Aquinas On Angelic Cognition


While reading Freddoso on angels, I was reminded of Bultmann’s comment that “it is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”
By “impossible” Bultmann does not mean (I think) that it just is not epistemically possible to hold to be true the phenomena of miracles and to avail ourselves of modern technology. Rather, his point, I suspect, is that the modern age with all its marvelous advances has changed the way we see the world. We have “grown up,” he might say, having abandoned our medieval superstitions about angels and demons.
Yet for those of us who use “electrical light and the wireless” but are not embarrassed by notion of angelic beings, Freddoso reminds us what a rich and fascinating resource Aquinas is. Commenting on what it is like to be an angel Freddoso says:

…even though you do not get your knowledge through sensation, you suddenly realize, upon closer in(tro)spection, that you’re really quite the expert in mathematics and natural science, without ever having taken any courses and without having devised any long proofs or carried out any experiments. In fact, your grasp of nature is as thorough as it was painless to acquire. You came by it naturally, as they say; you’ve had it ever since you popped into existence or, more accurately, ever since you were brought into existence.

What does he mean here? Just what do angels know, and how do they know it? Aquinas takes up the question in the Summa I. QQ 54-58.

Now Aquinas readily follows Aristotle positing that although knowledge begins with sensory experience, there is more to knowing a thing that simply “seeing” it. Knowledge comes as we engage in the process of abstraction, the mental act of ‘stripping away’ all the inessential qualities of a thing. This is because the form (the ‘whatness’) of the particular must be grasped for there to be true knowledge. The rational mind comes to know particulars when it abstracts the form or the ‘intelligible species’ from that particular. What is left in the mind of the knower is simply the intelligible species of that thing, for the form of the particular must be in the mind of the knower for the thing to be known. It would seem then that angels, like humans, come to knowledge when they abstract the universal from some particular object so that the form of that object comes to reside in them. Aquinas himself raises the point:

It would seem that the angels understand by species drawn from things. For everything understood is apprehended by some likeness within him who understands it. But the likeness of the thing existing in another is there either by way of an exemplar, so that the likeness is the cause of the thing; or else by way of an image, so that it is caused by such thing. All knowledge, then, of the person understanding must either be the cause of the object understood, or else caused by it. Now the angel’s knowledge is not the cause of existing things; that belongs to the Divine knowledge alone. Therefore it is necessary for the species, by which the angelic mind understands, to be derived from things (I. Q.55. art.2).

The form of some individual is in the mind of a knower either as an exemplar (and therefore a [formal] cause of what is known) or as an image having been abstracted from the individual. Since the forms are not in the angel as an exemplar (i.e. it is not causal) as in case of God, then the forms must be acquired through abstraction.
But Aquinas says this in fact is not the case:

An angel does not cognize individuals through an acquired form at all, because it does not cognize [anything] through a form it gets from a thing; for [if it did, then] in that case things would act on its intellect, which is impossible. Nor does it cognize [an individual] through some form newly infused by God, newly revealing something to the angel. For the forms an angel has in it, which were created along with it, are sufficient [for it] to cognize everything cognizable [by it] (Quaestiones Quodlibeales 7.1.3 ad 1).

Unlike a human being who comes to know an individual, say a book, by abstracting the universal or form from the book (the book having acted on his senses), an angel comes to knowledge of the same in virtue of the intelligible forms already in the angel from the time of its creation. So then, an angel can be said to know an individual not through that individual’s form, but through itself! An angel then, like Freddoso says, actually knows what it knows through introspection.

Here is another matter to consider. Angelic cognition (in virtue of the very nature of such beings) is far more excellent than that of human beings. Eleonore Stump presses the point:

…like God and unlike human beings, angels are absolutely immaterial knowers. For that reason, angelic cognition, like divine cognition, is entirely intellective, surpassing human intellective cognition in the degree of universality and the fewness of the intelligible forms it needs in order to cognize things. (Stump, Aquinas).

She quotes Aquinas:

God understands all things through his one essence. But the higher intellective substances, although they do understand through more than one form, [in comparison with lower intellective substances] they understand through fewer and more universal forms, more powerful for comprehending things, because of the efficacy of the intellective power that is in them. In the lower [intellective substances], however, there are more forms, which are less universal and less efficacious for comprehending things, to which [these lower substances] fall short of the intellective power of the higher ones (Summa I. Q. 89).

A human being, say Socrates, in knowing any individual thing, must acquire the intelligible species of that thing in order to know it. So then for any object x, Socrates knows x only if Socrates has abstracted the form of x. But think of the multitude of objects that Socrates knows: rocks, rivers, hair, cats, dogs, houses, etc. Socrates knows each of these individuals only when he abstracts the forms of each. So Socrates knows a multitude of objects by means of multitudes of universals—rockness, riverness, hairness, catness, dogness, and so on. But Aquinas thinks that an intellectual substance, say, the angel Gabriel, has more excellent knowledge for he is able to know a multitude of things through fewer, higher universals, “more powerful for comprehending things.” And such forms are of course already built into Gabriel’s nature, having been instilled there at his creation.

Stump provides us an analogy: A little boy is able to cognize his mother’s disposable coffee cup by applying to it the universal, cup. But a person of greater knowledge, say a chemist who knows the nature of Styrofoam or a physicist who has a firm grasp of the basic properties of matter, is able to have a deeper and fuller knowledge of the same cup. They of course know this disposable cup by means of the universal cup, but this universal is subsumed under other universals, which are in turn subsumed under other universals until we come to the highest universal available to the chemist or the physicist.

One Response to Aquinas On Angelic Cognition

  1. attilla says:

    hmm.

    interesting. but i follow kant to a great degree when it comes to epistemology… so im not sure to what degree i agree with you on our understanding/knowledge of things.

    though the angels’ is pretty cool (i must admit).

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