Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.31

Gerd Van Riel, Pierre Destrée (ed.), Ancient Perspectives on Aristotle's De anima. Ancient and Medieval Philosophy. Series I 41.   Leuven:  Leuven University Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 196.  ISBN 9789058677723.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (

These papers are the product of a conference in 2007 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the De Wulf-Mansioncentrum at Leuven and its counterpart the Centre De Wulf-Mansion at Louvain-le-Neuve. This volume focuses on ancient perspectives on Aristotle’s De Anima; another volume includes the papers focusing on medieval perspectives.

The authors and papers are:

Klaus Corcilius, “How are Episodes of Thought Initiated According to Aristotle?”
Nathaniel Stein, “After Literalism and Spiritualism: The Plasticity of Aristotelian Perception.”
Annick Stevens, “L’apparition de la conscience dans le De Anima et d’autres oeuvres d’Aristote.”
Frans De Haas, “Know Thyself: Plato and Aristotle on Awareness.”
Joel Yurdin, “Aristotelian Imagination and the Explanation of Behavior.”
Marco Zingano, “Considérations sur l’argumentation d’Aristote dans De Anima iii 4.”
Patrick MacFarlane and Ronald Polansky, “God, the Divine, and Νοῦς in Relation to the De Anima.”
Pierre-Marie Morel, “Parties du corps et fonctions de l’âme en Métaphysique Z.”
Enrico Berti, “La cause du movement dans les êtres vivants.”
R.W. Sharples, “The Hellenistic Period: What Happened to Hylomorphism?”
Andrea Falcon, “The Scope and Unity of Aristotle’s Investigation of the Soul.”

In the first paper, Corcilius considers a seemingly simple question in Aristotle’s psychology, namely, what is the causal explanation of someone coming to think of something he already knows or has learned? In book 2.5 of De Anima Aristotle says almost in passing that “thinking is up to someone whenever he wishes to do it (417b25-6),” though, like much else in this work, the precise mechanism of the thinking event is obscure. Corcilius rejects a subtle speculative answer to this question proposed by Michael Wedin which relies on adducing Book 3 chapters 4-5 and the concepts of the receptive and agent intellects, understood as psychical subsystems.

For Wedin, the autonomy of thinking is preserved by the production of actual concepts in the receptive intellect which in turn immediately cause the thinking to occur. Corcilius does not reject this analysis as a theoretical possibility; rather, he argues that it is unnecessary within the context of De Anima. In response to Wedin, he opts for what he terms the “naïve interpretation” according to which the rational desire of the individual is the sufficient cause for the thinking to occur when the necessary conditions for its occurring are present. Since desire is always, for Aristotle, part of the structure of action, thinking is always in one way or another embedded in goal oriented action.

Next, Stein raises the problem of how the representations contained in perceptual acts are like the things they represent, namely, the perceptibles that cause those states. Stein argues for a position somewhere between “literalists” like Richard Sorabji and “spiritualists” like Myles Burnyeat, with the result that perception involves both standard physical changes (the literalist position) and non-standard purely psychological changes (the spiritualist position). On this basis, he argues that for Aristotle to account for the wide array of perceptual objects he recognizes (proper, common, and incidental perceptibles), he must somehow show that rationality and especially the cognition of universals is not only a separate “module” for human cognizers, but that it is integrated with human perception itself. Adducing Posterior Analytics B 19, Stein claims that perceptibles are cognized by us as instantiating universals, presumably in any category of being. So, perception is, at least in some cases, “perception as.”

Stevens seeks to explicate the passages in De Anima, Parva Naturalia, and Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle argues that sense-perception and thinking are essentially self-conscious activities. In the NE passage (1170a25-b17) consciousness of existing is, as Stevens shows, equivalent to consciousness that perception or thinking is occurring. Thus, Aristotle makes no explicit distinction between a purely physical event that we might call sensation and a psychical event that includes sensation but also involves consciousness of the occurrence of the content contained in the physical event. The general fact of consciousness is not exclusively human, since though animals do not think, they do perceive (as opposed to merely having sensations). Stevens thinks this consciousness is different from the self-reflexivity thematized in Plotinus and after. Left unsolved, I think, is this problem: Aristotle recognizes a form of imagination that is rational as distinct from the non-rational imagination of animals. Does it follow that the sense-perception of human beings is, too, rational in itself, thus involving thinking. In that case, though animals have sense-perception, their sense-perception belongs to a genus distinct from the sense-perception of human beings.

De Haas takes up some of the same issues as Stevens, though in a more wide-ranging paper. He considers the Platonic background to the Aristotelian discussions, particularly the famous passages in First Alcibiades on self-knowledge and Charmides on a supposed “knowledge of knowledge.” Against Stevens, de Haas argues that consciousness in De Anima is not by the common sense faculty of the particular perceptual event, but by the particular sense organ of itself. He rejects the apparent reductio ad absurdum of this view, namely, that, since, for example, sight is of color, the consciousness of sight would be of that which is colored, making sight itself colored. He claims that in a way the sense-organ is colored, albeit not in the way that the object of sight is colored: sight is colored because it is receptive of the sensible form of that which is colored. De Haas also rejects what is perhaps the standard interpretation of De Somno 455a12-26 which appears to locate the consciousness of seeing in the common sense faculty rather than in the particular faculty of seeing itself. Turning to consciousness of thinking, de Haas argues that the “self-thinking” that occurs in De Anima 3.4 is strictly analogous to the consciousness of perceiving in 3.2. I find it difficult, though, to reconcile this comparison with the immateriality of thinking upon which Aristotle insists.

Yurdin argues for the indispensability of imagination (phantasia) in Aristotle’s account of cognition, its irreducibility to either sense-perception or thinking, and its functional unity. In particular, he aims to show that imagination is implicated in the behavior of animals and humans even in acts that arise from sense-perception. Imaginative states, which are different in their intentional objects from perceptual states, both present to the subject objects of desire, and, in humans, serve as associative material for conceptualization. Presumably, though Yurdin does not take up this point, the associative act is intellectual and so exclusively human. This would suggest that intellect provides the formal aspect for which imagination provides the material.

Zingano’s paper deals with the notorious crux in De Anima 3.4 in which Aristotle says that (a) intellect is “impassive” (429a14) and (b) that thinking is an affection analogous to sense-perception (429a15, b29). Zingano challenges the ancient solution of this puzzle—perhaps originating in the 4th century commentator Themistius—namely, that the sense in which intellect is impassive is different from the sense in which it is affected. Thus, thinking involves an affection in the sense of a perfection or actualization (alteratio perfective), not an alteration (alteratio destructive); intellect is impassive in the sense that it does not involve the destruction of one property and its replacement with another. Zingano questions this interpretation and the cogency of the analogy between perception and thinking. The interpretation is based on a reading of 2.5 according to which the reception of sensible form is not a genuine alteration, that is, consisting of the replacement of one contrary with another. But if this is so, then the claim that perception is an affection is false, contrary to what Aristotle says. Zingano concludes that 3.4 (together with 3.5?) is aporetic, and there is presently no satisfactory solution to the problem of reconciling the receptivity of thinking and the impassivity of the intellect.

MacFarlane and Polansky challenge the view, advanced by Alexander of Aphrodisas and many contemporary scholars, that in De Anima the so-called agent intellect is identical with God. They argue that the divinity of intellect does not entail its identity with God and that De Anima is a work concerned entirely with natural science. Their deflationary account of the agent intellect makes it nothing more than our universal knowledge which enables us to think when the occasion arises. This occasion is provided by phantasia. Like form, then, knowledge is the moving cause for thinking, moving without itself moving. That this sort of moving cause is not God follows, according to the authors, from the fact that God is identical with thinking—and, as completely simple, thinking only of thinking—not with a mind having merely the capacity for thinking all things.

Morel argues for the relevance of the psycho-biology in De Anima to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, in particular the discussion in Book 7, chapter 10. He wants to show the relevance of the account of composite substance in the natural sciences generally to the discussion of substance in the Metaphysics. Morel is concerned with Aristotle’s use of biological models of composite substance for the determination of the primary referent of being. Thus, since composite substances by definition have parts, it might seem that these parts have a kind of priority—perhaps even ontological priority—over the composites. Morel aims to show that in De Anima and elsewhere, the definitional priority of form in the composite is taken up in the crucial lines 1035b25-7 of Book 7, chapter 10 of the Metaphysics. There Aristotle claims that, unlike the material parts of the composite, the parts of the form, in particular, the dominant part of the form, is in a way simultaneous with the composite itself. Thus, the heart or brain, that which determines organic activity in general and sense-perception in particular, is the animal. The dominant part contains the being of the composite, the being whose definition is the subject of the treatise.

Berti challenges the supposed parallel between De Anima 3.10 (433a21-30) and Metaphysics 12.7 (1072a26-b2). The former passage takes the good or the apparent good as an unmoved mover of an animal that desires to achieve this; the latter treats the divine, too, as an unmoved mover. But the object of animal motion is a practical object of desire. This seems to be quite different from the way that the divine unmoved mover moves, for it is not and cannot be the end of human action. Nor can it be the end of the motion of the spheres. That end is their own happiness. The finality of the perfect and perfectly actual unmoved mover of the Metaphysics seems to be, on analysis, entirely self-contained, that is, it is not the end or goal of anything. The analogy between the two passages only suggests that the divine may be compared with the practicable good as an unmoved mover, not as an object of desire or love.

Sharples provides an historical perspective on the hylomorphism of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature generally. He shows by an examination of numerous ancient texts that followers of Aristotle prior to Alexander of Aphrodisias did not focus on and attempt to explicate a hylomorphic conception of the human being or, indeed, of any living thing. The reasons for this are obscure at least in part owing to the paucity of evidence. Sharples considers but tends to doubt the view according to which there was little or no discussion of hylomorphism prior to Alexander simply because this interpretation of Aristotle’s psychology was regarded as mistaken. He recognizes, however, that, along with the hylomorphic definitions of the soul given by Aristotle, there are many passages in De Anima which give the impression not of hylomorphism, but of soul-body dualism.

Falcon examines the overall structure and purpose of De Anima, emphasizing the generality of Aristotle’s account of soul over against the account of his predecessor, Plato, who focused in particular on the human soul. Aristotle investigates soul, assuming that it is the principle of life. But the term “life” (zōē) is not univocally applicable to all things said to be alive and this raises a question about the possibility of a unified science of life. As Falcon shows, Aristotle hypothesizes the unity of the science of living things based on a hierarchical ordering of psychic functions, from the nutritive/reproductive upward. Restricting his investigation to sublunary, that is, perishable life, Aristotle argues for an integrated hierarchy of function, according to which not only does the higher depend on the existence of the lower but the higher determines the specific functionality of the lower. Accordingly, though each type of soul and so each type of living thing must be studied on its own, there is a methodological unity in psychological analysis generally.

Each one of these papers addresses a central and difficult issue in Aristotle’s psychology and each repays careful reading. Together they constitute a worthy commemoration of a milestone in the vibrant history of the De Wulf-Mansion Centre.

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