Archives For PHIL 320R Aristotle

Perhaps most intriguing and perplexing among Aristotle’s writings is his theory on how the human intellect passes from a non-thinking state to a thinking one. Aristotle assumed that human thought reflects reality in a distortion-free manner. He also assumed that inborn qualities would taint the thoughts acquired by the human intellect, thus preventing it from performing its proper function. As a result, he took the human intellect to be a “part of the soul” with the ability to “become each thing” but with no nature of its own (De Anima 3.4.429a 10, 21-22; 429b 6). Next, he argued for the presence in the soul, as in all things, of “matter” and a “cause” or “agent” which leads the matter from potentiality to actuality. Thus, Aristotle posited, alongside the potential or material intellect capable of “becoming all things” via the acquisition of all thoughts, an active intellect capable of “making all things” via the making of all thoughts. (De Anima 3.5.430a 10-15).

The meaning of potential intellect and active intellect and the relationship between them are not clear in Aristotle’s De Anima. Is the active intellect part of the human soul or separate from it? (Davidson 3-4). “If the active intellect is entirely independent of the body, how can we reconcile it with Aristotle’s prevailing view of soul as the form of body” (Bunnin and Yu 11-12)? These questions have perplexed philosophers, who have tried to answer them, for two thousand years. Among them were ancient Greek commentators, medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophers, and European philosophers. Each of them carefully studied Aristotle, looking for the answers to these questions. In his writings they expected to find the key to man’s essence, his fate, and the structure of the universe (Davidson 3-4). I will demonstrate that the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle’s active intellect is most consistent with Aristotle’s system and, at the same time, that Aristotle is consistent with Plato on this subject, justifying the Neoplatonist interpretation of Aristotle.

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What is most real, universals or particulars? Plato and Aristotle gave diametrically opposed answers to this basic ontological question and proceeded to build their entire philosophies on the epistemological foundation of their individual answers. As a result, the question has been debated for centuries, some siding with Plato, others with Aristotle, and others still attempting to syncretize the ideas of each. For Plato, universal Forms or ideas are most real. They are imperceptible to the senses, but all that the senses perceive are, according to Plato, a mere shadow of the Forms. Plato sees the universal Forms as ontologically prior to the individual particulars perceived by the senses. His pupil Aristotle, on the other hand, not only affirms that individual particulars are ontologically prior to universals, but that without the individual particulars, there would be no universals. For Aristotle, individual particulars are most real.

In the Categories, Aristotle asserts that substances are, “in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word” (2a11-13) individual particulars, such as this computer or that telephone (2a13). He asserts that only individual particulars are “neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject” (2a12-13). Aristotle explains what being “predicable of” or “present in” a subject means in chapter two of the Categories. Being predicable of a subject or not, is simply a distinction between abstract universals and concrete particulars. The particular man, Codell Carter, is not predicable of any subject, but the universal “man” is predicable of Codell Carter. My particular copy of A First Course in Logic is not predicable of any subject, but the universal term “book” is predicable of my particular copy of A First Course in Logic. In other words, universal terms are predicable of subjects, while particular terms are not. As for being or not being in a subject, this refers to the possibility of independent existence. Aristotle describes a subject as that which is “incapable of existence apart from the said subject” (1a22-23). Thus, that which is not in a subject is the subject itself. Since the “Arctic Silver” color of my BMW, for example, cannot exist separately from my BMW, said color is in a subject. But the BMW itself is not in any subject, since the BMW is the subject (3a10-16). Thus, Aristotle distinguishes between attributes (which are present in a subject) and entities (which are not present in a subject) (Hsieh).

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