Commentary on De Anima III 4 ¶ 1

(429a 10 – 429b 10.  My numbers are the sentences in Greek Text.)

1.) The central thesis under consideration about intellect (which A has stated from the first moment intellect is mentioned till now) is whether it is “separate” or not, and if so, how. The “separate” means “separate from matter”, and it can occur either in the way that mathematical things are separate (which A. calls ‘in thought but not in reality’) or in reality. This paragraph establishes that intellect, under the hypothesis that it is passive, is a part of soul which, like all soul, is a sort of energia, but it is not the energia of a body.

2.) In III 4. A. is trying to understand the separability of intellect under the hypothesis that is at least analogous to sensation in being passive to its object.

3.) A. immediately insists that intellect is non-passive (the first word of the sentence is απαθες) making it clear that the comparison to sensation is purely analogous. He then makes the analogy explicit: sense objects : sense organs :: intelligible objects : intellect.

4.) The conclusions are clearly stated: (a) intellect is unmixed (a synonym for separate in reality, or, in another context, it means “simple” as opposed to “complex”, i.e. the sense of simplicity we appeal to in discussions of divine simplicity) and that its nature is a power (dunamis). The reasoning occurs in a clause whose subject is unspecified and which curiously lacks key Aristotelian terms where one expects to find them, and which often are inserted by translators. Where one expects to find “form” or “actuality” one only finds the claim that “when there is intruding (paremphainomenon) it hinders and blocks what is other than itself (allotrion) and so it is not itself anything except that power”

A crucial element to explain is A.’s curious appropriation of Anaxagoras claim that Mind is simple that it might rule A. glosses this saying “to rule, that is, to know”.

5.) Here we get the energia that is the opposite of nous’s dunamisNous is “not the energia of some being/ substance before thinking”. Notice Aristotle is not claiming it is not an energia, but not the energia of a substance, where “of” is a material genitive like “The shape of the dough” or “the position of the switch”. This is simply what he means by saying mind is simple/unmixed/non-composite.

Briefly, nous is dunamis as opposed to the energia of a body, not as opposed to energia. If soul were a non-energia simply speaking, it could not be a part of soul and so A would have no reason to speak of it in this treatise.

6.) Intelligence does not become “cold or hot”, and in fact has no organ. “Cold and hot” are chemical properties for A, and so should be updated with new examples. The sense is that the noetic experience, being entirely of the object, is not partially constituted by a physical subject or its characteristic physical properties.  The sense object as in the sentient being is partially constituted by the properties and structure of a physical cognitive structure and so is not entirely objective. Descriptions like “cold” and “red” differ from descriptions like “true” and “exists” in that the former are tied up with the structure of an organ while the latter refer entirely to an object. This accounts for a relativity of sense experience that is absent from noetic experience: things can be really cold or red to some that are not cold or red to others, but things cannot be really true/ real / false / fictional to some and not to others. Polar bears or killer whales are not mistaken in sensing the arctic waters as temperate and refreshing while I do not, but if two of us have contradictory beliefs about the arctic, one of us is mistaken. This is the sense in which intellection does not “intrude” on the object it knows (cf. ¶ 4), that is, it does not partially constitute the object in a way that allows for a relativity of perspectives on its truth, reality, falsehood, objectivity, etc. A sense organ intrudes on the sense object and makes for an essential difference between the sensible in potency and the sensible in act whereas there can be no such difference between the intelligible in potency and the intelligible in act. Whether my hunting vest is the same color as the leaves depends on whether you ask me or the deer, but whether it is real or imaginary, a substance or an accidental form is not open to the same relativity of perspective.

7.) I’ve written about the soul as “topos eidos” before and won’t repeat it here. I’m more interested in deflating the next clause, sc. “it is not the energia of the ideas but their dunamis.” This is because the energia of the idea is the intelligible object, i.e. the act of the true idea, for example, is the thing that is true, and the act of the idea of the fictional character is the fictional character. As just said, the sensible in act is not the same as the sensible in potency (which is why there are different acts of different organs for the same thing sensible in potency), but the intelligible in act is the same as the intelligible in potency.

While A does discover a sense in which intellect is literally passive, his purpose in III 4. is to see what he can discover under the assumption that it is receptive, which is different from an attempt to discourse on “the passive intellect”. If A. had started by assuming the intellect were a machine, he could then have shown, with many of the same premises he uses in III. 4 that it was not a machine with a finite structure or definite program, but this would not be his attempt to describe “the machine intellect”.

8.) The difference between comparing the intellect to a machine and comparing it to a receptive organ is that the machine is a metaphor while calling nous “receptive” or “unchanging” is analogous to how it is said of sensation. While A says first mentions “impassivity” as non-univocal (homonia) “energia” and “dunamis” are also not univocal when said of intellect and sense, and A.’s subsequent arguments more touch on the difference between sense and intellect as dunamis.

9.) Powers are effects of objects, and the extreme intensity of noetic and sensible objects has different effects and so require non-univocal powers. Bright lights, loud sounds, overpowering odors, are to senses of many persons what self-evident claims or objects are to the minds of many persons,* but the former impede our ability to sense other things as intensely as the latter are presupposed to knowing them. What we just said about things self-evident to all is just as true of what is self-evident to the wise. Newton’s three laws were self-evident to him and the implications of the primacy of act to potency were self-evident to Aristotle and Thomas, but these proved superabundant sources of knowing things for all them in a way that listening to a jackhammer, jet or rock concert never proves a principle of knowing more and more sounds.

10.) Much of what is said here is standard first-act/second act A talk, but the note at the end that the first act of intellect makes it knowable to itself is important for what he will say later.


*While something right in front of me might be more self-evident to me, this would not make it relevantly analogous to, say, the principle of contradiction or 2+2=4, which are not just evident to me, but to all.


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