Mental Representation: St. Thomas and the "de Interpretatione"

Dissertation, University of Notre Dame (1996)

John O'Callaghan
University of Notre Dame
In the opening passages of the De interpretatione, Aristotle provides a brief description of how words, the mind, and reality are related. Spoken words signify mental impressions, which in turn are natural likenesses of things. Traditionally, this description has been taken to imply a relation of words to things--words are related to things, because they are related to mental impressions of things. Among some contemporary philosophers, e.g. Hilary Putnam and Michael Dummett, it is commonly held that Aristotle's account has had a relatively continuous history through British empiricism, up to contemporary accounts of language and mind. However, in the wake of the later Wittgenstein, these philosophers believe that this tradition is fundamentally flawed, because it yokes language to an untenable philosophy of mind. As they see it, the Aristotelian believes words are primarily or directly about mental impressions, which are directly known, and only secondarily about things, which are indirectly known. But then language cannot succeed in "hooking on to the world," because knowledge of mental representations does not succeed in determining knowledge of the world. ;In the dissertation I examine the criticism that is directed at the "Aristotelian tradition" as it finds expression in one of its moments, namely as it is interpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas. After discussing St. Thomas' appropriation of Aristotle, I discuss the historical context in which the contemporary criticism takes place, the British empiricists and their twentieth century descendants. Then I identify a number of theses constitutive of the contemporary criticism--that mental impressions are things interposed between the mind and reality, individuated by the mind, and known to it by introspection. I examine St. Thomas' account to determine whether and in what way any of these theses apply to his interpretation of Aristotle. I conclude that his appropriation of Aristotle is not subject to the criticisms directed at contemporary accounts of language and mental representation.
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