But What Is Contemplation?

Once again, a dictionary is not very helpful. I want to suggest that for Aristotle, contemplation (theoria) is best understood by the phrase that he famously uses to characterize the first cause: thought thinking itself. I want to contrast this with the model of consciousness of an object that seems to be widely regarded as applicable.

These two interpretations of contemplation — consciousness of an object, and thought thinking itself — are quite literally separated by the entire development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Hegel’s whole effort there is by patient labor to overcome the Cartesian/Lockean dualism of consciousness and its object. What he finally arrives at is something he identifies with Aristotle’s thought thinking itself, and which seems to be all mediation, with no outside or inside. (See, e.g., Consciousness in Locke and Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Otherness; Long Detour?; Apperceptive Judgment.)

I associate thought thinking itself with “reflection”, as that term is used by Kant, Hegel, and Ricoeur. In writing about reflection before, I used the image of a hall of mirrors, in which one might figuratively lose oneself in all the richness of reflections of reflections. Along these lines, I would also suggest that contemplation exhibits higher-order structure, or is higher-order thinking. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity.)

One of Plotinus’ greatest works is his treatise “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, to which I will devote an upcoming post. Plotinus, despite his major differences from Aristotle, also adopted a great deal from Aristotle, while transforming it. His particular notion of contemplation is quite different from the one I want to attribute to Aristotle. It seems to be a form of what Kant would call intellectual intuition, which is exactly what I want to avoid attributing to Aristotle. But in the broader scheme of things, it nonetheless plays a somewhat analogous role. His account of it is more developed, and interesting in its own right, though I found that the analogy with Aristotle is a lot weaker than I expected.