Ronald Polansky’s Aristotle’s De anima is a chapter by chapter commentary on Aristotle’s treatise on soul. It is a thorough work with often illuminating lines of interpretation, which provides a coherent account of the three books of the De anima. While its target audience is certainly the scholarly world, the book will also appeal to students, its style having an important pedagogical component. From the beginning of the volume, it is apparent that the work is not only a commentary, but also offers a complete picture of Aristotle’s treatise and thus provides the references and details that a scholar of the De anima needs. This approach necessarily makes the commentary lengthy and gives the reader more than just one author’s point of view on Aristotle’s De anima, but it also makes this an important tool of research—a tool that cannot be ignored by any scholar of this work.
There are two important parts of Polansky’s book. The first is an introduction in which the author describes his general interpretation of the De anima in intricate line of argument developed over 30 pages. The main part of the book consists of Polansky’s commentary on the De anima, organized according to the traditional division of Aristotle’s treatise into books and chapters. There are passages which Polansky translates himself, but we do not have here a complete translation, and so one often needs to go to the original. The commentary follows Jannone’s edition of the De anima.
A review of small dimensions cannot do justice to all the important points Polansky makes throughout his commentary. I will limit myself to giving a general account of his interpretive approach, and then I will point to some particular problems of interest that Ronald Polansky raises here.
The text is written in a pedagogical fashion. Polansky explains the De anima, comments upon what he takes the text to mean, and mentions, briefly or more expansively, other scholarly approaches. Sometimes, these different takes on the De anima are merely mentioned. For instance, Polansky compellingly argues for the unity of inquiry of Book 3 (this argument fits nicely in his general view, that the De anima has unity, the chapters and books following each other in a logical fashion). The views contrary to this one, especially Martha Nussbaum’s, are succinctly mentioned in footnotes, with the declaration that his own interpretation should call them into question (see p. 361-2). But when the issues have more importance for his interpretation, Polansky enters into dialogue with other scholars, as is the case in the discussion of perception where Burnyeat’s famous interpretation is often engaged.
Polansky’s commentary is thorough, giving the impression that nothing is overlooked. Nevertheless, some parts are more thoroughly discussed than others. For example, the five chapters (7-11 of Book 2 of the De anima) on the five senses, their sensible objects, and their sense organs are commented on in detail, and this culminates with 10 careful pages of analysis of the first 7 lines (424a17-24) of Book 2, chapter 12. The importance of these 7 lines, as well as of the whole of chapter 12, is that Aristotle here comes full circle in his account of sense. This chapter both ends the project he has started in Book 2 (as Polansky states on page 361, that “of a general account of sense perception applying to the five particular senses”) and gives rise to the new line of reflection that according to Polansky governs the whole of Book 3: “the interconnection of the five senses and their relation with other faculties of soul.”
Polansky begins his commentary with an interesting point: Aristotle’s De anima is a variation upon Socratic dialogue. Polansky defends his claim by pointing out the similarities in structure. First, there is a “scene” that sets the “What is X?” question—Aristotle’s preliminary inquiry of the first chapter. These scenes lead to the endoxa —Aristotle’s interlocutors of book 1—which he rejects. Finally, books 2 and 3 of the De anima establish an answer to the “What is X?” question. Thus, he says, “Aristotle’s treatise traces a Socratic pattern with possibly more satisfying results” (p. 33). Following this line of thought, the author then shows that the De anima is meticulously organized and follows a precise plan. For him, Aristotle is in control of the material “from start to finish.”
I will not dwell here on Polansky’s often illuminating reading of Book I. He insists that Aristotle makes it clear that he does not do a science of the soul, but rather the work of a natural scientist. This is especially the case since soul is taken to account for motion and perception. From this point, the structure of the book becomes evident: Aristotle presents the former views accounting for motion and shows how they point towards his approach. The next step is to criticize them, especially by pointing out that it is impossible for soul to be in motion since it is not a magnitude. While doing so, Aristotle engages issues that need clarification: “whether soul has parts, whether these are homogenous, and the priority of whole or parts” (p. 141).
The commentary then follows Aristotle’s own account of soul. I will focus here on three issues: the account of perception, the problem of what soul is, and the account of mind.
As mentioned, Polansky’s account of perception is detailed and endowed with rich arguments. As the whole treatise, Polansky’s interpretation of perception is governed by his non-reductionist view of the soul-body problem. He is very careful to emphasize the distinction between sense and sense organ. The sense organ is a bodily magnitude that has a capacity, sense, which allows it to perceive (see p. 339). During perception, both sense and the sense organ are acted upon, and one question is how they are changed. Polansky says that the sense itself is not a bodily magnitude, and as such cannot suffer modifications. For him, perception does not involve change in the sense. When the sensible forms act upon the sense, they are taken on by sense without being enmattered. Sense, Polansky says, “is receptive to sensible forms such that it is acted upon by them without the forms being enmattered at all in any matter supplied to them by the sense” (p. 345). These sensible forms “remain unenmattered forms in the sense” (p. 345). The fact that sense is acted upon by the sensible forms without the matter, these forms remaining unmattered when perceived, allows for perception of multiple sensible forms at the same time.
Although sense is not changed through reception of sensible forms, this is not the case for the sense organ, which can be destroyed or disrupted by too intense sensible objects (see p. 351). Here Polansky’s reading is interesting. He says that for Aristotle the “functionality of the sense organ is disrupted while the soul maintains its readiness to function if the organ can return to a suitable condition” (p. 351). Polansky’s interpretation amounts to saying that sense, as the power of a fully functional organ, maintains its readiness and thus is never changed. But this has strange consequences. We have established that sense and the sense organ are two different things. The former is not a bodily magnitude, while the latter is one. The sense does not suffer change through perception, while the sense organ may be changed. At the same time, through time, the power of perception diminishes because of changes in the organ, and not in sense. But if this is so, then it follows that sense remains the same regardless of the changes in the organ. Saying that soul maintains its readiness to function if the organ can return to a suitable condition amounts to saying that soul is a perfect, unchangeable entity which functions only as much as the body allows it. From this, it would follow that a particular soul, for example Socrates’ human soul, is identical with itself (and, after all, with all human souls) over time, but functions only at the level at which Socrates’ body allows it. The problem here is that we already have a soul that is not of the body, Socrates’ body, as it is at a certain moment in time. Instead, it is the soul of an abstract fully functional human being that acts only as much as the body of Socrates allows it at various times. It may be that the way to come out of this difficulty is to engage a problem that Polansky only slightly touches upon: the problem of individual/species souls. Specifically, souls maintain their readiness to function if the organ can return to a suitable condition. Individually, souls perceive what they perceive according to what each individual body allows them to perceive.
Polansky’s lack of interest into the problem of individual/species forms is a consequence of his general view of Aristotelian metaphysics. Polansky takes Joseph Owens’ approach and so claims that form itself is neither particular nor universal, but “the principle accounting for both particularity and universality” (p. 242). According to this interpretation, the forms themselves become particularized only when enmattered. In the soul, since knowledge is habitual for Polansky, they are universals. These universals serve as an instrument of the soul through which we think essences as they are (see pp. 242-3). This interpretation governs Polansky’s account of perception and mind, as well as his treatment of the question of what soul is. It goes without saying that the interpretation is not generally accepted. The first problem Polansky’s account faces is how to understand what he means by the form in itself which becomes particularized when enmattered. Another problem is whether this interpretation amounts to saying that form is an entity which may have existence unenmattered. These problems surface in the author’s treatment of the question of what soul is.
The difficulty of giving a precise account of the Aristotelian soul is notorious. Some view soul as an analytic concept, others as part of the composite, yet others as power of a body. The fact that Polansky’s detailed commentary does not offer a final clarification of what soul is further shows the difficulty of the problem. Commenting upon the first chapter of Book 2, where Aristotle gives the general account of soul, Polansky approaches the question of whether soul is the form of matter or the form of the composite. The author cites Aquinas and Simplicius for the former view, which he takes to be the correct one, and Themistius for the latter, “faulty” view. Polansky acknowledges that Aristotle speaks of soul as principle of the composite (415b7-8), but emphasizes that in the definition itself Aristotle “speaks of the form of the matter in order to prepare to understand the relationship of soul and body” p. (155). The definition in question here is at 412a19-21: “It is necessary therefore that soul is substance as form of a natural body having life in potentiality.” There are a couple of problems with this view. First, the term used here is soma, which usually designates a body (in this case a natural body), and not hyle, which Aristotle uses to designate matter. Second, things get more complicated further once we think about the implications for the general view about soul. Polansky claims that Aristotle defines soul as the form of the matter to highlight the relationship between soul and body (see p. 160). He makes the distinction between the body ensouled in actuality, which is the composite living body, and the body having life in potentiality, which is “the peculiar analytic concept of matter that in itself is not ‘a this,’ or only ‘in potentiality a this'” (p. 156). Now, if matter is merely an analytic concept and if soul is the form of this concept, then it is hard to see how soul would be anything else than a concept.
Later, commenting upon lines 414a4-28, Polansky says that “the human being (or animal) is the substratum; the soul is logos and form” (p. 185). This claim does not fit with the previous statement, that matter is the substratum for soul, unless we consider that Aristotle talks about soul in two different ways. Polansky suggests that whenever Aristotle speaks of soul as the form of the composite, he no longer talks about the general account of soul, but rather wants to explain various sorts of life (see page 156). Even so, I think it is difficult to say that soul, in its general account, is the form of matter unless we either say that both soul and matter are analytic concepts or we have an image about two entities that create through their union a composite. Polansky clearly does not take the first road. He is not a conceptualist who claims that body and soul are merely formulas that explain an individual particular, i.e. a composite living body.
As for the other option, which makes soul an entity which united with matter produces a natural living body, things are not so clear. When commenting upon Aristotle’s observation that the division of some plants and animals results in two composite living beings specifically identical with the original, Polansky writes in such terms: each separate body receives the entire soul and so has a whole soul (see p. 179). In the introductory essay he approaches the same problem and says, “That plants and some animals survive division into parts (409a9-10 and 413b16-21) discloses that though bodies can be divided into parts, souls can only be divided into additional whole souls” (p. 23). The problems here may be provoked by the heavy influence of the Cartesian ideas on our language, but Polansky’s claims in both these places suggest that he takes soul as an entity belonging to a body. But the only thing that Aristotle needs to claim here is that certain bodies (some plants and some animals) do not die when divided, but rather this division results in two living bodies, identical in species, having the same capacities, so the same kind of souls, as the body that was divided.
Polansky’s account of mind is certain to provoke discussions. There are interesting suggestions about how the active mind understood as knowledge can be separated from the human, and how the phantasmata and the mind capable of learning are linked to the embodied person. Polansky starts from a basic claim: “Human mind is primarily potentiality to think all things” (p. 458). He also states from the beginning that his interpretation of the De anima 3.5 depends upon understanding knowledge possessed by the soul as a hexis or disposition. One possible idea from this would be that knowledge could go to a second level of actuality, some activity of knowing. Polansky correctly dismisses this possible interpretation and shows that it is the soul or human that engages in thinking (see p. 459). Of course, he needs to further clarify whether it is the particular, so the human, that engages in thinking, or the soul and in what sense the soul and the human may be identical. But the main issue here is how to interpret the way in which thinking occurs. Polansky makes a comparison between thinking and perception. In the case of perception, the external sensible objects act on the sense through a medium in order to cause actual perceiving. In thinking, Polansky sees a similar process. Here, the intelligible objects act on the mind by the way of knowledge already possessed in the soul and the phantasma in order to cause thinking.
The account is appealing, but it requires some clarification as to how knowledge, which is considered analogous to the medium in sense perception, is also the agent which, as an unmoved mover, acts upon the mind. Polansky claims that it is this knowledge that is eternal. Making appeal to passages from Physics and Generation of Animals, Polansky says that knowledge does not come into being “when we learn, but it is as if the mind settles down into its own true perfection [. . .] or mind enters from the outside” (pp. 467-8). Of course, knowledge has nothing to do with the particular human beings and so it is not Socrates that has immortality, but that dispositional knowledge which belongs to his soul.
Reading Polansky’s commentary is a satisfying venture, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the author’s insights. His careful arguments, the richness of his secondary sources, and his pedagogical style invite thought and further research. Polansky’s commentary will remain a necessary book to be consulted by the researcher of the De anima.