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Recent Work on Aristotle’s “De anima”: Workshop

Saturday April 20, 2024 - Sunday April 21, 2024

Please join us for a two-day workshop considering recent work on Aristotle’s De anima.


Saturday, April 20


Léa Derome, “The Perceptual Mean of DA II 11”

With comments by Alexander de Guzman

Abstract: In De anima II 11, Aristotle develops what has been called his “theory of the perceptual mean,” claiming that the sensory faculty is “a sort of mean” (oion mesotēs) and that “the middle is capable of discrimination” (to meson kritikon). To clarify the implications of this theory for Aristotle’s account of sensation, this paper makes three interpretive claims. First, it argues that by calling the sensory faculty a mesotēs, Aristotle indicates that it functions as a regulating principle responsible for keeping the sense-organ in an intermediate state despite the agency of sensible objects. Second, it claims that this intermediate state should not be understood on the model of an arithmetic mean, but, more elastically, as falling between the relevant extremes. Lastly, it is argued that this characterization of the sensory faculty as a mesotēs is developed to account for the particularities of the sense of touch–the only sense whose organ cannot be free from the properties it discriminates–and applies only derivatively to the other sensory modalities.


Mark A. Johnstone, “Aristotle and the Primary/Secondary Quality Distinction”

Abstract: In his De Anima and elsewhere, Aristotle distinguishes between “special perceptibles” (idia aisthêta) such as colours, flavours, and sounds, which can be perceived by only one sense, and “common perceptibles” (koina aisthêta) such as shapes, sizes, and movements, which can be perceived by more than one sense. In extension, this distinction overlaps to a striking degree with the today more familiar distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities, which became popular in the 17th century following the work of thinkers such as Boyle and Locke (see e.g. Nolan ed. 2011), and which arguably originated with Aristotle’s atomist predecessors such as Democritus (see e.g. O’Keefe 1997). Yet the two distinctions have very different bases: Aristotle’s distinction – which remained influential throughout the medieval period (see Pasnau 2011) – marks the mode of access to the qualities (via one sense or many), whereas the primary/secondary quality distinction, although developed in different ways by different thinkers in the early modern period, always rests in some way on the idea that some perceptible qualities are more ontologically fundamental features of the mind-independent world than others. What exactly is the relationship between these two distinctions, given their similar extensions?

In this paper, I argue that Aristotle’s special/common perceptibles distinction marks not only a difference in mode of access to perceptible qualities, but also, like the primary/secondary quality distinction, a difference in how perceptible qualities belong to bodies. However, I also argue, while both distinctions track how perceptible qualities belong to bodies, the Aristotelian distinction, unlike the early modern primary/secondary quality distinction, does not entail a difference in ontological fundamentality. For Aristotle, both kinds of perceptible qualities are equally “real” and mind-independent features of bodies. To understand how this can be so, we need to understand some basic features of Aristotle’s theory of chemistry, especially his theory of homoiomerous (“like-parted” or “uniform”) bodies. But essentially, I argue, Aristotle thought special perceptibles, unlike common perceptibles, belong to bodies in virtue of their chemical composition. Since for him the chemical properties of compounds do not reduce to the size and shape of their component parts, special perceptibles do not depend on common perceptibles. Nor do common perceptibles depend on special perceptibles; for the size and shape of a body needn’t depend on the kind of “stuff” from which it is composed. Hence, both Aristotle’s special/common perceptible distinction and the primary/second quality distinction reflect differences in how qualities belong to bodies. This explains the similarity in their extension. Yet for Aristotle, the most interesting thing about this distinction is not an ontological hierarchy of qualities in the world it undergirds, but rather how we (and other animals) discern these different features of the world, given the workings of perception.


Ashley Attwood, “Mapping Out the Philosophical Landscape: The Task of De anima 1.2”

With comments by Faisal Bhabha

Abstract: Following a series of programmatic remarks, Aristotle conducts a thorough examination of what his predecessors said about the soul in DA 1.2-1.5. He conducts this preliminary study in two stages: in 1.2, Aristotle catalogs the received definitions of the soul by organizing them and their proponents into groups. Then for the remainder of the review (1.3-1.5), Aristotle appraises a subset of the views identified in the initial inventory. Most think the significance of DA 1.2 is either pedagogical or historical, in that it doesn’t play a significant role in Aristotle’s investigation. However, in this paper, I argue that Aristotle systematically classifies the accounts of soul proposed by his predecessors in order to map out the philosophical landscape according to three definitional routes, all expressed by way of the same four-part argumentative pattern. The purpose of this preliminary exercise is to establish three argumentative tracks, which Aristotle thinks underly roughly all of his predecessors’ theorizing about the soul. I conclude, somewhat more speculatively, by suggesting that in the remainder of the review of predecessors (1.3-1.5) Aristotle is in fact showing all three of these tracks to be mistaken, ultimately for the same general reason (i.e. making the soul an element/from the elements— a material (though not necessarily corporeal) archê).


Jessica Gelber and Emily Kress, “Living, Living Well, and Scientific Method”

Abstract: As he does in De Anima III.12-13, Aristotle sometimes draws a distinction between attributes of living beings, such as vital capacities, that are possessed by a kind “for the sake of living” (or “being”) and those that are possessed “for the sake of living well” (or “well-being”). This talk is about (1) what that distinction amounts to, and (2) what Aristotle’s purpose in drawing it is. Our focus will largely be on (2): we suggest that the distinction is playing a particular methodological role, one which we can see Aristotle employing elsewhere in his biological investigations. The “living”/”living well” contrast is not meant to divide a kind’s attributes according to whether they are present for one end or the other, but rather is an application of a procedure that aims to discover what the essence of the kind is. Viewing the distinction in this way, moreover, will have implications for how one answers the first question, so we will also say something about how we depart from extant views about (1).


Sunday, April 21


Nathanael Stein, “Phantasia and the Argument of De anima III 3”

Abstract: De Anima III 3 and its discussion of phantasia present a series of interlocking puzzles, local and global. There are local puzzles about the text and about what the discussion is doing here; there are interpretive and philosophical questions of what phantasia actually is, its role in Aristotle’s “cognitive economy,” and the consistency of his claims both within the chapter and in relation to other works.  Finally, there are puzzles about the broader philosophical context: on the one hand, Aristotle is sometimes interpreted as changing the subject, or introducing a different use of the term ‘phantasia’ in relation to earlier ones; on the other, it is sometimes claimed that it is anachronistic and mistaken to read III 3 as a discussion of imagination in a sense we can recognize. If both of these are true, Aristotle’s discussion is philosophically disconnected from both what came before and what came after, even if there is some continuity as a matter of historical fact. This would be unfortunate, especially since the chapter contains a series of arguments against a clearly Platonic view, expressed in the Sophist, that phantasia is a kind of opinion (doxa) combined with or arising from perception. If Aristotle takes himself to be arguing against a view rather than introducing a novel sense of the term, we should at least aim to understand the argument he takes himself to be making.

Here I start with some of the local problems, and show the consequences of my solution for the more global ones. I first offer a reconstruction of the chapter and its argument in light of what I take to be its principle aim: effecting the transition from the discussion of perception to the discussion of thought, in particular by blocking claims that would blunt the distinction. I argue that this aim directs and constrains the discussion of phantasia more than has been appreciated. In effect, I wish to separate the question of why Aristotle “needs” phantasia—i.e. its role in his cognitive economy—from the reason he thinks he needs to talk about it in III 3, and argue that this separation will both clarify the argument and his view of phantasia itself.

As I interpret the chapter, phantasia comes into the picture twice, in relation to two distinct arguments with the same overarching goal. It first enters the discussion indirectly at 427b14 in relation to what he takes to be an ancient view that perception and thinking are essentially the same, and then becomes the focus of a direct account starting at 427b27, but only because “one part [of thinking] seems to be phantasia, and the other part judgment (hupolêpsis)”—that is, its connection to thinking needs clarification and may present an obstacle, depending on how intimate that connection turns out to be. 

I will take the two parts in turn, in order to clarify what Aristotle has concluded about phantasia and its consequences for his account of it. I then turn to a more detailed examination of the arguments against the Platonic view, in order to show how Aristotle is disagreeing with Plato and why, which will in turn help situate Aristotelian phantasia in the broader philosophical movement from appearance to imagination.


Krisanna Scheiter, “Potential Nous in Aristotle’s De anima 3.4”

Abstract: Aristotle says in DA 3.4 that part of the soul he calls nous is a “sort of potentiality” but in “actuality [it is] none of the things which are before it reasons” (DA 3.4 429a). If nous is not a capacity that operates through a specific bodily organ and it is in fact nothing except for the potential to reason and understand, we have to wonder exactly what sort of capacity is nous? The common view is that reasoning involves nous being acted upon by intelligible objects, but what does it mean for a capacity that is pure potentiality to be “acted upon” by intelligible objects. The aim of this paper is to explain Aristotle’s account of nous as a pure potentiality and understand how nous grasps its objects. To do so, I will draw on Aristotle’s description of mathematical objects in his Metaphysics. Specifically I will focus on Aristotle’s explanation of mathematical points, which we will see has a very special sort of existence and function that will help us understand his account of nous. Aristotle claims that points exist as pure potentialities of lines, but are not part of lines and they do not exist separate from lines. They have a very special sort of existence, he claims. They exist as divisions of lines. I will argue that similarly nous also acts as a kind of divider. I will argue that through the faculty of phantasia we form unified experiences by recognizing similarities in our perceptual experiences. Nous, I claim, is the capacity to recognize in our unified experiences the differentia that makes one unified experience essentially different from all the others.



  • Ashley Attwood (Stanford)
  • Faisal Bhabha (Toronto)
  • Léa Derome (Toronto)
  • Jessica Gelber (Toronto)
  • Alexander de Guzman (Toronto)
  • Mark Johnstone (McMaster)
  • Joseph Karbowski (PNC)
  • Emily Kress (Brown)
  • Krisanna Scheiter (Union College)
  • Nathanael Stein (Florida State)


A day of lead-in sessions will precede the workshop on Friday, April 19, 2024. These sessions will occur in JHB 401 and JHB 418.

Lead-In Participants

(all from the University of Toronto)

  • Diego Bay-Cheung 
  • Samuel Boudreau
  • Cal Fried
  • Hikmat Jamal
  • Yi-Cheng Lin
  • Duncan McCallum
  • Sooyoung Moon
  • Alex Rose
  • Jason Singer

This event is generously supported by the Department of Philosophy and the Collaborative Specialization in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (CSAMP).



Saturday April 20, 2024
Sunday April 21, 2024
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Jessica Gelber


Jackman Humanities Building, Room 418
170 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5R 2M8 Canada
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