Aristotle Essay Research Paper IntroductionAristotle

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Aristotle Essay, Research Paper Introduction Aristotle’s approach in describing sense perception in De Anima is in many ways similar to modern ones. He makes an attempt to explain all forms of perception – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting – in purely physiological terms. Although he lacked our knowledge of nerve endings, ear drums, retinas etc., having instead the rather primitive view that the sense organs are made of earth, air, water and fire, his overall description of how we perceive things in the physical world nevertheless bears a number of striking resemblances to the more refined modern explanations. Naturally, there have been several criticisms of Aristotle’s account of sense-perception, and one such will be discussed below. However, more

importantly, it will be argued that there are certain basic philosophical problems which accompany not only Aristotle’s theory of perception, but contemporary ones as well. Form and Matter Although Aristotle discusses each of the five senses at considerable length, it will suffice us here to focus primarily on visual perception, as his handling of this particular sense has parallels in his treatment of the other senses. Before we get into the mechanics of how an animal actually sees things in the physical world, however, it will be necessary to explain briefly Aristotle’s distinction between form and matter. Matter, according to Aristotle, is that which a thing is made of. Form, on the other hand, is that quality or shape which a thing has that makes it belong to a particular

class of things. Aristotle gives the example of a signet ring being dipped in wax and making an imprint. The imprint is the form of the ring, but not the ring itself, i.e. its matter. (Book II, chapter 12) A useful modern example which shows the distinction between form and matter might be a photograph of, for example, a person. The photograph has captured the form of the person (i.e. his or her physical attributes), but is obviously not actually the person. Aristotle’s Theory of Perception in Brief According to Aristotle, when an animal perceives an object, the sense organ (in the case of visual perception, the eye) takes on or actually becomes like the form of the object it is perceiving. In describing this process, Aristotle uses two technical terms: potentiality and

actuality. Let’s imagine a person called Bob who is looking at an orange. The orange has the form of an orange in actuality. Before he looks at it, Bob’s eye has the potential for receiving or becoming the form of the orange. As soon as he starts to look at it, however, his sense organ becomes “acted upon” and undergoes change. In the words of Aristotle: “…when once it [the sense-organ] has been acted upon, it is similar and has the same character as the sensible object.” (Book II, chapter 5) Thus Bob’s eye eventually takes on the actual form of the orange. This, according to Aristotle, is essentially how sense perception works. There are, however, some added features in his theory that need to be mentioned. To begin with, Aristotle believed that we don’t

perceive anything directly. Instead we perceive things indirectly, through some sort of medium. This medium varies from sense to sense. In the case of hearing, for example, it is air. In the case of seeing, it is air which contains something Aristotle chooses to call the “transparent,” which is closely related to light. (Book II, chapter 7) According to T.W. Bynum’s interpretation in his article “A New Look at Aristotle’s Theory of Perception,” the transparent does not have an independent existence, but is always found in something else, usually air, water or aether, the eternal fifth element (see the third paragraph of my paper on Aristotle’s astronomy). [1] Light is the activity of the transparent. In the absence of light, the transparent is only potentially