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CHAPTER LXXIV: OF THE OPINION OF AVICENNA, WHO ASSERTED THAT INTELLIGIBLE FORMS ARE NOT PRESERVED IN THE POSSIBLE INTELLECT

THE position of Averroes, however, seems to clash with the arguments given above. For he says in his book De Anima[1] that the intelligible species do not remain in the possible intellect, except when they are being actually understood.


He endeavours to prove this, because, as long as the apprehended forms remain in the apprehensive power, they are actually apprehended; since sense is made actual through being identified with the thing actually sensed, and likewise the intellect when actual is identified with the thing actually understood.[2] Hence, seemingly, whenever sense or intellect becomes one with the thing sensed or understood, through having its form, there is actual apprehension through sense or intellect. And he says that the powers which preserve the forms that are not actually apprehended, are not apprehensive powers, but store-houses of the apprehensive faculties; for instance the imagination, which is the storehouse of forms apprehended by the senses, and the memory, which, according to him, is the store-house of intentions apprehended without the senses, as when the sheep apprehends the enmity of the wolf. And it so happens that these powers preserve forms which are not actually apprehended, inasmuch as they have certain corporeal organs wherein forms are received in a manner akin to apprehension. For which reason the apprehensive power by turning to these store-houses apprehends actually. Whence he concludes that it is impossible for the intelligible species to be preserved in the possible intellect, except while it understands actually. It follows then--either that the intelligible species themselves are preserved in some corporeal organ or some power having a corporeal organ,--or else that intelligible forms exist of themselves, and that our possible intellect is compared to them as a mirror to the things which are seen in a mirror;--or again that whenever the possible intellect understands actually, the intelligible species are infused anew into the possible intellect by a separate agent. Now the first of these three is impossible, because forms existing in powers which use corporeal organs are only potentially intelligible: while the second is the opinion of Plato, which Aristotle refutes in his Metaphysics.[3] Wherefore he concludes by accepting the third, namely that whenever we understand actually, the intelligible species are infused into our possible intellect by the active intellect, which he asserts to be a separate substance.


And if anyone argues against him that then there is no difference between a man when he first learns, and when afterwards he wishes to consider actually what he has previously learnt, he replies that to learn is merely to acquire the perfect aptitude for uniting oneself with the active intelligence so as to receive the intelligible form therefrom. Wherefore before learning there is in man a mere potentiality for such a reception, and to learn is as it were the potentiality adapted.


Moreover, it would seem to be in agreement with this position, that Aristotle in his book De Memoria,[4] proves that the memory is not in the intellective faculty, but in the sensitive part of the soul. Whence it follows, seemingly, that the preserving of the species does not belong to the intellective part.


Nevertheless, if we consider it carefully, this position, as regards its origin, differs little or not at all from that of Plato. For Plato asserted that intelligible forms are separate substances, from which knowledge flows into our souls: while he (Avicenna) affirms that knowledge flows into our souls from one separate substance which, according to him, is the active intellect. Now it matters not, as regards the manner of acquiring knowledge, whether our knowledge be caused by one or several separate substances, since in either case it follows that our knowledge is not caused by sensible objects: whereas the contrary is proved by the fact that a person who lacks one sense, lacks also the knowledge of those sensibles that are known through that sense.


Moreover, the statement that through considering singulars which are in the imagination, the possible intellect is enlightened with the light of the active intellect so as to know the universal: and that the actions of the lower powers, namely of the imagination, memory, and cogitative powers, adapt the soul to receive the emanation of the active intellect is a pure invention. For we see that our soul is the more disposed to receive from separate substances, according as it is further removed from corporeal and sensible things: since by withdrawing from that which is below one approaches to that which is above. Therefore it is not likely that the soul is disposed to receive the influence of a separate intelligence, by considering corporeal phantasms.


Plato, however, was more consistent with the principle on which his position was based. Because he held that sensibles do not dispose the soul to receive the influence of separate forms, but merely arouse the intellect to consider the things the knowledge of which it had received from an external cause. For he maintained that knowledge of all things knowable was caused in our souls from the outset by separate forms; hence he said that to learn is a kind of remembering. In fact this is a necessary consequence of his position: because, since separate substances are immovable and unchangeable, the knowledge of things is always reflected from them in our soul, which is capable of that knowledge.


Moreover. That which is received in a thing is therein according to the mode of the recipient. Now the being of the possible intellect is more stable than the being of corporeal matter. Therefore, since forms that flow into corporeal matter from the active intelligence are, according to him, preserved in that matter, much more are they preserved in the possible intellect.


Again. Intellective knowledge is more perfect than sensitive. Wherefore, if there is something to preserve things apprehended in sensitive knowledge, a fortiori will this be the case in intellective knowledge.


Again. We find that when, in a lower order of powers, various things belong to various powers, in a higher order they belong to one: thus the common sense apprehends the objects sensed by all the proper senses. Hence to apprehend and to preserve, which, in the sensitive part of the soul, belong to different powers, must needs be united in the highest power, namely the intellect.


Further. The active intelligence, according to him, causes all scientific knowledge. Wherefore if to learn is merely to be adapted to union with the active intelligence, he who learns one science, does not learn that one more than another: which is clearly false.


It is also clear that this position is in conflict with the opinion of Aristotle, who says (3 De Anima)[5] that the possible intellect is the abode of the species: which is the same as to say that it is the store-house of intelligible species, to use the words of Avicenna.


Again. He adds further on[6] that, when the possible intellect acquires knowledge, it is capable of acting by itself, although it understand not actually. Therefore it needs not the influence of any higher agent.


He also says (8 Phys.)[7] that before learning, man is in essential potentiality to knowledge, and consequently needs a mover by which to be reduced to actuality; whereas after he has already learnt, he needs no mover per se. Therefore he does not need the influence of the active intellect.


He also says (3 De Anima)[8] that the phantasms are to the possible intellect what sensibles are to the senses. Wherefore it is clear that the intelligible species result in the possible intellect from the phantasms and not from a separate substance.


As to the arguments which would seem to favour the contrary it is not difficult to solve them. For the possible intellect is in perfect act in respect of the intelligible species, when it considers actually; but when it does not actually consider, it is not in perfect act, but is in a state between potentiality and act. This is what Aristotle says (3 De Anima),[9] namely that when this part, the possible intellect to wit, is identified with a thing, it is said to know it actually. And this happens when it is capable of acting by itself. Even thus it is also somewhat in potentiality, but not in the same way as before learning or discovering.


The memory is assigned to the sensitive part, because it is of something as conditioned by a determinate time, for it is only of what is past. Consequently, since it does not abstract from singular conditions, it does not belong to the intellective part which is of universals. Yet this does not preclude the possible intellect being able to preserve intelligibles which abstract from all particular conditions.



  1. Sextus Naturalium, part 5, v., vi.
  2. 3 De Anima ii. 4; iv. 12.
  3. I. ix.
  4. i.
  5. iv. 4.
  6. Ibid., 6.
  7. iv. 6.
  8. vii.; viii. 3.
  9. 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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