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Lecture Notes: Aristotle
1. Physics II.1-2: Nature
- Given its title, the Physics obviously must discuss nature (phusis). Chapter II.1 attempts to define “nature,” and chapter II.2 discusses what falls under the study of nature (“physics,” in the ancient sense) as a science.
- Aristotle begins with the commonsense distinction between things that exist “by nature”—animals, plants, and the elements—and those that do not. The distinctive feature of things that exist by nature is that “each of them has within itself a principle of motion [i.e., change] and of stationariness [i.e., cessation of change]” (192b14). By contrast, artifacts “have no innate impulse to change.” Of course they do change—e.g., a bed made of wood will ultimately decompose. But they do so only in virtue of the material of which they are made.
- One might ask: don’t animals and plants also act as they do in virtue of the materials of which they are made? No—at least, not completely. Aristotle is an “anti-reductionist.” He believes that the behavior of living things cannot be fully explained in terms of their material constituents; i.e., it cannot be reduced to what would today fall under the sciences of physics and chemistry. Note that he must hold this if he is to believe that the commonsense distinction between things that exist “by nature” and those that do not actually fits reality, and is not merely a useful convention.
- Since the distinctive feature of natural entities is to change under their own impetus, so to speak, Aristotle offers the following definition of “nature”: “a principle or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself, and not accidentally” (195b22-23).
- Formally speaking, this definition is circular! The concept defined (nature) is itself part of the definition. That’s OK, however, because Aristotle is not trying to define a new concept from scratch. He’s trying to clarify a concept of which he assumes we already have some understanding.
- The second half of the chapter discusses the conflict between two opposing views of nature. One view is that the nature of something is its matter—e.g., wood is the nature of the bed, bronze of the statue (193a10-12). The reasoning behind this view is that a bed, if it could somehow be planted and grow, would grow wood rather than another bed! This thought-experiment seems to show that the bed is “really” just wood.
- The other view is that the nature is “the shape (morphe) or form (eidos) which is specified in the definition of the thing” (193a30). Here “shape” does not mean the physical shape, but is simply a synonym for form. Aristotle adds “which is specified in the definition of the thing” to show that he means the substantial form (e.g., for a human being, the form of humanity) and not any of the many accidental forms a thing might have (e.g., being heavy, musically educated, prone to anger, etc.).
- Aristotle clearly leans toward the second view. He defends it with two arguments.
- “A thing is more properly said to be when it exists in actuality than when it exists potentially” (193b7). The wood that goes into a bed is only potentially a bed until it is properly shaped—i.e., given the form of a bed. Since the form is what makes a thing what it actually is, the form is more truly the thing’s “nature.”
- “Man is born from man but not bed from bed” (193b9). Here Aristotle notes that the example of a bed is a bit misleading, anyway. Of course a bed will not grow into another bed; it is not something that has a nature! But objects that exist “by nature” typically do reproduce after their kind—e.g., man begets man. What each human being imparts to the next is the form of being human, and therefore the form is more truly human “nature.”
- Despite his preference for the second view, Aristotle seems to believe that there is some truth in both. In chapter II.2 he states that “two sorts of things are called nature, the form and the matter” (194a12). Since the term is ambiguous, both views are at least partially correct.
- That raises a question. “Since there are two natures, with which is the student of nature concerned? Or should he investigate the combination of the two?” (194a15-17).
- This question gives Aristotle the opportunity to distinguish his own approach from that of the Platonists. As he sees it, “the holders of the theory of Forms” make the mistake of applying to natural science a method that is more appropriate to mathematics. Properties such as odd, even, straight, and curved do not involve motion. Therefore nothing important is left out by considering them in abstraction from the objects in which they are present (193b31-35). Properties such as being flesh, bone, or man, however, do involve motion (i.e., change). To consider them in abstraction from the objects in which they are present is therefore a mistake.
- Aristotle summarizes this point by saying that natural forms “are defined like snub nose, not like curved” (194a5). Virtually anything can be curved, so the concept of curvedness can be understood in abstraction from matter. Snubness, however, is necessarily the snubness of a nose. In saying that natural forms “are defined like snub nose,” Aristotle means that they cannot be defined without referring to the subject in which they are present.
- Aristotle’s conclusion, then, is that nature—regardless of whether one regards it as matter, form, or both—is much like snubness. The student of nature must study form, not in isolation, but only as it is present in matter (194a14).
- A point to think about: although Aristotle’s argument seems like common sense in comparison to the wild ideas of the Platonists, one could argue that it actually impeded the growth of science for two thousand years. By insisting that nature must be studied only as it is present in matter, Aristotle discouraged the free use of abstraction and mathematical analysis that has proven to be essential for modern science. (Consider, for example, Galileo’s studies of a frictionless plane.) It is significant that Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, who revolutionized science by introducing this approach, were followers of Plato and Pythagoras rather than Aristotle.
6. Physics II.7: Aristotelian Teleology
- Chapter II.7 begins by reviewing the four causes. “The causes being four, it is the business of the student of nature to know about them all . . . –the matter, the form, the mover, that for the sake of which” (198a22-25). Chapter II.2, however, said that the student of nature need know only matter and form. Is this a contradiction?
- No. Aristotle goes on to explain that the last three causes—the form, the mover, and that for the sake of which—“often coincide; for the what and that for the sake of which are one, while the primary source of motion is the same in species as these” (198a25-26).
- There are two important claims here. One is that “the primary source of motion” (i.e., the efficient cause) is the same in species as the form of what is produced. This goes back to Aristotle’s basic point that “man is born from man.” In general, an efficient cause can impart to other things only those forms which it already in some sense contains. A shoemaker, for example, can impart to leather the form of a shoe only because he possesses the art of shoemaking—that is, he possesses the form of shoe in his soul.
- The other claim is that “the what and that for the sake of which”—i.e., the formal cause and the final cause—are the same. From the context it is clear that Aristotle is not claiming that they are always the same, but only that they are the same among objects that exist “by nature.” (In a statue, for example, they are clearly not the same, but that is because the statue does not exist “by nature.”)
- The assertion that the formal and final cause are identical in natural objects is the cornerstone of “Aristotelian teleology.” This is the doctrine that nature always acts for an end, and that to fully understand nature one must take into account its purposive aspect. (“Teleology” is from telos, end or purpose.) The end nature acts for is simply the nature, in the sense of substantial form, of the natural object in question.
- An example will make this clearer. Consider an acorn that has been planted in the ground. The fact that it grows at all is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that it grows into a different kind of thing, an oak tree. Why? Why does it not simply grow into a larger acorn?
- Aristotle’s answer is that the nature of the oak is present as a kind of potentiality in the acorn. Given the right conditions—soil, water, etc.—that potentiality will become actual. It has an inherent drive toward actuality, one that needs only the right conditions to trigger it into being. In Aristotle’s technical language, the form of the (mature) oak is also the final cause of the oak’s process of growth.
- Granted, this is somewhat mysterious. But Aristotle would say that it is the only way to understand the regularity and apparent purposiveness of natural processes. (Cf. Physics II.8, 199a9-19.) The only alternative is a mechanistic explanation of the world, such as was attempted by some of the Pre-Socratics. Aristotle, as an anti-reductionist, believes that all such attempts fail.
- In light of Aristotelian teleology, form takes on a new meaning. It now appears as an important reality in its own right, one that is at the root of all natural processes. Aristotle places it on an equal footing with the efficient cause as one of the two “principles which cause motion in a natural way” (198b1). He also describes it as “whatever causes movement, not being itself moved, such as that which is completely unchangeable, the primary reality, and the essence of a thing, i.e. the form; for this is the end or that for the sake of which” (198b1-4).
- Notice that he calls form “the primary reality.” This is a foreshadowing of something that Aristotle will argue in detail in Metaphysics VII-VIII: that form is substance. The Categories, of course, had argued that ordinary physical objects are substance. In the Metaphysics Aristotle abandons this view—or at least, qualifies it considerably. He argues that the word “substance” has more than one meaning. In one sense it refers to ordinary physical objects, but in the primary and strictest sense it refers to form.
- To say that form is substance sounds much like Plato! Aristotle’s mature philosophy is, in fact, a version of Platonism. It differs from the Platonism of Plato in that Aristotle denied that natural forms exist independently of material objects. He did recognize the existence of certain other “separate forms.” They are mentioned in Physics II.7 (198a28) and discussed in detail in Metaphysics XII.6-10.
7. Nicomachean Ethics I.1-8: Human Nature as a Key to Ethics
- The Nicomachean Ethics is a comprehensive discussion of human excellence (arete, sometimes translated “virtue”). As we will see, the concept of nature developed in Physics II plays an important role. Since human beings have a nature just as other things do, Aristotle attempts to understand human excellence in terms of the proper fulfillment of human nature.
- Chapter 1 begins with two basic distinctions.
- The first is between activities that are pursued for their own sake and those that are pursued for the sake of some product (in the broad sense of “thing accomplished”). An example of an activity pursued for its own sake is chess or golf; an example of one pursued for the sake of a product is medicine (pursued for the sake of health), strategy (pursued for victory), or household management (pursued for wealth).
- The second distinction is between subordinate and master sciences. A subordinate science is one that is pursued for what it contributes to some larger enterprise. Bridle-making, for example, is subordinate to horsemanship, which in turn is subordinate to strategy (i.e., military science).
- Chapter 2 makes the point that there must be some things we pursue for their own sake, for otherwise there would be an infinite regress of ends. Whatever is thus pursued for its own sake will be “the good,” i.e., “that at which all things aim.” (Actually it is that at which all human beings aim, so it is the good for human beings.) The science that pursues it will be the master science embracing all others. The science that seems best to fit this description is “politics,” in the broad sense of the study of how to organize human society.
- There seems to be a fallacy here. Why assume that there is just one thing people pursue for its own sake--and, consequently, just one highest science? Actually Aristotle does not make that assumption. Later chapters show that he recognizes a plurality of intrinsic goods—e.g., honor, pleasure, intelligence, and virtue. In chapter I.7 he will argue that all of these can be embraced within a single unified conception. So he does ultimately believe that there is a single good for human beings, but this is something he argues and does not assume.
- Chapters 3 discusses the nature of ethics (“politics,” in the sense explained above). Aristotle first cautions that we should not seek more exactness than the subject matter permits: “when the subject and the basis of a discussion consists of matters that hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must be of the same order” (1094b21-22). He also warns that the young and immature are not capable of being good judges in ethical matters. The reason is that they lack experience and are governed by emotion.
- The second half of chapter 4 notes another prerequisite for ethical study: the student of ethics must have been brought up in the proper moral habits. Ethics is not a deductive science; it begins, not from general principles that are intrinsically intelligible, but from “what is known to us.” By “what is known to us” Aristotle means intuitive judgements about right and wrong, or good and evil. “The acceptance of a fact as a fact is the starting point” (1095b7). Someone who has not been brought up to recognize moral “facts” of this sort will, Aristotle thinks, be incapable of understanding ethics.
- Now we are ready to begin the main argument of Book I: the attempt to discover the good for human beings. Aristotle first notes in chapter 4 that almost all would agree on giving it a certain name. That name is eudaimonia—literally, “being blessed with a good daimon.” The book translates this as “happiness.” The translation is adequate, provided one keeps in mind that Aristotle is talking about a state that (a) is not easily acquired or lost, and (b) does not depend solely on mental or physical gratification, but encompasses all aspects of one’s existence. A pig can be happy, but it cannot possess eudaimonia. For these reasons some prefer to translate the term as “human flourishing.”
- Simply calling the good eudaimonia is not very informative. Chapter 5 discusses and rejects various attempts to specify it more precisely.
- Pleasure: a life devoted solely to pleasure is “a life suitable for cattle” (1095b20).
- Honor: this depends on those who confer it rather than the person who receives it; furthermore, people seek honor as a confirmation of their own worth, so even in seeking honor they seem to value virtue or excellence more.
- Excellence (arete): this alone is not sufficient for happiness, for (a) someone might possess it while asleep or inactive through his whole life, and (b) it does not guarantee against great misfortune of the sort that would destroy eudaimonia.
- Wealth: this is not good for its own sake, but only as a means to other things.
- Chapter 6 discusses the view of Plato and his followers that apprehending the Form of the Good is essential to the good life. Aristotle first criticizes the very idea that there is a Form of the Good. His main argument is that the term “good” means something different when applied within each of the ten categories (1096a24-28). A Platonist might reply that the Good is solely what is shared by intrinsic goods, such as honor, thought, and pleasure (1096b7-16). Aristotle replies that even if we limit the inquiry to intrinsic goods, they are not all good by sharing in a single Form, for the definition of “good” as applied to each is different (1096b16-25).
- There is a problem here. If the definition of “good” really is different in each case, why do we use the same term? Clearly we presuppose that there is some sort of unity in the different applications of the term. Aristotle recognizes this problem and therefore decides to shelve the issue for later investigation. As we will see in Book X, he ultimately concludes that there is something similar in some ways to the Platonic Form of the Good, although not in all ways.
- Chapter 7 offers the arguments mentioned in connection with Chapter 2 for why happiness (eudaimonia) is the highest good.
- What is always chosen for its own sake is more “final”—i.e., has more comprehensive influence over human action—than what is chosen both for its own sake and for the sake of other things. Only happiness passes this test. All other intrinsic goods—honor, pleasure, intelligence, virtue—are chosen both for their own sake and for the sake of happiness.
- Only happiness is self-sufficient, i.e., “taken by itself makes life something desirable and deficient in nothing” (1097b14).
- That brings us to the second half of the chapter, where Aristotle finally tries to spell out what precisely happiness (eudaimonia) really is. His argument is as follows.
- Anything that has a proper function (ergon, lit. “work” or “thing done”) is judged by how well it performs that function. For example, the function of a shoemaker is to make shoes, and he is judged as a shoemaker by how well he does so.
- Does man, simply as man, have a function? Yes. It would be absurd to suppose that man “was left by nature a good-for-nothing without a function” (1097b30).
- What is this function? Since it is the specifically human function, it will be something that man does not share with plants or animals. That rules out nutrition, growth, and the life of sense perception.
- The remaining choice is “an active life of the rational element” (practike tis tou logon echontos) (1098a2). Since a proper function is a kind of activity, Aristotle emphasizes that he means activity governed by the rational element, and not mere possession of it.
- This result is summarized in the following definition: the proper function of man is “activity of the soul in conformity with reason” (psuches energeia kata logon) (1098a7).
- Now we can apply to man the general rule stated by (1). The good for man is simply that which is exhibited by someone who performs the specifically human function well. In general, “if a function is performed well it is performed in accordance with the excellence (arete) appropriate to it” (1098a14).
- This leads at last to a definition of the human good: “activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete” (1098a16).
- Finally, Aristotle adds “in a complete life.” As already noted, eudaimonia is an enduring state, so what properly exhibits eudaimonia is not a man at any given instant, but his life as a whole.
- This argument is one of the most famous in all of Greek philosophy. It is known as “the ergon argument.” What one makes of it largely determines one’s attitude toward the rest of Aristotle’s ethics. Some points to note:
- Perhaps the most crucial step is (2). Although this step may appear arbitrary, it is deeply rooted in Aristotelian teleology. Aristotle has argued in Physics II that all natural entities have an end (telos). Why should man be an exception?
- Just as in the Physics, however, this end is intrinsic to human nature, not imposed from without by a creator. Cf. the grass in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land . . .
- What does Aristotle mean by “reason” (logos)? Clearly it is that which distinguishes man from animals, namely the faculty of making universal judgements and recognizing abstract truths (cf. Metaphysics I.1-2). Could there also be Heraclitean overtones—i.e., could logos be, in some sense, the ordering principle of the cosmos?
- A hint that the answer is yes appears in Chapter 8. There Aristotle argues that the above account is confirmed by popular opinions about happiness, for “the characteristics which one looks for in happiness are all included in our definition” (1098b22). For example, people commonly think that happiness involves some degree of virtue. Aristotle’s definition agrees, but goes further in saying that happiness is activity in accordance with virtue. He also agrees that some external goods are necessary for happiness—not for their own sake, but because without them one cannot perform certain noble and magnanimous acts.
- The most important point Aristotle makes in this chapter is about pleasure. Aristotle agrees with the common opinion that happiness involves pleasure. In fact, he thinks that “activity of the soul in conformity with virtue” is more pleasant than any other kind of life. In all other lives, “pleasant acts conflict with one another because they are not pleasant by nature” (1099a11). By contrast, “actions which conform to virtue are naturally pleasant . . . [and] the life of such men [i.e., those who are virtuous and love what is noble] has no further need of pleasure as an added attraction, but it contains pleasure within itself” (1099a14-17).
- In saying that virtuous acts are pleasant “by nature,” Aristotle means that they are intrinsically pleasant--even though, given the state of one’s character, one may not enjoy them! (Cf. his claim that the first principles are intrinsically knowable, even though, given our present ignorance, we find them difficult to understand.) The role of nature here is crucial. The acquisition of virtue brings one into conformity with human nature, i.e., fulfills one’s telos. It thereby leads one to find pleasure in acts which are already, of their own nature, intrinsically pleasant.
- That is why logos in Chapter 7 means more than just “reason.” It is also the intrinsic, rational order of the cosmos in general and of human nature in particular.
This page © Copyright 1998, Dr. David Bradshaw.
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