The Workings of the Intellect: Mind and Psychology

In Patricia Easton (ed.), Logic and the Workings of the Mind: The Logic of Ideas and Faculty Psychology in Early Modern Philosophy. Ridgeview Publishing Co. pp. 21-45 (1997)
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Two stories have dominated the historiography of early modern philosophy: one in which a seventeenth century Age of Reason spawned the Enlightenment, and another in which a skeptical crisis cast a shadow over subsequent philosophy, resulting in ever narrower "limits to knowledge." I combine certain elements common to both into a third narrative, one that begins by taking seriously seventeenth-century conceptions of the topics and methods central to the rise of a "new" philosophy. In this revisionist story, differing approaches to the central subject matter of early modern metaphysics--knowledge of substances through their essences and causal powers--arise as a result of disagreements about the powers of the human cognitive faculties. Methodological writings are seen as attempts to direct readers in the proper use of their cognitive faculties. The early modern rejection of the Aristotelian theory of cognition ranks equally in importance with rejection of Aristotelian doctrines about nature. Skepticism is more often than not a tool to be used in teaching the reader the proper use of the cognitive faculties, or indeed in convincing the reader of the existence or inexistence of certain cognitive faculties or powers. Instead of early modern "epistemology" or "theory of knowledge," one speaks, with seventeenth century writers, of theories of the cognitive faculties and their implications for the possibility of human knowledge. The early modern rejection of Aristotelian logic can then be seen as reflecting a negative assessment about the fit between syllogistic reasoning and logic as an art of reasoning or thinking which refines the use of the cognitive faculties. Central to this new historiography is the story of the relation between the intellect and senses as cognitive faculties or powers. The development of philosophy from Descartes to Kant can be portrayed as a series of claims about the power of the intellect to know the essences of things, with resulting consequences for ontology and the foundations of natural philosophy. I illustrate this revised narrative by comparing three conceptions of the intellect in three philosophical settings, provided by several late scholastic Aristotelians, Descartes, and Locke. I have two aims: first, to exhibit the central role played by the conception of intellect or understanding in these authors, and, second, to locate their discussions of the cognitive faculties in relation to recent understandings of psychology, epistemology, logic, mind, and their relations. Early modern writings do not easily fit into the modern categories of epistemology and psychology; more generally, the early modern concern with the workings of mind does not coincide with recent conceptions of naturalism. These findings can help us to see problems with our current categories.

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania


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