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On the Soul

by Aristotle

February 3, 2000

De Anima will be the first book that I am reading as an E-text; I downloaded it from the Internet Classics Archive at MIT. (Thanks, Terrance, for turning me on the the ICA.)

It is also the first book I have read in a long, long time that is straight, pure philosophy. It strikes me, from the few paragraphs I have read, as extremely dry, difficult reading. But I'll try it out -- my experience with this type of writing suggests that if I can stick with it long enough to see through the layers of writing to the essential argument, it will be rewarding.

February 5, 2000

OK, so I tried reading on the computer screen -- really I did; I don't think it's for me. I got through the first book, and with a fair degree of comprehension, but the reading experience just wasn't there. Well, I was poking around Editions used books in Ashokan today, and I ran across a copy of The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (for which I again thank Terrance for recommending it to me) -- so that's what I'm reading now. I'm going to start back from the beginning.

February 6, 2000

I started reading McKeon's introduction today. I was a bit surprised by his statement that "during much of the two thousand years since the Roman Republic, the influence of Aristotle... has been slight except for two periods: during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and again, possibly, at present." This did not seem to jibe with Russell's statement that "since the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine." But going back to McKeon's previous sentence (which I had not really absorbed the first time over), "Much of the history of civilization in the West can be and indeed has been written in the form of a debate in which the triumph of Aristotle in the thirteenth century and the defeat of Aristotle in the Renaissance indifferently herald great intellectual advances," and realized that they were saying approximately the same thing. I wonder, though, why McKeon did not include the Renaissance as a period in which Aristotle had significant influence; the rejection of his doctrines seems to me as valid a form of influence as its opposite.

February 14, 2000

Over the past week or so, I've been having a hard time with the text; Aristotle makes a lot of extremely broad assertions about physical reality that are false. It is difficult to follow his reasoning when I am constantly jumping in and thinking of counter-examples to the statements which he considers self-evident truths. Tonight, though, I felt like I was getting into it a bit deeper. Reading Book III, chapter 3, which deals with distinguishing between the terms perceiving, imagining and thinking, I started to riff off of his definitions and come up with some ideas of my own about perception.

February 16, 2000

I want to mention Aristotle's assertion about "animals which have no sense but touch":

Clearly they have feelings of pleasure and pain, and if they have these they must have desire.

Book III, chapter 11: 434a

This seems to me like an excellent, totally defensible observation. (And I think perhaps he made, and defended, this same observation earlier in the book, when I passed over it without comment.) In syllogistic form, he is saying: If an animal has tactile sense it has feelings of pleasure and pain. If an animal has feelings of pleasure and pain then it is capable of desire. Therefore animals which have only tactile sense are capable of desire [which means they have soul, or something resembling soul].

Let's look at that reasoning from a modern standpoint. First, how do we decide whether an animal has tactile sense? We poke it and see if it reacts. (From this we could conclude that my father does not have tactile sense.) We then have to ask, why does it have tactile sense? In Aristotle's world, the answer is that nature strives toward the higher faculties; I want an answer that does not impute any aims to nature.

That answer is, of course, that over the course of the animal's lineage, the ability to respond to tactile stimuli has evolved as part of a strategy for survival. But this line of thought, quite different from Aristotle's, leads us in the same direction: the way that this ability will contribute to survival is by causing either a painful or a pleasurable response to each stimulus, and the behavior of avoiding painful stimuli and seeking pleasurable ones, which I believe is exactly what Aristotle had is mind when he wrote the word "desire".