Aquinas: The Wide Field Of Consciousness

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The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice Wulf, Edited & adapted for the Web by the late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty

II. E. The wide field of consciousness


Just as we become witnesses of our sense perceptions, so also consciousness accompanies the exercise of our ideas, our judgments, our reasonings.

Not only is it the case that each act of thought is spontaneously accompanied by a sort of intuition of what is happening in us, but in addition, by an effort of will, we can turn back to this act of thought and investigate either the operation itself as a modification of the ego (psychological consciousness), or else as a mental content, a representation of something (objective consciousness). This is brought about by a sort of twisting or turning back upon ourselves, which we cannot better describe than as reflection (re-flect: to bend back). When I reflect upon the idea of local displacement, of life, or on any other object of thought, it is this object itself which I encounter in the first place, and which I make the material of my inquiries (objective consciousness). The subjective operation which this inquiry involves, the relation of the object to myself, or the internal mechanism of my operation (subjective consciousness) all call for a further concentration, which is much more complicated and difficult. This agrees with and confirms the Thomistic doctrine that knowledge, whether spontaneous or reflective, puts us in presence of ‘something’ which is not merely my own activity, as idealists maintain.

Man alone possesses this privilege of reflecting, or of bending his consciousness upon itself, for reflection is peculiar to spiritual beings. Animals do not reflect; even the human senses cannot do so, and that is the reason why our senses are incapable of correcting by themselves alone the illusions or errors of which they may be victims. Without reflection, I should have no means of knowing that a stick plunged in the water is really straight, in spite of appearances to the contrary. I should remain forever the dupe of sense appearances, for these continue to exist even while reflection is correcting them.

Consciousness accompanies not only our sense perceptions and thoughts, but also certain functions of our physiological life, our appetites, volitions, and sentiments or affections. Further, not only does it accompany the exercise of our activities, but it attains in a more obscure way the ego, which exists in these activities. “I think, therefore I exist,” is an intuition, which St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas formulated long before Descartes.


The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.