When and Why Understanding Needs Phantasmata: A Moderate Interpretation of Aristotle’s De Memoria and De Anima on the Role of Images in Intellectual Activities

Phronesis: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy 61 (3):337-372 (2016)
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Abstract

I examine the passages where Aristotle maintains that intellectual activity employs φαντάσματα (images) and argue that he requires awareness of the relevant images. This, together with Aristotle’s claims about the universality of understanding, gives us reason to reject the interpretation of Michael Wedin and Victor Caston, on which φαντάσματα serve as the material basis for thinking. I develop a new interpretation by unpacking the comparison Aristotle makes to the role of diagrams in doing geometry. In theoretical understanding of mathematical and natural beings, we usually need to employ appropriate φαντάσματα in order to grasp explanatory connections. Aristotle does not, however, commit himself to thinking that images are required for exercising all theoretical understanding. Understanding immaterial things, in particular, may not involve employing phantasmata. Thus the connection that Aristotle makes between images and understanding does not rule out the possibility that human intellectual activity could occur apart from the body.

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Caleb Cohoe
Metropolitan State University of Denver