02 March 2005

Johansen on Plato's Natural Philosophy

A review in Notre Dame Philosophical Review of Thomas Johansen's recent book on the Timaeus and Critias may be found here.

Comments on the review and the book are welcome.

The reviewer (Andrea Falcon, Virginia Tech) observes that Johansen wishes to document the continuity between Platonic and Aristotelian teleological natural philosophy. But he claims that there are two discontinuities, not sufficiently commented upon by Johansen:

1. Plato regarded the teleological study of nature as immediately relevant to moral philosophy, since, for Plato, we should conceive of the ethical life as an imposition of reason upon necessity, not unlike the Demiurge's creative task. But telelogical natural philosophy, it seems, does not play the same role for Aristotle, who regarded ethics as an autonomous discipline.

2. Although Platonic cosmology is indeed teleological, Plato's use of teleology is sporadic and improvised. Aristotle in contrast, perhaps as a result of his interest in all phenomena of life, gives a general and detailed analysis of teleology (in Physics II).

(I'm not sure what the upshot of point 2. is supposed to be.)


David said...

I disagree with J about #1 since Socrates doesn't spend his days in the groves of the "Phaedrus" but in the marketplace with men. Nature isn't terribly nice to men and seems rather indifferent to their existence altogether (I'm thinking of the Eleatic Stranger's ugly myths in the "Statesman"). Aristotle is a bit more optimistic in this regard.

Thomas Johansen said...

Michael Pakaluk mentions two points raised by Falcon in his review of my book

1. Quoting Falcon,

“The view that natural philosophy contains an ethical lesson is not unique to Plato, but it is not clear that Aristotle endorsed it. Indeed, it is possible to develop an interpretation of Aristotle according to which natural philosophy and ethics represent two distinct, autonomous spheres of philosophy. Like Plato, Aristotle believes that order, perfection, and goodness are found or discovered, not projected, in the natural world. But the relevance of these discoveries or findings for human agency is open to discussion. Admittedly, the author never claims that Aristotle agrees with Plato on the ethical relevance of natural philosophy. Nor does he say that Aristotle disagrees. His lack of explicitness on this point, however, is not entirely fortunate since the book is intended "to place the Timaeus-Critias within the context of Aristotle's philosophy" (5).

I reply:

Fair enough, I probably should have said more about this important point. In the Timaeus we become good by doing astronomy (47a-c), whereas in Aristotle’s ethics the acquisition of practical virtue is apparently not based on the pursuit of any of the theoretical sciences. However, a rather different story might be told about the virtues of the contemplative life in Aristotle. (See here David Sedley’s ‘”Becoming like god” in the Timaeus and Aristotle’, which argues that the Timaeus is a major influence on Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life.) Insofar as the virtuous life is seen as a life of contemplating eternal beings (which in Aristotle’s cosmology include the heavenly bodies) there may be rather more agreement between the Timaeus and Aristotle’s ethics on the question of what we have to study in order to become good than appears if we merely focus on the role of practical virtue in Aristotle's ethics (as Falcon seems to). There is a related question concerning the different ways in which value is represented in the practical and theoretical sciences according to Aristotle. One passage to be considered is Metaphysics 13.3 1078a31-b2: ‘Now since the good and the beautiful are different (for the former is always found in action, whereas the beautiful is present also in unchanging things), those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing about the beautiful or the good are wrong. For these sciences demonstrate the most about them…The chief forms of beauty are order and proportion and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate most of all’. This passage is in some ways a peculiar one (see W.D.Ross’ note) and it would probably be unwise to put too much weight on it alone. What it suggests, nonetheless, is that there is a form of ‘good’ appropriate to action and hence, presumably, practical virtue, but also that beauty and goodness (differently understood, presumably, from the good in action) are found paradigmatically in the subject matter of the mathematical sciences. Other passages in Aristotle, famously including the one at Parts of Animals 645 a 22-23 quoted by Falcon, refer to the beauty to be found in the subject-matter of the biological sciences. It may then be that we can learn quite a lot from the mathematical and the biological sciences about beauty and goodness, and to this extent Aristotle agrees with the Timaeus on emphasizing value as a scientific concern. However, since there is a distinct notion of goodness in action we cannot readily convert this learning into a concept of practical virtue. However, are we to take it that according to Aristotle the good in action bears no relation to the good studied by the theoretical sciences? (Genuine question.)

2. Quoting Falcon,

‘If there is no doubt that Timaeus offers a general, unified account of the natural world in terms of which all the natural phenomena can be, at least in principle, explained, there is equally no doubt that this account is remarkably shy about plants and animals. I insist on to Aristotle's than one would initially expect. Although the author is successful in showing how Plato's concern for teleology anticipates Aristotle's, Plato's application of teleology is ultimately very limited.’

I think it is important when assessing Falcon’s point to distinguish the question of the scope of Timaeus’ cosmology and the question of the relative importance he places on the various subjects covered in his cosmology.

As far as the scope is concerned, it is correct, of course, that Timaeus aims to bring his account down to the nature of man (27a). But it is also an account of the cosmos as a whole, which aims to capture all the different kinds of living being in it (30d, 92c, and, in particular, 41b-c). All of the different kinds of living being include also the non-human animals and plants. Accordingly, plants are accounted for at 77a-b. At 90e Timaeus says ‘we should go on to mention briefly how the other living things came to be’, after which he describes the generation of women (notoriously), birds, land animals, with a particular mention of snakes, and water animals. Now the account here of these other kinds of living is part of a story of punishment through reincarnation. So we may worry about just in what spirit it is to be taken. Nonetheless, it is clear that the account of the non-human living beings is supposed to justify the claim that a complete account cosmos has been given (92c). I would therefore insist, in reply to Falcon, that Timaeus’ account is supposed to cover the entire cosmos, and in that sense the application of teleology is as general as in Aristotle.

Now there is another question as to the relative importance that Plato places on the various subject-matters in his cosmology, in particular, whether he ascribes the kind of importance to the study of plants and animals that Aristotle does. Mere space devoted to a subject-matter in the Timaeus and Aristotle's works is not a very good criterion here. Plato wrote one work on the cosmos, Aristotle wrote distinct works on each of the subject-matters (physics, psychology, motion of animals, parts of animals, generation of animals, theory of the simple bodies, cosmology, meteorology, etc.). Disregarding Aristotle’s treatment of plants (of which we are pretty ignorant), I think it is fair to say that Aristotle is much more interested in non-human animals for their own sake than is Timaeus. This difference may, on Plato's part, have something to do with the approach to the soul suggested by the reincarnation story: animal souls are basically corrupted forms of the human soul, and their bodies are appropriately formed as punishment for the manner in which these beings have let their souls be corrupted. To this extent, Aristotle’s criticism in De Anima 402b5 that ‘those who have investigated soul seem to have confined themselves to human soul’ is not wide of the mark. We shouldn’t forget that Aristotle himself has his anthropocentric moments in the biology, though how much to make of these is disputed (see Lennox’ recent PA commentary). Aristotle’s insistence that animal souls are distinct kinds of soul from the human clearly is part of what motivates him to develop zoology in vastly greater detail than Plato. If that comparison makes Plato look ‘shy about animals’, I have no problem.