Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rödl on human intellect

On the nature of human intellect, Sebastian Rödl writes:
"Our intellect depends on what it represents; it is dependent on its object's being given to it.  This can be understood in two ways: such that it constitutes the essence of the human intellect, or such that it indicates its deficiency.  In the one case, the human intellect is what it is through its unity with sensibility and therefore essentially finite; in the other case the human intellect is in itself infinite, and finite only insofar as it is limited by its dependence on sensibility.  If understanding and sensibility form an essential unity in man, then human thought is essentially situational.  Conversely, if understanding and sensibility come together in human beings only by accident (so that their unity does not touch what they are), then thought is not essentially related to intuition; and in that case thought is, insofar as it is situational, deficient as thought."
Sebastian Rödl, Categories of the Temporal
(Cambridge: Harvard, 2012), p. 70-71

The idea seems counter-intuitive at first. Dependence upon earthly senses leading to the deficiency of human knowledge seems to be a theologically useful way of understanding our cognitive limitations as creatures.  But in fact, such circumstances would only signal a deficiency if unalloyed human intellect were not originally so constrained - if our intellect looked something more like the divine intellect.  In fact, sensibility does not limit human intellect because to be human is to think within the unity of sensibility and understanding.  That is, to think as finite intellect... creaturely... but not as bound to creaturely sensibility like some kind of chained demigod.

Rödl contrasts this with the divine intellect:
"Thoughts without intuitions are empty: the human, discursive intellect depends on its being given an object through the senses.  Thus it is finite: it is conditioned by what it represents.  This distinguishes it from the divine intellect, Who intuits nothing but Himself.  What He intuits is not given to Him, but is His own act.  The divine intellect is infinite; He is the origin of what He knows and does not depend on it.  Human knowledge is of a different kind from divine knowledge; knowing is something different in Him from what it is in us."  (57)
 This follows Kant, who says,
"[Human sensibility] is derivative (intuitus derivativus), not original (intuitus originarius), and therefore not an intellectual intuition.  [...] such intellectual intuition seems to belong solely to the primordial being, and can never be ascribed to a dependent being, dependent in its existence as well as in its intuition, and which through that intuition determines its existence solely in relation to given objects." (B72)
Rödl offers an interestingly Kantian picture of God.  Kant's use of God in the Critique of Pure Reason has much more of a subjunctive feel to it.  God is there as a usefully posited limit concept that sets the contours of human knowledge in relief, but the primary point is clearly elsewhere than theology.  Commentators might understandably conclude that Kant isn't really even talking about God here, but Rödl takes the God-talk at face value.  He speaks rather plainly of God and is not shy about using capitalized pronouns or even setting up what looks a lot like a hierarchy of being from animal sensibility to human and then divine intellect.  At the same time, Rödl never really strays from the God of Kant's Critique... there is no attempt to sneak God in by overthinking the purport of one of Kant's concepts.  Rödl is more emphatic about the reality of the divine intellect, but as far as I can tell he isn't trying to make something out of Kant's point that isn't already present in Kant.  What impresses me about this is that Rödl's comfort-level in talking about God makes him sound like a theologian, but at the same time he ends up adding less in the way of philosophical overlay to Kant than most any other of the philosophical interpretations on offer.


  1. Will check this out. Just taught Religion within the Bounds for the first time last week, and this would make a nice follow-up to some questions it provoked.

  2. The book is definitely worth reading, but there isn't much in it on the divine intellect... it's interesting, though, what use Rödl makes of theological claims when they do come up. For the most part, he is concerned with laying out a logical form for temporal thought along Kantian lines. This also leads to a few comments about the divine intellect being "timeless". Again - some surprisingly traditional ideas showing up for a new constructive project like this.