- Alexander of Aphrodisias on the Soul, Part I: Soul as Form of the Body, Parts of the Soul, Nourishment, and Perception translated by Victor Caston
After years of neglect, Alexander of Aphrodisias is making a comeback, with scholars increasingly recognizing his value as an interpreter of Aristotle and as a philosopher in his own right. This excellent volume should encourage further study of Alexander. Its contents will be of particular interest to scholars interested in prime matter or in naturalist interpretations of the soul.
While not a commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Alexander’s own On the Soul pursues the same topic with a similar method and structure. Alexander develops and systematizes many of Aristotle’s fundamental notions with a number of important results. Of particular interest is Alexander’s naturalistic understanding of the soul, on which the soul is a “power and form and completion of the body that has it, as it comes into being from a certain mixture and blend of the primary bodies” (24.3–4). In his interpretative notes, Victor Caston convincingly argues that Alexander thinks the soul supervenes on the bodies that give rise to it (n. 40, 90, 92). Thus soul, for Alexander, is always existentially dependent on body and cannot exist without it.
Alexander’s approach deserves careful attention as he avoids some of the problems of contemporary functionalist interpretations of Aristotle, for example, claiming that Aristotle treats the soul as an attribute of the body, like health, and not as a substance, so that ascribing activities to the soul is a straightforward category mistake. As Christopher Shields has argued, it is Aristotle’s carefully worked out account of the unity of form and matter, not an appeal to category mistakes, that leads him to claim that he can account for the unity of body and soul (“The Priority of Soul in Aristotle’s De Anima: Mistaking Categories?” in [End Page 163] Dorothea Frede and Burkhard Reis, editors, Body and Soul in Ancient Philosophy, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009). Alexander avoids this functionalist mistake by clearly respecting the soul’s status as form while arguing that forms cannot be the proper subject of activities or changes.
Alexander’s discussion of soul emergence is just one of the important views he explicates and defends, including a careful presentation of the case for prime matter, a detailed account of perceptual error, and a subtle and intricate exploration of the relationships between the visible, color, light, and the transparent.
Caston’s introduction gives a clear exposition of the structure and contours of the text and explains the philosophical importance and exegetical novelty of some of Alexander’s claims. Caston helpfully introduces numbered premises to the text to elucidate the structure of Alexander’s arguments. His interpretative notes are consistently relevant and useful, providing welcome elaborations and expansions of Alexander’s often very compressed arguments. He also does an excellent job of identifying Alexander’s interlocutors, including Stoics and Platonists as well as fellow Aristotelians. Caston often shares his judgments concerning how successful Alexander’s arguments ultimately prove, both in the relevant dialectical context and as stand-alone pieces of reasoning. I found these judgments to be useful, even when I disagreed. They serve as a model of how to engage with the philosophical views of an ancient commentator, finding a middle path between the extremes of thoughtless condescension and unwavering deference.
Caston’s translation renders Alexander’s Greek into relatively straightforward English prose, avoiding jargon. Compare Athanaios Fotinis’s translation of 28.22–26: “Among [soul’s] powers, some are primitive and thus of less perfection; these are followed by a second order of powers, and there are still other powers that transcent [sic] these latter. But in all these relationships, one principle is constant: lower powers can be separated from those that follow, but higher powers cannot exist apart from their inferiors.” Now Caston: “For among the powers of the soul...