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 , 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.