Disembodied Cognition and Assimilation: Thirteenth-Century Debates on an Epistemological Puzzle

In: Vivarium
Dominik Perler Institut für Philosophie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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Medieval Aristotelians assumed that we cannot assimilate forms unless our soul abstracts them from sensory images. But what about the disembodied soul that has no senses and hence no sensory images? How can it assimilate forms? This article discusses this problem, focusing on two thirteenth-century models. It first looks at Thomas Aquinas’ model, which invokes divine intervention: the separated soul receives forms directly from God. The article examines the problems this explanatory model poses and then turns to a second model, defended by Matthew of Aquasparta: the separated soul actively apprehends forms that are present to it. It will be argued that this model explains assimilation in terms of appropriation, rather than reception, of forms and thereby radically changes the traditional account of cognition. Finally, the article draws some methodological conclusions, arguing that the focus on the ‘limit case’ of separated souls made theoretical change possible.

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