Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

18. Perception

To define perception, Aristotle returns to his contrast between form and matter. Perception happens in so far as (1) the perceiver becomes like the object (On the Soul 417a18); (2) the perceiver that was potentially F (for example, white) becomes actually F when it perceives the actually F object (418a3); (3) the perceiver acquires the form, but not the matter, of the object (424a18–24). These descriptions express a realist view of perception and its objects; Aristotle assumes in (2) that an object is actually white, square, and so on in its own right, before we perceive it.

He is sometimes taken to imply in (1) that perception requires physical similarity; but (3) counts against this interpretation. A sense receives the form without the matter in the way in which a house without matter is in the soul of the architect before the house is built. In the latter case, nothing that looks like a house is in the builder, but features of the house correspond to features of the builder’s design. Similarly, when we hear a tune, our ears do not necessarily sound like the tune, but a state of us systematically corresponds to the tune (as features of a map correspond to features of the area it maps).

A ‘common sense’ perceives common properties of sensible objects, such as size, shape and number, which are all perceived through the perception of motion (On the Soul 425a14–20). This is not a sixth sense independent of the other five, but the result of the cooperation of the five senses. Aristotle argues that we can explain our grasp of these common properties without supposing that they are objects of intellect rather than sense (contrast Plato, Theaetetus 184–6).

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Perception. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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