Abstract

There is a persistent debate in scholarship on Aristotle’s theory of perception between so-called literalism and spiritualism. Literalism claims that something in our sense-organism in some sense takes on the quality when we perceive it, while spiritualism maintains that no physical change is necessary for perception that simply is our becoming aware of a quality. The two claims can be formulated in various ways (Caston 2005), and today scholars tend to locate Aristotle’s theory between them.

However, David Charles (2009 and  2021 forthcoming) has argued for a stronger view, called ’strong hylomorphism’ (Caston 2009), according to which the debate misses the mark with respect to Aristotle, since it is based on Cartesian dualism in which mind and matter are two really distinct substances, the attributes and modifications of which are defined independently of those of the other. By contrast, according to Charles, for Aristotle the psychological process in, e.g., perception and emotion cannot be defined without essential reference to the relevant physical process and vice versa.

In this talk, I shall analyze the accounts of perception in two late ancient commentaries on Aristotle’s De anima. I shall argue that the debate between spiritualism and literalism indeed fails to capture the commentators’  views. One of them (Philoponus), rather seems to argue for strong hylomorphism. To the extent that the second account (by ’Pseudo-Simplicius’) can be analyzed in terms of dualism,  the dualism is not Cartesian. Rather, the layered view found in the commentary includes hylomorphic, perhaps even strongly hylomorphic, elements. My discussion entails that we should leave the opposition between spiritualism and literalism behind when analyzing ancient theories of perception. More generally, it suggests that the ancient distinction between soul and body should not be identified with the Cartesian distinction between mind and matter.