CT 86: The Agent Intellect Not One In All Men

Thomas has just shown that every man has his own possible intellect; now he’s going to show that every man has his own agent intellect as well:

There were also some philosophers who argued that, even granting the diversification of the possible intellect in men, at any rate the agent intellect was but one for all. This view, while less objectionable than the theory discussed in the preceding chapter, can be refuted by similar considerations.

So what’s the difference between the possible intellect and the agent intellect? As I understand it—and I’m not at all sure that I really do understand it—the possible intellect is like the memory of the intellect. As I learn about more and more things, the intelligible species by which I understand them get squirreled away in the possible intellect. It’s called the possible intellect, because it’s the collection of concepts that it’s possible for me to bring to mind. I understand this vast collection of intelligible species in potency, but not in actuality.

The agent intellect is so called because it is the agent—the efficient cause—of my understanding something. It does two things: first, when I bring a concept to mind, the agent intellect brings it from potency to act in my mind; and second, when I learn to understand a new thing it is the agent intellect that abstracts the essence of the thing, its species, from it and makes it intelligible.

Or, as Thomas says,

The action of the possible intellect consists in receiving the objects understood and in understanding them. And the action of the agent intellect consists in causing things to be actually understood by abstracting species. But both these functions pertain to one particular man. This man, for example, Socrates or Plato, receives the objects understood, abstracts the species, and understands what is abstracted. Hence the possible intellect as well as the agent intellect must be united to this man as a form. And so both must be numerically multiplied in accord with the number of men concerned.

In short, without going into a detailed argument as he did in Chapter 85, Thomas simply points out that when I understand something it’s I who understand it, and when you understand something it’s you who understand it, and to say that we might be sharing a single intellect to do the job is just silly.

Nevertheless, Thomas does go on to say why it makes sense:

Moreover, agent and patient must be proportionate to each other. Examples are matter and form, for matter is reduced to act by an agent.

The agent is the efficient cause, the thing making a change occur, and the “patient,” I take it, is the thing acted upon. The agent intellect acts upon the possible intellect, and hence they must be proportionate to each other. I believe that he means “proportionate” in the same way that we’d might say that an object is disproportionate to a container that’s too small for it. They have to fit together.

This is why an active potency of the same genus corresponds to every passive potency; for act and potency pertain to one genus. But the agent intellect is to the possible intellect what active potency is to passive potency, as is clear from this discussion. Hence they must both pertain to one genus. Therefore, since the possible intellect has no separate existence apart from us, but is united to us as a form and is multiplied according to the number of men, as we have shown, the agent intellect must likewise be something that is united to us as a form, and must be multiplied according to the number of men.

OK, now here are a couple of terms I’ve not run into before: “active potency” and “passive potency”. I’ll guess that a thing has an active potency if it’s capable of doing something but isn’t currently doing it, and that a thing has passive potency if something can be done to it but it isn’t currently being done. Thus, I can pick up that ball and throw it, and that ball can be picked up and thrown, and gosh, wow, sure enough, the active potency and the passive potency are proportionate to each other. They fit. I suppose one could say that they pertain to one genus.

So anyway, the same is true of the agent intellect and the possible intellect. The agent intellect is capable of bringing a concept to mind, and the possible intellect can provide one. And so they must both pertain to one genus, which means (I’m not entirely sure why; I think Thomas might be skipping a few steps) that they must both be united to a man as a form.

So we’ve each got a possible intellect and an agent intellect of our very own.

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