Concepts, Beings, and Things in Contemporary Philosophy and Thomas Aquinas

By O'callaghan, John | The Review of Metaphysics, September 1999 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Concepts, Beings, and Things in Contemporary Philosophy and Thomas Aquinas


O'callaghan, John, The Review of Metaphysics


IN THIS PAPER I WANT TO ADDRESS the metaphysical status of concepts in Thomas Aquinas. The need to do so is raised by contemporary criticism of Aristotelian reflections upon how language "hooks up with the world." Many contemporary philosophers, following upon the later Wittgenstein think that in the opening passages of the De interpretatione Aristotle provides a very bad "theory" of semantic relations, when he sketches how words are related to things via the mind. It is a bad "theory" inasmuch as it seems to involve "mental representationalism" as a constitutive element. Amidst all their disagreements, it is fair to say that the many authors anthologized in Richard Rorty's The Linguistic Turn come together in a common disdain for any hint of mental representationalism in philosophical discussions of the semantic of language.(1) This is not the place to rehearse in detail all the difficulties posed for mental representationalism within contemporary philosophy, in particular because they are very familiar. Yet it would be good to characterize briefly what I have in mind. Hilary Putnam, one of the most forceful critics, and with the De interpretatione text explicitly in mind, describes the relationship between meaning and mental representationalism in this way:

   ... the picture is that there is something in the mind that picks out the
   objects in the environment that we talk about. When such a something (call
   it a "concept") is associated with a sign, it becomes the meaning of the
   sign.(2)

If we use William Alston's distinctions between referential, ideational, and behavioral theories of meaning, Putnam appears to be attributing an ideational theory to Aristotle.(3) Broadly speaking, the mental representation or concept is conceived of as an internal mental object or thing directly related to or operated upon by the mind, a mental thing or object that has no intrinsic or individuating relation to the world. In this sense it is tertium quid, a third thing that stands within the mind of the language user and the world he would speak about. Because of the interposition of this mental representation, words are thought to be directly related to or directly to signify things in the world. The criticism that is leveled against this as an account of meaning is that language fails to "hook onto the world" because the mental representations that constitute the semantic content of language fail to "hook onto the world," despite any claims about the natural likeness of similitude of the mental representations to objects in the world. Michael Dummett, characterizing this tradition slightly differently, believes that in contemporary philosophy it is "dead without hope of a revival," mainly because of the attacks of Frege and Wittgenstein.(4)

St. Thomas comments at length on the passage from Aristotle in his commentary on the De interpretatione.(5) If we try to make the picture of language and mental representationalism correspond more explicitly to St. Thomas's understanding of Aristotle as he analyzes that text, then the third thing appears to be the concept in anima (in the soul). Moreover because words signify concepts without mediation, and mediately signify res extra animam, it is by knowing the concepts as primary objects of knowledge, holding them before the mind's conscious attention, that the language user knows what extra-mental objects are talked about. This application of the picture of mental representationalism to St. Thomas's analysis puts us in a position to ask whether his appropriation of Aristotle is subject to Putnam's criticism--does it cut at the joints of St. Thomas's appropriation of Aristotle. I will confine myself to the first presuppositions of the picture described above, the presupposition that takes the concept to be a third thing, a mental object or thing "in the mind" in some fashion. As a preliminary, I will clarify the use of the internal-external dichotomy as it is used in the discussion and in St.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Concepts, Beings, and Things in Contemporary Philosophy and Thomas Aquinas
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?