#3 – Language as Man’s Passions

This is the third article where I explain my thesis work, Thomistic Linguistics, in more chewable pieces. In my last article, #2 – The Formal Cause of Man, I argued that the immaterial substance of man is a form containing many virtual powers, making it very noble. The crown of the form of man, so to speak, is reason.

Now, the following images which I am going to use entirely butcher the inherent simplicity of the idea of an Aristotelian form. So one must remember even as I break things down into components we are talking about a thing that exists simply and not in complex parts (other than in the distinction of potency and act, that which could be and that which is).

I have already established that knowledge exists in man via forms, but that’s not the whole picture. Possessing a form is just one part of a more complex image. Even the notion of possessing a form is a little misleading.


Brace yourself, this may actually be the hardest part.


Let’s trace man’s rational capacity as it maneuvers the acquisition of a new form. First man exists somewhere. The man looks out and sees an oak tree. This poor fellow has never seen one before. As he perceives the tree, light is bouncing off of the tree and is reflecting into the man’s eye balls. The light does a weird upside down trick and plants a pretty upside down light-picture on the interior of the man’s eyeball. Nerve cells in the eye are triggered by the onslaught of light and thus fire according to what light is hitting them. If light of a certain wavelength hits an area, a cell that corresponds to that wave length will fire.

These nerve signals travel back into the occipital lobe, where the image is translated into neuron firing. Scientists believe that the image is somehow painted on to the neurons in some fashion. The pre-frontal cortex also has some role in maneuvering the man’s attention to not see literally everything that hits the eyeball, but to just focus on the tree in the image.

So far so good. But everything is sensory. The image of a tree exists within the brain, something Aquinas calls a phantasm. But there’s nothing about the brain that abstracts a pattern, or a form, because there needs to be the immaterial place for that form to abstract to. Enter man’s own immaterial form.

The active intellect perceives the image of a tree as housed within the human brain, but how does it get the form of an oak tree? Does it juice it out of the image and make form-juice? No – there needs to be a step between material and immaterial existence. Rather than there be a direct transfer, like we would talk about a physical channel between locations A and B (like a nerve between the eye ball and the occipital lobe), we now have to think about two terminals. One terminal, the brain, is sensory information. The other terminal, the intellect, is abstract form information. The mind abstracts intelligible characters, and these, amassed, collectively make an impression upon the moldable intellect. Altogether they make the intelligible species, formal content in and of itself. Here the active intellect actually receives the intelligible species as a formal cause, and then shapes itself around the species it perceives to exist within the image.

Woah. Think about when you’re learning to salsa dance from a youtube video and you’re trying to mimic the exact moves of the expert salsa dancer and you completely suck at it. Yeah, like that.

The active intellect does its best job to shape itself around the intelligible species it perceives and then the passive intellect receives the whole of the active intellect into itself and remembers said form. Note: the actual form that existed in the oak tree does not literally translate or transpose itself into the human intellect, lest the original tree stop existing. So is it a form that the human understands at all? Yes! It has to be. Since the active intellect (a form) is that which is molding itself to what it perceives, the end result is a form that becomes understood.

Aquinas has an important phrase around this matter:

“Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur”

“For the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver”

“For the received [the form of the tree] is in the receiver [the man’s intellect] according to the mode [the shaping of the active intellect passing into the passive intellect] of the receiver” (Summa Theologiae, 1st Part, Q. 84, Art. 1)

So might there be another name for the form that enters the active intellect? Yes. The whatness of the object is the primary focus of the intellect. This whatness, the quiddity (Latin quidditas), is composed of the various intelligible characters discernable through the senses. These intelligible characters work together to form an intelligible species. As the intelligible species is received into the intellect, though, it becomes something that the intellect in fact receives, or suffers. For this reason it is called a passio animae, or a passion of the soul. There are various degrees to which the passio animae may match the true form of the object in question, but it still retains the general essence of what is perceived.

You see, the actual form of an oak tree contains within it many virtual forms (that of root, leaf, chlorophyll, etc.) that unless the man has any in-depth knowledge pre-existing the observation of said tree, he does not know exist. Therefore the passio animae of the oak tree may shape around the collective virtual forms of leaf, root, and bark, but not of chlorophyll. The intelligible species is less noble than the form it was attempting to imitate, but the man has still understood a real form, and it contains the same quiddity of the object in question. Remember from the previous article what Aristotle and Aquinas echo about the nature of forms in reality:

“For this reason Aristotle, Metaphy. Viii (Did. Vii, 3), compares the species of things to numbers, which differ in species by the addition or subtraction of unity. And (De Anima ii, 3) he compares the various souls to the species of figures, one of which contains another; as a pentagon contains and exceeds a tetragon” (Aquinas, Summa, Q. 76, A. 3).”

So the passio animae in a man, based on an oak tree, a real attempt at understanding it, contains a good portion of the form perceived, but maybe not the true whole of the form.

Man’s knowledge is therefore imperfect. If man’s passions mimicked the whole of the form immediately upon beholding the oak tree, he would have a perfect knowledge of not only that specific oak tree but the pure form of oak tree, but we know from experience that this is not the case. Knowledge can be amended through future education. This is the whole of the topic of Question 85 in the First Part of Aquinas’ Summa Theologia. Passions, either abstracted from observation or recalled from memory, are subject to modification, specifically “composition and division.” Over time man may compose a more noble form of the passion in question or he may divide it into other forms. Composition and division, according to Aquinas, is the process of reason within man.



If you made it this far, congratulations. You’ve only a bit farther to go.


Now, Aquinas himself informs us what a human word is:

“For in the first place there is the passion of the passive intellect as informed by the intelligible species [real world forms]; and then the passive intellect thus informed forms a definition, or a division, or a composition, expressed by a WORD. Wherefore the concept conveyed by a WORD is its definition; and a proposition conveys the intellect’s division or composition. WORDS do not therefore signify the intelligible species themselves; but that which the intellect forms for itself for the purpose of judging of external things” (Summa Theologia, Prima Pars, Q. 85, Art. 2, Reply to Objection 3).


Aquinas echoes Aristotle, and says repeatedly that intelligible species, the things our intellects form around to understand real forms outside of ourselves, cannot exist without phantasms. Remember the phantasm of the oak tree is what our random man used to abstract the quiddity of an oak tree. Phantasms are the purely sense, brain-based, images that our brains put together. But phantasms aren’t just visual images; they are the things put together by our multiple senses. They could be any image unique to the sense of taste, hearing, or touch, or all of the senses together. The intelligible species (or formal composition of the intelligible characters of the quiddity) behave as act and form which gets passed into the potency of the intellect. This is the same as how the act and form of the quiddity of an object gets passed into the potency of the sensory brain. Conversely for language production, the active intellect uses the remembered intelligible species as act and form to pass into the potency of the sensory brain. Except this all happens within the unified human person. The intelligible species makes an impression on the intellect, which is then a passio animae, and a true concept, to which is equal a word.

Because phantasms can be arranged by any multiple senses, we come to recognize that human words are phantasms, phantasms that are reliant on intelligible species to even exist. Without passions, human language doesn’t exist.

This is the third premise for my thesis:

Words are primarily concoctions of sounds, sensory phantasms, and passiones animae are the Aristotelian forms of our words. They are real and immaterial forms and work to make immaterial concepts, but they are unique to one man’s experience as they relate themselves to real and immaterial forms of the outside world.

Next time:

How exactly do we use these abstract notions in every day language? How do we acquire a language?

#4 – How Language is Acquired and Used

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