Sunday, July 14, 1996

Immediate Intellection and Reasoning

4 July 1996 

Except for the immediate intellection of a first principle, all human intellectual knowledge is conclusion-drawing knowledge. The immediate intellection of a point of departure is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for all valid reasoning.  

Two ‘natural’ intellectual conceptions prevent the process of reasoning from becoming involved in an infinite regress. These two ‘natural’ intellectual conceptions are the notion of
ens—the ratio entis—and the first intelligible principle that ‘it is impossible at once to be and not to be’—impossibile est idem simul esse et non esse. As opposed to all other intellectual conceptions, the two ‘natural’ intellectual conceptions are not acquired by reasoning. 

According to Aquinas, not only the third, but also the second and first operations of the human intellect are discursive operations. Thus Aquinas writes, 
“When I wish to conceive the notion of a stone, I must arrive at it by reasoning.” [1] “If we are taught what man is, we must know something about him beforehand, namely, the intellectual conception of animal, or of substance, or at least ens itself, which last conception cannot escape us.” [2] “Now for the purpose of making this evident it must be noted that, since the intellect has two operations, one by which it knows quiddities, and another by which it combines and separates, there is something first in both operations. In the first operation the first thing that the intellect conceives is ens, and in this operation nothing else can be conceived unless ens is [naturally] understood. And because this principle—it is impossible for a thing both to be and not to be at the same time—depends on the understanding of ens, then this principle [‘it is impossible at once to be and not to be’] is by nature also the first in the second operation of the intellect, that is to say, in the act of combining and separating. And no one can understand anything by this intellectual operation unless this principle [‘it is impossible at once to be and not to be’] is [concurrently and naturally] understood.” [3] 

The initial intellectual conceptions of ens and the first indemonstrable principle are the ultimate prior knowledge on which all other intellectual knowledge is grounded. In other words, the potency of the intellect cannot exercise its operations outside certain constraints. As is the case with any other created reality, the faculty of the intellect also has a sense of direction inscribed within itself, a sense of direction given to it by nature. This direct access to the supporting ground of the process of reasoning is called ‘natural’ knowledge. 

With the expression ‘natural intellectual conception’ Aquinas designates: (a) what is known by the intellect at once without the discourse of reason, (b) an unuttered and underlying, concurrent and unformulated intellectual knowledge, (c) an intellectual knowledge which does not require a deliberate actual consideration to be acquired. What is grasped by immediate intellection is meant to be first and foremost applied and used as needed, not formulated. Indeed, it is not by means of formulated propositions that the possible intellect acquires a habitual right estimate of the truth of the first intelligible principle. 

In the case of signs such as meaningful linguistic expressions, the human intellect grasps first of all their true reality, namely, that of being signs of something else. But to acquire knowledge of any particular intelligible content conveyed by signs, one must always use the process of reasoning. 

In sum, except for the two primary intellectual conceptions, all other conceptions are acquired through the discourse of reason. The two ‘natural’ intellectual conceptions are the unexpressed ‘root’ and ‘soul’ of all truthful discursive knowledge. Only the metaphysician makes the two ‘natural’ intellectual conceptions the object of deliberate consideration, study and formulation.

New Rochelle, New York


[1] “Cum volo concipere rationem lapidis, oportet quod ad ipsam ratiocinando perveniam” (Super Evangelium Sancti Ioannis Lectura, chapter 1, lectio 1; English translation by James A Weisheipl and Fabian R. Larcher). 
[2] “Si docemur quid est homo, oportet quod de eo praesciamus aliquid: scilicet rationem animalis, vel substantiae, aut saltem ipsius entis, quae nobis ignota esse non potest” (De veritate, 11, 1, ad 3). 
[3] “Ad huius autem evidentiam sciendum est, quod, cum duplex sit operatio intellectus: una, qua cognoscit quod quid est: alia, qua componit et dividit: in utroque est aliquod primum: in prima quidem operatione est aliquod primum, quod cadit in conceptione intellectus, scilicet hoc quod dico ens; nec aliquid hac operatione potest mente concipi, nisi intelligatur ens. Et quia hoc principium, impossibile est esse et non esse simul, dependet ex intellectu entis, ideo hoc etiam principium est naturaliter primum in secunda operatione intellectus, scilicet componentis et dividentis. Nec aliquis potest secundum hanc operationem intellectus aliquid intelligere, nisi hoc principio intellect” (In IV Metaphysicorum, lectio 6; English translation by John P. Rowan. See also Quodlibetum, 8, 2, 2, c.; and De veritate, 1, 1, c.).