Volume 87, 2013
Aristotle Now and Then
Turner C. Nevitt
Sensation in Aristotle
Some Problematic Contemporary Interpretations and a Medieval Solution
Richard Sorabji and Myles Burnyeat have developed and defended rival interpretations of Aristotle’s account of sensation. Both agree in accepting the common terms of Aristotle’s account (alteration, transition from potentiality to actuality, reception of form without matter, etc.), but they disagree about how these terms are to be understood. In this paper I consider these rival interpretations, examining the best arguments for each and raising new objections to both. I argue that each contemporary interpretation, in its own way, faces the same problem—the inability to accommodate everything that Aristotle says in his account of sensation. In the search for an alternative interpretation I suggest turning to the medieval tradition, and particularly to the interpretation developed by Aquinas in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima. I argue that Aquinas’s interpretation deserves more attention because it retains the best features of its two contemporary rivals while avoiding the problems facing each.