Aquinas on Imagination Part 2

A detailed look into translating imaginarius, imaginatio, and imaginativus Aquinas’ Latin into an equivalent English expression

A portion of this was previously discussed in Thomas Aquinas on the Prophet and Imaginary Visions, but new instances have arisen since then that have required further investigation.

The word imagination in the English language has very much evolved since the time of Aquinas and translating it simply as imaginary is not a good word choice.

There is much more to these words than previously thought.

The etymologies of the words imaginarius, imaginatio and imaginativa have a rich history. These are words that have significantly evolved and its difficult to pinpoint the meaning during Aquinas’ period because the interpretations of them are so diverse. No single author explains these words within their context and how they work together. There is no corresponding English word that captures the nuance from the Latin.

The following authors demonstrate this difficulty. Fortunately, a common unity can be found from these and one should be able to build a proper framework for coming up with a solution that can create something in English that is similar.

The publication, Medieval Latin: an introduction and bibliographical guide, by Frank Anthony Carl Mantello and A. G. Rigg give the first good clue, “the sensus imaginativus, imagination, combines disparate sensory data to form arcane concepts (e.g., a purple cow).”1

A second clue can be gleaned from the book, Sir Matthew Hale, 1609-1676: law, religion, and natural philosophy, by Alan Cromartie.

1. Simple apprehension of an object, which happens through the making of sensible images from objects percieved by sense. 2. The putting together of images which they call propositio imaginativa. 3. The putting together of propositions with a deduction or practical conclusion which they call discursus imaginativus and hense arises the appetite.2

A third definition can be found in the 1751 publication, “Thesavrvs lingvae Latinae compendiarivs or, A compendious dictionary of the Latin Tongue,” by Robert Ainsworth. It promotes imaginarius as to think or to invent.3

A historical analysis on the subject is found on a math website by James Franklin, Diagrammatic Reasoning and Modelling in the Imagination: the Secret Weapons of the Scientific Revolution. Here he goes in detail through the history of observation which includes imagination. His portrait follows the same path as the other writers listed, and adds, “The western scholastics, following Avicenna, produced a very elaborate, and widely known, theory of the ‘inward wits’. It involved five internal faculties, including the ‘imagination’, which stored images, and the ‘phantasy’, (English ‘fancy’), which recombined them.”4 Franklin then goes on to explain how this process has an inherent weakness and its contribution to the witch hunts.

The Middle English Dictionary by Hans Kurath, touted as “the most important modern reference work for Middle English studies,” gives some good illustrations.

He first of all demonstrates a general account of the concept by defining the word imaginacioun which comes from Old French.:

” (a) Phil. The faculty of forming mental images from sense data and of retaining them either immediately or when recalled from memory; (b) more narrowly; the faculty of receiving images from the commune wit [i.e., communis sensus…] and of retaining them; (c) the power of forming mental images of things not experience, e.g. of future or past events, of spirits, etc.; also, the location of the images so formed; (d) an image or thought resulting from the operation of this faculty; (e) the operation of this faculty.5

Imaginativus is the:

“Employing mental images; vertu ~ the ability to form and retain images formed from data supplied to the senses or the communis sensus; also, the faculty of combining images into composites having no correspondence in external phenomena…”6

Then he went to explain what Imaginarius is:

“Existing in the imagination only,” such as when one is sleeping or awake and has an epiphany.7

It must be noted that Hans Kurath supplies a much more developed doctrine after the time of Aquinas. Aquinas had a more primitive version.

Imaginativus is only used once by Aquinas in the small amount of passages that I have translated on I Corinthians and it is a colloquialism. It is found written as, “virtus imaginativa,” which many medieval writers used as a synonym or alternative to imaginatio.8

Finding a definition for Imaginatio. Robyn Neville, author of Monastic Imagination? A Pedagogical Reflection believed this word to mean the processing of the information that was collected inside the mind. He also stressed that Aquinas usage of of imaginatio was a synonym to phantasm.

“Thomas Aquinas’ theory of imagination was indebted in large part to Augustine, but also to the scholastic thinkers, whose work he attempted to synthesize. In particular, Thomas understood the imaginative power to function not only in the creative production of images, but also in the analysis of creative possibilities that the senses alone cannot perceive. For Thomas, imagination (which Thomas terms both phantasia and imaginatio) was a “storehouse” in which to incorporate and recall sense data, as part of the system that processed information.”9

Denis L. Sepper wrote in his, Descarte’s Imagination: Proportion, Images and the Activity of Thinking, that imagination is a “name traditionally given to one of the powers of the mind enumerated in so-called faculty psychologies.”10 He went on to describe imagination is the “the power or habit by virtue of which images are formed in us, is a power of discrimination, it is nevertheless different from other discriminating powers, like the external senses and common sense, because it does not require the presence of an object, although it does depend on the previous activity of these (i.e., if one has never sensed anything, one cannot have images). Because imaginings are not inherently true, imagination must also be differentiated from the cognitive faculties that are always true, like knowledge and intellection. “11.

It has been found only once where Aquinas used the word phantasm in the chapters translated so far which is typically used to bring meaning to a mental image. This would not be surprising to Neville who wrote that phantasm was becoming antiquated and was in the process of being replaced by imaginatio. However, this does not appear to be a strict case with Aquinas. Phantasm was not necessary in his prophetic framework. Although he does briefly use the word imaginatio in the passages translated so far, Interpretatio is the more common word used. A prophet can have a mental multidimensional-image, and has the ability to interpret them, while a tongues speaker may have the ability to speak from a one dimensional-image, but not always has the ability to interpret. Thus, he considered prophecy a higher office because of this. Interpretatio is typically the equivalent of phantasm/imaginatio in Aquinas’ lectures in I Corinthians.

This whole concept is taken to a new level by John F. Wippel in his book, The metaphysical thought of Thomas Aquinas:

“According to Aquinas’s general theory of knowledge, however, other steps are required for this to happen. Still at the level of the internal senses, another internal sense power will produce an image or likeness in which the form of the external object, as appropriately distinguished and organized by the common sense, is preserved. This likeness is known as a phantasm and is produced by the internal sense known as the imagination. This phantasm in turn is submitted to the light of the intellect’s active or abstractive power, the agent intellect, which abstracts the potentially intelligible content contained therein from its individuating conditions and renders it actually intelligible. This abstracted intelligible content in turn is impressed on the other intellective power, the possible intellect (intellectus possibilis), and is grasped or apprehended by it. At this point one will have arrived at some kind of general or universal knowledge of the whatness or quiddity of the thing in question, though one will not yet know it intellectually as this thing, or as an individual.”12

With all this information at hand, it explains what Aquinas meant by these key-words. Imaginativus and Imaginatio is about making a mindful observation from seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, spiritual illumination or the combination of these.

Imaginarius is about the actual images stored in the mind whether derived from the senses or created internally. It does not mean that the person understood or brought together this image into a cohesive definition.

Another way of describing it is as a contemporary database structure. Contemporary databases are typically linear, whereas what Aquinas described contains data stored in the mind as a multidimensional-image, a format that contains visual, touch, smell, spirit, and hearing data. Imaginarius is a row of data that are neutral to any other data outside its primary key. It is stateless, neither true or false. Imaginatio is a view that connects the primary and foreign keys, uniting certain bits of information together to bring structure and meaning for a specific purpose.

A third aspect must be explained and that is the role of the intellect and how it differs from imaginatio. Imaginatio refers to an object. For example a dog is composed of a number of physical traits, four legs, wet nose, a distinct bark, smooth fur, and a tail (these traits are derived from the imaginarius). Imaginatio recognizes that these traits combined together defines it as a dog object. Intellectus is an abstraction layer that goes beyond objects, for example, “Lassie the Dog may be treated as a Dog much of the time, a Collie when necessary to access Collie specific attributes or behaviors, and as an Animal (perhaps the parent class of Dog) when counting Timmy’s pets.”13 It speaks about the idea, or concept of a dog and how it applies in a given situation.

The big difference between Aquinas and the modern English usage of imagination is with the concept of reality. Imagination according to Aquinas was the mental snapshot of things that would lead to understanding and solutions, whereas the modern mind equivocates imagination as those things created by the mind which are illusory and have no meaning for real-world situations. Also, Aquinas, along with Medieval writers added the spiritual dimension as a valid sense which they believed had both positive and negative attributes, which today is rejected by most contemporary western minds.

For translating purposes the definition is too long. Seeing with the mind’s eye is a shorter alternative, but it is still too bulky. Wikipedia takes the definition of mind’s eye and reduces it to visualization, “The phrase “mind’s eye” refers to the human ability for visualization, i.e., for the experiencing of visual mental imagery; in other words, one’s ability to “see” things with the mind.”14 Visualization still brings some baggage in the English language but not so much as imagination does. Visualization still feels too clinical. Mind’s eye seems closer to his intent.

With all this information now processed, the semantic range of these difficult adjectives can mean mental image, pictorial, seeing with the mind’s eye, mind’s eye, and visualization. Database terms such as tuple, row, and view could also be valid and is actually my personal preference but would fail the general reader. Pictorial seems out-of-place with the others and does not give the full nuance, but when combined with visiones it makes good sense.

Now that the definitions have been established, here is an example from Aquinas Lectures on I Corinthians, chapter 14, 1C3 (Reportationes 088, R1C cp. 14, 1C3 Pg. 388):

° spiritus meus, id est ratio mea, ° orat, id est dictat mihi quod ego loquar ea quae ad bonum sunt, sive verbis propriis sive aliorum sanctorum. vel ° spiritus meus, id est virtus imaginativa, ° orat, inquantum voces seu similitudines corporalium sunt tantum in imaginatione absque hoc quod intelligantur ab intellectu; * et ideo subdit: ° mens autem mea, id est intellectus meus, ° sine fructu est, quia non intelligit. et ideo melius est in oratione prophetia seu interpretatio, quam donum linguarum.

Fabian Larcher has translated this piece as:

Or my spirit, i.e., my reason, prays, i.e., tells me that I should ask for things which are good, either in my own words or those of other saints. Or my spirit, i.e., the imagination, prays in the sense that words of the likenesses of bodily things are only in the imagination without being understood by the intellect. Therefore, he adds: but my mind, i.e., my intellect, is unfruitful, because it does not understand. Therefore, prophecy or interpretation is better in prayer than is the gift of tongues.15

The use of imagination here in Larcher’s translation does not represent Aquinas’ thoughts within this context. It demonstrates the need for a better alternative.

“Or “my spirit” that is my reasoning “prays,” which means [my reason] organizes in me so that I may frequently say those things that are for the purpose of good, whether by one’s own words or of the other holy ones. Or “my spirit” that is the viewpoint stored in the mind. “prays,” inasmuch if voices are the likeness of physical things only as a record [in the mind] separate from this which is being understood by the intellect. Therefore he adds, “but my mind,” that is my intellect, “is without fruit,” because he does not understand and therefore prophecy or interpretation is better than the gift of tongues.”

What does Aquinas mean here? The viewpoint stored in the mind, and the actual record of an event, circumstance, or thought remains unprocessed. It is a stored piece of data that has been given no meaning. Tongues remains in the realm of simply dealing with unprocessed data. Prophecy or interpretation is a much better tool because it takes the data and makes sense of it.


  1. Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide
  2. Sir Matthew Hale, 1609-1676: law, religion, and natural philosophy
  3. Thesavrvs lingvae Latinae compendiarivs
  5. Middle English Dictionary
  6. IBID Middle English Dictionary
  7. IBID Middle English Dictionary
  10. Descarte’s Imagination Pg. 13
  11. Descarte’s Imagination Pg. 17
  12. The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas Page 37
  15. Pg. 174

2 thoughts on “Aquinas on Imagination Part 2”

  1. Many thanks for this. Fascinating.

    I’m working on how it is that the Fall leads to a wounding of the imagination…in connection with Jacques Maritain’s Untrammeled Approaches.

    The phantasms of imagination, he thinks, tend to undermine intuititivity.

Leave a Comment