When and Why Understanding Needs Phantasmata: A Moderate Interpretation of Aristotle’s De Memoria and De Anima on the Role of Images in Intellectual Activities

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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Denver co, 80204, USA

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I offer a new interpretation of the passages where Aristotle maintains that intellectual activity employs φαντάσµατα (images). In theoretical understanding of mathematical and natural beings, we usually need to consciously employ appropriate φαντάσµατα in order to grasp explanatory connections. Aristotle does not, however, commit himself to thinking that images are required for exercising all theoretical understanding: understanding immaterial things, in particular, may not involve φαντάσµατα. Thus the connection that Aristotle makes between images and understanding does not rule out the possibility that human intellectual activity could occur apart from the body.

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  • 1

    E.g. Caston 1998 and 2009; Polansky 2007, 487-9; Wedin 1988; Modrak 1987, 122-3; 130-1.

  • 10

    Dorothea Frede, 1992, 290-1, suggests this possibility but does not firmly commit herself to it.

  • 17

    E.g. M. Frede 1996, 106-7; Polansky 2007, 498-9; Caston 2009, 327.

  • 22

    E.g. Hicks 1907, 537-8. In support of his interpretation, Hicks notes that Aristotle appears to make a fully general claim in a later passage (da 3.8, 432a5). However, the fact that Aristotle may make a broader claim in other passages does not force us to interpret his claim here as an unrestricted one. The context strongly suggests that the range of Aristotle’s claim is limited to practical understanding. Aristotle is presenting an analogy between the ways in which perception and understanding give rise to action, to avoiding or pursuing something. Polansky agrees with my more restrictive interpretation (Polansky 2007, 485).

  • 25

    I follow Jannone 1966, Ross 1961 and Themistius in reading ταῦτα, which is found in Ha, rather than τἆλλα which is found in the other manuscripts. If one wishes to retain τἆλλα the sentence could be translated along the lines suggested by J. A. Smith (modified in Barnes 1984): ‘neither these [primary thoughts] nor even our other thoughts are images.’ This would give a similar meaning to my reading, although it would clearly extend Aristotle’s claims to all νοήµατα.

  • 26

    Polansky 2007, 495 n. 3. This usage also fits with the etymological sense of πρᾶγµα as something that is done or happens. For example, in da 2.5 Aristotle criticizes theories that compose the soul out of elements, tacitly assuming that like is known by like, by pointing out that this position requires putting the πράγµατα in the soul (ὥσπερ ἂν εἰ τὴν ψυχὴν τὰ πράγµατα τιθέντες, 409b27-8). This, Aristotle argues, is ridiculous because the full range of material or composite things cannot, as such, be present in the soul. He does not however think the presence of forms or immaterial things in the soul is ridiculous, since this is in fact central to his own views on cognition (e.g. 3.4, 430a4-5). Thus there is a good case for thinking that Aristotle is using πράγµατα in 1.5 to refer not to all beings, but just to material or composite things, the sorts of things that could not, as such, be present in the soul. Admittedly, Aristotle does sometimes use πρᾶγµα to refer to all things (cf. da 3.4, 429b22; 3.5, 430a20; 3.7, 431a2). That fact does not rule out this interpretation, as there are a number of cases in which Aristotle sometimes uses a term with a broader reference and sometimes with a stricter. For example, Aristotle sometimes includes the imagination under the heading of νοῦς (cf. da 3.3, 427b-428a5; 3.7, 431b2-9; 3.10, 433a9-14; De Motu Animalium 6, 700b17-22), but usually restricts the scope of νοῦς to properly intellectual activity.

  • 28

    Cf. Johansen 2012, 236-7.

  • 32

    Caston 2009, 325. Since Caston does not approve of translating φαντασία as ‘imagination’ or φαντάσµατα as ‘images’, I will mostly leave these terms untranslated when discussing his views.

  • 33

    Caston 2009, 325. Caston is here summarizing Wedin’s position, which he also endorses.

  • 34

    Wedin 1988, 203. Cf. da 2.5, 417b22-8; APo. 1.31, 87b29-33. See Cohoe 2013, 372-5 for further discussion of this passage and the contrast between universal understanding and spatiotemporally limited perception.

  • 35

    Wedin 1988, 208.

  • 40

    Polansky 2007, 491 says: ‘We think the forms in the phantasmata just because of some intermediary connection that stimulates us to think, as when picturing a lyre we think of a person.’ He also speaks of phantasmata as giving rise to thought, leading us to think, and getting us to think (2007, 493). For his discussion see Polansky 2007, 489-93, 498-500.

  • 43

    Cf. D. Frede 1995, 291-2.

  • 48

    This diagram is taken from Euclid, Elements 1.32. I agree with Heath (1956, i. 321) that Aristotle’s use of ἀνῆκτο indicates that the procedure and diagram he employs is the same as Euclid’s, not the Pythagorean proof handed down by Eudemus and reported by Proclus.

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  • 49

    Manders 2008. I think Manders’ interpretation of how Euclidean proofs work is closer to Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics than the stronger position advocated by Reviel Netz, on which, in ancient geometry, ‘part of the content is supplied by the diagram, and not solely by the text. The diagram is not just a pedagogic aid, it is a necessary, logical component’ (Netz 1998, 34). While I think that Aristotle would agree with Netz in maintaining that the diagram is a necessary component of understanding, not just a pedagogical device, Aristotle would deny that the diagram supplies the content. The diagram helps one to grasp universal explanatory connections but is not itself the object of understanding.

  • 54

    Cf. discussion of these cases in Kelsey 2015.

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