Abu Walid Mohammed Ibn Roschd (Averroes), called by the schoolmen 'the Commentator,' as Aristotle was 'the Philosopher,' was born at Cordova in 1120, and died in Morocco, 1198. He practised as a physician and a lawyer, and had a place about court, but was above all things a philosopher and an uncompromising Aristotelian. Fallen into neglect among his own countrymen, his philosophy embroiled the schools of Western Europe for four centuries, 1230-1630, at Paris, at Oxford, but particularly at Padua. Numerous Latin editions were printed. I shall cite the Venice edition of 1574 in the Bodleian Library, ten volumes.
The origin of this dispute about the intellect is to be found in a passage of Plato, Theatetus, 185: "Being and not-being, likeness and unlikeness, sameness and difference, number . . . . there is no bodily organ for the cognition of these entities, but the soul by herself regards them; so it appears that the soul regards some things by herself, and other things through the bodily faculties." This passage is the foreshadowing of the celebrated and much disputed chapters, De anima, III, iv, v. Two words there call for notice: (1) apathes, meaning unimpressed, at first hand, by matter; (2) chôristos, separable, or separate, on which word the great contention turns. It may apply to the 'active,' or to the 'potential' intellect: but it matters not to which, for Averroes and St Thomas agree that the two go together. It may refer to the state after death, and signify that the intellectual soul is not destroyed by separation from the body: on this point again there is a general agreement between Averroes and St Thomas. The battle between them begins when the word is referred to the intellect as it is in this mortal life. St Thomas takes the term merely to mean 'capable of operating apart from any bodily organ,' -- according to the tenor of the passage above quoted from Plato. Averroes will have it that it means, not only that, but much more than that: the meaning being according to him, that even while we live on earth, our intellect, 'potential' and 'active,' is outside of us, and is one and the same numerically for all men.
My reading of Averroes has not revealed to me where he places this one separate universal intellect. He does not make it to be God: thus he says in his Destructio destructionum (or Refutation of the Refutations of Algazel): "If man only understood this, then his intellect would be the intellect of the God of glory; and that is false" (disp. 6, p. 87b). The notion of his day, in which he shared, that the heavenly bodies have souls, might have tempted him to place nous chôristos in some heavenly sphere: that doctrine however belongs to the disciples of Averroes, not to the master. Renan, Averroes et l'Averroisme, p. 138, gives this explanation: Une hurnanité vivante et permanente, tel semble donc être le sens de la théorie Averroistique de l'unité de l'intellect. L'immortalité de l'intellect actif [and of the potential intellect with it, on which Averroes chiefly insists] n'est ainsi autre chose que, la renaissance éternelle de l'humanité, et la perpetuité de la civilisation. This interpretation derives support from Averroes's comments on the De anima, III (pp. 149-151). Holding as he did the eternity of the world, he tells us there that the human race is eternal, and that some portion of the human race is always civilised, --positions set aside by our astronomy and geology, and at variance with the received anthropology. He says: "There must always be some philosopher amongst mankind." I have some hesitation however in agreeing with Renan's explanation: because this position, which he attributes to Averroes, is clearly suicidal, and the Commentator was no fool. If no individual man had a head on his shoulders, the race would be headless. Averroes (see Chap. LX) does not seem to allow to the individual man, as man, any higher faculty than a faculty proper to the sentient soul: how can a race of such sentient beings constitute an intelligence? The intelligence of the race can only mean the intelligence of this man and of that, combining to form society. But it is difficult to form any rational conception of nous chôristos as Averroes understood it. If Renan 's interpretation be taken, then when Averroes speaks (De anima, III, p. 161) of the "active and potential intellect" as being "eternal substances," we must understand him to call them eternal with the eternity of civilised mankind, an eternity which he positively asserts (De anima, p. 149).
The main point of St Thomas's attack upon the Commentator is his theory of the continuatio (ittisâl is the Arabic name, much used by the Arabian mystics), or point of contact between the universal intelligence outside and the mind of the individual man. Averroes's words are these (De anima, II, pp. 178, 148b, 185b): "The potential intellect is not conjoined with us primarily and ordinarily: nay, it is not conjoined with us at all, except inasmuch as it is conjoined with the forms in our phantasy. . . . Since it has been shown that intellect cannot be conjoined with all men so as to be multiplied as they are multiplied, it remains that the said intellect is conjoined with us by conjunction with our intellectual impressions which are conceptions in the phantasy, that is to say, through that part of those conceptions which exists in us and serves in a manner as a form. . . . Since the impressions of speculative intellect are conjoined with us by forms of phantasy; and the active intellect is conjoined with those intellectual impressions; and the intellect which takes cognisance of those impressions, that is to say, the potential intellect, is the same [as the active]: the necessary conclusion is that the active intellect is conjoined with us by the conjunction of those intellectual impressions." See St Thomas, Summa Theol. I, q 76 artt. 1 and 2: where he explains Averroes thus: "The Commentator says that this union is by means of the intellectual impression, which has a twofold residence, one in the potential intellect [universal, eternal, independent of the individual], and another in the impressions of phantasy, which are in the bodily organs [of the individual; in his phantasy, or sensory memory, or in the vis cogitativa, an organic faculty allied to phantasy]. And thus, through this intellectual impression, the potential intellect is continued and conjoined with the body of the individual man" (art. 1). St Thomas criticises this theory as follows (art. 2): "So long as the intellect is one, however all other things are diversified which the intellect uses as instruments, in no way can Socrates and Plato be called other than one intelligent being. . . . I grant that if the phantasm, or impression in the phantasy, inasmuch as it is other and other in you and me, were a form (or idea) of the potential intellect, then your intellectual activity and mine might be differentiated by the diversity of phantasms . . . . but the said phantasm is not a form (or idea) of the potential intellect: an idea in the potential intellect is obtained only by abstraction from phantasms. If then there were but one intellect for all men, no diversities of phantasms in this man and that could ever cause a diversity of intellectual activity between one man and another, as the Commentator pretends."
So far as the Averroistic Potential (and Active) Intellect can be identified with the Zeitgeist or Educated Opinion of the day, and adapted to Comte's theory of progress, the reader will find some discussion of it in my Oxford and Cambridge Conferences, First Series, pp. 135 sq.; also Political and Moral Essays, p. 132, note.
On De anima, III, the Commentator (p. 149) specifies three kinds of intellect: "the potential intellect, the active intellect, the acquired or made intellect: of these three, two are eternal, the active and the potential: the third is partly producible and perishable, and partly eternal." By the 'acquired intellect' he appears to mean the 'passive intellect' of each individual, inasmuch as it is illumined by continuatio (ittisâl) with the universal potential intellect. Does that mean the mind of the individual in so far as it comes abreast of the Zeitgeist? If so, but I cannot feel sure of the conclusion, then Arabian mysticism ends in positivism.
Of God and His Creatures: 2.59