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Concept Formation of Natural Kinds

Project leader: A.M. Mora-Márquez

The problem

The Aristotelian theory of concept formation is undoubtedly empiricist. That is, the whole process of concept formation takes sense perception as a starting point, and it is fundamentally grounded in a process of abstraction from sense perception. Few scholars in the commentary tradition would challenge this. Nonetheless, the mechanisms of this process of abstraction were the matter of long and difficult philosophical debates.

Starting from the result of sense perception – sensitive representations (phantasmata) –, Ancient and Medieval commentators of Aristotle’s account of conceptualization raised the question of which kind of process leads to the formation of concepts from phantasmata. Throughout the history of Aristotelian accounts of concept formation, we find at least three different accounts of the process of abstraction from phantasmata: a) abstraction by induction, b) abstraction by active vision of a form, and c) abstraction by impression of a form on the possible intellect (the wax model).

These different accounts involve certain difficulties of epistemological nature: i) If there is no formal identity between concept and thing, as it is the case in account (a), but only formal resemblance, how can we be sure we have an accurate knowledge of the thing? ii) Wouldn’t the form being impressed in version (c) be a tertium quid between concept and thing, so that the knowledge of the thing would not be immediate, and therefore not accurate (epistemological representationalism)? Another difficulty is of a psychological nature: iii) How can the sensitive faculty, in account (c), receive a formal disposition from the agent intellect? Now, these difficulties seem to be avoided in account (b), according to which all faculties of the soul are active faculties, so that vision of a form by the possible intellect replaces reception of a form. Nevertheless, this account seems to be in flagrant opposition to the Aristotelian theory itself.

Main Questions

Throughout the history of the reception of the Aristotelian theory of concept formation, accounts (a), (b) and (c) of abstraction from phantasmata have interacted and intertwined, giving birth to psychological and epistemological debates from late antiquity onwards. This sub-project intends to trace the main discussions regarding the process of abstraction from late Antiquity until the late Middle Ages, both in its epistemological and psychological dimensions. Doing this will demand us:

a) to ask the question of how Aristotle understands the process of abstraction of concepts (noemata) from sensitive representations (phantasmata).

b) to ask the question of how interpreters from late antiquity and the Latin middle ages understand and give different shapes to this feature of Aristotle’s theory of knowledge, as well as the question of to what extent external contamination by other sources (Neoplatonism, Augustinian tradition, Arabic tradition) play a role in their understanding.

In order to tackle these questions, we will have to reconstruct the accounts of abstraction of Aristotle himself and of the relevant commentators from Alexander of Aphrodisias onwards. We will also trace the networks of epistemological and psychological questions related to these accounts, in order to reveal the philosophical problems with which our authors were concerned and the different ways in which these problems were tackled. It is our final aim to give contemporary researchers access to Ancient and Medieval solutions that may shed a light on their own research about conceptualization.


2013: During the first year, Mora-Márquez will work on the reconstruction of the theory of concept formation in Aristotle’s De anima, and other relevant Aristotelian works, such as De sensu and De memoria. She will at the same time form part of the editing group (see 2.1).

2014–2015: Mora-Márquez will work on the reconstruction of theories of concept formation in late Antiquity (mainly on Alexander of Aphrodisias, Philoponus, Simplicius, Ammonius and Boethius) and on a philosophical analysis of these in comparison with Aristotle’s own theory. Her collaboration with the editing group continues.

2016: Mora-Márquez will work on the reconstruction of the most influent theories of concept formation in the Latin tradition and on a philosophical analysis of these in comparison with ancient theories.

2017: The manuscript of the monograph (with the title Aristotle and his commentators on concept formation or similar) is prepared for publishing. The collaboration with the editorial group continues.

2018: The monograph is published.

2019: The joint work on the theme Conceptualization is finished and ready for publication.

Relation to Other Sub-Projects Mora-Márquez and Fink are tightly connected as described already. Mora-Márquez relies directly on the results of Ierodiakonou and Bydén (for the Greek part) and Thörnqvist/Radovic (for the Latin part); Fink relies on these mainly as they contribute to understanding Aristotelian experience (implying memory and other forms of sensory ‘knowledge’) and perception in dreams. It is to be expected that Kukkonen will contribute novel insights relevant for the Latin parts. In combination, Mora-Márquez and Fink will likely throw new light on conceptualization and plan a co-authored publication about this. The sub-project of both Mora-Márquez and Fink supply the necessary basis

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

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