Katalepsis (Greek: κατάληψις, "grasping") in Stoic philosophy, meant comprehension. It is a term that originally refers to the Stoic philosophers and was to them, a landmark ideological premise regarding one's state of mind as it relates to grasping fundamental philosophical concepts.
According to the Stoics, the mind is constantly being bombarded with impressions (phantasias). (An impression arising from the mind was called a phantasma.) Some of these impressions are true and some false. Impressions are true when they are truly affirmed, false if they are wrongly affirmed, such as when one believes an oar dipped in the water to be broken because it appears so. When Orestes, in his madness, mistook Electra for a Fury, he had an impression both true and false: true inasmuch as he saw something, viz., Electra; false, inasmuch as Electra was not a Fury. The Stoics said that one ought not to give credit to everything which is perceived, but only to those perceptions which contain some special mark of those things which appeared. Such a perception then was called a kataleptic phantasia (Greek: φαντασία καταληπτική), or comprehensible perception. The kataleptic phantasia is that which is impressed by an object which exists, which is a copy of that object and can be produced by no other object.
he would display his hand in front of one with the fingers stretched out and say "A visual appearance is like this"; next he closed his fingers a little and said, "An act of assent is like this"; then he pressed his fingers closely together and made a fist, and said that that was comprehension (and from this illustration he gave to that process the actual name of katalepsis, which it had not had before); but then he used to apply his left hand to his right fist and squeeze it tightly and forcibly, and then say that such was knowledge, which was within the power of nobody save the wise man
Katalepsis was the main bone of contention between the Stoics and Academic Skeptics of Plato's Academy, during the Hellenistic period. The Greek Skeptics (who of course chose the Stoics as their natural philosophical opposites) debated much of what the Stoics eschewed regarding the human mind and one's methods of understanding greater meanings. To the Skeptics, all perceptions were acataleptic, i.e. bore no conformity to the objects perceived, or, if they did bear any conformity, it could never be known.
Informally in modern times, katalepsis means that one has reached a state of complete understanding (regarding all things, almost literally "beyond" everything). It is also referred to extensively in the book "Darwin's Blade" by Dan Simmons, first in the context of a Vietnam era sniper (the protagonist in his earlier life) who reaches a complete killing state without conscious hindrance [albeit out of complete and proper/morally approved necessity. Essentially without negative moral or social connotation]. From then on, the author's subsequent use of the term implies that modern humans [specifically the main characters] can reach this "state of katalepsis" in any given critical situation, especially those that require mental or spiritual fortitude.
- Charles Porterfield Krauth, William Fleming, Henry Calderwood, (1878), A vocabulary of the philosophical sciences, page 589
- Diogenes Laërtius (2000). Lives of eminent philosophers. Transl. R D Hicks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. VII.49
- George Henry Lewes, (1880), The history of philosophy: from Thales to Comte, page 360
- Thomas Woodhouse Levin, (1871), Six lectures introductory to the philosophical writings of Cicero, page 71
- Cicero (1967). De natura deorum academica. Transl. H Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. II.145
- See Ancient Greek Skepticism at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for information about katalepsis and the Skeptics attack on it.
- George Henry Lewes, (1863), The biographical history of philosophy, Volume 1, page 297