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Aristotle on the intellect

Grant number: 11/03425-7
Support Opportunities:Scholarships in Brazil - Post-Doctoral
Effective date (Start): September 01, 2011
Effective date (End): December 31, 2013
Field of knowledge:Humanities - Philosophy - History of Philosophy
Principal Investigator:Marco Antônio de Ávila Zingano
Grantee:Jean-Louis André Bernard Hudry
Host Institution: Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas (FFLCH). Universidade de São Paulo (USP). São Paulo , SP, Brazil
Associated research grant:09/16877-3 - Greek classical philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and their influence in Antiquity, AP.TEM
Associated scholarship(s):13/22513-0 - Aristotle on the middle term in deduction and demonstration, BE.EP.PD


There is currently no shared understanding of Aristotle's conception of the intellect (nous), as expressed in Chapter 5 of De Anima; and the aim of this research project is to show that there is nothing odd or special about the intellect, as this notion perfectly fits all the other biological considerations developed in De Anima. Aristotle compares the affected (passive) intellect with the matter of a thing, and the unaffected (active) intellect with the productive cause of that thing. The analogy aims to show that the unaffected intellect is the principle or cause producing thoughts, in the same way that an artisan is the principle or cause producing artefacts. Yet, it is only an analogy. To say that the affected intellect is like matter does not mean that it contains material elements; indeed, the intellect is separate from the body, as it does not amount to the activation of a material organ (429b4-5). If the distinction between the passive and active aspects of the intellect parallels the distinction between the material and formal aspects of an actual thing, then the intellect is a compound, accounting for an activity of thinking in the ensouled body. As such, there is no support for the traditional view that the active intellect is an intellect on its own.The difficulty is that the intellect is said to be separate of the soul. The soul is a substance (ousia) in the sense of a form (eidos) in actuality with respect to a material body in potentiality (412a19-22). More precisely, the soul is "the first actuality (hê protê entelecheia) of a physical body having life potentially in it" (412a27-28). The active intellect cannot be like the soul, since it is separate from the body. It should, therefore, be regarded as another kind of substance. We would like to suggest that the active aspect of the intellect is a non-composite substance, which is in a second actuality (energeia) as opposed to the first actuality (entelecheia) of the soul. In contrast, the passive aspect of the intellect corresponds to a faculty of thought (noetikon), which has the potentiality to become all thoughts (431b2-12). As a faculty, the passive aspect of the intellect is in the soul, like the faculties of perception and imagination. Accordingly, the intellect combines a faculty (passive aspect) with a non-composite substance (active aspect). Yet, why is the active intellect both "immortal and eternal" (athanaton kai aidion) (cf. Chapter 5)? Metaphysics IX claims that non-composite substances are in actuality (energeia), in so far as they do not come to be nor cease to be. As such, they are immortal and eternal; but such terms do not designate anything divine, let alone a Platonic conception of intelligibility. This only means that the active aspect of the intellect is separate from, unmixed with, and unaffected by matter. While a faculty is in first actuality as a capacity, an actual thinking is in second actuality as the exercise of this capacity; and Aristotle understands first actuality, with respect to second actuality, as being "somehow in potentiality" (dunamei pôs) (III, 4, 429b8). Thus, the active aspect of the intellect is the actualization of the passive aspect, i.e. the exercise of the faculty of thought. This research project will share a common methodology with two of my previous publications: 'Aristotle on Time, Plurality, and Continuity' in Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy (2009) and 'Aristotle on Meaning' in Archiv für Geschiche der Philosohie (forthcoming). That is, Aristotle's philosophical positions should be analyzed in relation to the text itself, without being influenced by external views, as these views often constitute an escape from the intrinsic difficulties of the text. In this sense, we shall aim to show that the intellect can receive an Aristotelian interpretation, which does not have to be influenced by Neo-Platonism or Aristotelian Scholasticism. (AU)

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