Aristotle's short but profoundly influential work, De Anima, is set within a
rich supporting text authored by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, the Penquin edition's
translator and editor, that absorbs almost three-fourths of this volume.
Besides his lengthy introduction, the editor provides a useful glossary
of translations, summaries before each chapter, copious endnotes, and a
short bibliography, but no index.
Unlike more widely read, fully formed, straightforward books by Aristotle,
such as Politics and Ethics, De Anima asserts cryptic ideas and advances
viewpoints that seem quite strange today. The editor's Introduction addresses
such potential impediments for the Aristotelean neophyte and amplifies
problematic issues of interest to philosophers of any acquaintance. Aristotle's
subject is a general "principle of life" intrinsic to all plants and animals,
not any contemporary notion about the soul (psyche) suggested by its English
title, On The Soul. Aristotle's soul includes his psychology and topics such
as sensation and thought. Lawson-Tancred argues that Aristotle is indifferent
to the issue preoccupying epistomologists and psychologists during recent
centuries, Descartes's division of subjectivity into the body and mind. He claims
that Aristotle is concerned with general features of life, not with purely human
issues like consciousness. In discounting consciousness, Aristotle concurs with
anti-Cartesian positivists, but Lawson-Tancred argues that when Aristotle
says the soul is substance, he really means it, contradicting physicalist
contentions that it is an epiphenomenon or a list of special attributes.
Aristotle's soul is substance, but Aristotle rejects reducing the soul's
properties to the body's material.
Teleology is explanation implicating final causes, e.g., things fulfill
purposes for which they were created. Scientists reject creation and
ultimate purpose, and censure Aristotle for his teleological explanations.
Regarding the soul, however, Aristotle suggests that to understand biological
phenomena, the arrangement of material and its relationship to functions it
performs is key. Recent rethinking about Aristotle's functionalism has
reinvigorated his status in modern biology. Theologians generally view Aristotle's
work favorably, especially his emphasis on built-in purpose and final causes.
Lawson-Tancred recounts Aristotle's powerful influence on intellectual history
from his immediate successors, to assimilation in the neo-Platonic West, through
incorporation by Islamic and Christian theologians, connections that made
De Anima so important for over 2000 years.
Lawson-Tancred also discusses Aristotle's personal history and intellectual
development; his mentor, Plato, and their mutual influence; ideas of
other philosophers that Aristotle encountered, and De Anima in context
of his other works. He concludes by criticizing the interpretations of
Aristotle by the philosophers Brentano and Wilkes. Lawson-Tancred helps
the reader to understand many ideas, but two essential concepts Aristotle
developed elsewhere are prerequisite to understanding De Anima:
entelechy (entelecheia) and substance (ousia). Substance or essence is the
fundamental reality of existence. Form, Matter, and their composite
are types of substances. Matter is the inanimate, elemental substrate of
which things are composed, e.g., earth made into a statue. Form is the
structure and function outlined by a formula (logos), e.g., a statue artfully
shaped to resemble a woman. Things exist either in actuality (putting
to use) or potentiality (unexploited capacity). Form is actuality;
Matter is potentiality. Aristotle's theory is that Form combines with
Matter following the the Form's plan to actualize potential. Entelechy
is the possession of this intrinsic goal that is realized when Form and
Matter combine. Thus, Aristotle's teleological approach is called "Entelechism."
Aristotle uses entelechy repeatedly to describe the soul, as the following
summary of De Anima shows.
In Book I, Aristotle describes his subject: the soul, "the first
principle of living things," and considers its relation to intellect,
emotion, etc. He comments on other philosophers's works: whether
the soul is material, and what kind; its characteristic features
(it moves, senses, and lacks body); how it produces bodily movement;
etc. He criticizes theories that the soul is quantity or harmony or
participates in the whole universe. He concludes that the soul lacks
motion and is not material nor made of elements. Instead, the soul
comprises several faculties: e.g., cognition, appetite.
Book II begins with an important formulation: the soul is the "form of
the living body which potentially has life" (the organism's first actuality).
Having a soul distinguishes living from inanimate objects. The soul's
nutritive faculty is essential for all organisms, but animals have the
faculty of sensation, separating them from plants. Thus begins a hierarchy
of faculties from nutrition to intellect. In sensation, the sense organ
and sense-object, like the soul and body, participate in the Form/Matter
relationship. The sense organ receives the object's Form, not its matter,
in Aristotle's words, "as the wax takes the sign from the ring without the
iron and gold." He discusses each of the five senses, and makes a famous
distinction among perceptual elements (special, common, incidental).
Aristotle concludes discussing sensation in Book III by proposing functions
of the perceptive faculty that integrate individual senses. Imagination,
a faculty producing imagery, mediates between sensation and intellect.
Aristotle's remarks about intellect are among his most renowned, fecund,
and difficult. He describes the intellectual faculty, which includes thinking
and supposition, with the same physiological approach of his sensory theory.
The organ of thought receives the Form of the thought-object to realize thinking.
He calls the intellect a repository of Forms and distinguishes the active from
the passive intellect, providing inspiration for Thomas Aquinas's psychology.
Aristotle concludes with a discussion of motivation, i.e., what puts the
organism into action.
No other work contains a psychological theory like that presented in De Anima,
excepting Aquinas's derivative. Its resemblance to attribute (behaviorist)
theories of the mind cannot obscure Aristotle's radically different foundation.
His Form-Matter and Actuality-Potentiality concepts are not explanatory, only
a framework for inquiry. Its relevance, as Lawson-Tancred notes, to modern
psychology depends upon identifying an empirical approach to Aristotle's Form.
Aristotle's proposal that life has, or is, a principle provides an alternative
point of departure for scientists who find contemporary materialist dogma lacking
direction. De Anima, one of the most important books ever written, and long
neglected by scientific psychology, still puts life in an eternal debate.