Intentio Spiritus

The Materialist, Pneumatological Origins of Intention in Augustine


  • Alberto Parisi



Augustine, intention, intentio, attention, will, pneuma, spirit, breath, air, pneumatology, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost


Intention is one of the catchwords of 20th-century Western philosophy. Positively or negatively, it takes a central role in numerous traditions, from phenomenology to analytic philosophy, and in none of them has it anything to do with air or breath. According to its widely accepted lineage, the concept of intention can be traced back to Medieval Scholastic philosophy, specifically to Augustine’s utilisation of this term. It is in Augustine’s intentio animi (the intention of the soul) – most critics argue – that intention first meant directing one’s attention towards something or a voluntary design or plan.

In this paper, such a genealogy will not be proved wrong but rather complicated by taking seriously the (anti-)pneumatological context in which Augustine developed his concept of intention and, at the same time, those unheeded studies of his works that claim the origins of his use of intentio to lie in the Ancient Stoic concept of τόνος (tonos, tension or tone). A new study will show that intentio is what allows Augustine every time to prove the spirit to be immaterial, namely to not be a form of material air or breath. By transforming intentio into attentio (attention) first and voluntas (will) later, Augustine makes possible the realm of the immaterial spirit. Furthermore, however, this article also shows that his arguments seem to take for granted and reject an earlier, materialist pneumatological conception of intention, whose traces can be found in some of the works of the Roman Stoic Seneca, as well as in now-lost 4th century CE Christian heretical theories of the Holy Spirit.


Alexander of Aphrodisias. Alexander of Aphrodisias on Stoic Physics [De mixtione]. Edited and translated by R. B. Todd. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

Alexander of Aphrodisias. On the Soul [De anima]. Edited and translated by V. Caston. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Commedia. Edited by Natalino Sapegno. 3 volumes. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1968.

Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Aristotle. De anima. Edited and translated by R. D. Hicks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907.

Aristotle. On Coming-To-Be and Passing-Away (De generatione et corruptione). Edited and translated by H. H. Joachim. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922.

Augustine. Dialogues philosophiques: La musique / De musica libri sex. Edited by Guy Finaert and François-Joseph Thonnard. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1947.

Augustine. La genèse au sens littéral en douze livres / De genesi ad litteram libri duodecim. Edited and translated by Paul Agaësse and Aimé Solignac. Paris: Declée de Brouwer, 1972.

Augustine. Le confessioni. Edited by Maria Bettetini. Torino: Einaudi, 2000.

Baguette, Charles. “Une période stoïcienne dans l’évolution de la pensée de saint Augustin.” Revue d’études augustiniennes et patristiques 16, no. 1–2 (1970): 47–77.

Bardy, Gustave. “Saint Augustin et les médecins.” Année Théologique Augustiniennes 13, no. 3 (1953): 327–346.

Benz, Ernst. Marius Victorinus und die Entwicklung der abendländischen Willensmetaphysik. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1932.

Berndtson, Petri. Phenomenological Ontology of Breathing: The Respiratory Primacy of Being. New York: Routledge, 2023.

Boethius. De institutione musica. Edited by Giovanni Marzi. Roma: Istituto italiano per la storia della musica, 1990.

Brague, Rémi. “Intentio and ma’na.” In Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Edited by Barbara Cassin, 506. Translated by Steven Rendall et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Caston, Victor. “Connecting Traditions: Augustine and the Greeks on Intentionality.” In Ancient and Medieval Theories of Intentionality, edited by Dominik Perler, 23–48. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Caston, Victor. “Intentionality in Ancient Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman. Fall 2008 Edition.

Cicero. Tusculan Disputations. Translated by John Edward King. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Deneffe, August. “Perichoresis, circumincessio, circuminsessio: Eine terminologische Untersuchung.” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 47, no. 4 (1923): 497–532.

Dihle, Albrecht. The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Di Martino, Carla. “Il ruolo della intentio nell’evoluzione della psicologia di Agostino: dal De libero arbitrio al De Trinitate.” Revue des Études Augustiniennes 46, no. 2 (2000): 173–198.

Dörrie, Heinrich. Porphyrios’ “Σύµµικτα ζητήµατα”: Ihre Stellung in System und Geschichte des Neuplatonismus nebst einem Kommentar zu den Fragmenten. München: Beck, 1959.

De Libera, Alain. “Intention.” In Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, 500–511. Translated by Steven Rendall et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

De Libera, Alain. Naissance du sujet. Paris: J. Vrin, 2016.

Ernout, Alfred, and Alfred Meillet, eds. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine. Paris: Klincksieck, 2001.

Górska, Magdalena. Breathing Matters: Feminist Intersectional Politics of Vulnerability. Linköping: Linköping University, 2016.

Hadot, Pierre. “Typus: Stoïcisme et Monarchianisme au IV e siècle d’après Candide l’Arien et Marius Victorinus.” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 18 (1951): 177–187.

Hagendahl, Harald. Augustine and the Latin Classics. 2 volumes. Gothenburg: Elander, 1967.

Hahm, David E. The Origins of Stoic Cosmology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1977.

Hamilton, John T. Philology of the Flesh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Hisayama, Yuho. Erfahrungen des ki – Leibessphäre, Atmosphäre, Pansphäre: Eine transkulturelle Phänomenologie der Sphären. Baden-Baden: Karl Alber, 2014.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge. Edited by Stephan Strasser. Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1963.

Lactantius. Divinarum Institutionum Libri Septem. Edited by Eberhard Heck and Antonie Wlosok. 4 volumes. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2005–2011.

Le Blay, Frédéric. “Pneumatism in Seneca: An Example of Interaction between Physics and Medicine.” In “Greek” and “Roman” in Latin medical texts: studies in cultural change and exchange in ancient medicine, edited by Brigitte Maire, 63–76. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Mamertus, Claudianus. De statu animae. In Opera, edited by A. Engelbrecht. Vienna: C. Geroldi filium, 1885.

Marinucci, Lorenzo. Forms of the Wind: Air and Atmosphere in Modern Japanese Aesthetics. Ph.D. Dissertation. Università di Roma “Tor Vergata,” 2019.

O’Daly, Gerard. Augustine’s Philosophy of Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

O’Daly, Gerard. “Time as Distentio and St. Augustine’s Exegesis of Philippians 3, 12-14.” Revue d’Études Augustiniennes et Patristiques 23, no. 3–4 (1977): 265–271.

Augustine. Confessions. Edited by J. J. O’Donnell. 3 volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Opelt, Ilona. “Seneca bei Augustinus.” In Congresso Internazionale su s. Agostino nel XVI Centenario della Conversione, Atti I, 363–370. Rome: StudEphAug, 1987.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Pépin, Jean. “Une nouvelle source de saint Augustin: le ζήτηµα de Porphyre Sur l’union de l’âme et du corps.” Revue des Études Anciennes 66, no. 1–2 (1964): 56–89.

Pizzani, Ubaldo. “Intentio ed escatologia nel sesto libro del De musica di S. Agostino.” In Interiorità e intenzionalità in S. Agostino: Atti del I° e II° Seminario Internazionale del Centro di Studi Agostiniani di Perugia, edited by Luigi Alici, 35–58. Roma: Institutum Patristicum “Augustinianum,” 1990.

Plotinus. The Enneads. Edited by Lloyd. P. Gerson. Translated by George. Boys-Stones et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Pohlenz, Max. Die Stoa: Geschichte einer geistigen Bewegung. 2 volumes. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970.

Pohlenz, Max. Hippokrates und die Begründung der wissenschaftlichen Medizin. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1938.

Ptolemy. Harmonics. Translated and edited by Jon Solomon. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Quintilian. The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian. Translated by Harold Edgeworth Butler. 4 volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920–1922.

Rohmer, Jean. “L’intentionnalité des sensations chez Saint Augustin.” In Augustinus Magister: Congrès international augustinien, Paris 21–24 Septembre 1954, edited by Fulbert Cayré, 491–498. Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1954.

Santi, Giorgio. “Interiorità e verbum mentis.” In Interiorità e intenzionalità in S. Agostino: Atti del I° e II° Seminario Internazionale del Centro di Studi Agostiniani di Perugia, edited by Luigi Alici, 133–143. Roma: Institutum Patristicum “Augustinianum,” 1990.

Seneca. “De Consolatione ad Helviam.” In Moral Essays, translated by John W. Basore, volume 2, 2–97. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

Setiya, Kieran. “Intention.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman. Winter 2022 Edition.

Solère, Jean-Luc. “Tension et intention: Esquisse de L’histoire d’une notion.” In Questions sur I’intentionnalité, edited by Lambros Couloubaritsis and Antonin Mazzù, 59–124. Bruxelles: Éditions OUSIA, 2007.

Sorabji, Richard. “From Aristotle to Brentano: The Development of the Concept of Intentionality.” In Supplementary Supplement: Aristotle and the Later Tradition, edited by Henry Blumenthal and Howard Robinson, 227–259. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Spiegelberg, Herbert. “Der Begriff der Intentionalität in der Scholastik, bei Brentano, und bei Husserl.” Philosophische Hefte 5 (1936): 75–91.

Synesius. On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insommniis. Edited by Donald A. Russel and Heinz-Gunther Nesselrath. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Škof, Lenart. Breath of Proximity: Intersubjectivity, Ethics and Peace. Dordrecht: Springer, 2015.

Škof, Lenart, and Petri Berndtson, eds. Atmospheres of Breathing. Albany: SUNY Press, 2018.

Tertullian. Quinti Septimi Florentis Tertulliani De anima. Edited by J. H. Waszink. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Toulouse, Stéphane. “Influences néoplatoniciennes sur l’analyse augustinienne des visiones.” Archives de Philosophie 72, no. 2 (2009): 225–247.

Vanni Rovighi, Sofia. “La fenomenologia della sensazione in Sant’Agostino.” Rivista di Filosofia Neo-Scolastica 54, no. 1 (1962): 18–32.

Verbeke, Gérard. L’évolution de la doctrine du pneuma du stoïcisme à saint Augustin. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1945.

Williams, Daniel H. “Monarchianism and Photinus of Sirmium as the Persistent Heretical Face of the Fourth Century.” Harvard Theological Review 99, no. 2 (2006): 187–206.

Wolfson, Harry A. The Philosophy of The Church Fathers. 2 volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.




How to Cite

Parisi, Alberto. 2023. “Intentio Spiritus: The Materialist, Pneumatological Origins of Intention in Augustine”. Poligrafi 28 (111/112):73-120.