CT 88: The Way These Two Faculties Are United In The Same Essence Of Soul

So, the possible intellect and the agent intellect are united in one soul. But wait! There’s another problem:

We have still to consider how this union is possible. Some difficulty may seem to arise in this matter. The possible intellect is in potency with respect to all that is intelligible, whereas the agent intellect causes what is intelligible in potency to be intelligible in act, and so must be related to what is intelligible as act to potency. But the same thing, seemingly, cannot be both in potency and in act with respect to the same object. Thus it would appear that the possible intellect and the agent intellect cannot be united in the same substance of the soul.

How can one thing, one human soul, be both in potency and act with respect to a single object?

I confess, this is not a matter of great concern to me, but I resolved when I began to work all of the way through the Compendium Theologiae, without skipping anything, so I’ve got to go through it. That’s no reason that you have to. In this particular case, I’m just going to let Thomas speak for himself, and highlight a couple of interesting points in the discussion.

This doubt is easily resolved if we examine how the possible intellect is in potency with respect to intelligible objects, and how the agent intellect renders them actually intelligible. The possible intellect is in potency with regard to intelligible objects in the sense that it does not contain within its nature any determinate form of sensible things. In the same way the pupil of the eye is in potency with regard to all colors. To the extent, then, that phantasms abstracted from sensible things are likenesses of definite sensible things, they are related to the possible intellect as act to potency. Nevertheless the phantasms are in potency with regard to something that the intellectual soul possesses in act, namely, being as abstracted from material conditions. And in this respect the intellectual soul is related to the phantasms as act to potency. No contradiction is involved if a thing is in act and potency with regard to the same object according to different points of view. Thus natural bodies act upon each other and are acted upon by each other, for each is in potency with respect to the other. The same intellectual soul, therefore, can be in potency with regard to all intelligible objects and nevertheless, without any contradiction, can be related to them as act, if both a possible intellect and an agent intellect are acknowledged in the soul.

There’s more than one way to look at most things, and intelligible objects are surely one of them. You can be in potency with respect to it in one way, and in act with respect to it in another. How can I have my cake in potency and act at the same time? I can have it before me in act, and have it in my stomach in potency. Once I have eaten it, I have in my stomach in act, and (if it was a large cake, and I ate it all) I can have it before me in potency.

This will be seen more clearly from the way the intellect renders objects actually intelligible. The agent intellect does not render objects actually intelligible in the sense that the latter flow from it into the possible intellect. If this were the case, we would have no need of phantasms and sense in order to understand. No, the agent intellect renders things actually intelligible by abstracting them from phantasms; just as light, in a certain sense, renders colors actual, not as though it contained the colors within itself, but so far as it confers visibility on them. In the same way we are to judge that there is a single intellectual soul that lacks the natures of sensible things but can receive them in an intelligible manner, and that renders phantasms actually intelligible by abstracting intelligible species from them. The power whereby the soul is able to receive intelligible species is called the possible intellect, and the power whereby it abstracts intelligible species from phantasms is called the agent intellect. The latter is a sort of intelligible light communicated to the intellectual soul, in imitation of what takes place among the higher intellectual substances.

As usual, Thomas puts things better than I do. I like this description of the possible and agent intellect, and I especially like the description of the agent intellect as a “sort of intelligible light communicated to the intellectual soul…” We often say that a clear explanation casts light on a dim subject. The divine light of reason shines upon us and casts light on the objects we sense, allowing us to abstract universal concepts from them. It is by the divine light of reason that I can see that animal, and know that it is an animal, and not just any animal, but a dog.

Why is this in imitation of the angels, the “higher intellectual substances”? Because, according to Thomas, God in a sense pre-equips them with the intelligible species that they need. They have no senses; they do not perceive. Rather, their intellects apprehend directly. They do not abstract universals from sensible objects, but just know them.

What a peculiar creature Man is, to be sure.

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