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CHAPTER LXIIAgainst the Opinion of Alexander concerning the Potential Intellect355355   Alexander of Aphrodisias (there were three towns of that name, one in Caria, one in Cilicia, and one in Thrace) expounded Aristotle at Athens, A.D. 200. Among the Greek commentators on the Philosopher he holds the place that Averroes holds among the Mohammedans: hence his similar surname of ὁ ἐξηγητής (the commentator). Averroes, while continually wrangling with Alexander, especially on the nature of the potential intellect, speaks of him with great regard. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the schools of Northern Italy were filled with eager disputants, Alexandrists and Averroists. St Thomas in his later Opusculum de unitate intellectus denies that Alexander held the view which he here ascribes to him: he says that it was falsely imputed to him by Averroes. Be that as it may, the opinion at present standing for confutation comes to this. The ‘potential intellect,’ to all intents and purposes, is identified with what Averroes, and St Thomas with him, calls the ‘passive intellect,’ described in the opening of Chap. LX, which ‘intellect’ is admitted on all hands to be in man, not extrinsic to him.
   There is a good account of Alexander in a Dissertation by Augustus Elfes, published at Bonn (Straus) in 1887, entitled Aristotelis doctrina de mente humana, pars prima, Alexandri Aphrodisiensis et Joannis Philoponi commentationes. Alexander calls the potential intellect ὑλικός, as in the Latin versions of Averroes it is called materialis. But with Alexander the potential intellect is a bodily (organic) faculty: in fact it is silently confounded with the νοῦς παθητικός of Aristotle; whereas in Averroes, St Thomas, and (we may add) in Aristotle himself, it is a spiritual faculty. This is the great mistake of Alexander. He says, ἐπιτηδειότης τίς ἐστιν ὁ ὑλικὸς νοῦς, ἐοικὼς πινακίδι ἀγράφῳ,—in this agreeing with Aristotle, De anima, III, iv, 12: who says the potential intellect, to begin with, is like “a notebook in which nothing is actually written.” The word ἐπιτηδειότης appears in St Thomas as praeparatio (predisposition). To meet Aristotle’s saying that the potential intellect ἀπαθής (unimpressed by material things), Alexander distinguishes between the predisposition of the tablet to be written on, and the tablet itself: the tablet, he says, is impressed and changed, but not the predisposition. This looks like quibbling. Alexander made the ‘active intellect’ one for all men; and even identified it with God.

   On the other hand, G. Rodier, Aristote, Traité de l’âme (Leroux, Paris, 1900), vol. II, pp. 457, 460, has a clear statement and able defence of Alexander’s notion of ἐπιτηδειότης.

UPON consideration of these words of Aristotle, Alexander determined the potential intellect to be some power in us, that so the general definition of soul assigned by Aristotle might apply to it. But because he could not understand how any subsistent intelligence could be the form of a body, he supposed the aforesaid faculty of potential intellect not to be planted in any subsistent intelligence, but to be the result of some combination of elements in the human body. Thus a definite mode of combination of the components of the human body puts a man in potentiality to receive the influence of the active intellect, which is ever in act, and according to him,356356And also according to Avicenna, — Chap. LXXIV. is a spiritual being subsisting apart, under which influence man becomes actually intelligent. But that in man whereby he is potentially intelligent is the potential intellect: hence it seemed to Alexander to follow that the potential intellect in us arises from a definite combination of elements. But this statement appears on first inspection to be contrary to the words and argument of Aristotle. For Aristotle shows (De anima, III, iv, 2-4) that the potential intellect is unmingled with the body: but that could not be said of a faculty that was the result of a combination of bodily elements. To meet this difficulty Alexander says that the potential intellect is precisely the ‘predisposition’ (praeparatio, ἐπιτηδεώτης) which exists in human nature to receive the influence of the active intellect; and that this ‘predisposition’ is not any definite sensible nature, nor is it mingled with the body, for it is a relation and order between one thing and another.357357That is to say, between the human organism and the (extrinsic) ‘active intellect,’ the action of which imprints the universal idea. But this is in manifest disagreement with the mind of Aristotle, as the following reasons show:

3. Aristotle assigns these characteristics to the potential intellect: to be impressed by the intelligible presentation, to receive intelligible impressions, to be in potentiality towards them (De anima, III, iv, 11, 12): all which things cannot be said of any ‘disposition,’ but only of the subject predisposed. 130It is therefore contrary to the mind of Aristotle, that the mere ‘predisposition’ should be the potential intellect.358358So argues Averroes against Alexander (Averroes in Aristot. De anima, p. 159, ed. Venet. 1574).

4. An effect cannot stand higher above the material order than its cause. But every cognitive faculty, as such, belongs to the immaterial order. Therefore it is impossible for any cognitive faculty to be caused by a combination of elements. But the potential intellect is the supreme cognitive faculty in us: therefore it is not caused by a combination of elements.

6. No bodily organ can possibly have a share in the act of understanding. But that act is attributed to the soul, or to the man: for we say that the soul understands, or the man through the soul. Therefore there must be in man some principle independent of the body, to be the principle of such an act. But any predisposition, which is the result of a combination of elements, manifestly depends on the body. Therefore no such predisposition can be a principle like the potential intellect, whereby the soul judges and understands.

But if it is said that the principle of the aforesaid operation in us is the intellectual impression actually made by the active intellect, this does not seem to suffice: because when man comes to have actual intellectual cognition from having had such cognition potentially, he needs to understand not merely by some intelligible impression actualising his understanding, but likewise by some intellectual faculty as the principle of such activity. Besides, an impression is not in actual understanding except so far as it is purified from particular and material being. But this cannot happen so long as it remains in any material faculty, that is to say, in any faculty either caused by material principles or actualising a material organ. Therefore there must be posited in us some immaterial intellectual faculty, and that is the potential intellect.


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