William of Hedon's Tractatus de anima

By Michael Stenskjær Christensen

Edition: 1.0.0 | August 05, 2018

Original Publication: , , August 05, 2018

License Availablity: free, Published under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

William of Hedon's Tractatus de anima

William of Hedon is the author of Tractatus de anima, an independent and original psychological treatise from the last part of the 13th century. The identity of the author has not been established for certain, but the text is most likely written in an English theological context at the beginning of the second half of the 13th century. This is a an edition of distinction 3, chapter 6 of that text, where we find an interesting and highly unique discussion on intellectual self-knowledge.

The text is titled Tractatus de anima, and although it has previously been labelled a commentary on Aristotle's De anima, it is actually an independent treatise in the tradition of Dominicus Gundisalvi, John Blund, William of Auvergne and John of la Rochelle. But unlike these authors, William of Hedon most likely wrote his text in the second part of the 13th century, at a time when the discipline of commenting on Aristotle's De anima well established. In this respect it resembles Peter of Spain's Scientia de anima, which is either a bit earlier than or contemporary with Hedon's treatise. But where Peter of Spain's treatise handles the confrontation between the classical tenets of orthodox faith with the still stronger presence of Aristotelian material by mostly keeping Aristotle out of the discussion, William of Hedon engages very actively with the Aristotelian tradition. William's approach to Aristotle is pragmatic: when he can use him to establish a point, he does so happily, but he feels no obligations of allegiance to the Philosopher when he presents his own view on the soul.

Hedon gives an independent presentation of the soul, but the text still, as is fairly customary in the genre, partially mirrors the structure of Aristotle's text (skipping the historical part of book I). It is split into three distinctiones, the first is concerned with the science of the soul in general and the definition of the soul and its relation to the body, the second book is concerned with sense perception, and the third focuses on intellect and the free will. The third distinctio a chapter that discusses the self-knowledge of the intellect, explicitly addressing the question, in the title, how it is possible for the same thing to also be a sign of itself.1 Already this title hints at the unusual content of the text, and, as we get into the text, several interesting irregularities surface. In the preceding section (dist. 3, cap. 5, ad fin.) he has argued that in some cases the intellect, the intellection, and the object of intellection are the same. However, we also presents the philosophical arguments known from commentaries on Aristotle's De anima the subject, mostly in order to ultimately refute them.

The standard position at this time in the faculty of arts is that the intellect is only able to know itself once it has been actualized by an external species, so William presents five arguments against the possibility of immediate intellectual self-knowledge. Some of the arguments are commonly known from the commentaries of the arts faculty, and thus yield interesting suggestions for how that standard view could be countered. But the most interesting arguments are two that we do not recognize from the Aristotelian commentaries, and they handle the epistemological problem of self-knowledge from a logical perspective. In the first of those, the liar paradox is used to support the statement that if a part cannot establish knowledge of the whole, neither can the intellect establish knowledge of itself. The part-whole relationship is compared to the self-reference in the liar paradox pointing out that both seem to result in an infinite regress. The second semantic argument is based on Aristotle's distinction of words as signs of passions of the soul.2 argues that, while the intellect is a substantial power of the soul, the term `intellect' that is the object of self-knowledge is a passion or similitude of the intellect itself, and hence an accident of the soul. This means that the subject and object of intellection are two distinct things, rendering immediate self-knowledge impossible.

William considers the question of self-knowledge relatively non-controversial. To him it seems obvious that no one would doubt that the intellect knows itself, and that it does so without any dependence on external species. But at some point the liar paradox is what has really caught his attention. After having resolved the other initial arguments, he goes into an extended discussion of that problem, which makes up about half the length of the whole chapter. The discussion is mostly done with reference to the Aristotelian logic, where William shows a deep familiarity with the logica nova he draws on Topica Sophistici Elenchi as well as Categoriae and De interpretatione, but theological authorities also get a place in the discussion.

The use of the liar paradox in the context of psychological epistemology is in itself interesting, as William apparently has noticed the alignment of the problem of self-reference within the two domains. But it is also a testament to the role and weight of the logical education within the 13th century universities, when, in the composition of a theologically orientated treatise, an author can delve into an extended discussion of a logical paradox, that although it is well known in the insolubilia-genre, is usually confined to collections of sophismata. Finally, it is also a unique witness to this strategy of argumentation, as I know of no other text, neither earlier nor later, where the liar paradox is suggested as an argument against the possibility of immediate intellectual self-knowledge.

To my knowledge no parts of the text have ever been published. This edition of the chapter on self-knowledge will thus in itself present a real contribution to our knowledge of a text that is virtually unknown. It not only makes available arguments revealing a unique blend of logic and epistemology from the last half of the 13th century, but will cast some light on the writing process and editorial practice of an original, but virtually unknown, author of that period.

  • 1 -- Dist. 3, cap. 6: Utrum intellectus seipsum intelligat et qualiter idem contingat esse signum sui et quid contra hoc et ad hoc dici conveniat.
  • 2 -- Aristotle, De int. 1.16a3--8