Classics Aristotle's Philosophy of Mind
Pavel Gregoric
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0174


It is somewhat anachronistic to speak of Aristotle’s philosophy of mind, since he does not operate with our concept of mind and does not share our focus on questions concerning consciousness and characteristics of mental states. Instead, Aristotle operates with a concept of the soul (psuchē), which only partially overlaps with our concept of mind. The soul is the animating principle that accounts for all manifestations of life. It is evoked to explain processes and states that modern thinkers regard as purely physiological, such as nutrition, growth, reproduction, respiration, sleep, and waking. However, to the extent that the soul also accounts for mental states and processes, a study of soul overlaps with a study of mind and inevitably touches upon issues of consciousness and characteristics of mental states, which makes it legitimate to speak of Aristotle’s philosophy of mind. Aristotle provides an account of the soul in the relatively short treatise De anima, which has been one of his most widely read and commented writings. There are also whole treatises in Aristotle’s biological corpus, and many passages elsewhere, dedicated to various phenomena that Aristotle explains with reference to the soul and that are consequently informative of his views on it. Over the past fifty years philosophers have approached Aristotle as a possible source of fresh ideas concerning mental phenomena and their relation to physical states, followed by ever more conceptually sophisticated and historically sensitive scholarship.

General Overviews

Since Jaeger 1948 (originally published in 1923), the developmental (“genetic”) approach to Aristotle has become popular, especially in appraisal of Aristotle’s psychological works. Nuyens 1948 argues that Aristotle first wrote dialogues in which he advocated a Platonic dualist view of the soul, then the biological works in which he took a mechanistic view, and lastly De anima, which expounded the hylomorphic view. This approach, preoccupied with the chronology of Aristotle’s works, started to wane in the 1970s, as it tended to be of limited help in discovering the structure of his thought in different works (Lefèvre 1972). Since the 1960s, Aristotle’s psychological writings tended to be seen as early formulations of major positions in the mind-body debates (see Irwin 1991). On account of his view that the intellect (nous) is separable from the body and possibly immortal, Aristotle was branded a dualist, much like Plato before and Descartes after him. There are passages, especially in the collection Parva naturalia, speaking of the localization of the soul in the central organ (the heart, according to Aristotle) and explaining mental states and their characteristics with reference to changes in the sense organs, that suggest Aristotle was a materialist of some sort. From the mid-1970s, Aristotle’s works came to be considered a precursor of functionalism. De anima is a study of psychic capacities and their relationships independently of their relation to the body, and functionalists found that approach congenial. However, it has been forcefully argued that Aristotle cannot be regarded as a functionalist, because of his conception of matter that rules out multiple realizability of mental states. Key contributions to this debate are collected in Nussbaum and Rorty 1995. The 1990s have seen attempts to make Aristotle a supervenience theorist or an emergentist (see Caston 2009), despite Aristotle’s commitment to the priority of the soul over the body and insistence that the soul is an efficient cause. Perhaps it is best to regard Aristotle’s position as unique, interesting for the way it steers a middle course between Cartesian dualism and reductive materialism, but problematic for its wider metaphysical commitments. Apart from these general debates, and partly generated by them, there have been more specific discussions of interest to philosophers of mind, such as discussions concerning Aristotle’s views on the nature of perception and abstract thought, on sensory integration and representational capacities, on desire, and on psychophysical causation. A survey of such topics can be found in Johansen 2012. At the same time, scholars have explored with increasing intensity Aristotle’s debts to his predecessors, especially to Plato, and the ways Aristotle’s philosophy of mind had influenced later authors and whole traditions.

  • Caston, Victor. 2009. Aristotle’s psychology. In A companion to ancient philosophy. Edited by Mary Louise Gill and Pierre Pellegrin, 316–346. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    More advanced and authoritative introduction to Aristotle’s theory, written primarily for those interested in the contemporary philosophy of mind, recommendable at the graduate level. The paper is accompanied by an exhaustive bibliography.

  • Everson, Stephen. 1995. Psychology. In The Cambridge companion to Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes, 168–194. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Basic overview of Aristotle’s theory, with an eye more to Aristotle’s concepts and methodology than to contemporary preoccupations. There are other chapters in this volume of tangential interest for students of Aristotle’s philosophy of mind, with a compendious and helpfully annotated bibliography.

  • Irwin, Terence H. 1991. Aristotle’s philosophy of mind. In Psychology. Vol. 2 of Companions to ancient thought. Edited by Stephen Everson, 56–83. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Basic introduction to Aristotle’s theory, written specifically from the perspective of the contemporary philosophy of mind, mapping Aristotle’s views to the main positions in contemporary debates and exploring his possible contributions.

  • Jaeger, Werner. 1948. Aristotle: The fundamentals of the history of his development. Translated by R. Robinson. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon.

    English translation of Aristoteles: Grundlegung einer Geschichte seiner Entwicklung, first published in 1923 (Berlin: Weidmann). Hugely influential book that traces three stages of Aristotle’s development: the Platonic phase of the Academy, the anti-Platonic phase of travels in Asia Minor, and the predominantly empirical phase upon Aristotle’s return to Athens.

  • Johansen, Thomas K. 2012. The powers of Aristotle’s soul. Oxford: Clarendon.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199658435.001.0001

    Up-to-date scholarly study of major facets of Aristotle’s psychology. Can be used as an advanced introduction to particular topics in Aristotle’s philosophy of mind. Johansen engages with, or at least refers to, the best recent scholarship on each particular topic that he takes up.

  • Lear, Jonathan. 1988. Aristotle: The desire to understand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570612

    A stimulating introduction to the central themes of Aristotle’s philosophy, especially suited to philosophy undergraduates. The chapter “Man’s nature” (pp. 96–151) covers the topics directly relevant to Aristotle’s philosophy of mind.

  • Lefèvre, Charles. 1972. Sur l’évolution d’Aristote en psychologie. Louvain, Belgium: Institut supérior de Philosophie.

    A thorough examination and refutation of Nuyens 1948. Argues that hylomorphism of the supposed third phase of Aristotle’s thought is compatible with the “instrumentalism” of the second phase, undermining the basis for the developmental picture proposed by Nuyens.

  • Nussbaum, Martha C., and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, eds. 1995. Essays on Aristotle’s De anima. Oxford: Clarendon.

    DOI: 10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

    The short “Introduction B” (pp. 7–13), written by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, provides helpful remarks on the main lines of approach to De anima. Most of the papers collected in this volume are landmarks for the study of Aristotle’s philosophy of mind. Originally published in 1992 (Oxford: Clarendon); this expanded paperback edition contains an additional essay by M. Burnyeat.

  • Nuyens, François. 1948. L’évolution de la psychologie d’Aristote. Louvain, Belgium: Institut supérior de Philosophie.

    French translation of the Dutch monograph Ontwikkelingsmomenten in de Zielkunde van Aristoteles. Een historisch-philosophische Studie from 1939 (Dekker&van de Vegt: Nijmegen and Utrecht) in which the author applies Jaeger’s approach specifically to Aristotle’s psychology. For some time this work was a landmark in the study of Aristotle, accepted by several leading authorities on Aristotle, including W. D. Ross.

  • Ross, W. D. 1949. Aristotle. 5th ed. London: Methuen.

    In many ways outdated, but for its comprehensiveness and adherence to primary texts still a useful overview of Aristotle’s philosophy, written by one of the leading authorities on Aristotle from the first half of the 20th century. Chapters “Philosophy of nature” (pp. 62–111), “Biology” (pp. 112–128), and “Psychology” (pp. 129–153) can serve as a point of entry.

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