Can one have a thought without mental imagery and language?

St. Thomas has said that we form a concept by use of an “image” and “word” via our senses.

I’ve tried to do an experiment. For instance I would try to avoid having a thought by consciously refraining from using any mental images and language. (“Try to think “I want ice cream” without using mental images and language.”)

While the thought was kind of muddled, I still felt a sense of awareness of the thought I was trying to avoid having. “I want ice cream.”

I’m not sure if this experiment proves anything or not, but can thoughts be had without these images and language?

Current perception and memory can be an various sense modalities and one does not have to form words to describe it, including appetites.

See the “Prayer of Quiet” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Quiet Carmelites should practice this prayer 30 minutes/day when possible.

I’m not answering the question, but don’t confuse St. Thomas’ terminology as having a mental image or mental word (such as mentally thinking the English word “cat” for a cat, or “picturing” a cat when I think of one). He uses the word “image” only because the expressed concept is a formal similitude to the external object. He does not mean an imagined vision or “phantasm”. Likewise the term “diction” is used for a being bringing a concept to thought and “word” as denoting that concept being expressed in thought, but he does not mean actually thinking a word in any particular language.

A mental picture or mental hearing of a word are particulars. St. Thomas was referring to abstractions.

I’m not quite sure I understand. We can know and think of a cat without an image of a cat? What point of reference would we have then?

I believe there is comprehensive thought, in which we attempt comprehension of a phenomenon either internally or through transmission to or from something other than the self. This type of thought requires some type of language. Then there is passive awareness in which sensory input brings a concept into awareness which is formulated in thought as having direct relational meaning between the phenomena and how one perceives that phenomena in awareness but imparting no external meaning beyond this awareness. You need some form of language to impart meaning beyond what one identifies as the self and its passive sensory awareness and the other. In this way I don’t believe we need both image and word to form a conception of a thing.

You should explain this further since the word image itself implies similitude and not exactitude.

Also words themselves are at best abstractions of the reality they are trying to represent. The particulars of which words or images are being used are irrelevant as to comparing their necessity to the thought using them to express itself.
What else could have St. Thomas meant if not the symbolic representation of the thing in our thoughts? Language and image is similitude and abstraction. If we are not the thing being brought into thought then we of necessity in having a thought about the thing must use some form of imagery or “phantasm” in order to formulate that things representation in our awareness.

I’m not going to go into a full explanation of St. Thomas’ philosophy of the mind. I will say that St. Thomas did not think we could entirely understand a thing in its actual existence, but he did believe we could have moderate real knowledge of it and what it is. The universal form that exists as a particular instantiation in nature is what is expressed in thought and the means by which we know the thing. That form exists intelligibly in thought and naturally in the thing apprehended. We know the object by knowing its form. The object itself and its existence isn’t in knowledge, just the form.

Language and pictures have no inherent meaning in themselves, they’re just pointers or signs we use for concepts. The meaning of any word in a language is subjective to the intelligent person using it. Any mental picture is, in some sense, an abstraction. However, any mental picture has particular conditions as if it is a material thing. You picture it with size, with color, with texture, or some combination depending on how detailed you’re being. The concept in knowledge is abstracted from all these material conditions.

We come to know things by sensing them, and perceiving them, and that includes the mental picture of them. St. Thomas pointed out that these perceptions are instruments of the external object, and we abstract from the material conditions of these pictures (or really any sense perception and combination of them) their form, and this is expressed as a concept. Your concept of a cat, or a circle, is not any particular picture of a cat or a circle, or even a finite group of pictures. Your concept is the form of the thing existing in an intelligible mode in your intellect.

As for whether you as a rational animal can think of a circle or cat without conjuring a new particular mental picture each time or mental hearing of a word is something I’m not really addressing. I just wanted to be clear St. Thomas wasn’t referring to either of these things when he called the concept an “image” or “word”.

I’m not really feeling like defending St. Thomas’ description in this topic, I just wanted to comment on a misunderstanding. The general process St. Thomas and his commentators John of St. Thomas and Cajetan is as follows (simplified and streamlined):

External Senses > Inner Senses, i.e. common sense and imagination / phantasm (the “mental picture”) > Active Intellect abstracting the form from the material conditions of the phantasm > Impressed intellect receiving the form > Expressed Intellect “speaking” the word/concept insofar as the knower has the same form as the object in an intelligible manner

By speaking we don’t mean a train of thought or having our language words in our mind, it just means the intellect expresses the concept as a formal similitude to the object.

Edit: And that’s just the general manner of encountering and knowing a thing. I didn’t really speak to recall and reflection or any number of other specifics.

Edit 2: The key point for St. Thomas’ realism is that the concept and the object, while under different modes of existence, are constituted by the same form, and that the concept (outside of reflection) isn’t the object of thought but the medium by which we know the external object, that which contains the intellible content of the object, in a sense, in a psychic way as opposed to its natural way.

Philosophy is not familiar territory to me, just to be clear.

This topic reminded me of what Helen Keller (deaf and blind from the age of 18 months) said about her years of existence before her teacher Annie Sullivan found a way to connect language with experience.

I don’t have time to look it up, and it’s been over 30 years since I did that research. If you’re interested, a Google search might yield her writing on this.

I’m not particularly interested in a full explanation of HIS philosophy of the mind. I’m much more interested in YOUR understanding of a philosophy of the mind, whether it be in agreement with his or not.

I agree. Since to understand a thing in its entirety one would have to be that thing in its specific nature.

I agree with this as well but only in so far as God lines up what real knowledge of a thing all other things can share in. If two things differ in their real knowledge of a thing then what actual real knowledge of that thing can we have that is universally specific to that thing?

Yet one must ask what is universal about a perceived form? For instance some animals perceive form through senses humans lack. So what is the true form? Is it the form we contemplate when we develop a thought about something based upon our own perception? Or is the universal form the form which forms a thought of it based upon our discovery and contemplation of information about a thing that we formerly was unaware of? The color blind man may formulate his thoughts based upon the notion that all perceived forms are colored either in black or white but is this an expression of true form formulated in their thoughts? Is there any way to tell which humans perceive the universal form of a thing existing in nature expressed in their thought as universally true of that things form?

A form in a hylemorphic sense (which is what St. Thomas means here) isn’t a picture or shape, it’s the formal cause of a thing, what it formally is. Non-rational animals would have the external and internal senses referred to above (post# 10) but only rational animals have the active intellect to abstract the form, receive it into the impressed intellect, and express it as a concept.

I think we are all like Hellen Keller when it comes to philosophy. And I don’t mean like the achievements she ended up accomplishing, I mean we are stuck in the state Annie Sullivan found her in. Deaf, mute, and blind.

And what can one contemplate about a thing apart from those things that formalize what that thing is? One can only contemplate a thing that is not oneself, either by perception of formal differences or assumptions of formal similarities. Regardless of this being externally apparent or internally inferred. Formulating thoughts on what things formally are is impossible without these other considerations. One might even say what a thing formally is, is the thing it interpretively presents itself realistically to be. Does it make sense to think about what a cat formally is without contemplating a feline image? What a man or woman formally is without imagining a bipedal human shape? Now does one expect that ALL that a cat is is its apparent shape? I would say after interacting with cats we would determine no. But could we conclude that a cat is something without the addition of a feline shape? I would also say no. I would go the other way and conclude that the feline shape is what gives the cat its formal cause not the formal cause of a cat its feline shape.

Interesting question. It is clear, from observing human behavior, that the converse is true.

What about a human that has lost both legs? Is he no longer human? Or a cat born without a tail? The form of a thing certainly informs (heh) the properties (including shape) we expect (and vice versa: we learn about the form by observing those properties across a wide spectrum). A circle of course must necessarily have a certain shape. But the (hylemorphic) form as such is not just a reference to a physical shape as such. We might learn and know that all things of a certain form have (or under what-we-call-normal conditions will develop) a certain shape, but the technical term “form” isn’t a direct reference to shape, just the principle of what a thing formally is.

And that’s a lot of words for me to say it’s not that we disregard shape as irrelevant, it’s that people mistakenly confuse the technical term and principle of “form” as directly meaning shape.

Anyway, while I often have a mental picture of a circle when discussing a circle, it does not seem I at all times need that picture in order to contemplate or discuss “what is circularity”. And my picture of a cat might be orange and of a certain size, or my picture of a circle today might be a white shape bordered by a black line, but my formal concept (in a technical sense) of a cat (even while I have the picture while considering the concept) does not include these “material” conditions. It is abstracted from them. When I talk of a cat and picture a twenty pound, orange cat and hear me and picture a ten pound, gray tabby cat, we are entertaining the same intelligible concept, we are just creating different particular pictures as we do so.

Yes: musical cords are neither language nor imagery yet they can easily be imagined.

Yes, therein lies my point. These objects are predicated by their dimensional conformity to the composited experience of what the norm would be and the substantial form of this norm is predicated by this composite. One cannot contemplate the substantial form of a thing without predicated experience. If we remove all consideration of the primary matter or accidents of a thing, we are left with no framework on which to hang the substantial form of the thing.

Doesn’t matter if the substantial form contemplated is based on dimensionality, materiality, immateriality, or any other reality. If the form is not predicated in some manner there is nothing left to contemplate. What is the substantial form of a human? Hair? No hair is an accident. So is the substantial form of a human hairless? Skinless? Legless? Armless? Eyeless? And on we go until all physicality is removed. So is the substantial form of a human lacking physicality? Is a human’s substantial form the human’s spirit? Then we ask what distinguishes a human’s spiritual form from another creature’s spiritual form? To answer this we again have to consider predicating the spirit. Might we define first what a human is before we can capture a human’s substantial form with comprehension? But isn’t a human’s substantial form what is the defining unchanging expression of being a human? So we define humanities substantial form by what is universal in every human which defines what a human is but the only thing universally unchanging in every human is its substantial form. Isn’t this circular reasoning?

I understand. I was keeping in mind Aristoteles concept of substantial form. I was simply using dimensionality as an expression of accident.

It may not seem that way but if you are contemplating circularity with awareness you must of necessity formulate a thought of your aptly applied understanding of circularity in some symbolic manner, whether it be an actual imagining of a circle or the use of language in demonstration of your abstract reasoning which in some manner relates that reasoning with your experience. You cannot discuss circularity meaningfully without first defining what circularity is by experience either direct or indirect. You can of course accept a definition of circularity by someone else without having direct experience of recognized circularity never the less the definition is either meaningful to you through importing things from the definition that you do have experience in or it imparts no meaning to you what so ever and therefore imparts no meaning to your contemplation of that definition of circularity.

It may not include those specific conditions but I dare say it must include some generalizations of a cat made specific when brought into your awareness. If I asked you to think of a chair what is it you’re thinking of? A chairs function? A chairs literal definition in words? A chairs potential - As a weapon in a wrestling match perhaps -? The type of chair? Your mind must have something to hang the thought of chair on in order to render meaning to the item being contemplated. One cannot contemplate the “substantial” aspects of what it is to be a chair without first hanging the thought of chair on some formulation of a predicated chair. One may conclude after deliberation that a chair can be wooden, have arms or no arms, be one legged or multi legged, be a rock, or even be the ground depending on how you specifically define chair but none of these conclusions can be contemplated without first bringing the specific out of the general or contemplating the general through specifics.

That is my point. You cannot define the same intelligible concept without thinking in individual specifics and because your thoughts hang on specific individual conceptions in order to make meaningful substantial forms you cannot universally define in a meaningful way those same substantial forms.

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