Notes to Chapter 3 of Zabarella’s De Mente Agente

Main topics covered: Aristotle’s theory of vision, intromission and extromission theories of vision, the relationship between perception and the intellect, the signification of the term “habitus”/hexis, hexis in relation to ethics, the relationship between the intellect as a hexis as a “maker” and as a “form,” efficient causality and the intellect, Aquinas and species as moving causes of intellection.

Note 1:  The term “motiva” might well seem to come in oddly here and it might even be wondered whether this is a reference to the extramission theory of vision that was widely accepted during the renaissance, since the analogy clearly pertains to the conditions necessary for sight (for two sources on the history of theories of vision, see below). However, Zabarella discusses the Aristotelian explanation of vision in terms of movement following Aristotle’s text, the main points of which are to be found in De Anima II.7 at 418b1:

Every color has in it the power to set in movement what is actually transparent;

at 419a9-10:

At present it is obvious that what is seen in light is always colour. That is why without the help of light colour remains invisible. Its being color at all means precisely its having in it the power to set in movement what is actually transparent, and the actuality of what is transparent is just light.

and again at 419a13-15:

Color sets in movement what is transparent, e.g. the air, and that, extending continuously from the object of the organ, sets the latter in movement. (1)

These three texts provide us with the basics of Aristotle’s theory of vision, according to which the color of an object acts upon an illuminated medium (i.e. the otherwise unoccupied translucent field of air between the eye and the visible object) to effect a change in the sense organs, which it accomplishes by means of a movement it produces within the medium.  Finding the eye to contain a watery substance, Aristotle thought that the water in the eye was susceptible of carrying the movement produced by the color of an object, so that it, in turn, produced sight within the eye (cf. De Sensu et Sensibilia, 438b where Aristotle makes explicit that the eye is capable of admitting light and that the eye is the proper site of the conjunction of the power of vision with what it seen-something that according to the Platonic extromissionist theory, required the emission of light outside the organ of the eye itself).

In line with the Aristotelian view, when commenting on the first quoted text above, Zabarella writes that the illuminated medium of vision is that “per quod fit actio obiecti in sensum hoc enim erit progredi ab obiecto ad operationem” (in Textus 68, page 119 (pdf pp. 336ff.)). Here the medium might be thought of as a necessary condition for action on the senses to take place and for them to be made active. Later in commenting on the same text, he writes that a property of color is that it is able to set a transparent medium in motion. Interestingly, he goes on to say that the precise way in which it causes this motion is by imprinting its “species,” its (potentially visible) form upon the medium of vision:

Movere autem perpsicuum nil aliud eft, quam imprimere in eo speciem suam, quae est alteratio perspectiva, de qua in praecedentibus dictum eft

Zabarella’s commentary therefore follows closely the Aristotelian version of the intromissionist theory  of vision, according to which the “eidos” (image, idea, form) of an image is transfered to the eye itself.

Attention to the elements in this theory (agent, patient, object) helps to clarify the way in which sight is analogous to thought and is Zabarella’s main preoccupation here.  The analogy is directly applicable to De Anima III.4, where Aristotle, in comparing the mind to the sense organs, says that it must be  capable of receiving the form of an object, so that it is potentially identical to its object without being its object (cf. 429a15-17):

ἀπαθὲς ἄρα δεῖ εἶναι, δεκτικὸν δὲ τοῦ εἴδους καὶ δυνάμει τοιοῦτον ἀλλὰ μὴ τοῦτο, καὶ ὁμοίως ἔχειν, ὥσπερ τὸ αἰσθητικὸν πρὸς τὰ αἰσθητά, οὕτω τὸν νοῦν πρὸς τὰ νοητά. (See the tlg for an online greek text)

I translate:

[The potential intellect] “Must be impassive, but receptive of the form and potentially such [i.e. as the form] while not becoming the former and to be of such a nature that, just as the sense organs are related to what is sensible, so the intellect is related to what is intelligible.”

In the text that follows, Zabarella distinguishes the role the agent intellect plays in the process of making potentially intelligible objects actually intelligible. His primary claim here is that, while it may be considered an agent, its action upon potentially intelligible objects is such that it involves the contribution of a form-light-that makes them actually intelligible.

(1) These are translated by J.A. Smith, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, vol.1, Bollingen: 1995, pp. 666-667.

Note 2: Zabarella is here referring to De Anima III.5 430a15, where Aristotle writes that the agent intellect that makes all things is kind of “disposition,” like light:

καὶ ἔστιν  μὲν τοιοῦτος νοῦς τῷ πάντα
γίνεσθαι δὲ τῷ πάντα ποιεῖνὡς ἕξις τιςοἷον τὸ φῶς·

The term habitus translates into Latin the Greek term ἕξις.  One difference between the two is that “ἕξις” is a substantive formed from the future tense of the verb “to have,” (thus “will have”) whereas habitus is a substantive apparently coined by Aristotle’s Latin translators directly from the past participle of the verb “to have, hold” (thus “has had”)  and has “clothing” or “garment” one puts on as a synonyms, whence we get the word “habit.” Thus, in Greek it signifies a “will have” and something one “has obtained” or “holds” or perhaps metaphorically, “puts on” in the Latin. In either case, in ethical contexts, the term ordinarily conveys the idea of an disposition to act in a certain way that is not easily acquired and that is kind of addition to one’s given nature. Aristotle commonly uses the term διάθεσις as a synonym (cf. for example Metaphysics V.20 where Aristotle discusses the definition of ἕξις), which can be analyzed morphologically into the notion of “directedness to an end” (διά) and a “placing,” “setting down,” or “positioning,” thus conveying the idea of an orientation to something.

In the context of Aristotelian ethics, the term fits neatly into the framework of character development as a fulfillment of one’s nature. For this reason, some have taken issue with “habit” as a translation in such contexts, since it does not adequately distinguish between the kind of “habit” (if the term fits at all) that is acquired by accident and one that is established deliberately in the attempt to attain some particular kind of excellence (See, for example, J.J. Glanville’s discussion of the term in The Material Logic of John of St. Thomas, p. 611, note 5, pdf page 641).  In the present context, a habitus refers not to an acquired, but to an innate disposition, however, making “disposition,” or perhaps even “faculty” or “power” better choices.

But the term can also be used more broadly to indicate the polar opposite of a privation (cf. Metaphysics, Book 10.4, 1055a33, whether referring to a natural state or to an acquired one.  In Categories 12a36, Aristotle uses the term to describe the possession as opposed to the privation of sight. There may be a sense in which the semantic richness of the term can be brought out with reference to the contrast between the potential and agent intellect in this respect: one represents the possession of a disposition toward a certain kind of activity, whereas the other represents its polar opposite: a privation of any ability to actualize knowledge on its own.  Furthermore, in the soul as a whole, the agent intellect is a habitus in the sense of being a disposition like sight, but also represents a natural ability that is the basis for further acquired abilities that lead to excellence.  In this sense it is a natural disposition such as the hand naturally has, to make things, being its intellectual counterpart, as Aristotle writes in De Anima III.8, 432a1-2,

ὥστε ἡ ψυχὴ ὥσπερ ἡ χείρ ἐστιν· καὶ γὰρ ἡ χεὶρ ὄργανόν ἐστιν ὀργάνων, καὶ ὁ νοῦς εἶδος εἰδῶν καὶ ἡ αἴσθησις εἶδος αἰσθητῶν.

“So that the soul is like the hand: for even as the hand is the tool of tools, so too the intellect is the form of forms and perception is the form of  perceptions”

(My trans.)

Extending this consideration to the ethical realm, it is a possession of the soul that, in making all things, is of even more fundamental importance than the hand, as that without which wisdom, practical or otherwise, could not be acquired.


*The Greek texts quoted from the de Anima and Metaphysics here are taken from Ross’s critical editions, while the Categories quotes from the 1949 Oxford edition of Aristotle’s works.

L. Minio-Paluello, Aristotelis categoriae et liber de interpretatione, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949 (repr. 1966): 3-45 (1a1-15b32).

W.D. Ross, Aristotle. De anima, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961 (repr. 1967)

W.D. Ross, Aristotle’s metaphysics, 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924 (repr. 1970 [of 1953 corr. edn.]): 1:980a21-1028a6; 2:1028a10-1093b29.

Note 3: In his treatise, De Speciebus Intelligibilibus (see pdf p.730), Zabarella attributes the view that species impressa, i.e. the forms of things that have been “impressed” upon the intellect in the same way that visual forms affect the eye, act as an efficient, motive cause of intellectual activity (sp. apprehending the “forms” of things) to Aquinas and Zimara, who he says followed him in his opinion on the issue:

sic igitur species intelligibilis impressa in intellectu est ratio formalis, qua intellectus operatur.; non operatur autem, nisi a phantasmate moueatur, ideo phantasma lo- cum habet obiecti mouentis

sed opinionem Thomae sequi videtur Zimara in theoremate. 82. vbi afferit fpeciem in intellectu impressam esse principium effectivum intellectionis, hoc eft rationem formalem, qua intellectus, qui possiblis dicitur , est intellectionis productivus .

For Aquinas, he references Commentary on the De Anima, Book III, Commentary 8 and the Summa Theologiae, I,85 as textual sources.

Thus, Zabarella distinguishes the causal role of the agent intellect from that of the object of thought, which might be supposed to move one to think. In fact, it acts upon the object in such a way that, according to the analogy, it brings to it the form of light, a “perfection” of the colors themselves, making potentially visible colors into actually visible (i.e. intelligible). Such a light would not thereby alter the nature of such colors, but make them actually visible inasmuch as they are already potentially visible (Aristotle says that it is specifically being colored that makes objects visible, with light as a further necessary cause-see references to note 1 above).


See pdf pg. 730 or pp. 686-7 of Zabarella’s De Speciebus Intelligibilibus  in the collection, De Rebus Naturalibus,  Venice: 1590.

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