Parts and wholes

A new year, a new term, and new seminars: the postgraduates are doing Aristotle (De Anima III) and the faculty Sextus (Outlines II). Meanwhile, I’m working on my thesis on Plato, contemplating doing my third essay on the Stoics and Epicureans, and will be giving a comment on the Presocratic philosopher Melissus at a conference in St. Louis. There’s even a reading group on Augustine run by my colleague Tamer. So the next couple of months will be a tour of practically the whole of ancient philosophy.

At the moment, however, I’m returning to a paper I was working on last term on the unity of the city in the Politics. It’s a bit of a grab bag of ideas at the moment, and I want to cast a couple of them out into the aether to see if they’re any good. (I tried out a different angle in this earlier post.) The question I tackle in the paper is this: Aristotle says in the opening chapter of the Politics that he’s going to use his analytic method on the city, finding its incomposite parts and working out what their relations are to each other and to the whole; what is his answer? Instead of spelling out right away what the basic parts of the city are, Aristotle next tells a genealogical story (I.2) about how the city, the political community, comes to be from smaller communities, the village, the household, and the basic dyadic communities of male-female and master-slave. He starts I.3 by stating that it should be clear by now that the city is made up of households, and while he repeats this claim elsewhere (in IV.3, for instance), there’s also plenty of evidence that he conceives of individuals, especially citizens, as parts of the whole that is the city (III.1, VII.8, etc.). So which is it? Quite a lot rides on what we make of his analysis, since the ‘organicist’ interpretation of Aristotle, that is, the interpretation of the city as a natural whole of which we are organs, has led some interpreters (for instance, Jonathan Barnes [1]) to conclude, among other things, that Aristotle’s political philosophy is fundamentally totalitarian.

One of the thoughts I try to spell out in the paper is this: it might seem that if we’re faced with a choice between the household and the individual as the basic constituent of the city, it should be obvious that the individual is in some sense more basic. I want to resist this move for a couple of reasons, one of which I’ll discuss further here. Parthood is a tricky business; in particular, we can analyse a whole into different kinds of basic parts, depending on what our notion of parthood is. In the case of communities, the appropriate parthood relation is something like membership, and this can behave rather differently to other kinds of parthood. For instance, unlike many other kinds of parthood, membership in communities isn’t transitive, because membership can have further restrictions on what kinds of entities are appropriate parts. So although it’s generally true that if X is a part of Y and Y is a part of Z, then X is a part of Z, it isn’t necessarily true that if X is a member of community Y and community Y is a member of community Z, then X is a member of community Z. If I’m a citizen of a country and my country is a member of the UN, then it’s just false to say I’m a member of the UN. (This isn’t to say there isn’t some relation that holds between me and the UN as a consequence.) Membership in the UN is restricted to nations, and I’m not a nation. Because membership behaves this way, it might turn out that households are the constituent parts of the city, even though they can be subdivided further. That’s just what Aristotle seems to say in the first few sentences of Politics I.3.

Another way to think about this issue is this: depending on our interests (i.e., on the parthood notion we have in mind), we can analyze a sample of water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms or hydroxide and hydrogen ions, or individual water molecules. One of the reasons we might think the division into molecules is particularly appropriate is that the molecules have many properties in common with the sample as a whole. They’re the smallest things that count as water rather than water-bits. Likewise, the household might be basic to the city because it’s the smallest community that shares some important feature with the city. I argue in the paper that the way Aristotle describes the evolution of the city implies that the household, village, and city all share the same goal (self-sufficiency, autarkeia) and hence belong to the same genus. So it’s not crazy, on independent philosophical grounds as well as features of Aristotle’s account, to think that Aristotle might take the household to be basic, despite being divisible.

In the end, I argue that both analyses are present, i.e., that the individual and the household are both basic and reflect the dual nature of the city in Aristotle’s account. (Roughly the thought is this: the city qua economic community has as its basic unit the household, the city qua political community has as its basic unit the individual, and in particular, the citizen.) One of the things I hope to go on to explore as I work on the paper is whether this dual nature constitutes an implicit tension in Aristotle’s thought about the city and the theoretical foundations of his political philosophy as a whole, or whether it is a conscious attempt to overcome the opposition, already present in Greek political thought, between seeing the political community as a product of nature and seeing it as a product of intention.

[1] “Aristotle and Political Activity” in Günther Patzig (ed.) Aristoteles’ ‘Politik’. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990, pp. 249–63

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    • djr
    • February 26th, 2011

    Here’s an annoying question: what makes us think that ‘individuals’ ever show up as parts of the city, basic or not? Aristotle never, to my knowledge, says that. What he says is that the city is composed of citizens. Of course, if anyone is a citizen he is also a particular human being. But likewise, if anyone is a citizen he is also a member, and probably even the head, of a household. Particular human beings enter into membership in the city through households, as members of them. Why think that Aristotle ever imagined that these are genuine alternatives? Why think that they are, quite independently of what he thinks? Does the problem go away if we abandon the illusory idea that there could be any such thing as a pre-communal individual?

    I’m in the middle of writing about the household and the city right now, and misery loves company, so y’know…

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