Tag Archives: Neoplatonism

Knowledge like sense impression

While preparing for a presentation I recently gave in Cologne, I have been reminded of an intriguing yet strange passage in Damascius. In his De Principiis, Damascius asks what ‘knowledge’ (γνῶσις) is, in the context of Intellect’s relation to its object, Being. The response, however, is by no means a straightforward identity:

What then is knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) really? Is it like a halo, the forerunner in the procession of light that comes to be in the knower from the object known? Certainly perception takes place in accordance with the sense impression (ἡ αἴσθησις κατὰ τὸ αἴσθημα), and imagination exists according to the impression (ἡ φαντασία κατὰ τὸν τύπον), and opinion (ἡ δόξασις) and discursive thought (ἡ διανόησις) according to the content of thought and opinion respectively (ἡ μὲν κατὰ τὸ διανόημα, ἡ δὲ κατὰ τὸ δόξασμα). In general, then, knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) exists according to the content of knowledge (κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα), so to speak (De Princ. II.149.12–17 Combès-Westerink; trans. Gertz).

Sebastian Gertz discusses this at length, and quite well, in his 2016 paper on knowledge, being, and intellect in Damascius. I also discuss this passage (and his interpretation) in another dissertation chapter on causality in Damascius, slowly being developed. Gertz’s paper does a fine job elucidating this and other passages—I would recommend readers towards that.

But to return to the text, I want to focus on how Damascius makes his argument, especially in light of Aristotle. What makes Damascius’ argument interesting is that he does not (explicitly, at least at this point) use premises from the general Neoplatonic hierarchy to make his claim—for instance, that Being is a priori separate from Intellect. Instead he uses analogies from other faculties to make the initial claim: sensation (αἴσθησις) is according to, or identical with, its sense impression (αἴσθημα), and the same for opinion/discursive thought. In the same way, so Damascius appears to argue, knowledge is identical with the ‘content of thought’, coining the word, γνῶσμα, to explain this phenomenon. But what about the object of knowledge—the γνῶστον? Immediately after, Damascius seems to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’:

In general, then, knowledge is according to the content of knowledge … while the content of knowledge is the object of knowledge itself (αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν), although becoming substantialized in the knower (τῷ γιγνώσκοντι). We say that knowledge is entirely according to the latter [or ‘this’], but knowledge is not [simply] this. (De Princ. II.149,16-20; trans. my own)

καθόλου τοίνυν ἡ γνῶσις κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα, εἰ οἷόν τε φάναι, τὸ δὲ γνῶσμα ἐστιν αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἤδη τῷ γιγνώσκοντι ἐνουσιωμένον. ἢ κατὰ μὲν τοῦτο πάντως ἡ γνῶσις, οὐ τοῦτο δὲ ἡ γνῶσις.

At the outset the identification of the γνωστόν with γνῶσις is denied: knowledge is ‘according to’ the former, but not identical to it. Before this, however, Damascius does appear to identify the γνῶσμα and the γνωστόν, only in the case when the latter becomes ‘substantialized’ in the subject of knowledge (the γιγνώσκον). (One minor point not addressed in Gertz’s paper, but agreeing with his general point.) The idea then seems to be that the knower becomes identical to the γνῶσμα, which itself was the γνωστόν before becoming imprinted in the knower.

Here the analogy to sense impression becomes a little clearer: the faculty of sense accords with the ‘content of sense’, the αἴσθημα, which itself correlates to the object of sense αἰσθητόν, although the latter remains distinct from the senses insofar as (1) it is the intentional object of the faculty of sense, and (2) it is enmattered. Aristotle’s De Anima III.8 brings out the distinction, in terms of the form/matter distinction:

Within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible (αἰσθητόν). They must be either the things themselves or their forms. The former alternative is of course impossible: it is not the stone which is present in the soul but its form. (De Anima III.8, 431b26–29; trans. Smith)

Given this, Aristotle soon after does give an identification, or a kind of identification, between images/φαντάσματα and αἰσθήματά:

… when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images (φαντάσματα) are like (ὥσπερ) contents of sense (αἰσθήματά) except in that they contain no matter. (De Anima III.8, 432a8–10; trans. Smith, modified)

The αἴσθημα then serves as a bridge between the object of sense and the senses themselves, insofar as the sensible form which correlates to the αἴσθημα applies to both the senses and the object of sense.

In this respect Damascius seems to have something like this in mind for the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα, where the γνωστόν maintains distinction in relation to the γιγνώσκον. However if he is carrying through the analogy, there should be no essential difference between the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα which knowledge is identical with. Damascius’ ‘denial’ of the straightforward identity of γνωστόν and knowledge, however, seems to be similar to Aristotle denying that the faculty of senses become literally the stone in matter and form. Instead, the faculty of sense takes on the ‘content of sense’, i.e. the form, without the matter; in the same way, the knower takes on the ‘content of knowledge’ without the correlating ‘matter’ or substrate—whatever that may be. Thus, knowledge’s identity with the γνῶσμα implies a qualification of the kind of identity between the knower and the object of knowledge.

One remaining question: would constitute the ‘substrate’ which distinguishes the object of knowledge from its subject? In a word, unity: for Damascius, as for all Neoplatonists, Intellect implies duality since it thinks itself—there is then a necessary distinction of Intellect-qua-subject thinking itself, Intellect-qua-object. For late Neoplatonists (Iamblichus onward), Being, on the other hand, implies unity: its activity is not self-revertive, and as the first product after the One it mirrors the One’s characteristic unity. However, Being is also the proper object of thought for Intellect, so it must be immediately related to Intellect to be thinkable. Thus we see Damascius’ concern in the initial passages to qualify what constitutes ‘knowledge’, if we already have a distinction between the subject and object of knowledge in terms of unity and duality.

I would agree with Gertz and others that this is certainly a break in the ‘identity thesis’ from Plotinus and Aristotle—one can see this in our previous passages from De Anima III.8, where intellect (νοῦς) does become identical to its object. But I would maintain that we still have a qualified identity thesis, and that instead of a Skeptical response (ala Sara Rappe, perhaps?) or even possibly a ‘perspectivist’ position (mentioned in Gertz’s paper), it would be more fruitful to make the comparison in light of Aristotle’s qualified ‘identity’ for the senses and their objects. Damascius’ analogy drawn here, in this respect, is brilliant.