Friday, May 29, 2009

Alpha 8 and 9: Objections to Earlier Accounts

In today's installment, Aristotle takes a swing at a superior officer and decides to leave the Academy.

In these sections Aristotle runs through criticisms of his predecessors' accounts of causes and principles. And I mean he runs through them: these seem to be the briefest possible summaries of familiar objections, no doubt worked out in detail elsewhere, over a long period of time. I can imagine a new arrival at the Lyceum being given this text and told to "read it for Tuesday and prepare questions." Then on Tuesday one of the older members of the academy would expound on these arguments and answer questions.

In this respect Alpha reminds me of a Powerpoint presentation from some advanced course, which is nearly unintelligible (and even misleading) without the lecture. Too bad the lecturers who used Alpha disappeared over 2000 years ago. On the other hand, trying to reconstruct the full meaning from the surviving text is great philosophical exercise.

Still there are some real gems in this text. At 989a31-989b7, Aristotle considers a view from Anaxagoras, which he says is absurd, as stated in Anaxagoras' writings. But then the view gets fixed up, in accordance with the Principle of Charity in Interpretation: Aristotle says that "if one were to follow him up, piecing together what he means, he would perhaps be seen to be somewhat modern in his views." More modern, up-to-date, but still wrong.

The real high point is in section 9, where Aristotle takes on the Platonic Theory of Forms as the causes or principles of things. The situation does not look good for Plato: "none of the ways which are used to show that the Forms exist appears convincing" (990b8). Aristotle fires away, Terminator-style. There are the briefest of references to "the arguments from the sciences," to "the 'one predicated of many' argument," to "the argument that we can think of something which has been destroyed," and to the famous "third man" argument. Every one of these arguments, apparently so familiar to the original readers, takes a long time for us to sort out. (We spent at least twenty minutes just diagramming "the third man" last week. He'll be back.)

The most damaging barrage of objections comes in a single Bekker page: 991a9-991b9. (It starts with the fifth paragraph of this translation of section 9.) I count ten separate arguments against the Forms here. Three are grouped under the general question "What on earth do the Forms contribute to sensible things?" and seven under the question "In what sense are other (sensible) things derived from the Forms?" His answers to these general questions are 1) "Not a damn thing" and 2) "In no intelligible sense whatsoever."

Here Aristotle throws in a rhetorical body-blow against Plato: "To say the Forms are patterns, and that other things participate in them, is to use empty phrases and poetical metaphors" (991a21). To tell Plato he's speaking like a poet, hiding behind empty phrases, might be a pretty remarkable affront. History tells us that Aristotle left Plato's Academy after some years, and went out to establish his own school, the Lyceum. I'm guessing he might have packed his boxes a day or two after he presented Alpha section 9 to the world.

In our discussion, Mark M. suggested that the later Platonic dialogues, such as Parmenides and Timaeus, address all of the objections Aristotle raises here. Are we to believe that the Aristotle of Alpha didn't understand Plato's account of the Forms, or that he launched these criticisms against a straw Plato to make himself look good? I don't think either explanation is very plausible: Aristotle was Plato's best pupil, and had no problem understanding most other things; as for charity of interpretation, we've already seen what is literally a textbook example of this in Aristotle's criticism of Anaxagoras.

So here's a hypothesis: these criticisms of Plato were developed by a young Aristotle, just breaking away from Plato. If so, then Plato's revisions to his account of the Forms in the later dialogues may be his response to precisely these criticisms. Aristotle vacillates on whose account of the Forms he is considering here: sometimes it belongs to "them" (those others, the Platonists) and sometimes it is a view that "we" hold ("we Platonists"). So Aristotle hints that he's only partway out the door of this school of thought. One other bit of evidence that Aristotle does not have the later dialogues in mind comes at 990b16, where he mentions that "of Plato's more exact arguments some establish Ideas of relations, which we do not hold to form a separate genus" . The Loeb editors note that this is probably a reference to Phaedo 74a-77a and Republic 479a-480a, both middle period dialogues (but who is this "we"?).

I like that hypothesis, in that it would actually be testable.

1) Map out the objections from Alpha,
2) correlate them to accounts of the Forms from the middle dialogues,
3) map out the revisions to the account of the Forms that appear in the later dialogues, and
4) see whether those revisions correlate to the objections from Alpha.

Those look a lot like the four core chapters of a book, or at least of a dissertation, don't they? Not a project I'm likely to pursue.