The “potential intellect” of De anima 3:4

A careful reading of Aristotle’s supposed “passive” or “potential” intellect shows that he explicitly avoids describing intellect in this way. His exact description is:

1.) If mind is like sensation, then it is a certain way of being acted on/ suffering (πάσχειν τι). The reason for the hypothetical and the “ti” qualifier is clear in the next sentence.

2.) He draws as an immediate conclusion that the part of the soul that thinks is impassive (ἀπαθής) and yet able to receive (δεκτικός) the point of the counterfactual in #1 is now clear: Aristotle wants to compare mind to sensation so far as both pick up on the reality of the world but he wants to explicitly deny that mind is potential or passive.

3.) He later seeks to set aside even the way in which sensation is impassive from the way in which intellect is, sc. both are impassive qua cognitive, but intellect is impassive by total separation from material. This suffices to divide it from nature (φύσις), though A will give an account of intellect εν φύσις in 3:5.

4.) Aristotle does seem to argue that intellect is always in some way a capacity (δύναμις) but this is not to be read as speaking of a passive intellect, but simply of the fact that we can know things without thinking of them.


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