the remains of a blossom in the others.  When I think of that, I have an object of thought in my head that is all of those things.  It’s partially a concept and partially a memory of sense perceptions—what Thomas calls a phantasm.  Intellectually, I think a ripe apple is “mostly red”; memory supplies the sense image of a red apple with some yellow in a pattern that I would be hard-pressed to describe in detail even though I can picture it perfectly clearly.

On the other hand, that sense image is just an example; it’s one way a ripe apple can look, and a detailed geometric description of the precise gradations and areas of red and yellow would describe only the imagined apple and not any particular real-world apple.  But the intellectual description “mostly red with possibly some yellow” spans a multitude of apples.

You might say the concept is like a template or a stencil or a schematic: it accumulates all I know about ripe apples not in terms of sense impressions but in terms of things I can reason about.


photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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