How simple is simple apprehension? – Some worries about psychological structures and historiography

In De anima 430a26, Aristotle famously speaks of simple apprehension as the intellect’s grasping of undivided objects. So if you grasp the essence of a tree, your intellect performs what the scholastic tradition calls a “simplex apprehensio”. One of the great features of this cognitive act is its supposed veridicality. It is always truthful, since error seems to occur only on the level of judgments. Now one of the questions keeping me awake at night is this: what is the structure of that intellectual act? As you’ll see shortly, this is not merely an issue in psychosemantics but also in our historiography.

While Aristotle himself seems to have taken the simplicity of apprehension to relate to the structure of the object, most authors in the scholastic tradition take the intellectual operation to be simple. According to many commentaries on Peri hermeneias in the 13th and 14th centuries, this kind of apprehension is the first operation of the intellect and thus the basis of all further reasoning.

Now, the assumption that all cognition and reasoning starts with simple items also guides our common historiography. Given the apparent medieval consensus, it’s not surprising to hear contemporary commentators like Jonathan Bennett and Robert Brandom claim that pre-Kantian or pre-Fregean authors take simple mental or linguistic units as basic. For instance, Brandom writes (MIE 1994, 79): “The pre-Kantian tradition took it for granted that the proper order of semantic explanation begins with a doctrine of concepts or terms … Kant rejects this. One of his cardinal innovations is the claim that the fundamental unit of awareness, the minimum graspable, is the judgment.”

A glance at the medieval texts seems to confirm this. Nearly all logicians in the Aristotelian tradition appear to construe the relation between language and thought as structurally analogous. While single names correspond to simple concepts, sentences correspond to combinations of concepts. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, states that a judgement always presupposes a preceding simple apprehension (cf. Aquinas, Expostio in libri Peryermenias, prooemium: “Harum autem operationum prima ordinatur ad secundam: quia non potest esse compositio et divisio, nisi simplicium apprehensorum.”).

But what kind of priority does Thomas Aquinas have in mind? A psychological priority? – Whatever the answer to that might be, we encounter an intriguing discussion about the structure of simple apprehension in later scholasticism and even in John Locke. “An detur in prima operatione simplex iudicium?” (“Is there a simple judgement in the first operation?”), asks Martinus Smiglecius (Logica disp. 3, q. 1, Oxford [1617], 100). He then goes on to reprimand Suárez and some other authors for calling simple apprehension a judgement, even though they qualified it as being imperfect, virtual or implicit. A close reading of Locke’s early Drafts for the Essay and the Essay itself shows that he must have known these discussions. He clearly refers to discussions about implicit judgements when he calls simple apprehensions a “kind of affirmation”.

What we seem to find is an on-going debate about the (psychological) structure of the first operation of the intellect. I have tried to explore this and related issues in various publications, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what was at the heart of these discussions and what kept them alive. In any case, we have good reason to doubt the widespread historiography regarding pre-Kantian or pre-Fregean authors.

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4 Responses to How simple is simple apprehension? – Some worries about psychological structures and historiography

  1. Calista Lam says:

    Let me make sure if I understand the question which keeps you awake at night. The question is: is the simple apprehension, as described by Aristotle at DA 430a26ff, the most fundamental unit of awareness (i) in the (temporal and logical) sense of being the first act of the intellect and is presupposed by all other kinds of cognitive acts, or (ii) in the sense of that the object of simple apprehension is the simplest unit the intellect can grasp? This question happens to be one I am currently thinking of.
    The possibility that (ii) is true while (i) isn’t: it can be the case that the object of ‘simplex apprehensio’ is the minimum unit the intellect can grasp while simplex apprehensio isn’t the first act of the intellect. In that possible case, the first act of the intellect might well be a cognitive act which involves “combination and separation” – an act we may call ‘judgment’. A reason to deny the possibility that (ii) is true while (i) isn’t is that (ii) entails (i). This reason involves an assumption, namely that there is a structural correspondence between the object of cognition and the act of the cognition such that the simplest unit of the object of the act simple apprehension on the one hand, corresponds to the simplest act (or operation) of the intellect on the other hand. This assumption is important because it is involved in “our common historiography”. The quote from Brandom is particularly helpful. The inferentialist literature, represented by Brandom, takes it as a revolutionary contribution made by Kant in rejecting the Aristotelian tradition which takes the proper semantic explanation to begin with terms, whose meaningfulness can be grasped independently of and prior to the meaningfulness of judgments (Brandom 2000, 159). But it may also involve another assumption, namely that an act of the intellect can hardly be the first act without being a simple operation, and that a simple operation must not involve any separation or combination and thus only deals with simple undivided object. The possibility that (i) is true while (ii) isn’t, it seems to me, also involves the same assumptions.
    This issue is part of a broader project about Aristotle I am working on. Part of it involves asking what does it mean to say Aristotle is held to believe that there is a structural parallel between language and ontology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Martin Lenz says:

      Many thanks for your comments; these are awesome reflections! Yes, I agree that it is crucial to differentiate between reading (i) and (ii). And I also think that Aristotle would endorse (ii). For the record, I find (i) psychologically implausible. As I said, I am less sure what goes on in the commentary traditions.

      Now I have a question for you: you also distinguish between two important assumptions: (1) structural analogy between mental operation and object; (2) “an act of the intellect can hardly be the first act without being a simple operation”.
      Assumption (2) is unclear to me, amongst other things because I’m not sure whether you understand “first” in sense (i) or (ii). You seem to rely on reading (ii), though. Is that right? And who makes this assumption?

      Btw: your project sounds very intriguing. The question seems to dominate much of the discussions, especially w.r.t. the organon and De anima etc. What I always found particularly puzzling is a passage in Mephysics VII, c. 11 (1037a17-21), where Aristotle discusses how we should understand the unity of logos and pragma in relation to one another.

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      • calistalam says:

        The first assumption, if there is such an assumption at all, is about the correspondence between what can be apprehended and how can something be apprehended. If what is apprehended is a simple undivided object, the act of apprehension should be a simple operation, and vice versa.
        The second assumption, if there is such an assumption at all, is an assumption about what qualifies as the first act of the intellect. If I was allowed to use some not-too-Aristotelian terminologies, the second assumption states that the first act of the intellect must not be propositional. I think it enjoys textual support, for Aristotle holds that knowledge of the principles begins with sense perception, and sense perception is of the particular (De Anima 417b22, Posterior Analytics 87b28-31). [Is this the reason for you to say that (i) is psychologically implausible? Or is it because we are all Kantian?]
        So now it seems to me the commentators or proponents of the inferentialism just made an independent judgment that the object of the first act of the intellect is simple undivided object. Perhaps it is just a straightforward reading of the text at DA430a26ff.
        But what is important, for me, is your initial question: what is the structure of the (first) intellectual act – should we side with what is suggested by the text, that the object of the intellectual act should be simple and undivided, or with the Scholastic tradition in taking the operation to be simple? [Or, are they both correct?] I try to ‘guess’ on the possible assumptions, because what’s important, I think, is whether these assumptions are grounded on Aristotle’s broader philosophical commitments, or they are the interpreters’ own assumptions?
        [A side note, for my own interest: the assumption that the pre-Kantian tradition takes terms/concepts as the minimum unit our mind can grasp, is not only dominant in the inferentialist literature, it is also dominant in the interpretation of the Categories, the connection among Aristotle’s philosophy of language, his categories and his philosophy of mind, and also the Kantian criticisms of Aristotle’s categories.]

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin Lenz says:

    Thanks for your reply! Now I understand what you mean by assumption 2. – Yes, the idea of non-propositional intellectual acts as primary acts seems implausible. It almost seems as if you were to think “Oh, white” and then “Oh, wall” and finally “Oh, the wall is white”. But you’re right: An. Post. II 19 also points in that direction.
    As for the initial question, the more I think about the less sure I am about the texts. What I find most difficult to decide is whether they refer to logical, semantic or psychological facts. It’s one think to say that the primary logical units are simple; it’s quite another thing to say our first mental states are simple. The later medieval and early modern debates seem to be about the psychological properties. (Or perhaps the fact that some authors take this as a psychological discussion makes them insist that simple apprehensions are implicit judgments…).

    What Brandom seems to find most important with regard to Kant is the idea that judgments are commitments, or, in Wittgensteinian terms, a move in the language game.

    By the way: There is an interesting paper by David Sedley, arguing that Aristotle does not start with simple units, but rather works from a holistic background. The paper is referenced in this piece by Stephan Meier-Oeser ( But you probably know this paper.

    In any case, what, do you think, are Aristotle’s reasons for claiming that simple apprehension is the starting point? Do you think it is due to what one could call his empiricism (cf. An Post II 19)? Or does he have other reasons? And what is your take on David Sedley’s reading?


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