Ancient Philosophy Links March 19-25


We take it that the person who the capacity to know difficult things, that is, things that are not easy for humans to know–he is wise” Aristotle, Metaphysics A2


PLOTINUS: Ennead IV.7: On the Immortality of the Soul: Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary (The Enneads of Plotinus) Paperback – March 24, 2016
by Barrie Fleet (Author)

Plotinus the Platonist
by David Yount

The Poverty of Eros in Plato’s Symposium
by Lorelle D. Lamascus

Augustine and Academic Skepticism: A Philosophical Study
by Blake Dutton


NB: Book titles are linked to Amazon, by lines are linked to review

Knowledge and Virtue in Early Stoicism
Reviewed by Nathan Powers, State University of New York at Albany

The Platonic Alcibiades I: The Dialogue and its Ancient Reception
Reviewed by Francisco J. Gonzalez, University of Ottawa

Mariska Leunissen, ed.
Aristotle’s Physics: A Critical Guide.
Reviewed by Karel Thein.


The Dynamics of Thought: “The Soul is All Things”

(This post assumes that thought or perception is self-cognizant, that is, that to have a perception or thought is to be aware of it, as a function of the perception or thought itself, and that awareness does not owe to some capacity over and above perception or thought itself.  See this post for Aristotle’s position.)

As an addendum to the idea that awareness is concomitant with all thought insofar as as it is thought, it is important to discuss the overall flexibility of the soul as a capacity par excellence. In contrast to some readings of the Platonic account which has all knowledge somehow latent within us in Recollection, the Aristotelian account maintains that thought is something entirely plastic and receptive to its objects. This is the case to such a degree that Aristotle can make the seemingly shocking statement that, “Let us now summarize our results about soul, and repeat that the soul is in a way all existing things” (De Anima 431b21, trans. Smith). This may in fact be the explanation for why Aristotle does not need to appeal to some feature over and above the mere presence of a thought to account for an awareness of that thought. For if the soul were not an all-accommodating capacity, a potentiality, then this would mean it would have only a capacity determinate for certain thoughts; it could only have an awareness of those objects for which it was a determinate capacity. This would entail that if the soul were to meet anything outside the confines of its proscribed capacity, it would not be aware of them.  Yet this is absurd; anything we think of, we are aware of. Therefore, if we want to preserve the feature of psychology that thought brings with it an awareness of itself, we would do well by also maintaining, with Aristotle, that the “soul is all things.”

Does Perceiving Require a Perception of a Perception?

Since we perceive that we are seeing and hearing, it is necessary that one perceives that one sees either by sight or by some other sense…Further, if the sense which perceived sight were to be other than sight, then either this will carry on into infinity or there will be some sense which will be of itself, with the result that one should grant this in the case of the first sense (De Anima, 425b22 ff., trans. Shields).

In the De Anima passage above Aristotle tells us that there are no perceptions of perceptions, that is, a perception as such does not need to appeal to yet another perception to explain our awareness of it.  Rather the capacity of perception itself, when active, carries with it the awareness of its own perception.  Aristotle’s main problem with multiplying perceptions here is that this will lead to perceptions of perceptions of perceptions, a never-ending cascade of perceptual regress, if you will. 

There would seem to be at least two other difficulties Aristotle would wish to avoid with “perceptions of perception.”(1)  The first is that the second perception would not be “of” the object of perception, the purported intention of the thought.  Rather it would be of the first perception (even if this included the original object as well), relegating the first perception to a role not unlike the one played by the Forms in Plato’s epistemology.  That is, the first perception would be the noetic stuff given to the awareness, just as the Forms are ultimately that by which and of which a thought is about.  On this understanding the first perception would be of the object, while the second perception would be of the perception of the object.  Consciousness is thus directly removed from the true object of its intention, and there is an awareness not of something out there in the world, but at a remove of one step from that world.  If this is so, it is easy to see why Aristotle would avoid this difficulty by positing that a perception, or a thought, carries with it its own awareness. 

The second difficulty for “perceptions of perception” is that the two perceptions are presumably identical.  And either they are precisely identical, in which case one of them is superfluous, or they differ only in that the second is the perception of the first, while the first is of some other object.  In this second case then, the second perception perceives the first perception with the result that there is an awareness of either the first perception or the object of the first perception, it is unclear to say which.  Whichever the object of the second perception though, it would seem better served, since we have already granted that a perception qua mere perception (in the second perception) has the capacity to serve as an awareness, that we grant this same power to the first perception, eliminating what appears to be an unneeded appeal to the unsure grounds of infinite regress.


This impulse to put “safeguards” in place for capacities seems to be a mainstay in philosophy: for every capacity there must be some further capacity over and above this one in order to ensure proper functioning of the capacity.  John McDowell criticizes this maneuver lucidly when he says, “Some people have a capacity to throw a basketball through the hoop from the free-throw line. Any instantiation of such a capacity is imperfect; even the best players do not make all their free throws” (McDowell 245).  Thus, to make a basket with (a given) regularity belongs to the capacity itself, not by a capacity over and above the ability to hit a free throw.

Aristotle, and Christopher Shields. De Anima. Trans. Christopher Shields.  Oxford: Clarendon, 2016.

McDowell, John (2010), ‘Tyler Burge on disjunctivism’, Philosophical Explorations, 13: 3, 243-255