CT 85: Unity of the Possible Intellect (Part IV)

Now we’ll discuss Thomas’ response to the objections covered in Part II. (The background for this chapter is in Part I.)

The arguments advanced to support the contrary view are easily answered.

The first objection is that if each man has his own intellect, then each man has his own set of concepts by which he understands the things he perceives; and consequently these concepts are not, in fact, universals. But universals are precisely what we understand, and so consequently each man cannot have his own intellect.

The first argument has many defects. First of all, we concede that the same thing may be understood by all. By the thing understood I mean that which is the object of the intellect. However, the object of the intellect is not the intelligible species, but the quiddity of the thing. The intellectual sciences are all concerned with the natures of things, not with intelligible species; just as the object of sight is color, not the species of color in the eye. Hence, although there may be many intellects belonging to different men, the thing understood by all may be but one; just as a colored object which many look at is but one.

I see a dog. The concept, or intelligible species, “dog” appears in my mind. But I do not understand this concept, “dog”; rather, I understand that this dog standing before me is a dog. Concepts are like pointers in a computer language: the thing of interest is not the pointer itself, but the data at which it points. Thus, when you and I see a dog, we each have our own concept; but those concepts both point at the same thing, viz, Dogginess, what it is to be a dog.

This next bit speaks to a passage I didn’t understand in the first objection; if you go back to Part II, you’ll find it:

Secondly, the consequence does not necessarily follow that, if a thing is individual, it is understood in potency and not in act. This is true only of things that are individuated by matter. Of course, what is understood in act must be immaterial. Accordingly immaterial substances, even though they may be individuals existing by themselves, are understood in act. The same holds for intelligible species, which are immaterial; although they differ numerically in me and in you, they do not on that account lose their property of being intelligible in act. The intellect that understands its objects by means of them reflects upon itself, thereby understanding its very action of understanding as well as the species whereby it understands. Moreover, we should realize that, even if we admit but one intellect for all men, the difficulty is still the same. There would still remain many intellects, because there are many separate substances endowed with intelligence. And so it would follow, pursuing our adversaries’ line of reasoning, that the objects understood would be numerically different, hence individual and not understood in first act. Obviously, therefore, if the objection under discussion had any cogency, it would do away with a plurality of intellects simply as such, and not merely in men. Since this conclusion is false, the argument manifestly does not conclude with necessity.

Since I didn’t understand this part of the objection, I don’t really understand the answer. But it’s interesting to note that the objection is really an argument that there’s only one Intellect, period, not that there’s only one Intellect for all men. If the objection were cogent, then all men, angels, and God would share a single intellect.

The second objection is that each intellectual substance must belong to a separate species. Thus, if you and I have distinct intellects, we must belong to different species. But this is an unfair extrapolation from the case of angels.

The second argument is readily answered, if we but consider the difference between an intellectual soul and separate substances. In virtue of its specific nature, the intellectual soul is meant to be united to some body as the latter’s form; the body even enters into the definition of the soul. For this reason, souls are numerically differentiated according to the relation they have to different bodies; which is not the case with separate substances.

By “separated substances”, Thomas means angels, immaterial spirits. But there’s a difference between the human soul and an angel, even though both are immaterial and intellectual: it is part of the human soul’s nature to have a body, and it is the relation of the soul to the body that makes human souls distinct. In short, people aren’t angels.

The third objection is that if souls are made distinct by the possession of a body, then when the body dies nothing remains to distinguish between two souls. Consequently, there can be only one soul among all men.

This also indicates how the third argument is to be answered. In virtue of its specific nature, the intellectual soul does not possess the body as a part of itself, but has only an aptitude for union with the body. Therefore it is numerically differentiated by its capacity for union with different bodies. And this remains the case with souls even after their bodies have been destroyed: they retain a capacity for union with different bodies even when they are not actually united to their respective bodies.

That is, my body is not part of my soul; but my soul has a particular aptitude to be united with my particular body. It’s as though the soul and body interlock like a plug in a socket; each person’s socket is different. Even when the body dies and the plug is removed from the socket, my soul’s plug is different than yours.

And that wraps up our discussion of the (lack of) unity of the possible intellect. Next, we get to look at the agent intellect.

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