De anima III c. 5

While there is some sense in which A. is speaking about potential intellect in C.4 and agent intellect in c. 5, it’s easy to make too much of this. The point of the chapter is for A. to address the problem he’s just told the reader he needs to address: He’s just given a theory of the human intellect that predicts humans couldn’t exist without thinking about themselves, but it’s pretty clear we can. How?

In response A. explains that III c. 4 explained intellect entirely under the hypothesis that intellect was receptive, but receptivity as such doesn’t suffice to explain anything actual, and so the existence of actual knowledge means that A. can begin c. 5 by arguing we require another element in the soul, which he describes by two analogies (1) it stands to receptive intellect like artistic know-how (tekne) stands to its materials and (2) like light stands to colors. While the commentary tradition stressed the analogy between intellect in this active sense and light, the analogy of artistic know-how is given first and the light analogy more serves to clarify it. In other words, A. is speaking about an actualizing principle that is most of all makes intellect what it is.

A. ties off his argumentation in c. 5 by invoking an axiom he uses everywhere about the order between active and passive principles, sc. that the active is prior absolutely even if the passive is sometimes prior in time.

The argument that takes us to a separate intellect in the agent sense is straightforward:

1.) A. has examined intellect under the hypothesis of its being receptive.

2.) Considered in this way, intellect is seen to be unmixed, separate, and even in some sense non-receptive (apathes)

3.) Intellect thus described also requires that it be thinking about itself so long as it exists, while clearly is does not.

4.) But this is fine because actual knowledge also requires an additional active, interior principle of intellect within us.

5.) But whenever there is an active principle in anything it is, absolutely speaking, prior to the passive absolutely, even when the passive principle might be prior in time.

6.) Therefore, there is is intellect in an absolute sense as active in the soul, even if passive intellect is prior in time.

7.) That we are not always thinking when we exist is attributed to our being now in a time of intellect in the passive sense.

Put briefly, what A. discovers about intellect in c. 4 is true first of all about intellect taken actively even c. 4 proves the existence of intellect taken passively. As passive, intellect is incompletely described and generates an aporia and requires a further account of what in the intellectual soul is first of all separate, unmixed, and non-receptive.

A. does not specify when intellect as active is actually separated from intellect as passive, but it’s safe to assume that he is thinking about its post mortem existence. So intellect as we now enjoy it is an anticipation of and participation in intellection as such but it is not the activity of what has intellect in us first of all.

The long and unbroken commentary tradition since Averrhoes that saw intellect in the active sense as divine or “one in all persons” has an important truth but it is a gross simplification of something more interesting and more Aristotelian. Passive intellection is a participation in our own intellection. Our mind is most of all something other than our mind so far as our present experience of thought passively participates is another activity, but the activity in which it participates is itself most of all what our intellect is. This is exactly the sort of anthropology that A. is setting forth in Nic. Eth. X. c. 7 when describing the fullest sense of what it is to exist as a person.

%d bloggers like this: