Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Problem and Solution #1: Understanding Aristotelianism

I don't claim to be a scholar of Aristotle; the extent of my Aristotle studies culminated in a graduate-level course on ancient philosophy in which I looked fairly indepth at his views on the nature of the soul. It told me a lot, specifically about his method of approach to philosophical questions.

If there's one thing that I find most dismaying among "students of philosophy" I encounter is the stunning level of inability to Get It about Aristotle. I can only attribute this to a remarkable failure of philosophy professors to Get It about Aristotle - for where else would these students learn such a remarkable failure (and have such a failure go uncorrected)?

I would say that failure to understand the essence of Aristotle or Aristotelianism could be chalked up to "inability to think in essentials," but perhaps the ability to think in essentials is the #1 core solution to all philosophical (and all human) problems, so going around and shouting from the rooftops, "Think in essentials, damn you!", while correctly stating the essence of, and solution to, the core human problem, it wouldn't help much. As I stated in my previous posting, thinking in essentials is not for amateurs and requires loads of practice or habituation.

(This is not to say that there aren't self-made amateurs - people, such as many a professor of "philosophy," who are led to the water of thinking in essentials and failed to integrate/drink. Some such professors go on to emulate certain non-Aristotelian "giants" of the field, but under the false impression that their non-Aristotelian heroes are where it's at philosophically. It comes as no surprise, then, that their students/victims would likewise fail to integrate.)

So when it comes to Aristotle, what is the thing that advanced student and amateur alike need to know more than anything else? If one were to examine his treatment of the subject of the soul in De Anima in light of the treatment of that subject in the history of philosophy (I'm looking right at Cartesian Dualism and all the subsequent confusions Descartes's approach spawned in modern analytic philosophy), what could one say most in praise of Aristotle?

The non-essentials "thinker," when hearing the name "Aristotle," will tend to hone right in on Aristotle's views concerning 55 unmoved movers, or his views on slavery and women, or his outmoded views on teleology, or his quasi-Platonic views on universals (assuming that's even a correct interpretation), or other such things that make Aristotle's views unacceptable to modern minds. It's like a clockwork pathology among students of "philosophy" to do this with Aristotle. If asked to distill the essence of Aristotle as a philosopher, however, I don't think they could do it in a hundred years. (Hell, we've had over 700 years since Aquinas reintroduced Aristotle to the Western intellectual tradition, and the point has been missed time and time again ever since (except by a few hearty philosopher such as Ayn Rand). It should make a perceptive student of philosophy ask why Aristotle's reputation has held up so well as it has.

Here's the reason it's held up so well: Aristotle was the first known Western philosopher to have really perfected the art of thinking. Just as Miss Rand observed about Aristotle, it makes his errors irrelevant by comparison. His errors are quite inessential to understanding him as a philosopher. This is actually true for any other philosopher, when you apply the question of essentials to this or that thinker. And the essential here is: The philosopher's method of approach to this or that subject matter.

Aristotle's method of approach is what most impressed such perceptive thinkers as Aquinas, Hegel, and Rand. He is the father of dialectic as we now know it: the art of systematic integration, or context-keeping, or hierarchy-respecting. He was the first to really formalize the principles of right reasoning into a system, rightly-understood axioms and all.

(Contrary to the thinking of various amateurs, axioms are not "starting points" from which things get deduced. This is one respect in which too many students of "philosophy" misunderstand Rand/Objectivism on the nature of axioms. Axioms are, instead, distinguished by their being irreducible to anything further and yet which defeat their opponents in any attempt to deny them. They are not, however, "starting points." If anything can be called "starting points" in human knowledge, it's the evidence of the senses and the use of logic as applied to that evidence. In that regard, Aristotle was a perfector of dialectic, even if he did reach some conclusions which later proved faulty. And as a later perfector of dialectic, Ayn Rand, pointed out, axioms are "implicit" within every perception and thought from an early age, but many people don't even come to explicitly identify them later on. But they are contained within every act of thought, which is, as I understand it, what she meant by "implicit.")

Now, why is it that Aristotle (and Ayn Rand) have come to be so sorely misunderstood in terms of their essentials? I think it is because thinking in essentials is part of what it means to perfect the art of dialectic - in other words, you cannot perfect the art of dialectic unless you first learn to think in essentials. (I haven't thought thoroughly through whether thinking in essentials is perfecting the art of dialectic - but I think it is a necessary precondition for sure.) This is to say that, in the history of philosophy, perfecting the art of thinking in essentials has been a very rare phenomenon - and until it becomes less rare, the more the vicious circle of not understanding philosophers in terms of essentials would continue.

So, applying the approach of thinking in essentials to Aristotle, we get the following: Aristotle is best understood in virtue of his having perfected the art of dialectic, i.e., in virtue of his approach to subject matter, irrespective of the concrete conclusions he reached. He was, in other words, doing the best that he could with all the evidence at his avail. After all, isn't this what best makes sense of how important a philosopher is or should be? Had it been all about the 55 unmoved movers and shit, we'd never have gotten anywhere when it comes to the man. And rather than - like Descartes - dropping the context of what makes mind or the soul possible in connection with the body, he integrates one crucial real-world fact with his philosophizing: we don't actually observe any minds apart from physical bodies. (So "conceiving" of mind as "distinct from" body can only foster confusions. For Aristotle, mind is the form of a natural body organized a certain way. If Descartes's rationlistic-dualistic approach to the subject is what sets the tone for modern philosophizing, modern philosophizing is royally screwed. It's also no surprise in this context that Aristotle was all but set aside as Catholic dogma as modern philosophy proceeded forward. In this context, who is the real "king" of modern philosophy: Hume, or Kant? Are these two figures just different sides of the same parlor-game coin?)

Now, can I give some more precise content to what it actually means to think in terms of essentials? That might be the whole Perfectivism project right there. I could only give a barest summary at this point. To think in essentials is to grasp what is most significant about some subject matter, to retain that, and to move on to bigger and better subject matter keeping the previous essentialized context retained in mind for future retrieval. This is how I think (though I need to think it through further to be definitively sure) I managed to grasp the essence of Aristotle as philosopher via his highly-useful approach to thinking about the nature of the soul (as contrasted to Descartes's confusion-filled rationalistic approach). I learned that applying the same approach to any and all other subject matter in philosophy, a shit-ton of confusions and dead-ends could be avoided, and all at minimal cost. The "minimal cost" part here concerns the principle of unit-economy identified by Miss Rand: essentializing is a process of condensation, of reducing a vast body of observations to a small but workable mental unit. By essentializing, one reduces these observations to the mental equivalent of a file folder, which may contain and therefore be broken down into sub-folders, or which may be a sub-folder that can be related or integrated with larger containing folders, and so forth. To do all this mentally requires being able to organize one's mental contents effectively so as to respect the unit-economizing nature of human cognition. (This all seems to elementary, and yet why does the point get so missed so badly? Why do amateurs, to this day, continue to hate on Rand for inessential, much less totally false, stuff?) Then there is that point - well-understood to advanced students of Objectivism - that to capture what is essential about some thing is to capture what is of fundamental importance about it - that which best explains the greatest number of observations or conclusions about it.

This is not to say that the principle of fundamentality or thinking in essentials (all of this is there in the Lexicon, by the way, for any students who are serious enough to go through and integrate its contents - I tire of linking to specific entries every time only for the context to get dropped by amateurs the next go-around) can be misapplied or misused. To take Immanuel Kant, for instance, it would be mistaken, as Rand did, to identify Kant in terms of his (real or alleged) conclusions, when it is his method of approach that is more fundamental. Kant's method was one of a "dialectic" of sorts, a way of trying to integrate all of the previous philosophy he had at his avail. (There didn't seem to be any Aristotle involved in this to a meaningful extent, and therein lies the problem.) In this regard, Hegel had a "better" (i.e., more Aristotle-informed) "fix" than what Kant provided, though Kant and Hegel still shared a basic methodological problem: rationalism. In other words, they applied the art of dialectic within a fundamentally broken context. How can the malady of rationalism best be described to the amateurs as well as advanced students out there? Well, perhaps like this: Rationalistic thinking processes are the equivalent to treating philosophy like a parlor game. I'll leave it at that for now; this entry has gone on long enough as it is. Exercise for a future time: how does thinking in essentials (or not doing so) integrate with rationalism-as-parlor-game?

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