Aristotle's theory of cognition: The agent intellect revisited

Myrna Gabbe, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation offers an interpretation of Aristotle's theory of cognition by considering two related questions: What is the role and function of the so-called “agent intellect,” and what is the causal structure of cognition? ^ The agent intellect is introduced in De Anima III 5 as a second intellect, additional to the potential intellect. The agent intellect, we are told, stands to the potential intellect as art to its material or light to colors. Beyond these suggestive metaphors, Aristotle fails to explain precisely how the agent intellect causes thinking. ^ An adequate theory of the agent intellect must explain why this second intellect is needed to complete the picture of cognition. The traditional interpretation is that the agent intellect is required to abstract the intelligible forms from the images that result from sensation—a task of which the potential is deemed incapable in virtue of its putative passivity. The passivity attributed to this intellect reflects an understanding of Aristotelian sense-perception, which Aristotle claims is analogous to cognition, as a purely passive process. I argue that both the account of sense-perception and the interpretation of the agent intellect to which it gives rise are mistaken. In my view, there is no role in the internal processes of cognition for which the agent intellect is necessary. The agent intellect is to be identified with the prime mover and understood as a metaphysical principle upon which all intellection depends. ^ Chapter one introduces the Aristotelian noetic soul and marks out the philosophical options for interpreting the agent intellect. Chapter two puts into historical context the interpretive options classified in chapter one. I give here a critical analysis of five ancient and medieval commentators: Theophrastus, Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Alexandrian author of the De Intellectu, Themistius and Thomas Aquinas. Chapter three offers an interpretation of the potential intellect. Here I defend Alexander's insight that the agent intellect accounts for human cognition in general without affecting the human intellect directly. Chapter five gives a theory of the agent intellect as a metaphysical principle. ^

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Recommended Citation

Gabbe, Myrna, "Aristotle's theory of cognition: The agent intellect revisited" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3165676.