active intellect


active intellect
(al-‘aql al-fa‘‘al)
   The concept of the ‘active’ or ‘agent’ intellect plays a pivotal role in Islamic metaphysics and psychology, particularly in the Peripatetic tradition. Its origins can be traced back to the Aristotelian notion of nous poietikos in De anima III.4–5. Expanding upon the doctrine that ‘that which thinks and that which is thought are the same’, Aristotle draws a distinction between a passive, potential intellect which becomes all things and an active, productive (ostensibly eternal and divine) intellect which makes all things. Aristotle posits this ‘active intellect’ in order to account for the possibility of thought, which stands in need of an explanation because it is a kind of process or movement, and as such, is characterized by change. All change requires an efficient cause to bring it about, so there must be some efficient cause by which the transition of intellect from potentiality to actuality is effected. It is also described by Aristotle and his commentators as a kind of illuminative principle which sheds light upon universal forms, making them intelligible to the human intellect. In Islamic philosophy, this notion of the active intellect is taken up and typically situated within a Neoplatonic cosmology (the tenth and final intellect to arise through the process of emanation, often associated with the moon and the angel Jibril), as a kind of link between the human and the divine. It plays a pivotal role in several respects. First, it functions as a principle of both intelligibility and intellection by providing form to the sublunary realm and actualizing potential human intellect, enabling us to extract and disjoin intelligible forms from objects of sense perception and ultimately grasp them independently of it. Second, it makes possible the perfection of human nature, the attainment of highest happiness, and the immortality of the soul. As the human intellect is transformed from its initial state of pure potentiality to one of pure actuality, it becomes more like the immaterial, eternal active intellect, and is ultimately assimilated to it. Finally, the active intellect explains the possibility of prophetic revelation – as the reception of intelligibles by the imagination – within the context of an Aristotelian/ Neoplatonic worldview.
   See Aristotle; causality; al-Farabi; Ibn Bajja; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; metaphysics; prophecy; psychology.
   Further reading: Davidson 1992; al-Farabi 1973; Ibn Rushd 2007; Ibn Sina 1952/1981; Netton 1989/95; Rahman 1958

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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