Medieval Theories of Singular Thought

Machessa Samz, Fordham University


In Medieval Theories of Singular Thought, I consider thirteenth-century and fourteenth-century answers to the following concern: can our thoughts ever capture the individuality of things? Individuals are what exist in the world. For example, there is this dog Fido, and that dog Rover. However, we seem to think of Fido and Rover through general characteristics such as being brown and furry, weighing seventy-five pounds, and being prone to bark at squirrels. Thus, can we ever know Fido as Fido—not merely as a collection of general characteristics, but as the very individual he is? Put precisely, medieval thinkers ask, can the human intellect cognize singulars? While several scholars have dedicated studies to this topic in medieval philosophy, I depart from them in two main ways. First, I illustrate that medieval authors at least implicitly make a key distinction between two kinds of singular thought: singular thought in the broad sense and singular thought in the narrow sense. The question of whether our intellect can cognize singulars often amounts to whether we can have singular thought in the narrow sense—that is, whether we can think of individuals as the very individuals they are, not merely as some sort of individual. Secondly, I reexamine Camille Bérubé's categorization of Franciscan responses to Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent from his classic book La connaissance de l'individuel au Moyen Age. As I show, the Franciscans influenced by William de la Mare's Correctorium—including Matthew of Aquasparta, Richard of Middleton, Roger Marston, Vital du Four, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham—do separate their views from those of Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent in order to affirm that the human intellect cognizes singulars; however, these Franciscans provide a range of affirmative accounts. In particular, some of them still give the senses an essential role in achieving singular thought, as Henry of Ghent and Thomas Aquinas do. To capture this, I provide the following threefold categorization: Sense-plus-Intellect Model, Sense-Or-Intellect Model, and Intellect Model.

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Recommended Citation

Samz, Machessa, "Medieval Theories of Singular Thought" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13877944.