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Sense Perception in the Aristotelian Tradition

Project leader: K. Ierodiakonou

The Problem

Colour is a prominent feature of the world as we experience it; not only do we encounter colours wherever we look, they also play a crucial role in our ability to recognize and discriminate between things around us. It is not surprising that, when philosophers try to understand the world we live in, they take great interest in the way we perceive colours. Aristotle, too, thought of colour as the main object of our visual perception; he defined it, in his treatise De Anima, as what is ‘capable of setting in motion (kinētikon) that which is actually transparent’ (418a31–b1). The crux of the matter is the adjective ‘kinētikon’, which can be understood either as ‘productive of spatial movement’ or as ‘productive of alteration’, depending on how one understands here ‘kinēsis’; for ‘kinēsis’ in Aristotle can mean all kinds of change, including alteration, and not just spatial movement. So, Aristotle’s account of colour in the De Anima has been used, among other texts, as evidence for the controversial issue on which the attention has been focused during these last decades; namely, whether there are in Aristotle’s view material changes which explain the fact that we see colours, i.e. whether something actually moves from the coloured object and starts a material process enabling us to perceive colours, or what happens instead is just an alteration of the transparent medium, i.e. a static condition in which the colour simply appears through the medium to the perceiver.

This is the modern debate among Aristotelian scholars. But how did the Peripatetics after Aristotle, for instance Theophrastus, or the ancient and Byzantine commentators interpret Aristotle’s theory of vision, and in general his theory of sense perception? Indeed, the process of sense perception is certainly not the only issue discussed in the Aristotelian tradition with relation to the way we perceive the world. Our ancient sources present us with interesting views on the nature of colour in itself or, to put it differently, on the ontological status of our sense data. For, in contrast to other ancient philosophical traditions, Aristotle and his followers defended the position that colours, for example, are objective, i.e. they characterize the objects of our experience independently of whether or not they are perceived, and not subjective, i.e. they do not exist only insofar as they are perceived. However, do all our senses function on the same principles? And do humans perceive the world the way the other animals do? There has not been much research done on how ancient philosophers after the Hellenistic period dealt with these and other issues related to sense perception; for instance, how sense perception contributes to human knowledge or how we can explain cases of misperceiving, illusions, dreams. The aim of my sub-project is to investigate closely the relevant texts in order to understand better the development of the Aristotelian tradition on sense perception, and at the same time to detect how different ancient interpretations influenced the way Aristotle’s theory has been received and assessed by later thinkers.

Main Questions

(a) How does sense perception function?
(b) Which is the ontological status of the objects of sense perception?
(c) In what way do the human senses differ?
(d) In what way does human sense perception differ from that of other animals?
(e) What kind of knowledge do we acquire through sense perception?
(f) How can we explain cases of misperceiving, illusions, dreams?

Plan 2013–2015: Aristotle and the Peripatetics

During the first three years I want to review the modern debate on Aristotle’s theory of sense perception by closely studying the relevant Aristotelian works as well as those of his immediate successors. Texts: Aristotle, De Anima, De Sensu; Theophrastus, De Sensibus; Ps. Aristotle, De Coloribus

2016–2017: Aristotle’s Ancient Commentators

During the next two years I will focus on the ancient interpretations of Aristotle’s views on sense perception. The relevant ancient commentaries have not been examined systematically, though they seem to have been quite influential both to the Byzantine commentators and to the Latin authors who wrote on this topic. Textual basis: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Mantissa, De Anima, InSens.; Quaestiones; Themistius, InAn.; Ps. Simplicius (?Priscian), InAn.; Philoponus, InAn.; Ps. Philoponus (?Stephanus), InAn.

2018–2019: Aristotle’s Byzantine Commentators

I plan to devote these two years on the close reading of the Byzantine commentaries on sense perception, some of which are still unedited and most of them so far ignored. Textual basis: Michael of Ephesus, InParNat.; InCol. (unedited); Sophonias, InAn.; Theodoros Metochites, InAn. (unedited) InParNat.; George Pachymeres, InAn.; InParNat. (both unedited); George Gennadios Scholarios, InAn.

Relation to Other Sub-Projects

My project establishes the philosophical ground work for all the other sub-projects, since sensation is a corner stone in Aristotle’s thought concerning representation and reality. The sub-project is particularly connected to Bydén whose edition of Metochites is crucial for my project, and to Mora-Márquez and Fink. Reversely, results from these sub-projects will have to be incorporated in this one as things progress.

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/18/2013
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