Monday, July 6, 2009

Analysis vs. Genealogy

Here's a passage that helps me make sense of a pretty significant division in contemporary philosophy. From Beta 3:

Apart from the great difficulty of stating the case truly with regard to these matters, it is very hard to say, with regard to the first principles, whether it is the genera that should be taken as elements and principles, or rather the primary constituents of a thing; e.g. it is the primary parts of which articulate sounds consist that are thought to be elements and principles of articulate sound, not the common genus--articulate sound; and we give the name of 'elements' to those geometrical propositions, the proofs of which are implied in the proofs of the others, either of all or of most. Further, both those who say there are several elements of corporeal things and those who say there is one, say the parts of which bodies are compounded and consist are principles; e.g. Empedocles says fire and water and the rest are the constituent elements of things, but does not describe these as genera of existing things. Besides this, if we want to examine the nature of anything else, we examine the parts of which, e.g. a bed consists and how they are put together, and then we know its nature.

To judge from these arguments, then, the principles of things would not be the genera; but if we know each thing by its definition, and the genera are the principles or starting-points of definitions, the genera must also be the principles of definable things. And if to get the knowledge of the species according to which things are named is to get the knowledge of things, the genera are at least starting-points of the species. And some also of those who say unity or being, or the great and the small, are elements of things, seem to treat them as genera.

But, again, it is not possible to describe the principles in both ways. For the formula of the essence is one; but definition by genera will be different from that which states the constituent parts of a thing. (998a20-998b14)

The issue here is whether genuine knowledge of thing comes by knowing the genera (τὰ γένη) or by analyzing things into their parts (ἐνυπαρχόντων) and how they connect. Most obviously, Aristotle takes a stand in favor of knowing the genus of a thing as the proper approach.

To break a thing into its parts, so as to understand the components and how they all fit together, is useful indeed. I've actually built furniture... in order to make a table, one early step is exactly to figure out how many separate parts it has, what their dimensions and shape need to be, and how they will fit together and stay that way. Exploded-view drawings and yard lists and cut lists and specs for final dimensions all come into play; the more detailed, the better.

Important as it is for understanding the details of the form of the thing, this process doesn't tell me anything about what the assembled table is, however. It's four legs with a top and an apron, maybe a stretcher for extra stability. I can understand exactly what each part looks like, how they go together, and the material I'll have to use. Add in my additional knowledge of furniture-making tools and techniques, awareness of where I might need help from someone else (maybe an upholsterer) and the analytic approach actually covers three of the four causes: Formal, Material, And Efficient!

Again, though, these three causes do not help me understand the use for the table, nor why it has this form or needs to be made out of this material or why these techniques of making it are appropriate. All of that additional knowledge seems to come from somewhere else. In the terms Aristotle presents here, all of that is apparently involved in knowledge of the genus of the table.

We all know what Aristotle means by genus, of course... genus and species, taxonomy, categorization and classification, all that. A "coffee table" is a species of the genus "table," or perhaps "furniture." (There are levels of generality... Aristotle later becomes very concerned whether being is a genus, the one to which everything belongs.) Most people probably tend to think of this as a system of organizing knowledge. Except there's something else going on here.

The lexicon indicates that "genus" isn't primarily a logical concept, and maybe it was never used that way until Aristotle did so. What we know the word "genus" to mean (thanks to Aristotle) was for him almost a metaphorical use of the word. In Greek, it generally (pun intended) referred to the origins of people or things, to their historical genesis and development over time. Aristotle's definition of "genus" in Delta 28 seems to be the main source for the definition in Liddell and Scott, in fact: Four definitions, the first two having to do with the historical origins of the persons or things (its genealogy), one concerning geometrical figures, and the last purely a matter of logical definition and classification.

This is not surprising, since Aristotle was a biologist, the son of a physician, and was acutely aware of the historical connections among life forms. His concept of genus as the classification which represents the actual relationships among species would be entirely modern, if he had known about evolution. That's a pretty big "if," of course.

Back to the point: when Aristotle considers whether knowledge according to genus or according to analysis is the better approach, he's to some degree anticipating aspects of the 20th century conflict between linguistic/logical analysis (analytic philosophy) on the one hand, and genealogy (Continental, e.g. Nietzsche and Foucault) or genetic method (pragmatism, especially Dewey) on the other. To know a thing--this table I've built, or the contemporary concept of "substance"--is to know its origins, and the relations it (and its ancestors) bear to other beings across time. So, this table is in the Craftsman style, based on a Gustav Stickley design, 18 x 18 x 16 inches high, made of cherry wood harvested from a tree on the farm down the road, cut and assembled by me with traditional pinned mortise and tenon joints, and so on. Likewise, this concept of substance is.... we have to tell the story of its origins. Ahistorical analysis, no matter how thorough, doesn't quite tell us enough.

Going on too long here, so, summing up. First, Aristotle says knowledge by genesis, not by analysis, is genuine knowledge. And second, his account of knowledge by genus makes sense of his emphasis on the four causes--the "causes" are the principles of genesis of a thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Metaphysics Lab

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.

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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Alpha 3-7, Part Trois: Causes and What they act upon.

I raised a pretty dumb question in our discussion last week, but in keeping with well-known clichés still managed to learn something from it. Puzzling over Aristotle's concept of this highest science, I wondered whether he changes his concept of the science after Alpha, or merely changes the focus of his inquiry a bit. In Alpha he says it's all about aitia and archai but then later he seems more concerned with ousia.

My badly-put question was something like "Does Aristotle switch his attention from describing the causes, to describing what they act upon?" And of course that's not a sensible question: three of the causes sort of "act upon" the fourth. The efficient cause imparts motion on the matter, the material cause. The formal cause is what is imposed on the matter through the efficient cause. And on one reading of final cause, it is what draws this material-formal complex thing into being: it has a purpose, else it wouldn't have been made.

The question betrays that I'm still thinking of all four "causes" as efficient causes, just like a modern materialist scientist. Which I sort of am, I suppose, to the extent that I retain any residual effects of some scientific training that took place a long time ago.

A better way to put the question (and here's where I managed to learn something) would be this: "What is the being of which these four are the archai or aitia?" Metaphysics is a science of aitia, and the aitia are the "causes" of, what...? Well, of beings. Of ousia. So understanding causes is one side of the coin; the other side is the understanding of ousia. Hence the attention to both.

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.