Learning Outside the World. Assimilation of Knowledge in Plotinus’ Work
Matthieu Moullec (Sorbonne, Paris)

part of: Perception, Knowledge, and Assimilation
June 12, 2017, 6:00am - 7:00am
Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki

Auditorium IV in the main building of the University of Helsinki (Päärakennus)
Fabianinkatu 33

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  • European Research Council Project "Rationality in Perception: Transformations of Mind and Cognition 1250-1550" (Helsinki)
  • Research Programme "Representation and Reality. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Aristotelian Tradition" (Gothenburg)


Although Plotinus is frequently thought to detach himself so radically from the material world that deriving knowledge from it seems impossible, we will attempt to reconsider the role of matter in Plotinus’ epistemology. Even though on the ladder of truth coming down from the One to the lowest being matter is at the bottom, it serves both a negative and a positive role in this heuristic search for the truth.

A negative role exits insofar as matter has to be de-assimilated. What Plotinus calls purification is also an epistemological claim, in which all ties to the material world have to be unlearned, in order to reach the truth behind the chaos of appearances and sensations. This unlearning requires given steps and attitudes which constitute the conversion Plotinus advocates. The positive aspect of matter follows from the nature of the procession of the one. As the One expands down into matter, matter gives us indication about the structure of the upper levels. Although, as is commonly admitted, this knowledge comes mainly from inside, matter also gives us precious indications to understand how the procession flows from the One. As matter is a part of the outer expression of the One, knowledge of matter, however insufficient It may be, is nonetheless knowledge to understand the One.

This two sided pattern - with assimilation and detachment - fits into a hierarchy of knowledge. We will put these patterns into perspective to see how each object of knowledge implies de-assimilation or assimilation depending on where the subject is on the ladder of spiritual knowledge going up to the One.

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