Abstract

Traditional interpretations of Aristotle’s theory of perception mainly focus on uncovering the underlying mechanisms that are at stake when perceivers are affected by sensible qualities. Investigating the nature of sense perception is one of Aristotle’s main worries and one that he explicitly relates to the question of its causes (e.g. Sens. 436a16-17, 436b9) and its ends (e.g. DA 434a30 ff.). Therefore I suggest that, in order to fully explain Aristotle’s view of perceptual phenomena, the possibilities, the constraints, and the goals defined by the embodied and situated engagement of perceivers with the external world must be taken into account. Accordingly, in this paper, I provide an affective reading of Aristotle’s theory of perception. I shall ask what, in addition to functioning sense organs and appropriate response mechanisms, the perceiver contributes to perceptual content. Specifically, I propose to shed light on the significance of perceptual experience for the perceiver and I aim to show that, according to Aristotle, one’s biological, personal, and even social qualities are perceptually relevant, meaning that they underpin perception, rather than coming into play after perception has occurred and its objects have been discerned. 

The paper is divided into two parts, respectively dealing with sensory affections and more complex affective phenomena. As regards the domain of primal sense perception, I will focus on smell as a representative example: since Aristotle identifies it as the least developed of human sensory faculties, it will serve as a revealing illustration of how sense perception is informed and qualified by what, drawing on contemporary philosophical terminology, I will call ‘perceptual interests’, viz. the affective sense of what is at stake in the living being’s interaction with the environment. I will then proceed to consider the way more complex affective phenomena underpin perception by examining the case of emotions and that of virtues of character. By showing how perception is affectively inflected and how emotion is rooted in perception’s bodily nature, I aim to sketch out the general lines along which I believe that the Aristotelian theory of perception should be approached.