Aquinas’s Thesis of the Identity of the Intellect Knowing and the Intellectual Object Known

This post is the eighth in a series dedicated to a sustained reading of and commentary upon Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.*

0. In a previous post, the “Touching upon the Theory of Act and Potency,” of August 23, 2017, I drew attention to a central theory in the holding of which the philosophical perspective of After Aristotle stands in agreement with that or those of Aristotle and Aquinas, the theory of act and potency. I also promised that, in a later post (which I then thought, erroneously, would be the next), I would draw attention to a central thesis in the holding of which After Aristotle’s view differs from those of Aristotle and Aquinas. This is that later post.

1. I need, however, to be a bit more careful than I have been in how I put things. For one thing, the difference at hand consists in the fact, not that I affirm a thesis that Aquinas does not, but that Aquinas affirms a thesis that I do not. For another thing, as I have just signaled in excepting Aristotle, the precise thesis that I have had in mind, one that receives expression in the prologue to and in the first lesson of Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, is not one that, at least to my knowledge, is to be found in Aristotle, though others closely related are. That thesis of Aquinas is the thesis that, in my words:

The intellect knowing an object is a being identical with the intellectual object known.

Given the distinction between act and potency, and actually being and potential being, which I touched upon in “Touching upon the Theory of Act and Potency,” Aquinas is led to affirm both that, still in my words,

The intellect potentially knowing an object is a being potentially identical with the intellectual object potentially known.

and that

The intellect actually knowing an object is a being actually identical with the intellectual object actually known.

Accepting though I do the theory of act and potency, I do not accept the thesis that the intellect knowing an intellectual object is a being identical with the intellectual object known. In what follows, then, I propose to, first, present two passages of the commentary in which Aquinas affirms the identity in question. Second, I will “regiment” the expression of that affirmation, i.e., so rephrase it that its logical characteristics stand out unequivocally, in order to be able to better point out precisely how Aquinas’s thesis is wrong. Third, I will then point out how Aquinas’s thesis is wrong.

2. The text of Aquinas which I quoted in the previous post and in which Aquinas affirms, though in his own words, both that the intellect actually knowing an intellectual object and the intelligible object actually known are actually identical and that the intellect potentially knowing an intellectual object and the intellectual object potentially known are potentially identical, is that of Comment 2, in the first lesson of Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. There, after having reported, in Comment 1, that Aristotle

says … that the desire to know belongs by nature to all men.

Aquinas goes on to say:

Three reasons can be given for this. The first is that each thing naturally desires its own perfection. Hence matter is said to desire form as any imperfect thing desires its perfection. Therefore, since the intellect, by which man is what he is, considered in itself is all things potentially, and becomes them actually only through knowledge, because the intellect is none of those things that exist before it understands them, as is stated in Book III of The Soul [429a23]; so each man naturally desires knowledge just as matter desires form.

The other text in which he offers an affirmation of the identity of the intellect knowing an intellectual object and the intellectual object known, though in this text more specifically of the identity of the intellect actually knowing an intellectual object and the intellectual object actually known, is that of the first half of the fifth paragraph of his prologue to the Commentary. There, speaking of the phrase, “most intelligible objects,” he says:

Third, this phrase can be understood from the viewpoint of the intellect’s own knowledge. For since each thing has intellective power by virtue of being free from matter, those things must be intelligible in the highest degree which are altogether separate, from matter. For the intellect and the intelligible object must be proportionate to each other and must belong to the same genus, since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in act.

In the present post I’ll refrain from dealing with the arguments of the two passages; I will take them up instead as I reach them in the course of the series of posts devoted to the Commentary (to which I pledge to return soon). Besides, the thesis of the identity of the intellect and the intellected object is introduced in the two passages as a premise, and not as a conclusion, of the arguments in them.

3. I’ll take it then as granted that Aquinas has affirmed in the passages quoted that, in my words,

The intellect knowing an intellectual object is a being identical with the intellectual object known.

Next, then, we have the regimentation of that affirmation. So, to begin, let us note that one can reword the thesis that, say,

The human intellect is an immaterial principle of the human person.

as the universal affirmative categorical proposition that

All human intellects are immaterial principles of human persons.

while yet preserving the equivalence of the one to the other; the one is true if and only if the other is true. So too one can reword the more complex thesis that

The intellect knowing an intellectual object is a being identical with the intellectual object known.

as the universal affirmative categorical proposition that

All intellects knowing intellectual objects are beings identical with the intellectual objects known.

4. Now, there are, as it well seems, instances in which it is true that intellects knowing intellectual objects are beings identical with the intellectual objects known, at least if there are intellects knowing themselves. If or as this is the case, then the particular affirmative categorical proposition that

At least some intellects knowing intellectual objects are beings identical with the intellectual objects known.

is true.

But there are also, as it equally well seems, instances in which it is not true that intellects knowing intellectual objects are beings identical with the intellectual objects known. Then the following two equivalent propositions are true, the one the proposition contradicting the above given universal affirmative categorical proposition, viz..”

It is not the case that all intellects knowing intellectual objects are beings identical with the intellectual objects known.

and the other the particular negative categorical proposition

At least some intellects knowing intellectual objects are not beings identical with the intellectual objects known.

5. You may have been looking for at least one example of an intellect knowing an intellectual object and yet not being identical with the intellectual object known. The matter is a bit complicated, but only a bit. So, let’s say that I understand, i.e., have an intellectual knowledge, that the intellectual object sitting in my back yard is a tiger. Then it is the case that

At least one intellect knowing an intellectual object is not a being identical with the intellectual object known.

for I am not, at least not literally, a tiger and neither is my intellect.

From my own Aristotelian philosophical perspective, that observation should be enough in the way of prima facie evidence that Aquinas’s identity thesis is false. But it may be objected that I am presupposing that the tiger sitting in my back yard is as such and simply the intellectual object known, as such and simply the object of the intellect. And some may not accept that presupposition, instead holding that it is not immediately the concrete tiger that is the intellectual object of my intellectual knowledge that the intellectual object sitting in my back yard is a tiger. Rather, that which is the intellectual object in that bit of intellectual knowledge is, not the tiger as such, but the tiger nature by which the tiger is a tiger.

With that precision, however, we still do not have not an exemplification of Aquinas’s thesis, for it would remain that the intellectual object, now the tiger nature, of my intellect’s knowledge is distinct from, not identical with, my intellect.

6. There is much more to be said that is intimately related to the topic of this post, for Aquinas’s identification of the intellect knowing an intellectual object and the intellectual object known, is but a middle position between two relative extremes. On the one hand, there is the thesis that the identity that knowledge is thought to be is not that of the intellect and the object of intellection, but rather that of the intelligent knower and the intellectual object known: the intelligent knower is the intellectual object known. On the other hand, there is the thesis that the identity that knowledge is thought to be is neither one of the intelligent knower nor one of the intellect with the intellectual object known. Rather it is one of the idea, thought, or concept, existing within the intellect and by means of which the intelligent knower and his, her, or its intellect knows and, it is held, is thereby identical with the intellectual known. These theses still require being addressed.

There is, moreover, my own understanding of what is involved in intellectual knowledge. I’ll just state now, and articulate and defend as coming occasions make appropriate, that I am relatively comfortable, at this stage in my philosophical development, in affirming that the real is intelligible and that we humans are capable of a genuine intellectual knowledge of that intelligible real, though we are hardly identical with the object of intellectual knowledge in all cases. I am further relatively comfortable with affirming that we humans are capable of a genuine intellectual knowledge of that which is intelligible only if and because there is within us an intellect by means of which we can have that knowledge, though that intellect is hardly identical with the object of intellectual knowledge in all cases.

Finally, I am yet further relatively comfortable with affirming that we humans are capable of a genuine intellectual knowledge of that which is intelligible only if and because there is within our intellect the conceptual means by which we can have that knowledge, though that conceptual means is hardly identical with the object of intellectual knowledge in all cases.

7. Once again, there is much more to be said. And much more will be said, fortune permitting, in the course of my reading of and reflection upon Aquinas’s commentary. But not here and now, for I have accomplished the primary aim of this post, that of drawing attention to a central difference between the Aristotelian perspective of After Aristotle, even as it remains Aristotelian, and the Aristotelian perspective of Aquinas.

Until next time.

Richard

* Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Translated and introduced by John P. Rowan (Revised edition; Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1995 [1961])

This edition of Aquinas’s text is serving as the text at hand in the present series of readings and comments. It is available online, at:

http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Metaphysics.htm

If you prefer to do your reading in hard copy, you may easily purchase a copy of the work through Amazon.com., by simply clicking on the following:

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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4 Responses to Aquinas’s Thesis of the Identity of the Intellect Knowing and the Intellectual Object Known

  1. David Murphy says:

    Fascinating so far, thanks. I await the next installment.
    As I remember (dimly now), Klaus Oehler did a lot with the “intellect in act is one with the actual object of intellection” thing to try to explain the self-knowledge of the Unmoved Mover in Meta. Lambda. The usual Platonic-Aristotelian discussion of ‘episteme’ focuses on the need that episteme be ‘of’ something. It is not its object. But Oehler I think tried to allow Aristotelian ‘noesis’ to be a unity of intellect and intellected (i.e. νοητόν). I don’t know whether Oehler discussed whether Aristotle articulated the thesis that Aquinas pulls out of Ari’s work and that you criticize here.

    • I do not know Klaus Oehler’s work; I thank you for the pointer. I do not, of course, object to the thesis that an intelligent being can have his, her, or its own intellect as an object of intellectual knowledge, in which case intellect and intellected are identical.

      I have long been fascinated by the thesis of the absolute identity of the divine activity of knowing with the divine being thus active, and so too of the “other” modes of divine activity. The thesis of divine simplicity has powerful implications. Getting beyond the fascination is another thing entirely.

  2. David Murphy says:

    I.e. whether ‘one with’ entails ‘identical to/with’.

    • I don’t think that “one with” is the same as “is identical with.” I think that two beings can be one in, say, acting together towards one end. But Aquinas has it that the intellect is (est, sit) the object of intellection. And I see that whatever is something is identical with that something.

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