Smith, A. Mark. “Picturing the Mind: The Representation of Thought in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” Philosophical Topics 20, no. 2 (1992): 149–70.

Explores the relationship between thought and sight among medieval Scholastics, tries to correct the Cartesian caricature.

Take-home / Context

Scholastic philosophy, stemming from Aristotle via Porphyry and Boethius, fundamentally connects reality and our conceptual representation of it. There is no thought that does not eventually correspond to a sense. This was eventually challenged by Descartes, separating thought and physical world.

For last-tree, if we connect this to the tendency to diagram (and ars memoriae), this implies the diagrams have some correspondence to truth / universals. Since the transcendence/epistemology/ontology/etc connections really begin separating by the time of Descartes, this narrative fits well.

Note this combines two related concepts: you cannot think without thinking visually, and internal visual representations are aligned somehow with reality.

Reading Notes / Quotes


Seeing logical points, viewing them in certain lights, reflecting on their implications, gaining insights into them - such common expressions betoken a deep-seated and generally unconscious tendency on our part to portray mental activity in visual terms.

The very notion that thinking constitutes a form of seeing strikes us as absurd today; but, by medieval and Renaissance lights, this notion was anything but absurd. Sight, after all, was assumed by the Scholastics to be the channel par excellence for induction, and induction clearly leads to the acquisition of concepts. What could be more natural, then, than to conclude that the entire chain of acquisition is fundamentally visual in nature and, therefore, that conceptualization somehow mimics seeing?

(p150) Descartes separated psychological states from visual properties in part to "promote his own mechanistic philosophy over the Scholastic alternative".

Nor is it any less surprising that, given the ultimate success of his philosophical program, Descartes' s caricature has assumed the status of valid portraiture, even among the most thoughtful and critical of philosophers and historians.

This total connection of sight/thought may be an overly-simplistic Cartesian caricature.

Abstraction and Predication

Medieval theory of abstraction is Aristotelian, resting on 2 suppositions:

  • universals, not particulars, constitute proper objects of knowledge (to know is to apprehend the general, not particular)
  • universals themselves are immanent in physical particulars (represents split from Plato). Thus universals must have physical anchors.

These went through Medieval Europe via Porphyry and Boethius' commentary on him.

He offers a sort of Porphyrian Tree as an example

sensation offers the necessary physical mediation for the fundamentally intellectual processes of perception and apperception.

[Interestingly, by using Boethius & Porphyry here, author is helping make my argument that the two who introduced the tree were at the same time arguing for the trees transcendental nature]

Induction and Aristotelian Faculties Psychology

The analogy Aristotle himself draws is to the impression made in wax by a signet ring, the point being to emphasize that the effect itself is formal rather than material. [...] the eye cannot be affected immediately by its proper sensible; contact between eye and visible object simply will not produce vision. [...] the sense impression is something quite apart, both existentially and essentially, from its sensible cause.

The many senses are amalgamated into a unified internal representation

internal perceptible representations are called by Aristotle a phantasy

according to Aristotle, reasoning is impossible without the depictions supplied by phantasy

Solidified through "Arabic commentators, such as Avicenna, Alghazali, and Averroës"

Regarding Aristotle's phantasy, the Scholastics divided this concept in two:

vis imaginativa ("imagination," properly speaking) and fantasia (sometimes referred to as "compositive imagination").

The first of these faculties plays the role of receptor and mnemonic storehouse for the sensible species relayed to it by the common sense. Thus, when we wish to recall a particular sense experience of the past, we retrieve its perceptible representation, in the form of a sensible species, from the imaginativa.

The second faculty, fantasia, is responsible for discursively combining sensible species. When such discursive combination takes place freely, without direction or governance, what results is the sort of random, incoherent sequence of associations that characterizes dreaming or hallucination. When that same discursive process occurs under the sway of reason, though, what results is the sort of logical sequence of associations that characterizes true thought.

Author lists several other concepts up the ladder of abstraction

The Physical and Physiological Basis of the Internal Senses Model


most [Scholastics] shared Aristotle's belief that the cognitive functions of the human soul are ultimately based in its sensitive capacities - hence, the well-known Thomistic dictum that nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in the senses.

[emph added]

BUT, since souls as Christian needed to be able to perceive transcendent things, medieval philosophers granted that people could understand some things that did not come from sense induction. [!!]

The Synthesis

[[Interesting figure on page 163 showing the various layers between the object, the sense, and the universal/transcendental.]]

With the creation of the intelligible species, we have reached the highest level of generality possible within the system of internal senses. But generality is not universality, and that fact points to a crucial problem in our model of induction: whereas true understanding, being necessarily universal, transcends mere generality, universals are perfectly unchanging, immaterial, and eternal. How, then, can the matter-bound system of discursive reasoning just described have access to such entities? One way of responding is to suppose that universals exist only as potentials, as ideals toward which the understanding reaches asymptotically. Another way is to assume that universals are somehow innate to a non-localized, purely spiritual part of the human soul. And yet another is to posit a superior active intelligence that furnishes the lower, passive intellect with universals when they are needed.



almost all Scholastic thinkers believed in a fundamental correspondence between objective reality and our conceptual representation of it. In other words, for them the physical world really is as we picture it in our minds