17 May 2006

Mysticism and Logic in Aristotle's Metaphysics

I want to ask a question about (one might call it) clarity and mystery in philosophical explanation. More precisely: How much mystery should we regard Aristotle as willing to accept in an account of a First Cause?

I mean 'mystery' in a technical sense which I take from theology. A 'mystery' in this technical sense is some truth which in principle, or by its nature, exceeds the capacity of the human mind and can never be fully grasped by us. We can perhaps make gains in understanding it; and we can perhaps show that contradictions and objections that pertain to this truth are groundless--or perhaps in some cases we will be limited to showing, merely, that other views are beset with worse contradictions and objections. But we can never make the truth fully comprehensible.

In my view, it is clear that Plato accepts that truths may be 'mysteries' in this sense. That he does is in part of the reason, I think, why he turns so frequently to myths. And the Parmenides shows that he would not be surprised if the truth in some domain were affected by the persistent appearance of contradiction.

But what about Aristotle? What is his stance toward these things? Would he similarly not be surprised if fundamental truths were 'mysteries'? Or is he something of a rationalist, who anticipates the attainment of complete clarity in our grasp and justification of the truth? (This question has a bearing, too, on whether Aristotle thinks that metaphysics can be a deductive science on the model of the Posterior Analytics.)

Here are two passages from Broadie which guide the development of her account and suggests that she tends, at least, toward taking Aristotle as a more of a rationalist. These guide her account in the sense that an imperative underlying her paper is that a theory of the Prime Mover should state not simply that it moves without being moved but also how precisely it does so:

Before lanching into a detailed discussion, let us note several requirements for a satisfactory interpretation of the Prime Mover theory in Lambda. It must do justice to Aristotle's main objectives in the treatise, among them these: ... (c) Since Aristotle maintains that the ultimate source of eternal motion must be an absolutely changeless non-sensible substance, he is concerned to show that its metaphysical status is quite different from that of a Platonic form. (For one of his recurring complaints against Platonism is that the Forms cannot explain movement or any sort of change.)

...Aristotle has reason to avoid any theory that would leave it a mystery how the Prime Mover moves anything.
But is there anything in the Metaphysics to show that Aristotle would be more accepting here of 'mystery'?


Tommy B. Stoffel Jr. said...

I think for Aristotle, having as his end 'contemplation' must have had some notion/appreciation for the concept of mystery. Mystery is what fules, if you will, the desire for contemplation in the first place (aside of course from the very ordering of the intellect). There is truth out there that is unknown...I will spend time trying to know it...insofar as it can be known. The act of contemplation I believe is the absorbtion of and delight in truth that can never be FULLY known, thus we can spend time in contemplative activity for all eternity.
I suppose, and this steps more into Aquinas than Aristotle, the metaphisics holds that being is an action, "be-ing". An action that cannot be accounted for on the side of the thing that is existing. Ergo, since we or anything that is existing isn't responsible for its own existence (the tree doesn't uphold itself in being) there must be some exterior principle of action that we can point to as the source of existence. Aristotle would most likely see this source as a "mystery".


Posted by Tommy