The Joy of Discovery

Back in late spring of 2003, I was reading a translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, specifically III.4-5 on human thinking, and ran across a footnote that tied DA III.5 to the Metaphysics XII.7, 9. That is to say, human thinking episodically thinks the same thing as divine thinking (when each is thinking the form of a thing).

Which seems straightforward enough. But III.5 is terribly obscure, for it talks about imperishable thinking, and of course thinking is an activity of the soul, and yet in DA Bk I, Aristotle clearly notes that when a body dies the soul ceases to be. So how could imperishable thinking cease to be on the death of the body? Or, conversely, how could imperishable thinking not cease to be on the death of the body? And if it ceased to be, how could it be imperishable?

That is only one of the troubling questions. For DA III.5 is also the notorious “active intellect” (or as some call it the “maker mind”) passage. Is the active intellect that brings potential intellect into full being-at-work (i.e., “actuality”) an aspect of the human intellect, and therefore of the human soul? Or is it external to the human soul (is it, say, the divine intellect)?

And finally there is the vexing question of the relationship between theoria, which is the most divine of human intellectual activity and is a thinking of the forms, and phronesis, which is the sort of human intellectual activity that enables one to choose to act virtuously. And as Aristotle notes, eudaimonia, happiness, comes about through a life of virtue in accordance with reason (intellect).

But Aristotle tease out a seemingly contentious relationship between theoria and the life of virtue in Nicomachean Ethics X, which would seem to split human intellectual activity between the divine (theoria) and the mundane (the life of virtue). One could have the best, divine contemplation, but one usually and most often has to settle for the second best, the life of virtue, since we are inescapably social-communal animals.

And in fact EN VI seems to present a sharp distinction, even an apparent separation, between intellect (nous) and practical judgment (phronesis), the former having to do with universals–which can found true knowledge, the latter having to do with particulars and choices–upon which knowledge is impossible to found. (Very Ur-Kantian!)

But I had had an intuition that I should try (precisely because of EN X) to see if there weren’t an ethical dimension to thinking the forms. I just could not come up with any sort of reconciliation.

But then I was reading an article for my dissertation proposal and came across an almost throw-away comment by the author, about how in EN VI is another passage which unites intellect and practical judgment in the activity of the intellect which derives out of practical judgment’s ultimate particular the very universal thing one needs to know (a la the practical syllogism of EN VII) to make a deliberate and voluntary choice to act virtuously in a specific instance.

This opens up further investigation.

Ah, the joy of serendipitous discovery.

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