Thursday, August 1, 1996

The intellectus principiorum

19 August 1996

The actus essendi of the extramental subsisting things of nature plays a fundamental role in the formation of the intellectus principiorum, the habit of first principles. This habit can be initially described as a ‘natural’ inclination towards the perfection of the actus essendi.

All men and women are born with this ‘natural’ inclination. In the possible intellect of children, however, the ‘natural’ inclination towards first principles is an incomplete habit. Children, because of their age, are incapable of intellectual activity. Therefore, the inclination towards the perfection of the actus essendi exists in their possible intellect only as an ‘unexercised natural inclination.’ The complete ‘natural’ habit is the result of the coming together of two indispensable elements: the actus essendi of the exterior subsisting things of nature and the interior unexercised ‘natural’ inclination of the possible intellect.

What exactly does the actus essendi cause in the possible intellect? The answer to this question is difficult to articulate. I have used several expressions. I said, for example, that the actus essendi of the subsisting things of nature causes: (1) “a habitual internal standard of truth,” (2) “that, whereby the human intellect judges correctly about all things,” (3) “the disposition by means of which the assent that carries the weight of a principle is elicited,” (4) “an implied, non-explicit, intellectual habit needed to begin and ground the process of reasoning.” With these expressions I have designated the intelligible content that the actus essendi of the subsisting things of nature impresses on the possible intellect.

In a subsisting thing of nature we find a substantial ‘form,’ many accidental ‘forms,’ and the actus essendi. The ‘forms’ are inseparable from the actus essendi. In fact, as coming from a particular extramental subsisting thing, the ‘forms’ and the actus essendi relate to one another for the faculty of the intellect as colors and light relate to one another for the sensible faculty of sight. The intellectual grasping of a ‘form’, either substantial or accidental, is inseparable from the grasping of an actus essendi since one cannot apprehend one without apprehending the other, just as one does not apprehend color without apprehending light. Thus, actus essendi and ‘form’ make their way to the intellect simultaneously, but they inform the possible intellect differently.

Before interacting with the actus essendi, the unexercised ‘natural’ inclination of the possible intellect amounts to nothing in the order of knowledge. This unexercised natural habit is not innate knowledge; it cannot furnish knowledge by itself; and it does not by itself become a complete habit.

New Rochelle, New York

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.).