Understanding the Difference Between Intellect and Sense

COMMENTARY: Part 4 in a Register series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about Understanding in his master work 'Summa Theologiae.'
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about Understanding in his master work 'Summa Theologiae.' (photo: Detail of painting by Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517))

The second sanctifying gift of the Holy Spirit is understanding. What is understanding anyway? And what do we mean when we speak of understanding as a sanctifying gift?

Before we talk about understanding as a gift of the Holy Spirit, we need to talk about understanding as a natural human faculty. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us:

“Understanding implies an intimate knowledge, for intelligere [to understand] is the same as intus legere [to read inwardly]. This is clear to anyone who considers the difference between intellect and sense, because sensitive knowledge is concerned with external sensible qualities, whereas intellective knowledge penetrates into the very essence of a thing, because the object of the intellect is ‘what a thing is’” (Summa Theologiae, II, ii, 8, 1).

Recall that “lector” means “reader.” That idea is at the root of “intellect.” Aquinas means that the Latin word for “understand” and “intellect” both derive from the image of “reading between the lines” — seeing not merely what somebody says, but what it means.

Let’s start at the most basic level. Consider your dog. He has sense but not intellect. That doesn’t mean your dog is stupid.

Your dog is aware that when you make a certain sound — “Dinner!” — it will be followed by a tasty treat; and when you make another sound  — “Sit!” — he had better park his bottom on the ground. He has sense but not intellect. Want proof? Point at something. A human being, seeing the inward meaning of your gesture, and able to “read between the lines” of that gesture, understands what you are getting at. So he looks where you are pointing.

What does your dog do? He sniffs your finger, of course. He can’t read between the lines. He can’t understand in Thomas’ sense of the term.

Understanding is, of course, a natural gift of the human person, who is a rational beingmade in the image and likeness of God. Humans are inveterate symbol users and immensely sophisticated ones.

We begin with the spoken word, physical gestures and facial expressions and perform prodigies in terms of coming to understand the way in which these symbols connect to the realities of the world around us. And we do so naturally and at a precociously early age. So, by the time a kid is 5 years old, he has already stepped across a gulf the size of the Grand Canyon from the rest of the animal kingdom in his ability to understand; for instance, that writing is not simply black marks on white paper. He understands that “d-o-g” makes the sound “dog” and that “dog” means that furry critter in the living room. He even understands that the furry critter in the living room that is shaped like a beagle is part of a whole class of things called “dogs” that are shaped like everything from great danes to chihuahuas.

And that’s just the start. Very shortly after that, the kid can make connections so sophisticated that he can “read between the lines” so as to do something no other creature on earth can do: get jokes. The level of sophistication necessary to understand why it is funny when somebody yells “Duck!” in a cartoon just before the hero is clobbered with a duck represents a distance of light years between human beings and, say, chimpanzees or any other primate. Yet we take to it like a, ahem, duck to water because we are born with the built-in hunger to grasp the inner structure of reality and even to play with it. Alone among God’s critters, men and women experience the “Aha!” or “I get it!” moment.

Okay. But everybody, confirmed and unconfirmed experiences that. So why is understanding a gift of confirmation? More on that next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist. Follow the links for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.