Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

In scholastic terminology, Species is the necessary determinant of every cognitive process. Few scholastic doctrines have been more frequently misunderstood, misrepresented, and ridiculed than that of the species intentionales . And yet few are more obvious and unobjectionable, although we are no longer accustomed to them. While using different terms, modern psychology offers an explanation of knowledge which, in its essential features, is identical with that which was proposed by the great thinkers of the Middle Ages.

Knowledge is essentially the union of an object with the mind. As the cognitive process takes place in the mind, it follows that the known object must in some manner be present in the mind. "Cognitio contingit secundum quod cognitum est in cognoscente" (St. Thomas, "Contra gentiles", II, c. lxxvii and xcviii). Any cognitive faculty is indetermined, or in potentia in two ways:

  • (1) as we have no innate ideas, it is at first a mere aptitude to acquire knowledge, a power which is not always exercised;
  • (2) the same faculty is capable of knowing many things.

Thus the eye can perceive any colour; the ear, any sound; the intellect, any conceptual relation, etc. To pass from this state of twofold indetermination to a concrete and determined act of knowledge, the faculty needs a complement, a determining principle, or actus (see ACTUS ET POTENTIA). It must be "informed", or acted upon, by its object. For this reason all faculties of knowledge were called passive, not in the sense that the mind is merely passive in its cognitive process, but in the sense that it must first be acted upon, and thence be enabled to exercise its own cognitive activity. In other words, knowledge is not a spontaneous activity springing from the mind alone, but a reaction in response to an external stimulation.

The "species", frequently also called forma , is the determinant of the mind in the process of knowledge. It partakes of the nature both of the object from which it proceeds, and of the faculty in which it is received, for, as the scholastic axiom expresses is: "Quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur." And more specifically: "Cognitum. est in cognoscente secundum modum cognoscentis" (St. Thomas "Summa theol.", I, Q. xii, art. 4). Hence the species impressa is the modification of the faculty by the action of the object. The species expressa is the reaction of the mind as a cognitive process. The former is impressed in the faculty which it determines, and corresponds to the passive phase of knowledge which is a necessary condition but is not yet actual knowledge. The latter is the active response of the faculty, the cognitive process itself by which the mind reaches the object. The species must not be conceived as a substitute for the object, but as a mere medium of knowledge. The mind reaches the object directly and immediately, not the species. The species is not that which is known, "id quod cognoscitur", but that by which the object is known, "id quo objectum cognoscitur" (St. Thomas, "Summa theol.", I, Q. xii, art. 9; Q. xiv, art. 5; Q. lxxxv, art. 2; "De Veritate", Q. x, art. 8, ad 2 um , etc.). The object as acting on the faculty, and the faculty as acted on by the object, are one and the same reality. Actio and passio are the same thing with two aspects or phases. Hence there is no need of a bridge to pass from the subject to the object. The question: how can the mind know extramental objects? has no meaning when knowledge is conceived as the vital union of the known object with the knowing mind.

This general function of the species applies to both sensitive or organic and intellectual or spiritual faculties of knowledge. The species sensibilis is not an efflux from the object, not a physical miniature of it — a view which was accepted by some interpreters of Aristotle, but which the great scholastics, with St. Thomas, reject. It is a modification of the sense organ by the action of the object. It is sometimes called material because it results from the activity of material objects, and is a modification of a material organ. Sometimes also it is called intentional, or even spiritual, because it is not in itself a material representation, and is not received in physical matter, but in an organ which is animated by the soul. In other words, it is psychophysical. The species intelligibilis is the determinant of the intellectual act of knowledge. It is elaborated from the data of the senses by a special activity of the intellect ( intellectus agens ), and received in the intellectus patiens or possibilis which elicits the act itself of knowledge (see INTELLECT).


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Proverbs 3:27-34
27 Refuse no kindness to those who have a right to ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
2 Whoever lives blamelessly, who acts uprightly, who ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 8:16-18
16 'No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 22nd, 2014 Image

St. Thomas of Villanueva
September 22: Augustinian bishop. Born at Fuentellana, Castile, Spain, he was ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter