BMCR 2020.05.40

Ancient Greek psychology and the modern mind-body debate

, Ancient Greek psychology and the modern mind-body debate. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag, 2018. Pp. 179. ISBN 9783896657596 $55.00.


The work under review is the second edition of a slim but well-cited volume published in 1987 by Aarhus University Press. Besides minor corrections and a more user-friendly layout, this new edition differs from the original in providing an updated bibliography and an additional chapter, ‘Recent Work on Plato’s and Aristotle’s Psychology’ (pp. 109–49), which includes studies published as recently as 2018.

As that chapter’s title reveals, the ‘ancient Greek psychology’ that the volume addresses in fact refers only to Plato and Aristotle. Though much of the book focuses on the relation between Aristotle’s psychology and Plato’s, neither pre-Platonic nor post-Aristotelian Greek thought is discussed in any detail. Non-philosophical approaches and the wider cultural background are similarly excluded. Likewise, ‘psychology’ embraces not all the mental processes and behavioural phenomena that would be covered by the modern term, but only Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of the psychê and its relation to the body. Thus the work’s real focus emerges only in the second half of its title: its purpose is to bring Plato and Aristotle into relation first with the issues raised by Cartesian substance dualism and then with various materialist approaches to the mind-body debate current when the book was first published in 1987.

This is done by surveying first (in Chapter I) various ‘criteria of the mental’ (from Descartes’ privacy via Brentano’s intentionality to the non-Cartesian functionalist approaches of Fodor, Putnam, and Dennett). Chapter II then considers a series of contrasts drawn by Plato (subject-object; private-public; intelligible-sensible; incomposite-composite/indivisible-divisible; teleological-mechanical and living-mechanical) that might be interrogated in Cartesian terms, before the conclusion is drawn (chiefly in Chapters III–V) that Plato’s dualisms are not Cartesian: the middle dialogues work with a substance dualism, but in the later the soul is ‘more intimately connected with the body’ (p. 36, original italics removed). But even in the middle dialogues the soul is a life-principle, so that Plato ‘couples what Descartes would keep apart, thought and life, and separates both from inanimate matter’ (p. 37). ‘Plato’s dualistic view of man developed away from a dualism of substances … to what may anachronistically be termed a dualism of mental and physical attributes.’ Thus ‘neither of Plato’s dualisms is Cartesian’ (p. 38). These chapters (especially III and IV) are brief, and take us to page 41 (just over one-third of the original book and about a quarter of the revised edition).

The core of the volume, both original and revised, is Chapter V, “Plato and Aristotle Today.” This is divided into two sections, the first of which (“Ancient and Modern Dualism”) locates Platonic and Aristotelian psychology with reference to modern distinctions between purposive reason and mechanical causation, while the second (“Ancient and Modern Materialism”) deals with ‘modern attempts at interpreting and using Aristotle … in a materialist way’ (p. 73), as a behaviourist, a mind-body identity theorist, or as a functionalist. Modern approaches to the mind-body problem turn to Aristotle rather than to Plato, but in fact Plato’s later views on the soul (as opposed to those found in the Phaedo and the Republic) bear close comparison with Aristotle’s; and indeed, whereas (according to Ostenfeld) the later Plato believes consistently in an immortal but embodied soul and does not subscribe to the notion of a separable intellect, it is Aristotle’s willingness to entertain the idea of a separable, non-material nous (in De anima 3.4–5) that gives rise to ‘a genuine mind-body problem’ (p. 67). Plato, unlike Aristotle, ‘is not faced with the embarrassment of a divine intellect in an otherwise naturalist psychology’ (p. 72 n. 200). The materialist Aristotle of modern imagination is a myth (p. 73); he is neither an identity theorist (since language involving the soul and language involving the body are not just alternative ways of describing the same phenomena) nor a functionalist (since there is a necessary connection between soul as form and the matter of the living body). Ostenfeld does, however, see common ground between Aristotle and the later Putnam in that both see truth as ‘the product of the meeting of world and mind’ (pp. 80–1, 98–9, quotation p. 99). This leads to the conclusion (p. 102) that ‘The ancient contrast was not … mental/physical, but general/particular or form/matter’ and to the suggestion ‘that this ancient pre-Cartesian dichotomy has gained new actuality by the work of, e.g., Putnam and that further, more careful, exploration of ancient insights may help the modern discussion to eventually, perhaps, overcome the Cartesian impasse’. The ancient/Aristotelian approach (unlike Dennett’s functionalism, as interpreted by Ostenfeld) takes qualia ‘seriously, but not too seriously’ (p. 105), as rooted in the material and the particular and as objects of sensation that are secondary to the intelligible world apprehended by intellect (pp. 102–3).

The original volume’s conclusions are then followed by the new Chapter VII. This in its essentials rehearses the conclusions of the original volume, but via a more synoptic approach to the primary sources – chronological, in the case of Plato (including topics, such as tripartition, that the original publication largely passed over), but in Aristotle’s case by showing how the notion of the soul as form manifests itself in areas such as sense-perception, imagination, intellect, and locomotion and desire, all the while referring to relevant studies which have appeared since the publication of the first edition in 1987. We end with a succinct reformulation of the original thesis: in both Plato and Aristotle soul is neither a mere attribute of the body nor a non-physical substance, but (for Plato) an ‘ontological hybrid’ between substance and attribute and (for Aristotle) ‘a very special unique attribute: a substantival attribute’ (p. 149).

This is a learned, incisive, and thought-provoking book whose central project, on the relation between the thought of Plato and Aristotle and non-Cartesian approaches to the mind-body problem current from the 1960s to the 1980s, is well worth bringing to the attention of a new generation of readers. The original volume’s Chapter V on ‘Plato and Aristotle Today’ is an absolute tour-de-force in using modern theorists who see themselves as in some sense taking their inspiration from Aristotle to tease out, by contrast, what is distinctive about Aristotle’s and Plato’s approach to the relation between body and soul. The argument, however, not only operates at a very high intellectual level, but also presupposes a thorough familiarity with ancient and modern sources and concepts. Chapter I’s account of the criteria of the mental, for example, goes straight to critical evaluation where some might have welcomed a little more exposition. Similarly, though Ostenfeld scrupulously acknowledges where the details and interpretation of the ancient sources (especially in the case of Aristotle) are controversial, he does not generally lay out either the primary evidence or the detail of the debate. There is a general tendency, especially in the original 1987 sections, to cite by reference alone, without very much in the way of quotation, paraphrase, or detailed exegesis of specific passages. The new chapter VII offers a more accessible overview of Plato’s and Aristotle’s psychology, but its nature as a survey cannot fully compensate for the density of the book’s original chapters.

Despite the book’s 2018 updating, moreover, the ‘modern’ mind-body debate stops at first-wave cognitive science and computational-modular models of mind. In the new chapter, the ‘recent work’ surveyed is confined to the sub-discipline of ancient philosophy and the survey oriented towards the questions that animated the original volume. Thus, no account is taken of yet more modern approaches to the mind-body debate after 1987, in particular of second-wave cognitivism or of distributed (embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive) approaches to cognition. Yet it is striking how often Ostenfeld’s account of what is distinctive about Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches highlights elements, such as the continuity of mind and life in both ancient thinkers (e.g. pp. 37–8) or the account of sense-perception in Aristotle as an active, critical process (pp. 60 n. 157, 81–2) that would repay interrogation from, for example, an enactivist perspective. Plato and Aristotle will no doubt remain rooted in their ancient intellectual and cultural contexts, and their overall approaches resist assimilation to modern theories. But this surely leaves considerable scope for productive use of aspects of their systems, as well as for the possibility that the non-Cartesian hypotheses of (especially) embodied and enactive cognitive approaches might make better sense of at least some elements of ancient psychology than do, for example, functionalist ones.

This is a book that rewards close attention. If it represents a very thorough workout for those of us who are not as steeped as the author himself is in the ancient sources, their interpretation, and the modern mind-body question, it is none the less stimulating for that. Such, though, is the depth of Ostenfeld’s learning and the sharpness of his analysis that one has a slight sense of a missed opportunity fully to integrate the newer material with the older, expanding the argument throughout to produce a thoroughly updated study of the relation between Platonic and Aristotelian psychology and contemporary philosophy of mind.