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Aristotle and the Concept of Awareness in Sense Perception

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 13, Number 3, July 1975
pp. 283-296 | 10.1353/hph.2008.0442

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Aristotle and the Concept of Awareness in Sense Perception JEROME SCHILLER 1. A SERIOUS SHORTCOMING of physicalistic analyses of sense perception is their failure to account for the all-pervasive component of awareness that characterizes per- ceptual acts. Perception is typically of something "external," of something that impinges upon us, of something which we encounter, whether that thing is held to be a physical object or a mere sense datum? Apparent exceptions to this rule, where one is said, for example, to have heard or seen something even though he did not notice it at the time, serve only to underscore its general applicability, for they are best explained on the sup- position of the simultaneous perception of another object which forms the focus of the individual's attention. The unnoticed object is relegated to the fringe of his attention, and it is only by contrast with the more obtrusive object that he is said not to be aware of it. It should be noted that the concept of awareness as I am using it here has nothing to do with the distinction between veridical and non-veridical perceptions, with judgment, or with self-consciousness. I may be aware of a colored object or a color when no object or color is presented to me, I may be aware of a color or sound without making any judgments as to its source, and my awareness of an object or quality need not imply my reflexive awareness of that awareness, a necessary feature of self-consciousness. 2 The earliest philosophers in the Western tradition treated perception on the analogy of a physical process, s As reported by Theophrastus, they viewed perception as the effect either of like upon like or of unlike upon unlike, Parmenides and Empedocles following the first line, Alcmaeon and Anaxagoras the latter. In the Theaetetus and Timaeus Plato offers what may perhaps be best viewed as a development of the Empedoclean view that like affects like. According to that view, sense perception is accomplished by the meeting of effluences from the sense object with those proceeding from the sense organ. Accord- ing to the Platonic account, perception arises in the interaction between the motions comprising the sense organ and the sense object. (Democritus presents a similar account, x Because of the breadth with which I want the concept of awareness to be applied and because of the fact that ct~o0-qoxg is used by Aristotle and previous thinkers to refer indiscriminately to what might be called "sensation" and what might be called "perception," I use "sensation" and "perception" and terms derived from them interchangeably in this paper. See also section 3 below where it becomes clear that ct~a0~6v is used by Aristotle to refer to what might be called either "an object of sensation" (a quality of a physical object) or an "object of perception" (a physical object having that quality). 2 I have deliberately chosen the term "awareness" rather than "consciousness" here in view of the fact that the latter is frequently confused with "self-consciousness." Aristotle explicitly deals with the problem of self-consciousness in Book III, chapter 2 of De Anima, but it is not that treatment which I am going to consider here. a In my comments on pre-Socratic and Platonic theories of sense perception I closely follow D. W. Hamlyn's discussion in his Sensation and Perception (London, 1961), pp. 5-16. 1283] 284 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY in holding that the image, which finally enters the sense organ, results from the meeting of films cast off by the object with those cast off by the organ.) The complications of Empedocles' theory probably represent his attempt to explicate the activity in sense perception which I have characterized as awareness. The perceiver is not completely passive in sense perception: he actively reaches out. But, as D. W. Hamlyn notes, Empedocles forces this "psychological" fact into a "purely physiological mode." The final location of the sensation between the perceiver and the object or, in Plato's develop- ment of this theory, in the movements between these two entities, really does not suffice as an explication of the dimension of awareness. Aristotle...



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