Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Alpha 3-7, Part Deux: Causes (aitia) and Principles (archai)

These sections survey previous accounts of the causes (aitia) or principles (archai) of things and events. Since Aristotle has said in previous sections that genuine knowledge is knowledge of causes and principles--of why and how things come to be (and pass away)--this is pretty clearly central to his study.

As for the four causes, they are the familiar four, known to all novice Philosophy students and apparently treated more thoroughly in the Physics. The answer to the question "What is it?", regarding any thing whatsoever, would be answered by an account of the causes or principles that account for it being what it is. In order, then: there's material cause (of what is it composed?), efficient cause (who or what instilled motion in the material to arrange it as this thing?), formal cause (what is its essence [to ti en enai] or substance [ousia]? //at 988b36//), and finally final cause (for the sake of what does it exist?).

Good enough.

I'm especially interested in the concept of final cause, in keeping with the insistence of modern science that such a thing is thoroughly unacceptable. [You may imagine that I am here brilliantly reciting one of the many, many philosophical exposés which conclude that a) modern science is thoroughly mechanistic and b) that merely mechanistic explanations leave something out of our account of the world as it is actually experienced.] My sense is that those critiques are basically right about something--that we can't expect science, as we have come to understand it, to answer all our questions--but I personally don't expect that science would benefit much by trying to accomodate teleology. I take it to be an obvious point that we need more and better explanations of the world than the merely scientific. Imagine the mayhem that follows were some hard-nosed biologist to replies in empirical mode to the question "Why do you love me?"

At the same time, the typical proponent of scientific teleology is probably more or less mistaken about what Aristotle actually meant by final cause. I'd like to get a sense of what he did mean... and determine where there's room in our understanding of the world for something similar, some cognate term.

Reading these sections did somewhat restore my faith in Martin Heidegger's discussion of the four causes at the beginning of "The Question Concerning Technology," however. There Heidegger suggests that Aristotle considered the four causes not as pseudo-scientific attempts at explanation, but as the pieces of a different kind of explanation.

So "What is a virus?" gets one kind of an answer from microbiologists, and another from a knowledgeable non-scientist. Aristotle would probably recognize the microbiologist's answer as suiting some purposes by relying mainly on material and (a certain aspect of) efficient causation. But a non-scientist will take the question in a different way, closer to the Greek meaning of aitia. That word meant something like "answers to a question (as in court), what one can be held responsible to" (Randall 123). So a non-scientist, when asked "What is a virus?" will describe what viruses look like, based on images they have seen, and what they do to host organisms.

Those kinds of answers are basically first takes at formal and final cause, and they actually constitute half-decent answers to a reasonable question. Microbiologists of course consider these kinds of answers, too, at least in the initial phases of trying to identify a virus (Does it fit the familiar form of other viruses?) and in their basic concern to know anything at all about them (What's interesting is what this thing does to people).

Alpha 3-7: Lost and Found in Translation

These sections delve into the kinds of causes (aitia) or principles (archai) there are. Key concerns, since in Alpha, Aristotle indicates that this science seeks precisely this knowledge.

Aristotle's "review of the literature," his survey of previous views concerning causation, is helpful as always. It's mind-boggling that what we know of some of these philosophers, we know from him. (Poor Hippo, of whom Aristotle says only that "one would not consider him worthy of being included... because of the shallowness [paltriness] of his thought." Ouch!)

I've become quite conscious of some serious translation slippage with this reading. The historian-of-relatively-recent-American-English-speakers' ideas in me is inclined to slog through the Metaphysics in Greek, the better to get Aristotle's original meaning. But even with considerably better Greek than mine is at the moment, that quest for "original meaning" is doomed.

One major point of this reading is to get a handle on where things shifted in translation, where Aristotle's writings τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά, "the stuff after the physics" or maybe "the stuff that goes beyond the physics," became Aristotle's Metaphysics, which is something altogether else. This change occurred at the hands of editors, translators and commentators who thought and wrote variously in Aristotle's Greek, in later Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, French, English and in many other tongues. Among them were non-Greek pagans, Muslims, Christians (Medieval and Modern), Enlightenment scientistic thinkers, and twentieth century scientific naturalists. Throw in a few Wicca and Cylons, for all I know.... the point is that they could each deposit a distinctive interpretive layer on "Aristotle's original meaning." The end result is whatever we, today, can think about concepts such as "substance" and "essence" and "cause."

So, some terminology/etymology stuff.

"Cause" is apparently Cicero's translation for Aristotle's aition, which in Greek meant the answer or response to a question (Randall 123-24). In "The Question Concerning Technology," Martin Heidegger makes much hay of this slippage: he argues that the so-called "Four Causes" are not meant to give accounts of how something came to be in our accustomed sense. Rather, they give an account of what is "responsible" for a thing.

"Essence" is a later accretion altogether. It often translates the mysterious phrase "to ti en einai," literally something like "what it (this thing) is/was being." As Randall notes,

no single term corresponding to the Latin essentia, "essence," occurs in Aristotle. Aristotle used at least a half a dozen terms which can all be translated, in some contexts, as "essence." What complicates the matter is that they can all be translated in certain other contexts as definitely not meaning "essence." Ousia is the most troublesome and misleading of these ambiguous terms. (Randall 121 n.18)

"Substance," of course, is our translation for ousia.

My head hurts.

John Herman Randall, Jr. on Aristotle

Robb brought a very helpful additional secondary source to my attention--John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (Columbia University Press, 1962). Randall was a prominent pragmatist, a local boy born in Grand Rapids in 1899 who studied with John Dewey at Columbia. Randall spent his entire career there.

Chapter 6: "The Ultimate Distinctions" is especially helpful to me. Maybe because he's a pragmatist, or because he's a naturalist, or because he's reflecting Dewey's attitude toward metaphysics (and Dewey was especially influenced by Aristotle, as I seem to remember Ralph Sleeper emphasizing), I find Randall's explanation of the Metaphysics especially helpful. Two points in particular stand out.

First, what Aristotle meant by substance, ousia, is most decidedly not what the great Moderns meant by it.

It is significant that when Descartes asked, "What is substance?" he was asking for what persists unchanged throughout change, what is in change that does not itself change. And in Locke and Kant, in fact, throughout modern philosophy, "substance" has been taken as the unchanging, the permanent in change, whether Locke's "I know not what," or Kant's "permanent in relation to phenomena." But for Aristotle, who since he gave the technical meaning to the term ousia rendered into Latin as substantia ought to know, ousia or substantia is defined precisely as that which undergoes change in change, what is at the end of any process different from what it was at the outset. (Randall, 112)

Now, this is an interpretation, and one that I am sure plenty of people will and have protested. No doubt the protests will be even stronger given my note about Randall's own pragmatist philosophical commitments. But his work on Aristotle is especially interesting to me because A) I happen to share a lot of those commitments, and b) it sheds a lot of light on pragmatist metaphysics more generally, especially as a reaction against the Moderns.

Second, Randall emphasizes Aristotle's commitment to the inexhaustible "thisness" of things. Now, Randall had the benefit of writing in the wake of phenomenology; Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger taught his generation of philosophers how to attend to things as opposed to language about things. Randall's Aristotle also knows the difference:

existing things, ousiai, are clearly more than their definitions alone, they are more than what they can be truly said to be. Such concrete things can never be exhausted by what we can say about them. We can never exhaustively "define" any particular individual ousia, we can never say everything that is true about it. (Randall 121)

That last point is one that Charles S. Peirce emphasizes again and again; it's the need to always recognize the irreducible, unique haecceity of things, which moors philosophy to actuality. Without it, we get speculative systems that are fantastically satisfying, but misleading.

Go Randall.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Alpha 1 chart

Here's Robb's chart of the kinds and sources of knowledge from Alpha section 1. Something like Aristotle's version of the Divided Line (from Plato's Republic, Book 6). This one concerns kinds of knowledge regarded as activities of the soul; later, in Alpha section 6, I may have a bit to say about how Aristotle critiques Plato's account of the objects of knowledge in the Divided Line.