Nous poietikos, agent intellect

The nous poietikos or agent intellect as “imitation” belongs to McLuhan’s family of terms ‘simulate-simulation’, ‘mimesis-mime-mimicry‘, ‘making’, etc. He seems to have been concerned with the nous poietikos chiefly in the 1948-1954 period.

Difficulties of Yvor Winters,19481 
Coleridge was quite right in lifting from Kant the idea of the esemplastic or creative imagination since it was the nearest Kant could get to the nous poietikos by which in the hylomorphic philosophy the active intelligence reveals the intelligible species of things present. (…) The nous poetikos makes of every moment of human perception a creative activity.2

Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process,1951
In the Poetics (Chap. 4) Aristotle mentions imitation as connate to man, being the process by which men learn. But this fact is not linked with the power of abstraction which in the De Anima he attributes to the nous poietikos, or the agent intellect. That there is, however, a degree of poetic imitation in abstraction itself, is plain from the fact that even in sensation “things exist in the soul without their proper matter, but with the singularity and individuating conditions which are the result of matter.” (St. Thos., De Anima, article 13) That this is so is the effect of the nous poietikos, which has the power of individuating anew in a bodily organ that which it has abstracted from existence. “For in things made by art the action of an instrument is terminated in the form intended by the artisan.” (St. Thos., De Anima, article 12) Again, “For every object produced by art is the effect of the action of an artificer, the agent intellect being related to the phantasms illuminated by it as an artificer is to the things made by his art.” (article 5). And in the same place the creative efficacy of the nous poietikos as “illuminative” is referred to the text in the Psalms (4:7) “The light of thy countenance is signed upon us, O Lord.”
For Joyce and Eliot all art is a shadow of the Incarnation,3 and every artist is dedicated to revealing, or epiphanizing the signatures of things, so that what the nous poietikos is to perception and abstraction the artist is to existence at large: “The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and reembody it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.” (Stephen Hero, 78)
Ordinary experience is a riot of imprecision, of impressions enmeshed in preconceptions, cliches, profanities and impercipience. But for the true artist every experience is capable of an epiphany: “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself….Imagine my glimpses of that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanized. It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.” (Stephen Hero, 211) 

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
In ordinary perception men perform the mira
cle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the
nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being [subj gen] within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being [obj gen]. (…) Cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being (…) that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness.4

Sight, Sound, and the Fury, 1954
In cognition we have to interiorize the exterior world. We have to recreate in the medium of our senses and inner faculties the drama of existence. This is the world of the logos poietikos, the agent intellect. In speech we utter that drama which we have analogously recreated within us. In speech we make or poet the world even as we may say that the movie parrots the world. Languages themselves are thus the greatest of all works of art. They are the collective hymns to existence. For in cognition itself is the whole of the poetic process. But the artist differs from most men in his power to arrest and then reverse the stages of human apprehension. He learns how to embody the stages of cognition (Aristotle’s “plot”) in an exterior work which can be held up for contemplation.

Memory Theatre Encounter 1967
When the Schoolmen translated Aristotle’s phrase
nous poietikos they used the words “intellectus agens” or the agent intellect. The function of the agent or making intellect extends to the very idea of knowing. Knowing as making is an idea central to Aristotle and Aquinas. 

  1. Submitted to Sewanee Review and perhaps elsewhere, but never published. Like other work of McLuhan, this essay bore several different titles over time. More than 20 years later, McLuhan recalled it: “Years ago I wrote an essay on Winters entitled ‘Rhymer Reditus’. (…) Winters pushed criticism into a pattern of concept minus percept, which was also an unwitting parody of paraphrase and poetic commentary of the preceding time (namely that of Thomas Rhymer, 1643–1713, hence the ‘Rhymer Reditus’ title). The great discovery of the Symbolists had been the need to start with effects even when dealing with ideas and systems. To perceive a theory or a philosophy as itself an object for aesthetic experience and testing…” (Roles, Masks, and Performance, 1971)
  2. Two decades later in his Playboy interview: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.” The unpublished Winters essay shows that this shift was in full swing by 1948 at the latest: “The nous poetikos makes of every moment of human perception a creative activity.”
  3. “All art is a shadow of the Incarnation” — at once illuminating (because grounded in the Incarnation) and obscuring (because shadowing) .
  4. Also inCatholic Humanism and Modern Letters’: “The drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.” And: “The poet differs from other men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world.”