In Aristotle's philosophy of mind, the passive intellect (nous pathetikos) "is what it is by becoming all things." By this Aristotle means that the passive intellect can potentially become anything by receiving that thing's intelligible form. The active intellect (nous poietikos) is then required to illuminate the passive intellect to make the potential knowledge into knowledge in act, in the same way that light makes potential colors into actual colors. The analysis of this distinction in On the Soul is very brief, and it has led to dispute as to what it means.
Later philosophers, including Averroes and St. Thomas Aquinas, have proposed mutually exclusive interpretations of Aristotle's distinction between the active and passive intellect. Other terms used are "material intellect" and "potential intellect", the point being that the active intellect works on the passive intellect to produce knowledge (acquired intellect), in the same way that actuality works on potentiality or form on matter.
Averroes held that the passive intellect, being analogous to unformed matter, is a single substance common to all minds, and that the differences between individual minds are rooted in their phantasms as the product of the differences in the history of their sense perceptions. Aquinas argues against this position in the Disputed Questions on the Soul (Quaestiones disputatae de Anima), and asserts that while the passive intellect is one specifically, numerically it is many, as each individual person has their own passive intellect.
- Aristotle, De Anima, Bk. III, ch. 5 (430a10-25).
- Commentarium magnum in Aristotelis De anima libros, ed. Crawford, Cambridge (Mass.) 1953: Latin translation of Averroes' long commentary on the De Anima
- Averroes (tr. Alain de Libera), L'intelligence et la pensée, Paris 1998: French translation of Averroes' long commentary on book 3 of the De Anima
- Catholic Encyclopedia article
- Aquinas, De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas (Latin)
- Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect, against the Averroists (English)
- Barrionuevo, "La capacidad productiva del nous (DA, 3.5)" (Spanish)
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