Summary Against Modern Thought: More On The Possible Intellect

This may be proved in three ways. The first...
This may be proved in three ways. The first…
See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

We’re still on makeup and workings of the intellect and soul. Stay with this: it is the most important subject after God. Your soul, I mean. Plus it is interesting to see how Aquinas handles objections.

Chapter 62 Against Alexander’s opinion concerning the possible intellect (alternate translation) We’re still using the alternate translation this week.

1 Having considered these sayings of Aristotle, Alexander asserted that the possible intellect is a power in us, so that the common definition of soul given by Aristotle in De anima might apply to that intellect. But because he was unable to understand how an intellectual substance could be the form of a body, he held that the power of which we speak does not have its foundation in an intellectual substance, but that it is consequent upon a blending of elements in the human body.

For the particular kind of blending found in the human body makes man to be in potentiality to receive the influx of the agent intellect, which is always in act, and according to him is a separate substance, the effect of that influx being that man is made to understand actually. Now, that which enables man to understand is the possible intellect. And thus, it seemed to follow that the possible intellect is in us the result of a particular blending.

Notes Not to say frappé. (Sorry.)

2 But this position seems at first glance to be contrary to both the words and the proof of Aristotle. For, as we have already pointed out, Aristotle proves in De anima in that the possible intellect is “free from all admixture with the body” [III, 4]. And this could not possibly be said of a power resulting from a blending of elements, since such a power must be rooted in that very blending of elements, as we see in the case of taste, smell, and the like. Seemingly, then, this notion of Alexander’s is incompatible with the words and the proof of Aristotle.

3 To this, however, Alexander replies that the possible intellect is the very preparedness in human nature to receive the influx of the agent intellect. And preparedness is not itself a particular sensible nature, nor is it intermixed with the body, rather, preparedness is a certain relation, and the order of one thing to another.

4 But this notion also clearly clashes with Aristotle’s meaning. For Aristotle proves that the reason why the possible intellect does not itself have the nature of any particular sensible thing, and consequently is free from any admixture with the body, is because it is receptive of all the forms of sensible things, and cognizant of them. Now, preparedness cannot be thought of in such terms, for it does not mean to receive, but to be prepared to receive. So it is that Aristotle’s demonstration proceeds not from preparedness, but from a prepared recipient.

5 Moreover, if what Aristotle says about the possible intellect applies to it as a preparedness, and not by reason of the nature of the subject prepared, it will follow that it applies to every preparedness. Now, in the senses there is a certain preparedness to receive sensibles in act. And so, the same thing must be said of the senses as of the possible intellect. But Aristotle clearly says the contrary in explaining the difference between the receptivity of the senses and of the intellect, from the fact that the sense is corrupted by objects exceedingly high or intense, but not the intellect…

Notes Your eyes (and associated body parts) can be overwhelmed by a brilliant light, but your intellect is not bruised by a brilliant insight, or turn of phrase. (Sorry again.)

7 “The agent is superior to the patient, and the maker to the thing made,” as act to potentiality. Now, the more immaterial a thing is, the higher its level of being. Therefore, the effect cannot be more immaterial than its cause. But every cognitive power, as such, is immaterial.

Thus, Aristotle says that the power of sense, which occupies the lowest place in the order of cognitive powers, is “receptive of sensible species without matter.” It is therefore impossible for a cognitive power to be caused by a commingling of elements. Now, the possible intellect is the highest cognitive power in us; for Aristotle says that the possible intellect is “that by which the soul knows and understands.” Therefore, the possible intellect is not caused by a mixture of elements…

Notes But every cognitive power, as such, is immaterial. This cannot be emphasized enough. Repeat until you’re sick of hearing it.

9 Understanding is an operation in which no bodily organ can possibly take part. Now, this operation is attributed to the soul, or even to the man, for it is said that the soul understands, or man, by the soul. Hence, there must be in man a principle, independent of the body, which is the source of that operation. However, the preparedness that results from a blending of the elements clearly depends on the body; and, consequently, it is not this principle. But the possible intellect is for Aristotle says in De anima in that this intellect is “that by which the soul knows and understands.” Therefore, the possible intellect is not a preparedness.

10 Now, seemingly it is not enough to say that the principle of the operation of understanding in us is the intelligible species brought into act by the agent intellect. For man comes to understand actually after understanding potentially.

So, it follows that he understands not only by the intelligible species, whereby he is made to understand actually, but also by an intellective power, which is the principle of this operation of understanding; and such is the case also with the senses. Now, Aristotle holds that this power is the possible intellect. Therefore, the possible intellect is independent of the body.

11 Moreover, a species is intelligible in act only so far as it is freed from its presence in matter. But this cannot be done so long as it remains in a material power, namely, a power which is caused by material principles, or is the act of a material organ. The presence in us of an intellective power that is immaterial must, therefore, be granted. And this power is the possible intellect.

Notes “[A] species is intelligible in act only so far as it is freed from its presence in matter”? Reminder: forms are not material.

12 Also, Aristotle speaks of the possible intellect as being part of the soul. Now, the soul is not a preparedness, but an act, since preparedness is the order of potentiality to act. And yet an act is followed by a preparedness for a further act; the act of transparency is followed by an order to the act of light. Therefore, the possible intellect is not a preparedness itself, but is a certain act…


  1. Oldavid

    So. We have the Protestants and the complete ignoramus’s not venturing an opinion. (Of course, the latter never do relying on invective to dismiss their enemy).

    As I see it; in spite of ole Tom’s multiple steamrollers to smash a few peanuts, the issue remains; intellect is not a product of chemistry.

    As I have always contended intellect (mind) is fed through the senses and is revealed through the activity of the body while the body is alive.

    Whether the Protestant eugenicists like it or not, every Man (male or female) is the image and likeness of the Creator; all have Life and the propensity to comprehend Truth and the propensity to love.

    Ole Tommy’s deliberations don’t necessarily mean much to “enlightened” folk who’s mind is not much detached from their genitals and other appetites, but it’s important if, and because, the mere fact that things can’t cause themselves to exist.

    I contend, as does Tom in his pernickety, roundabout way; intellect is not a product of physical (material) form. It’s a “stuff” or “thing” that is inherent in the “being” whether or not it is developed in the immediate here and now.

  2. Joy

    “There is first of all that ‘turning to the world’ – the world of poor people and cities…the spirit and perspectives of St. Thomas are ‘modern’ in the soundest sense of the word…the whole difficulty of St. Thomas today arises not from Aquinas himself, but (as has been said often) from Thomists. Where Thomas was open to the world, they have closed him in upon himself in a little triumphalistic universe of airtight correctness. They have unconsciously sealed off his thought in such a way that in order to embrace Thomism, one has to renounce everything else.””

    Totally right!
    Fanatical ‘Thomist’ unwarranted defenders must put away the boxing gloves or just take up political history instead.
    A politician and a clergyman have different aims and aspirations.

    The Truth doesn’t need satire’s help. Nor does one need an excuse or a ‘by your leave?’ in a just debate when truth is the subject under examination. Truth and freedom go together in that respect.

    When someone pretends to be saving you while, taking liberties you know you’re in odd company and that the person knows not, has forgotten, never knew or understood the first thing about salvation.

  3. G. Rodrigues


    Did you not promise to:

    “I won’t read any more of this Thomas Stuff. It’s repetitive and it’s not going anywhere special but in a a spiral.”

    So why are you cluttering the combox with your inane, ignorant, fanatical anti-Thomist drivel?

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    One of the reasons reading Thomas seems so wearying is that this is only one book, and it is a summa, a particular genre that attempts, as the name implies, to sum everything up. Because it is a logical text, it examines every logical possibility, alternative, and objection that was current in his day, including a few hardy perennials that kept getting resurrected by neo-gnostics and the like every few centuries. (Folks will have noticed that, in modern terms, this chapter is dealing with the notion that the intellect is simply the emergent property of bodily operations, an ancient supposition that has enjoyed a renewal under which “emergent” (actually a fine word for “formal causes”) is used instead for “miraculous” by those disinclined to credit the miraculous — or who confuse the immaterial with the miraculous simpliciter.

  5. Joy

    I didn’t promise. Nor did I actually read it!
    I read Briggs notes because I knew there would be some emotional commentary and I wasn’t disappointed.
    As to the rest of your remark, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you don’t have an answer, attack the person.
    How do you justify your remark given what is written there?
    Answer? You cannot.

  6. G. Rodrigues


    “How do you justify your remark given what is written there?”

    You mean my “inane, ignorant, fanatical anti-Thomist drivel” remark? Is it “ignorant”? Of course it is, as you yourself concede that you do not even “read” what Aquinas is saying. Is it “inane”? Of course it is. It it mere prattle with no connection with what Aquinas says or even make the least bit of effort of engaging what he says. Is it “fanatical anti-Thomist”? Of course it is. Since it does not engage with what St. Thomas is saying, you are bound to mumble gems like “Fanatical ‘Thomist’ unwarranted defenders must put away the boxing gloves or just take up political history instead.” which is nothing but ignorant stereotyping — thus the “fanatical anti-Thomist”. Finally, am I “ashamed of myself”? Of course not. Why should I be ashamed of telling the truth?

  7. Joy

    You should be ashamed of yourself if you are not telling the truth and you are not telling the truth. You said it! I never told you to be ashamed.

    I said,

    “How do you justify your remark given what is written there?”

    “You mean my “inane, ignorant, fanatical anti-Thomist drivel” remark? Is it “ignorant”? Of course it is, “ You said it!

    but then you go on to say as if it flows from the first point.

    “as you yourself concede that you do not even “read” what Aquinas is saying.”

    That statement is untrue, since what I said is that I didn’t read what aquinas said on that post.
    I read Briggs notes only and they were jokes. I have read every word of what’s been posted on he Thomas posts for approximately one year. I have read some more than once, three times. I have read the previous book retrospectively although I’m not sure I’ve read every chapter properly because I used old emails to find the posts.

    If you care to interject in this discussion you should read the entire argument on the previous week and over the months. What I write is not drivel nor is it inane. To say so is simply to display your own lack of having read and followed. Not all of what has been said on the matter has even been written on the posts themselves so you are missing important information if you think that what is meant, implied or said can be found only on the posts themselves.

    Now then, nothing I have said has been without reasons to back up what I say. That you don’t like what I say is not my problem.
    Clearly the quote I gave is from someone who knows rather a lot more about Thomas’s writing than I do and I note that I was not, as I had suspected, alone in my observations of not Thomas, but the illness of some of the men who follow in his wake.

    Thomas needs those men like a hole in the head.

    The impatience with the text is simply misplaced on my part. not that the text isn’t exactly as I described in it’s antiquity and needless sinuousness but that the lack of accompanying proper discussion and justification for its use by some is left hanging I say is deliberate. That is what vexes me. That last part is still contingent.

    If what I’m saying doesn’t compute when it reaches your intellect then I don’t mind this. Perhaps you should decide not to mind as well.
    As for boxing. Put down the gloves or I might have to get out the cotton wool.

  8. Joy

    Thank you for the reasonable response.
    I am not a wagon nor am I a sociopath. What a shame you implied otherwise.

  9. Joy

    “pagon” not wagon.
    Briggs’ friends are at it again.

  10. Joy

    Rodders’ you’re right I did say you should be ashamed of yourself for attacking the person and not the comment. I should be ashamed of myself!
    I am sorry for saying it, actually.
    Not that you should be ashamed. (That’s none of my business.)

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