Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ratio and Intellectus

Someone has asked me to explain the difference between ratio and intellectus. Very roughly, ratio might be seen as knowing with your "left brain," and intellectus could be considered to be knowing with your "right brain,"  though currently neuroscience shows there is no physiological basis for that distinction.  Yet for centuries humans have experienced this difference.

Here's how the great classicist and Thomist Josef Pieper explains it in his masterful Leisure, the Basis of Culture:

The middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding insofar as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man's knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.

Ratio is discursive reason: induction and deduction. Modernists hold it to be the only valid kind of knowing.
1. is organized by concepts, propositions, arguments
2. Claims can be demonstrated logically; reasons can be given to defend them
3. Is public, indirect/sequential (discursive; step-by-step, chronological--chronos.)
4. Takes effort on the part of the knower to compare, examine, relate, distinguish.
5. The knower is "aggressive," "acting on" the thing known. and using that knowledge for other purposes, not for the sake of the thing itself.
6. Think "logical" Mr. Spock in the early Star Trek movies.
Intellectus is contemplation. Postmodernists, increasingly disenchanted with "logic" and "systems" are drawn to this kind of knowing.
1. Is a type of knowing which is not sequential, but all-at-once and therefore "timeless" (kairos.)
2. is direct/immediate and private/personal
3. is given, not earned; in-spired, not induced. The knower is passive, receptive.
4. Medievals saw it as the highest form of knowledge, more typical of the way God and the angels know, than of men; nevertheless, insofar as man is spiritual, he has the ability to know in a super-human, divine way.
5. Focuses on real things, which are both spiritual and material.
6. Contemplation, meditation, visions;
7. Intellectus is the way Paul knew some things…for example,

2 Cor. 12:1-4
“Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell…”

I Cor. 14: 1-2, 18-19
“Follow the way of love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed no one understands him, he utters mysteries with his spirit… I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words ito instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue."

I explain ratio and intellectus to my Intro class by presenting them a live rose. I ask, "How can I know this rose?"

First, I recognize it as "rose," and not as "peanut" or "shoe."
That doesn't take any effort on my part; I abstract the form of rose in an immediate intuition.

But then I can know the rose qua rose. That is, I can let it act on me, receiving its shape and scent and color in a timeless moment of contemplation. I am passive before it, receiving it "into me" as a "gift" worthy of praise, thanksgiving or imitation. That is to know it by intellectus.

"But I can also act on the rose; I can analyze it. I count the number of leaves and thorns; describe the shape and color. (I pull off the petals, one by one, and let them fall into a pile.) I can determine the number of petals. I can classify this rose as Damask or Noisette or Hybrid tea or polyantha or ? I can breed new roses by removing all the petals and stamens of this rose and introducing the pollen of another rose. I can use rose hips to make a tea high in vitamin C. This is to know it by ratio."

The danger of our time is to live in the wake of the either-or, and to EITHER insist with the moderns that knowledge is ratio, OR insist with the postmoderns that it is NOT ratio, and therefore intellectus. As a premodernist, I affirm both-ands. It is proper for angels to know only by intellectus; it is proper for computers to know only by ratio; but we have been made "a little lower than the angels." We exist in time and space, and yet we are able to transcend time and space. Thus, human beings alone have the ability to know both through ratio and intellectus.


Anonymous said...

Well, according to a very "ratio" type test (aren't they all?), yours truly is 67% intellectio and 33% ratio (says the 67%, "How in tarnation can either of them be 'measured,' seeing that they're not empirical entities?!?!?"), but before I read this entire post, having only glanced at the lists, I thought, "I use both faculties!" So I'm glad to see that understanding does indeed involve both.

And not only that, but your rose petal colors tie in with my comment (in the email) about the relationship between orange and red.


[Totally unrelated footnote: the comment "password" for this entry of mine is "unsuff." Inveterate wordplay-brain here wonders if "unsuff" refers to a magical process whereby we can erase all memories and effects of previous suffering---or perhaps it's simply a trendy/goth term for the effects of seeing a shrink?]

Rick said...

I am convinced you are onto something here. Is anyone else speaking or writing about "pre-modern" (in those terms?) I think it is a wonderful and refreshing alternative and hae used it several times in describing my approach, and it often opens a window of insight.

Beth B said...

Thanks, Rick. I'm glad its been helpful to you, because it has been to me.

Of course you know these ideas aren't original with me; they've been around since Plato and Thomas Aquinas...peace to their memory, and thanks to God for their wisdom. I hope more Protestants will discover the riches of premodernism, our rightful heritage as Christians.

Ann said...

Hi, Beth. Paul, ISTM, developed the theme in his writing that would imply both ratio and intellectus actually develop or mature with our increasing conformity to Christ. Have you encountered any philosophical writings along these lines? In other words, how we live, what we do in our bodies and in our relationships, whom/what we seek first, all of these alter how we perceive, think, and interact with the world.

Philip Lee said...

Do u mean to say most of the ppl u know contemplate, meditate & see visions? I believe ratio is inherited from the fruit of the knowledge of good & evil. The seed that allowed us to count that of our own (& not God's), to compare between good & evil, to work within constraints to decide the best logical option. While angels know only by intellectus, men are the only ones to be able to balance between intellectus & ratio. The best knowledge are those where intellectus & ratio interacts = enlightenment, surrender of ratio to intellectus, leading more intellectus & ratio. Reflection in action

Beth B said...

Hi Philip--

I'm not sure I understand you.

Let's put it this way and see if it helps: "ratio" is left-brain thinking, and "intellectus" is right-brain thinking. I believe God gave us both ways of thinking when he created us with the kind of brains we have.

Both ratio and intellectus can be infected by sin (after all,Satan is a fallen angel!) We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). I take this to mean that BOTH sides of our brain/BOTH intellectus and ratio are in need of renewal/healing, so that we become all that God meant us to be; well-balanced and well-integrated through the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the people I know do not seem to have a good balance between their right brains (intellectus) and their left brains (ratio). I certainly don't! Scripture gives us some models of balance, though.

Consider Joseph, Jacob's son in the book of Genesis. Not only did he display intellectus, with his visions, but he had to have had quite a developed ratio, being in charge of the Egyptian economy.

The Apostle Paul is another model of balance: he has visions (Acts 16:9, 2 Cor. 12:2-3) but he also reasons with Greeks and Jews (Acts 17:2, 18:19).

Jesus is the ultimate model for balance: he spends lots of time alone, in prayer and contemplation (intellectus) but he also uses logic (ratio)to help his listeners come to know the truth. Dallas Willard has an excellent article that goes into great detail about this, called "Jesus the Logician." See

Thanks for stopping by, Philip!

John Uebersax said...

The post is a few years old but the question is an enduring one, so perhaps further comment is appropriate.

The locus classicus for this distinction is Plato's Divided Line (Republic 6.509d–6.511e; 7.533c–7.534b), where ratio is called dianoia, and intellectus, noesis. Following St. Augustine, the schoolmen called these ratio inferior and ratio superior, respectively. After Locke, in English the conceptual distinction was lost by using a single word, 'reason', to denote them both.

It seems plausible to associate ratio (inferior), or rationality, with the left-brain. Evidence connecting higher reason with the right-brain seems more questionable. The right-brain, rather, might be a source of 'body knowledge'. Potentially one function of noesis is to harmonize left-brain and right-brain activity.

Additional perspectives and references on the history of the ratio/intellectus distinction can be found here:

Philip said...

Love the simple way you put it.. Struggling to get the John Milbank version of pre-modern straight in my head aid to my study of Augustine's City of God.. trying to avoid reading Aquinas directly but according to Milbank he has it about right!