BMCR 2013.09.24

Aristotle on Desire

, Aristotle on Desire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ix, 276. ISBN 9781107023918. $99.00.


The image of a copy of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite—nude but demurely shielding her pubic region—which adorns the dust cover of Pearson’s superb monograph, Aristotle on Desire), suggests to the casual book buyer that the volume encased therein will explain Aristotle’s thoughts about sexual desire—perhaps as a central part or the paradigm case of his general theory of desire. But the goddess likes being tricky: Aristotle has very little to say about sexual desire (at best it is a subcategory of epithumia, set alongside the desires for eating and drinking and reduced to tactile stimulation), and it is not immediately apparent that he possesses a general theory or account of desire. No doubt, Aristotle discusses many aspects of orexis (Aristotle’s general term for desire) in relationship to human action, in his consideration of the rhetorical manipulation of the emotions, and in his examination of animate motion. But as Pearson notes, neither in Aristotle’s catalog of writings nor in his surviving works is there an Aristotelian peri orexeôs. Pearson’s monograph, which is the “distant descendant” of a Ph.D. completed at Cambridge in 2004, thus is an exercise in detective work which combs through Aristotle’s discussions of desire throughout the corpus (albeit with focus on the ethical treatises, the Rhetoric, and De Anima) in order to reconstruct what a general theory of desire would look like for Aristotle. Pearson does a masterful job at drawing together into a coherent whole many of Aristotle’s scattered remarks about the different aspects of desire and provides a model for textual analysis of philosophically abstruse passages. Along the way, he overturns a number of scholarly orthodoxies (for instance, that Aristotle’s account of thumos retains elements of Platonic thumos or “spiritedness” or that thumos has a unique relationship to the kalon or what is fine) and situates Aristotle’s theory amidst contemporary philosophers of desire such as Thomas Nagle, Thomas Scanlon, and G. F. Schuler. The result is a landmark work of scholarship that scholars working on Aristotle’s moral psychology will need to engage and argue with. Whether the work warrants the adornment of Aphrodite is a question to which I will return in my conclusion.

Since Aristotle believes that psychic faculties are determined by their objects (DA 2.4, 415a14-22), the first part of the book surveys the range of phenomena that fall under the rubric of “desire” for Aristotle and then examines them in light of the orekton or object of desire. In several passages in the corpus, Aristotle identifies three species of desire, namely epithumia (pleasure-based desire), thumos (retaliatory desire), and boulêsis (good- based desire); in the second part of the book, Pearson devotes a chapter to explicating each of the species of desire along with a chapter on the distinction between non-rational and rational desire. The third part of the book is most explicitly directed to contemporary scholarly debate. It includes a chapter which situates Aristotle amidst contemporary debates in the philosophy of psychology and another chapter devoted to adjudicating between David Charles and John McDowell on the interpretation of conflicting desires.

In critical engagement with standard treatments of desire in G. E. M. Anscombe, M. Nussbaum, and H. Lorenz,1 Part I of the book shows that orexis is a very broad notion for Aristotle—one which incorporates both rational and non-rational desires, but also hopes and even idle wishes. Such a broad category raises two problems: first, what commonality unites such diverse phenomena under one category and second, what nonetheless differentiates those diverse phenomena both from each other as species of desire and from the notion of desire as a genus? With respect to the first problem, Pearson deftly shows that what is common to all forms of desire is that their objects are something good or value-laden, both for humans and non-human animals. Desires are inherently evaluative—and thus distinct from aversions (which are negative) but also evaluatively neutral psychic states such as discernment or discrimination (i.e. ta kritka). As Pearson puts it, “desires go beyond simply discrimination: from the viewpoint of a desire, the world lights up as valuable in some respect” (87). Explicating the second problem requires the analysis of the species of desire (which is done in Part II of the book).

Part II of the volume explores the two different and overlapping ways that Aristotle classifies orexis, namely its differentiation into three species of desire ( epithumia, thumos, and boulêsis) and its division into rational and non-rational desires. Aristotle identifies epithumia narrowly as a pleasure-based desire experienced by both human and non-human animals concerning tactile pleasures such as drinking, eating, and sexual activity. But, as Pearson shows, Aristotle can also use the term in a general sense, for instance when he claims that we have epithumia for learning, health, wealth, gain and the objects of the other senses such as seeing (Rhet. 1.11, 1370a16-27; EN 3.1, 111a31; 7.4, 1148a25-6).

Pearson’s discussion of thumos is one of the richest—and I suspect most controversial—in the volume. A glance at Aristotle scholarship shows that thumos is quite regularly interpreted through the lens of its famous treatment in Plato’s Republic as that part of the soul concerned with honor or recognition.2 Like epithumia, thumos clearly has a narrow sense which Pearson shows is almost synonymous with anger orgê. More surprising, though, are Pearson’s persuasive arguments that, unlike epithumia, Aristotle has no “broad” sense of thumos. Pearson carefully works through apparent instances of a broad notion of thumos (e.g. Top. 2.7 and 4.5, EN 3.6-10, and Pol. 7.7) to show that generally (the Politics reference is the exception) Aristotle has discarded the Platonic notion of thumos as competitive exertion motivated by a sense of honor. Pearson also undermines the commonly repeated claim that thumos has a special relationship with the kalon, or what is “fine” or “noble”. For instance, Cooper had influentially argued that Aristotle’s claim in EN 2.3 that there are three objects of choice—the pleasant, the advantageous, and the noble—neatly maps on to his three species of desire, with thumos having as its object the notion of the noble.3 Pearson subjects Cooper’s claim to detailed scrutiny to show that overlap between the two three-fold divisions is coincidental, and that the noble and the advantageous are ultimately the objects of boulêsis. As Pearson’s chapter on boulêsis shows, it is unsupportable to identify the object of “wish” ( boulêsis) with any one good—whether the kalon or happiness. Rather, wish has as its object a plurality of goods—an argument he makes in part as criticisms of the “Grand End” view of deliberation.

In the last chapter of Part II, Pearson considers and dismisses several possible options for the basis of the division between rational and non-rational desires—for instance, that the distinction could be grounded in whether the desire in question is thought-based, bodily-based or normative. Unfortunately, he locates a tension in the corpus on this question. Rhetoric 1.10 and De Anima 3.10 ground an interpretation that boulêsis, unlike thumos and epithumia, is rational because it is consequent upon deliberative reasoning. But, although the ethical treatises note that choice ( prohairesis) is a sort of deliberative desire, Aristotle is adamantly clear that choice and “wish” are distinct (e.g. EN 3.2, 1111b19-26). Boulêsis includes desires that are grounded in deliberation but it also includes “hopes” and even “idle wishes” that appear to have no such basis. By the end of the chapter, Pearson appears to muddy the distinction—noting that although thumos and epithumia are explicitly identified as non-rational (EN 3.1, 1111b1), Aristotle never explicitly claims that boulêsis is rational.

Armed with the insights gleamed from the first two parts of the book, Pearson devotes Part III to scholarly debates concerning the philosophical relevance of Aristotle’s theory of desire and whether the virtuous person experiences desires which conflict with reason. The first debate—with philosophers such as Thomas Scanlon and Thomas Nagel — turns on whether the notion that all action is motivated by a desire makes use of a trivially broad notion of “desire”. In the second debate — which strikes me as more captivating to the readers of BMCR — Pearson contrasts the interpretations of David Charles and John McDowell in order to articulate his view on the question of how Aristotle distinguishes the virtuous agent (for whom reason and desire are harmoniously combined) from the akratic or enkratic person (both of whom experience a sort of inner turmoil insofar as their desires conflict with what reason tells them to do). Pearson ultimately leans towards Charles’ account, arguing that, although the virtuous agent will in some sense experience non-virtuous desires (contrary to McDowell’s claim that they are “silenced” by the virtuous agent’s ethical character), he or she will not experience those desires as conflicts in action.

Scholars working on Aristotle’s psychology of desire will find much to contemplate in Pearson’s account. Although any faults I have with the volume ultimately derive from the problematic nature of Aristotle’s treatment of desire, two questions frustrated me as I worked through Pearson’s exemplary analysis. As noted at the outset, Aristotle’s account of desire provides a rather thin explanation of the enticements of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite. Is sexual desire little more than the pursuit of tactile stimulation? According to Pearson, Pliny reports that an enthusiast for the original statue left a “spot” upon the statue which “bears witness to his desire” (viii). No doubt Aristotle’s account of epithumia can shed some light on such an encounter. But how does that account relate to Aristotle’s notion of “liking” ( philêsis) or “friending” ( philein), which ground the analysis of friendship ( philia) in EN 8-9 or EE 7? The index locorum provides a dozen points where Pearson discusses passages from those books, but one longs for a statement about what might be called the relationship between love and desire in Aristotle.

A second frustration I have with the volume concerns the question of why Aristotle himself forces upon us such detective work in his corpus. Pearson notes in numerous places problems that arise due to the non-systematic nature of the account of desire in the corpus. But I would be fascinated to hear his thoughts on why Aristotle himself never presents a unified account of desire. Nor do I think that such a question is simply a matter of possibly lost works or poorly compiled treatises. Although Aristotle discusses matters of moral psychology throughout the ethical treatises and the Rhetoric, it seems worthwhile to ask the philosophical question of whether he himself had a moral psychology—viz. a systematic theory of morally salient psychological mechanisms and phenomena. Admittedly, any answers to such a question will be speculative and inconclusive. Pearson does an excellent job of showing the extent to which one can reconstruct such a general account based on the texts we do possess. But the various problems he raises with that general account made me question whether Aristotle did a poor job of systematizing his thoughts about desire or whether he would eschew such systematicity in principle.


1. See G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); M. C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (rev. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and H. Lorenz, The Brute Within: Appetitive Desire in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University, 2006).

2. J. Cooper writes, for instance: “Aristotle’s close association of thumos with reason and his comparison of its relationship with reason to that of a possibly over-hasty servant to his master should immediately remind one of Plato’s description of thumos in the Republic as a natural ally of reason (440b3, 441a2-3), an auxiliary for reason in the soul corresponding to the ruler’s auxiliaries in the best city.” See “Reason, Moral Virtue, and Moral Value” in his Reason and Emotion: Essays on Ancient Moral Psychology and Ethical Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), at 262-3.

3. Cooper, “Reason, Moral Virtue, and Moral Value” 265-6.