Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Philosophy, Science and the Sciences

Wei Cheng

Wei_Cheng_Foto_2.jpgThesis: Pleasure, Pain and Emotions: Aristotle’s Dialogues with Platonists and Naturalists

My research project will focus on three concepts of Aristotle, pleasure, pain and the so-called pathê tês psychês, which differ from yet somehow interwoven with each other. It is well-known that Aristotle disagrees with the Platonists that pleasure is kinesis and identifies it with energeia or something that is closely connected to energeia. It is also well-known that emotions, pathê tês psychês, have become a relatively fixed category probably since Aristotle, who uses them as typical physio-psycho-phenomena to illuminate his hylomorphism at the beginning of De Anima. However, they are not the stories here I am primarily concerned with.

I don’t think that there are three ready-made psychological terms set before the face of Aristotle to be analyzed, nor do I believe that we can understand the shaping of concepts sufficiently only within the so-called evolutionary model of Aristotle’s development (eg. Jaeger and Rist). Instead, my purpose is to show that the conceptual formation as a problem in Aristotle and his discussions origin from his dynamic dialogue not merely with the Platonists but also, perhaps more significantly, with a broader naturalistic tradition which is often overshadowed by his debate with the Academicians and thus inappropriately ignored in the mainstream scholarship.

The watershed of this conceptual genesis is what I call the new concept of pleasure, which comes from its analogy with the new concept of health. According to this new approach health is grasped as a dynamic proper proportion of opposed qualities or powers, and its genesis as the restorative process to the natural state. This concept must attract the attention of Plato and his coevals and the debate over this is echoed especially in many Platonic dialogues, in particular his Philebus, which continues to impact upon the pertinent discussion of Aristotle. In my view, both Plato and the so-called enemies of Philebus intend to overcome this analogy, however, their arguments do not seem successful because of their ambiguous attitudes to this medical concept.

I believe that both Aristotle und Speusippus are worried about tension of the naturalistic and the anti-naturalistic elements implied in Plato’s concept. In order to keep coherence, therefore, they take distinctive routes. Speusippus insists on the Platonic ontology of pleasure, so that he takes pleasures consequently as something bad, whereas Aristotle, who holds pleasure per se as good, on the contrary, rejects pleasure as a genesis. So far it is clear enough why Aristotle’s struggle with the Academy is a continuation of naturalistic debate initiated by Plato and the enemies of Philebus. The logic behind this dialogue is easy to grasp, yet a thorny problem concerning the ontological status of pleasure emerges. In the traditional category the whole reality (ta onta) can be exclusively divided into rest and motion (change) which is composed of poiein and paschein. If pleasure is does not belong to motion, then it cannot be pathos, so that it must be a kind of rest. If so, sleep seems a typical pleasant thing, but Aristotle denies such a claim repeatedly. It is also hard to classify the neutral state, which seems to be more closely related to the category of rest since Aristotle accepts that its ontological status differs from pleasure. Hence if Aristotle wants to keep coherence, he has to discover or to invent a new ontological concept to describe pleasure. Here unsurprisingly we meet his notorious category energeia.

In comparison to pleasure as kinesis, Pleasure as energeia has two merits. It can better explain why pleasure per se is independent from pain. On the other hand, it provides a more general definition of pleasure which includes kinetic pleasure or in other word pleasure per accidens because all kinesis are energeia, but not vice versa. This ontological definition of pleasure leads naturally to a reconsideration of pain and emotions. The former is its opposite, while the latter are usually deemed its genre. Aristotle accepts the first relation, nonetheless with qualification. But he denies the second relations emphatically. It is not astonishing that the new ontological of pleasure and pain exerts influence upon Aristotle’s formation of the concept of emotions. Since pleasure per se is excluded from the domain of kinesis, it can be neither genus nor species of pathê of soul which as typical psychophysical phenomena imply some kinds of kinesis in themselves and belong to the natural research in a broader sense. Yet the thesis that pleasure is not emotion does not mean that some emotions cannot be pleasant. The relation between pleasure and emotions seems for Aristotle an intractable problem. In the case of pain, we face a similar but different dilemma. Because pain per se is bad and because some pain can be merely bodily affection, then it cannot be genus or species of emotions, although many emotions are painful.

In this thesis I aim to clarify the three basic psycho-physical states in Aristotle (pleasure, pain and emotions) by means of a dynamic approach. The investigation will be roughly divided into three parts: (1) The debates over the naturalistic doctrine of mental states (Plato, medicine and Aristotle). (2) Aristotle’s struggles with the Academicians (Eudoxus and Speusippus). (3) Aristotle between naturalism and idealism?


Wei Cheng was born in China, where he graduated in Chinese Literature at Peking University (Beijing, 2004). He continued his studies in Philosophy and Classics (Greek) at the University Tübingen (Germany) and received a degree of Magister Artium in 2011 under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Otfried Höffe and Prof. Dr. Michael Franz.  During his studies in Tübingen, he worked as tutor at the Department of Philosophy (Dr. Ina Goy, 2008-9) and gained a scholarship from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (2008-11). Since 2011 he has been a PhD-student of the APSN-Program at the Graduate School for Ancient Philosophy at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. He spent 2013 fall semester at Princeton University, working with Prof. John Cooper and Prof. Von Staden. He is also a research fellow in Prof. Philip van der Eijk’s research program “Medicine of the Mind, Philosophy of the Body” at the Department of Classics funded by the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung.

Research Interests

  • Ancient philosophy (philosophy of mind, moral psychology and ethics)
  • Ancient commentaries on Aristotle
  • Orality and literacy in the ancient world
  • History of classical scholarship
  • Kant and early German Idealism