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Summary Against Modern Thought: A Second Misunderstanding of Separate Substances

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Like last week, this chapter exists to squash a subtle, technical errors. Again it requires close reading to grasp. It’s best to at least skim: don’t skip. Reminder: An intellectual substance is an angel.

THAT WE CANNOT IN THIS LIFE UNDERSTAND SEPARATE SUBSTANCES IN THE WAY THAT AVERROES CLAIMED

1 Because there is very great difficulty in Alexander’s opinion, as a result of his supposition that the possible intellect in a condition of habituation is entirely corruptible, Averroes thought that be found an easier way to show that we sometimes understand separate substances. In fact, he asserted that the possible intellect is incorruptible and separate in being from us, as is also the agent intellect.

2 He showed, first of all, that it was necessary to hold that the agent intellect is related to principles naturally known to us, either as agent is to instrument, or as form to matter. For the habitual intellect, by which we understand, has not only this action of understanding, but also another, which is to make things actually understood; indeed, we know by experience that both actions stand within our power.

Now, the action of making things actual objects of understanding is more properly indicative of the meaning of habitual intellect than is the act of understanding, for to make things actually intelligible precedes the act of understanding them. But there are some things within us which are rendered actually understood in a natural way, not as a result of our effort or of the action of our will: such are the first intelligible things.

In fact, to make these actually understood does not depend on the habitual intellect, through which things that we know from study are made to be actually understood; rather, these first intelligibles are the starting point of the habitual intellect. And that is why the habit of these intelligibles is also called understanding by Aristotle, in Ethics VI [6: 1141a 7]. Now, they are made to be actually understood by the agent intellect alone. And by means of them other things are made to be actually understood: these are the things that we know from study. So, to make these subsequent things actually understood is the work both of the habitual intellect, as regards first principles, and of the agent intellect. Now, one action is not attributed to two things unless one of them is related to the other as agent to instrument or as form to matter. So, the agent intellect is necessarily related to the first principles of the habitual intellect either as agent to instrument or as form to matter.

Notes In this sentence is wisdom: “the action of making things actual objects of understanding is more properly indicative of the meaning of habitual intellect than is the act of understanding, for to make things actually intelligible precedes the act of understanding them.” You can learn a fact, but to assimilate it, really own it, is far more difficult. The “first intelligible things” are given by a certain form of induction.

3 In fact, he indicates how this is possible in the following way. Since the possible intellect, according to his theory, is a separate substance, it understands the agent intellect and the other separate substances, and also the first objects of speculative understanding. So, it is the subject for both types of objects. Now, whenever two things are united in one subject, one of them is like the form of the other. Thus, when color and light are present in a diaphanous body as their subject, one of them, namely, light, must be like the form of the other, namely, color. Now, this is necessary when they have an ordered relationship to each other, but not in the case of things accidentally associated in the same subject, like whiteness and musical ability. But speculatively understood things and the agent intellect do have an ordered relationship to each other, since the objects of speculative understanding are rendered actually understood by means of the agent intellect. So, the agent intellect is related to the objects of speculative understanding as form is to matter.

Therefore, when the objects of speculative understanding are united with us through the phantasms, which are in a sense their subject, the agent intellect must also be connected with us, because it is the form of the objects of speculative understanding. Thus, when the objects of speculative understanding are only potentially present in us, the agent intellect is only potentially connected with us. But, when some objects of speculative understanding are actually in us, and some are potentially present, its connection with us is partly actual and partly potential. Then it is that we are said to be in motion toward the aforementioned connection, for, as more things are made to be actually understood within us, the agent intellect becomes more perfectly connected with us. This progress and movement toward the connection is accomplished through study in the speculative sciences, through which we acquire true objects of understanding, and also false opinions that are outside the orderly process of this movement are excluded, just as monstrosities are outside the order of natural operation. Hence, men may help each other in making this progress, as they are of mutual assistance in the speculative sciences.

And so, when all potential objects of understanding have been made actual within us, the agent intellect is perfectly united with us as a form, and then we will understand perfectly through it, just as we now understand perfectly through the habitual intellect. Hence, since it is the function of the agent intellect to understand separate substances, we will then understand separate substances, as we now understand the objects of speculative understanding. And this will be the ultimate felicity of man, in which man will be “like some sort of God.”

Notes The key word is, of course, like. Knowledge is felicity!

4 Now, the refutation of this theory is sufficiently evident from the things that we have said earlier: in fact, it proceeds from the supposition of many points which are disproved in the foregoing sections.

5 First of all, we showed above that the possible intellect is not some substance separated from us in its being. Hence, it will not be necessary for it to be the subject of separate substances, especially since Aristotle says that the intellect is possible, “in that it is able to become all things.” From this we see that it is the subject only of those things that are made actually understood.

6 Again, we have shown above, concerning the agent intellect, that it is not a separate substance, but a part of the soul, to which Aristotle assigns this operation: “to make things actually understood” [De anima III, 5: 430a 14], and this lies within our power. Hence, it will not be necessary for the act of understanding—through the agent intellect to be the cause, for us, of our capacity to understand separate substances; otherwise, we would always understand them.

7 Furthermore, if the agent intellect is a separate substance, it cannot be joined to us except through species that have been made actually understood, according to this theory; and neither can the possible intellect, even though the possible intellect is related to these species as matter to form, while, conversely, the agent intellect is as form to matter.

Now, species that have been made actually understood are joined with us, according to his theory, by means of the phantasms which are related to the possible intellect as colors to the visual power, but to the agent intellect as colors to light: as we see from the words of Aristotle in Book in of On the Soul [III, 5: 430a 15]. But to the stone in which color is present, neither the action of the power of sight as it sees nor the action of the sun as it enlightens can be attributed. Therefore, according to the aforesaid theory, it would be impossible to attribute to man either the action of the possible intellect as it understands or the action of the agent intellect as it understands separate substances or as it makes things actually understood.

8 Besides, according to this theory, the agent intellect is not asserted to be connected with us as a form except by the fact that it is the form of objects of speculative understanding; and it is claimed to be the form of these objects because the same action belongs to the agent intellect and to these objects of understanding, which action is to make things actually understood. So, it could not be a form for us, unless by virtue of the fact that the objects of speculative understanding share in its action. Now, these objects do not share in its operation which consists in understanding separate substances, for they are the species of sensible things, unless we go back to the opinion of Avempace that the quiddities of separate substances can be known through the things that we understand about sensible objects. Therefore, it would not be at all possible for us to understand separate substances in the aforesaid way.

9 Moreover, the agent intellect is related to the objects of speculative understanding, which it makes to be so, in a different way from its relation to separate substances, which it does not make, but only knows, according to this theory. So, there is no necessity for it to be joined to us in its function as knower of separate substances, even if it is joined to us in its function as maker of the objects of speculative understanding. Rather, there is clearly a fallacy of accident in reasoning such as his.

10 Again, if we know separate substances through the agent intellect, this is not accomplished because the agent intellect is the form of this or that object of speculative understanding, but because it becomes a form for us, for in this way we are enabled to understand through it. Now, it becomes a form for us even through the first objects of speculative understanding, according to his own statement. Therefore, immediately at the start, man can know separate substances through the agent intellect.

11 Of course, it might be answered that the agent intellect does not become a form for us, in a perfect way, by virtue of certain objects of speculative understanding, so that we might understand separate substances through it and the only reason for this is that these objects of speculative understanding are not sufficient for the perfecting of the agent intellect in the act of understanding separate substances. But not even all the objects of speculative understanding taken together are sufficient for that perfection of the agent intellect by which it understands separate substances.

For all these objects are intelligible only in so far as they have been made to be understood, while those separate substances are intelligible by their own nature. So, not even the fact that we will know all the objects of speculative understanding will make it necessary for the agent intellect to become a form for us, in such a perfect way that we may understand separate substances through it. Or, if this is not required, then we will have to say that, in understanding any intelligible object, we understand separate substances.

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