Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi


  • Thomas JeschkeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1055-1


Following the medieval tradition, Renaissance philosophy approaches the intellect against the background of a twofold perspective, viz., an ontological and an epistemological perspective. The very problems, therefore, formulated during the Renaissance are to a great extent “medieval.” The ontological perspective focuses on the intellect’s state of being, e.g., what is the intellect and what is its relation to the human soul? The epistemological perspective concentrates on the intellect’s function or operation, e.g., how does the intellect work in order to render understanding possible? Both of these approaches are inextricably interwoven with one another. The solutions offered to these problems make use of familiar medieval currents, such as Aristotelianism, Averroism, (Neo-)platonism, Thomism, Scotism, etc. – without being, however, exclusively bound to one of them. Renaissance philosophy, moreover, considers all of these currents in order to offer a coherent picture of the intellect. Some of the main problems discussed include, among others, whether the intellect belongs to the individual soul or whether it is supra-individual; whether the soul perishes with the body or is immortal; whether intelligible species are required for understanding. Regardless of the so-called “eclectic” approaches in Renaissance philosophy, the discussions are notably shaped by the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle’s psychology.


Human Soul Substantial Form Epistemological Perspective Human Intellect Ontological Perspective 
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Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

In line with the medieval tradition that preceded it, Renaissance philosophy approaches the theme of the intellect against the background of a twofold perspective, viz., an ontological perspective on the one hand, and, on the other, an epistemological perspective. Thus, the very problems formulated during the Renaissance are to a great extent “medieval.” The ontological perspective focuses on the intellect’s state of being. Some persisting questions include the following: does the intellect belong completely to the individual and thus is mortal? Alternatively, is the intellect – at least to some extent – supra-individual and thus immortal? Is the intellect (or, the rational soul) the unique substantial form of man, or simply one among others? On the other hand, is the intellect itself a substantial form in the first place? Does the traditional distinction between the agent and possible intellect remain consistent if many substantial forms or souls are granted? Inextricably interwoven with the ontological approach to the intellect is the epistemological perspective, which concentrates on the function of the intellect: how does the intellect operate in order to render understanding possible? Is the distinction between possible and agent intellect necessary? Are universals abstracted by the intellect or does the intellect in some way participate in a supra-individual process of cognition? Although both of these broad perspectives were discussed, Renaissance philosophers generally are more interested in the ontological questions; to put it in another way, they do “theory of knowledge for anthropological or cosmological reasons” (Keßler 1988, p. 533; for the discussion of intelligible species in Renaissance philosophy, cf. Spruit 1995).

The centers of Renaissance psychology were the Universities of Bologna and Padua. The first generation of scholars there was strongly influenced by the medieval paradigm. For example, Biagio Pelacani da Parma († 1416) first taught at Paris, then in Bologna, Florence, and Padua. He was highly influenced by John Buridan († after 1358). Paul of Venice († 1429) studied in Oxford and was influenced by Oxford logicians and nominalism (Kuksewicz 1995). When it comes to psychology, Jean of Jandun († 1328) was one of the notable “transmitters” of Averroism from Northern Europe to Italy (Hankins 2007; Brenet 2003; Brenet 2008), and another was likely Taddeo da Parma (Vanni Rovighi 1951; Vitali 1981; Michael 1993, p. 68; Kuksewicz 1995, p. 376).

At Bologna and Padua, we find present nearly every position with respect to the intellect. There is the Averroism of the High Middle Ages as well as (late ancient) Alexandrism; we find vigorous defenses of Church doctrine, as well as the Aristotelianisms of the Thomist, Scotist, and Ockhamist varieties. As opposed to what we find in Northern Europe, the use of these various positions here does not usually signify any adherence to a certain school. On the contrary, bits and pieces of the divergent traditions are used in an “eclectic” manner (Kärkkäinen and Lagerlund 2009; Schmitt 1983, pp. 99–103); or, better, the varying positions are employed in order to offer a coherent picture over and beyond the disagreement of the schools (cf., e.g., Hasse 2004, p. 137).

With regard to the ontological perspective, there are many different views on the status of the intellect (for the following, Keßler 1988, pp. 488–507; Keßler 2008, pp. 139–183). For instance, Paul of Venice and Nicoletto Vernia († 1499) championed the Averroistic idea that man’s highest individual form is the cogitative soul (anima cogitativa), and not the rational soul or intellect. Vernia, for instance, presents the Averroistic position as the genuine Aristotelian one. Averroes assumes that the intellect is one single entity and common to all men and thus is supra-individual. The medieval tradition posits an agent intellect as the part of the intellect that abstracts the universal notion from the singular phantasm by preparing an intelligible species. This species then informs the possible intellect by which cognition takes place. In Averroes’s interpretation there is no such distinction, both “intellects” are the same and exist as a single, supra-individual entity. This interpretation does well to explain how cognition is possible (especially the knowledge of universals); however, it does not easily explain the relationship between the single and universal intellect and the individual who is supposedly cognizing. When it comes to the relation between the supra-individual intellect and the human (cogitative) soul, various positions can be found in Renaissance philosophy: Paul of Venice views the intellect as an informing form (forma informans), while Alessandro Achillini († 1512) describes it as an informing and assisting form. Achillini, like Agostino Nifo († after 1538), believes that the intellect together with the cogitative soul comprise the one substantial form of man. This position is indeed reminiscent of Siger of Brabant († ca. 1284), who, in his De intellectu, held the substantial form of the human being to be the (possible) intellect together with the cogitative soul (Nifo 2011, pp. 345–347; Nardi 1945, pp. 13–29). Gaetano da Thiene († 1465) defended Averroism; however, he combined it with the Latin tradition, mostly by integrating it with the positions of Albert the Great. In this sense, he attempted to give an Averroistic account of Church doctrine.

The Alexandristic interpretation – going back to Alexander of Aphrodisias (second/third century CE) – held that the soul is a form educed from matter and hence is generated and perishes with the body; this view was defended, for instance, by Pietro Pomponazzi († 1525) and Simone Porzio († 1554), at least on the grounds of purely natural or philosophical reasoning (Keßler 1988, pp. 519–521). Both emphasize thus the individualistic perspective: the soul or intellect is an individualized human capacity. It is this man who cognizes, and thus the soul must also cease when her subject ceases to be.

Philipp Melanchthon († 1560) develops a “Protestant” Aristotelian psychology. He takes up the traditional distinction between the agent and possible intellect and develops it further. He presents the agent intellect as the faculty of ingenium or invention, while the possible intellect is the faculty of reception (Keßler 1988, pp. 516–518). Melanchthon’s reinterpretation displays well his Renaissance background, in which the idea of invention or creativity is strongly emphasized. The notion of ingenium then plays an important role in J. C. Scaliger († 1558), A. Persio († 1610), and G. Bruno († 1600), and its traces are found in R. Descartes († 1650) and F. Bacon († 1626) (Leinkauf 2001).

A Neoplatonic approach is present already in the late Nifo. He makes use of the Neoplatonic conception of metaphysical participation and, in particular, the distinction between different forms in order to distinguish between the unity of the universal intellect and the individual intellects proper to particular men. He differentiates between three agent intellects: (i) God, (ii) the principle in the individual soul (i.e., the traditional agent intellect), and (iii) the “prime notions […] through which, as a mere instrument, God illuminates the human soul” (Keßler 1988, p. 498). Thereby, he shifts the emphasis from an active agent intellect that prepares the phantasm to a “passive” intellect that takes part in God’s knowledge of things. The “real breakthrough,” however, of Neoplatonism into Renaissance psychology was witnessed only with Marcantonio Genua (Keßler 1988, p. 524). In Genua, Aristotle is read through the lens of Simplicius: the human soul is examined as part of the cosmological hierarchy, a middle sort of being between the immaterial and material realm.

Turning to the epistemological perspective in particular, the operations of the intellect are of prime concern. Here, the two extremes of the medieval tradition regarding the acquisition of knowledge are also present: on the one hand, the (Neo-)platonic conception of innate principles or ideas, and, on the other, the Aristotelian process of abstracting the universal from the particular. Marcantonio Genua († 1563), for instance, followed the Platonic tradition, understanding cognition as “mere reception of the universal forms emanating from the agent intellect,” while Porzio considers it to be a “mere reception of the intelligible species impressed by the illuminated phantasma.” Francesco Piccolomini († 1607) holds a middle position between both extremes: the process of cognition is “a true operation of the soul, through which the intellect produced the content of intellection by reasoning and judging the material image” (Keßler 1988, p. 528). Accordingly, Piccolomini assumes that the agent intellect, the faculty responsible for abstraction, is part of the human soul. Giacomo Zabarella († 1589), who opposes Piccolomini’s account and follows Genua, understands the agent intellect to be the divine cause of cognition and denies it any activity. Zabarella then assigns the active part of intellection to the possible intellect (Keßler 1988, 530–534). Another middle position between the Aristotelian and (Neo-)platonic approach is Melanchthon’s idea of innate principles within an Aristotelian conception of cognition. Melanchthon starts with the nominalistic differentiation between intuitive and abstractive cognition and with a preference concerning the immediate cognition of the singular. To support the intuition of singulars, he assumes the existence of innate ideas that render superfluous an abstractive function of the intellect. The agent intellect instead is the capacity for creativity (see above).

Innovative and Original Aspects

One of the best known and perhaps the most innovative aspect of these discussions is to be found in the “immortality debate.” To be sure, even this discussion has medieval roots (cf., e.g., Siger of Brabant’s revision of his De intellectu), but in the Renaissance its force is considerably stronger (for the following, Blum 2007; Casini 2007). The debate began with Georgios Gemistos Pletho’s († 1452) observation that there is present in Aristotle an inconsistency: in the De anima, the human mind seems to be immortal, while in the Ethics it is not. Pletho thus assumed that Alexander’s view that the human intellect is mortal is the correct interpretation of Aristotle. The ensuing debate concerned the correct interpretation of Aristotle, and then how this interpretation relates to Christian faith or Church doctrine. Marsilio Ficino († 1499) initiated this debate with the observation that there are two “sects,” namely, the Alexandrian interpretation that views the soul to be mortal since it is educed from matter and the Averroistic interpretation, according to which the intellect is immortal qua supra-individual while the individual soul is mortal. Both interpretations, according to Ficino, stand against the teaching of the church and are dangerous to the faith (Ficino 1959, vol. 2, p. 1537). These positions were discussed extensively in Padua, at least until 1489, the year in which bishop Pietro Barozzi’s decree prohibited any discussion concerning the unity of the intellect. Barozzi explicitly praises Antonio Trombetta’s refutation of the Averroists, which he published some years later. Nicoletto Vernia, a fervent Averroist before, now became an anti-Averroist. In 1492, following Ficino and Albert the Great, Vernia now assumes a plurality of intellects against the Averroists and maintains that the opinion of the church converges with the perspective of natural philosophy (Vernia 1998, esp. pp. 56–57). The bull Apostolici regiminis of the Fifth Lateran Council (1513), which decreed that natural philosophers must uphold the immortality of the soul, follows the same line of reasoning. Nevertheless, in 1516, Pietro Pomponazzi published his famous De immortalitate animae, in which he argued for a twofold nature of man, his intellect, and his soul, viz., a mortal and an immortal one. He made use of the scholastic distinction between the absolute consideration of something (simpliciter) and a relative one (secundum quid) (Pomponazzi 1990, pp. 6 and 10). The human intellect “is free of body as subject but relies upon body as its object (i.e. it relies on corporeal experience as its object)” (Blum 2007, p. 220), or, put differently, the intellect is material in its existence and immaterial in its function (Cassirer 1999, pp. 92–93), which means that it is, simpliciter, perishable (viz., in its being), and immortal secundum quid (viz., in its function). For Pomponazzi, this perspective follows according to a purely philosophical point of view (for Pomponazzi’s epistemology, cf. Rubini 2015). From the point of view of faith, however, the immortality of the soul is still possible. Pomponazzi thus argues for the Averroistic double truth, i.e., that there are two truths according to two epistemological realms: that of philosophy and that of faith. In the end, the immortality of the soul is, for Pomponazzi, an unsolvable problem (neutrum problema) (Pomponazzi 1990, p. 228). Against the background of the bull of 1513, Pomponazzi met harsh criticism, especially from Gasparo Contarini († 1542), Bartolomeo Spina († 1546), Ambrogio Fiandino († 1532), Nifo, and Crisostomo Javelli († ca. 1538), who defended the traditional position of the church concerning the immortality of the soul considered also from a purely philosophical point of view (Blum 2007, pp. 223–227).

Impact and Legacy

The various medieval and Renaissance approaches to the intellect were picked up and further elaborated especially in Hispanic (or Second) Scholasticism and were thus transferred to Descartes and the Early Modern period. Descarte’s Meditations, especially, must be understood precisely against the background of the immortality debate of the Renaissance (Blum 2007, pp. 227–229). The precise causal relationships or influences existing between Renaissance and Early Modern psychology must still be determined by future research.



Primary Literature

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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Thomas-InstitutUniversität zu KölnKölnGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marco Sgarbi
    • 1
  • Peter Mack
    • 2
  1. 1.University Ca' Foscari VeniceVeniceItaly
  2. 2.The Warburg Institute, School of Advanced StudyUniversity of LondonLondonUnited Kingdom