#2 in the ever-growing series "Smith's Lectures on Aristotle's
As with all my notes, these are in a constant state of flux and never completed.
Aristotle's principal task in the Metaphysics is to develop a 'science of being as being'. Before he develops it, however, he takes the time to argue (more than once) that such a science is possible. This is not Aristotle's usual approach; why does he do it in this case, then?
These notes are my attempt at providing some background on this question. Two aspects of Aristotle's thought are relevant here: his conception of a science, and his views on the nature of dialectic (especially as these involve rejections of Plato's views).
Plato held that all knowledge can be derived from a single set of principles, perhaps even from a single principle. The strongest and best-known statement of this is in Republic VI-VII, where Plato describes the knowledge of the philosopher as 'synoptic', taking in the whole of reality, and resting somehow on The Good, or knowledge of The Good, as its only foundation.
A forceful statement of this position is in Republic VI-VII.
Plato sees cognitive states as divided broadly into knowlege
(gnôsis) and opinion (doxa). These
two states can be defined in terms of their objects: knowledge
is of the unchanging and immaterial Forms, whereas opinion concerns
the changeable objects of perception. Plato states his views on
knowledge and its acquisition by means of three striking
|An Eye||A mind|
|The capacity for sight||The capacity for knowledge|
|A visible object||An intelligible object (a Form)|
|Light||Truth and reality|
|Orientation towards the object||Orientation towards the object|
|The Sun||The Good|
|What it is|
|Knowledge||noêsis (thought)||The highest kind of cognition||Forms||Intelligible|
|dianoia (reasoning)||Proof resting on premises or assumptions which are not themselves proved||Mathematical objects|
|Opinion||pistis (belief, trust)||Sense perception||Material objects||Visible|
|eikasia (imaging, conjecture)||A poor imitation of sense perception (cf. the prisoners in the cave of Rep. VII)||Images of material objects|
Aristotle's views on knowledge, especially as we find them in the logical works, have much in common with aspects of this picture. Like Plato, Aristotle supposes that knowledge and perception have different objects, and he follows Plato in restricting knowledge in the strict sense to unchanging and necessary truths. Still further connections can be seen in his views on education and the role of demonstrative proof.
However, Aristotle is critical of Plato's conception of a universal science. He holds that it is impossible for any science to range over all that is because it cannot consist of a unified body of propositions. This is a consequence of his theory of categories of predication. If a word is used in application to things of different categories, it cannot apply to them synonymously, for no definition can be cross-categorial. Suppose now that 'F' is such a word. Then there cannot really be a science which studies all things that are F, since these things are only homonymously F.
An important example, for Aristotle, is the class of all good things. He notes that we apply the term 'good' to things in all the categories: to substances (e.g. people), to qualities, quantities, relations, times, places, etc (see EN I, 1096a11-34). Since this is the case, there is no general definition of 'good' applying to all good things, and thus no Idea of the good (which Plato said was 'the greatest object of study' atRep. VI, 505a2), and thus no single science of the good. Plato thought that the true philosopher 'sees all things together' (Rep. 537c6-8). This vision of a single science of all reality, founded on a single principle called 'the good', so central to Plato's thought, is for Aristotle an impossibility on purely logical grounds.
Aristotle also finds a problem of a different sort Plato's picture of an all-comprehending science of reality. Over and over, Plato tells us that the method which the philosopher uses to reach this science is dialectic. Despite his frequent discussions of dialectic, however, scholars have remained divided about just what dialectic is. (In fact, I'm inclined to say that the word 'dialectic' is the most abused word in philosophical parlance, with the possible exception of 'philosophy'.) One scholar has even suggested that Plato uses the term almost as an honorific, meaning 'the true method of philosophical inquiry, whatever that turns out to be.'
Aristotle too has a good deal to say about dialectic, and scholars are at least equally divided about its interpretation. One thing, however, is very clear: he frequently does not accord it anything like the elevated place Plato does. He agrees with Plato that dialectic is in a sense all-comprehending, applicable to every subject whatsoever. For Aristotle, however, that is just precisely evidence that it cannot be the foundation of a science. Since dialectic is applicable to everything, it would have to have 'what is' (to on) as its genus; but (from the theory of categories) we know that there is no such genus; therefore, dialectic is not a science. (See SE 11, 172a9-15).
This is the picture we find generally in the logical works (Prior and Posterior Analytics, Topics, On Sophistical Refutations) and the Rhetoric. To summarize:
Point 2 appears to rule out the project of the Metaphysics to develop 'a science of being as being'. How are we to resolve this inconsistency?
To find an answer, it would seem that the place to begin is with an account of dialectic as Aristotle conceived it. And the Topics is an entire treatise concerned with dialectical argument, so that would be the natural place to look for an account. In fact, what the Topics gives us is not an account of what dialectic is but a method to be used in such arguments. This makes it more difficult than might be expected to reconstruct Aristotle's views. (See the papers collected in G. E. L. Owen, ed., Aristotle on Dialectic: the «Topics»: Cambridge, 1968)
Some scholars have construed dialectic as a special type of argument resting on a specially defined class of opinions: opinions accepted by all people, or most people, or 'the wise' (and of those, all, or most, or the most famous). The term Aristotle uses for these opinions is endoxon (plural endoxa), a word related to the Greek term for 'opinion' (doxa) but meaning 'famous' in ordinary Greek. Just what Aristotle means by it is subject to some controversy; in fact, this is often the crux of any interpretation of Aristotelian dialectic.
One way of looking at the problem stems from G. E. L. Owen . Noting that the inconsistency with Plato so prominent in the logical works concerns both the conception of dialectic and the possibility of a universal science, Owen proposes that in both respects, the Metaphysics simply represents a later stage of Aristotle's development. In effect, the Metaphysics is a partial recantation of Aristotle's earlier hostility to a Platonic universal science. An important part of Aristotle's method in the sciences is beginning with observations of 'the appearances' (ta phainomena). The goal of a scientific theory is to explain these appearances in terms of deeper causes not immediately evident to perception. Now, Owen noted that there is an ambiguity in 'appearances': it might equally well mean what seems so to people as well as what is apparent to us. In fact, Aristotle's usual practice in developing his own views is to begin with accounts of what is generally believed about a particular subject and what his philosophical predecessors thought. Owen proposed a link between this and the concept of dialectic as a style of arguing from endoxa (here conceived as opinions which have some measure of support, either with the public or among philosophers).
This can be combined with another view of Owen's: the Metaphysics introduces a science of being as being by devising an alternative between homonymy and synonymy. This alternative is exemplified by many terms that apply in different categories but with related senses. A good example (and one that Aristotle uses) is 'healthy', which can be applied to a person (Socrates is healthy), a food, a diet, an action (It's healthy to take a walk every evening), a quality (he has a healthy color today), etc. No single definition of 'healthy' will fit all these cases, but nevertheless they are not merely coincidentally related. Instead, all these different healthy things have some relationship or other to a certain primary case, namely, a healthy human being. Aristotle describes them as all 'related to one' (pros hen); Owen's term for this type of systematically related homonymy is focal meaning.
Terence Irwin has extended Owen's position into a detailed interpretation of Aristotle's conception of philosophy, coupled with a picture of his philosophical development. According to Irwin, the position we find in the Analytics, Topics, and On Sophistical Refutations is an earlier, more strongly anti-platonic one both about dialectic's powers and about the science of being as being than Aristotle would eventually come to endorse. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle has come to have a different view about the possibility of a single science of being because he has come to believe that the objects of a science need not be unified by a single synonymous definition. Instead, they can be connected through focal meaning. In the case of the science of being as being, the focal case is the being of a substance, to which all other instances of being are ultimately connected.
In addition, according to Irwin, Aristotle came to have a higher opinion of the powers of dialectic, or at least of a form of dialectic. Irwin distinguishes two varieties of dialectic
In brief, then, Irwin's view is: (1) in the Metaphysics,
Aristotle holds that strong dialectic is the method by which Aristotle
thought philosophical first principles could be established; (2)
a prime example of strong dialectic is the kind of argument we
find in Metaphysics Gamma, though it is also found in much
of the rest of the Metaphysics and in many other treatises,
including the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics,
and the Physics; (3) this is a modification and partial
retraction of views Aristotle himself held in the Analytics,
Categories, Topics, and On Sophistical Refutations.
The Owen/Irwin proposal is more than an answer to a few problems about Aristotle's philosophical development. It brings with it a comprehensive view of how Aristotle conceived of philosophical activity in general. For a number of reasons, this is particularly important to us if we want to take Aristotle seriously as a philosopher and try to see if he has anything to say about issues that concern us today. Here is a handful of relevant issues.
Since the 1920s, Aristotelian scholarship has been much concerned with the question how Aristotle came to have the philosophical views he did. At the center of this issue has been Aristotle's relationship to Plato. Since Aristotle spent twenty years in Athens as a member of Plato's Academy, it seems virtually certain both that he knew what Plato thought and that he was greatly influenced by it. From Aristotle's extant works, we can find strong evidence of his personal regard for Plato. However, he most often mentions Plato's views only to reject them. How, then, did he come by his own views?
Jaeger argued that Aristotle had begun as a close follower of Plato's, accepting the characteristic Platonic doctrine of the Forms, and that he had espoused this position in a umber of dialogues (now lost) that he wrote during Plato's lifetime. However, he then broke with Plato over several issues, most prominently the view that the Forms exist in separation from sensible individuals, and spent considerable effort working out his own alternative metaphysics. The evidence for this, according to Jaeger, is in Aristotle's extant works. He finds a number of parallel treatments of the same topic, one more 'platonistic' than the other, and argues on a number of grounds that the more platonic passage is earlier and its anti-platonic twin a revision of it.
The Owen/Irwin picture is strongly tied to this developmental background, even though it presents a different view of that development: Aristotle's first independent philosophical views were strongly anti-platonic, but in the Metaphysics and other 'later' works he had returned to a position closer to Plato's.
Why is it of philosophical interest to try to reconstruct
Aristotle's intellectual biography? That depends, of course, on
how one does it, but the Owen/Irwin approach sees philosophical
issues as the mainsprings of the change. In other words, coming
to understand how Aristotle developed the views he did is inseparable
from understanding the problems they were meant to resolve.
Plato often expresses disdain for the senses as a source of knowledge and puts his epistemological faith instead in the innate knowledge of the Forms which, as he thought, can be brought out by the proper sort of dialectical teaching. Aristotle, by contrast, puts considerable emphasis on the importance of experience and observation in developing a science, and he sometimes criticizes or dismisses Platonic a priori theorizing as 'empty'. However, it has been a perennial problem for scholars to discern precisely how Aristotle thought we acquire knowledge of the first principles of sciences themselves. Are they, after all, discovered by some kind of innate intuitive faculty? If not, then how can they arise from sense perception, which Aristotle insists is limited to changeable particulars and incapable of apprehending the necessary universal truths on which sciences rest?
The Owen/Irwin view has a response to this issue. Irwin thinks that the picture of science given in the Analytics is ultimately unsatisfying, and he thinks that Aristotle himself came to regard it that way and developed an alternative.
It is easy to translate this into the terms of contemporary epistemological
discussions. Irwin's characterization of Aristotle's early position
is straightforwardly foundationalist: we know whatever we have
deduced from established first principles. If Aristotle did at
first espouse a form of foundationalism and subsequently abandoned
it in favor of an alternative, then what is that alternative?
Is it immune to the objections which have been raised to foundationalism
in our own century?
This also gives a response to another important issue. Aristotle
spells out an account of how scientific knowledge should be structured
in the Posterior Analytics, but his own treatises do not
appear to have anything like that structure. What does this mean?
One possible interpretation is that Aristotle changed his views
about method before writing the treatises and that the treatises
reflect those more mature views. Irwin takes considerable pains
to argue that strong dialectic is in fact what Aristotle practices
in the treatises.
A question of particular significance for those who practice philosophy
is: just what is the right way to practice philosophy? Philosophers
are often at pains to argue that there is indeed an intellectual
activity for them to engage in, distinct in character from both
empirical science and artistic production. Finding some distinctive
philosophical method is often the foundation of such arguments.
If indeed Aristotle thought that 'strong dialectic' was the method
peculiar to the philosopher, then perhaps his conception of the
philosopher comes close to what contemporary philosophers think
of themselves as doing--or, at least, perhaps his conception of
Aristotle's views on ethics could be said to be of more direct importance to contemporary philosophy than his views on science (which seem totally inadequate to deal with modern experimental science) or on metaphysics (which seem too strongly tied to his logical theories about predication, theories which since Frege have been shown to be woefully inadequate). If Aristotle discovered a form of dialectical argument can somehow establish first principles in ethics, perhaps we should take it very seriously indeed.
You may be wondering what I think of all this. Here's what I think. And here, a few years later.