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Intelligibel (from the Latin intelligibilis "spiritually comprehensible, recognizable", from intelligere "recognizing") describes as an adjective of the philosophical technical language those objects that can only be grasped through the mind or intellect because they are not accessible to sensory perception . The corresponding property is called “intelligibility”. The totality of all intelligible objects is called “the intelligible” or “the intelligible world”. In philosophical systems, which, in the sense of the Platonic doctrine of ideas, ascribe such objects ( phenomena ) an existence independent of the individual things that can be perceived by the senses, the intelligible world is understood as an objective reality ontologically superordinate to the sensory world .

Ancient and Middle Ages

The term first appears in Greek philosophy . The adjective noētós (noetic) is derived from the Greek noun nous (“spirit”, “reason”, “intellect”, Latin intellectus ), which is rendered in Latin as intelligibilis . “Noetic” or “intelligible” means “(only) intellectually recognizable”, “(only) accessible to the intellect”, “of a purely spiritual nature”, “nonsensual”.

The pre-Socratic Parmenides (6th – 5th centuries BC) was convinced that there was an essential relationship between being and thinking. He believed that thinking is a grasping of being, outside of which there is nothing. Everything thinkable must also be, since otherwise it could not be thought, and everything being is by nature accessible to thinking, because thinking as encountering beings is itself something being and therefore the entire world of beings is open to it. Thus, in Parmenides' philosophy, being as such necessarily exhibits intelligibility.

Plato took up the ideas of Parmenides in his theory of ideas and introduced the concept of the intelligible (to noētón) into philosophical terminology . He distinguished between the unchangeable being of ideas (archetypes) and the realm of the changeable, of the arising and the passing away, which he equated with the world of the individual sense objects. In the individual objects that are perceived as such through the senses, he saw images of eternal ideas. Accordingly, the being of a sense object is based on its participation in the being of the idea that is represented by this object. The idea is indeed present as a prototype in the image, but as an intelligible entity in its independent existence it can only be grasped by the thinking mind. The fact that the intelligible world is accessible to thinking results from the fact that it is the same authority which gives the knowable the being and the knowable and the knower the cognitive ability. For Plato this authority is the idea of ​​the good . What knows and what is known are of the same nature due to their common origin.

Another view of the intelligible was represented by Plato's pupil Aristotle , who rejected the independent existence of ideas and therefore determined the relationship between knower and known differently than his teacher (without recourse to transcendence ). According to his teaching, everything that exists has an intelligible form (noētón eídos) , which represents a principle that can be grasped by thinking. Thought grasps the intelligible general that is present in the sense objects, in that the thinking spiritual soul (psychḗ noētikḗ) assimilates itself to the object to which it turns. The spirit (nous) or the spirit soul is possibly all things; when this possibility (potency) in relation to a certain thing is converted into reality ( act ), the knowledge of this thing takes place. This is what makes things intelligible.

In the ontology of Neoplatonism , the Platonic doctrine of the hierarchical structure of total reality was emphasized and expanded. The main aspect was the sharp separation between the intelligible and the sensually perceptible area. Plotinus , the founder of Neoplatonism, conceived the nous as an absolute, transcendent, supra-individual authority. For him the nous was an objective reality, a world of thought that existed independently of the individual thinking beings, to which the individual thinking individuals have access. The individual turned towards this objective reality does not produce "own" thoughts, but thinks by taking hold of its contents through his participation in the realm of the spirit. Thinking as the recognition of noetic contents consists in the fact that the thinking contents are grasped in their existence in and for themselves as platonic ideas. This does not mean a discursive inference, but a direct spiritual grasping of what is thought. What is thought is neither a product of the thinking subject, nor something produced by the objective universal nous and thus subordinate to it. Rather, it cannot be found anywhere else than in the nous itself, in the world of thought that the thinker enters. The objects of thought are the contents of the nous, which consists of nothing other than the totality of the intelligible.

In addition to sensually perceivable matter, Plotinus also assumed intelligible matter, as did Aristotle, because he assumed that purely spiritual things that are not connected to any physical matter also need a material substrate. For Plotinus, the different forms of the content of the nous presuppose that there is something shaped as well as a formative authority. What is formed is an intelligible matter common to all forms. Like the physical, it does not occur in an unshaped state, but in contrast to it - like everything spiritual - it is not subject to any changes.

The late antique church father Augustine shared the conviction of the Platonists that the intelligible should be given preference over the sensually perceptible. He took up the Neoplatonic concept of the "intelligible world". In addition to God and his aspects (including “intelligible beauty”), he included the spiritual part of creation in this world. Among the intelligible things he emphasized the form principles (rationes) of visible objects contained in God's wisdom . Like Plotinus, Augustine assumed that the intelligible world is formed from intelligible matter.

In the early 6th century, the philosopher Boethius made a distinction between the intelligible (intelligibile) and the "intellectual" (intellectibile) . To the latter he counted the divine as well as all immaterial nature, with which theology is concerned, to the intelligible the abstractions achieved by thinking that are the subject of mathematics.

In medieval metaphysics , which was initially primarily characterized by Neo-Platonic and later increasingly by Aristotelian ideas, the concept of the intelligible played an important role, especially in the epoch of scholasticism . It was particularly about the species intelligibilis (intelligible form), the mental representation of the general essence of a perceived thing obtained through abstraction in accordance with the intelligible being (in contrast to the individual peculiarity of the individual sense object and its mental correlate, the phantasm). The species intelligibilis was still a subject of epistemological studies in the 16th century .

Modern times

Immanuel Kant uses the expression "intelligible world". He differentiates the contents of this world, the intelligible objects, from the "intellectually" knowable:

For the cognitions through the understanding are intellectual, and the like also apply to our sensory world; But objects are called intelligible insofar as they can only be imagined by the understanding and to which none of our sensory perceptions can refer .

According to Kant, intelligible objects ( noumena ) are those that have no relation to sensual perception . They would - if at all - only be accessible to a non-sensual intellectual outlook . In Kant's opinion, however, this is denied to man because he necessarily needs sensual intuition for knowledge. The intelligible objects "inherently" unknowable, unattainable for theoretical reason, are only relevant for humans insofar as practical reason needs them as a mental aid for its activity. With this, Kant inverts the original meaning of “intelligible” (recognizable) into the opposite; with him the “intelligible” is the unknowable.


  • Werner Beierwaltes : Intelligibel, the intelligible, intelligibility . In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Volume 4, Schwabe, Basel 1976, Sp. 463-465.
  • Angelica Nuzzo: Intelligibel / Intelligible, that . In: Hans Jörg Sandkühler (Ed.): Enzyklopädie Philosophie , Volume 2, Felix Meiner, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-7873-1999-2 , pp. 1126-1129 (contains a number of translation errors).
  • Joachim Ritter : Mundus intelligibilis. An investigation into the inclusion and transformation of the Neoplatonic ontology in Augustine. 2nd edition, Klostermann, Frankfurt a. M. 2002, ISBN 3-465-03180-6 (unchanged reprint of the first edition from 1937).
  • Leen Spruit: Species intelligibilis. From perception to knowledge . 2 volumes, Brill, Leiden 1994-5.
  • Wilhelm Teichner: The intelligible world. A problem of the theoretical and practical philosophy of I. Kant . Anton Hain, Meisenheim am Glan 1967.

Web links

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


  1. Plato, Politeia 508d-509b; see Werner Beierwaltes: Intelligibel, das Intelligible, intelligibility . In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Volume 4, Basel 1976, Sp. 463–465, here: 464.
  2. On Plotin's spiritual metaphysics, see the summary by Jens Halfwassen : Plotin and the Neo-Platonism , Munich 2004, pp. 59–97.
  3. See Christian Pietsch : Intellegibilis (intellegibilia) . In: Cornelius Mayer (Ed.): Augustinus-Lexikon , Volume 3, Basel 2010, Sp. 659–661.
  4. Sascha Salatowsky: De Anima , Amsterdam 2006, pp. 222–232.
  5. Immanuel Kant: Prolegomena § 34 (note).