Archive for the ‘ Aristotle ’ Category

First thoughts on relativity in the Peri Ideon

After seeing me talk about relatives (ta pros ti) in Aristotle’s Categories 7, James Warren suggested that I look again at the so-called ‘relativity argument’ in Alexander’s testimony on the lost treatise Peri Ideon. Many of you will know the argument from Owen’s classic 1957 paper A Proof in the Peri Ideon and the industrial-scale debate it generated. But here, I’m just going to offer one preliminary idea.

Alexander (In Met. 82, 11-83,16) reports Aristotle’s (type of) argument that reconstructs a Platonic argument for Forms. Most doubt Alexander quotes the Peri Ideon verbatim, but scholars take Alexander to be a good witness to Aristotle’s argument. But I wonder whether Alexander (and others) have misunderstood Aristotle’s intentions with the argument, even if Alexander’s report is accurate.

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A puzzle about knowledge and virtue

What role, according to Aristotle, does knowledge play in the exercise of the virtues of character? This is a simple question to ask, but a difficult one to answer simply. In order to answer this question, we have to tackle an elliptical passage in Nicomachean Ethics II.4, which is part of Aristotle’s solution to a different puzzle about virtuous action.

That puzzle is (very roughly) this: if we have to do the virtuous thing in order to become virtuous, but we have to be virtuous in order to do the virtuous thing, how do we ever get started? Aristotle notes that we talk about actions and corresponding states of soul in two different ways, (let’s label them) logically – the actions accord with a certain state – and causally – the actions are the product of that state. So, too, with virtue: there are actions that are courageous because they are what a courageous person would do and actions that are courageous because they flow from the courageous person’s courage. Puzzle solved: when we’re on the way to virtue, we have to do the first kind of action so that when we acquire virtue, we are capable of the second.

Where the terrain gets treacherous is when Aristotle decides to try to characterize the state of the soul that differentiates the latter from the former case:

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Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 4

One of the hardest and most puzzling bits of Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics – and that’s really saying something – is the second half of chapter 2, where Aristotle tries to establish the validity of the notion of practical thinking. As I gestured at in the previous post, the problem is one he inherits from Plato’s Statesman. On the one hand, the most ordinary sort of knowledge how to do things doesn’t seem really to be a form of thinking. On the other, the directive sort of knowledge, which quite evidently does involve thinking, does not seem to be especially practical in the sense of being necessarily bound up with action.

Remember that Aristotle’s goal in NE VI is quite specific: figuring out in a non-circular sort of way what form of correct reasoning specifies the mean for virtuous action. Moreover, the identification of this correct reasoning is supposed to illuminate how one goes about choosing the mean. Using Plato’s terms, the directive knowledge that determines what to do has to be such as to inform, in an unmediated way, the practical knowledge that is expressed in action – it can’t, for instance, be separated into two people like the master-craftsman and the manual laborer. That’s a function of Aristotle’s overall project in the Ethics, which is trying to understand which life we ought to choose for ourselves.

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Aristotle on Relatives in Categories 7 (Part 3): Opaque and Transparent Relatives

In the last post, I set up Quine’s distinction between transparent and opaque ways of reading a statement. What I need to do now, is connect this to Aristotle’s two conceptions of relative terms, as he sets them up in Cat. 7. I will first argue that D1 relatives are opaque, on Aristotle’s view, then that D2 relatives are transparent. In the next post, I will explain how this helps Aristotle avoid the conclusion that some substances are relatives. Roughly, when construed opaquely, a proposition involving a relative gives us less information, so the proposition is more ambiguous. It is this ambiguity that means some relatives appear to be substances. When construed transparently, a proposition gives us much more information, so is not ambiguous. At least, not ambiguous enough to allow some relatives to appear to be substances. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I will argue that D1 relatives are relatives viewed opaquely, while D2 are viewed transparently.

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Aristotle on Relatives in Categories 7 (Part 2): Quine’s Safari

We saw in the first post in this series that  Aristotle gives two definitions of relatives in Categories 7, which I called D1 and D2. Aristotle worries that D1 will allow some substances to be relatives, so introduces D2. Specifically, Aristotle worries that parts of secondary substances, like hand, will turn out to be both substances and relatives. So, what is the difference, according to Aristotle, between D1 and D2?

One way we could understand the difference is as a difference of extension: D2 excludes some items that D1 does not. Hand would have to be one of the relatives excluded from D2, but included in D1. The existing suggestions in the literature are of this kind.[1]

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Aristotle on Relatives in Categories 7 (Part 1): Two Definitions

I got a taste of ancient conceptions of relativity pretty much in the first week of my PhD when I read David Sedley’s paper ‘Aristotelian Relativities’. I wrote my dissertation on the  scraps of evidence concerning relatives in Plato but stopped before I got to Aristotle’s feast of ideas. A very nice email from one of Dhananjay’s colleagues asking about relations in Aristotle prompted me to write down some ideas about Cat. 7 that have been cooking for a while. Bon appetit!

Aristotle’s class of relatives (ta pros ti), discussed in Categories 7, excludes some items that we consider relations and includes some that we do not. Aristotle excludes three or more place relations, such as between, but includes some monadic properties: e.g. large (6a36-b10); and virtue and vice (6b15). So what does Aristotle think relatives are? He defines them at Cat. 6a35 (D1) but gives a different definition later in the same chapter at 8a15, (D2).  Traditionally, scholars have thought that D2 is strictly narrower than D1: that is, at least one relative, that falls under D1 does not fall under D2. However, in this and the next few posts, I will argue, using a distinction formulated by Quine, that D1 and D2 give us two different ways to view relatives: the D1 relatives are relatives viewed opaquely, while the D2 relatives are relatives viewed transparently.

In this, the first post, I will discuss in more detail Aristotle’s definitions and explain Aristotle’s motivation for giving D2, roughly, that D1 may lead him into a contradiction. In the next post, I will introduce a distinction between two ways of understanding propositions involving relatives: transparently and opaquely. In the third post, I will argue that D1 relatives are relatives viewed opaquely, while D2 relatives are relatives viewed transparently. To prove my reading, I will show that the distinction I identify allows Aristotle to avoid the contradiction he worries about.

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Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 3

[NB: This is the third in a series of posts about Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. I explain the project in Part 1.]

I claimed in Part 2 that EN VI is structured around a search for the kind of reason that explains how we can go about correctly choosing the mean, that is, making the right ethical choice. As Aristotle points out in the first half of VI.2, reasoning of this sort belongs to the more general category of reasoning about contingent things, which is the province of the faculty for calculation, to logistikon (1139a3-15).[1]

Not all calculation is about ethical matters, of course, since calculation is also present in crafts such as medicine. It’s perhaps worth noting here that I don’t think Aristotle is committed to the thought that all ethical reasoning is calculative, either. We might think that the theoretical enterprise of the ethical works themselves is also a form of reasoning, namely, inquiry. And ethical inquiry is not calculative since it is not directed in the first instance toward what is contingent, that is, the sphere of particular and determinate actions, although it certainly seeks to shape our calculative reasoning.

Aristotle is in quite direct conversation with Plato throughout this passage, even deploying the familiar argument from Republic V that cognitive states are distinguished according to the ontological status of their objects, in order to distinguish the faculty for scientific knowledge (to epistêmonikon), whose objects are necessary, from that for calculation (1139a6-11). There’s another interesting connection to Plato in Aristotle’s use of logistikon to denote the sphere to which the reasoning that leads to correct choice belongs.[2]

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