Love and Its Concretions

Volume 2 ~ 2004

»Table of Contents

Aristotle and Descartes on Touch

Anne A. Davenport

To my brother, il miglio fabbro

In a study devoted to the responsorial nature of human being, the French phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien remarks that no one in the history of philosophy has ever conducted “a more radical and patient investigation of touch” than Aristotle.1 Not only did Aristotle shrewdly discern the many puzzles presented by touch, he accurately described what modern phenomenology calls the “veiling” of the phenomenon: touch, Aristotle showed, occults its own interstitial character. Touch gives an impression of immediacy, suppressing the infinitesimal interval that necessarily separates two distinct bodies.2 Moreover if we suppose that our flesh is covered by a very thin membrane, like a sort of second skin, would we not still have the impression of immediacy? Would we “touch” things any less? 3 Aristotle’s distinctly phenomenological approach raises a deeper question: why does he adopt this angle of analysis rather than seek to establish, like Descartes, the anatomical conditions of nerve stimulation? 4 In this study I propose to explore the radically heterogeneous contexts in which the two philosophers developed their respective outlooks in order to better grasp the emblematic meaning, for each, of touch.

I. Aristotle

Navigating a middle course between Atomism and Platonism, Aristotle’s theory of aisthesis (sensation) rests on a threefold axis: (1) life forms as well as the five senses possessed by animal life are ordered hierarchically, (2) sensation gives us veridical access to the essences of extramental things and (3) the senses function teleologically, in solidarity with the teleological structure of the cosmos. Nature does nothing in vain 5—and sensation incarnates the underlying perfection (teleios) of natural purpose and activity.

Touch, according to Aristotle, marks a new level of complexity in the study of living organisms, since the sensitive soul (psuche) is the principle (arche) of a new order of sensate, or animal, life.6 The principle of sentience adds itself to the vegetative principle possessed by plants, with the result that touch is synonymous with the animal’s very existence: an external stimulus powerful enough to destroy touch destroys the animal itself.7 The lowest degree of animal life (sponges, ascidians)8 unlocks as such the latent tangibility of the world, with its rich cargo of textures and qualities acting on animal sense and awakening the animal’s desire.9 Touch and desire, pleasure and pain, emerge hand in hand as the birth mark, burden and promise of animality. Touch, to begin with, is the “sense of nourishment” since the animal feeds precisely on what is hot or cold, dry or moist—on what possesses qualities that manifest themselves immediately to the flesh.10 Touch is therefore the primordial sense of immediacy. Inaugurating aisthesis as such, touch touches what touches it. Occulting distance is the essential activity of the most basic of the five senses.

Just as the sentient psuche adds itself to the nutritive soul of plant life to give rise to animal life, higher senses that operate at a distance, namely smell, hearing and sight, will add themselves to touch one by one, increasing sensitivity each time by a new degree.11 The notion of plenitude or “completeness,”12 plays a key role: the highest terrestrial animals are the most “completely” sentient animals, possessing all five senses. The highest rank among terrestrial animals is occupied in turn by the rational animal, human being, in whom a new and final principle, the rational soul, is added to the sensory soul, making him the most “perfect” terrestrial nature. The dignity of a higher psychic form presupposes each time that the lower form is possessed in its full plenitude: the brute possesses all of the resources of the vegetative soul, while the rational animal, in turn, possesses the fullness of sensation. Aristotle insists that there cannot be more than five senses.13 If there were a sixth, seventh or eight sense, human beings would necessarily possess them.

In contrast to the Platonist, who struggles to free himself from the “flitting shadows” of the cave, the Aristotelian philosopher does not demonize the senses but welcomes them as a valuable scala perceptionis leading to rational contemplation. We human beings reach wisdom not by any exodus from our earthly condition but by distilling sensation into knowledge, according to the axiom, later enshrined as the hallmark of Aristotelian philosophy by Latin scholastics, that “nothing is in the intellect that was no first in the senses.”14 Touch, at the very threshold of the cognitive quest, gives us “bodily” to ourselves and constitutes us as potential epistemologic subjects.15 Without touch, we would have no consciousness and would know nothing. We are eventually able to gaze upwards at the heavens with our eyes and our understanding only because touch and our flesh root us firmly on the earth: the faculty in our flesh to perceive the tangible qualities of the universe—first and foremost to perceive ourselves and the firm ground underfoot—is the “ground-floor” promise of our ascent, from taste to smell and from sound to light, then from imagination and memory to abstract reasoning, to the contemplative state that brings our human nature to fulfillment—indivisibly nutritive, sentient and rational. 16 To feel the crisp flesh of an apple or the warmth of a fire or the soothing texture of wet clay, is to receive as many cosmic revelations in the organ of touch.

The essence of sense is to discriminate, and human touch has from the start the highest discriminatory power among all the animals. Greater tactile acuity among individuals is even linked by Aristotle to superior intelligence.17 The person whose flesh is more tender and whose skin is more delicate will perceive a more nuanced variety of tangible qualities and will more easily reach theoria .18 Human excellence, individually and collectively, starts with a sort of aesthetic overabundance in the power (dunamis) of touch that gives rise, within the illusory immediacy of contact, to the key experience of aesthetic distance—of touching things for their own sake, out of curiosity and for the pleasure of it, in view of knowing and understanding. Human touch seeks aesthetic treasures over and beyond nutritive goods.19

Aristotle’s distinctive empiricism reconciles man to the physical universe. Against Democritus, who plunges human being in a void of swirling atoms, a material abyss “without rhyme or reason” where we must carve out a limited happiness without guidance or grace, Aristotle upholds the dignity of cosmic structure and the evidence of natural hierarchy. Against the gnostic tendencies of Platonists who urge, in turn, that Truth is our birthright but is not of this world,20 Aristotle upholds the veracity of sensory perception. The “human form divine” touches and smells and hears and sees. Sensory organs are the trustworthy instruments through which we ascend to Truth in our brief life because their very nature is to receive the “sensible forms of things without their matter,” the way a piece of wax receives the impression of a seal without the metallic matter of which the seal is made.21 Leaving aside the many difficulties that emerge from this analogy,22 let us retain only the axiom of isomorphy which Aristotle postulates as the cornerstone of his empiricism: the same qualitative form that exists materially in the external body acting on sense comes to exist in the sense organ without deformation. Touch receives a true image (“veronica”) of the extramental quality that is sensed. The smoothness that objectively belongs to a rose petal in virtue of its nature resembles the smoothness that is formally received in the hand.23 Sensorial ideas (“a rose petal is smooth”) and objective essences (“a rose petal is smooth”) match. Phenomenology and epistemic transparency go hand in hand: sensory activity, including “veiling,” must be described and understood from the standpoint of isomorphy. The illusion of immediacy in the case of touch goes hand in hand with the experience that the “smoothness” of a rose petal is immediately sensed, without distortion, into the organ of touch. Enamored of the axiom of isomorphy, scholastic masters will develop a full–blown theory of “intentional species” based on the immaterial forms that are received in touch and other sense organs.24

Since our human nature is subject to generation and decay, touch is given to us, Aristotle says, for the survival of the species. Through touch and by touching, we participate, in our own lesser way, in the immortality of the ever–revolving heavens. Just as the changes induced in us by the tangible qualities of a ripe fruit inspire us to feed ourselves, the emotion induced by the embrace of a lover inspires us to renew the human race. Were we made of ether, like the stars, we would never need to judge the maturity of an apple or experience sexual bliss.25 The phenomenological immediacy of touch and the eternity of cosmic time correspond to one another and spring from one another. Like the Arcadian shepherd who rediscovers the “lost” inscription of his ancestral tomb, the Aristotelian philosopher professes the creed of infinite return: Et in Arcadia ego. Touch is the means by which we physically join the cosmic dance and inscribe the logos of eternity in the sublunar realm—on stone, clay and flesh. Sight, in turn, beholds the dancers crafted on every funereal urn by human skill, capturing the isomorphy between the deathless revolutions above and sexual regeneration below.26

The organ that pursues generativity in the darkness, the organ of touch, Aristotle says, “consists of earth.”27 Touch provides the root experience of the concrete, of solidity, of corporeity.28 The implications are vast, since the lowest degree of sentience is also the initiatory test of sensorial veracity. If touch deceived us, we would suffer irreparable betrayal before even embarking on our quest. We would lack our very selves and all firm ground upon which to build understanding progressively. The nature of bodies and the natural power of touch to know bodily qualities form an inextricable phenomenological knot. Trust in touch and faith in the reality of the flesh and in the stability of the earth are the two facets of a single concretion, the testimony of a single telluric oracle.

The close telluric kinship between touch and body implies that human crafts—Aristotle calls them the “arts of making”—give tangible expression to our inexhaustible trust in the solidity of matter and veracity of touch.29 Aristotle cites house-building and carpentry, but sculpting is high on his list since it nicely exhibits his doctrine of the four causes. Artists who manually act (“efficient” cause) to transform clay or stone or metal (“material cause”) into a work of art (“formal” cause) for the sake of beauty (“final” cause) and therefore use the discriminatory power of touch to make tangible icons for the spiritual nurture of human being bear witness to touch as both the source and the concretion of love: to generate a work of art is to bring to perfection the discriminatory activity of human touch by orienting it in practice towards eternity. The special appeal of “things made” by the human hand for the sake of contemplation is that they symbolically survive not only the artist but all of us, like offspring, allowing us to behold eternity in the delight of an instant. Works of art incarnate, literally concretize and harmonize, the irreducible generativity of human nature as it seeks to bring about excellence at the cosmic center. Good artists, Aristotle says, are those who create works “without defect or excess,” by which he means works that “etch in stone” or clay or wood or bronze the notion of just proportions and therefore symbolize moral excellence within the realm of earthly substance.30 A good work of art, in short, delights us by revealing that excellence is “fully” possible in the sublunar realm. Touch is most immediately the immediate sense of our human faith in the essential goodness of geocentricity: sculptors are the sacred hermeneuts of our Mothering Earth, in whose stable lap we are reared and towards whom all earthly substances seek lovingly to return to find immobility and rest. Et ego in Arcadia: not written so much as sculpted on the stone monument, itself a sculpture of eternity placed in an sacred oak grove. What will happen to the sense of touch when the earth, with Copernicus, takes flight?

Infinite in time, the Aristotelian cosmos, unlike the bleak Democritean void, is spatially bounded. Thanks to its absolute center and absolute circumference, cosmic space is safely “held within its bonds,” like Parmenidean Being. Since cosmic space constructs a topology of natural place and therefore allows paired cosmic opposites, it safely generates rational motion and alteration—precisely as the eternal return of stable qualitative forms (ratios of elemental opposites) to be received in the senses. Cosmic topo–logy, sensation and natural teleo–logy are concretely indistinguishable. Aristotle’s theory of touch is not so much a phenomenology of touch as a topo– teleo–phenomenology of touch. What is immediate is the true nature of what is touched, and a thing’s true nature is nothing but “the principle in it of motion and rest.”31 Not only is Aristotelian space not isotropic and homogenous (“the same everywhere”), it could not be. Aristotle rejects inertial motion as the pinnacle of absurdity. 32 If space were isotropic and infinite, elements would not know in what direction to move or where to stop. Their nature would have no “sense,” their qualities would vanish. There would be no more opposites, elements, forms, or sentient life. The organ of sense would have nothing to sense. In short, the phenomenon of touch, as Aristotle conceives it, is impossible in a Cartesian universe.

By the same token, Aristotle’s theory of aisthesis, while it aims at integrating all five senses into a coherent model, insists, against Democritus, on the irreducible importance of sensorial specificity. 33 Granted that all five senses present analogous aspects to analysis, each sense remains rigorously unique, irreplaceable.34 Despite the obvious proximity between taste and touch, the two senses are distinct.35 Each sense is the bearer of its own proper revelation. Sight cannot “compensate” for loss of hearing, touch cannot “compensate” for loss of sight: to Aristotle, the human individual who is deprived of a sense faculty is maimed in his actual intelligence.36 Aristotle rejects Democritus’s theory of sensation on the specific grounds that it “irrationally” treats all the senses as modalities of touch, since, on the Atomist theory, the material shape of atoms produces all sensations equally, whether tactile, acoustic or visible.37 While touch, to Aristolte, is the most basic sense, the sense without which no sensitivity and intelligence are possible, sight is heralded as the supreme sense, yielding the “purest” pleasure, paradigmatic of the ultimate perfection of sensoriality.38 Touch, the telluric sense, the sense of the immediately concrete, may transform tangible matter into a work of art and a visible display of eternity, but cannot behold the visible spectacle of its own offspring. Sight, in the last analysis, is the sense that human beings cherish above all others because sight is the sense that best contributes to science.39 The faculty of seeing “brings tidings of multitudes of distinctive qualities of all sorts” and integrates experience through the emergence of common sensibles.40 Without sight, we would never behold the sky, visible symbol of eternity, seat, at the outer limit, of the Prime Mover. Vision in its purity reveals the ethereal realm to us—the impassible azure, the fixed and revolving stars, the beauty (cosmos) of the uni–verse, even the notion of the number One. The Aristotelian ideal of contemplative happiness, theoria, takes its name from theorein—to see, to observe. If the cosmos first announces its essential knowability through touch and in the darkling emotion of the flesh, it displays its divinity in an ultimate way to human being by presenting itself to sight as a spectacle.

II. Descartes.

The first day of creation, according to Genesis, is Night: the world is drawn from nothingness into the radical immensity of darkness. Descartes as a young man in 1619 puzzled over the Biblical account of the separation of light and darkness, scribbling enigmatically to himself that this must mean the separation of good and bad angels and concluding abruptly that “pure Intelligence is God.”41 Like Gloucester, he recognized “You cannot see your way” and like Gloucester he answered in a fit of insight: “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw.”42 With Descartes—Copernican and early author of the law of inertial motion in its ideal form43—spectacle and speculation, theory and visibility, are wrenched apart. The bounded Aristotelian cosmos with its fixed center collapses: with it collapses the hierarchy of cosmic natures through which the Aristotelian philosopher first sensed and then understood the divine logos of eternity. The universe that gives itself scientifically to Cartesian thought is radically unlike the spectacle that gives itself phenomenologically to sight. To theorize from the standpoint of the visible is not to advance in wisdom but to succumb to credulity. The heliocentric upheaval shatters the sensorial mirror and all trust in isomorphy—or rather it reveals isomorphy to be, precisely, a phenomenology, which is to say a description of our self–centered, perspectival encounter with appearances.44

Whereas Democritus had proposed a similar divorce between sensation and reality on philosophical grounds, Descartes affirms it on scientific grounds, as an irreversible fait accompli, following the discovery that the “sun” perceived by sense and the sun known by reason are radically incompatible. Democritus’s reductionist doctrine that all senses are modalities of touch stemmed from a position of bereavement and despair, as though he conceded to the Eleatics that, since there is motion, being is torn apart by void into an infinitude of fragments. In sharp contrast, Descartes’ new “mechanistic” reduction of sensation to a neurophysiology of contact stems from the radical illumination that the earth is a star. The Cartesian rift between appearance and reality is ushered in by a powerful new hope, based on the Copernican breakthrough, that reality is accessible to reason in spite of the senses. Touch, the sense par excellence of contact, becomes for Descartes the irrevocable symbol of a critique of Aristotelian empiricism. By revealing the poverty of sensation, touch initiates us to a new cognitive humility, toppling the hubris of sight by placing it on a par with blindness.

Far from being maimed in his intelligence, the blind man emerges with the dawn of scientificity as the philosophical seer par excellence. Unlike the sighted, the blind man is not naively dazzled by the cosmic spectacle—but escapes, so to speak, from the dark spell of the visible. The blind man is the one among us of who is least deluded by the phenomenality of the world. He symbolizes the chastened and humbled philosopher who is finally in a position to make genuine epistemic advances. It will take the Cartesian meditator two whole days of systematic doubt and demonic struggle to reach the level of the blind and be able to say, at the opening of the third Meditation: claudam nunc oculos.45

Thanks to his greater expertise with touch, the blind man is advantageously poised to grasp correctly the operations that underlie sensory perception. If sight remains for Descartes an undeniably “noble” sense, touch nevertheless emerges as the paradigmatic sense—the sense that deciphers sensation. Thus Descartes’ treatise on vision, the Dioptrics, presents the reader with a surprise: the best way to become initiated into scientific optics, to understand the real character of sight, is to consider the relentless groping and the stick with which the blind man makes his way. Expelled from the lovely but illusory geocentric cosmos that once was our home, we have the choice to apprentice ourselves to the darkness in order to discover a higher light. We have the choice to make ourselves blind in order to learn to see, authentically, for the first time. Descartes introduces his analysis of vision as follows:

“No doubt you have had the experience more than once, while walking at night without a torch, through difficult paths, that you had to help yourself with a stick to conduct yourself forward. You remarked on these occasions that you felt, through the intermediary of the stick, the various objects encountered on your path, and that you were even able to establish whether there were trees, or stones, or sand, or water, or grass, or mud, or similar things.”46

Whereas Democritus was plunged into darkness without recourse, Descartes holds on to the idea of the blind man’s staff. The experience of walking in the night, without a torch, but with a stick to probe and learn, serves Descartes as a universal rite of initiation into sensory cognition. Sight is not reduced to touch: rather, human blindness is erected into a new philosophical ideal of disciplined probing, as though by touch, of the unknown. The apprenticeship of night is the very emblem of scientific discovery. The Cartesian philosopher must resolve to “walk alone in the darkness” and “advance slowly,” with “so much caution regarding all things” that, if he “barely progresses, at least he keeps himself from falling.”47

The spiritual dimension of Descartes’ allegory is easily overlooked. According to Descartes, if human beings have the capacity to “keep from falling,” this is only because they possess free will and are made in God’s image.48 When the blind man vigilantly keeps from falling by recognizing his own limitations and the dangers facing him, when he chooses to advance cautiously in the darkness using only the light of reason and mindful of his weakness, he incarnates what it means to vigilantly exercise human freedom for the sake of human dignity. 49 A swift advance shows less moral excellence than a cautious resolve to avoid falling. As Descartes explains in Meditation IV, the cause of scientific error is not a defect in our intelligence but rather an abuse, through rashness, of our free judgment: if I fail to contain my power of free judgment within the limits of what I actually know, if I rashly affirm what is doubtful and confused, the result is a moral failure, since I was in fact free to suspend judgment. Acting proudly, I “fall and I sin” et fallor et pecco.50 Analogously, if I stumble in the night because I underestimate my infirmity, I must reform myself morally and exercise greater caution rather than regret being blind.

The apprenticeship of Night requires above all that we embrace our finitude as a mark of election and a gift of grace: walking alone at night, alone and blind, I learn to recognize and control my impatience, my rashness, my willfulness, my desire to transcend obstacles and “get there” faster than my knowledge warrants. Every nocturnal path is an initiatory labyrinth, molding me to self– awareness and inviting me to self-discipline.51 To learn to conduct myself through difficult terrain in the darkness, without a torch, is the necessary initiatory rite required to navigate a Copernican universe, where nothing is as it appears. In order to be worthy of truth, the philosopher must resolve to suspend judgment when the evidence that reaches him by means of his staff is insufficient for him to tell the nature of what is before him. Like the blind, the scientist must acquire, through methodical practice and patience, the radical “habit of not erring”: habitum quemdam non errandi acquiram.52 Having undergone this apprenticeship longer than the sighted, the blind have learned to “see with their hands” as though through a sixth sense:

“It is true that this sort of feeling is a bit confused and obscure in those who have not become used to it through a long practice; but consider it in those who, blind from birth, have used it all their life. You will find it so exact and perfect that one could say that they see with their hands, or that the stick is the organ of some sixth sense that has been given to them instead of sight.”53

The “sixth sense” of the blind reveals the true nature of sight as a form of blind probing, but it also tacitly symbolizes the progressive sharpening of reason. The blind learn to “see with their hands” only through a vocation for patience, difficulty and self–correction. Method, not genius, is the source of progress.54 The Cartesian geometer trains himself to “see” by means of reason in the same way that the blind man trains himself to “see” with his hands.55 The “natural light” of reason, not any fleshly eye, tells the geometer and the blind man alike where to advance next, methodically, in the realm of the invisible.

The “sixth sense” of the blind implies a recovery of sight that is a veritable redemption from visibility—a welcome disenchantment, as though practicing blindness served as a protective talisman against the spell of spectacle and its false lure of cognitive transparency. To explore the world by the humble means of touch weans us of the temptation to make precipitous epistemological claims beyond the diversity grasped by the discriminatory capacity of the hand. The blind man “sees” that sand and mud differ, but makes no claim to know what sand is, or mud. He guides us with his stick through the mysterious presence of things in their contrasting phenomenality without giving in to the lure of pronouncing himself on the true essence of what he “sees” with his hands. Anticipating the meditator of Meditation VI, the blind man suspends judgment with regard to the ultimate reality of what is sensed. Sensations of hard and soft, moist and dry, light and heavy, need not “resemble” the things that provoke them. For Descartes, a veritable philosophical illumination is involved. By assimilating vision to touch and to the methodical groping of the blind, he forcefully unmasks the “malicious demon” that is sight:

“To draw a comparison, I want you to think that light is nothing, in bodies that are called luminous, than a certain kind of motion, or a very swift and vivid action passing towards our eyes through the medium of the air and other transparent bodies, just as the motion or resistance of the bodies encountered by the blind pass into the hand through the medium of the stick.”56

Descartes guessed, as early as 1630, that colors are not independent radiations, as his predecessors, including Kepler, had thought,57 but result from the diverse ways that various surfaces scatter light.58 Descartes’ new view dealt a final and fatal blow to Aristotelian isomorphy since it denied that a “form” of whiteness existed in any external body to be “received” as such by the sense organ. If color, defined by Aristotle as the proper object of sight, has no real essence per se, why think that vision essentially differs from tactile exploration, by means of nervous stimulation and contact, of an invisible world? Descartes indeed concludes:

“Nor will you find it strange if, by the same means, we are able to see all sorts of colors; and you will even perhaps believe that these colors are nothing more, in the bodies that are called colored, than the various ways according to which these bodies receive [light] and scatter it back against our eyes.”59

The colors that ravish us and make us take delight in sight as the “noble” sense prevent us in reality from seeing. The original sin of the philosopher is to “believe his eyes” and rashly conclude that when he sees a white thing, there exists in the thing the same whiteness that appears to sight.60 Much like Philo of Alexandria, who interpreted Eve as a symbol of the sense–perception given to Adam as “his helper” and Adam’s fall as a symbol of the spell cast over reason by the senses,61 Descartes explicitly restores the ideal hierarchical order that is given to the human soul, res cogitans, when issued immediately from (“specially created” by) God’s hand.62 The Cartesian meditator recognizes, as the culminating insight of his intellectual coming-of-age, that the senses are given to us for survival and are veridical in this circumscribed anthropocentric order, while reason alone is given to us to know truth.63 The gift of reason, through which the soul knows itself and God and the eternal truths that God has imprinted on material being, not the gift of fleshly eyesight, is the gift that leads to contemplation and wonder. The material world, in itself, is magnificently colorless. Snow crystals, rainbows and all phenomena are “nothing but geometry,” which is to say that reason beholds a pure and elegant interplay of equations shaping and transforming the seamless manifold of space.64 Descartes embraces the essential invisibility of the cosmos as a spiritual deliverance:

“By this means, your soul will be delivered from all of these little images flitting about in the air, which are called intentional species, and which occupy so much of philosophers’ imagination.”65

Delivered of visual images, restored to its created status as son and heir, the soul is able to listen to its own infinite promise and confidently look forward to building a science of physics uncluttered by anthropomorphic deities. Works of art, by the same token, will soar to represent the invisibility of the visible , the planetary flight of the earth from its center in every sea–scape and still–life, statue and sculpture. To be delivered of isomorphy is to become seers of hidden dimensions. We are reminded of Paul Claudel: “Soyez béni mon Dieu qui m’avez délivré des idoles.”66 We are reminded, once again, of Gloucester: “Might I live to see thee with my touch, I’d say I had eyes again.67 Only the blind man, acquainted with the infirmity of human nature and sheltered from the debauchery of the cosmic spectacle, sees truly, with his hands, with his staff, but really with his reason alone, as befits the human person and the human promise, as though with a “sixth sense.” This world is no more visible to us than the next. Only the immaterial light, like a first degree in us of grace,68 gives us access to contemplation and to the “greatest bliss of this lifetime.”69 The Cartesian philosopher finds his vocation in walking cautiously, gratefully, in the dark. Vere tu es deus absconditus.


  1. 1 Jean-Louis Chrétien, L’Appel et la réponse (Paris: Minuit, 1992) 102. Eng. trans. forthcoming by Anne Davenport, The Call and the Response (New York: Fordham U. Press, 2004). Much of what follows on Aristotle is indebted to Chrétien’s analysis.
  2. De anima, II, 11, 423a22-423b1. Cf. Chrétien’s discussion, L’appel et la réponse, 106.
  3. De anima, II, 11, 423a2-3; 423a5; 423a7-8; 423b9-10. See J.-L. Chrétien’s discussion in L’appel et la réponse, 147-150.
  4. See, in particular, Traité de l’homme, in Oeuvres, eds. Charles Adam et Paul Tannery, XI (Paris: Vrin, 1967), 143-145 [henceforth AT, XI, 143-145]. Descartes carefully applies his neurological model to the Aristotelian list of tangibles: smooth and rough, hot and cold, moist and dry, heavy and light. For the pertinence of this question, see F. Solmsen, “Greek philosophy and the discovery of the nerves,” in Museum Helveticum, vol. 18, 1961, fasc. 4.
  5. Parts of Animals, 691b4.
  6. See De anima, II, 1, 412a27; and III, 13, 435b17.
  7. De anima, III, 13, 434b23-5.
  8. History of Animals, 588b4-22, Parts of Animals 4, 5.
  9. De anima, II, 3, 414a29-414b6.
  10. De anima, II, 3, 414b7-8.
  11. Nicomachean Ethics, X, 5, 1176a1-2.
  12. teleios: perfect.
  13. De anima, III, 1, 424b22-425a27. R. H. Dicks, in De Anima (Cambridge: 1907), compares Aristotle’s argument in this regard to hegel’s “proof” that there cannot be more than seven planets.
  14. Thus in Meditation VI, Descartes’ brief account of the genesis of Aristotelian empiricism culminates with the conviction that “nullam plane me habere in intellectu, quam non prius habuissem in sensu.” AT VII, 74-75.
  15. See Descartes’ account: “Primo itaque sensi me habere caput, manus, pedes et membra caetera ex quibus constat illud corpus… (AT VII, 74).
  16. See Nicomachean Ethics, X, 8, 1178b8-1179a32.
  17. De anima, II, 9, 421a22.
  18. De anima, II, 9, 421a25.
  19. See Sense and Sensibilia , 1, 436b13-437a3.
  20. A classic introduction to Gnosticism is Hans Jonas, The gnostic religion: the message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 3rd. ed.
  21. De anima, II, 12, 424a16-24.
  22. See D.W. Hamlyn, “Aristotle’s account of aesthesis in the De anima,” in Classical Quarterly , 1959, 6-16.
  23. Cynthia Freeland’s caution against a “literalist" interpretation, according to which the flesh of the hand itself would become heavy, is unconvincing. See Cynthia Freeland, “Aristotle on the Sense of Touch,” in Martha Nussbaum and Amélie Rorty eds., Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 232: “The literalist interpretation accords an absurd view to Aristotle ... Do my fingertips actually become more dry and brittle when I pick up a bunch of dead twigs?”
  24. Franz Brentano stirred up interest in medieval “intentional species” by pointing out their relevance to the problem of intentionality. Two nice introductory studies are Victor Gaston, “Connecting traditions: Augustine and the Greeks on intentionality” and Dominik Perler, “Things in the mind: Fourteenth-Century controversies over intelligible species,” in Ancient and medieval theories of intentionality , ed. D. Perler (Leyden: Brill, 2001) 24-74 and 231-253 respectively.
  25. See De generatione et corruptione, II, 11, 336b25-338b21.
  26. Cynthia Freeland, oddly, finds it “very odd” on Aristotle’s part to “consider sexual pleasure to be a pleasure of touch (sic).” See her discussion of Nicomachean Ethics, 118a24-33, in “Aristotle on the Sense of Touch,” 241.
  27. Sense and Sensibilia , 2, 438b30.
  28. De anima, II, 11, 423a12-15. See C. J. F. Williams, that touch is “an index of material reality” and that “the qualities detected by touch are the distinctive qualities of body, qua body.”
  29. Magna Moralia , I, 34, 1197a4-13.
  30. Nicomachean Ethics, II, 6, 1106b7-24.
  31. Physics, III, 200b12-202b29.
  32. Physics IV, 8, 215a20-22.
  33. Cynthia Freeland convincingly argues that Democritean atomism is Aristotle’s main target in this regard, although her claim that atomism was “the most viable then-current rival physical theory” seems to me unsubstantiated. See “Aristotle on the Sense of Touch,” 228 and 243.
  34. Posterior Analytics, 81a38.
  35. De anima, II. 11, 423a20.
  36. Sense and Sensibilia , 1, 437a15-16.
  37. Sense and Sensibilia , 442a29-442b9.
  38. De anima, III, 3, 429a4-5 and De sensu, 437a4-9.
  39. Metaphysics A, 1, 980a25-27.
  40. Sense and Sensibilia , 1, 437a6-7.
  41. See “Cogitationes Privatae,” AT X, 218.
  42. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1, 18-20.
  43. See Principia Philosophiae, II, art. 39, AT VIII-1, 63.
  44. A nice introduction to this topic is found in Daniel Garber, “Descartes’ Physics,” in The Cambrdige Companion to Descartes, ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge U. Press, 1999), 286-334.
  45. “I will now close my eyes,” Meditationes de prima philosophia, III, AT VII, 34.
  46. La dioptrique, Discours I, AT VI, 83-84. All translations are my own.
  47. Discours de la méthode, II, AT VI, 16-17.
  48. Meditationes de prima philosophia , IV, AT VII, 57.
  49. Note, for example, that the very last sentence of the Meditationes is a word of caution: “we must recognize the infirmity” of our nature - naturae nostrae infirmitas agnoscenda. AT VII, 90.
  50. Meditationes de prima philosophia , IV, AT VII, 58.
  51. On the topic of “natural perfection” and the training in self-discipline required, see Descartes’ older contemporary Saint Francis of Sales, Traité de l’amour de Dieu, Bk. XI, c. 15; in Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 920-923.
  52. Meditationes de prima philosophia , IV, AT VII, 62.
  53. La dipotrique, AT VI, 84.
  54. Discours de la méthode, I, AT VI, 2. I thank Edith Sylla for emphasizing the importance of this to me at the recent HSS meeting in Cambridge.
  55. See e.g. the “Interview with Burman,” AT V, 176-177.
  56. La dioptrique, I, AT VI, 84.
  57. Note “the spirit is affected by colors and light” in Paralipomena ad Vitellionem (1604), in Gesammelte Werke, 2: 152-3; cited by David Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press, 1976), 204.
  58. See Descartes’ letter to Mersenne of 25 November, 1630, AT I, 179.
  59. La dioptrique, AT VI, 84-85.
  60. Meditationes de prima philosophia , VI, AT VII, 83.
  61. Allegorical Interpretation, II, 19-25, in Philo, Loeb Classical Library (Cambdridge: Harvard U. Press, 1981), I, 239-241.
  62. See Discours de la Méthode, Part 5, AT VI, 59.
  63. Meditationes de prima philosophia , VI, 82-83.
  64. See Descartes’ letter to Mersenne, July 27, 1638, AT II, 268.
  65. la dioptrique, AT VI, 85-86.
  66. “Blessed are you my God who has delivered me of idols.” Ode III, in Cinq grandes Odes (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 57.
  67. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, scene 1, 23-24.
  68. See Descartes’ letter to Newcastle, March or April 1648, AT V, 137-138.
  69. Meditationes de prima philosophia , AT VII, 52.