The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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Among the many contributions to twentieth century philosophical scholarship by Martha Nussbaum and Hilary Putnam was their 1992 essay, “Changing Aristotle’s Mind,” in which they appealed to “the Aristotelian form - matter view as a happy alternative” between Cartesian dualism and materialistic reductionism. On the one hand, they argued, Aristotle’s view escapes Cartesian mind-body dualism because for Aristotle, there can be no description of animal functions “without making these functions ... embodied in some matter...” On the other hand, Aristotle does not reduce psychological functions to matter, because the Aristotelian psuche or soul is not identified with the matter of the body, but rather with our “organization to function”. All this was a response to the now infamous essay by Myles Burnyeat, “Is an Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible?” in which he fundamentally challenged the idea that Aristotelian psychology is a viable alternative to Cartesian dualism. Burnyeat argued that although Aristotle does embed animal functions in material organs, he does this in a manner which is unacceptable today - by simply attributing life and awareness to material organs, without any further physiological explanation. This dispute between Burnyeat on the one hand, and Nussbaum and Putnam on the other, is far more than a mere academic disagreement between those individuals. Not only does their dispute touch on some of the most fundamental issues in philosophy, but more importantly, it represents a clash of traditions on how to interpret the history of philosophy. The twentieth century saw an explosion of Aristotelian scholarship in all areas, much of which was devoted to arguing that the previous nineteen centuries had misread Aristotle. Martha Nussbaum herself played a large role in that movement over the past decades, proposing novel readings of Aristotle’s metaphysics, biology, and psychology. In her above essay, for example, she accuses Philoponus, Aquinas, and Brentano (all three cited by Burnyeat as precedents for his own reading) of allowing Christian “theodicy” to influence their readings of Aristotle’s psychology. There is therefore much at stake if readings like Burnyeat’s are correct, which is precisely why, I think, his essay struck such a nerve, and Nussbaum and Putnam felt compelled to “take up arms together” in response. Since the publication of that response, Burnyeat and others have replied with vigorous defenses of their own. However, many of the specific details in the essay by Nussbaum and Putnam have never been directly addressed. Due to the philosophical stakes involved, their response deserves a point-by-point analysis, which is what I will perform in this paper. I will argue that they not only misinterpret Aristotle’s general project, but also present inconsistent readings of the specific Aristotelian texts which they cite in response to Burnyeat. Due to the limitations of the space allotted here, however, I will restrict myself to the points which have not been extensively addressed already by Burnyeat and others since the publication by Nussbaum and Putnam of their essay, citing when necessary the responses which have already been given to the other points.


Anthony Crifasi presented “Aristotle on Sense Perception: The Enemy of my enemy is not my friend, a reply to Martha Nussbaum and Hillary Putnam” to the Society at its meeting with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Washington DC, December 2006.

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