Chapter 4


Perhaps I could better elaborate on my view of what is going on in understanding if I gave the Scholastic view first; because my view differs from it in several serious respects, though I think it is a development of it, and the Scholastic view is rather incomplete or unrefined than erroneous.

For Scholastics, then, what happens first is that there is a "phantasm" in the senses. What is called the "agent" or "active intellect" (the intellectus agens or "intellect acting"), as what Aristotle calls a "state like light," then "shines on" the phantasm and illuminates it, more or less as the sun shines on a tree, making its colors active. The "illuminated phantasm" then either "impresses an appearance" on the "passive intellect" (the intellect as passive), or the "agent intellect" somehow uses this illuminated phantasm to impress the appearance (species) on itself. The intellect is now determined to perform its proper act, which is the "abstracting" of the appearance (the aspect) from the illuminated phantasm, and forming a concept, which is its "expressed appearance." This act of the intellect is called "simple apprehension," since it understands (the concept), but does not understand anything that could be called truth (a fact). That is, "tree" is the result of this act of the intellect; and of course "tree" or "treeness" is neither true nor erroneous; it simply is what you might call "meaning as such." The Scholastics sometimes refer to the concept as the "mental word."

Having found a concept, the intellect, according to St. Thomas, then returns to the senses and "sees" or does not see the concept in the sensation (and I suspect that this isn't just the phantasm, but any sensation). It also understands the concept as applying or not applying to the object referred to by the sensation. This operation of understanding is what the Scholastics call the "judgment" or the complete act of understanding, where the truth is known or error occurs.

Presumably, formation of an actual word (some sensible sign for the concept) comes after all of this.

Now, my view:

What I think happens in understanding is that, first of all, the presence of any sensation in consciousness(1) acts as the "switch" that turns understanding on and off, and so the conscious "dimension" of the immaterial act of sensation is the pseudo-faculty for understanding. It isn't a true faculty, because in my system of thought, a faculty is a part of the body, and this, though it involves energy in the brain, is the spiritual aspect of that energy.

Hence, the first thing we can say is this:

Conclusion 4: Understanding, strictly speaking, has no faculty, since it is totally spiritual. It does, however, use the conscious "dimension" of sensation as a pseudo-faculty.

The other difference between a true faculty and the sensation's role in understanding is that, with a true faculty, the change in the part of the body determines the act in question--as, for example, opening your eyes forces you to see, and see with whatever form corresponds in consciousness to the energy coming into them. But we saw that the sensation cannot determine what relationship is understood, because it would have to do so by means of a connection, and with certain concepts, no connection is even possible--which leads to the conclusion that no connection is involved in any act of understanding.

What actually must turn understanding on and off is what regulates whether a sensation is conscious or not; and this, as we saw in the preceding chapter is instinct in its attention-function.

Another conclusion follows from this:

Conclusion 5: You cannot understand anything that you are not paying attention to, because it is not conscious (or does not have the proper level of consciousness); hence, instinct (and emotions) can indirectly control understanding by directing attention to or away from certain sensations.

That is, if you are in a situation where an emotion is very strong, then all that you have in your sense consciousness at the moment is what the particular drive puts there; and any information that might otherwise be available to you is blocked out. You can still understand, but only about what is actually in your consciousness.

This, of course, is the basis of the plea of "temporary insanity" in law, which says that a person is exculpated from a crime if he is in a condition where he could not distinguish right from wrong. The novel Anatomy of a Murder of some years back is an imaginative exploration of this defense. The protagonist comes home to find his wife being raped by someone, as I recall; he then leaves, finds a gun, loads it, finds the rapist, and shoots him. The prosecution argues that he was compos mentis because he took the rational means toward the goal of having the rapist die; but the defense argues that in the situation that triggered the act, all he could think of was, "This man must die!" and any consideration like, "He is a human being and human beings have a right to life no matter what they do" was simply below the threshold of consciousness and was not available to him as something to be understood.(2)

This is also the basis of the practice of "brainwashing." If you can so restrict a person's sense consciousness, by exhausting him and battering him constantly with just certain definite data ("You did go into that room and you did see the documents and you did hand them over to the enemy."), then unless he has enormous powers of concentration (and can say mentally while he is being told this, "I never went into that room; what he is saying is a lie,") his imagination will become saturated with this lie, and he will confuse it with what he used to remember, and will understand that he actually did the act and willingly confess to the crime. You haven't "destroyed his will," but you have destroyed his access to information, so that he freely chooses something that he wouldn't otherwise have chosen.

Obviously, the most important ramifications of this are in the area of human freedom and choice; but the discussion has something of a place here because, as we will see, choice depends on what understanding understands at the moment, and not on information latent in the brain and not conscious. We make all sorts of ignorant choices, not because we don't have the information, but because we aren't conscious of it at the time.

Let us take stock of where we are so far, then, in relation to the Scholastic theory. For both, sensation triggers understanding; for the Scholastic, it is imagination (the "phantasm"), and for me it is instinct as making any sensation conscious.

Now then, once sensation is conscious, the human spirit is active as "understander." I also, by the way, would not divide up the spirit into different "faculties" of intellect and will, because in a spiritual act, everything is contained within everything else as one and the same act, and so no real separation is possible, as what I am about to say will show.

Understanding then examines the conscious sensation, looking for a relation in it. Usually, it has some prior expectation (from what it has just been doing) as to what sort of relationship it is looking for; but sometimes--as with the pictures above--it is just "wondering," or "curious." Let us call this stage, which can be quite protracted, puzzlement. This active "looking" at the sensation by understanding is what I think is what the Scholastics, following Aristotle, saw as the "active intellect."

Puzzlement often involves searching around in the vast filing-system of the brain for something else to make conscious as a kind of "window" in the screen of consciousness of the present moment; and this kind of thing can last for days, and one even can go to sleep with the "search" program still operating below the conscious level, but with something about it that will make it stop and turn consciousness back on when something promising is discovered.

To take a simple example, you find that your table is tippy. You tip it as far as it will go and notice the space between the leg and the floor. You then go through your memory of things, mentally finding objects which you mentally slip between the leg and the floor, imagining whether they fit. When your imagination makes one fit, you then understand it as something that will solve your problem, and you go and slip it under. But the process leading up to this understanding happens on the sense level, though it is driven by the spirit wanting to solve the problem.

I might point out that this sort of things is what animals do in solving problems, except that (a) there is no understanding of the fact that the conclusion solves the problem (at least, there is no clear evidence that they make this act; apparently they just go from the conclusion to the action), and (b) their process of successive imaginings is driven by instinct, not by understanding in its active phase. This is one of the things which makes tests on animals as to whether they can understand so difficult.

As I say, this whole process can go on below the threshold of consciousness, which clearly indicates that it is something going on in sensation (or even in the brain, below sensation's threshold), not understanding. Many is the time I have waked up with solutions to problems I could not solve while deliberately reasoning about them, because my understanding of what would be likely to solve the problem made me make the search into the logical areas where it would be solved, and not into information that had no a priori connection with it.

At this point, I should mention that the genius-type of mind is a certain way the brain works in connecting information, as well as (or even more than) how much information can be conscious at once. Obviously, a genius has to be quite bright also (meaning that he has to have enough energy in his brain to make conscious a large amount of information), or his odd associations will simply make him eccentric, not a genius.

What distinguishes a genius from the ordinary bright or brilliant person, and what enables the genius to make breakthroughs, is that he connects all sorts of irrelevant information to a given piece of data, along really strange pathways in the brain. The association-function of his instinct almost works at random, or has a built-in (and unconscious) logic by which non-normal sequences of images occur. This, of course, is why geniuses are eccentric; they don't "think like" other people. It isn't that they don't think the way other people do, it's that what they think about isn't the kind of sensation that other people have, because it contains within it odd sorts of remembered images.

This makes them hard to live with. You could probably train yourself to have something of this kind of mind, if you made random associations as you contemplated a given object; but why bring on yourself ridicule for all the crazy things you connect to something, only some of which will turn out to have any relevance at all? Why put yourself in a situation where your conversation with others will jump erratically from topic to topic as your mind leaps to another subject just because of a similarity in something like sounds of words?

And of course, the brighter you are, the more strange things will pop into your head and stick there, because a bright person has more of the "file drawers" in his brain accessible to consciousness, and can go from one to another and then to another and come up with a conclusion as startling as Archimedes' understanding of the relation between the water slopping out of his bathtub to whether the King's crown was made of gold or not.(3)

Since I am obviously a genius-type, however intelligent I may be, I can say from personal experience that if you don't happen to be one, you have nothing to regret. You may not make some startling breakthrough, but people are a lot more apt to understand you than if you are like me. Even the things that I write, like this book, are perfectly clear to me, but apparently are bewildering to people who read it (judging from my students' reactions), because they don't have the way of linking the data so as to have the right information in their consciousness at once, enabling them to see the relations I see. If you are one of the confused ones, I applaud your persistence in getting this far, and I can only say that if you keep at it, you will eventually (I hope) see what I am driving at, and in a generation or so (as it was with relativity) what is now almost incomprehensible will become conventional wisdom that "everybody knows." That, at least, is why I am writing this; and I must have succeeded if you are reading it.

Since the associating leading up to these breakthrough insights often goes on below the conscious level, and can be very complex, it is not always easy to reconstruct a rational argument from the premises to the conclusion, even though the insight at the conclusion carries with it a very strong conviction of its truth. One fairly hard task geniuses have is to "trust their instinct," and just let it work without trying to direct it. It is a hard task, because the conclusions are very often imbecilic, and only rarely brilliant; so after letting go and getting an insight, you have to make your spirit take the reins again and think the matter through. The "one part inspiration" Edison talked about in his definition of "genius" is this popping into your head of something that could be the solution, together with the conviction that it is the solution; the "ninety-nine parts perspiration" is the testing of the idea.

In any case, to get back from this digression, associations by instinct call up into consciousness various memory-images that are additional "dimensions" of the polymorphous act of sensation, and that form the data or information which understanding first examines.

At this point, I differ most radically from what Scholasticism says--though I think it is a development of it. Now everything happens at once. The human spirit now freely determines itself to understand a relationship, using the sensation that is conscious as the range within which it selects a relationship-aspect. The actual relationship and aspect "picked out" is not determined by anything in the sensation; the spirit is free to understand any of the infinity of relations (with their aspects) that are possible in this sensation.

That is, the aspect understood must actually be in the sensation, in one of its "dimensions," or it can't be understood; you can't get the concept of "megabyte" from looking at a landscape; but if you are looking at a landscape, you can understand it as colored, as needing the lawn mowed, as your own back yard, as a place for your dog to roam, etc., etc. As I said, you can direct yourself toward a definite concept, but you are free to "pick out" any one you want; the sensation itself only sets limits; it does not lead understanding on.(4)

This is one of the reasons why I said you can't separate the spirit into distinct faculties. The very act of understanding is an act of choosing (supposedly what the "will" does), because it freely picks out which relationship-aspect to understand.

The Scholastic view does not seem to hold this, although there has not been any rejection of it, because for them the question never came up. At any rate, their theory seems to imply that understanding is somehow determined by the illuminated phantasm, so that even though the intellect is what is active, the state of the phantasm prevents it from understanding anything but this definite concept. I don't agree.

Also, in my view, there is not any separate stage of "impressing an appearance" on the spirit and then "abstracting a concept" after which comes the judgment. All this happens as one polymorphous spiritual act. The judgment contains the "simple apprehension" of the concept, and is not subsequent to it; and it doesn't have to "return to the senses," because it never left the sensation; the spiritual "dimension" of the sensation is part of the act of understanding as the relata or termini of the relationship-aspect understood. Nor do I think that there is an "expressed appearance" of the concept (the relationship-aspect), at least in the sense in which I think some Scholastics mean the term. The relationship-aspect is not a product or result of the act of understanding, any more than any form of consciousness is a product of the act; as we saw in sensation, the "appearance" is simply the form of the act itself--the way the act is acting--and it "appears" as a pseudo-object of the act simply because the act, as conscious, is aware of itself and so of its form.

Let me define a couple of terms before I go on to describe all that is contained in this single polymorphous act of understanding.

A concept is the form of the act of understanding as such; it is the relationship-aspect understood.

Abstraction is the act of "picking out" a given concept from a sensation, leaving all other possible relations-aspects not understood in this act.

A concept is abstract in that it concerns itself with only one relationship within the sensation in question, and deals with only one aspect of the parts related, leaving everything else out of consideration.

A judgment is the complete act of understanding, containing not only the relationship, but the conscious "dimension" of the sensation as well as the consciousness of the self.

The term idea is vague, meaning primarily a concept; but it can also mean a judgment, or even, in some contexts, a sensation.

Let me dispose of the last term first. The first sense of "idea" would be something like, "the idea of liberty," where what is clearly intended is the meaning of the term "liberty," and so is the concept, not any judgment nor any symbol of liberty (like the statue). In the second sense, we can say, "What is your idea of how I should go to Boston from here?" Your "idea" would then be the judgment that in fact the best way would be to go through upstate New York. (You could then justify this idea--judgment--by showing that it is a conclusion of your knowledge as to the state of roads in New York as opposed to Pennsylvania.) Finally, you can talk about your "idea" of what your new house is to look like. This is not a judgment, but your imaginary image of the proposed house.

It is this last sense of "idea" that was used by Descartes (and picked up by people like Locke and Hume), when he threw epistemology into the confusion it has been in right up until now, as I pointed out in the early chapters of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.1. You will recall that he took the Scholastic notion of "truth" as the matching of the "idea" with the object, but not in the sense the Scholastics intended (the matching of the judgment with the object), but in the sense of the matching of the form of the sensation with the energy that produced it (meaning that it is only "true" that the bushes out in my back yard are green if they are "green-as-I-see them"--as clearly they are not, since I don't see them as higher frequency heat--and so "the bushes are green" is false, which is manifestly absurd).

As to concepts, a concept is itself only one (abstract) aspect of a judgment, not something that comes before it, as the Scholastics thought. True, it is the aspect by which this act is an act of understanding and not sense-consciousness; but there is more in understanding than a concept. The concept is not the result of the act of abstracting, it is the form of the act of abstracting, which act is the judgment and is the same as the act of understanding. There is no real difference between the concept and the judgment, because each contains the other within it, just as all "dimensions" of any act of consciousness do.

And this is obvious from the fact that the concept immediately knows itself to be applicable beyond these particular images whose association gave rise to it, to any perception/image that has the aspect in question in it (and to any object that has the corresponding aspect).

It is this self-awareness of the concept (or, if you will, self-awareness by the judgment of its own form of activity) that gives us two different words for any concept: what the Scholastics call the "concrete universal" and the "abstract universal" term.

Let me first define "universal."

A concept or word is universal if it applies to an infinity of possible objects (all the objects with the aspect in question).

Obviously, this definition would also include the pseudo-objects of the forms of consciousness themselves. But to return to the two terms above, the "concrete universal" is a word that stands for the concept as applicable to some object, while the "abstract universal stands for the concept as such (i.e. just the relationship-aspect, independently of whether it can be applied to some image or object). For example "tree" and "green" and such terms (which can be predicates of a simple sentence such as "X is ..") are concrete universals, since they are of a form which allows them to be "attached" to some concrete object. It is not that they are concrete; but they "attach" to something concrete. "Treeness" and "greenness," however, are abstract universals, since they just refer to the relationship-aspect itself, and can't be predicates of a statement using "to be." If you want to apply them to a subject, you have to use the verb "have," as in "This tree has greenness."

This points up a difference between concepts and words. The concept, as spiritual, is both "concretely" and "abstractly" universal, since it knows itself as applicable in this and similar cases, and it also knows what it is in itself. But words, being material (i.e. involving energy and therefore quantity), cannot double back on themselves and be aware of what they are; and so they have to separate out each of the "reduplications" that are contained in the act of consciousness they stand for, and can only represent one at a time.

This is also true of the fact that the concept is simultaneously both the relationship itself (similarity, causality, position, or whatever) and the aspect in the images connected by this relationship; and in fact the judgment also contains within the concept (its form) the particular images in which the aspects exist, as well as what is implied in this.

But words can't carry all this freight. Any given word, as it is used, will have one or other of the three "dimensions" mentioned above, and will only imply the others. Let me make a definition of this:

The supposition of a word is one of the "dimensions" of the polymorphous concept it stands for.

Thus, the supposition of "green" in "The bushes are green" is that the word expresses the aspect that all green things have in common, and implies the relationship of similarity. The supposition of "the father" in "John is the father of Frank" is that the word expresses the relationship of John to Frank, and implies the aspect in John by which he is Frank's father and the aspect of sonship in Frank. Also, in the statement, "The father of Frank is gray-haired," the word "father" now has the supposition that it refers to the object in question, and doesn't mean anything in this supposition, but only points. There are other suppositions of words also. For instance, you can say "Green is a five-letter word," in which you are using the supposition of the orthography of the word; or "Green is the subject of this sentence," taking the supposition of grammatical function of the word. And so on.

Various logical fallacies can arise from confusing suppositions. For instance, "Clint Eastwood is a star, and star is a four-letter word, and therefore Clint Eastwood is a four-letter word" is an obvious fallacy, because "star," though the same word, is, as we will see, two different terms, and so no logical link is forged through them between the initial subject and the final predicate. But we will discuss this later in going through logic.

Ordinarily, the supposition of a word is not spelled out, because its context makes it obvious which supposition it is taken in--and there is no need for it to be explicitly stated, since anyone who knows what the word means knows all of the suppositions in that act of understanding.

So much, then, for concepts. Now what is contained in the judgment? I mentioned already that it contains the conscious "dimension" of the sensations as the termini of the relationship in question, plus the concept (of course, since this is its form), which is simultaneously the relationship itself and the aspect in each sensation which is the "hook" for the relationship. But since it is conscious, it also contains itself as conscious; and this involves several things. First, it is aware of understanding, and of understanding this concept in these sensations (actually, these parts of the sensation). Second,(5)

it is aware that it itself is greater than just this act (that it has understood other things), probably because it is aware of itself in its active phase limiting itself to performing just this act--and so it is aware of the mind that we talked about in the first part as the cause of the unity of one's consciousness. Third, it is aware of the self which includes (or rather is, as a unit) the body as the causer of this act of understanding (and so it understands the "I" in the ("I think that") of any act of understanding in the two senses of the mind and the self which has the mind. Fourth, it is aware of whether the sensations are active (imaginings) or passive (perceptions), or whether the sensations are logical conclusions whose ultimate source is imagination or perception; and through this, fifth, it understands whether the judgment is a judgment about actual objects or not (as when I understand about the greenness of the bushes I see, I realize that the bushes are green, not my perceptions of them; whereas when I understand that my pet unicorn is blue, I realize that I am in the purely imaginary realm, and that my understanding cannot be "mistaken" because it can't be true. Hence, understanding also, in this same act, understands facts.

At this point, it might be useful for you to go back to the first part and reread the section on truth and goodness (Section 5). I am here redeeming the promise I made in the second paragraph ("I want to leave until much later what this means for the act and the person"); but the epistemological function of understanding might have been forgotten with all the intervening pages.

Let me say here only that the reason we understand is that it is only through understanding that the being of ourselves and what is not ourselves becomes present to our consciousness, because (as I pointed out in that other section) being is known as such in the judgment, and the judgment is where objective knowledge and truth occur.

In this, I concur with the Scholastics, especially the Thomists, and differ from them only in that for me what is objectively known is a fact, which is a relationship among objects (or within parts of one), rather than an "essence" as if the essence were some kind of a metaphysical part. That is, for me, the "aspect abstracted" is known only as the "hook" by which this relationship attaches itself to objects, and is not something actually "pulled out" of them by the judgment. Granted, both of our views are mysterious--because what we are dealing with is a mystery--and may in fact, if pressed, turn out to mean the same thing.

You will remember that in the integrating function of sensation, with its form of subjective space, what is "outside" becomes present to the animal, and with the dating function, with its form of subjective time, the past becomes present to the animal. Here, the outside becomes present as outside, the past is present as past, the object is present as other, and the subject present as subject. Hence, what the subject is as well as what the subject is not are both present as such to the subject.

Understanding also, as I pointed out in Chapter 4 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.4, is the only way a conscious reaction to something can know what it is that it is reacting to, without ever getting outside the mind to "see" the object "as it is in itself."



1. Or perhaps consciousness above a certain level of vividness. The problem here is that dreams are conscious, but not fully conscious, or we would recognize them as acts of the imagination and not perceptions (we would know we were dreaming). Also, the "logic" of dreams is bizarre (following the path of least resistance among the nerves, as I said), and often not something that a person would deliberately follow. Further, sometimes in dreams, there is a confusion between the subject and the object, as when a pain, for instance, appears as some alien thing attacking one. Still, there is some consciousness in dreams, but it is at least mainly on the sense level. Presumably, the intellect is to some extent operative here, however, because we do seem to do some rudimentary conscious reasoning--though this again might be just awareness of the "logic" of the dream itself, and the consciousness on the level of the senses, since there generally doesn't seem to be a notion of "self" along with it. It is all very mysterious, and once again shows that you can't make a clear separation between different types of consciousness in humans, because we are not simply spirits that have a body attached to us, but material spirits, whose spirituality is modified by the energy="dimension" of what we are doing.

2. Actually, as I recall the novel, he was conscious of the right and wrong of the situation and lied in court about his mental state at the time. But this is irrelevant, because it does happen sometimes that a person's emotions sometimes completely blind him to information he would otherwise know. Most often, of course, he is aware of the information, but at a low level of awareness, such that it has only a small influence on his action.

3. In case you don't know the story, it is this: The King asked Archimedes to find out whether the goldsmith had made his crown of pure gold or had sneaked in some lead. Archimedes knew that a given amount of an alloy would have a different weight from the same amount of gold. There was no problem with weighing the crown, but you couldn't find the amount (volume) of metal in it without melting it and making an ingot, which of course would destroy it. Archimedes was pondering the problem in his bath, whereupon he noticed the water slopping out of the tub and ran naked into the street, shouting "I've got it!" (Heureka!) What he understood was that the water was getting out of the way of his body, and so all you had to do to find the volume of the crown was sink it in a jar full of water and measure how much water spilled out.

4. Or if it does, it does so gently, so to speak, by suggesting possible relationships that look promising. Again, it is all very convoluted.

5. There is no order to these things I am listing, of course, because all of them are "dimensions" of one and the same act and occur simultaneously. I am simply enumerating them for the sake of clarity.