[3.3.4] Ibn Sina on the Phases of Intellect

Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037 AD) thinks that the human Intellect goes through a series of four phases – starting from the empty potentiality of a newborn to the fully actualized intellectual faculty containing Forms acquired from the Active Intellect (see also [3.3.2], [3.3.3] and al-Farabi’s similar structure [3.2.4]).

The following OntoUML diagram shows the four phases of the Intellect:

Avicenna on phases of intellect
HumanIntellectIntellect is acquiring concepts/forms through actualization from Active Intellect.
“‘Material intellect‘ is the wholly ‘unqualified potentiality’ for thought which belongs to ‘every member of the species.’ It is a ‘disposition’ (isticdad) inhering in the incorporeal human soul from birth.”
E.g. “The newborn infant has the potentiality for writing only in the sense that it may eventually learn to write.”
phase of Intellect
“‘Intellect in habitu’ (bil-malaka) is the ‘possible potentiality’ in which the human subject possesses the ‘first intelligible thoughts.’ These are attained through cogitation.
E.g. “Later, the ‘boy matures’ and comes to ‘know the inkwell, the pen, and the letters.’ Inasmuch as he controls the rudiments and can go on to master the art with ‘no intermediate’ step, he is said to have a ‘possible potentiality’ for writing.”
phase of Intellect; posesses FirstInteligible
“‘Actual intellect,’ despite the name, is a further stage of potentiality— the stage of fully actualized potentiality. It is the ‘complete [kamdliyya] potentiality’ that is attained when both ‘second intelligibles'[derivative scientific
propositions] and ‘intelligible forms’—that is to say, derivative propositions and concepts—have been added to the ‘first intelligibles,’ with the proviso that the human subject is not thinking the propositions and concepts. At the stage of actual intellect, the human subject does not ‘actually … attend to’ his knowledge, yet can do so ‘whenever he wishes.'”. These are attaied also with the help of cogitation.
phase of Intellect; posesses FirstInteligible and SecondIntelligible
“‘acquired [mustafdd] intellect,’ which alone is an ‘unqualified actuality.’ At the level of acquired intellect, ‘intelligible forms’ are actually ‘present’ to the man, and he ‘actually attends’ to them. Avicenna’s acquired intellect is, literally, acquired from the active intellect. The unqualified actuality of thought is ‘called. . . acquired, because it will be shown . . . that potential intellect passes to actuality’ by establishing contact with the active intellect and having ‘forms acquired from without imprinted’ in man’s intellect.”
E.g. “At a still higher level stands the ‘scribe,’ who is adept with the [writing] implement,’ is ‘accomplished in his art,’ and can apply the art ‘at will.’ When he is not exercising his skill, the scribe has a ‘perfect’ potentiality for writing.”
phase of Intellect; posesses FirstInteligible , SecondIntelligible and Form
“The active intellect is (1) the emanating cause of the matter of the sublunar world, (2) the emanating cause of natural forms appearing in matter, including the souls of plants, animals, and man, and (3) the cause of the actualization of the human intellect.”actualize Acquired
Intellect; emanates Form
Formnatural form of the lower worldexclusive part of ActiveIntellect; material relation with Intellect
FirstIntelligiblefirst intelligibles: “are theoretical propositions of the sort man affirms without being able to ‘suppose that they might ever not be affirmed’; examples are the propositions that ‘the whole is greater than the part’ and ‘things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.'”
SecondIntelligibleSecond intelligibles are derivative propositions and concepts.
IntelligibleFirst intelligibles, second intelligibles and forms are intelligibles.


  • All citations from:  Herbert A. Davidson, “Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, on Intellect”, Oxford University Press 1992

First published: 22/08/2019
Updated: added first and second intelligible on 22/11/2020

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