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What is the imagination in Aristotle's De Anima?

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This is a question for those who have studied Aristotle's De Anima. I am in the process of writing a lengthy (20 pages) paper on the imagination in De Anima. Aristotle defines the imagination as a movement produced by sensation actively operating, and also says that such a movement will differ from the actual sensation in each of the three modes of perception: proper, incidental, and common (428b26). Aquinas, in his commentary, confirms my interpretation of this: that imagination refers to that motion resulting from proper, incidental, and common perception, and DOES NOT refer to the proper, incidental, or common perception itself.

However, I have found some secondary sources which EQUATE imagination with the primary or common sense faculties, and thus say that it is in charge perceiving common and incidental objects of the senses, among other things.

Is anyone familiar with this latter view? Is there anything to it that I might be missing?

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If it helps, Joe Sachs has pointed me to On Memory and Recollection in which Aristotle says that the image is a pathos of the common sense faculty. He says that this amounts to identifying the common sense faculty as the power to which images belong. And the power to which images belong would be, by definition, phantasia.

This doesn't seem right to me, though, since imagination is defined as a movement, NOT as a power.

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I don't think Aristotle is clear on this point. One of the things that confused me most about De Anima is following the description of the common sense through the account of phantasia. (I used Sachs' translation, and I don't read Greek.)

Sorry to just make an assertation. I don't have my book with me. I'll find references sometime in the next few days to support this.

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I wrote a sort of pre-essay essay which attempts to answer my own question. Basically, my conclusion is that the equation of imagination with the primary sense faculty holds the same relationship to Aristotle's view of the imagination as the Objectivist ethics holds to Aristotle's ethics. Aristotle, for whatever reason, just never got around to developing his views that far.

But the interpretation of imagination as the primary sense faculty would help to explain a lot about perception, such as why it can be false in Aristotle's view...and HOW perception of incidental objects works. The view might best be called neo-Aristotelian.

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Here's the essay. Keep in mind that the third part of the essay was a result of my really stretching to give some argument in favor of the Sachs (and Nussbaum) interpretation.

On the Soul: An Imaginative Account

Part One: Manifold Beginnings

Set down this essay and back away from it until the letters on the page are a blur. Then pick a word on the page and try to recognize it. What do you imagine the word to be? Return to this essay, and do not look behind you. What do you imagine the room behind you to look like? Now close your eyes and forget your surroundings. Imagine walking through a garden and spotting a rose, and imagine the smell of that rose. Imagine what you would do should a dangerous storm threaten the garden.

Now ask yourself what you were just doing. What is this imagination? It was an attempt to recognize an unclear image; it was a projection of the unseen, of an unseen room that had been seen in the past, but also of an unseen garden that you may never have seen before; it was the calling to mind of a past smell; it was your thinking about how to act in a given situation.

That imagination is manifold is clear. The challenge, which this essay aims to tackle, is to find unity in the different ways of thinking about the imagination as presented by Aristotle in his On the Soul.

Imagination translates the Greek phantasia, and as one can tell from the name, it has something to do with an image—a phantasma. Aristotle’s definition of the imagination is: “motion which comes to be as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception” (429a). This is a bodily phenomenon which is comparable to the mechanics of projectiles. For in the case of projectiles, “movement continues even when the moving agent is no longer in contact with them; for the moving agent imparts motion to a portion of the air which, being moved, again moves another portion” (On Dreams, 459a30). So that, when the sense organs are affected, “this affection persists in the sense organs, both deep down and on the surface, not only while they are perceiving, but also when they have ceased to do so.” Such a persisting affection is the image.

But the imagination seems also to have something to do with perceptual recognition of the unclear. For Aristotle says that “when we are engaged accurately with some perceived thing we do not say, for example, that we imagine this is a human being, but we say this instead when we do not perceive plainly whether this is true or false” (428a13). The imagination, then, was involved when you tried to recognize the blurry word on the page at the beginning of this essay; but it is not involved now that the words are clear. Yet this seems odd. If imagination is merely a persistence of the motion imparted to the sense organs, why does it make a difference whether the image is clear or unclear? Does an image not persist even if one perceives a thing clearly? We have barely begun to describe the imagination, and already the unity of the account is in question.

Memory depends upon imagination. “Memory, even memory of intelligible things, is not without an image” (450a12). Desire depends upon imagination. “The potency of desire is not present without imagination” (433b29). Deliberation among alternatives depends upon imagination. “Whether one will act this way or that way is already a job for reasoning, and has to be measured by one criterion, since one is looking for the greater good, and thus is able to make one thing out of a number of images” (434a10). Thinking depends upon imagination. “The soul never thinks without an image” (431a15). How is a simple persisting affection of a sense organ so crucial to the activities of the soul?

Do all of these— recognition of the unclear, memory, desire, deliberation, and thinking—depend upon imagination in the same way? Do they all concern the same sort of imagination? Which sort of imagination are they functions of, rational or sensory (433b30)? How similar are the rational and sensory imaginations? Do the animalistic functions of imagination work in one way, and the rational functions in a completely different way? Is there unity to be found in Aristotle’s account?

Part 2: A First Interpretation

(The more I studied Aristotle’s imagination, the more confused I became. It is clear to me that I need a lot more time. That is why I have chosen to write, beginning at this point, an account of my studies thus far. Nothing from here on is to be considered as part of a rough draft of my sophomore essay. It is, rather, polished prewriting.)

One interpretation of the imagination focuses on the account in DA III. 3. It begins by focusing on a parallel structure beginning at 428b10 and illustrated below. The left side describes imagination; the right side describes a motion coming about as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception. (Since I'm transferring this from a word document, you won't have a left/right side when reading on the forum.)

Imagination

“But since it is possible when one thing is moved for another thing to be moved by it, while imagination seems to be some sort of motion and not to occur without perception, but in beings that perceive and about things of which there is perception,

Motion

and since it is possible for a motion to come about as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception, and necessary for it to be similar to the perception, then this motion would be neither possible without perception nor present in beings that do not perceive, and the one having it would both do and have done to it many things resulting from this perception, which could be either true or false.”

The above can be rearranged (the last two claims on the left side [i.e., about imaination] are added from earlier claims by Aristotle about the imagination), pairing claim with claim (you’ll want to read the first claim on the left [i.e., about imagination], then the first on the right [i.e., about the motion], then the second on the left, and so on) , giving us:

Imagination

“But since it is possible when one thing is moved for another thing to be moved by it, while imagination seems to be some sort of motion”

“not to occur without perception,”

“in beings that perceive”

“about things of which there is perception”

“without [imagination] there is no conceiving that something is the case” (427b15)

“most imaginings turn out to be false” (428a12)

Motion

“and since it is possible for a motion to come about as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception”

“this motion would be neither possible without perception

nor present in beings that do not perceive”

“necessary for it to be similar to the perception”

“would both do and have done to it many things resulting from this perception,

which could be either true or false.”

Thus, we know that imagination requires perception and occurs in beings that perceive, for instance; and we know that the motion resulting from the being-at-work of sense perception requires perception and could only be present in beings that perceive. All of these pairings indicate to Aristotle that imagination is a motion coming about as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception, which is the definition quoted at the beginning of the essay.

But as there are three types of sense perception, motion can come about from each one of the three. Imagination, then, includes motion coming about from proper, incidental, and common objects of the senses. “And the motion that comes about from the activity of perception, stemming from these three ways of perceiving, will be different in each case” (428b27).

Aristotle alludes to an image stemming from a proper object of perception at 424b24. After saying that the eye itself is colored, Aristotle claims that, “even when the perceptible things have gone away, there are still perceptions and images in the sense organs.” Aristotle discusses this further in On Dreams:

Even when we change our sensation the affection goes on, for instance, when we turn from sunlight to darkness; the result is that we see nothing, because the movement produced in our eyes by the light still persists. Again if we look for a long time at one color—say white or green—any object to which we shift our gaze appears to be that color. And if, after looking at the sun or some other bright object, we shut our eyes, then, if we watch carefully, it appears in the same direct line as we saw it before, first of all in its own proper color; then it changes to red, and then to purple, until it fades to black and disappears (459b8).

The next sentence describes an image stemming from a common object of the senses, motion: “The same persistence of vision occurs when we turn our gaze from moving objects—e.g., rivers, especially when they flow very rapidly; for then objects really at rest appear to be moving.”

There is no similar account of an image stemming from an incidental object of perception. But it must be something like an image of the son of Diares, as opposed to an image of something white.

Part 3: A Second Interpretation

Let us set aside for a moment the claims from the first interpretation and begin again from another perspective. For there is a question to which imagination may be the answer: how does incidental perception work?

Incidental perception is first treated at 418a21 of On the Soul:

A thing is said to be an object of perception incidentally, for example, if the white thing is the son of Diares, for this latter is perceived incidentally, because it is incidental to the white, that it is perceived, for which reason nothing is acted upon by the incidentally perceived thing as such.

Error is possible in this sort of perception, since “it is possible to be completely mistaken, not mistaken that something is white, but that the white thing is this or that other thing” (428b21). This suggests that recognition is involved in perception of incidental objects. Since recognition suggests a role for memory—one cannot recognize the son of Diares without remembering the son of Diares—it is natural to turn at this point to Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection.

And it is clear that memory works through the imagination. “Memory, even memory of intelligible things, is not without an image.” Also, “the things remembered in their own right are those of which there is imagination” (450a13).

Aristotle then brings in a contrast between the picture and the likeness—to zoion and he eikon—to further explain how an internal experience serves to recall to one’s mind external objects.

The picture drawn on a tablet is both a picture and a likeness, and one and the same thing is both of these, although what it is to be these two things is not the same, and it is possible to behold it both as a picture and as a likeness; so too one ought to conceive of the image (phantasma) that is in us as being itself something in its own right, and as being of something else. Insofar, then, as it is something in its own right, it is a thing beheld (theorema) or an image (phantasma), but insofar as it is of something else, it is a certain kind of likeness or reminder (mnemoneuma). (450b22)

The image, then, can be considered as something in its own right, and also as something representative of some external object. Memory consists in beholding images as likenesses. Thus, Aristotle defines it as “an active holding of an image as a likeness of that of which it is an image.” Imagination is central to memory.

Perception of incidental objects means recognition; recognition means something like remembering that one has seen something before; remembering depends upon images. Therefore, perception of incidental objects depends upon images.

This seems to be confirmed by certain claims about the imagination in On the Soul: “When we are engaged accurately with some perceived thing we do not say, for example, that we imagine this is a human being, but we say this instead when we do not perceive plainly whether that is true or false” (428a15) At first, this seems to limit the scope of imagination only to incidental objects of perception that appear blurry or unclear. But is this really the case?

Why do we not call by the name of imagination that incidental perception of which the objects are seen clearly or plainly? I propose that it is not because the claim is false, but rather because to call it perception is more specific. For imagination is a broad category, since “visual images appear even to those whose eyes are shut” (428a17), whereas perception requires one’s sense organs to be at work.

Perception is, in this sense, more specific. Specificity would then be the reason one does not call clear or plain perception of a human being imagination, even though it is true to say that it is imagination. All perception of incidental objects, therefore, is imagination in the sense that it depends upon the use of images as likenesses.

It follows next that perception of common sensibles depends upon the imagination. For perception of incidental objects is imagination, and perception of common sensibles depends upon perception of incidental objects. For Aristotle says that “there is perception of the common sensibles that accompany the things incidentally perceived” (428b22). When one perceives common sensibles such as motion or shape, one perceives the motion or shape of, say, the son of Diares—not the motion or shape of blue or sweet.

Perception of common sensibles is an activity of the primary perceptive potency (450a10), first described in On the Soul III. 2, but only fully identified and named in On Sleeping and Waking. In the former, Aristotle claims that there is need of some one thing which is moved by each of the five separate senses, so that it can distinguish proper objects of one sense from the proper objects of another. Such a thing would distinguish, not white from black, but white from sweet. Aristotle finishes the discussion in On the Soul by calling such a thing “the source by which we say an animal has the power of perception.”

Aristotle says more about this source of perception in On Sleeping and Waking:

Now every sense has both a special function of its own and something shared with the rest. The special function, e.g., of the visual sense is seeing, that of the auditory, hearing, and similarly with the rest; but there is also a common faculty associated with them all, whereby one is conscious that one sees and hears (for it is not by sight that one is aware that one sees; and one judged and is capable of judging that sweet is different from white not by taste, nor by sight, nor by a combination of the two, but by some part which is common to all the sense organs; for there is one sense-faculty, and one paramount sense organ, but the mode of its sensitivity varies with each class of sensible objects, e.g., sound and color) (455a13).

A common faculty by which one sees that one sees implies that “the thing that sees in the first place [the eye] will have color” (DA, 425b20). This makes sense, since “the sense is receptive of the forms of perceptible things without their material[…]in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute” (424a19). For example, when the eye sees something white, it receives the object’s whiteness without becoming the object materially—in other words, the eye becomes white. “That is why, even when the perceptible things have gone away, there are still perceptions and images in the sense organs” (425b24).

So we now know that the use of the primary perceptive potency depends upon images—since it is in charge of perceiving common sensibles, which depends upon images—and also that images can be an object of the primary perceptive potency insofar as it functions as that by which one perceives that one perceives. The primary perceptive potency both uses images and beholds images. We can add to these that an image is (at least when it is of common sensibles) an affection of the primary perceptive potency (450a12).

We can now put forth our conclusion: that which uses images, beholds images, and has the image as an affection can be nothing other than imagination itself. Therefore, the primary perceptive potency is imagination.

This calls for a second look at a crucial passage:

It is possible for a motion to come about as a result of the being-at-work of sense perception[…]which motion could be true or false. This last point follows because, while sense perception of its proper objects is true or has the least possible falsehood, there is in the second place the perception that those things that are incidental to the ones perceived are in fact incidental to them, and here already it is possible to be completely mistaken, not mistaken that something is white, but that the white thing is this or that other thing. And in the third place there is perception of the common sensibles that accompany the things incidentally perceived, to which the things properly perceived belong (I mean, for instance, motion or size), about which most of all it is possible to be deceived as a result of sense perception. And the motion that comes about from the activity of perception, stemming from these three ways of perceiving, will be different in each case, the first sort being truthful while the perception is present, while the others could be false whether it is present or absent, and especially when the thing perceived is far away (428b20).

We earlier interpreted part of this to say that there are three sorts of images corresponding to the three sorts of sense perception. In order to reinterpret this to cohere with our second interpretation, we will have to say that, rather than separating the three types of perception, this passage places them together with imagination into one continuum. The motion resulting from the perception of proper objects is incidental perception; the motion resulting from the perception of incidental objects is perception of common sensibles; the motion resulting from the perception of common sensibles is the affection of the common perceiving faculty described in On Memory and Recollection.

We can thus set up a few corresponding continuums:

surface affection -> deeper affection -> affection of common perceiving power

proper object -> incidental object -> common sensibles

most true -> often false -> most possible to be deceived

Imagination, since it is a motion coming about from the being-at-work of sense perception, includes everything above. And the falsity of some sense perception has been shown to correspond with the deepness of imagination’s movement, while the falsity of imagination has been shown to correspond with the type of sense perception. Images of proper objects are at the surface or in the sense organs; images of incidental objects are deeper down somewhere; images of common sensibles are affections of the common perceiving power itself.

This interpretation seems to garner support from the above passage. For the three types of perception are introduced in order to show that a motion resulting from the being-at-work of sense perception could be true or false—and Aristotle does this by showing that sense perception itself is capable of falsehood in a continuum. The falsehood of sense perception accounts for the falsehood of the imagination, because they are one and the same. Aristotle confirms this in On Dreams: “The imaginative is the same as the sensitive faculty, although the imaginative and the sensitive are different in being” (459a16). For example, an affection of the common perceiving power is equally perception of a common sensible and a deep image, but the account of the affection will differ depending on how one considers it.

The second interpretation has great explanatory power. Whatever its merits, however, it is not Aristotle’s. Still, I think the first and second interpretations can cohere with one another in the following manner. The first interpretation is Aristotle’s. The second is what Aristotle may very well have concluded had he refined his ideas further; but the fact remains that he did not do so. The question with which our second interpretation began—how does incidental perception work?—is never asked by Aristotle. And Aristotle never answers it by refining his notions of perception and imagination.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I have a question about your essay.

In paragraph six, of section one, it states- "Memory depends upon imagination."

I'm having trouble understanding this concept. Wouldn't it be imagination is dependent upon memory.

For example, say that I want to draw a dragon by utilizing my imagination- "from scratch" if you will. One that is not like the rest. In order to do that, wouldn't you have to utilize your memory in order to not draw a dragon that looks like the one you're attempting to draw? I also have a hard time in understanding the term "originality". How can anyone come up with an idea that is totally new, with new aspects that have never been done before, without a starting point? Like existence is the starting point in interpereting anything. Ayn Rand comments on this quite a bit as well. We aquire knowledge from doing things and from others ideas. Pawning ideas from someone else.

I'm sure that I'm wrong somewhere in my statements. These are just my thoughts of course.

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You are right about this much: creativity depends on having something from which to create. There is no such thing as creating something out of nothing, neither intellectually nor materially. Creativity consists in rearranging what does exist.

In Aristotle, however, imagination does not refer to this creativity. It literally refers to images in one's organs of perception. Memory consists in beholding these images as images OF something in the world.

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