Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Perils of Self-Perception: Explanations of Apperception in the Greek Commentaries on Aristotle

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Perils of Self-Perception: Explanations of Apperception in the Greek Commentaries on Aristotle

Article excerpt

ARISTOTLE'S BRIEF CONSIDERATIONS concerning how we perceive that we perceive (1) led to a long and wide-ranging discussion of the problem by his commentators, one that extended over several centuries. From the second century to the sixth, Aristotle's ancient Greek commentators, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Pseudo-Simplicius, and Pseudo-Philoponus, offered various interpretations of apperception. (2) The discussion of the problem is historically revealing, for the commentators did not so much attempt to write historically accurate interpretations of the texts upon which they commented; rather, they used the text as an occasion for their own active philosophical reflection. (3) They sought to extract the truth from a revered text. Hence, their commentaries are very helpful in reconstructing the development of philosophical views representative of their own times. Their discussions of self-awareness in perception are of particular interest, because in them we can witness changes in the broader questions of the nature of the self and truth. (4)

But in addition to their historical interest, their extended debate about the nature of self-awareness in perception raises questions about modern philosophical attempts to privilege self-awareness in discussions of the nature of consciousness and the mind. (5) The ancient commentators, serious and reflective philosophers, came to widely divergent conclusions about the nature of self-awareness found in perception. They had no direct or privileged notion concerning the nature of the self or of consciousness. They came to different conceptions of the self because each modeled his explanation of self-awareness in perception on a more basic understanding of the nature of knowledge in general. (6) Ultimately, their explanation of knowledge rested on their notion of what the core meaning of truth was. (7)

Each argues in the following logical order from (1) as the ultimate premise to (3) as the conclusion regarding self-awareness in perception: (8)

(1) They posit a core meaning of truth;

(2) They determine the nature of the intellect that is able to apprehend such truth;

(3) They compare the serf-awareness in sensation to the self-awareness in intellection.

Each commentator's explanation of self-awareness in perception begins with a stand on what the truth is at the most abstract level. None of them has a transparent understanding of the nature of self-awareness. Self-awareness itself may be immediate, but to understand self-awareness, each mediates his explanations of consciousness through more basic notions of the nature of truth and of understanding in general.

The attempts by so many serious and reflective ancient philosophers to understand self-awareness, and the diversity of their answers, should serve to dampen the hopes and pretensions of modem theorists to take self-awareness as a primitive, privileged, and unassailable basis for understanding the mind. It should also caution against dismissing the notion of truth as unattainable or insignificant, because it has such significant implications for so many other questions. Once the notion of the self is involved, many other epistemic, ethical, and political questions follow as well.

One may wish to dismiss the ancient commentators as mistakenly trapped in an overly rationalistic viewpoint from which modern theorists have escaped, but such a summary dismissal neglects the premonitory lessons that their efforts provide. Any explanation of awareness and consciousness faces the same difficulties that the ancient commentators faced. Every explanation of consciousness must be mediated through notions of what qualifies as an adequate theory or explanation. To explain consciousness, a theorist must rely on some sort of prior standard for validity of explanations. He must have at least a tacit notion of what sort of explanation will count as valid before he can attempt to construct an explanation that can hope to succeed. …

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