[1.3.20] Aristotle on Passive and Active Intellect

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in De Anima distinguishes two aspects, roles of the incorporeal intellect (mind, see also [1.3.6], [1.3.7]) :

  • The passive intellect can potentially be anything by receiving that thing’s intelligible form.
  • The active intellect takes on the immaterial intelligible form through thinking.

The following OntoUML diagram shows Aristotle’s model of passive and active intellect:

Aristotle on passive and active intellect
MindIn De Anima III.4-5. “Aristotle gives an account of thinking (or intellect [mind]noêsis) that is modeled on his account of perception in Book II. Just as in perception, ‘that which perceives’ (to aisthêtikon) takes on sensible form (without matter), so in thinking ‘that which thinks’ (to noêtikon) takes on intelligible form (without matter). Similarly, just as in perception, the perceiver has the quality of the object potentially, but not actually, so, too, in understanding, the intellect is potentially (although not actually) each of its objects. […]
‘intellect understands all things’ (nous panta noei, 429a19). Not only can you think about the objects of perception (colors, odors, sounds, the son of Diares, etc.), but you can think about things that can’t be perceived at all (numbers, virtues, etc.), either intrinsically or coincidentally. You can think about anything. This universality of the objects of thought has several important consequences.

Intellect is ‘unmixed’
The first is that the intellect “must be unmixed,” i.e., must be pure potential (since it can think about anything, it must be only potentially that thing). So it has no nature of its own—if it did, it would be unable to think about that nature.

Intellect is separable, perception is bodily
‘It is unreasonable for intellect to be mixed with the body, since it would then acquire some quality (for instance, hot or cold) or even, like the perceiving part, have some organ, whereas in fact it has none. (42925-27)’
Since intellect does not have a bodily organ, it is separable from the body:
‘… intellect is separable, whereas the perceiving part requires a body. (429b5)'”
PassiveIntellect“Aristotle never actually uses the phrase nous pathêtikos (passive intellect), but the concept is clearly present in his account. We can reconstruct his argument as follows. It begins with the total passivity of an intellect that can ‘become all things.’
The passive intellect is potentially each of its objects, but not actually any of them. (429a16)
The passive intellect can think anything. (429a18)
Hence, the passive intellect is actually nothing until it thinks. (429a23)”
role of Mind
ActiveIntellect“The Active Intellect […] is something other than the passive intellect […] is the efficient cause of its thinking (i.e., of its taking on intelligible form). […]
Nous poiêtikos [active intellect] is thus not ‘mind’ but an aspect of the mind; an aspect of a person’s mental capacities. The characteristics that have led some to identify nous poiêtikos with God or with something divine are these. It is, Aristotle says:
‘separate, impassive, ever-active, immortal, eternal’
But these attributes can be construed more antiseptically. They are mostly features of the immateriality of nous poiêtikos. Being separate does not imply a possible pre- or post-embodiment existence: rather, it implies nothing more than irreducibility to anything material.”
role of Mind; in material relation with IntelligibleForm
IntelligibleFormThe active intellect, that which thinks’ (to noêtikon) takes on the immaterial intelligible form linked to the object of thought (noêton).
ThinkingThinking: “the active intellect makes things thinkable by making them actually thought-about.”relates IntelligibleForm with ActiveIntellect


First published: 1/7/2021
Updated: 8/12/2021

One thought on “[1.3.20] Aristotle on Passive and Active Intellect

  1. JeanPointeau 03/02/2022 / 17:57

    Thanks for the great explanations! However, I do not think the explanations you’ve given match the scheme you’ve made. Please help me understand correctly.
    Aristotle states that the nous pathetikos becomes every thing, and that is the reason why it must be that it is in a potential state – being actually would prevent it to receive another actual thing, says he. So, the role of the nous pathetikos was, in my understanding, to receive perceptions as to present them to the mind in a way that is understandable to it. It is only then, when the nous pathetikos has become anything it received, that the nous poietikos “enlightens“ it, by linking it to the intelligible ideas, which makes us understand. Another precision which may help, is that the nous poietikos, is not so much a “thing“, but much rather a permanent “state“ of the mind. It realises the potentiality of the intelligible that lie within the nous pathetikos.
    So, if this is correct, the scheme should look something like the mind in the middle, nous pathetikos right <= receives perception, nous poietikos left, “enlightens“ the nous pathetikos when it has received something by linking its contained/become idea to the intelligible ones.


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