05 June 2005

Some Issues from the Seminar

Geoffrey Lloyd led the first session of the Seminar and set down some basic questions that guided much of the discussion of the week. Later, I'll give a summary of that. Here I want to raise what I think are four interesting questions about the texts we looked at.

Again, we studied On Sleep and Waking (De Somno), On Dreaming (De Insomniis), and On Divination in Dreams (De Divinatione). These treatises at first glance look to be much less interesting than others in the Parva Naturalia. But I think they raise in a striking way some important philosophical questions. Here I'll state them--briefly, but in enough detail I hope so that you see the point. Later perhaps I can post some texts relevant to them.

1. Call this 'The Problem of Magnification.' Aristotle thinks that the following sort of thing helps to explain dreaming: there are movements in the sense organs that are very slight, which in dreaming we take to be very large. For instance, a gnat is flying near your ear while you are asleep, and it seems to you as if it's thundering. (Aristotle uses an example like that.) Now, does Aristotle think that the motion that takes place in your ear when you 'dream' the thunder (I use scare quotes because this is not strictly a dream, in Aristotle's technical sense) is exactly the same as the motion: (a) when you are awake and hearing a gnat, or (b) when you are awake and hearing thunder? The text would suggest the former. But then, if it's not the motion in the sense organs that is actually magnified, when it sounds as if it is thundering (but it is not), what gets magnified? Another way of putting the point: physicalism holds that there is no mental difference without a material difference, but (b) looks incompatible with physicalism.

2. Call this 'The Problem of Representation.' Aristotle says that, in the above example, it's crucial to taking the motions in your ear to be thunder, that you do not recognize that you are asleep. If you do recognize this, then you make a correction: you in some sense take the buzzing to be thunder, but 'some different thing within you contradicts this' (Aristotle puts it in this vague way), and you say to yourself 'it is like thunder, but that is not thunder'. But then does Aristotle think that, when one is in normal conditions and awake, then to recognize thunder is to reason, 'it is like thunder (viz. what I am experiencing), and therefore, because I'm in normal conditions, that is thunder'--that is, does he think that we make an inference from an appearance to an external object? Is he some kind of representationalist?

3. Call this 'The Pascalian Question'. Perhaps you recall from Pascal's Pensees that, somewhat like Wittgenstein, Pascal in many passages warns us against using physical analogies for understanding spiritual things (e.g. thinking of mind or spirit as a kind of fluid), or using spiritual analogies for material things (e.g. thinking of matter as having desires or even powers). There's something of this outlook in Aristotle's reluctance to speak straightforwardly of 'parts' of the soul (whereas he has no difficulty with 'parts' of the body). Now, in the Parva Naturalia, and especially in the books involving sleep and dreaming, does Aristotle rather, and deliberately, engage in just this sort of analogizing? That is, does he think that we can, and should, explain the soul by the intelligent use of analogies taken from physical processes? In De Sensu he defines perception as 'a motion (kinesis) of the soul through the body (dia tou somatos)'; he repeats the definition at the beginning of the De Somno. But then are his discussions of motions involved in sensation and dream phenomena, then, meant to be discussions of (a) motions in the soul, or (b) motions in the body, or (c) motions in the soul as analogous to the body?

4. Related to this is what might be called the 'Problem of the Glassy Essence'. To motivate this problem, it will be necessary to post some texts, which I'll do. But for now, I simply observe that in various places Aristotle speaks as though he thinks that the motions in the sense organs associated with sensation 'register' (phainetai) only when they reach the central sense organ, in the area of the heart. He likens this appearing to someone's seeing his reflection in standing water. That may be the reason why, as well, he has recourse to an analogy involving mirrors in De Insomniis 2. But then how seriously does Aristotle take this? Does he think that sensation really involves something like a mirror or a reflection, and is it (as before) (a) a physical mirror, (a) a mirror in the soul, or (c) a mirror in the soul analogous to a physical mirror?

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