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Intentionality in Embodied Cognitive Processes

Project leader: Véronique Decaix


The Problem

At first glance, the Parva naturalia belong to the Aristotelian physics, according to their title that means “little works of physics”. “Little”, on the one hand, for the brevity of each treatise, and on the other, because the themes they deal with (sensation, memory, dream) have certainly not risen as much philosophical interest as two other works of Aristotle, namely the Physics and On the soul. Some of these treatises are, however, of importance to cognitive psychology, namely De sensu et sensato, De memoria et reminiscentia, De somno et vigilia, De insomnis, De divinatione per somnum.

The scope of the Parva naturalia is to build a science of the states common to soul and body. In this subproject, my primary aim is to investigate to what extent the medieval commentaries on the Parva naturalia give ground to a new science, namely physiology, which provides the middle term, or the missing link, between the science of nature (physics) and science of the soul (psychology). This subproject intends to give a novel systematic account of the medieval reception of these treatises.

Contrary to De anima III, the Parva naturalia do not investigate separate activities such as thinking, but rather all the movements of the soul that require a physical process and an organic seat in the body. These common activities of body and soul bring Aristotelian hylomorphism to the fore. The Parva naturalia give a new explanation of the unity of man, which is interpreted not as a composite, but as an animated organism, whose functions interact in a substantial whole. After closer examination, it appears that the mind-body relation cannot be understood as if the body were the unilateral instrument of the soul, insofar as the soul can, conversely, be affected and moved by bodily processes.

Main questions

1) Intentionality in sense perception and memory

The first philosophical issue is to explain the cognitive embodied process of perception, imagination and memory. In this regard, my subproject will focus on the Latin commentaries on De sensu et sensato, and De memoria and reminiscentia, in comparison with the theory of sensation given in the commentaries of the second book of De anima. The De sensu and De memoria provide a detailed description of (a) the organic process underlying the formation of an image, and (b) the unity of the sensorial system. The treatment of sensation as an affection of the soul informs the analysis of the three activities: perceiving (De sens.), remembering (De mem.) and dreaming (De ins., De somn.). Perception is caused by an organic alteration that needs a bodily change, so that the act of perceiving indicates the functional community of body and soul.

The physiological process of the phantasia leads to a series of problems: is imagination distinct from sensation? Does the faculty of imagination have a proper object? What is the proper cause of sensation: the intentional image kept in the soul or the external thing?

The functions of memory (conservation and remembering) rely on the central role of phantasia. Imprints of prior sensations, retained by the imagination, are stored in memory. Memories possess a paradoxical status insofar as they are formed upon a previous sensation, without being themselves objects of sensation. Memories are dispositions of the natural organ explained by a certain material process.

2) Dreams as images: the dynamics of sleep

Aristotle defines sleep as a privation of sensation and limitation of the common sense, described as a stasis.

This affirmation gives rise to many concerns: first, are we fully unconscious during sleep? Or can we feel external sensations (noise, light, perfume) and perceive some internal motions as well?
Second, Why do we dream? If the necessity of sleep can be demonstrated on the basis of the health and life of animals, dreams seem to fail any final explanation.

Third, what are we dreaming about? The issue is to find the proper reference/content of dreams.

Medieval thinkers gave various answers to the problem of the dynamics of dreams. Dreams are interpreted by analogy with sensation: the dreamed imageries first stem from the process of perception and rely on the retention of an image in memory. Dreams have a triple function: they are (a) signs of a prior affection, (b) causes of wakeful actions and (c) they coincide with posterior events, which causes divination (De div.). While Aristotle places the formation of images during sleep under the category of local change, medieval thinkers explain the association of images by an active role played by imagination. This active association of series of images in dream and in memory is due to the imaginative power, which cannot be described as only a representative faculty.


2015 The first year will be dedicated to identify and work on the 13th-15th Latin commentaries on the Parva naturalia, described in the catalogue of Ebbensen and Thörnqvist.

2016-2018 In collaboration with the text-editing group, an edition of the Commentary on the Parva naturalia of John Buridan is prepared.

During this period, at least 4-8 articles will be produced on the topic of intentionality and embodiment in imagination, memory and dream in the Parva naturalia.

Decaix will also contribute to the Latin section in the three-joint volumes.

2017 The edition of Buridan’s Commentary is ready for publication.

2019 The Monograph on the topic of Naturalization of Intentionality (or similar) is ready for publication.

Relation to Others Subprojects: Decaix’s subproject is tightly connected to Thörnqvist and Radovic’s project on Dream and relies from the result of Ierodiakonou and Bydén for the Greek part on sense-perception. Kukkonen’s project on the Arabic tradition will also bring some substantial material on the topic of imagination.

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/3/2015

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