Richard C. TayloR

Albert the Great’s Account of Human Knowledge in his De homine



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Richard C. Taylor (Milwaukee)

“Albert the Great’s Account of Human Knowledge in his De homine:

A Concoction Formed From the Writings of Avicenna and Averroes”

The theory of knowledge set forth in detail by Albert the Great in his De homine explicitly draws its key elements from the De Anima by Avicenna and the Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle byAverroes.  From the former Albert adopted the account of pre-intellectual abstraction and rejected the notion that the forms intelligible in act come to be in the individual human soul only due to an emanation from or a conjoining with the unique separately existing substance called Agent Intellect shared by all human beings. From Averroes Albert took the account of intellectual abstraction whereby forms intelligible in potency are transferred from the mode of being of particulars to the mode of being of intelligibles in act essential for the formation of universals. But Albert also erroneously read the texts of Averroes as holding for the material intellect and the agent intellect to be powers belonging individually to each human soul. Only by this complex array of ingredients was Albert able to concoct the epistemology of the De homine.

“Albert the Great’s Account of Human Knowledge in his De homine

A Concoction Formed From the Writings of Avicenna and Averroes”


Richard C. Taylor, Marquette University &

member, DWMC, KU Leuven

1. Introduction

Thanks to the fine edition of the De homine by Drs. Anzulewicz and Söder (De Homine, Alberti Magni, Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum, Opera omnia v. 37, pt. 2, Henryk Anzulewicz & Joachim R. Söder, ed. Cologne: Monasterii Westfalorum in Aedibus Aschendorff, 2008), it is possible now to have a clear understanding of the early epistemological teaching of Albert and the sources from which he concocted his own account.  In this paper I focus on aspects of that epistemology and locate the sources in the texts of Avicenna and Averroes which Albert used to form his understanding of Aristotle. While it is known by some, too many of our fellow philosophers and historians of philosophy today are not fully aware that Aristotle had no clearly expressed doctrine of intellectual abstraction (Burnyeat 2008). It is not unusual for the doctrine of intellectual abstraction in Aquinas and later thinkers to be described as the teaching of Aristotle in his De Anima, though that is false. Rather, what is commonly yet incorrectly held to be Aristotle’s doctrine of abstraction is in fact a teaching formed in Latin thinkers from its expression by Averroes in his Long Commentary on the De Anima, a work extensively used by and well known to all the major and minor philosophers and theologians in Europe after its translation ca. 1220. The doctrine was essential to the thought of Aquinas who read it in the Latin Long Commentary by Averroes, but he was also able to see it clearly expressed also in the De homine of his teacher, Albert the Great. That is one of several issues of interest to me in my study of Albert today. But my primary purpose here is to show in some detail that the epistemology of human intellectual understanding of Albert in the De homine was concocted by him from his study of Avicenna and Averroes informing his understanding of the text of Aristotle. In particular, while he follows Avicenna closely he rejects Avicenna’s doctrine of the emanation of forms from the Agent Intellect which is the lowest of the separately existing eternal substances creatively emanated from God and instead follows the abstractionist account of Averroes. However, in following Averroes, Albert seriously misunderstands the teaching of Averroes and crafts a doctrine that has reasonably been called a doctrine of ‘First Averroism’. For the sake of clarity and brevity, let me begin with the presentation of my conclusions, next proceed to explain the epistemologies of al-Farabi, Ibn Sīnā /Avicenna, and Ibn Rushd / Averroes,  and then finally proceed to provide you with the textual evidence for my conclusions.

2. Preview of conclusions

2.1.Though he cites al-Farabi many times, Albert did not use the De intellectu of al-Farabi in this work. (He does use the Liber de causis wrongly attributing it to al-Farabi.) Albert uses the Parva naturalia commentary of Averroes attributing to al-Farabi most often.  There is no indication in the De homine that Albert was aware that the abstractionist account of Averroes which Albert himself adopts is derived from Averroes’s study of the texts of al-Farabi. And Albert uses the De intellectu of Alexander of Aphrodisias but condemns as heretical its teaching that the soul is a perfection of the body that perishes with the death of the body (472.20-29).

2.2.Albert adopted the abstractionist account of Avicenna up to the point of intellectual abstraction where Avicenna brings in the separate Agent Intellect from which the rational soul receives the intelligible species by emanation or attains it by conjoining. But Albert goes on explicitly to reject the teaching of Avicenna that the the agent intellect is the tenth of the intelligences and to reject the Avicennian notion that the human soul does not retain intelligibles in act after receiving them. Albert agrees that there is no intellectual memory but asserts that the possible intellect itself is where the intelligible species are retained by the human individual. (441-2)

2.3.Albert believes he is adopting the doctrine of Averroes on intellectual abstraction in place of that of Avicenna. The genuine abstractionism of Averroes that holds the content of intellectual understanding  comes about thanks to sense perception of things of the world united by the common sense which places the image or phantasm in the imagination. The cogitative power, like the imagination a power of the brain, then culls the image of what is accidental and extraneous and produces in memory a purified image of the particular nature of the particular thing. Memory thereby supplies the content which the agent intellect transfers from the mode of being of a particular intelligible in act to the mode of being of an intelligible in act which is universal in the material intellect which contains the intelligibles of human understanding. The conception of transference and the mention of the content being transferred both reveal that Averroes’s source for this notion was al-Farabi.

2.4.In fact, however, while Albert accepts exactly what I just spelled out, at the time of the composition of the De homine Albert misread the text of Averroes in what can be called a genuine “First Averroism.” The great editor of texts of Aristotle and Aquinas, R. A. Gauthier, O.P., used this label to describe the interpretation that Averroes taught that the agent intellect and material intellect are individual powers of soul possessed personally by each human being. (However, he was misled by writings of Salvator Gomez Nogales to believe that this is the genuine teaching of Averroes. Gauthier mistakenly called the genuine teaching of Averroes “Second Averroism” and asserted this to be a product imagined and created by Christian theologians of the 13th century.) Albert’s De homine, written ca. 1244, stands as a fine example of a “First Averroism” synthetic philosophical treatise informed by close analytical study of Avicenna, Averroes, and other sources from the Arabic tradition as well as sources from the Latin Christian tradition. That is, in this work Albert does not rely solely on the Arabic tradition but uses it to interpret the text of Aristotle (often following Averroes) and works to conciliate it with fundamental Christian doctrines and the teachings of Augustine.

2.5.Finally, as will become clear to those familiar with the teachings of the epistemology of intellectual understanding in Albert’s famous student, Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine Albert spells out in the De homine ca. 1244-45 is substantially identical with that of Thomas first set forth in his Commentary on the Sentences Book 2 (ca. 1253-54, roughly ten years after Albert’s work) in the context of a review of  teachings on the soul and intellect mostly from the Arabic tradition at book 2, d. 17, q.2, a. 1, entitled, “Whether there is one soul or intellect for all human beings.

3. The Epistemology of Abstraction in the Classical Rationalist Arabic Tradition.

3.1.According to al-Farabi (d. 950/951), human beings  do not have in their own natures all that is needed to be rational and knowing and so depend on the agent intellect originated by the First Cause to realize their natures as intellectual. In his Treatise on the Intellect as well as some other works (see Taylor 2007), al-Farabi provides an emanationist account of human knowing very different fundamentally from that of Ibn Sina who nevertheless drew much inspiration from him on this and other philosophical matters. For al-Farabi the agent intellect does not provide here the intelligible forms or content of human knowing by emanation to or through a conjoining with the human intellect. Instead, it gives to human beings as their first perfection the first principles of understanding, such as that the part is greater than the whole and others, so that it may come to attain happiness (al-Farabi 1985, 202-207). It then supplies also a power for actualizing the reception of intelligibles by way of separating and abstracting them from representative images garnered through sense perception. In this the human material or receptive intellect is made able to realize intelligibles in itself thereby becoming intellect in act while previously it was in potency. This empowerment enables the human being to transfer (yanqulu) what are intelligibles in potency in images derived from sensory experience to a new mode of being as intelligibles in act in the human intellect (al-Farabi 1985, 198-200). In contrast to a Platonic or Neoplatonic account in which the soul has only knowledge by a recollection or a rising to the level of Intellect where the intelligibles primarily exist, the first emanation from the One, here the agent intellect as the lowest of the emanated intellects aids the human soul to understand for itself the intelligibles found in potency in the human experience of the world. While these correspond with the intelligibles existing in the agent intellect, their source for the human soul is the world and the manner in which they are apprehended is by separation or abstraction from their material existence. When it has attained intelligibles for itself and becomes them following the Aristotelian notion of the formal identity of knower and known, the human intellect is able to think them without dependence on the senses (cf. Aristotle, De Anima 3.4) and, when it has attained all the intelligibles, it no longer needs what is external for its thought. At this stage it comes to be acquired intellect and the human being is transformed in substance into an eternal entity, immaterially rising to the level of the agent intellect. This achievement of understanding and intellect yields the greatest happiness and is itself the afterlife (al-ḥayā al-ākhira), something not open to all human beings (al-Farabi 1983, 31). The agent intellect is also able to aid the rational animal by supplying the faculty of representation (al-mutakhayyala) with intelligibles or particulars directly with intelligibles or particulars:

[T]hings can also be present in the faculty of representation without having been discovered by deliberation, and so true visions will arise from the particulars which the agent intellect gives to the faculty of representation in dreams. But divinations concerning things divine will arise from the intelligibles provided by the Active Intellect, which it receives by taking their imitations instead. (al-Farabi 1985, 220-221, tr. mod.)

This is important for the ruler of the excellent city who has the representative power of prophecy for guiding the people through metaphor, simile and other forms of representation in imitation of the intelligibles received from the agent intellect. And it is through this emanated agent intellect that the First Cause itself pure intellect provides guidance for the development of all human beings some of whom are able to reach the point of attaining understanding and fulfilling themselves in the realization of intellect and thereby experiencing their most complete happiness.  This much is of the conception of understanding and intellect is clear in some of the texts of al-Farabi, but as Davidson has noted, this philosopher’s views varied considerably, perhaps purposefully because of a particular audience for his work, perhaps because of developments in his thinking, or for other reasons. (Davidson 1992, 73; cf. Janos 2012)

3.2.Ibn Sīnā / Avicenna (d. 1037) holds that the afterlife is a reality for all human beings because he has a very different understanding of the nature of the human soul than does al-Farabi.  Rather than conceiving of the soul as form of the body requiring a substantial transformation for its intellectual fulfillment, Ibn Sina instead considers the human soul as per se rational and as using the body as an instrument for its development and perfection as rational. Ibn Sīnā illustrates this with his famous suspended or flying man argument reasoning that even deprived of all sensation, the rational soul would still know and affirm its own existence as individual. (See Marmura 1986.) As perfection and final cause for the body, the rational soul has existence in its own right though it came into existence with the body and does not perish with the human body. For Ibn Sina the bodily senses function to separate or abstract sensible forms from matter and the common sense unifies what is received from the senses, depositing the images of particular experienced things into the retentive imagination. On the basis of these the famous estimative faculty, the highest animal faculty, forms intentions and is able to apprehend non-sensible intentions such as the danger perceived by the sheep at the presence of a wolf. These intentions are then held in memory and become available for the activity of the compositive imagination which, when controlled by reason in the case of human beings, is called the cogitative faculty. (Black 2000, 59-60) By use of these bodily instruments and their various abstractions, the rational soul is able to prepare itself for intellectual abstraction, the apprehension of intelligibles. (Cf. Herrera 2010, 77-97)

There are four sorts or stages of human intellect in the account of understanding and intellect in the thought of Ibn Sina. Material intellect is the receptive capacity belonging to the rational soul, a potency for a reception of immaterial intelligible forms. The disposed intellect (‘aql bi-l-malaka) has the primary principles mentioned by al-Farabi as provided by the agent intellect to every human being. The intellect in act or actual intellect (‘aql bi-l-fi‘l) is the stage of having attained knowledge and understanding of intelligibles though in this stage they are not being actively thought. Finally, the term acquired intellect (‘aql mustafād) is used of the human intellect in the very act of thinking the intelligibles. Although he uses the language of abstraction (tajrīd) to describe the realization of intelligibles in the human intellect, Ibn Sina does not hold the Farabian view that human intellect intellectual understanding is the result of abstracting and receiving the intelligible content of sense perception under a new mode of being. Rather, he asserts that pre-noetic levels of abstraction and image formation involving bodily powers function only as preparation for the human intellectual apprehension of intelligible forms in the agent intellect. Using two different metaphors, emanation (fayḍ) and conjoining (ittiṣāl) — neither of which alone fully captures the sense of his teaching —, Ibn Sīnā rejects the notion of the soul as mirror of the intelligibles in the agent intellect and instead holds that human intellectual understanding involves the reception of an emanation from the agent intellect (min-hu) and a conjoining with the agent intellect (bi-hi) which itself contains all the forms and is the source of the forms of the world. (Ibn Sīnā 1959, 246-7)

When the rational power regards the particulars which are in the imagination and the light of the agent intellect shines upon them in us . . . , they come to be abstracted (mujarrada) from matter and its concomitant properties and are impressed on the rational soul, not as if the things themselves were transferred from the retentive imagination to the intellect in us and not as if the intention (al-ma‘nā) immersed in concomitant properties — for it is abstract (or: separate, mujarrad) in itself and in the consideration of its essence — makes a likeness of the thing itself, but rather according to an intention such that its study of it prepares the soul because the abstraction (mujarrad) emanates on it from the agent intellect. (Ibn Sīnā 1959, 235)

The unique intelligibles in act exist in the agent intellect and so intellectual understanding requires the human knower to maintain a connection (ittiṣāl) to agent intellect so long as intellectual understanding exists in the knower. Intelligibles are not retained and there is no personal intellectual memory for human beings, though they do have in the intellect in act or actual intellect the power to reconnect readily to agent intellect for the fullness of intellectual understanding. However, in the realization of the acquired intellect the human rational soul does not become the intelligibles in the agent intellect since Ibn Sīnā rejects the Aristotelian doctrine of identity of knower and known. Rather, the rational soul has within itself immaterial representations of those intelligibles which it receives by emanation. In this way, when having actual intellectual understanding, each individual rational soul has in itself — by both emanation from and conjoining with the agent intellect — immaterial representative intelligibles which make its knowing actual. This doctrine is repeated in his commentary on the Theology of Aristotle, a work which likely influenced his formation of this doctrine that grounds science in separate intellect. (D’Ancona 2008, 64-66)

Human intellectual understanding necessarily requires the involvement of the agent intellect which is the last of the emanated intellects as set out in Ibn Sīnā’s own version of a metaphysical cosmology formed from his study of the account of al-Farabi. God is the Necessary Existent (wajib al-wujūd) reasoned to and known in virtue of the primary intentions of existent or being, thing and necessary immediately present to the mind; he is also thought thinking thought eternally providing existence to things outside himself. By creation there emanates from him the first created intellect through which plurality is introduced into the universe. The process continues with that and the other intellects below it creating succeeding intellects as well as celestial souls and bodies down to the level of the agent intellect which not only plays the key role in human intellectual understanding but also gives forms to things of the sublunar realm when matters are suitably prepared to receive emanated forms that constitute the natural forms of material things. In this and in all other aspects of the universe God plays the role of the primary cause to which all must be traced. This includes religious matters in which the powerful imaginative powers of the prophet make possible the translation of intelligibles into language and meanings suitable for guiding human beings in the pursuit of what is good and right. Here the end is the education and perfection of the immaterial rational soul for the attainment of intellectual excellence and concomitant happiness in the present and eternally in the next life.

3.3.Lowest in the taxonomies of intellects for al-Farabi and Ibn Sīnā is the agent intellect which aided the development of the rational human soul by emanation albeit in different ways. In his Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle finished in 1186, however, Ibn Rushd / Averroes (d. 1198) held that the lowest of the intellects is the immaterial, separate and commonly shared receptive material intellect with a teaching that employed the agent intellect, second to lowest, only to explain the epistemology of human knowing.

The nature of understanding and of the intellect was an ongoing challenge central to the thought of Ibn Rushd over many decades. On the De Anima of Aristotle he wrote three commentaries progressing from an issues oriented Short Commentary to a paraphrasing Middle Commentary and finally to his famous Long Commentary which contained the entire text of Aristotle’s work with detailed section by section comments drawing deeply on sources from the Greek and Arabic traditions.This last work exercised a powerful and ofter recurring influence in Europe for centuries through its Latin translation though none in the Arabic tradition.  In the Short Commentary Ibn Rushd was under the influence of the thought of Alexander of Aphrodisias and Ibn Bajja. Alexander had conceived of the receptive material intellect as a disposition formed as a consequence of a mixture of bodily elements and not itself something distinct as a subject for intelligibles. Ibn Bajja developed from this and his Platonic account of separate intellect the notion that material intellect denotes not a substance but a disposition occurring in the forms of the imagination which he conceived as not tied to a particular bodily organ following to some extent the views of al-Farabi. Those forms are realized in the material intellect only thanks to a conjoining (ittiṣāl) with the eternal and ever actual agent intellect functioning in the soul as a formal power to abstract intelligibles from the human being’s experience of the world through external and internal senses. This conception of the material intellect as a disposition attached to the forms of the imagination was abandoned by Ibn Rushd as he reconceived the nature of human knowing in his Middle Commentary. Apparently rejecting the earlier account as too much tied to the bodily power of imagination and thinking more deeply about the necessity of the receptive intellect being a wholly immaterial subject for abstracted intelligibles, Ibn Rushd proposes a conception of the material intellect based on his understanding of the natures and linked associations of celestial bodies, souls and intellects. (Ibn Rushd 2001, 71 ff.) The immaterial celestial soul in its desire for and conceiving of its associated intellect brings about eternal celestial motion in its associated body without being composed with that body as are sublunar hylomorphic composite entities.  Likewise, the human material intellect is truly intellect and as such immaterial, standing at a distance and not fully immersed in the corporeal human being to which it belongs and through which it has its unique numerical identity, so that it may receive immaterial intelligibles. This disposition is placed in the human being early in its development by the agent intellect and is later actualized again by the agent intellect which is responsible for the abstracted intelligibles in the individual human material intellect. In this way the agent intellect functions intrinsically to the soul as “form for us” (ṣūra la-nā) and also agent and ultimate end or perfection. (Ibn Rushd 2002, 116) It is noteworthy that in the course of providing this account Ibn Rushd explicitly rejects as absurd the notion that the material intellect might be a separate substance shared by human beings (2000, 111), precisely the doctrine he argues for and adopts in his later Long Commentary.

In the Middle Commentary Ibn Rushd followed a celestial model but viewed the material intellect as a power essentially and numerically linked to the human individual to which it belongs such that there is a plurality of individuated material intellects. In Epistle 1 On Conjunction he again raises the issue of the celestial model emphasizing the ontological separateness of celestial body, soul and intellect and asks what would prevent there being one material intellect shared by all human beings. (Ibn Rushd 2001, 210) The preventative element is obviously the individual nature of human intellectual thought and the possession of individual human material intellects. And it is precisely this which he comes to reject in the formation of his final teaching in the Long Commentary.

For his new teachings in the Long Commentary Ibn Rushd draws more deeply on the reasoning of Themistius in his Paraphrase of the De Anima. In the Arabic version of this work Ibn Rushd read,

There need be no wonder that we all are as a group composites of what is in potency and of what is in act.  All of us whose existence is by virtue of this one are referred back to a one which is the Agent Intellect. For if not this, then whence is it that we possess known sciences in a shared way? And whence is it that the understanding of the primary definitions and primary propositions is alike [for us all] without learning?  For it is right that, if we do not have one intellect in which we all share, then we also do not have understanding of one another. (Themistius Arabic (1973) 188-189.)

From this he took the notion of the necessity of a single shared set of intelligibles for human intersubjective discourse and science and set forth the doctrine of the material intellect as a separate entity receptive of intelligibles in act abstracted thanks to the power of the agent intellect. Because they must received into a single immaterial intellect unique in its species, the intelligibles are not contracted to particularity. In this account the role of the agent intellect is to provide the human being with the primary principles and to provide the power for the abstraction and transference of intelligibles in potency to their new mode of being as intelligibles in act in a teaching partially dependent upon the thought of al-Farabi. But it is also found in Themistius whose Neoplatonic account asserts that the separate agent intellect which contains all the forms comes to be in the human agent intellect empowering and guiding its action. (Themistius Arabic (1973) 169-181; Greek (1899) 98-100; English (1996) 122-124) Ibn Rushd rejected the notion that the agent intellect contains all the forms and also the notion that each human knower has her own agent intellect but he did adopt the view that the agent intellect is again “form for us” and both the material intellect and the agent intellect are said to be “in the soul.” That those intellects are in the soul is evidenced in the ability of human beings by the cogitative power located in the brain to think intelligibles at will and when they wish. In this mature account the agent intellect does not supply the content of intelligible forms for human understanding as is the case for Ibn Sina. Rather, he follows al-Farabi in holding for a genuine abstraction of the content of understanding from experience of the world.  For Ibn Rushd, the abstractive power of the agent intellect makes it happen that the intelligible in potency is “transferred in its being from one mode to another,” from that of an intelligible in potency held in memory to that of an intelligible in act received into the material intellect. (Ibn Rushd 1953, 439; 2009, 351) The intelligibles in potency prepared for this transfer are found originally in the objects of sense perception. Upon receiving the contents of sense perception, the common sense makes an image which it places in the imagination. These images are then denuded by the cogitative power of what is extraneous to the the formal nature of the thing and the consequent image is placed in memory though it still has the nature of a particular. Then, acting like light, agent intellect actualizes the receptive material intellect which receives the intelligible now as an intelligible in act, just as light actualizes the diaphanous medium making it able to receive the color in act. In this way the agent intellect in abstraction strips the intelligible in potency of all its materiality and “transfers” it to the mode of being of an intelligible in act in the separate material intellect. For this the two separate intellects are present “in the soul” as Aristotle says (On the Soul 3.5, 430a13), and it is this activity that constitutes the fulfillment of a human being in knowledge during life. Yet, since the cogitative power along with the other external and internal sense powers are perishable powers in the body, when these perish with the death of the body, so too does the individual human being, though the human species is eternal as are the separate intellects.

Ibn Rushd was well aware that his interpretation of the material intellect was novel among the many sophisticated philosophical interpreters of the broad Peripatetic tradition and described it as a unique sort of entity discovered in the science of psychology and important for the science of metaphysics since it proved the existence of a sort of potency in separate intellect. (See Taylor 1998; 2011) He even described it as a “fourth kind of being” along with matter, form and the composite of those. (Ibn Rushd 1953, 409; 2009, 326). But he thought this doctrine to be the only viable way to reconcile the various issues of Aristotle and the insightful interpretations of the tradition in a coherent fashion. His audacity and confidence, however, are not intemperate. He writes of this doctrine,

Since there are all those things [which can be raised regarding the material intellect], for this reason it seemed [best] to me to write what seemed to me to be the case on this topic. If what appears to me is not complete, it will be a start for a complete account. So I ask my brothers seeing this exposition to write down their doubts and perhaps in that way what is true regarding this will be found out, if I have not yet found [it]. If I have found [it], as I suppose, then it will be clarified through those questions. For truth, as Aristotle says, is fitting and gives testimony to itself in every way. (Ibn Rushd 1953, 339; 2009, 315; see Taylor 2000)

4. Albert’s Great Concoction: ‘First Averroism’

Given the necessary limitations of the conference and given that I have already provided you with my conclusions, I suggest we use the remaining time to look quickly at a small selection of texts from Albert’s De homine for the evidence for the conclusions I previewed at the beginning of my presentation. I conclude with a text from the Commentary on the Sentences by Thomas Aquinas.

4.1. The first of my conclusions was negative. Given the importance of al-Farabi in the historical development of the doctrine of intellectual abstraction, the question was whether al-Farabi’s De intellectu played any direct role in the thought of Albert on this issue. The answer was negative, so I will show you non-being or nothing in this regard. As for the issue of Alexander whom I also mentioned, it is clear that Albert used Alexander’s De intellectu but he rejected its conception of abstraction, human soul and human intellect. He clearly has Alexander’s teaching in mind when he writes the following. While Avicenna says that the rational soul is related to the body as a perfection of the body, Alexander says that when the body perishes, so does the perfection dependent upon the body. Emphasis added.


. . .  Cum igitur causae priores possint destrui, anima non destruetur in operatione divina et intellectuali. Et haec ratio videtur esse de intellectu Avicennae in principio vi de naturalibus, ubi dicit quod ‘hoc nomen anima non est nomen illius rei quam nominat ex essentia eius vel ex praedicamento, in quo continetur, sed ex accidente quod accidit ei’, et ideo dicitur quod anima dicitur ab animando.

Sed contra sunt quaedam ratiunculae ab haereticis inductae, scilicet quod destructo perfecto destruitur perfectio; corpus est perfectum ab anima; ergo destructo corpore destruitur anima.

4.2. The agent intellect which makes human intellectual understanding is not the mover of the heavens, does not exist outside the human soul, and is not itself a separate substance full of forms or intelligibles in act.

4.2.1. Albert rejects Avicenna on intellectual abstraction understood as emanation of the intelligible from the external Agent Intellect. Two texts. Emphasis added. 413.34-40:

Et per hoc etiam patet solutio ad dicta Avicennae. Cum enim ordines intelligentiarum secundum Avicennam determinentur secundum ordines et numerum mobilium, et intellectus agens quem dicit esse decimam intelligentiam, moveat hominem et animam humanam, non erit intelligentia illa agens extra hominem et animam humanam. 414.27-38:

Et hoc est quod dicit Averroes in commento super tertium de anima: ‘Manifestum est, quoniam quando omnia speculativa fuerint in nobis existentia in potentia, tunc et agens continuatur nobis in potentia, quia non continuatur nobis nisi per illa; et cum fuerint existentia in nobis in actu, tunc et ipse continuatur nobis in actu’. Actio enim intellectus agentis determinatur ad phantasma, et sic determinata movet intellectum possibilem et educit eum in actum, sicut actio luminis  determinatur ad colores, et sic determinata visum educit in actum. Et per hoc patet quod intellectus agens non est substantia separata plena formis.

4.2.2. Albert rejects of Avicenna on the issue of intellectual memory or memory in the material / possible intellect (and assertion of the necessity of a conversion to the phantasm). Emphasis added.


. . . respondet Avicenna eligendo illam partem quod intelligibilia emanant ab intelligentia agente in intellectum possibilem, et quod addiscere nihil aliud est quam per studium acquirere aptitudinem perfectam in intellectu possibili ad convertendum se ad intelligentiam agentem, ex qua emanant intellectus simplices in intellectum possibilem, quos tamen intellectus possibilis accipit cum ordine et compositione. Dicit etiam quod haec aptitudo in intellectu possibili ante addiscere est imperfecta, post addiscere autem erit perfecta, et ideo post perfectionem illam nihil addiscimus, quia nullam aptitudinem acquirimus quam non habeamus, sed ante ipsam addiscimus acquirendo aptitudinem quam non habemus.


Solutio: Sine praeiudicio aliorum dicimus quod anima rationalis proprie loquendo non habet memoriam. Et si Augustinus dicat quod memoria est pars imaginis, ipse accipit memoriam prout est praeteritorum, praesentium et futurorum, ut supra diximus, et de hac quaeretur infra in quaestione de imagine. Sententia autem Avicennae in hoc quod non est habere memoriam animam rationalem, est eadem nobiscum. Et ipse distinguit inter thesaurum formarum et virtutem apprehensivam, dicens quod thesauri non est nisi retinere formam et non apprehendere, et propter hoc forma non est in thesauro sicut in virtute apprehensiva; sed virtutis / 442 / apprehensivae est apprehendere formam et non retirenere. Et propter hoc dicit quod species intelligibilis non retinetur in intellectu possibili, quia ipse est virtus apprehensiva, sed ex conversione sui ad intellectum agentem generatur in ipso, cum actualiter considerat. Nos autem dicimus quod manet in intellectu possibili, eo quod Aristoteles expresse dicat quod memoria et reminiscentia habent suos actus apprehensionis. Unde falsum est quod thesauri non sit apprehendere. In virtutibus enim corporalibus alterius quidem virtutis est recipere et alterius retinere; humidi enim est bene recipere, et sicci bene retinere. Sed in intellectuali virtute eiusdem virtutis est recipere et retinere, eo quod oppositorum actus ibi non sunt oppositi, cum sint separata opposita a materia et potentia agendi et patiendi. Unde intellectus possibilis recipit formas intelligibilium et retinet eas.

4.3. Avicenna emanative ‘abstraction’ is rejected but Aristotle and Averroes on abstraction adopted.  Recall, as I indicated earlier, there is no clearly expressed doctrine of abstraction in Aristotle. Rather, the philosophical tradition since Alexander and particularly the classical Arabic tradition — especially Averroes — are the sources for this interpretation widely accepted in medieval times and still held by many people today.  Emphasis added.


. . . Alii vero dixerunt ipsum esse intelligentiam separatam agentem decimi ordinis, et cum intelligentiae moveant non motae, sicut desideratum movet desiderantem et desiderium, dixerunt quod intelligentia agens mundi terreni movet intellectum possibilem humanae animae, sicut desideratum movet desiderium, ita scilicet quod sicut anima caeli movet caelum ad hoc quod conformetur intelligentiae agenti, ita etiam intellectus humanus possibilis movet hominem ad hoc quod conformetur intelligentiae agenti decimi ordinis; et hoc modo fluunt bonitates ab intelligentia agente in intellectum possibilem. Sed nos nihil horum dicimus. Sequentes enim Aristotelem et Averroem dicimus caelum non habere animam praeter intelligentiam, ut supra in quaestione de caelo determinatum est. Et similiter dicimus intellectum agentem humanum esse coniunctum animae humanae, et esse simplicem et non habere intelligibilia, sed agere ipsa in intellectu possibili ex phantasmatibus, sicut ex presse dicit Averroes in commento libri de anima.

4.4. Albert’s misreading of Averroes as the agent and possible intellects existing “in the soul” and “in us.“ Emphasis added.


Dicit enim Averroes super tertium de anima quod ‘quando omnia speculativa fuerint in nobis existentia in potentia, tunc et agens continuatur nobis in potentia, quia non continuatur nobis nisi per illa; et cum fuerint existentia in nobis in actu, tunc et ipse continuatur nobis in actu’. Ex hoc accipitur quod intellectus est in potentia ad speciem agentis et ad speciem intelligibilis, et ita est in potentia ad duas species simul.

 This phraseology of in nobis is exactly the phrase used repeatedly by Averroes who insists that the separate Agent Intellect is forma nobis, صورة لنا  surah la-nâ and in our soul, just as the separate Possible Intellect is in our soul. In this Averroes is following Aristotle who writes at De Anima 3.5, 429a13 that the two intellects are ‘in the soul’, ἐν τῇ φυχῇ. More of Albert’s use of in nobis is found at 17.9-10 (possible intellect); 25.57 (Aristotle); 38.24 (agent intellect: Avicenna); 40.74-41.2 ff. (Avicenna): 414.27-38 (Averroes).

More evidence that Albert is looking precisely at this issue of in nobis in Averroes and interpreting it as a personal power in each rational soul is found at 411.46-53:

Item, Averroes: ‘Omnis intellectus in nobis existens habet duas actiones. Quarum una est de genere passionis, et est intelligere; alia de genere actionis, et est abstrahere eas a materia, quod nihil aliud est quam facere eas intellectas in actu postquam erant intellectae in potentia’. Cum igitur unum horum sit intellectus agens et alterum possibilis, uterque istorum intellectuum erit in nobis existens et non separata substantia.

Regarding this notion see Taylor, “Intellect as Intrinsic Formal Cause in the Soul according to Aquinas and Averroes,” in The Afterlife of the Platonic Soul. Reflections on Platonic Psychology in the Monotheistic Religions, Maha El-Kaisy Friemuth and John M. Dillon, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 187-220.

Also see Taylor, “The Agent Intellect as ‘form for us’ and Averroes’s Critique of al-Fârâbî,” Topicos (Universidad Panamericana, Mexico City) 29 (2005)  29-51. Reprint with corrections in Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics 5 (2005)18-32

4.5. What follows here is a selection from the Commentary on the Sentences by Thomas Aquinas which expresses the key elements of his own doctrine of intellectual understanding for the first time. I put in emphasis parts of the text in which the doctrine of Albert in the De homine is the same. The translation is from an unpublished Latin text provided to me by Dr. Adriano Oliva, O.P., of the Commission Leonina which he has given me permission to use but not to distribute. This is one of the 60 texts we are translating and commenting upon in our Project on Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ in the Commentary on the Sentences for publication with Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Sent d. 17, Q.2, A.1: Whether there is one soul or intellect for all human beings. Solutio:

. . . For this reason, when all the errors mentioned have been set aside, I say with Avicenna that the possible intellect begins to exist, but does not go out of existence with the body, that it is diverse in diverse [human beings], and that it is multiplied according to the division of matter in diverse individuals, just as other substantial forms.  And I also add that the agent intellect is diverse in diverse [human beings], for it does not seem likely that in the rational soul there does not exist some principle which can fulfill a natural operation.  That follows if there is held to be one agent intellect, be it called God or intelligence. Nor again do I say these two, the agent intellect and the possible [intellect], are one power named in diverse ways due to diverse operations. [This is] because [when] any given actions are reduced to contrary principles, it is impossible to reduce them to the same power.  On the basis of this memory is distinguished from sense because receiving species of sensibles which belongs to sense and retaining [them] which belongs to memory are reduced to contrary principles also in bodily things, namely dampness and dryness.  Therefore, since receiving understood species which belongs to the possible intellect and making them intelligibles in act which belongs to the agent intellect cannot [both] come together in the same thing, but receiving belongs to some thing insofar as it is in potency and making [belongs to something] insofar as it is in act, then it is impossible that the agent [intellect] and the possible [intellect] not be diverse powers.

But how [the possible intellect and the agent intellect] could be rooted in one substance is difficult to see. For it does not seem that it could belong to one substance both to be in potency with respect to all intelligible forms which is the possible intellect and to be in act with respect to all those [intelligible forms] which is the agent intellect. [But were it] otherwise, it could not make all intelligible forms, since nothing acts except insofar as it is in act.  But, nevertheless, it should be known that it is not unacceptable that there be some two things each of which is in potency with respect to the other in diverse ways, as fire is in potency cold which belongs to water in act, and water is in potency hot, which is in act in fire.  Hence, [both] act and are acted upon with respect to one another.  I say that the sensible thing is related to the intellective soul similarly. For the sensible thing is intelligible in potency and has a nature distinct in act. Yet there is in the soul an intellectual light in act. But the determination of knowing with respect to this or that nature is there in potency, as the pupil is in potency with respect to this or that color.  For this reason the soul has a power by which it makes sensible species to be intelligible [species] in act, and this power is the agent intellect. And [the soul] has a power by which it is in potency for being made in the act of determinate knowing brought about by a sensible thing's species made intelligible in act, and this power or potency is called possible intellect.  Upon the operations of these two powers follows all our understanding, both of principles as well as of conclusions. Hence what some say appears to be false, [namely] that the agent intellect is a disposition of principles.