[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: tasting, 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


  • 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

[3.6] Ibn Rushd on the Soul and Unity of the Intellect

Ibn Rushd (Averroes 1126 – 1198) was a prolific commentator of Aristotle’s works. He wrote a Short, a Medium, and a Long Commentary on De Anima. On its Long Commentary he presented a model of the human soul, where the Material Intellect is posited as a unique function shared and used by all humans, where:

  • The model is inspired from Aristotle (see [1.3.6]), Al-Farabi (see [3.2.2]) and Ibn Sina (see [3.3.3]).
  • The different functions of the human soul are linked to the human body, so the individual, particular soul does not survive the death of the body.
  • The Material Intellect is single, linked to an immortal substance different from the human body, and is shared and commonly used by all humans. The uniqueness of the material intellect assures the unity of the Universals (e.g., that all humans have the same concepts about numbers), the immortal substance assures its immortality.

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Ibn Rushd’s view on the human soul:

Averroes on human soul and unity of intellect

FacultyRelated Use Case
NUTRITION(Use NUTRITION to) create material substrate for external senses: “Averroes stresses the hierarchical structure of the soul, beginning with the nutritive faculty. It serves as a substrate for the sensory faculties, their matter ‘disposed’ to receive sensory perceptions.” (Ivry)
EXTERNAL SENSESUse TASTE, TOUCH, SMELL, HEAR, SEE perception: “The form of an external object is sensed at first with its many ‘rinds’ or husks of corporeality (qushûr), for which read particularity.”(Ivry)
COMMON SENSE (internal sense)(Use COMMON SENSE to) unify and monitor 5 senses: “common sense […] receive (intentional adaptations of) [forms of external objects by transmitted by external senses] in an increasingly immaterial manner”(Ivry)
MEMORYStoring and recollecting images (using MEMORY): Memory stores […] dismembered essentialized images and is able to remember them at will, that is, with an act of will. Recollection (tadhakkur) rejoins them in the cogitative faculty with full images that flesh out the corporeal features of the sought object.[…]
While generally restricting the memorative faculty to the intentions of a given imagined form, Averroes acknowledges that it also relates to universals. This is done through the cogitative faculty, associating the universal with some particular image, recollected with the assistance of the intention stored in the memorative faculty; an “intention” that is the distinctive character or nature of that image.[53] That is to say, one remembers a universal idea by remembering an image that connotes it. As Aristotle says, “without an image, thinking is impossible.”(Ivry)
IMAGINATION (internal sense)Use IMAGINATION to) create intelligible dimensions, ‘intentions’: “the senses serve as substrate for the common sense, it the substrate for the imagination, and that faculty the substrate for the rational faculty. As such, the imagination follows the senses in providing the intellect with images that have intelligible dimensions, or “intentions” (ma‘ânî), which term Averroes uses more broadly than heretofore. These intentions are present in the form presented to the senses, but must wait upon an intellect to appreciate them, being represented first as sensible and then imaginative intentions to the senses and imagination, respectively. Averroes thus employs ‘intentions’ to convey not the form of the perceptible object as it is, but as it is sensed, imagined, remembered or intellected by the respective faculties of the soul.” (Ivry)
COGITATIVEReceive and process imaginative/intelligible intentions; initiates abstraction and universalization (using COGITATIVE faculty): “Followed by a ‘discriminating faculty,’ i.e., the cogitative faculty, treated as another internal sense. This faculty actually serves as a bridge between imagination and intellect, dealing with particular images as it does, but selecting out the most distinctive aspect of each percept […].  To that purpose, he enlarges the role of cogitation (fikr) in the cognitive process. As mentioned above, he sees it as a corporeal faculty located in the brain that is able to receive and process both the imaginative intentions found in sensation, and the intelligible intentions of the imagination, thereby initiating the process of abstraction and universalization that the material and Agent intellects complete.” 
MATERIAL INTELLECTGrasp universals (using the potentiality existing in the MATERIAL INTELLECT): “In the Long Commentary, Averroes retains the separate, i.e., immaterial yet substantial nature of the material and Agent [Active] intellects, and their relation of potential to actual intelligibility. However, he treats them as two separate substances, not two aspects of the same intelligence. The material intellect is thus hypostatized, treated as a ‘fourth kind of being,’ the celestial principle of matter qua potentiality that, together with the formal principle represented by the Agent [Active] Intellect, explains the nature and activity of intelligible forms; even as sensible objects are constituted by similar hylomorphic principles. The Long Commentary thus sees the material intellect as ‘the last of the separate intellects in the (celestial) hierarchy,’ following the Agent [Active] Intellect (see [3.3.2]). This physical relocation of the material intellect may guarantee its incorruptibility and objectivity, for Averroes, but it does not explain the presence in human beings of a rational faculty, a presence that Averroes recognizes. […]
He has indicated that the material or potential intellect is a single, incorporeal, eternal substance shared by the entire human species.” (Davidson)


First published: 19/03/2020