17 February 2006

Does Epistemology Drive Metaphysics?

I've wanted to post something on Deborah Modrak's interesting lecture in BACAP last Thursday, "Aristotelian Form, Function, and Definition". Modrak's distinctive approach to the Metaphysics was to see the central books of the treatise as motivated, at least in part, by epistemology.

The objects of perception are concrete particulars. They provide the basis for knowledge even though the objects of knowledge are universals. This sets up a tension within Aristotle’s epistemology. Its resolution depends upon his success in providing an ontology that grounds the universal in the particular. Not only is there a tension between universal and particular, there is also a tension between that which is intelligible and that which is observable and a tension between simplicity and complexity. Aristotle calls our attention to the relation between perception and knowledge in the opening lines of Metaphysics I. In the central books of the Metaphysics, he expends considerable effort to present and explicate an ontology of form, function and composite substance. In light of the many references Aristotle makes to knowledge and definition in these books, it seems likely that he intends to offer an ontology that will resolve the tensions inherent in his picture of knowledge.
My first reaction, however, was to doubt that this is correct. Why? Three reasons:
  1. If Aristotle's metaphysics is supposed to respond to epistemological difficulties, then (unless we invoke developmentalism) he ought to draw explicitly upon that metaphysics, in passages outside the central books of the Metaphysics, which pertain to how we come to know, e.g. Post. An. II.19 or Physics I.1. And yet there are no signs of this. (Or are there?)
  2. It doesn't look as though epistemological problems figure importantly among the perplexities (in Beta) which apparently motivate the Metaphysics.
  3. Generally Aristotle seems to see no 'tensions' where we might think there are such. He seems dismissive, for instance, of the Heraclitean account of the sensible world which, Aristotle thinks, tempted Plato. If epistemology begins with the aporia, 'How is it possible that we have knowledge?', are there signs that Aristotle was ever troubled by this difficulty?
In brief: if, as we might agree, ancient scepticism differs from modern, then mustn't ancient epistemology differ as well? And yet I worry that Modrak is perhaps bringing in a modern notion of epistemology.


J. said...

Well, the Metaphysics is (at least amongst other things) a search for the first principles, and that we can affirm something concrete about what they are presupposes that we are epistemically able to do so. The very last aporia of B6 (with a shorter version at B1 (996a10) and parallel texts at K2 (1060b20-23) and M10 (1086b10-1087a9) which gives Aristotle's answer to the aporia) concerning whether the principles are universal or 'like particulars' is clearly a central concern of Aristotle. (He calls this 'the greatest difficulty' in M10 but that's not the only time he says this). I suspect part of the reason why scholars don't have, let's say, the tendancy to want to spend much time thinking about this aporia is that they find Aristotle's solution to it lame. I personally think it's quite elegant, and necessitated by what went on before in Z, but I think my views on this whole matter are quite heterodox. Thanks for raising this issue.


Posted by Julien Villeneuve

Bill Marshall said...

Understanding the nature and origin of knowledge may first require an understanding of the nature and origin of we human beings. The current thinking seems to be that matter is a'priori to consciousness; that consciousness cannot or does not exist outside physical form. We also make the assumption that reason outweighs intuition, impulse, imagination and instinct. There are times that what we call knowledge comes through a breakthrough of the imagination into the realm of thought.
If we flip the equation and make the assumption that conciousness is a'priori to matter; that is to say, consciousness creates it's own physical form, then of necessity, our thinking about such epistemological matters must also change.
To believe that matter somehow learned how to think makes far less sense than its reverse. Simply reversing the order of what creates what changes everything.
Bill Marshall 

Posted by Bill Marshall