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

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

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.

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