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Essays on Aristotle's De Anima

Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

11 De Anima 2. 24 and the Meaning of Life


Gareth B. Matthews, 1992.

Gareth B. Matthews
A CHECK of almost any standard encyclopaedia will reveal how problematic the concept of life remains for us today. Sometimes
the experts try to disguise the problems; sometimes they make them completely obvious. The entry under Life in a recent
edition of The World Book Encyclopedia makes the problems obvious:

Nearly all living things share certain basic characteristics. These characteristics include (1) reproduction; (2) growth;
(3) metabolism; (4) movement; (5) responsiveness; and (6) adaptation. Not every organism exhibits all these
features, and even nonliving things may show some of them. However, these characteristics as a group outline the
1
basic nature of living things.
1 (Chicago: World Book, 1986), xii. 242.

One doesn't have to be much of a Platonist to become concerned and puzzled about discussions like this. How can it be that
only nearly all, and not simply all, living things share the characteristics that outline the basic nature of living things? And
how can a list of characteristics such that only nearly all living things have those characteristics and some non-living things
also have them be a list that outlines the basic nature of living things? Why doesn't the admitted failure to nd a set of
characteristics necessary and sucient for being alive lead to the conclusion that perhaps there really is no such thing as
the basic nature of living things?

Aristotle seems to have been the rst thinker to try to understand what it is to be a living thing by reference to a list of
characteristic life-functions (or, as he called them, psychic powers or soul-powersdunameis t s psuch s). The list
Aristotle gives varies from place to place in his texts, but it is usually a selection from among the following: self-nutrition,
growth, decay, reproduction, appetite, sensation or perception, self-motion, thinking.

From our modern point of view, the strangest item on Aristotle's list of life-functions is thinking. Descartes convinced us
2
moderns that thinking has nothing essential to do with life.
2 . . . becaus e probably men in the earlies t times did not dis tinguis h in us that principle in virtue of which we are nouris hed, grow,

and perform all thos e operations which are common to us with the brutes apart from any thought, from that by which we think, they

called both by the s ingle name soul . . . But I, perceiving that the principle by which we are nouris hed is wholly dis tinct from that by

means of which we think, have declared that the name soul when us ed for both is equivocal. . . . I cons ider the mind not as part of

the s oul, but as the whole of that s oul which thinks (Reply to Objections V in Des cartes 163741 = HaldaneRos s 1967, ii. 210).

So it is surprising to us to nd Aristotle including

end p.185

it. Otherwise Aristotle's list is not out of line with modern eorts to say what a living thing is by reference to a list of
characteristic life functions.

Some modern writers give a list of such functions and then say that (i) anything that can perform them all is alive; (ii)
anything that cannot perform any of them is not alive; and (iii) anything that can perform some, but not all, may be alive or
not. Aristotle's approach is bolder. He says it is sucient for being living that a thing can perform one of these functions.
Provided any one alone of these is found in a thing, he writes in DA 2. at 413a225, we say that thing is livingviz. thinking
or perception or local movement and rest, or movement in the sense of nutrition, decay and growth (1982, i. 658). And at
the beginning of the next chapter he makes much the same point:

Of the psychic powers above enumerated some kinds of living things, as we have said, possess all, some less then all,
others one only. Those we have mentioned are the nutritive, the appetitive, the sensory, the locomotive, and the
power of thinking. (414a2932, trans. J. A. Smith in Aristotle (191052))

Aristotle's claim that provided any one alone of these [psychic or life-functions] is found in a thing we say that thing is living
invites two dierent questions. First, we may ask, is it empirically true? That is, is it true as a matter of empirical fact that we
count whatever, and only whatever, can perform at least one of the functions on Aristotle's list as a living thing. Let us call
that question the Empirical Question.

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Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

The Empirical Question asks whether a biconditional along the following lines is materially adequate as an account of what we
include in the class of living things:

(1)

By contrast, the Denitional Question asks whether a denition of the following sort is satisfactory:

(2)

Let us consider the Denitional Question rst. Certainly Aristotle himself is not given to oering disjunctive denitions. His
favoured form of denition belongs to the genusdierentia type. (2) can hardly be a good candidate for what Aristotle wants
to say about the Greek equivalent for is alive, unless some special story can be told to show that its disjunctive form is
accidental to the claim being made and that (2) is really equivalent to some other, nondisjunctive, way of putting things.

This sort of objection to (2) has real force. What it is for something to be alive ought to be something more unitary than the
disjunctive form of (2) suggests. One wants to know what being able to think, being able to perceive something,

end p.186

being able to move oneself, etc., have in common that makes them life-functions, that is, functions such that being able to
perform a single one of them qualies a thing for the appellation living thing. Thus even if (1) is correct and Aristotle's list of
psychic functions is materially adequate in picking out all and only living things, (2) seems unsatisfactory.

Let's turn now to the Empirical Question. Is (1) adequate?

I have left (1) in open-ended form. A good rst thing to do in evaluating (1) would be to try to get a complete list of
Aristotelian psychic, or life, powers, or functions. I think this is a complete list from DA 2, anyway:
(i) thinking (nous, diano tikon);
(ii) perception or sensation (aisth sis);
(iii) local (kata topon) movement (kin sis) and rest (stasis);
(iv) movement (kin ses) with respect to nutrition (kata troph n) and decay (phthsis) and growth (aux sis) or self-nutrition
(threptikon);
(v) touch (haph );
(vi) appetite (orexis) or desire (epithumia) and passion (thumos) and wishing (boul sis);
(vii) reproduction (genn sis).

There could well be disagreement on how these powers are to be counted. Thus to some readers it may seem that growth
ought to be considered a separate power in Aristotle's list; that may be correct. And perhaps the appetitive powers referred
to in (vi) should be listed separately. Finally, touch is, of course, a mode of perception, or sensation. It gets discussed
separately because, according to Aristotle, some animals have no other sense modality than touch (413b49). But then,
perhaps, we should list non-tactile perception as a distinct power.

In general, however, this seems to be the list of psychic powers Aristotle has in mind in DA 2.

Let us consider rst the last item on the list, reproduction. Obviously some individual organisms, though certainly alive, are
too immature to reproduce; others are too old. Still others are sterile throughout their full lives, either because of an
individual defect, or because, as is the case with mules, their very kind is sterile. So being able to reproduce is necessary
neither for an individual organism to be a living thing, nor even for a kind of organism to be a kind of living thing.

Let us recall, though, that Aristotle's claim is not that every living thing has every psychic or life power; rather, it is that
everything with a psychic power is alive (and, presumably, only such things). Might something be able to reproduce itself
without being alive? Well, sounds reproduce themselves in echo-chambers and visual appearances reproduce themselves in
mirrors, though neither sounds nor visual appearances are alive, at least not in the way, or perhaps in the sense or senses of
alive, we are interested in. Even more troubling are viruses, which were, of course, unknown to Aristotle.

Let us dismiss worries about sounds and appearances and viruses and suppose that a suitable sense of reproduction can be
spelt out in an appropriate way so

end p.187

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Subscriber: University of Chicago; date: 23 November 2010
Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

that everything with the power of reproduction (in that sense of reproduction) is alive. Are there diculties with other items
on Aristotle's list?

No doubt there will be similar problems with specifying the sense or senses of, say, appetite and local movement and rest
we are interested in, so that having the power picked out by the expression in the suitable sense will denitely guarantee that
the entity that has it is alive.

Suppose, however, that all such problems can be solved. Would it then be plausible to say that the Empirical Question can be
answered armatively? Apparently so.

The Denitional Question, though, will still be dicult to handle. There are two main sorts of problem with it. The rst is that in
nding appropriate senses of reproduction, appetite, etc., so that the deniens will cover just the right cases, no more and
no less, we may well have to make implicit or explicit appeal to the notion of life. For example, in specifying the required
sense of reproduction to apply to, say, the division of an amoeba but not to the echoing of a sound, we may have to make
at least implicit reference to the notion of life. If this turns out to be so, the denition will be circular. Circularity is not a
problem with the Empirical Question; our only demand on (1) is that it state truly necessary and sucient conditions for
something's being a living thing. But circularity is a serious problem for the Denitional Question.

The second problem, as I have already suggested, is that it is not clear what these psychic powers have in common that
makes the possession of one of them sucient for an entity to count as a living thing. This problem is one familiar to readers
of Aristotle as a problem in the unity of the denition.

At this point it is worth taking into account Aristotle's ideas about how the psychic powers are related to each other. Aristotle
does not suppose that a given living thing might have, say, the power of reproduction and nothing else. Rather he thinks of
the psychic powers, either all of them or at least many of them, as nested in an order or sequence of decreasing extension
(or increasing, depending on which way you look at the sequence). The idea is that everything with power p3 has p2 (though
not the other way around), and everything with p2 has p1 (though not the other way around).

Now how does this nesting idea help us deal with the Denitional Question? Well, it might be Aristotle's view that what gives
the disjunctive denition, (2), its unity are supplementary connections like these:

(2a)

(2b)

(2c)

So far the powers seem to be appropriately nested. But we have left out appetite, local motion, and reproduction. Aristotle
does not seem to suppose that these powers expand the nesting by simply adding steps of increasing, or decreasing,
extension; however, he does seem to think these relationships hold:

end p.188

(2d)

(2e)

(2f)

If we then break up the power of perception, or sensation, into touch and non-tactile perception, we come up with the
following set of relationships:

One implication of all this is that everything that has any one of the psychic powers has the power of self-nutrition. Should we

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Subscriber: University of Chicago; date: 23 November 2010
Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

conclude that what it means to say of something that it is alive is simply that it can nourish itself? Sometimes Aristotle talks
that way. Consider this passage from DA 2. 4.

It follows that rst of all we must treat of nutrition and reproduction, for the nutritive soul is found along with all the
others and is the most primitive and widely distributed power of soul, being indeed that one in virtue of which all are
said to have life (kath' h n huparchei to z n hapasin). (415a225, trans. Smith.)

It seems to follow that the other psychic powers are not really in or of themselves life-functions; rather, they are
life-presupposing functions, that is, functions such that nothing has them without being alive.

On this reading, Aristotle's statement, Provided any one alone of these [powers] is found in a thing we say that thing is
living, means something like this: Provided any one alone of these powers is found in a thing it will be right to say that that
thing is alive [even if is alive means only can nourish and reproduce itself].

There are other passages, however, in which Aristotle suggests something dierent. Consider this passage, immediately
preceding that quoted twice above:

We resume our inquiry from a fresh starting-point by calling attention to the fact that what has soul in it diers from
what has not in that the former displays life. Now this word [life, z n] has more than one sense [pleonach s de tou
z n legomenou], and provided any one alone of these [powers]. . . (413 a203, trans. Smith.)

If we take this idea seriously we might suppose that the nesting relation among can think, has non-tactile powers of
perception, has the power of touch, and can nourish itself, plus the relationships given in (2af), are all relationships of
meaning and that together they yield a series of broader and broader senses for is alive or is a living thing. In the
narrowest sense, x is a living thing would mean: x can think and x has power of non-tactile perception and. . .x can nourish
itself. In the broadest sense, x is a living thing would mean simply x can nourish itself.

Other passages in Aristotle seem to mesh with this idea. Consider this passage from book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

end p.189

Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to
be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a
rational principle. . . (1098a13, trans. W. D. Ross in Aristotle (191052))

We can understand Aristotle here to be using life rst in the sense of nutrition and growth, then in the richer sense that
includes the idea of having perception, and nally in a sense that includes also the idea of having a rational principle.

There is, however, one major problem with the suggestion that, according to Aristotle, is a living thing (or is alive) is
homonymous in this way. At 415a7 . Aristotle says, Lastly, certain living beingsa small minoritypossess calculation and
thought, for (among mortal beings) those which possess calculation have all the other powers above mentioned, while the
converse does not hold. . . The qualication, among mortal beings [t n phthart n], makes it clear that, according to
Aristotle, there can be non-mortal beings that think, and are therefore alive, but do not nourish themselves, or grow. Indeed,
that seems to be Aristotle's view.

If this is right, then x can think does not after all guarantee x can nourish itself; at most x can think and x is a mortal
being provides that guarantee.

We might try saying that there is simply a further sense of alive and living thing such that x can think and x is not a mortal
being yields x is a living thing in that new sense. But where, now, is the unity in these denitions? If the nesting story was
supposed to avoid the unwelcome conclusion that living thing is a case of mere chance homonomy and it was supposed to
do so by providing some unity, some common focus, to its various sensesnamely, the idea of self-nutritionthat reference
point is no longer available.

I think we need to try a very dierent approach.

Perhaps it would be well to remind ourselves at this point that, as Aristotle supposes, individuals of a given species naturally
act so as to preserve their species. Here in DA 2. 4, within a discussion of nutrition and reproduction, Aristotle makes that
point:

. . . for any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated, and whose mode of

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Subscriber: University of Chicago; date: 23 November 2010
Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

generation is not spontaneous, the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an
animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and the divine. That is
the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible [or
whatever they do naturallyhosa prattei kata phusin]. (415a27 b2, trans. Smith.)

Aristotle goes on to say that the soul is, among other things, the essence of the whole living body (415 b11). He adds that in
everything the essence is identical with the cause of its being, and here, in the case of living things, their being is to live, and
of their being and their living the soul in them is the cause or source (415b1214).

Now if the soul of a living thing is the cause of its living, and its living is naturally directed towards the preservation of its
species, then the soul's powers (the

end p.190

psychic powers we have been talking about) are presumably powers naturally directed toward the preservation of the
species of that particular thing.

My suggestion, then, is that the list of psychic powers can be seen as a list of the general sorts of possibilities that individual
organisms have to act so as to preserve, or to contribute to the preservation of, their species. For a plant this will be simply
the movements of metabolismnutrition, growth, and decayplus, of course, reproduction. Animals, most of them, are
capable of changing place. They act according to desire or appetite and perceptionmost rudimentarily through touch, but,
in higher animal species, through non-tactile modes of perception as well. As for human beings, they need to exercise their
capacity to reason and calculate to be able to act so as to preserve their species.

If we pull this point about species-preservation out of Aristotle's discussion and make it the key to our understanding of what
a psychic power is supposed to be, we can oer the following as a denition of psychic power:

x is a psychic power =df there is a species s, such that, for x to be preserved, individual organisms that belong to s
must, in general, exercise x .

Relativized to a species the denition would look like this:

x is a psychic power for species s =df for s to be preserved individual organisms that belong to s must, in general,
3
exercise x .
3 Fred Feldman has made clear to me how important, and how dicult, it will be to unders tand exercis e in the right way
here. Perhaps many animals , s uch as rabbits , need to be able to exercis e their power to remain motionles s in the pres ence

of predators for their s pecies to s urvive. Yet s uch a power s hould not count as a ps ychic power les t (s ee the next denition)
a dead rabbit count as being alive.

A rs t thing to s ay is that ps ychic powers are powers to act, not purely pas s ive powers . So exercis ing s uch a power will have
to be doing s omething, not s imply failing to do s omething. Relevant to the rabbit cas e will then be the power to keep itself

motionles s , which will be part of the capacity for local movement and res t. Irrelevant will be the capacity to lie inert.
This res pons e is only a rs t move, however. Much more dis cus s ion would be required to gain jus tied condence that we

know how to pick out the relevant powers .

It is plausible to suppose that psychic powers, following this denition, will turn out to be, or at least to include, reason, sense-
perception (tactile and non-tactile), local motion, appetite, metabolism (including food-intake, growth, and decay), and
reproduction. It is also natural to suppose that these powers are coexemplied in complex patterns that produce the nested
sequence discussed above. Now we can say (going beyond any claim explicitly stated in Aristotle, though I think something
like this is suggested by what he says) that what it means to say that an organism is alive is that it can exercise at least one
psychic power; that is, at least one of the powers that organisms of its species must, in general, be able to exercise for the
species to survive.

x is alive =df there is a species s, and a psychic power p, such that x belongs to s, p is a psychic power for species s,
and x can exercise p.

Because of nesting it will turn out that any mortal organism that is alive will have the power of self-nutrition. Still, is alive
does not mean (on this

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Subscriber: University of Chicago; date: 23 November 2010
Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

end p.191

reconstruction of Aristotle) is capable of self-nutrition. What it does mean is can exercise a power such that members of the
organism's species need to be able, in general, to exercise that power in order that the species may survive.

Monsters (terata) might be thought to present a problem here. They are not regular members of any species, yet they can
certainly be alive.

What Aristotle should do to accommodate monsters, I think, is simply to broaden the understanding of x belongs to
[species] s to include monsters. The idea would be that each monster is a failed or maimed or deformed member of one or
more species. (That seems to be what Aristotle does say at, e.g. GA 769b30.) So long as the monster can exercise at least
one psychic power of a species it is a failed member of, it is alive.

4
This is perhaps a good point at which to address the question of circularity in the proposal I am presenting here.
4 Both the worry about mons ters and the ques tion of circularity are matters that Fred Feldman brought to my attention after he read

an early draft of this paper.

Clara is alive, according to this proposal, means that there is a species, say, cat, and a psychic power, say, touch, such that
Clara belongs to the species mentioned, touch is a psychic power for that species, and Clara can exercise the power. What
touch is a psychic power for the species, cat, means is that, for the species cat to be preserved, individual cats must, in
general, be able to exercise tactile perception. Although I haven't tried to say what it is for a species, such as cat, to be
preserved, presumably it is, or includes, keeping in existence individual organisms, in this case individual cats. But, as
Aristotle says in DA 2. 4, for living things, to be is to be alive (415b13). So keeping individual cats in existence is keeping
them alive and we have, it seems, a circle.

Though, I agree, there is a certain circularity in the proposal, it is not, I think, a vicious circularity. The idea is that for Clara to
be alive is for her to be able to exercise one of what is, for her species, a cluster of, so to speak, self-perpetuating powers.
More carefully, it is for her to be able to exercise one power in a list such that it is necessary for individuals of her species, in
general, to be able to exercise those powers for there to go on being individuals in that species that can exercise one or more
of those powers. If we are justied in supposing that dead cats, dead trees, and dead human beings can't exercise any
powers at all, then the circularity in the proposal is not, I think, objectionable.

The account I am oering can help us reconcile these three apparently incompatible claims, each of which we seem to nd in
Aristotle:
(i) Being a living thing amounts to nothing more than having the power of self-nutrition.
(ii) There are (something like) distinct senses of living thing to go with each of the following: (a) plants, (b) animals whose
only sense modality is touch, (c) other non-human animals, and (d) human beings.
(iii) There is at least one non-mortal being that thinks and is therefore alive, even though it has no power of self-nutrition.

end p.192

As for (i), it is true that among mortal, living things, the common and fundamental species-preserving power is self-nutrition,
plus the associated power of reproduction. When Aristotle makes a claim like (i), he must be taken to be focusing on mortal
beings.

Still, what exactly having species-preserving, or psychic, powers amounts to varies from species to species. And in this way
something like (ii) is also true.

As for (iii), Aristotle's complicated nesting story guarantees that as long as a mortal being has at least one psychic power, it
will also have the psychic powers, if any, that, so to speak, enfold it, including, of course, self-nutrition. Non-mortal beings are
usually left out of Aristotle's discussion. But they can easily be included. To preserve their species they need only preserve
their existence by continuing to engage in whatever activity is essentially theirs. That may just be thinking; it does not,
presumably, include either self-nutrition or reproduction.

In his book, The Selsh Gene (Oxford, 1976), Richard Dawkins locates the origin of life in the chance formation of the rst
replicator molecules. As Dawkins puts the matter, plants and animals, including human beings, have become the survival
machines for the currently successful replicator molecules, which we call genes.

In many ways Dawkins's story is quite un-Aristotelian. Aristotle knew nothing of DNA and he was not what one would call an
evolutionist. Still, it distorts things only a little bit to say, mimicking Dawkins, that, in Aristotle's view, individual plants and

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Subscriber: University of Chicago; date: 23 November 2010
Essays on Aristotle's De Anima
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Editor), Profes s or of Law and Ethics , Univers ity of Chicago
Rorty, Amlie Oksenberg (Editor), Profes s or of the Humanities and the His tory of Ideas , Brandeis Univers ity
Print publication date: 1995, Publis hed to Oxford Scholars hip Online: November 2003
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-823600-9, doi:10.1093/019823600X.001.0001

animals, including human beings, are survival machines for plant and animal forms. The functions that individual plants and
animals need to perform to play their role in this survival process are the dunameis t s psuch s, the psychic or life functions.
These functions are nested in ways that Aristotle tries to bring out. And for any given individual organism to be alive is just for
it to be able to perform at least one such function (plus, of course, any functions presupposed by it in that species of
organism).

Whether the notion of life that rests on the idea of life functions is really very important for modern biology I am not
competent to say. But if, for whatever scientic or non-scientic reasons, we want to deal with the threats to incoherence
posed by encyclopaedia entries under life of the sort I began this discussion with, the best way to do so, I think, is to appeal
to the picture I have constructed from DA 2. 24. According to that picture there are organisms that tend to preserve their
form through the exercise of identiable functions. For a given individual to be of the sort, living thing, is just for it to be one of
these naturally species-preserving organisms. And for a given individual living thing to be actually livingthat is, aliveis just
for it to be able to perform one of the psychic, or living, functions appropriate to its species (though, of course, since the
functions are nested in certain ways, being able to perform a given psychic function may presuppose being able to perform
5
one or more others).
5 I wis h to thank Michael Frede and Fred Feldman for their comments on an earlier vers ion of this chapter.

end p.193

end p.194

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