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On Intellect

In Reductio ad Consterno (reduction to the point of alarm), I threw out the idea that philosophy, considered properly, is the exploration of the operation of intellect. The thought wasn’t deeply considered – it was rather a convenient bridge in the essay, a way of linking what preceded with what followed.

But as I continue my reading of The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (TPB below, by Buckingham, et al. with DK Books) I am realizing that it’s actually central to the project of my life. In Ma, my celebration of the feminine virtues, I illustrate various expressions of intellect (as defined below) through the main characters. This has the unfortunate effect that the narrative is rendered disjoint by the shifts in perspective. As I thought about this post yesterday morning, I considered the subtitle “The Philosophy of Ma and Golem” with the hope that readers might gain some insight into those works. But, given that after my father’s passing I am the only extant reader of that collection, I must now conclude (with some chagrin) that the earlier works were a type of “narrative study” for the thoughts that are crystallized below.

To set the table again: TPB contrasts the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle as the central issue in philosophy, which the authors characterize as the search for a firm foundation for knowledge. Plato held that all events are ephemeral and rendered indistinct by our senses, and so that all knowledge is in the realm of ideas. Aristotle countered that ideas that do not arise from experience are not knowledge, but fantasy. As the history of philosophy is traced, the Aristotelian perspective is bolstered by scientific study, and in fact the proponents of Plato’s view appear less and less coherent.

Of course, the Aristotelian empiricists materialists have a huge advantage in this quest. Science, in the large, is the study of things without personality. That means that the subjects of scientific research don’t evolve new behaviors when we study them. An insulator will not start to conduct electricity, and an electron won’t shed its mass. Conversely, Plato and all of his followers insist that knowledge emanates from some form of “The Good,” which was understood to be “God” in Islamic and Christian cultures. The Good does not reveal itself, but must be courted with disciplined moral intent. So while empiricists materialists can describe things that anyone can experience, the mystic must grope for terms to describe perceptions that often are completely foreign to the reader. The empiricist materialist is popular; the mystic is obscure.

This insight sets us on a path to reconcile the two primary views of philosophy. Indeed, while much of modern philosophy tends toward  a social focus, often that is driven by reaction to cultural dysfunction that arises from trying to force people to behave as if only one view was valid. But I do not believe that our reconciliation is sufficient. There are unexamined deficiencies in Philosophy as a whole, manifested most obviously in the fact that almost all of its luminaries are men.

So I am going to conclude this post with a definition of intellect that may serve only to make it clear just how complex the problem is.

Intellect manifests in the capacity to synthesize mental states.

Our mental states are not only thoughts. They are a complex amalgamation of sensory perceptions, physiological response (or emotions), thoughts and spiritual interactions. Synthesis is accomplished through either stimulation or combination of those states.

The job of philosophy, as I asserted before, is to understand the virtues and pathologies of intellect, and to establish means to strengthen the first and heal the second. The complexity of the problem is seen in that most of the history of philosophy was spent in a fruitless search for some solid ground to stand on – some truth beyond Descartes’ “I exist.” Fortunately for humanity, most of us continued to carry on with our exploration of what is possible.

In that search, we must recognize that the intellect also has variable expressions. Just as species adopt different forms in the struggle to secure an ecological niche, so does the intellect vary. There are those dominated by sensory perception, those immersed in emotion, those lost in the whirlpool of their thoughts, and those with their eyes locked on the heavens. Each of them brings a piece of the puzzle to our attention. No perspective can be denigrated or ignored without threatening the integrity of the whole.

6 thoughts on “On Intellect

  1. Oh, Brian Balke, the thought of Plato and Aristotle cannot be had that way, and surely not by reading secondary sources that claim to explain “complex” ideas “simply.” Where to start…the students of Leo Strauss like to remind us that Plato wrote dialogues, and so almost never speaks in his own name. And Aristotle is surely not a materialist nor an “empiricist.” We take these thinkers up as though we did not have to ascend in order to see their teaching, but our “intellect” is already fully formed, so we can have their thought for reading a sentence. We will never even begin philosophy that way.

    Nous, the Greek word translated “intellect,” is quite a study, and in most people barely awake. In the comments on the teaching of Jesus on the beam and splinter, I have attempted to translate the Aristotelian nous into the Biblical “eye,” since as Aristotle writes in the tenth book of his Ethics, Nous is the “eye of the soul.”

    Since, having been critical, a little flattery is now required, I will say that I credit you for a profound insight, and say you taught me that the Bride includes the angels. Did you intend to teach this?

    The soul or man is the image of the Most High, and that too is nous.

    (P.S. I would be reading more if your stuff if I had my own internet and more time on the box!)

    • MM – your criticism is fair, but is my posture not unavoidable? The original sources were lost or scattered, and are shot through with naturalism and political theory that later evolved into independent disciplines of pragmatic inquiry. In attempting to stake out territory for philosophy, I must elide their writing even more than history has done so, and find it convenient to focus on what differentiates them. It is not unfair to say that the two thinkers, who taught together in the Academy for many years, openly disagreed on the issue as I have characterized it, with Plato eventually conceding to over-reaching.

      As to the degree to which TPB plumbs the issues – I’d recommend reading it. The authors are serious scholars, offering essays on major thinkers that run to several thousand words.

    • Where does Plato concede to…? I need to go slower and reread, I’m thinking of another sentence I like in your essay about psychiatry. In my chapter on the website, (you might like along with the beam and splinter comments from Book VI and VII of Aristotle’s Ethics) we have begun to get “Schizophrenia” as the awry function of phronesis or practical wisdom, and “psychosis” as the awry of the theoretical function. This bergan from a cool Alfarabi note on the difference between genius and madness- something you said about psychiatry and healing is comming back to me a few times today. I had a great teacher of Arist. Ethics and another of Plato’s dialogues, especially Meno and Republic, but neither were Christian, so I put it together myself, while the wise, like Eva Brann of St John’s college, cant understand a word I say anyway! But the Bride, in Revelation 21, those invited are different from the Bride, and John is equal to the angels. Its like mathematics! But saying way too much is not phronesis!

      No one has read my ch 1 of psych yet, no one on wordpress cares, but we have to replace this drug-everyone-for- profit and fashionable opinion therapy! Hence, “Notes Toward a Philosophic Psychology.”

    • MM –
      I’d like to look at the writing. You can add a hyperlink to your comment. Just use the following format:

      <Put the title text here)

      Then I could follow the link to your note.

      At http://www.everdeepening.com, I speak of spirituality as “the negotiation of the boundaries between ‘I’ and ‘we’.” When I spoke openly about these issues with a psychiatrist, she characterized schizophrenia as a phobia to the voices we hear when that separation begins to dissolve. Specifically, it was “I only prescribe drugs if the voices bother someone.”

      Of course, one of the problems is that the designations used by psychiatry are coupled to pharmacology that disempowers the patient to manage “the warring factions of the soul”, as I quote Eaton in a recent post on Islam. I like where your definitions lead. Saying “pray to God” is one thing, but being able to focus your need so that you receive specific aid is really important!

    • You are of course welcome to visit mmcdonald77/Psychology, and view the subheadings. Leave comments, because only wordpress users are allowed, by wmelonwedge, to do so.

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