Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Immanence, Renaissance Idea Of

  • Tomáš NejeschlebaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_432-1


Immanence in Renaissance philosophy is primarily an epistemological category derived from a reading of Aristotle and the Medieval Aristotelian tradition. Immanent actions are considered operations of the soul which remain in the operating one itself and do not have a cause or effect on external matter. These immanent actions are distinguished from transient actions. The main issue for Renaissance philosophers involved determining which activities of the soul (nutrition, sensation, intellection, will) can be assessed as immanent. Immanence as a metaphysical category only emerged in the seventeenth century with Spinoza’s concept of God as causa immanens and was later extrapolated by philosophy historians, who were influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and by German idealism, on the description of two originally Neoplatonic ideas: (1) the intrinsicness of the world soul in the world as the immanence of the soul in the world in connection with panpsychism and (2) the presence of the divine in the world as the immanence of God in the world in connection with pantheism.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

The Immanence of the Soul’s Activities

The meaning of the term “immanence” in Renaissance philosophy is dependent on Medieval Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle in Metaphysics IX (1050a 24–29) states that, “in some cases it is the exercise that is final (for example, seeing in the case of sight, and nothing different in addition to this comes to be from sight), but from others there does come to be something (for example, from the building craft a house in addition to the act of building)” (Aristotle 2006). Thomas Aquinas in reference to this passage distinguishes between immanent (actio manens, while later Scholastics such as John Duns Scotus use the term actio immanens) and transient action (actio transiens), where immanent means an action which remains in the one operating itself, while transient is properly “making,” for it passes through into exterior matter (George 2014). Within this Peripatetic tradition, Rudolph Goclenius defines actiones immanentes as actions in which a passive one, i.e., subiectum, is unchanged, and these operations remain “subjectively” in operating one (Goclenius 1613). The distinction between actio immanens and actio transiens was used not only by Aristotelian thinkers but was also common for non-Aristotelian philosophers, such as Giordano Bruno, who mentions it in both Summa terminorum metaphysicorum (Bruno 1989) and De monade (Bruno 2010).

Renaissance philosophers differ in their view as to which actions of the soul can be called immanent. It is unclear in Thomas Aquinas if all actions of the vegetative soul are immanent. Suárez maintains that all vital actions are not immanent, since generation and in addition certain other vital actions, such as eating, are apparently not immanent (Des Chene 2000). Suárez therefore distinguishes between two meanings of immanence. First, immanence in the strong sense is an action whose term remains in the proximate power that was produced and which can never have been produced by any other subject. In this sense only intellection and will can be immanent. Second, immanence in the weak sense is an action whose term remains in the suppositum that acts. In this sense all vital motion, such as nutrition, growth, and local motions of animals, and natural motion of earth are immanent actions. In summary, sensitive and vegetative actions of the soul, although not all, and even certain natural actions are immanent (Lecón 2013). In opposition to immanence, which is characteristic of operations of growth and nutrition, intrinsicness is a more decisive criterion for sense, intellection, and will (Des Chene 1996).

Opponents of Suárez, such as Pedro da Fonseca, emphasized that immanent actions do not have termini – an effect outside the agent. Immanent actions are therefore not actions at all, but qualities of the faculty in which they are: cognition is a quality of intellection; desire is a quality of will (Des Chene 1996, 46). This view is based on the fifteenth-century Thomists, such as Thomas de Vio (Cajetan), who maintained that certain immanent actions of the soul (sensation) are operations only in a grammatical sense, since they are actually qualities (Spruit 2008). The immanence of sensation supports the view of sensation as an active power. If vision, as Zabarella argues, has its cause only in material color, it would be a transitive action. Sense power must therefore be both active and passive (South 2002).

The issue of the immanence of intellection became important in the context of the Averroistic doctrine of the unicity of intellect, if the agent of the intellection is the agent (active) intellect, which is not part of the human soul and is unique for all mankind. And if passive intellect, which becomes all things, is unique and transcendent, the question arises if intellection is still an immanent action of the soul. Pomponazzi, in the context of his critique of Averroism, points out that intellection is an immanent operation in contrast to locomotion, which is transient (Pomponazzi 1999). Simultaneously, at a different point, Pomponazzi considers intellection as an immanent action only in a grammatical sense (Pomponazzi 2012). Zabarella concludes these discussions with the claim that every intellection is an immanent action, since intellect is forma hominis, otherwise one could not speak about humans as having understanding (Zabarella 2016).

It seems that in the Renaissance as well as in the Middle Ages, the word “immanence” was only used in the abovementioned epistemological context. Nevertheless, modern historians of Renaissance philosophy often apply “immanence” as a category interpreting certain metaphysical theories. These interpretations are connected first with the panpsychism, i.e., the immanence of the soul in the world, and second with pantheism, i.e., the immanence of God in the world.

The Immanence of the Soul in the World

The Platonic doctrine of the world soul contains features which lead to a modern exposition of the immanence of the soul in the world. Marsilio Ficino describes the relationship between the world and the world soul as between our body and our soul. The world soul is entirely present in any part of the world, and it binds the universe together, vivifies it, and moves it (Ficino 2001). In modern terminology it could be characterized as immanence although Ficino does not use this expression.

The immanence of the world soul in the world in this sense, i.e., not applying the word immanence, can be consequently found in a number of Renaissance Platonists, who followed Ficino’s works and his translations of Plato, Neoplatonist, and Hermetic corpus, such as Agrippa of Nettesheim. The doctrine of the world soul presents in all things, and vivifying them is a later feature of Giordano Bruno’s metaphysics. Bruno in the dialog Della causa, principio e uno distinguishes between the world soul and the universal intellect, which is a faculty intrinsic to the world soul. Bruno calls it an “internal artificer” because it forms matter shaping it from within (Bruno 2002). Thus, we can speak of an immanence of the universal intellect and the world soul in Bruno (Knox 2013). Bruno, however, does not speak explicitly about their “immanence” but differentiates between intrinsic and extrinsic cause. The universal intellect is both extrinsic, for its essence differs from things which it creates, and intrinsic, since it works within matter and not outside it.

The Immanence of God in the World

The immanence of God is a doctrine only connected with Spinoza’s view of God as causa immanens, which is labeled as pantheism. The idea became popular during the Enlightenment and the subsequent nineteenth century within the so-called Pantheismusstreit. It was soon associated with Giordano Bruno’s metaphysics of his dialog Della causa in particular. The question as to whether Bruno held pantheism as the identity of God and the world in the same way as Spinoza is doubtful. It seems more likely that using the word pantheism as a label describing his philosophy is artificial (Kristeller 1964). Bruno speaks about God as both transcendent and immanent. In the Lampas triginta statuorum, he describes God as “above all things and inside all things,” i.e., as both extrinsic and intrinsic in things. Bruno uses the same words and expressions as in the case of his doctrine of the world soul and the universal intellect (Knox 2013). Similarly, however, to his doctrine of panpsychism, he does not apply the modern term immanence.

Simultaneous transcendence and immanence of the divine in the world (when using the modern terminology) is one of the central features of Neoplatonic tradition (such as Proclus) focusing on the issue of the relationship between the One and the number. It penetrates Christian thought inspired by Neoplatonism in the Middle Ages (Eriugena, Eckhart). Neoplatonic sources stand behind the immanence of the divine in Renaissance Platonists (O’Meara 1982), beginning with Nicolaus Cusanus who tried to solve the issue by means of a metaphor of enfolding and unfolding (Alfsvåg 2012; Flasch 1998). At the end of the Renaissance, apart from Bruno, the Neoplatonic transcendence and immanence of the divine can be extracted from Francesco Patrizi’s concept of God as un-omnia (One-All) as an all-pervading One, which is, but is not, identical with the world emanating gradually from the One and participating in it (Brickman 1941). Patrizi also describes this relationship by means of traditional terminology enriched by his neologisms with the prefix pan-, not using the term immanence as a metaphysical category.

Impact and Legacy

In modern philosophy, immanence is commonly viewed as a concept derived from Kant’s distinction between transcendence and immanence which led to the philosophy of immanence of German idealism and of its followers. Certain twentieth-century philosophers find, however, predecessors of modern immanence already in the Renaissance. Ernst Cassirer considers the first steps to immanence both Nicolaus of Cusa’s doctrine on learned ignorance and Renaissance natural philosophy based on the immanence of Platonic ideas in the world (Cassirer 1922). Giovanni Gentile, although placing an emphasis on the modern origin of real immanence, praised Giordano Bruno as its precursor (Rubini 2014). Antonio Gramsci searched for the origins of Marx’s materialistic immanence in Giordano Bruno via Spinoza and “Pantheismusstreit” and in Niccolò Machiavelli’s immanence in history (Thomas 2009). The modern meaning of immanence as a metaphysical concept connected with idealistic philosophy is, however, alien to a primarily epistemological meaning, which the words immanence and immanent action had in the Renaissance.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Renaissance Texts, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of ArtsPalacky UniversityOlomoucCzech Republic

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Laura Puliafito
    • 1
  1. 1.Universität BaselBaselSwitzerland