Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle's Direct Realism in De Anima

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle's Direct Realism in De Anima

Article excerpt


ARISTOTLE'S THEORY OF PERCEPTION AND THOUGHT in books 2 and 3 of de Anima is usually interpreted in terms of representationalism: in perception and thought, we receive sensible or intelligible forms. These forms are representations of qualities, things, or events in the world. We gain epistemic access to the world by means of these representations. In this paper I argue that contrary to received opinion, Aristotle's text can also be read in terms of direct realism: we have epistemic access to the world in perception and thought without representations intervening as epistemic intermediaries. (1)

The debate between representationalism and direct realism is a central issue in today's epistemology and philosophy of mind. The terminology that is used in this debate is a modern one. From a philological perspective it is therefore questionable whether it is appropriate to approach Aristotle's texts by using the concepts of representationalism and direct realism. (2) However, when it comes to Aristotle's significance for today's philosophy, the interest is in what we can learn from the study of his texts for those points that continue to be an issue today. In that respect, my claim is twofold: (a) Aristotle does not have to be seen as lending support to the representationalist camp--his texts can also be received in the spirit of direct realism; and (b) direct realism is an option that fits into Aristotle's philosophy because he assumes that the forms of the things in the world are also our percepts and concepts.

Interestingly enough, prominent advocates of a direct realism in today's philosophy such as John McDowell also argue along that Aristotelian line: the assumption that the world has a conceptual structure is a prerequisite for making the option of direct realism available. The systematic conclusion of this paper is therefore this: Direct realism has a price. As taking Aristotle's texts into account emphasizes, one either has to buy into an ontology according to which the world has a somewhat conceptual structure, or one has to undertake the task of accomplishing a theory of a direct intentional link of perceptions and thoughts to the world that is neutral as regards such an ontology.

I shall first give a presentation of the representationalist interpretation of de Anima (section 2). I will then sketch out the interpretation according to which Aristotle puts forward in de Anima what is in modern terms a direct realism (section 3). Finally, I shall consider the systematic significance of this direct realism (section 4).


At the beginning of de Interpretatione, Aristotle refers to de Anima and sums up some of the issues that he considers in the latter treatise in this way:

   Now spoken sounds are symbols of affections [[GREEK CHARACTERS NOT
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] in the soul, and written marks symbols of spoken
   sounds. And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are
   spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs [[GREEK
   CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of--affections of the soul--are the
   same for all; and what these affections are likenesses [[GREEK CHARACTERS
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]--are also the same. (3)

This citation is one of the key passages that are considered as evidence for a representationalist reading of Aristotle's epistemology: Things in the world cause mental images that are representations ([GREEK CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of these things in the soul of the perceiving and thinking person. In perception and thought, a person has epistemic access to the world by means of such representations. The transition to language consists in developing words that are signs of these representations in the first place. Linguistic items refer to things in the world by means of being signs for representations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.