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The intellect (from the Latin intellectus , 'knowledge', 'insight', 'understanding') is a philosophical term. It denotes the ability to grasp something spiritually and the authority in humans that is responsible for cognition and thinking . “Intellect” is often used as a synonym for “ understanding ”, but it can also mean “ reason ”, “ consciousness ” or “ spirit ”.

Concept history

In ancient times , the noun intellectus , derived from the verb intellegere (“to know”, “to understand”) , was used in Roman philosophy to translate the Greek term nous . The nous played an important role in Greek philosophy, especially with Plato and Aristotle and in the philosophical schools they founded ( Platonic Academy , Peripatos ). Cicero did not call the nous intellectus , but used other expressions such as animus , mens , ratio and ingenium , but Seneca and other authors of the Roman Empire were familiar with the term intellectus . In the late antiquity used Boethius intellect as a philosophical technical term. In the works of the Church Father Augustine , intellectus appears in the meaning of "reasonable insight" and is usually synonymous with ratio ("reflection", "thinking ability", "reason", "insight"). The use of language by Augustine and Boethius was groundbreaking for the subsequent period, as these authors were high-ranking authorities in the Middle Ages.

In the scholastic philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages, intellectus was a central term that was mainly shaped by Aristotle's concept of nous. According to the Aristotelian concept, medieval scholars made a distinction between the intellectus agens , the “active” or “effecting” or active intellect, and the intellectus possibilis , the “possible intellect”, which Aristotle called the “suffering nous” (nous pathētikós) because he is passive and can only experience influences. According to a false medieval etymology , which was spread by authors such as Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart , intellegere and intellectus are derived from intus legere ("read inside"). Thomas understands this to mean grasping the “inside” of a thing that is not accessible to the senses. For Meister Eckhart, intellectus means an inner apprehension of something in a double sense: internally in the intellect and internally in the principles of the object of knowledge.

In German, the word was taken over from Latin as a foreign word and became commonplace from the beginning of the 19th century. In 1797 Herder still used the Latin form (The pure Intellectus) , in Goethe the word was already Germanized (Intellect) . The associated adjective intellectual ("spiritual") was already in use in the late 18th century; it was taken from French (intellectuel) .

See also


  • Reinhard Romberg: Intellect . In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Volume 4, Schwabe, Basel 1976, Sp. 435–438.
  • Mildred Galland-Szymkowiak: intellect . In: Hans Jörg Sandkühler (Ed.): Encyclopedia Philosophy , Volume 2, Felix Meiner, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-7873-1999-2 , pp. 1115-1118.
  • Herbert A. Davidson: Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect: Their cosmologies, theories of the active intellect, and theories of human intellect. New York / Oxford 1992.

Web links

Wiktionary: intellect  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Albert Zimmermann : Faith and Knowledge . In: Andreas Speer (ed.): Thomas von Aquin: Die Summa theologiae. Werkinterpretationen , Berlin 2005, pp. 271–297, here: 289.
  2. Udo Kern: “God's being is my life” , Berlin 2003, p. 47.
  3. ^ Hans Schulz: German Foreign Dictionary , Volume 1, Strasbourg 1913, p. 300.