Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Problem of Aristotle's Nous Poietikos

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Problem of Aristotle's Nous Poietikos

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE WELL-KNOWN historical significance of Aristotle's doctrine of the productive or active intellect (the nous poietikos or intellectus agens) it is not unusual to find contemporary discussions treating the doctrine as an excrescence on the text of the De anima, a work, it is frequently nowadays supposed, in which an otherwise securely naturalistic epistemology and rational psychology are developed. Although the doctrine of the intellectus agens is found only in one place in Aristotle's extant texts, the third book of the De anima, I shall nonetheless maintain that an argument can be ferreted out of Aristotle's discussion that establishes that the doctrine can be seen to follow from principles that are fundamental to Aristotle's thought. I shall call this an "Aristotelian" argument for nous poietikos because of the fact that the argument obviously is not found, as I state it, on the surface of Aristotle's text. I claim that there is a significant sense in which it is there, but that one must dig for it or, as I just put it, ferret it out. In a schematic form, the Aristotelian argument goes as follows:

(1) (The potentiality-actuality doctrine) There must be, in the individual person, an intellective soul (psuche) that manifests an acquired state, the hexis or developed potentiality for knowing.

(2) (The causal principle) The preceding hexis of passive or receptive intellective psuche must be brought to full occurrent actualization (energeia, second entelechy) by something that already possesses this full actuality.

(3) (Epistemic nonnaturalism thesis) The actualizing cause cannot be external (exothen) to the intellect. In particular, it cannot be resident in the knowing subject's natural environment; in the way, for example, that sensible forms are resident in corporeal objects in the natural environment of the sensing subject.

(4) The actualizing cause must be either external to intellective soul or internal to intellective soul.

(5) (Disjunctive syllogism) It follows that there must be a fully actualized state (identified by Aristotle as nous poietikos) that is "in the soul" (en tei psuchei) and causes the fully actualized, occurrent knowing of a human knower. (1)

While the principles on which this argument depends are deeply embedded in Aristotle's thought, its conclusion may appear to be paradoxical. That is, the conclusion may seem to suggest that the knowledge (in the dispositional sense) that is gained by the knowing subject by his interaction with the natural world (as described, for example, in the Posterior Analytics) and that is subsequently rendered occurrent in the actual thinking of the knowing subject somehow already preexists in full actuality in that knowing subject. This is the problem of the title of this essay.

Later in this essay I suggest that there are two rather obvious strategies for attempting to mitigate this problem. One strategy is to distance nous poietikos (which is identified with fully actualized, occurrent knowledge/knowing) from the individual knowing subject in such a way that, while it is a knowing intellect (nous poietikos) that is the cause of the occurrent knowing of the human knower, the human knower is not already somehow in possession of the knowledge the acquisition of which Aristotle sets out to explain. The second strategy is to transform the full actuality identified with nous poietikos into something other than fully actualized, occurrent knowing/knowledge but to keep that something other as a cause of the human knower's occurrent knowing within the soul of the individual knower. I shall then quite briefly consider some developments of the doctrine of the intellectus agens in later ancient, medieval, and renaissance thought as illustrations of these two strategies. First, however, I attempt to flesh in some of the details of the argument itself.

My first premise is the potentiality-actuality doctrine: There must be, in the individual person, an intellective psuche that manifests an acquired hexis (or habitus, in the later scholastic tradition), which is the developed potentiality for knowing. …

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