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Aristotle on Desire

Marble bust of Aristotle. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus c. 330 BC.

Marble bust of Aristotle. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus c. 330 BC.

10 September 2009

Dr Giles Pearson in the Department of Philosophy has been awarded £24,000 by the AHRC to complete a book-length study on Aristotle and desire. Driving the project is the belief that Aristotle’s account of desire is extremely important for a number of key topics in his philosophy, and is also of philosophical interest to us now.

Aristotle’s account of desire bears on a number of aspects of his thought, from the psychological to the ethical.  For example, Aristotle considers the formation of desire in response to perceptual, imaginative, and rational processes; examines the relation between desire and the body; recognises a generic notion of desire that has three distinct species (pleasure-based, spirited-based, and good-based); gives an account of the role of desire in animal and human locomotion; employs a division of desires into rational and non-rational; examines the role of desire in choice; and explains the moral psychology of an agent in terms of (conflicting) desires.

Although there is a suggestion in one of Aristotle’s works that he may have been planning to write a treatise on desire, unfortunately no such study has survived.  Thus my investigation is, in part, a piece of detective work and involves gathering together Aristotle’s views on desire from his various scattered remarks on the topic.  Particularly helpful in this regard are passages in his ethical and psychological works, but in fact there are revealing passages throughout the corpus.  Nevertheless, I believe that a coherent and interesting account can be reconstructed from his various claims.

Given the centrality of desire for Aristotle in a number of different areas of his thought, I expect the results of my inquiry to be of interest to philosophers and classicists working on a variety of topics in Aristotle.  I also anticipate my book will be of interest to scholars concerned with the history of philosophy more generally, given the influence Aristotle’s philosophy had on subsequent western thought.  In addition, I believe that Aristotle’s account of desire, especially in certain key areas, is of more than merely historical interest.  Desire is not only important for Aristotle, it is also key in a number of areas of contemporary philosophy, e.g. in the philosophy of mind, action theory, and ethics.  It has widely been thought that an understanding of desire is particularly important insofar as it is a state that sits between cognitive states (such as perception and thought), on the one hand, and action, on the other.

This seems to make desire significant not only with respect to our understanding of how cognitive states can be translated into action, but also with respect to the mind-body relation itself, since desire (which seems to be a mental state) seems capable of issuing in physical output, i.e. action.  Again, desire is significant in that it seems to be a state that we can share with non-rational animals, but which can have instances that are beyond the capabilities of such creatures (for example, the desire to buy a lottery ticket next Thursday).  Furthermore, desire seems required not only to explain rational actions (for example, via choices), but also irrational actions, such as weak-willed behaviour.  Indeed, desire seems significant for our understanding of the moral psychology of an agent more generally.  My book will seek to show that Aristotle has something significant to contribute to each of these topics.

Dr Giles Pearson/Department of Philosophy

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