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Jessica Moss wins AHRC Research Fellowship

The Faculty is delighted to report that Dr Jessica Moss has been awarded a Research Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The Fellowship, which will be held in Hilary Term 2011, will allow Dr Moss to pursue a project on Aristotle and the Apparent Good. She describes the project as follows:

Talk of the apparent good is pervasive in a philosophical tradition which stretches from Plato to the present, a tradition which holds that we desire things insofar as they appear good to us. It is particularly prominent in the works of Aristotle. In his psychological works the apparent good surfaces as the goal of all appetite-driven actions, human and animal. In the ethical works it plays a major role in the explanations both of human motivation and of moral error: we all strive for what appears good to us, but only to the virtuous person does what is truly good appear so. In fact, as I aim to demonstrate, the apparent good is a notion absolutely central to Aristotle’s accounts of desire, motivation, emotions, deliberation, weakness of will, and the wish for happiness – in short, both to his philosophy of action and to his ethical theory.

But what is it for something to appear good? What is the relation between such appearances and ordinary perceptual appearances? How and why are such appearances often false? Why does pleasure in particular appear good, as Aristotle claims (and as many would agree)? And how do appearances of goodness motivate desire and action?

No sustained scholarly investigation has addressed these questions, or even recognized them as worth asking. This is doubtless in part because for many philosophers, to say that something appears good to someone is simply to say that she thinks it good, or that its appeal is particular vivid.

I want to show that Aristotle’s case is different. Aristotle holds that things appear good to us, just as things might appear small or round or blue, in virtue of a psychological faculty responsible for quasi-perceptual phenomena like dreams, memories, visualization and optical illusions: “imagination” (phantasia).

If this is right, then we can reach a better understanding of the notion of apparent goodness by applying the account Aristotle gives of phantasia and its role in motivation – an account we find in the psychological works – to the notion of the apparent good as it figures in his philosophy of action and his moral theory. My project in the book is to do just that. I argue that while no theory of the apparent good is explicit in the ethical works, these works assume a theory of the apparent good which we can derive from the psychological works. An appearance of goodness is a pleasurable, essentially motivating quasi-perceptual appearance, derived through phantasia from previous pleasurable perceptions.

The result is a new interpretation of Aristotle’s moral psychology which will be controversial in two important, and related, ways. First, it gives an absolutely central role to pleasure in human motivation and thereby in human virtue: our thoughts about value, and thereby our distinctly rational desires, are based on appearances of goodness, and therefore ultimately on pleasurable perceptions. Second, it greatly restricts the role of rational, intellectual thought in Aristotle’s ethics: phantasia – non-rational cognition, i.e. a form of awareness that we share with lower animals, and that belongs to a non-rational part of the human soul – can identify particular objects and even general goals as good, roles that most interpreters of Aristotle have thought can only be played by intellect.

I aim through the book to show that Aristotle’s ethical views cannot be fully understood without attention to the connections between those views and his psychological theories of cognition and desire, as detailed in works like On the Soul, On the Movement of Animals and On Dreams. I also aim to show that Aristotle has important contributions to make to contemporary philosophical debates in some central areas where this has not yet been recognized – e.g. on the role of value-judgments in motivating actions, the relation between value-judgments and desire, and the nature of the emotions – and even that some contemporary views are Aristotelian in ways that have not been previously recognized.

Dr Jessica Moss is a CUF Lecturer in Philosophy and Tutorial Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford.

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