Passive Intellect?

Pippin seems to accept the common gloss of Aristotelian (potential) intellect as “passive”. Although this particular equation of potential with passive is common among Latin scholastics, it is an interpolation that does not come from Aristotle himself. At the same time, scholastic discourse in general was actually full of talk about the human subject and its complex relations of activity and passivity, especially in theological contexts. Meanwhile Plato and Aristotle already also emphasized the discursive character of thought — its relation to dialogue and articulation in language, and the importance of development and mediation.

I think it is a serious historical error to say that Aristotelian “intellect” (nous) just passively receives intelligibles, and we had to wait for Kant to get any different view. What Kant did was to deny that the understanding (as distinct from sensibility) passively receives anything at all, while developing a very original account of the active aspect of understanding (and imagination) in the synthesis of experience. The historic source of the common-but-not-universal traditional assumption of an overall passivity of intellect is neither Aristotelian nor Platonic, but rather Stoic.

Aristotle speaks of potential intellect as being “nothing at all” before it begins to think.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes argued that potential and actual intellect were hylomorphically inseparable and only analytically distinguishable, and also that potential intellect, even taken by itself, had some active characteristics. Meanwhile he also spoke of a third, more passive “intellect” that was not really intellect, but rather associated with a part of the Aristotelian imagination that he called the cogitative faculty. Even this is not truly passive.

Alexander of Aphrodisias had described potential intellect in terms similar to that of Averroes’ cogitative faculty, and Aquinas partially endorsed the position of Alexander. On the other hand, unlike Alexander, Aquinas also located located actual intellect within the soul. Things are further complicated by Aquinas’ introduction of the natural light of reason and his defense of a variant of the medieval doctrine of passively received “species”. Neither of these comes from Aristotle.

Pippin doesn’t mention actual or “active” intellect explicitly, but all historic versions of Aristotelianism recognize some variant of this. In Metaphysics book Lambda, Aristotle repeatedly stresses the actual side of intellect. No one claims that actual intellect is passive. The problem is that Aristotle’s own account of intellect has a very minimalist character.

Aristotle himself is partially to blame for the historic unclarity on the activity and passivity of intellect. He suggests an analogy between intellect and sense perception. The latter is described mainly in passive language, though even perception in Aristotle is not entirely passive. I think the analogy of intellect to sense perception is intended only as a kind of first approximation in terms of something more universally familiar, but most of the Latin tradition took it as decisive, and treated intelligibles as things passively received. Still, this is far from the whole story about views of activity and passivity in the human being.

Pippin generally does a great job explaining Aristotelian points. This one about passive intellect is an exception. An extenuating circumstance is that Hegel too seems to have a blind spot on this particular Aristotelian issue.

I wonder about the relation of this to Pippin’s claim in a footnote about “the emergence of subjectivity”, “not just in philosophy but as a world-historic event. At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, some sort of awareness that the world and others were not unproblematically available for observers and agents, but that the subject was in some sort of relation to itself in its possible relation to the world and others, was clearly emerging in Cervantes, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, and others, until it finally found its radical philosophical expression in Descartes” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 266n).

It’s fine to celebrate the creativity of late Renaissance and early modern literature, but the rather clichĂ© reference to Descartes is disappointing after such excellent work on all of Kant and Hegel’s efforts to overcome early modern prejudices, and on Hegel’s explicit recovery of many Aristotelian insights, of which early modernity generally had lost sight. Standard as Pippin’s view is on the alleged pivotal role of Descartes in giving philosophical expression to subjectivity, it is simplistic and historically wrong.

Forms of subjectivity have indeed developed historically, but subjectivity did not just “emerge” in early modernity. This is a huge and intricate topic, in which I am extremely interested and on which I have written more than a bit already. Alain de Libera has made major contributions in this area with his “archaeology of the subject”.