Monday, May 11, 2009

Alpha 1 & 2

In 75 minutes on Wednesday we covered... sections 1 and 2! That's 4 1/2 pages in the Hippocrates Apostle translation. We set some priorities for this reading group. Robb H. is especially interested in the concept of energeia, I'm especially interested in ousia as well as the role of teleology in Aristotle's overall system of metaphysical thought.

Quotable passages: "All men by nature desire understanding" (980a20) and "it is because of wondering [thaumidzon] that men began to philosophize and do so now" (982b12). Let's put the wonder back into wondering, shall we?

Two themes came to the forefront in our combing of sections 1 and 2. The first concerns two different kinds of knowledge: what one can learn from empirical observation or "practice," and what one can learn from understanding the causes or first principles of things. The latter is the basis for techne or "theoretical science" (not that techne and science are equivalent, but they are lumped together here); the first renders knowledge a matter of chance. Aristotle rather astonishingly quote Polus on this point. Polus, "The Colt," the blathering imitator of rhetoric who gets his, er, system handed to him by Socrates in the Gorgias. Aristotle quotes from Polus's unintentionally comical speech at 981a3 to support the distinction between systematic and haphazard knowledge.

Aristotle notes that the master-artist of a craft is given higher honor and credit than the manual worker. This is the basis for the ancient prejudice against those who work with their hands, of course, and it does threaten to denigrate the deep knowledge that abides in the hands. But there is something to the distinction, after all. It's the difference between one who can only react to, or build upon, the actual results of past efforts, and one who can envision an entirely new possibility and work to accomplish it. It's the difference between one who is suited only to execute another's vision or aims, and one who is capable of setting those aims for him- or herself. Theory is the basis of liberal education, literally, that suited for the free person. Empirical education is servile education, that suited for the servant's role. Theory provides an understanding of causes, and inturn a vision of how things ought to work, not merely how they have worked.

This is dangerous territory, but it's the only source of originality, after all. It's a long time since Aristotle's word was taken as infallible. We've since learned the hard way that any theory has to be confirmed and supported by evidence or else tossed out with the trash. But there's a certain contemporary trend toward narrow scientism, toward a pernicious "culture of evidence" (I see it first-hand in higher education administration) that eliminates the forward-looking influence of vision, aims, or ideals. This approach can become viciously reductive. It discounts any outcome that is not present in easily observable and measurable data about what has happened in past efforts. We can become ever more "effective" at accomplishing a certain set of easily-observed goals set down in the past. The cost of doing so is often to deny the validity of other innovative or difficult-to-measure ambitions. The result is a celebration of uniformly mediocre student success at certain observable accomplishments, like constructing grammatically correct sentences, for example. What's lost in this is any ambition to initiate students to the joy and admiration for great writing. "Joy," "admiration, "and "great" are impossible to stipulate and measure, there's no reward for pursuing them and no sanctioned way to talk about them, and so they remain strictly off-the-books propositions in the culture of evidence.

Aristotle's concern in Alpha is to identify the highest kind of science. If particular theoretical sciences concern the fundamental causes and the nature of things within an area of inquiry (medicine, optics, sports...) then the science that concerns the fundamental concepts of causation and the nature of things generally must be particularly exalted: it "might justly be regarded as not befitting man" (982b29). But we'll go for it anyway. Or, at least, Alpha is a beautiful introduction to some book about this science. There's doubt whether the rest of the Metaphysics turns out to be that book.

The other theme that came up in our reading of section 1 and 2 was a hierarchy of sources of knowledge--from sensation, at the bottom, to theoretical contemplation, at the top. Robb was working on a diagram of these, which I'll post after this week's meeting if I can.