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THE NATURE OF KNOWLEDGE

Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2007.

Knowing always involves a knower knowing something. It involves a relationship


between a knower and the known. It is an act which joins a mind with an object in a relationship
which is unique and incomparable with any other. There is no such thing as knowledge without
something known and a knowing subject knowing it. Each and every act of knowing is a
synthesis of object and subject. Because of the relation between two beings, the knower and the
known, man does not remain a closed being, like a block of granite or a piece of red brick.
Rather, he is able to open himself up so to say to the world around him; he is able to transcend
himself, to go out of himself and enter into communication with other beings. However, the act
of knowing is something inverse; it is the extra-mental thing that, in a certain manner which we
shall explain, is received into the human subject, as knowledge is a preeminently immanent
action, taking place, not outside but within the knowing subject.
There are three basic elements of knowledge, namely: 1. the subject or the knowing
being; 2. the object or that something known (before it is known it is called the knowable object,
and during or after the act by which it is known it is called the object known); and 3. the act of
knowing called cognition. When all these elements join together the resultant product is an act of
knowledge or cognition.
Purely physical beings dont know. A rock doesnt know. A glass doesnt know. A glass
receives another being, water for example, in the most superficial manner. Any more intimate
communication would mean a loss of identity, becoming something else. Fire united with wood
produces something new: ashes. A substantial change has occured. The union of hydrogen and
oxygen results in a third thing: water.
Why does a man know while a rock does not know? It is because a rock has only its own
form while a man is capable of receiving the form of the rock and countless other beings in the
universe in an immaterial way. When a man receives the form of the rock in the knowing process
the change involved in this knowing is immaterial, not substantial-material (as when an apple is
changed into my flesh when I eat it or when fire reduces a piece of wood into ashes). The rock
that I know does not change its being and my flesh does not turn into stone when I think of it for
the stone is not transferred into my mind in a material way. The rock exists in me in an
immaterial way. The rock that I know is one whole thing that really exists in the world whether I
think of it or not. The real object - which here is the rock - is one, while its intentional presence
is multiplied according to the number of knowers. If five hundred persons know a single rock, its
intentional presence in the minds of these five hundred persons is five hundred.
Immateriality,1 therefore, is at the basis of our knowledge. Nothing can be known unless
it has in itself something not matter which it can give to us (in the case of our rock it is its form
1

Owens gives us a scholastic epistemological explanation of the immaterial reception of the intentional species or
form into the knowing subject: Although both in perception and in material production a form is received through
the activity of an efficient cause, the manner of its reception is quite different in the two cases. From what has just

or rather forms substantial and accidental). And we are unable to know unless we have within
ourselves something not matter which can receive the nature of another thing without losing our
own. Therefore, the condition both of knowledge and of knowability is a certain degree of
immateriality. My knowledge of rocks is something I can communicate to a classroom full of
students. But I do not lose this knowledge by communicating it to, say, a hundred students.
In knowledge the object gives its forms to the subject without losing these forms. Form is
communicable; matter is not. In knowledge I receive the form of things in an immaterial way.
Now, what exactly is this form we are referring to? There is something immaterial in every
actual being, even in every material being such as our rock. This something is the form, or rather,
the forms - substantial and accidental. Every corporeal substance is a hylemorphic composite,
been seen, reception of form as studied in the philosophy of nature meant the changing of some matter from one
form to another. The result was the production of a third thing. In contrast, Aristotle had described perception as
meaning the reception of form without the matter.(Cf. ARISTOTLE, De Anima, 2. 12. 424a 17-b16). This did not
imply that either the matter of the percipient or the matter of the thing perceived was somehow eliminated. Both
percipient and thing remained corporeal beings. The Greek commentators on Aristotle gradually came to explain the
phrase as referring to the manner of reception (Cf. ALEXANDER OF APHRODISIAS, De Anima, 60.3-62.4 ;
THEMISTIUS, De Anima, 77.34-78.10 ; PHILOPONUS, De Anima, 437.30-438.13 ; SIMPLICIUS, De Anima,
166.3-34 ; SOPHONIAS, De Anima, 102.20-104.13). It meant that in perception the form of the thing is received
immaterially, in the sense of a reception different in kind from that which modifies or changes matter. Here the
form is received in a manner that avoids alteration of anything in the natures of either the recipient or the thing
perceived. It brings each into a new cognitional existence in which they are one and the same, but without change in
the natures of either. It makes them exist not only together, but as one. It makes the one be the other cognitionally,
with the percipient performing the act of cognition and alone have the awareness.
From this viewpoint, then, the reception of the form in cognition is not a material reception. Rather than being
received qua cognitional into any matter, it is united with the form of the recipient in giving the one and the same
cognitional existence to both percipient and thing in the actuality of the cognition. That is the way it may be
regarded as a reception of form into form, in contrast to the reception of form into matter as known in the
philosophy of nature. There is of course a concomitant material reception of the modifications taking place in sense
organs, nerves and brain. There is also the production of images and concepts, which are accidental entities in the
category of quality (In late Scholasticism the images and concepts were known as species expressae. See John of St.
Thomas, Ars Logica, 2.22.2; ed. B. Reiser, Turin, 1930, I, 702a 44-b 18. In contrast, the term species impressa was
used for the form received through the action of the sensible thing or of the agent intellect). These all are means by
which or in which the cognition takes place. They are produced through an internal activity with its form given by
the distant cause that is acting efficiently upon the percipient... the percipient, besides having the physical
potentiality to receive the images in material fashion on the retina of his eyes, has also the cognitional potentiality to
receive their forms immaterially and thereby to become what the retinal images represent.
the notion of immateriality in cognition arises from the way the form of a thing is received in perception. No
change or alteration is caused in the thing by the cognitional reception. Both percipient and thing perceived remain
material beings. They do not become immaterial themselves through the act of perceiving. The cow you see in the
field remains a material object when it comes to exist immaterially in your cognition. There is no such thing as an
immaterial cow, either outside or inside the mind. Its nature requires it to be material, and the perception of it does
not change its nature. Nor do you yourself become an immaterial agent when you are reflexively aware of your own
self in the act of perceiving the cow. The designation immaterial in regard to cognition arises from the way the
form is received in perception. It does not require that either agent or object be without matter.
Nevertheless it is correct to say in Scholastic terminology that immateriality is the root of cognition, that the
grades of cognition vary according to the degrees of immateriality, and that in this way the nature of cognition lies in
immateriality (See AQUINAS, De Veritate, q. 2, a. 2, c. Immateriality, in this meaning, is not restricted to purely
spiritual things, since it applies to the cognition of the senses. The application of it to cognition is based upon the
way form is received in cognition, a way different from the physical modification of matter, and meaning reception
of form into form.)(J. OWENS, Cognition: An Epistemological Inquiry, Center for Thomistic Studies, Houston,
1992, pp. 43-45).

that is, an essential composite of primary matter and a substantial form and is determined in
many ways by accidental forms.
Hylemorphism is the theory of matter (hyle) and form (morphe). It states that every
natural substance, that is, every complete material substance, is a composite of two essential
intrinsic principles, one a principle of potentiality, viz., primary matter, and the other a principle
of actuality, viz., substantial form. Prime matter, which is the common substrate of all bodies,
says Glenn, has itself no determinateness, nothing to make it actual, nothing to make it this or
that kind of body, but waits, so to speak, for the coming of the substantial determinant which will
give it actuality as materia secunda (secondary matter), a finished body of definite type actually
existing. Prime matter is thus the subject of the determining element which gives it existence as a
substance. Thus we may define prime matter as follows: A passive and indeterminate substantial
principle which is the subject of all substantial determinations and substantial changes, and
which remains changeless in itself under such changes.2 Form on the other hand, the most
important of the two, is determining and definitive, determining prime matter to substantial
being, to a definite species of being, giving it a definite nature. Form, which is the determination
of the essence, is what makes the essence to be what it is. It is the act of the essence, the essential
act determining the essence to be what it is. The substantial form of our hylemorphic composite,
Glenn states, is defined as an active and determining substantial principle which is the term
(that is the goal, the end, the completed being) of all substantial changes in bodies, and which
constitutes each individual continuum in its essential actuality.3 There is not just the substantial
form of a thing but also the various accidental forms (e.g., quality, quantity) which pertain to that
existing being (ens). Any form is a cause in relation to the matter it in-forms, since it gives
that matter the actuality of a determinate manner of being. The form without which a being
would be nothing at all is called substantial form. Those forms which affect an already actual
being by conferring on it further modifications are called accidental forms. The substantial form
gives a thing its basic manner of being, making it a substance: a man is a man and therefore he is,
because of his soul. The accidental forms, in contrast, only give a substance certain secondary
configurations, which obviously can only affect something which is already a substance. The
substantial form is the act of prime matter, which is the subject which receives it. Accidental
forms modify the substance (the secondary matter) which supports them.4
All the corporeal things around us are composites of matter and form. Form is that which
makes a thing what it is, giving them their basic way of being: manness, catness, whaleness, and
so on. But manness does not exist by itself. Individual men exist: Paul, Billy, Edward, Bobby
exist. Likewise catness does not exist by itself but only individual cats that cat down the street,
that brown cat on the top of the roof, that black cat crossing the highway, etc. Form alone, then,
is not enough to explain the actually existing men, cats, and whales in our world. There must be
something else in things, something which limits them, which ties them down to this particular
way of being and not any other, to this particular time and place, to this quantity. There must, in
short be another principle in things, a principle of limitation, a principle which limits form,
restricts it in a way, making it individual, quantified, existing in a definite time and place. This
principle is matter.
2

P. GLENN, Cosmology, B. Herder, St. Louis, 1941, p. 148.


P. GLENN, op. cit., p. 152.
4
T. ALVIRA, T. MELENDO, L. CLAVELL, Metaphysics, Sinag-Tala, Manila, 1991, p. 196.
3

Overcoming of Contrareity and the Principle of Assimilation


Now in the act of knowing, which is a psychic act, we do not get the matter of things into
our mind but instead receive their forms (accidental and substantial). And it is by means of the
forms of things in us that we get to know these extra-mental things. We receive the forms of
various things in an immaterial way through a psychic act. The insertion of the formality into
the cognitive potency, writes Sanguineti, allows knowledge in act, according to two
Aristotelian principles: 1) Overcoming of contrariety: material objects are receptive of sensible
qualities, but the natural presence of a concrete quality impedes that of another: that is, the
sensible qualities are contrary elements, which exclude one another reciprocally. Instead,
knowledge surpasses contrareity. For example, the faculty capable of receiving colours
immaterially must not only be uncoloured, but rather incapable of undergoing the determination
of a natural colour; having in itself the receptive potency when confronted by every colour, it
rests above the concrete colours that is, it is in a certain sense situated in the appropriate
genus in order to be able to objectivize any colour, distinguishing one from the other.
2) Principle of assimilation: the cognitive potency initially finds itself in an objective
vacuum, while it does not know anything in act (even if it can know everything that enters into
the scheme of its formal object). Knowledge consists not only in the grasping of a form, but in
the identification of the faculties with the known form. The cognitive potency passes into act
when, being able to receive the form of the thing, it appropriates this latter to the point of making
it its own. Since being is specified according to the form, when the cognitive potency is
informed by an object, it can be said that it acquires a being according to such an object: the
sight that sees a colour makes itself that colour, in terms of an intentional identification with its
object. In the act of knowing, the knower is the known, precisely because the former has
assimilated the latter made similar to the same and appropriated it.5
The Intentional Species
The form in the cognitive power of the knowing subject is called the intentional species.
This species is an actuation of our cognitive power. The species is not that which we know but is
rather that by which we know the thing that really exists. Knowledge is produced thanks to the
actuation of the intentional species in our cognitive power. Species here does not signify a
logical principle which determines predicational existence, nor does it signify an ontological
principle which determines natural existence; rather, it is a gnoseological principle which
determines intentional existence. So, in its cognitive meaning, a species is an intentional form.
As an intentional form it is an instrument of knowledge. Renard explains the nature and role of
the intentional species in cognition, writing: The faculty of knowledge in man, whether intellect
or sense, is primarily a passive and indeterminate potency. It must somehow be actuated, moved
from potency to act, by the object, since the object is a real cause of knowledge. This actuation
implies the reception in the faculty of an immaterial form which renders the object present. We
call this form the re-presentative species or image. We should note, however, that the being of
the object received in the knower is not the physical object which exists distinct from the

J. J. SANGUINETI, Logic and Gnoseology, Urbaniana University Press, Rome, 1987, p. 203.

knower, but a form or species6 a more or less perfect likeness which presents not merely the
form of the object, but the whole object, the composite of matter and form. This likeness, this
species, is called the object in the intentional order. This same species, when viewed not as a representation but according to its own reality in the order of nature, is an accidental form, and as
such it is united physically with the operative potency, the cognoscitive faculty of which it is the
actuation.
Now, if we consider the union which takes place in the order of nature between the
species (as an accidental form) and the operative potency (which is an accidental form of the
knowing subject), we must say that this union is a physical union of act and potency This is so
because the species is the actuation of the operative potency, and the resulting composite is
neither of its parts; it is something else, a third something, namely, the actuated faculty. If,
however, we consider that the form received is the likeness of the object, and that by means of
this likeness the subject knows the object; and if, moreover, we consider that both forms the
operative potency and the species are acts (perfections) and are immaterial,7 we must infer that
this union is a peculiar union of act (perfection) with act, through which the subject becomes the
object in the operation we call knowledge.
That the species must be immaterial is easily shown. The reason is that the subject must
somehow be immaterial in order to know. The object, being received in the knower, must also be
free from matter according to the degree of immateriality of the subject, since whatever is
received must be received according to the nature of the receiver. It follows, then, that a
corporeal object will have to be received in the knower as a representative, immaterial form, a
species, by means of which the operative potency will unite itself to the object.8 It is unthinkable
6

Exceptions to this distinction are noted in the case of pure spirits (angels) and more so in the case of God,
regarding the knowledge of their own essence. The object here is intelligible in itself, immediately present to the
subject, and proportioned to its mode of knowledge. At this peak of reality, the order of nature is identical with the
order of intention, and, therefore, no representative species is required. If, however, it were objected that the soul of
man, which is an immaterial form and therefore intelligible in itself and immediately present to the knower, is not
known except by means of a very imperfect representative species, the answer, as we shall explain later, is that this
object is not proportioned to the human intellect, which has for its proper object material essences.
7
The subject must somehow be immaterial in order to know. The species, being received in the knower, must also
be free from matter according to the degree of immateriality of the subject, since whatever is received must be
received according to the nature of the receiver: the sensible form is in one way in the thing which is external to
the soul, and in another way in the senses, which receive the forms of sensible things without receiving matter, such
as the color of gold without receiving gold. So, too, the intellect, according to its own mode, receives under
conditions of immateriality and immobility the species of material and movable bodies; for the received is in the
receiver according to the mode of the receiver(Summa Theologiae, I, q. 84, a. 1, c.)
8
the known material things must exist in the knower not materially, but rather immaterially. The reason for this
is that the act of knowledge extends to things outside the knower(Summa Theologiae, I, q. 84, a. 2, c.). When a
material object is known, it is received in the knower. This reception is not a material reception. Rather, this
reception of the object means that a representative species is educed from the operative potency (in the case of
human knowledge) by the action of the object. Now, to exercise this action, the object must somehow be in act.
This, however, would not be possible if the corporeal object did not possess a faint vestige of the immaterial, of
actuality.
All limited beings, even those that are lowermost in the scale of reality, participate in immateriality. The reason
is that all limited beings, precisely because they are beings, must participate in the Being that is the pure act of being
and which therefore is pure Immateriality. Consequently, no matter how weak this participation is, no matter how
deeply immersed in matter the form may be, there remains a trace of that which it shares, of that which makes it real,

that a corporeal, individual substance, existing by its natural to be, could be received in an
immaterial subject, and be united to the knower in an intentional union. We conclude: the
species, which is the actuation of the cognoscitive faculty, is an immaterial form.9
Being (Ens) is That Which is First Grasped by the Intellect
What is the formal object of ones intelligence? It is being (ens). The first thing that falls
under the grasp of the intelligence is being (ens) because the comprehension of any type of thing
involves a preceding comprehension of its character as being (ens). The complex concept of
being (ens) is the first idea formed by the human mind, which is not innate but proceeding from
experience, in which man notices being as soon as he intellectually knows. One does not
therefore treat of an explicitly abstract idea which emerges later as the result of a greater
elaboration, but rather of the fact that anything that is the object of some comprehension is first
grasped under the character of being (ens). The apprehension of the real, writes Llano against
critical realism, is immediately resolved into that of being. It is not possible to found the
apprehending of reality on a previous grasping of causality, as critical realism would have it,
because the notion of cause depends on that of being, and not vice versa. To begin with an
awareness of internal experience in order subsequently to demonstrate the external reality of its
object with the help of the principle of causality is, evidently, to introduce the very
demonstration as an intermediary between psychological experience and its object.10 The
approach of critical realism attempts to go from what is apprehended to the real. Metaphysical
realism, in contrast, starts out with real being. Because, no matter what object I apprehend, the
first thing I grasp about it is its being: ens est quod primum cadit in intellectu. Now this being,
which is the first object of the intellectis very far from being something apprehended without
the real; it is, in fact, the real itself, given, doubtless, in an apprehension, but not inasmuch as
apprehended. If the thing which experience offers for our analysis ought to be decomposed
according to its natural components, it is still undoubtedly an apprehended real thing which is
being presented to us by our experience, and no method authorizes us to present it as a real
apprehension unless we change its structure.11
Starting with the first intellectual illumination of experience, we progress in our
knowledge of being. The real panorama which our senses and our intellect offer us is not static,
but made up of changeable realities. The movements of things, their activity, their mutual
influences, reveal a real capacity on the part of beings for receiving and communicating
perfections. The consideration of this natural dynamism leads us to the knowledge of passive
potency the capacity to be determined and active potency the capacity to determine in
things.12

which makes it be. It is by reason of this actual element that a material object is able to actuate, to move the human
cognitive potency.
9
H. RENARD, The Philosophy of Man, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1956, pp. 99-102.
10
E. GILSON, El realismo metdico, Rialp, Madrid, 1952, p. 78.
11
E. GILSON, op. cit., p. 104.
12
A. LLANO, Gnoseology, Sinag-Tala, Manila, 2001, pp. 117-118.

Definition of Human Knowledge


After all that has been presented in this chapter, can we give a definition of mans
knowledge? Yes. Renard gives us a descriptive definition of human knowledge, stating:
Human knowledge is an immanent operation enacted through the operative potency which has
been actuated by a representative species of the object, thus enabling the knowing subject by its
operation to become intentionally united with the object.13

13

H. RENARD, op. cit., p. 108.