Aristotle's and Jonathan Lear's Account of Contemplation

Updated on May 15, 2018
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Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Essence of an Agent

In order for Aristotle to give an account of contemplation, one must first understand Aristotle’s account of change, substantial form, and the potentiality and actuality of both patients and agents. Aristotle must do this, because there is a change when a being goes from not contemplating something to contemplating something; an actualizing of potential.

To begin, something that has essence is something that exists. For Aristotle, something cannot be real if it does not have an essence. The essence of an agent, let us say a tree, is its substantial form. It is the aggregate of molecules that make up the agent. This is, however, different than the intelligible form of an agent, because essence is merely essence. The intelligible form is what can be grasped by the intellect of the patient; the patient being a human or perceiver with a 'nous' or mind. So, as a patient perceives the agent, it is the agent’s intelligible form which impacts the patient’s nous or mind.

On this note, one might wonder how this is all possible. In order to elaborate on the impact an agent has on a patient through its intelligible form brings about Aristotle’s account of change and the actualizing of potentials within the agent and patient.

Agent's and Patient's Potentialities and Actualities

As the agent stands, it has certain potentialities and actualities. Change occurs when the potentialities of the agent and patient are actualized. If we are assuming the tree is the agent, then the tree has a first level potentiality of being the tree with form and is also actualizing the potential by actually being the tree. This brings about a second level potentiality of the tree. The second level potentiality is the tree’s potential to transmit its form to a perceiver. So, in order to do so, a patient or perceiver must come into play.

Let us assume that the patient is a fully functioning human being. As the patient stands, she too has certain potentialities and actualities. The first level potentiality of the patient is the potential to be a human being with a mind. This is also the patient's first level actuality, the actuality of being the human being with a mind. The patient’s second level potentiality is her potential to receive the form of the agent. When the patient receives the form of the agent, the patient’s second level potentiality is actualized, bringing about the second level actuality of the patient. This too also brings about the second level actuality of the agent; being understood by the patient.

So, in order to bring about second level actualities within the patient, the patient must perceive and understand the form of the agent. And in order to bring about the second level actualities within the agent, the agent’s form must be understood by a patient. The actualizations are the telos of the agent and patient. However, the understanding of the agent is not the telos of the patient, nor is the being understood by the patient the ultimate telos of the agent. Here is where Aristotle brings about his account of contemplation.


Aristotle's Account of Contemplation

According to Aristotle, only patients can contemplate. Contemplation within the patient begins when the patient actualizes its second level potentiality to understand the agent’s form. When this occurs, a new potentiality arises within the patient; the potential to contemplate the agent. In order to begin the contemplation, this potential to contemplate must be actualized within the patient. As the patient understands the agent, the ultimate telos of both the agent and patient is achieved, because as the patient understands the agent, the patient is contemplating the agent. It is the telos of the agent to be contemplated by the patient, and it is the telos of the patient to contemplate the agent.

However, the patient does not necessarily continuously contemplate the agent as she does understand the agent. For the patient can, at some point, stop contemplating the agent while still understanding the agent. All that is occurring has the telos of contemplation and actualization within the mind of the patient. Both forms are fully actualized as the potential to be contemplated and the potential to contemplate are both fully actualized when the form of the tree is alive and active in the mind of the human being who contemplates it. This means that there is a single telos and activity that is occurring. The active contemplation and the being actively contemplated is both a single activity and is the highest telos of the variables introduced.


Lear's Critique of Aristotle's Account: The Unmoved Mover

According to Jonathan Lear, there would be a problem with Aristotle’s account of contemplation if it were not for the Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover can be known or understood as several things: the Unmoved Mover, God, or (especially in this case) active mind. Lear thinks Aristotle has a problem in his account of contemplation, because Lear thinks there are too many accounts of potentiality. For Aristotle, agents, such as a tree, have the potentiality to reveal their form to a patient. Also, patients have the potentiality to receive the intelligible form of the agent. Here, Lear thinks that in order for either of these potentialities to become actualized, there must already be an actual thing which can actualize the potentialities.


Passive vs. Active Mind (Nous)

Now, it may seem as though the human mind is the actual thing which brings about the actualities of the potentials. However, this is not correct, for Aristotle hints at and Lear explicates the idea of active and passive mind. Aristotle believes that the human mind, or nous, is essentially a passive thing. The nous is only actualized when it comes into contact with an agents intellectual form. So, in a way, the intelligible forms of the agent are active, in that they actively reveal themselves to the patient. But, it is also clear that without the patient, these intelligible forms are merely potential. The problem Lear and Aristotle face is that there is no actual being to bring about the actualities of both the agent’s and patient’s potentialities.

This is where Lear cites Aristotle’s views on active mind. This is a mind entirely different from the nous of human beings; for we saw that human mind is passive, like a piece of wax taking in the print of a golden ring. The active mind is a thing that has actualized all the potentials possible. This mind is known as the Unmoved Mover, God, or active mind. While this mind is a bit difficult to define, Aristotle states that the mind makes all things. Lear carefully notes that he does not take this to mean that the mind is like a craftsman creating each thing, rather it is the first principle essence of all things that can be known.


The Dream and the Dreamer

The way I like to interpret these notions is as follows. Imagine you are in a dream. Within the dream, you are you, yet there are also other beings around you. You have a mind, and the other beings each (supposedly) have a mind. There are tangible objects around you, which impact your thought process. This is much like the actualizing of the potentiality of the intelligible forms of an agent in a patient in the real world. However, while this is all occurring, it is all occurring within the greater mind of the sleeper. You see, it is not necessarily that the sleeper who is creating these events, yet all of these events are happening within the sleeper.

The sleeper is much like the Unmoved Mover. It is not without the Unmoved Mover that any of these events can take place. The Unmoved Mover is the divine being which is the foundation for all of these interactions to take place. This means that as a patient, I am involved in the divine being and process of the Unmoved Mover. This is much like my dream self, and all the other dream objects and people, being part of the ultimate dreamer.

The form of each thing exists in the mind of the unmoved mover prior to existing in the mind of a human being, but it is the very same form that is first in the unmoved mover and then in the mind of a human being.

Aristotle further elaborates upon these ideas by discussing the effects and power of light. The analogy is first explained by means of the natural world. The physical world which surrounds me is like the human mind. It is passive in the fact that it is dark until it receives the light which illuminates it. It is the illuminating light which gives forth the possibility of potential and actuality to be revealed. The mind is much like this. It is as if the mind is in the dark. It is ready to take on the forms which surround it. In a way, the mind already has the forms which surround it. However, it is not until the light reveals the forms that the mind can receive and contemplate the forms being revealed.

Aristotle's Contemplative Life

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