Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Intellection, Renaissance Concept of

  • José Manuel García ValverdeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1056-1


From the point of view of Aristotelian psychology, intellection is the culmination of a complex and multifarious process in which all the powers linked to knowledge intervene, from sense perception to the intellect. This process has been the subject of a multitude of discussions and an endless number of works focused, in the majority of the cases, on the commentary of Aristotle’s texts. Into this field, several questions concerning intellection have been dealt with, among which the relation between sensible forms and the so-called intelligible species was of particular importance. Also, the implications of our own intellectual activity for the debate over the immortality have been explored with great attention during the Renaissance. In this sense, many authors have discussed whether intellection must be understood as the product of a faculty essentially independent from the body and immortal or as a mere abstraction which is impossible without the presence of sensible data. Moreover, from a specific epistemological point of view, the logical mechanisms of reasoning were studied by many Renaissance philosophes. In this case, the point of departure was the significance of intellection as the direct apprehension of the first principles and the most general concepts of each science.

Heritage and New Approaches

From an Aristotelian perspective, intellection must be understood as the culmination of the process that leads from the perception of the sensitive image to the apprehension of the intelligible form (essence or universal concept) of a given object in a specific scientific field. This process, enormously complex and discussed, has been the object of study by Renaissance philosophers just as it had been by many medieval authors (Spruit 1995, pp. 3–17). The Renaissance views of this question have been diverse (Kessler 1988, pp. 485–534), but in general they can be included in two broad interpretative lines that are, nevertheless, interdependent. One of them was placed within what an Aristotelian considered a branch of natural philosophy, that is, the psychological study of the gnoseological faculties which are present in the human being (Zabarella 2016, pp. 171–178). The other was in the field of method and logic from where some authors tried to unravel the procedures that constituted the most important achievement of the act of thought, that is, science.

The large and multifarious number of interpretations made of Aristotle’s De anima throughout history shows that the texts of the Master in this area, far from offering a closed and definitive doctrine, have left many problems unresolved (Perrone 1999, pp. viii–xviii). However, it is undeniable that those texts have always been a constant stimulus for reflection which has compensated for Aristotle’s lack of concreteness and the ambiguity in dealing with the topic of the intellective soul. For him, if the intellect is called to receive the intelligible form, just as the senses receive the sensitive one, it must have no previous form that hinders such a reception (Zimara 1562, p. 188). Hence, it is said in De anima III, 4, that the intellect “has no other nature except its capacity to receive.” A little lower, Aristotle defines the act of thinking as a kind of identification between the subject of this act, that is, the intellect, and its object, that is, the intelligible, since “theoretical knowledge and its object are identical.” But, even if the intellect lacks a concrete nature, in De anima III, 5, it is said that we can find in it a passive principle, which is capable of becoming all things, and an active principle capable of making all of them. The Aristotelian authors, especially since Alexander of Aphrodisias, have spoken of a patient or material intellect and an agent intellect (Nifo 2011, pp. 385–439). The interrelation of these two intellects, their differentiated or undifferentiated substances, as well as their presence in the human soul have been questions constantly debated by many Renaissance thinkers. Moreover, the impact of these questions on the controversy about the immortality of the soul was enormous (Di Napoli 1963, pp. 7–20). In this case, the proliferation of opinions has fluctuated between that of those who maintained that the intellectual faculty has no autonomous entity beyond being just a mere development of sense perception and that of those who have underlined, in many different ways, its substantial character and its separation from the body. In this sense, the sensitive dependence of the intellective act, which Aristotle clearly affirmed in more than one passage, always involved an objection addressed against the independence and autonomy of human thought. In spite of it, some Renaissance Aristotelians affirmed that the sensitive images are by themselves incapable of becoming those intelligible species that our mind contemplates, so it is necessary to postulate a higher faculty which possesses the power to extract an intelligible and immaterial nature from what is singular and linked to matter. To do it, this faculty has to be intelligible and immaterial by itself, existing as a separable, unmixed, and imperishable substance.

Otherwise, from a methodological point of view, the logical and empirical procedure that leads from singular data to universal concepts has been approached with great zeal throughout the sixteenth century, particularly in the area of the University of Padua (Poppi 1970). In this case, the syllogistic structure of scientific thought has been studied, as well as the nature of that intuitive act of intellection that is capable of capturing the first principles of each science.



Primary Literature

  1. Nifo, A. 2011. In De intellectu, ed. L. Spruit. Leiden/Boston, Brill.Google Scholar
  2. Zabarella, G. 2016. In De rebus naturalibus, ed. J.M. García Valverde, vol. 2. Leiden/Boston, Brill.Google Scholar
  3. Zimara, M. A. 1562. Tabula dilucidationum in dictis Aristotelis, et Averrois, in Aristotelis opera cum Averrois commentariis, Suppl. III, Venetiis Apud Iunctas.Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Di Napoli, G. 1963. L’immortalità dell’anima nel Rinascimento. Torino, Società Editrice Internazionale.Google Scholar
  2. Kessler, E. 1988. The intellective Soul. In The Cambridge history of renaissance philosophy, ed. C.B. Schmitt and Q. Skinner. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de Estética e Historia de la FilosofíaUniversidad de SevillaSevilleSpain

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marco Sgarbi
    • 1
  • Peter Mack
    • 2
  1. 1.University Ca' Foscari VeniceVeniceItaly
  2. 2.The Warburg Institute, School of Advanced StudyUniversity of LondonLondonUK