Sensation: a Socratic hindrance, or an Aristotilian necessity?

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By Georgiana DePugh, University of Dallas

Sensation is a reception of the form without the matter. In Aristotle’s De Anima, there are many concepts he covers, but for the purposes of this paper, I will discuss essentially what sensation is, and where it plays a role, if any, in coming to know intellectual knowledge. According to Aristotle, knowledge “pursued of any kind is good and beautiful” (DA, 402). As Aristotle believes that man is an embodied soul, Plato, through the character of Socrates, believes a dualistic opposition. Because Aristotle argues that the soul is something of the body, his argument that almost every operation comes through the body is evident. Although Socrates, in the Phaedo, argues that sensation is a hindrance to intellectual knowledge, it is necessary for such knowledge as Aristotle argues in the De Anima because you cannot deny the senses, and they are self-evident in themselves to be inherently a part of the process of intellectual knowledge.

In Plato’s Phaedo, the central setting is Socrates’ deathbed. Through the dialogues, Socrates defines death as “the separation of the soul from the body” (Phaedo, 115b).  In separating the soul form the body, the soul can see the forms behind physical reality which is what philosophy aims at. For Socrates, intellect and philosophy itself is the practice for dying, thus, it is the highest end man can achieve on earth before death. In other words, it is a purification for dwelling with the divine. If the soul is truly immaterial and immortal, one must truly reject the body because it is evil. Socrates’ logical explanation for the denial of the body is made evident when he says, “For whenever it attempts to examine anything with the body, it is clearly deceived by it” (112c). The body, and sensations are to be denied attaining intellectual knowledge according to Socrates. It may be the nature of the man to be inclined to please the body, but they must reject this so that they might die and dwell with the gods.  

Contrary to Plato’s denial of the senses, Aristotle argues a seemingly opposite position on the relationship between sensation and knowing. Aristotle argues that when we comprehend the things around us, we extract the form from the thing itself rather than the perfect form existing outside of the thing itself. Aristotle poses that matter is to form as body is to soul. Unlike Plato, the body has a significant role in how one comes to knowledge. While the body is matter with potentiality to inhabit the soul, the soul is a form that has actuality. Aristotle makes three main distinctions when it comes to the particularity and specialness of man. First, man has the rational ability to think. Moreover, man can contemplate his own mind and the nature of what it is. Second, he can contemplate the divine. Third, because the soul can think all things, it can become all things. The soul can understand all things including being itself and the form of things. Now these three things are true in accordance with sensation according to Aristotle. Aristotle defines sensation as passive, as in, one can only see what is before him. The things around you are infringing upon your senses. Moreover, sensation is in potency and has a potential element. How does knowledge come to be, according to Aristotle? Intellectual knowledge comes to be through the senses. In other words, having the sense power is, to a degree, an actuality. Furthermore, sense faculties become like the sense objects. Another argument posed by Aristotle for sensation not only not being a hindrance for intellectual knowledge, but also it being necessary is that sensation is infallible. This is emphasized by defects of human beings don’t define the senses themselves.

Aristotle’s argument from the senses’ infallibility because he allows for duality in material and immaterial while Plato’s’ oneness of immateriality and denial of the body make it impossible to consider the sense playing a role in knowledge. Aristotle also argue for the proper and common sensible.  

In the next chapter, Aristotle states firmly that the mind is separate from matter—a distinction Plato did not make because he denied the reality of -matter entirely. Furthermore, in book three, Aristotle distinguishes imagination from sensing. Furthermore, he distinguishes that thinking is not sensing. Yet, there is no thinking without premising, and there is no premising without images, therefore there is no thinking without images.

Aristotle’s argument can be demonstrated today by simply being aware of the senses. When any human tries to deny the senses, they are unable because sensation is built into our biological make up. The process of sensation, which comes from within, provided sheer proof that the way we as human beings come to any sort of knowledge is through the senses. One could argue from a theological standpoint that human beings received creation, and thus, received the senses, and have no right to deny them without first admitting an anthropo-centric argument—which Aristotle does not even do. Since sensation is something human beings receive, it is used to bring about knowledge of the things sensed. For example, Aristotle argues for the way we know colors—through sight, or the way we hear things which would be through sound.

Aristotle poses these examples in book five of the De Anima, and they immediately resonate with the reader. They resonate in ways such as personal abilities to comprehend the material—through sight, and tangible experiences with the material. My personal experience with sensation is significant to the intellectual capacity at which I attain on a reoccurring basis. Everyday, through reading and writing, I am subject to retain knowledge through those sense faculties. Thus, I could not deny that the senses are necessary to intellectual knowledge. Being colorblind, I would not know what red looks like if I had not previously known what it looked like before. Things like this argue for sensations not only role in knowledge, but also lasting effects and necessity for further knowledge. Sensation has a necessity for further knowledge of a thing like the example of being color blind. Once before, I could see the color red, now that I cannot, I not only rely on the past sight that I had to remember but also rely on my current sight to decipher shades in order to know what is red—or not. In other words, it is arguably true that sensation is fulfillment of knowing anything at all.

In comparison with Socrates’ character in the Phaedo, Aristotle’s argument extracted from the De Anima is stronger. Ultimately, I think that the two opposite positions on sensations role, if any, in intellectual knowledge is incomparable because of the nature of Plato’s eschatological beliefs. It is important to remember that Aristotle believes that is what is here and now is the most real thing, while Plato believes that the forms in the realm of the forms is the most real, and therefore, dismisses perception. Thus, it makes sense that Aristotle is more interested in the senses, and why his argument for their credibility is stronger.

Works Cited

Plato. Plato’s Phaedo. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1911.

Aristotle’s De Anima. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.

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