Active intellect

Active intellect

Active intellect or agent intellect is a term used in both psychology and philosophy.


Active intellect, or active knowledge, is the psychological concept of knowledge being actively used (as opposed to passive knowledge). For example, if you are speaking French, your knowledge of it is currently active knowledge for you. If you simply know French, but do not happen to be speaking it at the moment, it would be considered passive knowledge. Active intellect is sometimes represented by three wavy lines of equal length stacked together [] .


The active intellect was the subject of much intense discussion in medieval philosophy. The idea is first encountered in Aristotle's "De Anima", in which he discusses the human mind and distinguishes between the active and passive intellects.Fact|date=April 2008 The meaning is not altogether clear, but the distinction could be compared to that between the central processing unit and the hard drive of a computer, or possibly that between the operating system and the data files.

The early Greek commentators on Aristotle, in particular Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius, gave several different interpretations of the distinction between the active and passive intellects. Some of them regarded the active intellect as a power external to the human mind, Alexander going so far as to identify it with God. Later Neoplatonically-inclined Muslim commentators on Aristotle (Al-Farabi, Avicenna; also the Jewish philosopher Maimonides) agreed with this "external" interpretation, and held that the active intellect was the lowest of the ten emanations descending through the celestial spheres. Maimonides cited it in his definition of prophecy where

Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty. [Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed p.225 [] ]
The more strictly Aristotelian Muslims (in particular Avempace and Averroes) wrote about how one could conjoin oneself with the active intellect, thus attaining philosophical nirvana.

The reason of the Islamic and Jewish Aristotelians for positing a single external Agent Intellect is that all (rational) human beings are considered by Aristotelians to possess or have access to a fixed and stable set of concepts, a unified correct knowledge of the universe. The only way that all human minds could possess the same correct knowledge is if they all had access to some central knowledge store, as terminals might have access to a mainframe computer Harv|Kraemer|2003. This mainframe is the Agent Intellect, the "mind" of the universe, which makes all other cognition possible.

In medieval and Renaissance Europe some thinkers, such as Siger of Brabant, adopted the interpretation of Averroes on every point, as did the later school of "Paduan Averroists". St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated on Aristotle's distinction between the active intellect and passive intellect, arguing against Averroes that the active intellect is part of the individual human personality. A third school, of "Alexandrists", rejected the argument linking the active intellect to the immortality of the soul, while hastening to add that they still believed in immortality as a matter of religious faith. (See Pietro Pomponazzi; Cesare Cremonini.)

The active intellect, in the sense described, is more properly called the Agent Intellect, as it is the force triggering intellection in the human mind and causing thoughts to pass from the potential to the actual. It must not be confused with the "intellect in act", which is the result of that triggering, and is more akin to the psychological use of the term. Another term for the final result of intellection, that is to say a person's accumulated knowledge, is the "acquired intellect".



* Citation
first = Joel L.
last = Kraemer
editor-last = Frank
editor-first = Daniel H.
editor2-last =Leaman
editor2-first =Oliver
contribution =The Islamic context of medieval Jewish philosophy
contribution-url =
title =The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy
year =2003
pages =38–68
place =Cambridge
publisher =Cambridge University Press
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 978-0521652070

*"Commentarium magnum in Aristotelis De anima libros", ed. Crawford, Cambridge (Mass.) 1953: Latin translation of Averroes' long commentary on the De Anima
*Averroes (tr. Alain de Libera), "L'intelligence et la pensée", Paris 1998: French translation of Averroes' long commentary on book 3 of the De Anima
*Essays on Aristotle's "De Anima", ed. Nussbaum and Rorty: Oxford 1992

External links

* [ Catholic Encyclopedia article]

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