On the Convergence of the Faculties: Intellect and Will Dynamism in St. Thomas Aquinas

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These essay argues a position that Aquinas' philosophy concerning the relationship between the intellect and the will follows a simultaneous movement and not the classical interpretation that the will is subject to the intellect.

Submitted: September 09, 2012

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Submitted: September 09, 2012





To talk about an animal is effortless. Look at it and how it behaves and you can easily decipher what it wants and demonstrate how it acts. Sharks react very aggressively at the sight of blood and snakes never eat dead prey. Ever since the dawn of science, man has been reduced to his physiological manifestations. The brain is reduced into an organ which transmits electrical impulses to the body making it move. His acts are reduced into mere behavior and conditioning from external influences. As the 21st century came, man is but a specter of the universe; insignificant and without value a mere conglomeration of physical parts and manipulated by other people for their selfish desires.

Distant is the memory of the past when man is considered as the prime creature of God when to talk about man is to talk about the regality and the supreme goodness of God. To know and to act are two faculties of man which prompted the ancients and the medieval philosophers to speculate about. Indeed, he can know the truth and he can will what he wants. From Plato to Ockham, they have presented their theories about the intellect and the will. Each has their own appropriation of their past influences and each has presented an original reflection on the relationship of the two. However, among these philosophers none has been more influential than Thomas Aquinas. Being an Aristotelian, Aquinas inherited the Aristotelian method of philosophizing and the past speculations of Aristotle on potency and act and along with it the concept of the intellect. Being a Christian, Aquinas inherited the immense literature of the Christian faith from the Holy Scriptures to the writings of the patristic fathers adding a Christian twist to pagan knowledge.

Being these two, Aquinas is seen as baptizing Aristotelian philosophy.[1] We can see Aquinas’s efforts to fuse man’s quest for truth and the desire he has for it. The result is a theory of the intellect and the will. In this paper, I shall elaborate on the convergence of the two faculties. Supporting the interpretation that the intellect and the will act simultaneously, I would place my efforts in proving this claim rather than just simply placing it as a logical turn in interpretation. In the first chapter, I would elaborate on the concept of desire and the relationship it plays with the passivity of the sensual faculties (with a brief historical background to ground Aquinas’s sources) and infer to the phenomena of the variegation of the good. The second chapter, moves from the variegation of the good to the elucidation of the convergence itself. Presenting the interpretations of Gilson and Coppleston, I would depart from the intellectualist interpretation and support the interpretations of Philipps, Kenny, and Elders proving that the simultaneity of the intellect and the will is possible due to the reciprocal relationship of the two.


I.  The Dichotomy: the Intellect and the Will

i. Desire

Man desires something. Aristotle summed up all the arguments before him and came with a strong conclusion: “all men want to be happy.” This is tantamount in saying that we all desire something good. Indeed how can man desire something which is detrimental to his own?

The concept of act and potentiality is crucial in the analysis of desire. Every creature whether sentient or rational desires something, like an animal who stops by the spring to drink water he fulfills his desire to quench his thirst. Humans on the other hand distinguished by the intellect fulfill his desire but is conscious of it.

Aquinas then proceeds to analyze the desire in Question 80. In the mentioned Question, Aquinas elucidates on a very important taxonomy between the sensory and the intellectual appetites. It is then important to discuss the development of Aquinas’s concept of desire. T.H Irwin in an article entitled “Who discovered the Will” presents a critical historical overview of the concept of the will. He says that scholars would attribute it to three persons: Augustine, Maximus the Confessor and Nemesius and John Damascene.[2] However, he claims that Aquinas developed this concept from a latent Aristotelian idea of boulesis.

How does this connect with desire? Aristotle would summarize all arguments and provide us with a brilliant conclusion: we all go towards the good. Aquinas along with other Christian writers before him would affirm this conclusion and they would add God as the supreme end of everything. Therefore, we can consider that every one of us go towards the good. Three works of Aquinas is important in this exposition. The Summa and De Veritate are important works to survey the taxonomy of the intellect and the will. In the Summa, Aquinas extensively elucidates the concept of the intellect (q. 79) and the will (q. 82) and in the third article of the same question Aquinas fully elucidates on the intellect and will relationship. However, before that in q. 80 and 81, Aquinas expounds on the appetitive powers.

Here he distinguishes between the sensitive appetite and the intellectual appetite (the will) in the Sed Contra Aquinas writes:

“The appetitive power is a passive power, which is naturally moved by the thing apprehended: wherefore the apprehended power is a passive power which is not moved.[3]”


Aquinas sets the tone of the relationship of the sensitive power with the will. We feel, we sense and we perceive things. It is important to take note that, the sensitive apparatus perceives different things simultaneously. We see as we hear things. All the sensitive apparatus that we have all function together. Aquinas sets it in a general sense thus sensitive appetite for we can hear yet not listen and touch but not feel. The sensitive organs function because it is part of their physiological nature. Can the ear choose not to receive sounds or the skin receive sensation? It is essential now to claim that that the sensual faculties are passive powers. At the moment of perception, the phenomena of the self-giveness of beings constitute an important part of Thomistic theory of knowledge.[4]

Thus, this is where the concept of the will begins.  We all desire something however, perception gives us different ideas. Consequently, this brings us to another dilemma: the variegation of good.

ii. Variegation of Good

An exploration on the relationship between intellect and will is not complete if we not explore this part. In the last paragraphs we have agreed that the sensitive appetite because of its passive nature conceives things in singularity. If we infer from that premise it is logical that we encounter something good in them. In De Veritate, Aquinas explains how creatures attain their goodness by way of participation with the divine Esse.

“Things are good by way of “participation.[5]

This line will be repeated in articles 1, 3 and 5. Here, we can find Aquinas’s departure from the ancient Neo-platonic doctrine of emanation. The omnibenevolence of God made all things good and all things participate in this divine essence.

The created is good in participation with the goodness of God. In totality, things around us possess different degrees of perfection (its actuality) and potentiality. Individually, things go around in a circle of generation and corruption (Aquinas here affirms Aristotle’s thesis) yet in participation with the universality of substance and its participation with the divine essence it possess goodness. Thus, in the totality of things (its substance) and the participation with Esse, we can grasp the whole idea of the good (along with the other transcendentals).[6]

The idea of the good is mostly connected with its metaphysical aspect. If we look at the human being encountering things around him every day, he encounters individual things. If we look at the Thomistic theory of knowledge, everything starts with sense perception and its passivity. However, it is never complete without the phantasm as the beginning of ideogenesis. After all this, it undergoes the process of abstraction after that we get hold of the substance which endures and is unchanging.[7] It is then logical to infer that the singular things we know in the senses and the relationship between the phantasm and the process of abstraction are the two big blocks of Thomistic epistemology which is necessary.

Thus, in knowing singular things, we encounter a multiplicity of beings. If I conceive of my fountain pen or of my piece of paper and I act with what I know, I know on the first place individual things (i.e. the fountain pen and the piece of paper.) both at the same time. The process of knowledge is then important if we want to look into the intellect-will relationship and with its reciprocal relation with the process of knowledge because it bridges the gap between what I know and can will with how I know them to be good or how do I find goodness in them. This is essential because in the Summa Contra Gentiles (the third work which is important to study), Aquinas would assert that man acts for the good however, it must be directed to some definite thing.[8] This definite thing is the Good. Thus, all things tend towards the good. This basic concept however has many implications. 1. All of us tend towards the good but, since goodness is a transcendental attribute of being, how can we reconcile the abstract idea of the good with that of individual things that we encounter everyday? 2. In question 85 and 86 of the Summa Theologica, Aquinas highlights the workings of the intellect. The way we understand highlights the interplay between the senses and the internal processes. The variegation of individual things that we perceive might posit that we know a multitude of things however, Aquinas in article 4 of question 85 in the reply to objection 3[9] says.

Parts can be understood in two ways. First in a confused way, as existing in the whole; they are known through the one form of the whole, and so are known together. In another way they are known distinctly; and thus each is known by its species, and hence they are not understood at the same time.[10]


Our understanding of individual things brings us to the phenomena of the variegation of good. Consider a student peering through a list of university courses and decides whether to take engineering, accounting or philosophy, if he looks at the three all are equally good courses. His intellect gives him three individual ideas of courses which he can will. Thus, we can ask is the will ever dependent on the intellect?


II. The Convergence of the Faculties: The Intellect with the Will.

Considering the exposition we have done above, it is now essential to dwell on the question we have just raised i.e. is the will subject to the intellect? The interpretation of Aquinas’s idea about the intellect and will relationship is important since this is a central problem in psychology[11] i.e. the primacy of the intellect or vice versa. In Aquinas, we can see that the most accepted interpretation of the intellect and will relationship is the intellectualist standpoint. Scholars most notably Etienne Gilson accept this approach in looking at Aquinas’s intellect-will relationship. In the book Elements of Christian Philosophy he writes.

The human form of appetite, which is the will, is offered by the intellect a choice of objects as wide as the whole compass of being itself.[12]


Above we have indicated how the intellect through the variegation of the good would present various things to the will. Gilson’s interpretation holds true to the discourse Aquinas carries in the third article of Question 82 of the Summa Theologica and article 11 of Question 22 of De Veritate. Here in these two works, Aquinas demonstrates the relationship of the two parties with each other. The Responsio of the third article of question 82 demonstrates what we can call a Thomistic confusion; the nobility of the intellect is highlighted twice (1) as it is absolutely in itself and (2) it corresponds to the variegation of the appetitable good.[13] The nobility of the will on the other hand is highlighted once: as the highlighted good.[14] The absolute and relative distinction might prove the intellectualist view however, if we accept the intellect’s nobility putting the will below as a moving force towards the good there we can encounter a vicious circle as Philipps highlights

We are not, however, at the end of our difficulties, for if the intellect must determine the act of the will and the act of the will must determine the judgment of the intellect, we seem to be involved in a vicious circle. [15]


Raising this particular issue, we find out that the intellect understands truths about goodness and the will aims the good the truth.[16] The interlocking relationship blooms out as the essential point in the analysis of action. When I do something does intellect first present various objects before I can will? How can we look into the relationship of the intellect with the will? Philipps offers a better proposition at looking at this issue.

This all happens instantaneously, so that it is not the will which first determines the intellect, and then the intellect the will nor vice versa. There is no priority of time of one determination to the other but both occur simultaneously.[17]


Thus by indicating the simultaneity of the intellect and the will, we now shed light to the confusion placed above. The intellect has as its end the truth and the will has as its end the good. Both are transcendental properties of being. The position of Aquinas might hold the intellectualist viewpoint as true prima facie. However, we might enter to the infinite regress as Kenny and Philipps have seen.

The responsio of the fourth article of question 82 proves this point.

These powers include one another in their acts because the intellect understands that the will wills and the will wills the intellect to understand.[18]

The two pronged movement of the will and the intellect proves the convergence of the two faculties.[19] This is a different outlook on the relationship of the intellect and the will than the usual interpretation done by Coppleston (in the History of Philosophy)[20] and Gilson. Departing from this interpretation, we now look at the intellect and the will as two qualities in man. Aquinas in demonstrating the properties of the intellect and the will bifurcates the intellect and the will for demonstration but in reality both penetrate each other.[21] This gives us a more balanced stance in the relationship of the intellect and the will. Moreover, this point out that man is a unity.[22] With the simultaneity of the intellect and the will, man is viewed as a unity and not only as the product of his faculties.



To act and to know are two different aspects of man. Each relate with each other in harmonious unity. Although two, they act in simultaneity with each other. The intellectualist interpretation posits man as a mere knowing being. Subjecting the will to the intellect, they made man a slave of his desires requiring the intellect to save it from its threshold and to control it like a master overseeing his slaves. However, even the intellect itself is influenced by the will. Man’s desire to know drives his mind to find the most difficult answers he encounters. As I look at the heavens and wonder at the constellations above me, I never fail to see that my mind possess this desire to know it.  

The simultaneity of the intellect and the will is possible because of the reciprocity that each exhibit on each other. The intellect understands the will and the will can move the intellect to know. Nevertheless, the ends of the two faculties are both transcendental properties of being. However, if one looks at the side of the intellect’s knowing, the intellect gains the upper hand because it is being demonstrated. If one looks at the acts of the will, one might find that the will is the moving force it gains the upper hand because again it is being demonstrated. Here we see Aquinas’s genius in demonstrating two distinct faculties yet both working together. This distinction demonstrates the specific end of each faculty. While the intellect and the will are distinct and their effects are different in reality we see the unity and not really the prescinded one. The interpretation of Gilson and Coppleston tend to overreact on the emphasis Aquinas gives to the intellect in the Summa yet, they fail to see the indwelling of the faculties with each other. Leo Elders was right when he placed the bifurcated workings of the intellect and the will yet he did not fail to see the convergence of the faculties.

The simultaneity of the intellect and the will is possible due to the reciprocity of the two. If one looks at the beginning of knowledge that is sense perception, one does not fail to see the outward movement of the intellect towards the world. Although, we would not dwell on Aquinas’s idea on intentionality (see Summa Contra Gentiles Book 3), we see that the intellect in order to know must possess this desire to know. Seeing this reciprocity, it now follows that neither the intellect nor the will is absolutely prior to each other. This shows that the intellect and the will both work together. The intellectualist interpretation never saw the convergence that the faculties possess rather they placed the intellect as the absolute priority in the relationship. This absolutism never saw the real relationship between the two. If one speculates about the relationship of the two considering its simultaneity. One sees the dynamic movement of the faculties towards each end. In respect to this end, we see that the intellect and the will have two ends. Yet, they move simultaneously to each end. As the intellect goes to truth and the will to the good, the two possess a joint relationship in order to achieve each other’s end. The intellect needs the desire for its end without this intellectual desire it cannot move to its specific end. The will works with the intellect and this dynamic duo work together which constitutes the unity in the act.

Although the study is limited to the intellect-will relationship, in the near future, it should be possible to expose Aquinas’s concept of intentionality. This is important for Aquinas’s analysis of the philosophy of human action. Intentionality brings to the fore the manifestations of the intellect and the will into human action. As for now, the intellect and the will go together in unity. As we have demonstrated above, it is important now to look at this indwelling or convergence of the faculties as a sign of Aquinas’s idea of making man a unity. Man is not a machine that can be manipulated by electrical impulses from a machine or a collection of internal processes that respond to stimuli rather, man is a universe within himself. 

[1] Frederick Coppleston, History of Philosophy Volume III, (New York: Doubleday books)

[2] T H Irwin, “Who discovered the Will?” in Philosophical Perspectives Ethics, p. 453 and 455

[3] ST. I q.80 art 2

[4]Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World trans. William Dych, SJ (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968) 94

[5] De Veritate q.21 art 1

[6] Joseph de Torre, Christian Philosophy (Manila: Sinag Tala Publishers, 1980), p. 117

[7] St. Q. 85 art 1

[8] Summa Contra Gentiles Book 3 Chapter  2

[9] Objection 3 Further the intellect understands a whole at the same time, such as a man or a house. But, a whole contains many parts. Therefore, the intellect understands many things at the same time.  

[10] ST. Q.85 art IV

[11] Wilhelm WIldebrand, A History of Philosophy volume 1: Greek, Roman, Medieval, (New York: Harper and Brothers publications, 1958) p.329

[12] Etienne Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy, (New York: Harper and Row. 1960) p. 251

[13] ST. Q 82 art III responsio: If therefore the intellect and will be considered with regard to themselves, then the intellect is the higher power. And this is clear if we compare their respective objects to one another. For the object of the intellect is more simple and more absolute than the object of the will; since the object of the intellect is the very idea of appetible good; and the appetible good, the idea of which is in the intellect, is the object of the will. Now the more simple and the more abstract a thing is, the nobler and higher it is in itself; and therefore the object of the intellect is higher than the object of the will. Therefore, since the proper nature of a power is in its order to its object, it follows that the intellect in itself and absolutely is higher and nobler than the will.

[14]ST. Q 82 art III resp. But relatively and by comparison with something else, we find that the will is sometimes higher than the intellect, from the fact that the object of the will occurs in something higher than that in which occurs the object of the intellect. Thus, for instance, I might say that hearing is relatively nobler than sight, inasmuch as something in which there is sound is nobler than something in which there is color, though color is nobler and simpler than sound

[15]R.P Philipps, Modern Thomistic Philosophy : An Explanation for Students Volume 1: The Philosophy of Nature, (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1962) p. 288

[16]Anthony Kenny, Aquinas on Mind,( London: Routledge, 1994) p.73

[17] Modern Thomistic Philosophy, p. 288

[18]ST Q 82 art IV

[19]Leo Elders, The Philosophy of Nature of St. Thomas Aquinas Nature, the Universe, Man,(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1997) p. 328

[20] Here Coppleston writes: “St. Thomas answers that, absolutely speaking, the intellect is the nobler faculty since the intellect through cognition possesses the object, contains it in itself through mental assimilation, whereas the will tends towards the object as external and it is more perfect to posses the perfection of the object in oneself than to tend towards it as existing outside of them….in this way, St. Thomas, while adopting the intellectualist attitude of Aristotle interprets it in a Christian setting. History of Philosophy Volume II, 101-102

[21]Ibid, 328

[22]De Torre,  180 


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