De anima III 4 and 5 (pt. 2)

(This argument isn’t quite right but it’s on to something)

Reading De anima III 4 and 5 as arguing for a potential and agent intellect would go like this:

In this text Aristotle is trying to explain how intelligence comes to know things from sensation. This requires a receptive and an actualizing power, and therefore the account begins in c. 4 by arguing for a power for receiving illumined phantasms and proceeds, in c. 5, to argue for the the existence of an illuminating power.

This reading is simple and appears to be the only plausible reading of several key texts, like this one from the beginning of c. 4:

The thinking part of the soul must therefore be, while impassible, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object.

And this one from the beginning of c. 5:

[I]n every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find (1) a matter which is potentially all the particulars included in the class, (2) a cause which is productive in the sense that it makes them all (the latter standing to the former, as e.g. an art to its material), these distinct elements must likewise be found within the soul. And in fact mind as we have described it is what it is what is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things.

Here’s my thesis: while the existence of potential and agent intellection is a reasonable inference from De anima III 4 and 5, to take it as Aristotle’s point gives us neither the best reading of the text nor a necessary truth about intellection.

Here’s my reading of III 4 and 5:

In this text Aristotle explains intellection as such. Because sensible things are more known to us, he compares intellection to sensation in two ways. In c. 4, he compares it to how sensation suffers its object in order to show that intellection is immaterial. In c. 5, he compares the way the intellect suffers its object to the way in which all things which suffer or undergo are relative to some actualizing power, in order to show that intellection is immortal in virtue of being self-active and somehow originative of the totality of things.

The text is therefore about intelligence as immaterial and then immortal, though one can see the potential and agent intellection as subordinate to these conclusions. This subordination both allows for the agent-possible distinction to be a reasonable interpretation of the text while still making it a failure to get the main point.

But I’m speaking of agent and possible intellection and calling their putative existence “reasonable” because, while plausible, they are not necessary features of intellection because:

1.) If intellection is defined relative to illuminated phantasms it will not continue after death unless we posit some new source of objects. But Aristotle concludes c. 5 with a claim for the eternal activity of intellection without positing any new source of objects. The problem remains even if we assume arguendo that the agent intellect was one for all persons and separate from them. What are the objects even of this new, (never before mentioned or mentioned again) intellect?

2.) The illumination-of-phantasm account as such does not demand the division of intellection from all possible organic cognition, but this is exactly what De anima III.4 proves repeatedly and at great length. “Illumination” is a metaphor that suggests spirituality but does not require it – a rough image or token of the thing would suffice to cash out the illumination metaphor. On my account, however, Aristotle compares intellect to light in order to establish its immortality rather than imputing illumination to intellect in order to have it do something to phantasms.

3.) What exactly is being illumined, anyway? If we are seeing a nature of the thing that is simply there, no illumination is necessary, but if this nature is a pure construct of our mind then in what sense is it being received from the world, which is exactly what one would posit a possible intellect to do?

4.) All sides allow that intellection arises from sensation, but it does not need to arise by some sort of agent illumination. It would be enough to make the sensible world better known, and our tool for fleshing out the glimpses we get of the intelligible world without making an idea materially dependent on a sense impression.




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