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Analyzing Aristotle's Account of Sense Perception

Updated on January 19, 2020
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Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Patient vs. Agent

Aristotle gives us an account of sense perception by determining to describe how the perceiving and being perceived process occurs. In order to do so, he will have to refer to his theories of change, and the potentiality and actuality of agents and patients. In Chapter 12 of De Anima, topics discussing the soul, Aristotle states that, “In general, with regard to all sense-perception, we must take it that the sense is that which can receive perceptible forms without their matter...” (Ackrill 186; 424a 17-18).

For Aristotle, “...that which perceives must be a particular extended magnitude, while what it is to be able to perceive are … a certain principle and potentiality of that thing” (424a 27-29).

In short, perceivers are conscious and sentient beings or patients who, like the imprint in wax from a golden ring, are impacted through their sensory perceptions by the agents which surround them.

Potentiality vs. Actuality

As patients, Aristotle believes that we have accurate perceptions of the world and multiple agents around us. An agent would be something like a tree. Through perception, patients observe the agent as it actually is. What an agent actually is, is its substantial form, its first level actuality. This is also the actualizing of its first level potentiality, the potential to be the agent. The substantial form of a thing is its essence, “what it is to be” the thing. However, the agent also has the ability to impact the patient like a ring impacts a piece of wax.

Without the agent, the patient has a first level actuality. First level actuality for a patient is simply being the patient. Likewise, without the patient, the agent has only a first-level actuality with respect to its second level potential to transmit its intelligible form to the patient. As the patient perceives the agent, the sensible form of the agent is manifested within the patient as the actualizing of a second-level potentiality.

The tree has the ability to manifest certain forms in a patient. The impact the tree has on the patient is the actualizing of the potentiality of the sensible form of the tree. As the tree stands without the perceiver, it is in a state of first level actuality. As a perceiver comes about, the tree engages in activities of second-level potentiality. Essentially, the second level potentiality of the tree is not actualized until the tree impacts the perceiver with its sensible form. Thus, a perceiver is necessary when actualizing the second level potentiality of an agent.

Actualizing Potentiality

This is where Aristotle brings back his account of change. In the agent and patient there are actualities and potentialities occurring. It is in the actualizing of the potentiality that change occurs, and potentiality resides both in the agent and the patient. Suppose that X is the patient and that Y is the agent. Apart from each other, there is no change occurring due to a certain interaction that could possibly take place. However, when X perceives Y, potentialities within both change and are actualized. X actualizes the potentiality to perceive Y, and Y actualizes the potentiality to make itself known to X. There can be no reductivist account of the change that occurs as X and Y actualize their potentials. There is only change that is occurring when there are actualizations of potential.

Now coming back to the original question of Aristotle’s account of sense perception, it seems as though perceivers are perceiving sensible objects through their sensory organs or capabilities. Lear states that “...for any logos (order) in the sensible object which makes it such as to appear a certain way, the very logos (order) is instantiated in the eye/sense organ upon the transmission of the form." Based on this reasoning, the sensible object is quite similar to the sense organ.

Therefore, sense perception occurs when the potentialities of the patient and agent are actualizing when they come into a realization of each other.

Aristotle's Theory of Perception

© 2020 JourneyHolm

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