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CHAPTER LXXIII: THAT THERE IS NOT ONE POSSIBLE INTELLECT IN ALL MEN

FROM what has been said it is evidently shown that there is not one possible intellect of all present, future, and past men, as Averroes fancies (3 De Anima).[1]


For it has been proved that the substance of the intellect is united to the human body as its form.[2] Now one form cannot possibly be in more than one matter, because the proper act is produced in its proper potentiality, since they are mutually proportionate. Therefore there is not one intellect of all men.


Again. To every mover proper instruments are due, for the piper uses one kind of instrument, and the builder another. Now the intellect is compared to the body as the latter's mover, as Aristotle declares (3 De Anima).[3] Just as, therefore, it is impossible for the builder to use the instruments of a piper, so is it impossible for the intellect of one man to be the intellect of another.


Further. Aristotle (1 De Anima)[4] reproves the ancients for that while treating of the soul, they said nothing about its proper recipient: as though it could happen that, according to the Pythagorean fables, any soul might put on any body. It is therefore not possible for the soul of a dog to enter the body of a wolf, or for a man's soul to enter any body other than a man's. Now, the proportion between man's soul and man's body is the same as between the soul of this man and the body of this man. Consequently it is impossible for the soul of this man to enter a body other than this man's. But it is the soul of this man whereby this man understands, since according to Aristotle's opinion (3 De Anima)[5] man understands by his soul. Therefore the intellect of this and that man is not the same.


Moreover. A thing has being and unity from the same cause: for one and being are consequent upon one another. Now every thing has being through its form. Therefore the unity of a thing is consequent upon the unity of the form. Consequently it is impossible that there should be one form of several individuals. Now the form of this individual man is his intellective soul. Therefore there cannot possibly be one intellect of all men.


If, however, it be said that the sensitive soul of this man is distinct from the sensitive soul of that one, and to that extent there is not one man, although there is one intellect; this cannot stand. For each thing's proper operation is a consequence and an indication of its species. Now just as the proper operation of an animal is sensation, so the operation proper to man is understanding, as Aristotle says (1 Ethic.).[6] Hence it follows that just as this individual is an animal by reason of sense, according to Aristotle (2 De Anima),[7] so is he a man by reason of that whereby he understands. But that whereby the soul,--or man through the soul--understands, is the possible intellect, as stated in 3 De Anima.[8] Therefore this individual is a man through the possible intellect. Consequently if this man has a distinct sensitive soul from that man's, and yet not a distinct possible intellect but one and the same, it will follow that they are two animals, but not two men: which is clearly impossible. Therefore there is not one possible intellect of all men.


The said Commentator replies to these arguments (3 De Anima),[9] by saying that the possible intellect comes into contact with us by its form, that is by the intelligible species, the subject of which is the phantasma existing in us, and which is distinct in distinct subjects. Wherefore the possible intellect is individualized in different subjects, not by reason of its substance, but by reason of its form.


It is clear from what has been said above that this reply is of no avail. For it was shown above[10] that it is impossible for man to understand if the possible intellect merely comes thus into contact with us.


And granted that the said contact were sufficient for man to have intelligence, nevertheless the reply adduced does not solve the arguments given above. For according to the opinion in question, nothing pertaining to the intellect will be individualized according to the number of men, excepting only the phantasm. And this very phantasm will not be individualized according as it is actually understood, because thus it is in the possible intellect, and abstracted from material conditions by the active intellect. Now the phantasm, as understood potentially, does not surpass the degree of the sensitive soul. Consequently this man will still remain indistinct from that one, except as regards the sensitive soul: and there will follow the absurdity already indicated, that this and that man are not several men.


Further. Nothing derives its species through that which is in potentiality, but by that which is in act. Now the phantasm as individualized is merely in potentiality to intelligible being. Therefore this individual does not derive the species of intellective animal, that is the nature of man, from the phantasm as individualized. And consequently it will still follow that what gives the human species is not individualized in different subjects.


Again. That through which a living thing derives its species is its first and not its second perfection, as Aristotle states in 2 De Anima.[11] But the phantasm is not the first but a second perfection; because the imagination is movement caused by sense in act, as stated in De Anima.[12] Therefore it is not from the individual phantasm that man derives his species.


Moreover. Phantasms that are understood potentially, are of various kinds. Now that from which a thing derives its species ought to be one, since of one thing there is one species. Therefore man does not derive his species through the phantasms as individualized in various subjects, in which way they are understood potentially.


Again. That from which a man derives his species, must needs always remain the same in the same individual as long as the individual lasts: else the individual would not always be of one and the same species, but sometimes of this one, and sometimes of that one. Now the phantasms do not always remain the same in one man; but some come anew, while other previous ones pass away. Therefore the human individual neither derives his species through the phantasm, nor comes thereby into touch with the principle of his species, which is the possible intellect.


If, however, it be said that this man derives his species, not from the phantasms themselves, but from the powers in which the phantasms reside, namely those of imagination, memory, and cogitation, which latter is proper to man and is called by Aristotle (3 De Anima)[13] the passive intellect, still the same impossibilities follow. Because, since the cogitative power has an operation only about particulars, the intentions whereof it composes and divides, and has a corporeal organ whereby it acts, it does not surpass the genus of the sensitive soul. Now man, by his sensitive soul, is not a man but an animal. Therefore it still remains that the only thing which is numbered in us is that which belongs to man as an animal.


Further. The cogitative power, since it operates through an organ, is not that whereby we understand: because understanding is not the operation of an organ. Now that whereby we understand is that by which man is man: because understanding is man's proper operation consequent upon his species.[14] Therefore it is not by the cogitative power that this individual is a man, nor is it by this power that man differs essentially from dumb animals, as the Commentator imagines.


Further. The cogitative power is not directed to the possible intellect whereby man understands, except through its act by which the phantasms are prepared, so that by the active intellect they may be made actually intelligible, and perfect the possible intellect. Now this operation does not always remain the same in us. Consequently it is impossible for man either to be brought into contact thereby with the principle of the human species, or to receive its species therefrom. It is therefore evident that the above reply is to be utterly rejected.


Again. That by which a thing operates or acts is a principle to which the operation is a sequel not only as to its being, but also in the point of multitude or unity: since from the same heat there is only one heating or active calefaction, although to be heated or passive calefaction may be manifold, according to the diversity of things heated simultaneously by the same heat. Now the possible intellect is whereby the soul understands, as Aristotle states (3 De Anima).[15] Consequently if the possible intellect of this and that man is one and the same in number, the act of intelligence will of necessity be one and the same in both. But this is clearly impossible: since the one operation cannot belong to different individuals. It is therefore impossible for this and that man to have the one possible intellect. And if it be said that the very act of understanding is multiplied according to the difference of phantasms; this cannot stand. For as we have stated, the one action of the one agent is multiplied only according to the different subjects into which that action passes. But understanding, willing, and the like are not actions that pass into outward matter, but remain in the agent himself, as perfections of that same agent, as Aristotle declares (9 Metaph.).[16] Therefore one act of understanding of the possible intellect cannot be multiplied by reason of a diversity of phantasms.


Further. The phantasms are related to the possible intellect somewhat as agent to patient: in which sense Aristotle says (3 De Anima)[17] that to understand is in a sense to be passive. Now the passiveness of the patient is differentiated according to the different forms or species of the agents, and not according to their numerical distinction. For the one passive subject is heated and dried at the same time as the result of two active causes, namely heating and drying: whereas from two heating agents there do not result two heatings in one heatable subject, but only one; unless the agents happen to differ in species. For since two heats of the same species cannot be in one subject, and movement is counted according to the term whereto, if the movement be at one time and in the same subject, there cannot be a double heating in one subject. And I say this unless there be more than one species of heat: thus in the seed there is said to be the heat of fire, of heaven, and of the soul.[18] Wherefore the possible intellect's act of understanding is not multiplied according to the diversity of phantasms, except in respect of its understanding various species,--so that we may say that its act of understanding is different when it understands a man, and when it understands a horse--but one act of understanding these things is at the same time becoming to all men. Consequently it will still follow that the act of understanding is identically the same in this and that man.


Again. The possible intellect understands man, not as this man, but as man simply, as regards his specific nature. Now this nature is one, however much the phantasms of man be multiplied, whether in one man or in several, according to the various human individuals, which properly speaking the phantasms represent. Consequently the multiplication of phantasms cannot cause the multiplication of the possible intellect's act of understanding in respect of one species. Hence it will still follow that there is one identical act of several men.


Again. The possible intellect is the proper subject of the habit of science: because its act is to consider according to science. Now an accident, if it be one, is not multiplied except according to the subject. Consequently if there be one possible intellect of all men, it will follow of necessity that the same specific habit of science, for instance the habit of grammar, is identically the same in all men: which is unthinkable. Therefore the possible intellect is not one in all.


To this, however, they reply that the subject of the habit of science is not the possible intellect, but the passive intellect and the cogitative power.[19]


But this cannot be. For as Aristotle proves (2 Ethic.),[20] from like acts like habits are formed which again produce like acts. Now the habit of science is formed in us by acts of the possible intellect, and we are capable of performing the same acts according to the habit of science. Wherefore the habit of science is in the possible, not the passive, intellect.


Further. Science is about the conclusions of demonstrations: for a demonstration is a syllogism that makes us know scientifically, as Aristotle states (1 Poster.).[21] Now the conclusions of demonstrations are universal like their premisses. Therefore science will be in the power that is cognizant of universals. Now the passive intellect is not cognizant of universals, but of particular intentions. Therefore it is not the subject of the scientific habit.


Further. This is refuted by several arguments adduced above, when we were discussing the union of the possible intellect to man.[22]


Seemingly the fallacy of placing the habit of science in the passive intellect arose from the fact that men are observed to be more or less apt for the considerations of sciences according to the various dispositions of the cogitative and imaginative powers.


But this aptitude depends on these powers as on remote dispositions, in the same way as it depends on perfection of touch and bodily temperament; in which sense Aristotle says (2 De Anima)[23] that men of perfect touch and of soft flesh are well apt of mind. But from the habit of science there results an aptitude for consideration as from the proximate principle of that action: because the habit of science must perfect the power whereby we understand, so that it act easily at will even as other habits perfect the powers in which they reside.[24]


Again. The dispositions of the aforesaid powers are on the part of the object, namely of the phantasm, which on account of the goodness of these powers is prepared in such a way as easily to be made actually intelligible by the active intellect. Now the dispositions on the part of the objects are not habits, but those dispositions are, which are on the part of the powers: for the habit of fortitude is not the disposition whereby fearsome objects become objects of endurance, but a habit whereby a part of the soul, namely the irascible, is disposed to endure fearsome objects. It is consequently evident that the habit of science is not in the passive intellect, as the said Commentator asserts, but rather in the possible intellect.


Again. If there is one possible intellect for all men, it must be allowed that if, as they assert, men have been always, the possible intellect has always existed: and much more the active intellect, since the agent is more noble than the patient, as Aristotle says (3 De Anima).[25] Now if the agent is eternal, and the recipient eternal, the things received must be eternal. Consequently the intelligible species were from eternity in the possible intellect. Hence it does not receive any intelligible species anew. But sense and imagination are not required for anything to be understood except that the intelligible species may be derived from them. Wherefore neither sense nor imagination will be necessary for understanding. And we shall come back to Plato's opinion that we do not acquire knowledge from the senses, but that we are awakened by them to the recollection of things we knew before.[26]


To this the said Commentator replies[27] that the intelligible species have a twofold subject, from one of which, namely the possible intellect, they derive eternity, while from the other, the phantasm to wit, they derive newness: even as the subject of the visible species is twofold, namely the object outside the soul, and the faculty of sight.


But this reply cannot stand. For it is impossible that the action and perfection of an eternal thing should depend on something temporal. Now phantasms are temporal, being renewed daily by virtue of the senses. Consequently the intelligible species by which the possible intellect is made actual and operates cannot depend on the phantasms, as the visible species depends on things that are outside the soul.


Moreover. Nothing receives what it already has: because the recipient must needs be void of the thing received, according to Aristotle.[28] Now the intelligible species, before my sensation or yours, were in the possible intellect, for those who were before us would not have understood, unless the possible intellect had been reduced to act by the intelligible species. Nor can it be said that these species already received into the possible intellect, have ceased to exist: because the possible intellect not only receives but also keeps what it receives; wherefore in the 3 De Anima[29] it is called the abode of species. Consequently species are not received from our phantasms into the possible intellect. Therefore it were useless for our phantasms to be made actually intelligible by the active intellect. Again. The thing received is in the recipient according to the mode of the recipient.[30] But the intellect is in itself above movement. Wherefore what is received into it, is received fixedly and immovably.


Further. Since the intellect is a higher power than the senses, it follows that it is more united: and for this reason we observe that one intellect exercises judgment on various kinds of sensibles which appertain to various sensitive powers. Hence we are able to gather that the operations appertaining to the various sensitive powers, are united in the one intellect. Now some of the sensitive powers receive only, for instance the senses, while some retain, as imagination and memory, wherefore they are called storehouses.[31] It follows therefore that the possible intellect both receives and retains what it has received.


Moreover. It is useless to say that in natural things what is acquired by movement remains not but forthwith ceases to be: since the opinion of those who say that all things are ever in motion is repudiated, because movement must terminate in repose. Much less therefore can it be said that what is received into the possible intellect is not retained.


Again. If from the phantasms that are in us the possible intellect does not receive any intelligible species, because it has already received from the phantasms of those who were before us; for the same reason it receives from none of the phantasms of those who were preceded by others. But if the world is eternal, as they say, every one was preceded by some others. Consequently the possible intellect never receives any species from the phantasms. Wherefore it was useless for Aristotle to place the active intellect, in order to make the phantasms actually intelligible.[32]


Further. It follows from this seemingly that the possible intellect needs not the phantasms in order to understand. Now we understand by the possible intellect. Neither therefore would we stand in need of phantasms in order to understand: and this is clearly false, and contrary to Aristotle's opinion.[33] And if it be said that for the same reason we should not need a phantasm in order to consider the things the species of which are retained in the possible intellect, even if different persons have different possible intellects:--which is contrary to Aristotle, who says that the soul by no means understands without a phantasm:[34]--it is evident that this objection is to no purpose. For the possible intellect like every substance operates according to the mode of its nature. Now, according to the mode of its nature it is the form of the body. Wherefore it understands immaterial things indeed, but it considers them in something material. A sign of this is that in teaching universal principles we propose particular examples, so that our statements are viewed in them. Consequently the possible intellect is related in one way to the phantasm which it needs, before having the intelligible species, and in another way after receiving the intelligible species. For before, it needs it in order to receive from it the intelligible species; wherefore it stands in relation to the possible intellect as the object moving it. But after the species has been received into it, it needs the phantasm as the instrument or foundation of its species: wherefore it is related to the phantasm as efficient cause. For by the command of the intellect there is formed in the imagination a phantasm corresponding to such and such an intelligible species, and in this phantasm the intelligible species is reflected as an exemplar in the exemplate or image. Accordingly, if the possible intellect had always had the species, it would never be compared to the phantasms as the recipient to the object moving it.


Again. The possible intellect is whereby the soul and man understand, according to Aristotle.[35] If, however, the possible intellect be one in all and eternal, it follows that in it are already received all the intelligible species of the things that are or have been known by any men whatsoever. Wherefore each one of us, who understands by the possible intellect, in fact whose act of understanding is the act itself of understanding of the possible intellect, will understand all that is or has been understood by anyone whatsoever: which is clearly false.


To this the aforesaid Commentator replies by saying that we do not understand by the possible intellect, except forasmuch as it is in contact with us through our phantasms. And since phantasms are not the same in all, nor arranged in the same way, neither is whatever one person understands, understood by another. Also this reply would seem to accord with what has been stated above. Because, even if the possible intellect is not one, we do not understand the things the species of which are in the possible intellect, without the presence of phantasms disposed for that purpose.


That this reply cannot wholly avoid the difficulty, is proved thus. When the possible intellect has been made actual by the reception of the intelligible species, it can act of itself, s Aristotle says (3 De Anima).[36] Hence we observe that when we have once received knowledge of a thing, it is in our power to consider it again at will. Nor are we hindered on account of phantasms: because it is in our power to form phantasms adapted to the consideration that we wish to make; unless perchance there be an obstacle on the part of the organ to which the phantasm appertains, as happens in madmen and those suffering from lethargy, who cannot freely exercise their imagination and memory. For this reason Aristotle says (8 Phys.)[37] that one who already has the habit of science, although he be considering potentially, needs no mover to reduce him from potentiality to act, except one that removes an obstacle; but is able at will to proceed to actual consideration. Now if the intelligible species of all sciences be in the possible intellect, which we must needs admit if it be one and eternal, the intellect will need phantasms in the same way as one who already has science needs them in order to consider according to that science, which also it cannot do without phantasms. Since then every man understands by the possible intellect forasmuch as it is reduced to act by the intelligible species, every man will be able to consider at will the things known in every science. This is clearly false, for thus no one would need a teacher in order to acquire a science. Therefore the possible intellect is not one and eternal.



  1. Text 5.
  2. Ch. lxviii.
  3. x. 1, 2.
  4. iii. 23.
  5. iv. 12.
  6. vii. 12 seqq.
  7. ii. 4.
  8. iv. 1, 3.
  9. See above, ch. lix.
  10. Ibid.
  11. See above, ch. lxi.
  12. 3, iii. 13.
  13. See above, ch. lx., p. 151.
  14. 1 Ethic., loc. cit.
  15. iv. 1, 3.
  16. D. 8, viii. 9.
  17. iv. 2.
  18. Cf. Sum. Th., P. I., Q. cxviii., A. 1., ad. 3.
  19. Cf. ch. lx.
  20. i.
  21. ii. 4.
  22. Ch. lx.
  23. ix. 2.
  24. Cf. Averroes, 3 De Anima, text 18.
  25. v. 2.
  26. Meno, passim.
  27. Cf. loc. cit. at the beginning of ch.; and above, ch. lix.
  28. 3 De Anima iv. 3.
  29. Ibid. 4.
  30. Cf. De Causis, xi.
  31. See next ch.
  32. Cf. ch. lxxviii.
  33. 3 De Anima viii. 3.
  34. Ibid. vii. 3.
  35. 3 De Anima iv. 1, 3.
  36. iv.
  37. iv. 6.




Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. by The English Dominican Fathers from the latest Leonine Edition, Benzinger Brothers: New York, 1924.

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