Malebranche and Cajetan on the agent intellect


Just as a painter, no matter how accomplished, cannot represent an animal he has neither seen or has no idea of… A man could not form an idea of an object unless he knew it in advance… but if he already has an idea of it, it is pointless for him to form another idea of it.

De la recherche de la vérité 3.2.3.

The conclusion is that man cannot form an idea, and so lacks what the A-T tradition calls an agent intellect.

In response to an unrelated argument, Cajetan articulates a premise that challenges this: an active power does not presuppose an object but makes it. (De ente et essentia, q. 8)

The dispute is fascinating because profound and difficult consequences are immediately at stake no matter what side one takes. Malebranche’s option leaves us with some form of Platonism, or direct participation in the divine mind; but the Aristotelian option, though preserving the power of man to make his own ideas, nevertheless only does this by invoking a very peculiar sort of agency, namely, one that does not act for an end. Acting for an end presupposes the intentional existence of the end to be made, but this is exactly what we must deny when it is a matter of the intentional thing itself being made.

I’m attracted to the Aristotelian response, though informed by Malebranche’s argument. It’s just the sort of paradoxical reality that might help to shed new light on old paradoxes. Some ideas:

1.) A response to the Euthyphro dilemma. At the heart of the Euthyphro dilemma is whether the divine is, along with us, subordinate to some goal or end or whether it is independent of it. If the first, God is seen as subordinate, if the second, then as apart from any reason or law. But the action of the agent intellect seems like a third option, since it is at once totally rational and yet not subordinate to a governing abstract paradigm.

2.) A new articulation between nature and spirit. Nature is subordinate to paradigm ideas, and depends on them to act (nature is a sort of existence that is never wholly simultaneous, though there is still some causality from a wholly simultaneous idea). Spirit, on the other hand, is rational without being essentially subordinate to governing ideas. In the measure of perfection that the spirit has, so too it is independent of the paradigm.

3.) New account of the immortality of the intellect. All change requires being subordinate to a new paradigm, but the action of the intellect is not so subordinate, and so neither is this a possibility for intellect.


  1. December 25, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    John Norris explicitly looks at the question of the agent intellect from the Malebranchean perspective (esp. pp. 350ff). It makes for interesting reading.

    • December 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Reading it now.

      A simpler response than Cajetan’s might just be to say that the action of the ag. in. is natural, and like all natural actions works from a non-conscious paradigm.

  2. mhumpher said,

    December 26, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    If I am understanding Malebranche correctly, it seems his argument would work for angels, whose sole mode of knowing is intellection, and not humans who also possess intellection.
    It is true that angels do not form concepts and possess the ideas that they have from the beginning of their existence. However, in the case of humans, we have perceptual ideas, i.e. formal signs, as well as abstract concepts.
    The perceptual ideas organize sensation into the categories of to be sought and to be avoided, such that a sheep with no knowledge of wolves will still judge the howl of a wolf to be something to be avoided. It is on the basis of these ideas that the agent intellect for abstract ideas by adding to the perceptual idea the relation of self-identity, a relation of the ens rationes, or mind-dependent being. This allows the rational animal to consider the object not just in relation to itself, but also consider it as it is in itself.
    Humans thus have intentional objects on the basis of ideas prior to intellection at the level of perception.
    John Deely has much more to say in “Semiotics and Intentionality.”

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