Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Richard Sorabji, Perception, Conscience and Will in Ancient Philosophy. Variorum collected studies series, CS 1030. Farnham; London; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2013. Pp. 324. ISBN 9781409446699. $165.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a most welcome and significant addition to the Variorum Collected Studies series. It is unusual in various interesting ways. First of all, the great majority of the papers included here (11 out of 13) concern a single broad topic, or rather a nest of closely- related topics, the mind-body relation and the mechanics of perception, primarily in Aristotle (although also to some extent in Plato, and in the later commentators on Aristotle – with whom of course Sorabji, by reason of his long-time editorship of the great Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, has had much to do over the years). Just the last two papers concern, respectively, the concepts of moral conscience and the will, and these extend more broadly, from Plato to late antiquity. Secondly, the collection is enriched with a much more extensive introduction than is usual in the series, in which Sorabji comments in some depth on the papers making up the collection.

First, a list of the contents (with dates of original publication) then some remarks.

Part I Perception:
1. Body and soul in Aristotle (1974)
2. The mind-body relation in the wake of Plato's 'Timaeus' (2003)
3. Intentionality and physiological processes: Aristotle's theory of sense perception (1992)
4. From Aristotle to Brentano: the development of the concept of intentionality (1991)
5. Aristotle on sensory processes and intentionality: a reply to Myles Burnyeat (2001)
6. Aristotle on demarcating the five senses (1971)
7. Aristotle, mathematics and colour (1972)
8. Aristotle on colour, light and imperceptibles (2004)
9. Aristotle on the instant of change (1976)
10. Aristotle's perceptual functions permeated by Platonist reason (2004)
11.Self-awareness. (2007)
Part II Conscience and Will:
12. Moral conscience: contributions to the idea in Plato and Platonism (2012)
13. The concept of will from Plato to Maximus the Confessor (2004)

It will be seen that the chronology of these papers extends from the 1970s, with a gap in the 1980s, more or less to the present day. They thus represent a most intriguing conspectus of the development of Sorabji's thought on a number of topics that have long been of interest to him.

The first two papers concern the 'mind-body' problem, or, more properly, the status of the soul in relation to the body. Here Sorabji has much of importance to say about the differences between Aristotle's position and those of 'proper' materialists, ancient or modern. He is surely right that Aristotle is not a materialist; what Aristotle objects to, and feels that he has a superior formulation to, is the Platonic/Academic penchant for 'separable' immaterial entities, whether soul or Forms. The Aristotelian immanent form is not a material entity, any more than is the active intellect.

This issue pervades also the next three papers (III-V), on the general topic of the physiology of perception, together with the question of the 'intentional object', such as Franz Brentano thought he perceived being at least adumbrated in Aristotle. Sorabji gives (particularly in IV) a fascinating survey of the pre-history of this doctrine in various commentators on Aristotle, a key element being Avicenna's propounding of the concept of ma'na, 'meaning', as being what Aristotle describes as the 'form without the matter', that the sense abstracts from the sense-object, which is then translated into Latin as intentio. I must say (contra Sorabji) that I feel that Brentano (and Avicenna) has put his finger on something here, in that an 'intentional object' is at least a concept towards which Aristotle is feeling his way. But perhaps, as a Platonist, I should stay out of this controversy!

Essay VI has interesting things to say about the demarcation of the five senses, drawing on De Anima II.3, 4 and 6, and Essay VII has interesting things to say on Aristotle's borrowing of Pythagorean theories of mathematical ratios to explain relations between colours. In Essay VIII, Sorabji turns to De Sensu chs. 3, 6 and 7, to discuss the relation among colour, light and transparency. This in turn brings up the issue of minimal magnitudes, whether of colour-shades, musical notes or time, which is the topic of Essay IX, on the instant of change. Sorabji's discussion here is authoritative and fascinating. Just one thing it occurs to me to add, in connexion with Aristotle's concern to attack the notion of minimum or indivisible units, and that is that his rival Xenocrates, in the Academy, seems to have been quite keen on these in various spheres (minimal lines, minimal units of sound) – although ultimately, no doubt, it is Zeno's paradoxes that Aristotle is concerned with.

In Essays X and XI Sorabji passes to the topic of self-awareness, and the nature of 'higher order' perceptions or thoughts. He is very good on how the later Platonists upgraded Aristotle's 'common sense' into a faculty of 'attention' (prosektikon). In Essay XI, he lays emphasis on the point that one does not absolutely require a single faculty for self-awareness, just a single person to possess what may be a plurality of faculties.

Mention of conscience (suneidos) as well as self-consciousness in Essay XI provides a good link to the last two essays, which concern the topics of moral conscience and will. Essay XII, a contribution to the 2012 Festschrift in honour of Charles Kahn, presents a fine survey of the concept of conscience from its beginnings in Platonic passages discussing 'sharing knowledge with oneself (suneidêsis) of a defect' down to Augustine. A parallel investigation is conducted in Essay XIII into the concept of the will, a topic much investigated in recent years. I must say that I bristle at suggestions in earlier treatments of the subject that somehow the Greeks failed to discover the will, which needed to be developed by figures like Augustine. I think that they were quite well off without it, and I am glad to observe that Sorabji would on the whole agree with me. Still, he analyses very lucidly what the salient components of this concept might be, and who (viz. Posidonius, Epictetus, or Alexander of Aphrodisias) might have developed them on the Greek side. He carries the story past Augustine, even to Maximus the Confessor, who was primarily concerned with how many wills Christ might have had. In his introduction, Sorabji is able to take account of the fine (though posthumous and unrevised) Sather Lectures on the topic by Michael Frede (A Free Will, Berkeley, 2011)

All these essays, of course, should be taken in conjunction with Sorabji's relevant book-length studies, such as Matter, Space and Motion (1988), Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (1993), Emotion and Peace of Mind (2000) or Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality (2006), to which they relate in various ways. All in all, we are treated here to a feast of insightful reflections on all of these topics, many of the discussions being retractations of others, to make up a dynamic whole. The collection is completed by three indices, one on Perception, one on Moral Conscience and one on Will.

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