Works in Progress


Burnyeat on Spiritual Change

In a series of influential articles, Myles Burnyeat has argued that Aristotle’s metaphysics of mind is incompatible with modern versions of physicalism. In particular, and contrary to earlier work by people like Richard Sorabji, he contends that for Aristotle there are no physiological changes that occur when we perceive. But this leaves Burnyeat in a difficult position, for there are many points throughout the psychological works where Aristotle describes the senses as dependent on their sense-organs, and, more dangerously, Aristotle seems at times to describe physiological changes that are at the very least correlated with token acts of perception. While Burnyeat and other “spiritualists” (as defenders of this position have come to be called) have successfully shown that it is possible to reinterpret all of the passages that support the second claim, the most straightforward reading continues to be incompatible with spiritualism, and Aristotle’s appeal to the organ and medium when describing the senses does suggest that he has a general sensibility that corresponds with that of the modern physicalist. In this paper, I contend that the spiritualist view as Burnyeat presents it is needlessly strong. The references to occurrent physiological changes that Burnyeat rejects are shown on their natural reading to imply only that there are physiological alterations that coincide with acts of perception. I further argue that the position I ascribe to Aristotle, wherein acts of perception supervene on physiological changes but are in no way constituted by them, is similar to spiritualism in that it denies that perception is ontologically reducible to something physical. Nonetheless, I claim, contrary to Burnyeat’s conclusion, this more nuanced reading of Aristotle is not rendered otiose by the advancement of physical explanation in the sciences, for while my rendering of Aristotle’s view does not imply that success, it is nonetheless compatible with it.


Complexity and Unity in Aristotle’s Theory of Perception

According to Aristotle, sophisticated perceptual capacities (i.e. those that go beyond the perception of the special-objects by the special-senses) are all accounted for by reference to the unified operation of the perceptual capacity, a capacity that has come, in the literature, to be given the name “common-sense.” In this paper, I argue that Aristotle does not offer a mere virtus dormativa when he invokes the common-sense and denies it the status of a distinct sixth sense. Instead, I contend, perceptual capacities like joint perception, perceptual discrimination, and perception of the objects common to all of the senses each require that one token mental state be an instance of several perceptual types. I further show that the reference to metaperception that opens De Anima III.2 (“Since we perceive that we see and hear”) is best read as invoking the general phenomenon of common-sensing: the fact that we perceive our perceptions, when it is joined with Aristotle’s later avowal that perceiving and being perceived are the same activity, accounts for the fact that a numerically single activity is able to have a complex content. The standard reading of the opening of the chapter, which takes it as a narrow reference to some type of conscious awareness, is shown both to have difficulty motivating the presence of the claim at that stage of the argument and to be unable to account for the urgency of the puzzles that Aristotle goes on to address in the remainder of the chapter.


Does Theaetetus 184-186 Assume a “Heraclitean” Theory of Perception?

In his introduction to Theaetetus, Myles Burnyeat defends a novel interpretation, which he credits to Bernard Williams, of the structure of that dialogue. The traditional reading, which Burnyeat calls “Reading A,” takes it that Plato accepts the “Heraclitean” theory of perception, understood as the view that the object of perception and the act of perception come about through a “twin birth” and lack stability of the type that would make their existences mutually independent. According to Reading A, Plato has Socrates accept Heracliteanism about perception because Plato thinks it is true, and the reductio presented at 184-186 is taken to show that, given Heracliteanism, knowledge can’t be identical to perception. Burnyeat’s alternative interpretation, “Reading B,” holds that Socrates endorses the Heraclitean view simply because it is the only theory of the metaphysics of perception that Plato can think up that would allow for perception to be knowledge. According to this second reading, the Heraclitean theory of perception is rejected prior to the ultimate refutation of empiricism at 184-186. Instead, the later argument is meant to provide a direct proof that no theory of perception, including any possible alternatives to Heracliteanism, would allow for knowledge to be perception. In this paper, I argue first that the condition adduced at 185a—that what is perceptible by one sense is not perceptible by another—provides the best evidence that Plato is assuming Heracliteanism in this final refutation: for what other background beliefs would suggest that we adopt such a strong condition? I go on to claim, however, that a general commitment to the importance of physiology in perception not only suffices to motivate the condition but is also implied by the ensuing discussion. Reading B is thus shown to be tenable, and, given that it understands the conclusion as having a broader scope than Reading A does, it is taken to be the preferable interpretation.


Are the Objects of Sense Proprietary? Plato and Aristotle on the Diversity of the Sense Organs

Aristotle opens De Anima III.1 by arguing not only that there are no other actual senses or sense organs beyond the familiar five, but, indeed, that there are no other possible ones either. This seems odd: why would Aristotle think that such a thing could be demonstrated, and in any event why would he bother to provide that demonstration? In this paper, I claim that Aristotle is responding to the argument at Theaetetus 185a-e that purports to show that we do not in fact perceive objects initially thought to be perceptible by multiple senses: the so-called “common-objects,” which for Plato includes such things as sameness, beauty, and goodness. First I review the passage from Theaetetus. I show that Socrates and Theaetetus there infer that the common-objects are not perceived from the fact that there is no one organ for them. Proper attention to the discussion there shows, contrary to interpretations that rely on an implicit reference to the metaphysics of Forms, that Socrates does not deny that there could be an organ for the common-objects; nor, by extension, does he deny that those objects could be perceptible. Instead, he simply gets Theaetetus to agree to the empirical claim that we as a matter of fact don’t have a special organ for them, from which he concludes that we must grasp these objects in a non-perceptual manner. But Aristotle cannot accept that conclusion; indeed, the argument that opens De Anima III.1 comes just before his discussion of the perception of the common-objects. I contend, then, that Aristotle here means to show that if the common-objects could in principle be perceived, they must actually be perceptible, at least for creatures with the full range of senses. Given, I argue, that both Plato and Aristotle agree that the common-objects are possible objects of perception, Aristotle then takes himself to have shown that the common-objects are also actual objects of perception.


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