25 April 2005

Translations (or Approximations?) of the Key Passages

It seems good, for the record, to post the two texts which Lear thinks articulate with especial clarity the notion of approximation. The first is Aristotle, De Anima 2.4.415a25-b7:

The acts in which [the nutritive soul] manifests itself are reproduction and the use of food, because for any living think which has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated...the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in [metechwsin] the eternal and divine. For all things desire this, and do whatever they do in accordance with their natures for the sake of [heneka] this. The phrase 'that for the sake of which' is ambiguous; it may mean either the end to achieve which or the being in whose interest the act is done. Since then no living thing is able to partake in what is eternal and divine by uninterrupted continuance (for nothing perishable can ever remain one and the same), it tries to achieve that end in the only way possible to it, and success is possible in varying degrees; so it remains not indeed as the self-same individual but continues its existence in something like itself--not numerically but specifically one.
The second is Plato, Symposium 207c9-208b6, from which the Aristotle passage seems to borrow:
For among animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old...And in that way everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been. By this device, Socrates, what is mortal shares [metechei] in immortality, whether it is a body or anything else, while the immortal has another way. So don't be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, beause it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is Love.
(These passages are quoted by Lear on pp. 80-81, in a section entitled, "Imitation in Aristotle's Natural Philosophy".)

On the basis of these passages, Lear claims:
1. When X in the way described imitates or approximates Y, then we can say that X acts for the sake of Y, and this is a distinct and third way in which one thing can act for the sake of another, besides "instrumental and constitutive relations" (82).
2. "[T]he value of the approximation depends on the value of the object it approximates. In other words, the paradigm is the source of value for the things approximating it."
But, two difficulties:

--What seems lacking in Lear's first claim (but which is important in Plato's passage) is talk of possessing a good. What Plato seems to have in mind is: we want to possess some good, which strictly we cannot have, and thus we contrive to possess the thing most like it, which we can have. But when we make this adjustment, it's not clear how approximation will apply to the relation between philosophical contemplation and actions of the virtues of character in NE, because we can possess philosophical contemplation.

--I don't quite see how 2. is implied by the passages (but perhaps readers of Dissoi Blogoi will disagree). In fact, 2. seems problematic, for a fairly obvious reason. To the extent that an imitation (or approximation) is successful, then the imitation has the very same attributes that make the thing imitated valuable. But then why would the value of the imitation be dependent on the value of the thing imitated, rather than freestanding?

Lear notes this last difficulty at n. 29, p. 83 (acknowledging Kieran Setiyabut for pointing it out). But, as far as I can see, she does not reply to it. The best she says is: "I am not sure that there are any arguments to show that we ought (or ought not) to see things as Aristotle does, at least not any I can rehearse in the scope of this book"(84). But that's beside the point, because what is at issue is, assuming for the moment that we do in fact 'see things as Aristotle does', then why, on this view, should we hold that the value of the imitation depends upon the value of the thing imitated?


Anonymous said...

Did it strike anyone else that this idea of practicing the civic virtues as approximations of contemplation comes very close to surfacing in a Platonic context in REP VI ( 500 c-d ), where Socrates is explaining how the philosopher who has been contemplating the Forms can be persuaded to turn to politics for the general good? Seeing the necessity of doing so, Socrates says, do you think the philosopher will be an "unskilful artificer of justice and temperance and all the other civic virtues" (Jowett) in creating the institutions of the state? In other words, the philosopher will not find uninteresting the challenge of creating the most just state he can in imitation of perfect justice. His primary motive would be artful creation of the best approximation possible in human terms of a perfectly just state, though of course he would also benefit practically from living in that state.
Necessary changes being made, can this example also work for Aristotle's philosopher, who prizes theoria above all but also must live in the world? Could he at least work as lawgiver and ruler with the theoretic ideal of realizing the best possible form of government? Consciously of course, and not unconsciously, as in Lear's unpersuasive examples in Ch. 7.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand you. Do you have something like the following in mind? First, a philosopher thinks through the NE or the equivalent. In thinking this through, he is engaged in theoria (in the strict sense). But, since 'he must live in the world', then, when indeed he must do so, he tries to carry out or 'imitate' what he had earlier thought, when was working through NE? Is that the sort of thing you mean?


Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

I’m trying to come up with—other readers please help me—a plausible example of someone practicing the civic excellences in a fashion that deliberately attempts to imitate or approximate contemplation of the verities. Lear’s examples don’t work for me, and I don’t find this idea explicitly recognized in any Aristotelian ( or Platonic ) text, but is it nevertheless a possibility that might be attractive to Aristotle or Plato, neither of whom wish to see the good life bifurcated into occasional happy episodes of blessed contemplation that are constantly interrupted by grim intervals of having to deal with practical necessities? Practicing the civic virtues in a way that approximates theoria would go a good way toward binding together the practical & theoretical parts of the happy life.
Plato at Rep 500c-d suggests that the philosophers may be persuaded to the roles of lawgiver and ruler because they will see these roles as challenges requiring them to create & apply, as far as one can in the human realm, the ideals of justice etc that they have been contemplating. Philosophers will certainly need courage and prudence and temperance and all the rest in making and uphold good laws. Perhaps they will undertake all this making and doing deliberately as the best human approximation of noesis of the Justice Itself. Their good life will be unifyied by alternatively contemplating and trying to create a worldly approximation of these ideals.