Introduction to Philosophy Course: Aristotle Part three(Philosophical Psychology, Action and Agency)

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Action and Agency are form-creators for Aristotle because they issue from a form of life which can build a world around itself. As a rational animal capable of discourse I go forth in a world of physical events such as a storm at sea. After throwing the cargo overboard I can but sit and wait for the consequences to play themselves out on this watery stage. As a rational animal capable of discourse I am of course a form of life that can act but one whose actions have consequences I cannot control. The sun was shining and the weather was fine when I embarked on this sea voyage. The possibility of a storm at sea was a piece of knowledge I had but it was not active at the time of the choice. I am now trapped in this situation and if I was an ancient Greek,the “action” of praying to the gods would follow the action of throwing the cargo overboard. Is it irrational to begin to pray or is prayer an assertion of agency as such when natural events play with our lives? For Aristotle, the world-creating forms occur in the media of change(space, time and matter) and they find their explanation in a theoretical matrix of 4 kinds of change three principles and 4 causes. The material and efficient causes of the storm are forms situated in the infinite continuum of the media of change: the forms of water(the high seas) the forms of air(high winds) the forms of fire( the lightning issuing from the heavens) and the wooden earth-like form of the ship being tossed about and being prepared to rest finally in peace on the earth at the bottom of the sea. In such a situation can we talk about praying in terms of rationality? Well, I had the knowledge that this fateful outcome was a possibility and did not use this knowledge. For Aristotle, this was a failure of deliberation and therefore of rationality. So all that is left of the definition of such a being is his animality expressed in his fear and apprehension and his attempt to communicate via prayer with the “agency” expressed in the storm. For those who found themselves in such situations and prayed and survived to tell their story, it might seem as if some divine agent had now a reason to save the souls on the ship. Aristotle would not have sanctioned such an explanation. He would have pointed to all those skeletons lying on the floor of the sea-bed, resting, who undoubtedly prayed and who lost their souls in storms at sea. Aristotle’s theory of action, agency, and powers would not permit the world of the human to become confused with the physical forms of the infinite continuum. That is one can rationally say that I should have considered the possibility of the ruin of my hopes in a storm at sea and ought not to have decided to board the ship but one cannot rationally say that the Storm ought not to have sunk the ship and extinguished the life of all the souls on board. For Aristotle, there is a categorical distinction to be observed here, a logical boundary that one only crosses on pain of the loss of one’s rationality. This does not necessarily mean that Aristotle would have thought that it was irrational to pray as the ship’s mast was broken by the tempestuous winds. Indeed he would have thought that we are active world creating forms and a structured form of discourse was, of course, preferable to quivering and weeping or rushing around like the ship’s dog howling at the wind. We are forms of life embedded in a world of physical forms and some forms of action are appropriate and some forms of behaviour not: or in other words, when we are dealing with free voluntary choices there are actions which ought to be chosen and actions which ought not to be chosen. The oughts here are rational and can be formulated in value-laden premises and conclusions with logical relations to each other, thus forming rational valid arguments for action. We are clearly exploring the foothills of ethics and morality or as Jonathan Lear so clearly put it in his work “Aristotle: the desire to understand”, we are exploring the “Mind in action”.
Lear believes that understanding Aristotle’s philosophical theories of Psychology are a necessary pre-requisite to understanding both his ethics and his politics. So the man on board the ship is acting and the ship’s dog is just behaving. Why the difference? The difference lies, Aristotle argues in our ability to think and create higher level desires which as a consequence creates a region of the soul which is rational and a region which is irrational. But we need to consider how the human higher form of desire is integrated with our knowledge if we are to fully understand the complexity of the human form of life. The desiring part of the human soul is the acting part because man is capable of acting rationally and behaving irrationally, i.e. he is capable of both reasoning that he ought not to drink water which might be poisoned, but he is also capable of drinking the same water. It is perhaps the existence of these parts of the soul which generates all those desires which we express in value laden ought statements. The dog’s soul is perhaps a seamless unity. Indeed one can wonder whether dogs have minds in the sense of a mental space in which Aristotelian deliberations can take place. Deliberations are rationally structured but are also value or desire laden:

“Aristotle’s theory of deliberation is a theory of the transmission of desire. The agent begins with a desire or wish for an object. The object of the wish appears to be a good for the agent. But the appearance helps to constitute the wish itself. So a wish is both a motivating force and a part of consciousness. That is, an agents awareness that he wishes for a certain end is itself a manifestation of that wish. The wish motivates the agent to engage in a process of deliberation whereby he considers how to obtain his desired goal. Aristotle describes deliberation as a process of reasoning backward from the desired goal through a series of steps which could best lead to that goal until the agent reaches an action which he or she is in a position to perform”(Jonathan Lear Aristotle:the desire to understand, p144)

This reference to consciousness is very modern and this of course is a term Aristotle never used: he preferred to use the term awareness instead and many modern commentators build a notion of reflexivity into this awareness, that is, they claim there is a self-awareness implied in Aristotle’s usage of this term. What this in turn implies is that there is a self that is aware of itself. Does this imply the presence of two selves? Not necessarily. There are in the actualising process of the human organism striving to be rational, earlier and later stages of development. There is no logical contradiction in the self at a later stage confronting in discourse oneself at an earlier stage during the process of moving from one stage to the other. But this is a different kind of deliberation to that involved in performing an action. The process of reasoning involved is characterised by Aristotle in the “Metaphysics” as follows:

“…health is the logos and knowledge in the soul. The healthy subject, then, is produced as the result of the following train of thought: since this is health, if the subject is to be healthy, this must first be present, e.g. a universal state of the body, and if this is to be present, there must be heat: and the physician goes on thinking thus until he brings the matter to a final step which he himself can take. Then the process from this point onward, i.e. the process towards health, is called a “making” “(Metaphysics VII, 7, 1032B5-10).

This process of reasoning is then compared by Aristotle to the reasoning one finds in the activity of geometers. In geometry, synthesis is the name of a process of construction by iteration of elements and construction of relations between elements: a straight line is thus synthesised or constructed by the placing of a second point at a distance from the first and the connecting of these two points by a straight line. The analysis of this straight line would then break the process down in a set of orderly steps until one arrives at the stage at which one begins the synthesis again. The analysis reverses the process. In the example of the doctor planning to act above the initial desired goal has been synthesised and the deliberation “analyses” or “deconstructs” the goal to that point at which the doctor/agent fetches some warm blankets from the cupboard to warm the patient. The forming of the desire to warm the patient is of course not deliberative reasoning it is more like the effect of Eros on the mind, more like a learning or succumbing process issuing from an attitude of mind of awe, love for the world or desire to understand the world. Of course, one is aware of this desire and to that extent one is certain about it in the same way as one is certain of any other manifestation in the consciousness of any mental event. It is the self-reflexive act of contemplating the desire which allows freedom into the Aristotelian process of deliberation. The agent decides whether and/or how to satisfy his desire and once this process is completed the desire to keep one’s patients healthy is transformed into a reason for acting. We are of course ignorant of the workings of this freedom to choose and to this extent we are ignorant of part of the essence of what it is to be human. Kant would later dub this region the region of noumenal being, the region of the noumenal self.

Reason, action and consequence are concepts in complex relations to each other. Insofar as in Aristotle forms constitute the world, the forms interacting in the matrix of space-time-material and causation must contribute to the creation or “forming” of this world. In a previous essay I pointed to the three different kinds of forms that constitute this world: the forms produced by and in relation to sexual reproduction, the forms produced by work of man in the building and construction of his artefacts, homes and cities, and the forms produced by teachers in the process of communicating knowledge. Reason, action and consequence are of course related to human activities insofar as they are knowledge driven. Such activities aim at the good they desire and analyse what is needed in order to bring about the changes in the world they desire. Such human agents have reasons for their actions in the same way as the archer has a reason for his action. The archer who hits the centre of the bulls-eye is like the geometer arriving a the point at which his whole reconstruction is to begin. We are in awe of his performance: the object of the action and the intention are in such cases in full almost divine congruence. The consequence is a logical consequence as is the recovery of the patient with the cold after the doctor restores the homeostasis of the body with the warm blankets. Many of our actions, however, do not achieve the desired result on the part of the agent but this is no reason to doubt the logical relation in thought between the object and the intention. Human desire is generated in a human body. The desire to understand or contemplation may be an activity that involves no bodily activity although it is difficult to even here to conceive of this activity taking place without correlative brain activity. It seems that only God the divine can think without a correlative underlying physical activity generating the thought. The mind-body problem obviously surfaces at this point in Aristotle’s philosophical psychology. Sir David Ross in his work on “Aristotle” defines Psychology in terms of its objective “to discover the nature and essence of the soul, and its attributes” So on this characterisation Psychology will cover plant and animal behaviour as well as human action. There is sufficient resemblance between the forms of life these different forms of soul lead to, to call soul “the principle” organising the nutritive and reproductive activity, perceptive and motor activity, reasoning activity respectively. We mentioned in a previous essay the relation between these form of soul. David Ross puts the matter thus:

“Geometrical figures may be arranged in an order beginning with the triangle and proceeding to more and more complex forms, each of which contains potentially all that precedes. So too, the forms of soul form a series with a definite order, such that each kind of soul presupposes all that come before it in this order, without being implied by them.”(Ross, “Aristotle”, p135)

The physical substrate or matter underlying the above is obviously a simple physical organisation of parts of a plant to a more complex organisation of the organ systems of different species of animals enabling them to “sense” their environment or alternatively reason about their environment. It is as important to know about this material substrate which is as inseparable from its mental aspect as the shape of the ax is inseparable from its function of “chopping”. The soul and the body for Aristotle are in the human inseparable aspects. Ross has this to say on this topic:

” Most mental phenomena are attended by some bodily affection….Mental phenomena, therefore, are “formulae involving matter. The true definition of them will omit neither their form or end(their rational causation) nor their matter(their physiological conditions”(Ross, p137)

The soul has its rational and irrational parts and also its various faculties which Ross explains in the following way:

“He is simply taking account of the fact that the soul does exhibit a variety of operations and that behind each of these intermittent operations we must suppose a permanent power of so operating. But these faculties do not exist like stones in a heap. They have a definite order, an order of worth, and a reverse order of development in the individual. Further, they have a characteristic which we may roughly call interpenetration. Thus, for instance , intellect and desire are distinct faculties, but the highest species of desire is of a kind which can only occur in beings which have intellect, and is itself intellectual. Choice or will may equally well be called desiring reason and reasoning desire, and in it the whole of man is involved.”(Ross, p139)
The language of potentiality and actuality is particularly important in the Psychology of Aristotle because of Aristotle’s insistence of categorical distinctions between the operations of the soul: Firstly,there are feeling operations and secondly operations which actualise the possession of capacities and thirdly operations which actualise the possession of dispositions. Dispositions are higher level capacities, they are rationally regulated capacities. The virtues are examples of dispositions and language is an example of a capacity. Reason is a faculty and its relation to the other faculties is regarded by many commentators as a mystery. With reason we approach the contemplative life of God, the divine life but this contemplative life does not appear to have any links with the body, according to Aristotle.

Philosophical Psychology also deals with Perception. Given what has been said previously about the nature of the physical body being defined by its system of organs we can draw the conclusion that the senses are obviously materially connected with organs. One of the accusations traditionally directed at Aristotle is that he confuses the purely physiological with the psychological. The physical eye of course is connected to the organ of the brain and Aristotle states that perception takes place in the head as a result of the eye taking on the sensible form of whatever it is perceiving. The eye somehow identifies itself with the brown and green colours of the tree and the shape of the tree and the outcome, probably involving the brain is an awareness of seeing the tree which in itself does not have to be brown and green and possess a shape of a tree. The language of actuality and potentiality are important here in order to establish the relation of the object to its perception. The tree, in its turn, has the potentiality to be seen , that is, has the potentiality as a second level and higher actuality to affect the faculty of sight(which would include the relation of the eye to the brain) in this way. It is not the tree that is present in the soul but its form.

A by-product of perception or the faculty of sight is the imagination or the faculty of the imagination rendered by the greek term phantasia. Ross characterises this faculty in the following manner:

“”Usually phantasia(which has the meaning of “to appear”) is describes as operating only after the sensible object has gone. The “movement of the soul through the body” which perception is sets up a repercussion both in the body and in the soul—though as regards the soul the effect, until recollection takes place, is potential, i.e. not a conscious state of mind but an unconscious modification of the mind. At some later time, owing, for instance to the suppression of sensation in sleep, the movement becomes actual:i.e. an image similar to but less lively than the sensation, and less trustworthy as a guide to objective fact, is formed and attended to: and this is the act of imagination”

Phantasia has two main functions, according to Ross. The first function is the pure formation of after images and the second function:

“Memory, Aristotle begins by emphasising the reference of memory to the past, and infers that it is a function of the faculty by which we perceive time, i.e. of the “Primary faculty of perception”, the sensus communis. Memory, he adds is impossible without an image. It is therefore a function of that part of the soul to which imagination belongs. But it is not the present image but the past event that is remembered: how can this be? Aristotle’s answer is that what is produced in the soul by perception is a sort of picture or impression of the percept, like the impression of a signet ring. Now in seeing a picture we may become aware of its original: and similarly it is possible, in becoming aware of an image, to be aware of it as the image of something, and of something past. When these two conditions are fulfilled we have not mere imagination but the more complex act called memory.

Freud obviously based his analysis of the condition of “shell shock”on the above theory. For Freud bringing something into consciousness via the process of recollection and persuading the patient to talk about the cause of the images recollected, in the therapeutic situation, suffices to turn the phantasy of the traumatic event into a memory which would fade over time. We should remember in this context that for Freud language was a secondary sensory surface related more to thought than to perception. For both Aristotle and Freud Thought was more reliably related to reality than imagination because it followed what Freud called the reality principle.