As we've been wrapping up Alpha and Little alpha I keep coming back to the question of what question Aristotle is tackling in this work. Or, really, these works. He's established in these opening books that this is the science of causes or principles; later on, in Gamma, he offers the famous formula that this is the science that investigates "being qua being."
Neither of these is a tremendously accessible entry point. All sciences centrally consider causes, after all: when people started getting sick from a resurgence of swine flu a few weeks back, "What caused the illness?" and "Where did it come from?" and "How is it developing and spreading?" were precisely the relevant medical questions. But the researchers at Centers for Disease Control and elsewhere were certainly not pursuing metaphysics. As for "being qua being," well, it would be hard to come up with a more perplexing phrase. To understand that description of Aristotle's first science, I think I'm going to have to first understand the science.
One set of questions that Randall set out keeps coming back to me, though. He writes: "I ask, 'What is this thing, this ousia?' (ti esti?). The answer will be 'what it is': 'This thing is a table.' But just what is it that is a 'table'? What is the 'what it is,' the ti esti, of this thing?" (Randall 117).
So, in order to see why Aristotle is all wrapped up in talk of causes and principles and elements and genus and species and substance and essence, for the last week or two I've been looking at things and asking that question. Ti esti? The table. The computer. The cat. Lake Michigan. My copy of the Metaphysics. Lo and behold, there is an astonishing variety of kinds of answer that one can give to such a straightforward question.
Now, of course, all of my answers fall into various typical kinds, more or less corresponding directly to the topics Aristotle has addressed in the opening books of Alpha. Can't unread those chapters now. But this would seem to be great territory for experimental philosophy to explore. What kinds of answers do people (people who have not been reading Aristotle) actually give when asked of thing "What is it?" Of those, what kinds of answers count as good answers? What determines whether someone answers by describing the material a thing is made of or by explaining who made it and when, or for what purpose it was made? That would seem to be eminently investigatable by the X-Phi folks. As would the question whether there is a kind of answer that addresses the aspect of a thing that pertains to its "being" as such, rather than its being an animal, stone, plant, lake, book, etc. Is there a kind of answer that addresses what all these disparate things have in common--their being--and hence is a good answer to questions concerning "being qua being"?
There's another kind of experiment I'd like to try, except I already sort of think I know what I'd end up doing--again, I can't unread the recent history of my own culture. Here's the experiment anyway. First, get hold of several things, some commonplace (my coffee mug, a tree leaf, a pile of kittens) and some more exotic (an antique tool whose use is unknown to me, a dollar bill, Heidegger's silver chalice). Then, for each, attempt to give a complete answer the question "ti esti?" How long would it take? Would I immediately resort to universals, classification of the individual under some genus, appeals to what the thing's "essence" is? Would I dwell on its particularity--the endless description of all that this actual thing in front of me "is"?
Well, again, I know what I'd probably do. I personally would pretty quickly "discover" phenomenology and art, the two great twentieth-century cultural projects of infinite description.
Infinite description. Hate to ruin the rest of the summer with that, so I'll just take a pass on Metaphysics Lab for now.