Aristotle's Case for Perceptual Knowledge

Dissertation, University of Toronto (2017)
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Sense experience, naïvely conceived, is a way of knowing perceptible properties: the colors, sounds, smells, flavors, and textures in our perceptual environment. So conceived, ordinary experience presents the perceiver with the essential nature of a property like Sky Blue or Middle C, such that how the property appears in experience is identical to how it essentially is. In antiquity, as today, it was controversial whether sense experience could meet the conditions for knowledge implicit in this naïve conception. Aristotle was a partisan in this debate, but his position is poorly understood. This dissertation examines how Aristotle’s perceptual psychology responds to ancient challenges to the naïve conception, and so articulates his defense of perceptual knowledge. Aristotle’s defense relies on an ontology of “perceptual qualities"—a core class of perceptible properties—according to which those qualities, despite having a perceiver-independent essence rooted in the physics of causation and affection, nevertheless can be present in experience as they essentially are. Chapter 1 defends this realist and objectivist reading against competing interpretations, which overlook a crucial distinction between perceptual qualities and perceptual objects. Chapter 2 presents Aristotle’s ontology as a physicalism that uncharacteristically allows for perceptual qualities to appear in experience as they essentially are. This ontology informs Aristotle’s account of the psychological conditions under which perceivers actually are presented with the essence of perceptual qualities. The locus of this account is an obscure passage where Aristotle purports to show that the senses “discriminate” perceptual qualities because the senses are “mean states” (An. 2.11, 424a5–7). Chapter 3 develops a comprehensive interpretation of the sensory mean state, which Chapter 4 uses to elucidate Aristotle’s argument for sensory discrimination. Sensory discrimination turns out to be a process in which the essence of a perceptual quality comes to be present in the affection it produces in a perceiver. For Aristotle, this shows that sense perception meets a condition for knowledge that his predecessors, including Plato, thought it could not meet. For in his view, but not in theirs, sense experience shares in both the truth and the essence of the qualities it perceives.



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Robert Howton
Koc University

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