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INTRODUCTION Thomas Aquinas held the view that human beings are born without any ideas in their

minds, man only knows through the process of abstraction of the essences of particular things and forming them into universal ideas. Moreover, the problem of how we know things had been one of the major preoccupations of philosophers over the ages. The ostensive problem raised in an attempt to find out where human knowledge comes from has led to diverse views. Some believe that human knowledge comes from experience and that human beings are born tabula rasa. Others believe that human beings do not acquire knowledge from experience; rather human beings are born with knowledge which is called the innate ideas. In this essay, we intend to look into Thomas Aquinas views about abstraction. We shall do this as one should in philosophy by employing the tool of conceptual clarification. We will first attempt a definition of the meaning of the term abstraction and the types of abstraction. This will serve as a springboard for our exploration into the basic thought of Aquinas on the theory of abstraction. Second, we shall carry out a holistic examination of Aquinas theory of abstraction. Finally, we will conclude. 1. ABSTRACTION: A CONCEPTUAL ELUCIDATION. In ordinary language abstraction designates the attitude of someone who is detached from everyday life and does not account what is real. In Philosophy the term abstraction designates a specific operation of the intellect consisting of detaching and retaining some property from a thing. This property serves as the basis upon which the intellect forms a cognitive image or concept of a thing. The term abstraction is the usual expression in medieval philosophical terminology for several processes distinguished in Aristotles writings by different terms, viz., aphaeresis and

korismos described in different ways. It was Boethius, most probably, who introduced the Latin abstractio and abstahere to translate these Greek nouns and related verbs.1 Abstraction is a philosophical process by which people develop concepts either from experience or from other concepts. Abstraction is the process of drawing out the essence of things and giving them independent existence from the things of which they are inextricably connected. It is also seen as a process whereby qualities are drawn from particular object and given a universal application. However, in this process a quality is abstracted and made to stand as a generic term housing a class of objects. For instance, when we use the generic term man we have merely extracted the essence of all men and have made it to stand for the general idea of collectivity of men.2 Abstraction also involves the process of separating a quantity from all other qualities with which it is intimately united in existence. This means that abstraction embraces common properties and assigning them independent existence or, the separating off of properties and make them have their existence independently of minds and things that go with them in their real existence.3 In ancient Greek of antiquity, the main theories of concept formation were those of Democritus, Plato and Aristotle. According to all these theories, sense perception and intellectual cognition have to be distinguished both by their objects and by their nature. Abstract ideas are the same as universals in some way, and abstract ideas are said to exist independently of their natural or physical substantives. The process of forming universal ideas is










http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/DicHis/analytic/ anaVI.html

G. O. Ozumba, A concise Introduction to Epistemology (Calabar: Ebenezer printing press & Computer

services, 2001), p. 88

Ibid., p. 88

the same as that which leads to the formation of abstract ideas, and that is why the two terms can be used interchangeably. Universal ideas are formed when the mind abstracts the essences of particular material beings. For instance, the idea of dogness is abstracted from particular dogs and this idea dogness now becomes universal idea of all dogs. we shall now investigate into the kinds of abstraction. 2. THEORY OF ABSTRACTION IN AQUINAS Aquinas theory of abstraction was influenced by Aristotles. According to him, the object of knowledge is proportionate to the power of knowledge. He, therefore, identified three grades of cognitive powers: the sensitive power, the angelic power and the human intellect.4 The intellect understands by abstracting from phantasms and thereby attains some knowledge of immaterial things. Our knowledge of things, though, is not the same as knowledge of our phantasms, for, if the two types of knowledge were the same, then the taste of honey, for example, could be either sweet or bitter, depending on the state of the perceiver. Rather, the phantasms are the means by which we come to understand things. Knowledge of individuals is prior to knowledge of universals.

The intellect is incapable of directly knowing individual things because it perceives them by means of phantasms. On the other hand, the intellect does perceive universals directly by means of abstraction. The intellect is potentially capable of understanding the concept of infinity insofar as it can form the idea of infinite succession, but it is actually incapable of comprehending infinity. Contingent things are known through sense experience and indirectly by

John, Joseph Laky, A study of George Berkeleys Philosophy in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas

Aquinas (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), P. 59

the intellect, but necessary principles governing those contingent things are known only by the intellect. Although only God can know how the future will be in itself, we nevertheless can have some knowledge of the future insofar as we have knowledge of causes and effects.

According to Aquinas, the sensitive power is the act of a corporeal organ. And the object of every sensitive power is a form as existing in corporeal matter. And because such matter is the principle of individuality, it follows then that every power of the sensitive part can only have knowledge of individual. The angelic intellect is in no way connected with corporeal matter. The object of whose cognitive power is a form existing apart from matter. The angelic intellect knows material things in something immaterial, that is, either in themselves or in God. The human intellect, however, holds a middle place, for it is not the act of an organ and yet it is a power of the soul which is the form of the body. It is the nature of the human intellect to know a form existing individually in corporeal matter, but not as existing in the individual matter. In order to know what is in the individual matter the intellect abstracts the form from the individual matter that is presented by the phantasm.5 Therefore, the human intellect comes to understand material things in abstracting from the phantasms; and through material things thus considered we acquire some knowledge of immaterial things, just as, on the contrary, angels know material things through the immaterial.6


There are two ways of abstraction. These are abstraction of the form from the sensible matter, and abstraction of universal from particular. These kinds of abstraction can be

Thomas, Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 85, a. 1 Ibid.

distinguished depending upon the criteria adopted. If we consider the intellect's function of detaching the universal from the matter of the thing known, we may distinguish universal and formal abstraction. We are dealing with universal abstraction (universalis), which is sometimes called total abstraction (totalis or totius), when the intellect passes over individual features in the things it knows and retains that which is universal.7 In this way the intellect is able to produce the so-called universals, such as animal, man, tree and so on. We are dealing with formal abstraction when the intellect detaches form from matter, whether from individual matter or general matter, or generally from matter as such. When the form is detached from individual or general matter, both the concepts of matter and form remain in the intellect.8 When a form is generally detached from matter, only the form retains its concept in thought. These kinds of abstraction are further explained as follows: 2.1.1 ABSTRACTION OF THE FORM FROM THE SENSIBLE MATTER This type of abstraction corresponds to the union of form and matter or the accident and its subject. For example, I may draw four circles of equal size on the blackboard and ask you to close your eyes and imagine this multitude of objects. This type of abstraction makes the human mind terminate in imagination of the geometric figure, that is, form or of a multitude of objects. This is the imagination of a sensible figure or multitude, and so it is an act of sensation. And where attention is paid to is the figure or multitude, in so far as both can be imagined. All other sensible qualities are not of interest, and no attention is paid to them, for instance. colour, taste, and so on.[5] 2.1.2 ABSTRACTION OF THE UNIVERSAL FROM THE PARTICULAR

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 40, a. 3 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 40, a. 3

This type of abstraction corresponds to the union of the whole and its parts. The human mind conceives a universal concept abstracting it from a percept which is particular. This type of abstraction does not consider what is particular to each single object or person. It only pays attention to what is essential and common to all objects or persons of one and the same group of species. And this type of abstraction belongs to our intellectual knowledge. It is an activity of human intellect, which may be called concept formation. This is different from the first type of abstraction which is terminated in imagination, and belongs to our sense-knowledge.

However, this way of abstraction is common to all sciences; for every science considers what is essential while it does not consider what is accidental. What all the sciences derive from are abstract ideas which are also universal ideas. These ideas are universal because they can be predicated of all things that fall into its genus.

According to Aquinas, however, the process of abstraction takes place in three different degrees. And these degrees produce different kinds of knowledge. The question of universals has been a point of debate between the realists and the nominalists, especially in the medieval period. Since the concern of this paper is abstraction, and abstraction is also universal, we shall then consider the views of these two groups of philosophers on universal ideas.


Universal is the name given to general ideas in medieval philosophy. The dispute about universals centered on whether they are objective, real or merely names of things; whether, on the other hand, they exist before things, ideally, or in things as held by or whether they are

mere words.9 There are basically three different views about universals, and these are exaggerated realism, moderate realism and nominalism.

Realism is a trend in medieval scholasticism, which maintains that universal concepts possess real existence and precede the existence of singular objects. In other words, it is a view that universals are existing realities distinct from particular things to which they refer. According to the realists, particular things are what they are because they share in the universals. For instance, particular men are men because they share in humanity which is an existing reality independently of particular men. Man or humanity is a unitary substance, and existing entity in which all men share. Some philosophers who held this view are Plato, John Scotus Eriugena, Remigius of Auxerre and St. Anselm.10

Nominalism refers to a reductionist approach to problems about the existence and nature of abstract entities. The nominalists deny the existence of abstract entities and typically seek to show that discourse about abstract entities is analyzable in terms of discourse about familiar concrete particulars.11 The nominalists hold that universals neither exist independently nor as part of particular objects. All that exist are particular objects; universals are unnecessary duplication of existent entities. This is the reason why Berkeley described abstracted entities as

A Dictionary of Philosophy, (1984) s.v Universals edited by Murad Saifulin and Richard R. Dixon. Joseph Omoregbe, A simplified History of Western Philosophy: Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Vol.


1, (Lagos: Joja Press Limited, 1991), p. 127


Routledge Encyclopedia, (1998) vol. 7. S.v Nominalism by Michael J. Loux

involving metaphysics without ontology.12 The nominalist view is that the talk about the so called abstract entities is really just talk about nominal or linguistic expressions.13

Also, nominalists like Abelard and Okham insisted that everything that exists is a particular. Okham insisted that everything is a particular, and he construes the distinction between universals and particulars as a distinction between categorematic terms that signify just one thing and those that signify many.14 This view however poses a problem because with the rejection of the existence of universals, we are deprived of the possibility of knowing the essences of things. For instance, we will not be able talk of man in general and to identify what men have in common. Since it is only through abstraction that we can know the essence of things; therefore, the existence of abstract entities cannot be denied.

The moderate realists are stand between the two extremes of exaggerated realism and nominalism. According to the moderate realists, the universals exist in individual things. The mind extracts them from individual things and forms them into concepts. They are the forms of individual things, but they do not and cannot exist independently of individual things, although they can be considered abstractly and independently of any individual thing. Thus, they exist in the mind as concepts, but with objective foundation in individual things. Philosophers like Aristotle, John of Salisbury and St. Thomas Aquinas held this view.15


G.O Ozumba., p. 88 - 89 Ibid. Ibid. Omoregbe, p. 128





The degrees of abstraction are determined according to the diverse modes by which the objects of thought are discovered in things by the operation of the intellect. The intellectual process by which we go beyond the merely material character of things is called abstraction. Aquinas therefore recognizes that the human mind operates in three different ways, the first is the intellectual process called separation in the proper sense, the second is the abstraction of a form from the sensible matter and the third is the abstraction of a universal from a particular matter. These three ways through which the mind operates is also referred to as the three degrees of abstraction. These three degrees16 can be explained as follow:

The first degree is where the intellect abstracts the species of natural things from the sensible individual matter, not from sensible matter in general. It abstracts the species of man from this flesh and these bones, not from flesh and bones in general. This way is found in the sciences of nature and it is common to all sciences; for every science considers what is essential while it does not consider what is accidental to sensible matters.

In the second degree, the intellect comprehends mathematical essences by abstracting from all sensible matter, both individual and in general. It also abstracts from intelligible matter, but only from the individual, not from intelligible matter in general. In this instance, intelligible matter is substance, inasmuch as it underlies quantity. But the intellect is able to lift the absolute nature of quantity from sensible matter, and comprehend it as a universal concept in its essential element and in the essential laws of being. At this level of abstraction, we acquire mathematical knowledge.

Laky, p. 60

The highest form of abstraction is metaphysical abstraction. In it the intellect leaves behind even intelligible matter in general and forms concepts like being, unity, potency and act, which attain actualization without any matter in the region of immaterial substances. Through this process, the mind operates by uniting and dividing, and this is found in Metaphysics. In other words, the knowledge derived here is a metaphysical knowledge.

For Aquinas, all universal ideas are formed from the objects of sense perception through the process of abstraction. When we perceive an object, an image is formed in the mind. This image (phantasm) is the image of particular object, with its particular characteristics. Then the active intellect illuminates it, removing from it all its particular features colour, size, height and so on. It extracts from it the intelligible species, that is, its essential and universal characteristics. Then the active intellect impresses it on the passive intellect, thus producing the impressed species in the passive intellect. The passive intellect reacts, and receives this impressed species and produces expressed species, which is a universal concept.17 Universal ideas are therefore produced when the passive intellect receives the images that are impressed on it by the active intellect.


Abstraction is a process of drawing out essence of material things that are presented to our senses. Through abstraction we are able to arrive at knowledge of things; not of particular things but a universal knowledge that enable us to know things. Though, the nominalists have denied the existence of universals thereby denying abstraction, the theory of abstraction will still remain vital as far as acquisition of knowledge is concerned. With abstraction we are able to

Omoregbe, p. 150


reach knowledge of the essence of things. This has been defended well by the realists who were of the opinion that universal ideas are not just names but exit either independently or in things.

There are two basic ways of abstraction or rather there are two kinds of abstraction. And these are the abstraction of the form from the sensible matter and abstraction of the universal from the particular. The abstraction of the form from the sensible matter corresponds to the union of form and matter or the accident and its subject. This kind of abstraction gives us the raw material of geometry and arithmetic. It is an imagination of a sensible figure or multitude. However, the abstraction of the universal from the particular corresponds to the union of the whole and its parts. The human mind conceives a universal concept by abstracting it from the particulars, that is, particular beings or things.

Aquinas held the view that the human mind is tabula rasa at birth, and that knowledge is only acquired through experience. He held that universal ideas or abstract ideas are formed through the activity of human mind that abstract the essence particular beings. This activity begins with sense experience and the senses present images (phantasm) to the mind, while the mind now works on those images or phantasm through the active intellect. It strips the phantasm of their particular traits and impresses them on the passive intellect. It is the passive intellect that transforms this phantasm into abstract ideas or universal ideas.

However, Aquinas took this process a little further by introducing the notion of separation in abstraction which has to do with the different kinds of knowledge gained from the three degrees of abstraction. According to him, the first degree of abstraction gives the knowledge that is found in the natural sciences, and the second degree provides us with


mathematical knowledge while through the third degree we get metaphysical knowledge. And this is the highest form of abstraction because it transcends the material substances.

BIBLIOGRAPHY A Dictionary of Philosophy, (1984). s.v Universals edited by Murad Saifulin and Richard R. Dixon. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, Trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Christian Classics, 1981. Copleston, Federick. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, Greece and Rome, Part II. New York: Images Books, 1962 Laky, J. J. A Study of George Berkeleys Philosophy in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950. Omoregbe, Joseph. A Simplified History of Western Philosophy, Vol. 1, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy. Lagos: Joja Press Limited, 1991. Ozumba, G. O. A Concise Introduction to Epistemology. Calabar: Ebenezer Printing Press & Computer Service, 2001. Routledge Encyclopedia, (1998) vol. 7. s.v Nominalism by Michael J. Loux. Weinberg, Julius, (2003). Abstraction in the http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/DicHist/analytic/anaVI.html,. Formation of Concepts,