Mulla Sadra on Practical Intellect

 Dr. Mohsen Jawadi


Owing to his purity and moderation, man has been introduced by God as having the liability of possessing a perfect form of rational soul. This soul, which is a spiritual faculty, enables man to have universal and particular perception and to dominate meanings and forms.

Rational soul has two faculties with one of which man perceives universals and with the other one gets engaged in intellectual practices. The faculty with which rational soul perceives universals is called speculative intellect. According to the Peripatetic school, the way to achieve universal knowledge is through the connection to Active Intellect which has all general forms of perception. In this way, in order to perceive universals, the soul approaches a world superior to it, i.e. self, the world of separate intellects and will gain the most of universal knowledge. The faculty by use of which rational soul performs intellectual activities is called practical intellect. The way to perform intellectual practices is through acquiring particular ideas about practical affairs. Practical affairs are sometimes like tailoring and carpentry, which are certain skills and arts, and, according to Farabi, being skillful in them is a vocational virtue. However, some practical affairs about which practical intellect has particular ideas, for example the goodness of telling the truth in a certain circumstance, have moral virtue.

By utilizing thought and observing actions and arts, practical intellect selects which is good or what it assumes to be good. This selection of goodness is the ground for performing that action because by employing the desiring and moving faculty, practical intellect will actualize in the real world the particular form of the action it has perceived. For example, I perceive that I should tell the truth now, that is the form of telling the truth in a certain circumstance which I have perceived, then I actualize it in the form of certain words. In this way it becomes manifest that rational soul, as it has practical intellect, faces the world of possibility inferior to itself and is among the cause of future contingent matters.

For Mulla Sadra, practical intellect is at the service of speculative intellect.[1] Probably this means that universal perception can transform into actions only through including particular ideas which are the function of practical intellect. For example, universal perception of the goodness of justices can manifest itself as a just action only through including particular ideas about time, space, etc. From here onwards, I explicate the difference between the functions of speculative and practical intellects in the domain of practical affairs. Mulla Sadra says, “A universal idea for speculative intellect and a particular idea for practical intellect are ….”[2]

The universal perception of practical affairs is the function of speculative intellect, but the particular idea which actualizes that universal perception is the function of practical intellect. The universal perception of the goodness of justice is the function of speculative intellect as it is true in the case of principles, skills, and various arts. That is why human or civil knowledge, which is related to universal perceptions in the domain of actions, falls within the domain of speculative intellect. By saying that speculative intellect possesses universal view, Mulla Sadra emphasizes and also states that particular idea which provides the grounds for an action is the function of practical intellect. Therefore, it is a mistake to interpret the abovementioned statement beyond the boundaries of practical affairs and in an absolute way. In other words, Mulla Sadra just negates the existence of particular idea in speculative intellect, which paves the way for an action, in the domain of practical affairs and this does not mean the negation of the existence of a particular idea in speculative intellect in an absolute way.

It is clear that there are many particular perceptions, part of whose are sense perceptions, are within speculative intellect. Attributing sense perceptions to speculative intellect is, of course, incompatible with the point that speculative intellect faces something superior to that, that is, Active Intellect, and achieves its knowledge from it unless we say that, in addition to approaching the superior world, speculative intellect can attain some perceptions by looking at the inferior world.

The conclusion is that universal ideas always pertains to speculative intellect both about practical and impractical affairs, but particular idea in the domain of practical affairs is the function of practical intellect which results in the actualization of the aforementioned action (intellectual action) and other particular ideas still remain the realm of speculative intellect. In order to distinguish between practical and speculative intellects, Mulla Sadra says: “Truth, false, and right, wrong can only be contained in the realm of speculative intellect and the perceptible of practical intellect intend to find good and evil which are supposedly different from truth and false.”[3] Does Mulla Sadra want to exclude truth and false from the domain of particular practical perceptions and confine them in the boundaries of the perceptions of speculative intellect?

Is Mulla Sadra's theory about ethics, which is the realm of practical intellect, what it is called today in the philosophy of ethics 'non-cognitivism' which emphasizes the propositions indicating ethical good and evil are not valid to be known. It seems that despite the surface meaning of the statement, Mulla Sadra did not intend to support non-cognitivism because, in the first instance, before attacking particular perceptions regarding good and evil, ethical non-cognitivists negate the existence of universal knowledge of good and evil affairs. While, as stated earlier, Mulla Sadra has positioned these universal practical perceptions, which are worth knowing as truth and false, within the realm of speculative intellect.

Secondly, while quoting Ibn Sina who has said particular idea of practical intellect is usually obtained along with a kind of analogy and therefore can be either true or false, Mulla Sadra, in fact, identifies the recognition value of particular idea and attributing right or wrong to it.[4] But if we accept this impression and also the possibility of truth and false in of the perceptions of both speculative and practical intellects, how can we interpret the distinction Mulla Sadra puts forward in the abovementioned statement?

It seems that the distinction between the perceived things of speculative and practical intellects does not lie in that one of them is subject to truth or false while the other is not; it, however lies in the fact that in one of the them truth and false are fundamental, while in the other the base is goodness and evil. In order to explicate this point, it is necessary to say that what causes the performance of an intellectual action is its being good and not its just being a particular idea. Therefore in cases in which an actions' being good is wrongly asserted by practical intellect, that action can still be actualized.

It can possibly be said that the goodness of a particular practical thing is not merely the perception of an actual thing which is true or false. Rather, the perception of a particular goodness is a composite and complicated process which demands a kind of adaptation and coherence between subject and object. The secret of the motif in practical intellect is probably in the same line because a universal perception of the goodness of justice does not produce the necessary motif to act justly but when it becomes a particular idea about goodness of a certain action, it motivates the performance of the action.

Therefore, the difference between speculative and practical intellects lies in their result in one of which we look for right and wrong beliefs while in the other one we expect ugly and beautiful beliefs which might be true or false.

Another important point which is necessary for illustrating Mulla Sadra's viewpoint on practical intellect in the distinction made between the levels of speculative and practical intellects. Similar to many of the earlier philosophers, Mulla Sadra identifies four levels for speculative intellect which are material intellect, angelic intellect, actualized intellect and acquired intellect.[5]

Referring to intellect as 'material' or the potentiality of intellection which lacks any form of intelligible perception is possibly based on extension and tropes but angelic intellect and the final two levels really possess the characteristic of perception. Regarding the similarity existing between angelic intellect and actualized intellect, some philosophers have excluded it and have considered three levels for speculative intellect.[6] Angelic intellect means the perception of primary intelligibles such as axioms, experiences etc. human intellect can provides the grounds for deductive intelligibles. By actualized intellect it is meant that the soul actually possesses intelligible forms and whenever it wants it can observe them. Acquired intellect is the same as actualized intellect but with the consideration that observing intellectual concepts happens when they are attributed to active intellect, which means using active intellect. But the four levels Mulla Sadra takes into account for practical intellect are as follows:[7]

1. Refinement of the outward aspect by using Divine regulations and sacred laws,

2. Refinement of the inward aspects and purification of the heart from filthy physical moods,

3. Adorning the inward aspects with practical forms and true religious teachings,

4. Annihilation of the soul and limiting it to seeing only God and His Grandeur.

The first stage which is related to the outward actions of man is the first state of practical intellect. It means that in this stage practical intellect perceives the goodness and evil of practical affairs by using Divine laws and is the background of the same levels which are in speculative intellect. For example, because the refinement of the outward aspects is not stable like material aspect of speculative intellect. But by acquiring spiritual and moral virtues, practical intellect breaks the shell of its materialistic aspect and turns into angelic intellect. It means that it has already perceived the preliminaries of practical intellect and is moving towards perceiving the things which are not preliminary. The third level which corresponds to actualized intellect is in a way that an individual can actually observe all good and evils. Finally, the fourth level which is the annihilation of the self is akin to acquired intellect in which observing perceptual forms happens while connecting to Divine Realm.

I should assert that there are certain difficulties in answering the second question. If we can, as Mulla Sadra says, justify the usage of the term 'practical intellect' in the action itself or a special spiritual state, we will not succeed in justifying the usage of practical intellect in the two latter levels. We can assert that because an action has risen from the particular idea of practical intellect lying in its goodness and obligation which happens by the help of moving faculty and therefore the use of practical intellect about it is appropriate and also we can say about spiritual states that they are the direct products of these actions which can be called practical intellect. However, how can we call Divine teachings and annihilating in Divine Grandeur which fall within the indirect effects of that particular idea (practical intellect) 'practical intellect'?

The situation in the levels of speculative intellect is reverse. That is, as we move towards the later levels, it manifests itself more and in the acquired intellect, it reaches its perfection. With respect to the levels of the practical intellect, however, the situation is reverse. As far as we move towards the later levels, we find less manifestation of the features of the practical intellect, which is particular idea about good and evil in practical affairs.

In the end, we briefly conclude that according to Mulla Sadra practical intellect is concerned with rational faculties and has perceptual power and manifests itself in particular good and evil (particular idea). Practical intellect is the middle term of speculative intellect and desiring and moving faculty. In fact the leading rope of desiring and moving faculty and in the hands of the practical intellect and in this way it becomes clear that practical intellect, besides perceiving good and evil, has a kind of domination over desiring and moving faculty. Clarifying the nature of this dominance, which is very important in today's philosophy of ethics, requires another opportunity.


[1]. Shirazi, Sadruddin Mohammed, al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah, p. 24.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid., p. 241.

[4]. Shirazi, Sadruddin Mohammed, al-Hikmat al-muta'aliyah fil-asfar al-'aqliyyah al-arba'ah, vol. 9, p. 82.

[5]. Shirazi, Sadruddin Mohammed, al-Mabda' wal-ma'ad, vol. 2, p. 248.

[6]. al-Hikmat al-muta'aliyah fil-asfar al-'aqliyyah al-arba'ah, vol. 3, p. 421.

[7]. Shirazi, Sadruddin Mohammed, Mafatih al-ghayb, p. 523.



- Shirazi, Sadruddin Mohammed, al-Hkmat al-muta'aliyah fil-asfar al-'aqliyyah al-arba'ah, Dar Ahya al-Turath al-Islami, Beirut, Lebonan, 1990.

- -------------------------------------, al-Mabda' wal-ma'ad, ed. Mahmud Rabi'i & Ja'far Shanazari, first edition, Sadra Islamic Philosophy Research Institute (SIPRIn), 1381 AH.

- --------------------------------------, al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah fil-minhaj al-sulukiyyah, ed. Sayyed Mustafa Muhaqqiq Damad, first edition, Sadra Islamic Philosophy Research Institute (SIPRIn), 1382 AH.

- -------------------------------------, Mafatih al-ghayb, ed. Mohammed Khwajawi, first edition, Institute of Cultural Study, 1363, AH.



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