Images, Appearances, and Phantasia in Aristotle

In: Phronesis
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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, 433 Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

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Aristotle’s account of phantasia in De Anima 3.3 is notoriously difficult to decipher. At one point he describes phantasia as a capacity for producing images, but then later in the same chapter it is clear phantasia is supposed to explain appearances, such as why the sun appears to be a foot wide. Many commentators argue that images cannot explain appearances, and so they claim that Aristotle is using phantasia in two different ways. In this paper I argue that images actually explain perceptual appearances for Aristotle, and so phantasia always refers to images. I take a new approach to interpreting DA 3.3, reading it alongside Plato’s Theaetetus and Sophist. In the Theaetetus, Socrates explains how memory gives rise to perceptual appearance. I claim that Aristotle adopts Socrates’ account of perceptual appearance, but what Socrates calls memory, Aristotle calls phantasia.

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  • 26)

    Caston (1996) also reads DA 3.3 as a chapter on error. Other commentators note that Aristotle discusses error in this chapter, but do not seem to recognize that the chapter is organized around the problem of error.

  • 33)

    Cashdollar (1973) offers an account of incidental perception for Aristotle that is very similar to the one I have presented in this section. He states that to perceive a ‘colored object as y, I surely must have y stored as an image and one which becomes spontaneously conjoined with a certain proper sensible when it is perceived. The single awareness of that conjunction is incidental perception. It is probable that, in general terms and with the differences noted above, Aristotle would allow that this association is similar to that of memory and recollection, i.e. that “habit” (451b12, 452a27) plays an important part in associating ‘likenesses’ one with another’ (169). Cashdollar, however, does not tie Aristotle’s discussion of incidental perception to the problem of error or to Plato’s Theaetetus as I do. His interest is in perception, not phantasia.

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