When students are first introduced to the ancient Greeks' conception concerning how human animals differ from non-human animals, the concept of the power of the intellect presents difficulties. Many of these undoubtedly trace their origins to the culture in which students have grown up, smitten by the allure of relativism, that is, an awful lot of people believe that truth does not exist. In the place of permanent and unchanging verities, many students believe "truth" is entirely dependent upon how individuals and groups perceive, remember, imagine, and feel about physical entities. If there is any truth, they believe it must be material. In this way, contemporary culture and many students are correct because much of what people posit today as "truth" is, as Plato rightly noted in the Meno, nothing more than "wrong opinion tied down."
Relativism didn't trouble the ancients, however. In fact, ancient philosophers were united across the generations in the effort to grasp truth and to understand what that means with regards to human existence, although they did not agree how to approach to these difficult scholarly matters. For the Greek philosophers, in particular, the highest purpose of human existence was to discover the truth and to order one's life according to it. In this way, human beings could participate in eternity, namely, the eternity of Truth that was, is, and always will be true.
The power of reason—upon which contemporary culture places a very high premium indeed—was helpful in this effort but not entirely so. While the power of reason enabled humans to know "what is," that power did not prove sufficient as philosophers posited that humans were more interested in inquiring beyond the "what is" into the "causes" of these material entities, as Aristotle (1958) describes in the Metaphysics. Thus, because humans by nature innately desire to know, reason is helpful as humans probe into the nature of "what is," namely the material causes of things. Something more—a power beyond reason—is needed, however, if humans are to probe into the "essence" of what is, that is, the formal, efficient, and final causes of material entities and, ultimately, into the "truth" of what is and into Truth itself.
The power of intellect...
The ability for humans to move beyond the confines of the power of reason to grasp the causes of things as well as to apprehend their final cause (or truth) is what differentiates human animals from their non-human counterparts. For example, while both human and non-human animals can deduce, through perception, memory, and imagination certain facts—evidencing the power of reason—only human animals can make themselves the subject of their own thoughts. For example, only human beings can ask the question "Who am I?" And, in asking that question, human beings are inquiring beyond what perception, memory, and imagination attest to and into the truth of who they are, the "essence" of their being.
What is interesting about this particular ability is that humans beings are not inquiring into a physical or material entities when they make themselves the subject of their thoughts. No, human beings are inquiring into something immaterial, a composite (or abstraction) oftentimes based upon yet beyond sense perception, imagination, and memory. Unlike the power of reason, this unique power is not a material power, like the power of the senses or that of the brain, which can be measured. These material powers which fuel the power of reason are not sufficient, although they may be a necessary condition for stimulating and exercising the innate power of intellect. Why? Because the powers of perception, memory, and imagination respond to material that is derived via the sense organs and which make "impressions" on the brain. The power to inquire into the causes of these material entities, then, is incited by these impressions and, therefore, must be an immaterial power. This is what is called "the power of the intellect."
Adler has suggested undertaking a thought experiment to grasp this abstract idea:
First, attempt to explain the general significance of the common nouns in our vocabulary, the significance of which is so different from the designative reference of the proper names we use, without appealing to our conceptual understanding of classes or kinds to which perceived or imagined particulars belong. If you cannot do that, then our apprehension of universals—of classes or kinds—is indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of common nouns or names.
Our cognitive sensory powers do not and cannot apprehend universals. Their cognitive reach does not go beyond particulars. Hence, we would not be able to apprehend universals if we did not have another and quite distinct cognitive power—the power of intellect....
Then ask yourself whether the particular individual things you apprehend by sense-perception or imagination are always bodies or the attributes of bodies, never anything the existence of which is incorporeal or immaterial. When you open your eyes and look out the window, what do you see? This or that individual tree; this or that automobile; this or that particular building. Whatever it is, it is always some physical thing, some material embodiment. When you close your eyes and let your imagination roam, what do you then apprehend? The same again: always some individual, physical thing; some material embodiment.....
At the same time, the individual physical things in the world of our sense-experience are also particular instances of certain kinds or classes of things—the kinds or classes to which the common names or general terms we use refer. We could not use those words with their general significance if we were not able to apprehend the objects of conceptual thought—the intelligible, universal objects that only our intellects can apprehend.
Readers are thus led to the
conclusion that the power by which we apprehend those intelligible
objects, those universal objects of conceptual thought, must be
immaterial. For if the concepts by which we apprehend such objects were
acts of bodily organs, their material embodiment would prevent them from
being apprehensions of anything universal. They would, in this respect, be
no different from the percepts and the images that are acts of bodily
organs (the sense-organs and the brain) and, therefore, are always
apprehensions of individual things or of their particular attributes.
(1993, Chapter 4)
In Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton (1999) described an "experience" he had of the power of intellect. Note how Merton's description—from a different perspective—parallels that of Adler:
Then, as sudden as the shout and as definite, and a thousand times more bright, there formed in my mind an awareness, an understanding, a realization of what had just taken place....
But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was so intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap. It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of every lesser experience....
The reason why this light was blinding and neutralizing was that there was and could be simply nothing in it of sense or imagination. When I call it a light, this is a metaphor which I am using, long after the fact. But at the moment, another overwhelming thing about this awareness was that it disarmed all images, all metaphors, and cut through the whole skein of species and phantasms with which we naturally do out thinking. It ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth, as if a sudden and immediate contact had been established between my intellect and the Truth....But this contact was not something speculative and abstract: it was concrete and experiential and belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.
Another thing about it was
that this light was something far above and beyond the level of any desire
or any appetite I had ever yet been aware of. It was purified of all
emotion and cleansed of everything that savored of sensible things. It was
love as clean and direct as vision: and it flew straight to the possession
of the Truth I loved.
In less elegant terms than those of the philosopher Adler or the monk Merton, the power of the intellect can be defined as the unique and innate ability possessed by human animals that, when properly exercised, enables them to grasp truth, to contemplate it, and to participate in it by ordering their existence according to the dictates of truth.
Adler, M. J. (1993). Intellect: Mind over matter. New York: Collier.
Aristotle. (1958). Metaphysics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 105-156). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Merton, T. (1999). Seven storey mountain. New York: Harcourt.
Plato. (1981). Meno. The five dialogues (G.M.A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.