Thomistic Psychology & Technology

As a Research Fellow with the Center for the Study of Digital Life, my main project has been to explore the connections of the faculty psychology originated by Aristotle’s Περὶ ψυχῆς (transliterated: Peri psuche; in Latin: De anima; in English: On the Soul) and carried into the medieval tradition, especially as found in Thomas Aquinas and his specific enumeration of “interior sense powers” (ST Ia, 78, a.4), with the effects of technological development.  I wrote a bit about the interior senses prior, but in a general and sweeping sense.  Here, I want to put my research instead into an explicitly Thomistic context, and explain a little about the importance of technology to our faculties.

What is “psychology”?

Most people, when hearing the word “psychology”, typically think of the contemporary scientific practice, and likely conjure up images of scientists in lab coats, or perhaps the practitioners of psychological study’s therapeutic applications, psychiatrists: bearded men with round-rimmed glasses writing notes in an expensive chair while someone lying on a chaise describes a dream about his mother (even though the vast majority of students in psychological disciplines today are women).

In both psychology and psychiatry, the common object of study and treatment is the complex of mental and emotional subjectivity—what someone thinks and feels—even if it is believed that the basis to which these phenomena can be reduced (a reduction not shared by all in the psychological sciences) is the biological, be that genetic or something specifically neurological.  This understanding of psychology as comprising an understanding of the complex of mental and emotional subjectivity is carried into applications for the entire organization of society: in warfare, business, economics, and especially in marketing.  In this way, there is a vernacular use of the term “psychology” which is similar to (as loosely derivative from), but does not map onto, the academic use.

The common root of these terms, psychology and psychiatry, is the Greek word psyche (ψυχῆς), which has a much broader meaning than is studied in the practice of contemporary academic or laboratory psychology, treated by contemporary psychiatry, or signified by the common vernacular use of the term “psychology”.  Psyche is translated into Latin as anima, and both the Greek and Latin terms are conventionally translated into English as “soul”.  Unfortunately, due to historical misappropriations, the English “soul” has been reduced to its association with the idea of the “spiritual soul”, thereby losing much of the rich significance possessed by the terms of antiquity.

In other words, for Aristotle just as for Aquinas, psyche or anima did not mean a “supernatural”, ethereal force; the soul was not a ghost in the machine, but the vital force of any living being.  The questions of the human soul’s spiritual dimension–“spirit” likewise having been a misappropriated term taken by later thinkers to signify that same ghost in the machine–arise not from a presupposed supernatural existence of the human, but from the natural intellectual capacities that an earth-bound, bodily-existing human exercises.  The spiritual dimension, in other words, is part of the same vital force that orders the life of the body.

“Psychology” as I use it here–as a philosophical or cenoscopic inquiry–is a study of the basic organizing principles enabling bodily life; thus, plants and non-human animals likewise fall into the study of “psychology”; not in their biological structures (which are the bodily processes through which the body operates), which we might consider as the material conditions of life, but in their organizational structures: the formal and final causes making the thing to be the kind of thing it is, which define its “nature”.

Specifically, this focuses for the Thomist around the “faculties” or “powers” of the soul (I prefer the former term, as the latter is used with a greater variety of meanings and therefore easily becomes confusing).

Faculties of the soul

For human beings–narrowing our focus here–these faculties are the “vegetative” or “nutritive”, the exterior senses, the interior senses, the intellect, and the will (see ST Ia, q.78 generally).  The nutritive faculties are those we share in common with all other living beings–the metabolic capacities, essentially–while the exterior senses are commonly known as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, though “touch” is generally now recognized as a genus of many other senses (equilibrium, temperature sensitivity, textural sensitivity, etc.).  Intellection is the capacity to recognize being and therefore the meaning of objects in themselves as things existing independently of our reference to them; and will is the capacity to direct oneself and one’s faculties (to some degree) to the pursuit of objects based upon what we have cognized about them (or to allow oneself to be directed by faculties depending upon their perceived rather than intellected desirability).  Although the nuances of these faculties are many and fascinating, it is the often-neglected “inner senses” which command our attention today.

It is these four faculties–the sensus communis or as I have come to call it (“common sense” having an entirely different meaning in English and therefore unsuitable as a translation), the integrating sense, the vis imaginativa/phantasia or simple retention, the vis memorativa or recollective retention, and the vis cogitativa or cogitative faculty–that constitute our perceptive capacity.  That is, often what we think of as sensations are in fact perceptions; we may sense something without perceiving of it and we may perceive something that, strictly speaking, we do not sense by the exterior faculties.  Aristotle divided this into, respectively, sensibles in themselves (e.g., white, loud, acrid) and incidental sensibles (the son of Diares).  In other words, we perceive unities that we do not sense.  This unification–whereby sensations are collated so as to form unities which may be perceptually objectivized–occurs through the integrating sense (cf. SCG II.100.3).

A working model of the interior sense faculties and their operations.

Perceptual objectivization–which I attribute formally to the cogitative faculty–is the germ of all the interior senses’ operations.  Subsequent to such objectivization follows a bevy of further operations: in the simple retention, the objects of exterior sensation are preserved without any patterning, contextualization, or experiential content: that is, we retain things just as we have sensed them.  The recollective retention retains the patterns not only in which we observe sensible objects, but also our perceptual experience of them–which includes the judgments of the evaluative operation, whereby the cogitative faculty judges an object beneficial, harmful, or neutral.

The cogitative faculty may then invoke both retentive capacities, for a new evaluative operation (e.g., this thing now seems beneficial but did it previously seem harmful?), for a memorative operation ordered towards some executive operation (e.g., how to get to the nearest water source from an unfamiliar location), or for a fictive operation: that is, a creative assembling based upon what has been retained from experiences past.

All of these operations have shared dependencies: though the cogitative faculty is the core of interior sensation, the operations it performs–in human beings, at least–are highly complex and depend upon the right-functioning of the other faculties.  Because all of these operations occur through the brain, the organ which adaptively fulfills these functions, there are always potential material faults.

As an aside: with the rise of scientific psychology in the late 19th century and the identification of the brain’s varied role in cognitive functioning, few who applied themselves to psychological studies retained this division of faculties; the brain seemed a homogenuous organ which performed all the operations, and thus the division of the faculties seemed arbitrary.  What these rejections missed is that, although the brain is a singular organ, the various regions become dedicated through early plastic imprinting to perform determinate functions which are common to all human beings.

At the same time, something can “go wrong” with these faculties and their relations to one another without any “material” fault.  In other words, these faculties can become ill-proportioned and distorted from fulfilling their proper end, which in human beings specifically is the service of the intellect’s discernment of the true (and thus the true good).  While such a disproportion can happen in any circumstance–because the disproportion is essentially a consequence of habituation, the forming of an active disposition in the faculty to operate in a determinate fashion–it happens more readily through technological means.

Technological extensions and distentions

Very succinctly defined, technology is the collected knowledge concerning means of artefactually extending natural human capacities within species-specifically human environments.  In a later post, I will explain this definition.  For now, we need only to note that a specific technology is the knowledge of a specific way of extending a natural capacity.  Usually, this knowledge is embodied in a device; oftentimes, even, the device being developed before the knowledge is attained precisely.  Regardless, the technological extension allows for something that we can do naturally to be done through an instrument, often an instrument streamlined for that very purpose and therefore more apt for performing the operation than we are unaided.  A hammer, for instance, is a smashing instrument.  A fist can be, as well, but you’ll likely bloody your knuckles before you get a nail deep into a piece of wood.

Today, we can see profound effects of technological extension on the interior sense faculties of the human psyche: most especially, in the age of television–which is a medium of communication which generally extends our ability to portray images but in any of its actual instantiations, ordinarily habituates us to acceptance of illusory objects–do we see that our faculties of retention have been minimized and our operations of fictive collation extended.

Thus, while many people are ready to blame the emergence of digital life for the current hysteria gripping the Western world–for instance, in the preponderant voicing of postgender ideologies–the truth is that the roots of our present delusional normal were laid decades ago.

And we are only just now beginning to understand the psychological consequences.

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