CT 80: Different Kinds of Intellect and Ways of Understanding

Now that we’ve put Man in his place, let’s continue examining human intellect in Chapter 80:

Since intellectual being is superior to sentient being, just as intellect is superior to sense, and since lower beings imitate higher beings as best they may, just as bodies subject to generation and corruption imitate in some fashion the circulatory motion of heavenly bodies, it follows that sensible beings resemble, in their own way, intellectual beings. Thus from the resemblance of sense to intellect we can mount to some knowledge of intellectual beings.

A sentient being is a being that possesses sense, i.e., vision, hearing, and so forth. Animals are sentient; plants are not. Humans are sentient but also intellectual. Now, all beings resemble some perfection or perfections in God, and the higher the being, the more so. Thus, Thomas may say that lower beings imitate higher beings “as best they may”. Since sentient beings resemble, in some sense, intellectual beings, we can learn something about how intellect works in Man by studying how sense works in Dog.

However, “sentient being” is not the same as “sensible being”. A sentient being is a being that has sense; a sensible being is a being that can be sensed.

In sensible beings a certain factor is found to be the highest; this is act, that is, form. Another factor is found to be the lowest, for it is pure potency; this is matter. Midway between the two is the composite of matter and form.

OK, sure. Rocks, plants, animals, people, are all a composite of form and matter.

We expect to find something similar in the intellectual world. The supreme intellectual being, God, is pure act. Other intellectual substances have something of act and of potency, but in a way that befits intellectual being. And the lowest among intellectual substances, that whereby man understands, has, so to speak, intellectual being only in potency.

Interesting. At the top end of the intellectual scale, we have God, who is pure act; then we scale down through the angels, in whom is some admixture of potency (though no matter), until finally the lowest creatures on the intellectual scale, the souls of men and women, have intellect in potency only. That makes sense.

Hey, wait a minute. Potency only? But how can I understand anything, if my intellect is only potentially there?

This is borne out by the fact that man is at first found to be only potentially intelligent, and this potency is gradually reduced to act in the course of time.

Aha! We learn! Babies understand nothing. Over time we become more intelligent, that is, we understand more things, more essences become intelligible to us. At birth, our intellect is capable of understanding, but we know nothing; when we are grown, presumably we’ve learned something.

And this is why the faculty whereby man understands is called the possible intellect.

Some background I picked up somewhere. The intellect has two parts, the agent intellect and the possible intellect. The agent intellect is that by which we apprehend the essence of something. When I see a dog and think, “That’s a dog,” it is the agent intellect at work. The possible intellect, as I understand it, is like the intellect’s memory. If I see a dog, and I’ve never seen or heard of a dog before, I apprehend it as some kind of animal I’ve never seen before. Gradually, as I learn about dogs, all of the things that go along with being a dog accumulate in the possible intellect and become available to be apprehended. Then, when I see a dog I can move quickly from “this animal before me” to “Man’s best friend.”

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