47 - God Only Knows: Aristotle on Mind and God

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Drawing on the De AnimaOn the HeavensPhysics and Metaphysics, Peter tackles Aristotle’s theory of mind and its relation to his theology.



Further Reading

• V. Caston, "Aristotle on Consciousness," Mind 111 (2002), 751-815.

• M. Frede and D. Charles (eds), Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda (Oxford: 2000).

• R. Heinaman, "Aristotle and the Mind-Body Problem," Phronesis 35 (1990), 83-102.

• T. Irwin, "Aristotle's Philosophy of Mind," in S. Everson (ed.), Psychology (Cambridge: 1991), 56-83.

• A. Kosman, ‘What does the Maker Mind Make?’ in M. Nussbaum and A.O. Rorty (eds), Essays on Aristotle's De Anima (Oxford: 1995), 343-58.

• R. Wardy, The Chain of Change: A Study of Aristotle's Physics VII (Cambridge: 1990).


Kenneth Connally on 24 May 2014

The cause of change for Aristotle

Hi Peter, and/or anyone else reading! Fantastic series!

I'm a bit confused about how motion/change comes about in Aristotle's system. I get that the heavenly bodies and living organisms on earth are imitating the Celestial Movers/God to the extent that their physical forms are capable, by revolving eternally or maintaining the eternity of their species through reproduction. But first, it seems like physical motions need all 4 causes, not just the final cause. The reason you can't run a car engine forever isn't just because you'll eventually attain any goal you had for doing it (unless the goal is just to run a car engine forever). You'll also obviously run out of fuel, which seems like it belongs in the "efficient cause" category. So I don't see how just perpetually wanting to move should explain perpetual motion.

Second, in the De Anima Aristotle seems to say that appetition/desire and the capacity to sense are always found together, and only in animals--not even plants, let alone celestial bodies. So how can plants and heavenly bodies desire to imitate God without senses or concomitant desires? Also, even if they had senses and desires, it seems like they would need rationality as well, which only humans, celestial movers, and God have (I think), in order to desire something non-physical (like the eternality of God), since it can't be sensed directly, only inferred through the kind of logical process Aristotle goes through in the Metaphysics.

In reply to by Kenneth Connally

Peter Adamson on 27 May 2014

Cause of change

These are actually two of the biggest controversies in the later tradition concerning Aristotle. There is a tendency in late antiquity and the medieval period to take God to be efficient as well as final cause, and even sometimes formal cause. The efficient cause reading is first suggested by Ammonius (see episode 97): since the heavens are caused to move by God and since their motion is essential, He is effectively making them exist. Aristotle's Physics book VIII tends to give the impression that God may be an efficient cause whereas the Metaphysics (book 12) suggests final cause only.

And in fact some later authors do ascribe sight and hearing to the heavens, though that is a minority view. One debate is whether the movers of the spheres are souls or only intellects - some say souls, in order to explain how they could move, since just thinking doesn't seem to explain motion.

Marrion Malone on 17 September 2015

God Only Knows

I like what Aristotle says about God "God is a final cause, he moves the outer most heaven the way the beloved moves it's lover". I have never heard God being described in this way. I would say that God is the final cause.

Daniel on 6 May 2017


Hello Peter,

I am very much enjoying this excellent series of podcasts - thank you to all involved!

It strikes me that the idea "thought thinking itself" might indeed allow us to locate the 'divine', as it were, in consciousness itself - not in the consciousness or self-awareness of any particular individual being, but in consciousness per se. How it can possibly be that tangible matter gives rise to intangible thought, emotion, perception - how can I think "I'll raise my hand" and then raise my hand, or feel a sadness that feels heavy yet has no measurable mass, or why the wavelength of light that we perceive as red should be perceived as red and not green? And what does it mean for our sense of self-awareness that we are still who we are when we dream, or are hallucinating, or that a general anaesthetic can shut down consciouness completely without undoing who we are? - all this to me seems to me absolutely fascinating.

Perhaps the perennial exploration of the divine, and of the soul, such as it has been throughout history and across cultures, is really in essence an ongoing attempt to grapple with this problem of consciousness, of which, pardon the pun, we are as a species very well aware, and in which case Aristotle's phrase is not at all disturbing, or pointless. Rather, it seems to me very human, and cuts to the quick of our innate propensity as a species to navel-gaze and philosophise, combined with our desire for there to be more than to us than us. Where else is consciousness leading us (non-teleologically, mind you, as I see it, given evolution) if not to a better understanding of who we are? What else, one might say, would any god, as imagined by man, contemplate? It might not be unfair to say that man created god not so much in his physical image but in his mental image. 

Anyway, so many questions come up, that you end up feeling like a dog chasing its own tail! 

A fascinating series - thank you!

In reply to by Daniel

Peter Adamson on 7 May 2017


Yes, that's a good insight, and one that actually comes up quite a bit in later episodes, for instance the interview on medieval theories of self-awareness with Therese Cory and of course in the episodes on consciousness in Indian philosophy, especially in Vedanta.

Alexander Johnson on 3 July 2018

General Comment

So I have been really enjoying this podcast.  Before this, I have been reluctant to get into philosophy (except chinese legalism).  Until this point, many philosophical arguements were just absurd, and my primary experience with philosophy has been from armchair philosophers that are mostly solipsists or nihilists, or questions like "do we all see the same red?" and "red objects are not red, they are everything but red," and issues challenging preception as worthless even when there exists a shared perception.  All this turned me off from philosophy for years.  (my friend who is much more into philosophy i recommended this podcast to was more avoidant of digging further into it because he had issue with "sophists", on the other hand).

So what changed with your podcast is that, while i like the level of depth and love the incrementalist nature to it, i really really love that you go into detail about the thinking behind the philosophies and the context as to why it made/makes sense, often offering amusing examples as ways to clarify.  It makes philosophy a lot more about how to think than "this is what i think."

My one critism is that at the end of a series, you don't have a conclusion podcast tying it all together, in the same way you have an introduction section.  For longer series, like you have on Aristole, it makes it difficult to tie together the different topics into a cohesive viewpoint or related viewpoints since even if i listen to 5 a week, 3 weeks will have gone by since i started the series (in my case, 5 since i listen to 3 a week, had i not been listening to archives 3-4 months would have gone by).  This lead me to listen to the Philosophize This! podcast at the end of a series, which acts as a nice supplimental since it is a much quicker and less in depth overview, which can act as a conclusion.  Have you heard anything from them?  What is your opinion of them? 

Thank you for putting together a fantastic podcast with many years of content!

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 5 July 2018

Tying it together

Thanks for your enthusiastic response to the podcast and the suggestion. I do have the introductory episodes for each period (well, usually I do) and I guess I was thinking that it would be superfluous to do an overall discussion of each historical section at both the beginning and end. I see what you mean though, that it is hard to keep so much in your head especially with pauses between weeks - I listen to a lot of other history podcasts and often have the same experience.

I know about the Philosophize This! podcast and though I haven't listened to it much it seems to have a good following; since he does go a lot faster than I do through history, I agree that the two complement each other well.

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