Potency Higher than

One of the few original passages in AP that can be compared to Th.A II.46-52 in terms of its complexity and length is Th.A VIII.52-68, a discussion of potency in the intellectual world. Although these two passages are far separated in the text of Th.A, a closer inspection of the text shows that they may be closely related. For the long section in mimar VIII is not, in fact, entirely independent from the Greek. Rather, it is a sort of commentary on a section of Enn IV.4, in fact on the section immediately following that paraphrased in the passage from mimar II. In other words, these two long "independent" passages would together represent an uninterrupted commentary on Enn IV.4.4-5. (I call them a "commentary" because their relation to the Greek is too loose to really make them a "paraphrase.") We may add into consideration the fact that Th.A VIII.52ff is without doubt a loose fragment from the original Arabic Plotinus source, since it begins in several manuscripts with the heading "This is a chapter (bab) for which no heading was found in the copy."6 Further, as I will show below, the philosophical themes pursued in the two original passages have certain important affinities. All of this suggests that this portion of mimar VIII may well have been originally attached to the material found in mimar II.

Just as the passage we have examined above argued that, in the intellect, there is an ignorance superior to knowledge, the passage in mimar VIII contends that the intellect has a potency superior to act. This notion seems to have been inspired by the parallel text in Greek:

Enn IV.4.4-5: But if [the soul], when it goes away from the [higher] place, recovers its memories, somehow it had them there. Indeed: in potency (dunamei). But the actuality (energeia) of those [intellectual things] obscured the memory. For [the memories] were not as present images (keimenoi tupoi), such as would perhaps lead to an absurd consequence, but rather there was the potency which was later set free into actuality. Thus, with the actuality in the noetic ceasing to be active, the soul saw that which it had formerly been seeing, before it came to be there.

Well then? Now does this potency, through which there is remembering, bring [the things of the higher world] into actuality? Indeed, if we did not see these things, then by memory, but if [we did see] them, then we saw by what was there. For this is awakened by what awakens it, and this is the seeing of what we have mentioned. For, when describing

[the higher world], one must not use an image or a syllogism taking its principles from somewhere else; but, regarding noetic things, even here one speaks by the same power (dunamin) which can contemplate them there.

Here Plotinus is trying to explain how the soul could have had "memories" in the noetic world without actually remembering the way it does when it has fallen into bodies. He suggests that, when it is in contact with nous, the soul only has these memories in potency, but they are released into act when the soul falls. This in itself suggests a sense in which act could be worse than potency, insofar as the actualization of memory is an actualizing that only occurs with the fall of the soul. There may also have been some confusion on the Adaptor's part owing to the double meaning of dunamis, which can mean both "power" and "potency." (Indeed, the corresponding Arabic term quwa has precisely the same double meaning.) Though clearly the first use of dunamis here means potency as opposed to actuality, the second use in the last sentence refers only to a power or capacity which the soul always has and can use to know the intelligibles. This could also have suggested to the Adaptor that the soul's task is to recover or use the "potency"—the dunamis—which it had in the upper world.

All of this was the occasion for the Adaptor to provide us with a systematic discussion of potency and act. He begins the passage by remarking:

Th.A VIII.52-3 [B 99-100]: We say: act '^'^is more excellent than potency (quwa) in this world. But in the higher world, potency is more excellent than act, and this is because the potency which is in the intellectual substances is that which has no need for act [going] from one thing to another thing other than itself. For they are complete and perfect, perceiving (tudriku) the spiritual things as vision is aware of the sensible things. Potency there is like vision here, but in the sensible world, [potency] needs to come into act and to perceive the sensible things. The cause of that is the shells of the substances, which they put on in this world. This is because they cannot achieve the substances and powers (quwan) of the things except by piercing the shells, and for this they need act. When the substances are stripped and the powers are revealed, then potency is sufficient in itself, and does not need act to perceive the substances.

Here the Adaptor distinguishes between two ways of understanding potency. In the "higher" world, perception occurs without moving "from one thing to another," that is, perception is completed all at once without any discursivity. Thus he compares it to vision, which can take in its entire object all at once. Because there is no change from potency to act, the Adaptor holds that perception occurs without any actualization: potency just is perception.7 Of course this description of intellection is completely Plotinian, including the comparison of noesis to vision; the Adaptor is merely describing Plotinus' theory of intellection in a new way, by calling it a sort of potency. In this lower world, perception does require going through steps or stages, and it is this motion or discursivity that requires an actualization of potency. These same points are underscored in the passage as it continues:

Th.AVIII.54 [B 100]: If this is the case, we return and say that the soul, when it is in the intellectual place, only sees itself and the thing which are there through its potency, because the things which are there are simple, and the simple is perceived only by what is simple like it. But when it is in this sensible place, it does not attain what is there except through severe exertion, due to the multiplicity of the shells which it has put on. And exertion is act, and act is composite (murakkah), and the composite does not truly perceive the simple things.

The same reasoning is expressed somewhat differently here, as the Adaptor emphasizes the "simplicity" of what perceives through potency, and the "composite" nature of anything that needs to go from potency to act. The tacit argument for this would seem to be as follows: whatever needs to go from potency to act has multiplicity, because the very process of actualization is a change from one thing to another. But what can perceive through potency undergoes no process or change at all in its perception, because its initial and permanent state is one of complete perception. Again, this seems to be a doctrine Plotinus could agree to, especially with its emphasis on bodies, or "shells," as inextricably linked to multiplicity in perception.

As the passage continues, the Adaptor introduces further distinctions between potency in its higher manifestation, which grasps all at once, and the lower potency which requires act. At VIII.55, he underscores the point that it is only actualization that accounts for this difference: "the act fills the potency in the sensible world, and prevents it from perceiving what it had perceived." And in the next sentence, he explains why a potency which receives act is different from one that does not:

Th.A VIII.56 [B 100]: If someone says that when the perceiver perceives something through potency and then perceives it through act, this [latter form of perception] is more fixed and powerful, because act is completion (tamam)—we say, indeed, if the perception has perceived the thing through receiving its impression. [In that case] the potency is as if it receives and inscribes the impression of the thing, and the act completes this impression. Then the act is the completion of the potency.

Here, the Adaptor presents a possible objection to his own theory: act is the perfection or "completion" of potency, and a potency will thus be superior when it does receive act. Note that this is an objection posed in Aristotelian terms, with its emphasis on the perfective role of actuality. The language used to describe this, tamam, also echoes this sensibility, since the same word is used in Arabic translations of Aristotle in al-Kindi's circle to describe actualization.8 In answering the objection, the Adaptor is careful to show that, in a sense, Aristotle's analysis of potency and act is correct. For a "lower" potency is indeed actualized by receiving an "impression" (athar) from what it perceives.9 But the "higher" potency does not need to receive such an impression, for reasons detailed above, so that there is a sort of potency not described by Aristotle's analysis. While this passage, and the way I have just described it, might suggest that these two different potencies are simply different phenomena, the Adaptor is clear throughout this long independent section that he is talking about one potency which works differently in the two worlds. Thus, at VIII.66 he says that "the soul comes to see what is here through the potency through which it saw them there." In VIII.64-66, he also describes our coming to know the noetic world as a "raising" of our potency to the higher plane, where it need no longer receive actualization or impressions.

The relevance of all this for the theme of learned ignorance becomes more clear when we examine another element of the Adaptor's theory of potency. He says:

Th.A VIII.59-60 [B 100-1]: When the soul refrains from using act in the intellectual things and does not need thought in [its] perception of that world, that potency returns to it, or rather awakens, because it was not separate from the soul, and the soul sees the things which it saw before it came to this world without needing reflection or thought. If [the soul] does not need reflection, it does not need act. This is because the act either is in the thing reflecting or in the natural thing. As for the fixed potency, it is in the substances which become aware of the things properly, without reflection or thought, and this is because they view the things visually.

Here, the Adaptor specifies the sort of discursivity which is lacking in the higher manifestation of potency. At this level, perception can occur without "reflection or thought." This redundant phrase, rawiyya wa fikr, occurs many times in AP, usually in contexts where the Adaptor is denying that God thinks. But in this passage the point is, again, a Plotinian one: the soul can rise above discursive thought if it ascends to the level of intellect, and attain a sort of intellection which is comparable to immediate vision. Here we have, then, another description of a transcendent form of perception, one which is described negatively (potency, instead of ignorance) because it lacks what is required in lower perception (act, instead of "knowledge"). Yet there remains something surprising about the Adaptor's use of the terminology of act and potency to describe this fundamentally Plotinian conception of an intellection which lacks discursivity. For in fact, Plotinus himself is apt to describe the same phenomenon as a pure actuality, as in another treatise on nous: "for the noetic is some actuality (energeia), since it is manifestly not a potency (dunamis)" (Enn V.3.5). This is of course connected to Plotinus' view that the God described by Aristotle, the pure actuality of thought thinking itself, can only be the second principle because of its duality as thought and thinker. While we may not have expected that the Adaptor would grasp this historical dimension of Plotinus' thought, it should have been abundantly clear to him that, for the author of his source text, the intellect is associated primarily with act, and not potency.

The puzzle deepens when we turn away from the passage from rmmar VIII we have been studying, and look at other passages in which the Adaptor seems to follow a more traditionally Plotinian line of thought about potency and act. For example, compare:

Th.A VIII. 106-7 [B 109]: If [the soul] is intellectual, its intellect is only through thought and reflection, because it is an acquired intellect. The intellect is that which completes the soul, because it is that which procreated it. We say that the person the soul is from intellect, and the reasoning '-""''l 'existing in act10 belongs only to the intellect, not to the thing falling under vision.

Enn V.1.3: Being, then, from intellect, [the soul] is noetic (noera), and its intellect is in reasonings (logismois), and again, its perfection (teleiosis) is from [intellect], as the father raises [a son] he procreated, who is imperfect (ou teleion) in comparison to himself. Then the hypostasis [of the soul] is from intellect, and its reason (logos) is in actuality by its seeing intellect. For when it looks into intellect, it has within and belonging to it that which it thinks and acts.

Here the Adaptor follows Plotinus in saying that the intellect is in act, and also by saying that the intellect is what "completes" the soul; recall that we previously saw that completion was associated with the actualization that takes place in the lower world. How can we reconcile such passages with the doctrine of a potency higher than act?11 One possible answer is to focus on the fact that, as mentioned above, the word quwa we have translated throughout as "potency" can also mean "power." This makes possible passages like the following, which exploits the double meaning of quwa:

DS 147-8 [B 177]: We must know that the First Cause originates the things without division, that is, it does not originate them one after another, but it originates them all at once, as if they were one thing. The reason for this is that the second cause is an act, and the first cause is a capacity (qudra). The actuality does not happen except in a divided way, that is, it only performs a divided act. As for the capacity (al-qudra), it is the power (al-quwa) which is able (taqwayu) to originate all the things at once, as if they were one thing.12

Enn V.3.15: But [The One] had [all things] such that they were not divided. They are divided in the second, in the logos. For this is already actuality, but the [One] is the potency (dunamis) of all things.

This passage has an important implication, namely that the Adaptor may sometimes use the words "potency" and "act" relatively. By this I mean that he may call the source of any "actuality" a "potency," as here the One is described as a power or potency because it produces the "act" that is intellect. The same terminology is elsewhere applied the same way to intellect and soul, and their respective effects:

DS 12 [B 168]: The intellect is the form for soul, and is that which informs [soul] through the various forms, just as the soul informs the bodies with various forms. Likewise for the intellect: God has put the potency of the totality of the forms in it.

DS 17: Therefore, it is impossible, if one thing is in another thing in potency, that the principles for living things are in the soul. This is because the things which go out from [the soul] are in it first in potency, and therefore they manifest in actuality.

All this suggests that the Adaptor's apparently technical use of the words "potency" and "act" is actually rather fluid and contextual. He will describe intellect variously as in potency or in act, because with respect to something below it, it is in potency in the sense that it is the "power" which produces that thing. Thus his insistence that intellection is a form of potency is primarily intended to point out that it is different from lower perception: it is simple, immediate, and involves no discursive thought. This use of terminology is exactly parallel to the use of the term "ignorance" to describe the knowledge of the intellect. One could loosely say that both cases fall under the description of a via negativa: the Adaptor attributes some lack or deprivation to the intellect (ignorance, potency) to illustrate that it transcends the things we normally associate with the respective positive term (knowledge, act). In neither case does he mean that the intellect lacks these positive terms in the sense of a defect; rather, it possesses knowledge and act in a higher way, a way so transcendent that we can describe, for example, the knowledge of intellect as a sort of ignorance.

This strategy is most important when it is applied to the highest, most transcendent principle: God. The close connection between the issues we have discussed in this section and those to be pursued in relation to the First are underscored in the following paraphrase:

DS 123-5 [B 175]: If someone asks: if you make it so that the First Knower does not know, you make Him such that He does not sense either, and from this follows what is repugnant. We say: we only say that He does not know, not because He is ignorant, which is the opposite of knowledge, but [instead] we mean that He is above knowledge at-'itm

This is because there is no knowing (^¿Mexcepl when there is a knowledge and an object of knowledge, and there is no intellecting

IIii iiq,! iexcept when there is an intellect and an object of intellect, so there is multiplicity with respect to this. But we have said that He does not receive multiplicity in any respect.

Enn V.3.14: For we make it many by making it known and knowing (gnoston kai gnosin), and giving intellection (noein) to it, we make it have need of the intellection.

This is one of two passages in AP which explicitly says that God "does not know" because His knowledge is higher than knowledge.13 Though the doctrine is here applied to God instead of intellect, it is applied with the same logic: the Adaptor does not mean that God lacks knowledge, but that His knowledge is of a different, higher sort than that of the intellect. In this case, God does "not know" if this is taken to imply some sort of multiplicity, such as that between the knower and known. Of course, Plotinus makes the same argument but draws the more radical conclusion, in the parallel passage, that the One does not have any knowledge or intellection of any sort. The Adaptor has supplied us with a hint as to why he did not follow Plotinus' doctrine fully, but instead resorted to the notion of learned ignorance. For he says that if the First does not think or perceive what is below Him, "from this follows what is repugnant." Quite likely the repugnant result he has in mind is that Providence would be impossible, which is unacceptable given the religious context of AP (either Syriac Christian or Muslim). Of course, the same problem would exercise later writers in Islamic philosophy. This passage is then a foreshadowing of Ibn Sina's attempts to explain how Providence is possible if God does not know particulars, and of al-Ghazali's attack on these attempts in the eleventh discussion of his Tahafut al-Falasifa.14

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