21 June 2006

For the Sake of the Cosmos

I recommend Thomas Johansen's astute review, appearing today in NPDR, of Monte Ransome Johnson's Aristotle on Teleology (yours for only $68.62!).

According to the review, Johnson (or 'Monte' from now on, to avoid confusion) begins by defending the following, very sane interpretation of Aristotle, as expressed in a quotation from the beginning of the book:

'Aristotle thinks that the fact that things function well in nature needs a general explanation. But the explanations he offers invariably make reference to specific natural substances. He is wary of attempts to generalize about a generic, overall good, which he holds has little or no explanatory power . . . His teleological explanations in the works on nature make reference to the good of specific kinds of things -- stars, elements, plants, animals, humans, families, and cities -- and not just to human beings, god, or some other overarching cosmic good' (11)
But from this view he apparently slides over to denying 'anthropocentric' or 'cosmic' teleology at all-- from saying that teleological explanations for Aristotle make reference 'not just to human beings [or] god' to saying they do this not at all.

If this is what he claims, then I think Johansen is correct in rejecting this as a sound interpretation of Aristotle. (One simple argument against this, although there are dozens more: surely Aristotle thinks that each species within a 'system'--such as a symbiotic system--has and aims at a good beyond the good of that species alone. Thus 'anthropocentric' teleology will apply for systems of which human beings are a part; and it would seem strange to deny that, for Aristotle, the universe as a whole is some sort of system--the very word kosmos signifies that it is.)

But one passage in the review perplexes me. Johansen is considering Monte's arguments against 'cosmic' teleology: Monte holds that, for Aristotle, 'there is no good for all beings in the cosmos'. And Johansen begins to argue against this as follows:
There is no good for all beings in the cosmos, whether we take this to mean a) a good represented by a distinct being such as god, or b) a good represented by the cosmos as a whole over and above the good for each individual species as such. Johnson seems (274) to take it as sufficient to dispel a) to say, on the basis of Eudemian Ethics I.8, that there can be no good in the sciences beyond what is practicable for human beings. The highest such good is 'intelligence' (nous), as practiced by god with no implication that this good exists as a 'good-itself'. One senses an ignoratio elenchi here: to say that one can identify the highest good as intelligence in ethics without identifying it as a separate good says nothing about whether Aristotle in Metaphysics L should want to make the highest good exist separately.
The sentence 'one can identify the highest good as intelligence in ethics' confuses me. I think Johansen means: 'in ethics, one can identify the highest good as intelligence'. Fine. But I don't know what it would mean to say that, in ethics, the highest good is intelligence as practiced by god (since presumably the highest good in ethics is a good practicable by human beings) or how that could possibly work as a premise in an argument for Monte (since this would concede from the start that the highest good for human beings is a separately existing good).

But if we put these difficulties aside, wouldn't a relevant argument here (Monte's argument?) be the following:
  1. If there is a separately existing good of the cosmos, it is the ultimate good for each sort of thing in the cosmos.
  2. But the ultimate good of human beings is a good practicable for human beings, (human) intelligence.
  3. Thus one sort of thing does not have a separately existing good as its ultimate good.
  4. Thus there is no separately existing good of the cosmos.
I'm not convinced that that is a sound argument; yet at least it is not an ignoratio elenchi.


Brandon said...

I think this is the passage Johansen has in mind. Monte has just finished quoting EE i 8, 1218B10-16; he then says,

"It seems to follow that, if Aristotle does endores the existence of a highest good in nature, or even a 'separate good', then it must be something attainable by humans. Otherwise we are idly talking about a 'form of the good' or the 'universal good'. The most obvious candidate for a 'highest good in nature', that is also attainable to humans, is intelligence ({nous}), and the activity of theoretical science and wisdom." (p. 274)

(I don't know how to do the Greek characters for 'nous' in a comments box, so I just crudely transliterated.) he then discusses briefly Aristotle's characterization of this good as divine, and concludes:

"Thus there are fitting candidates for {nous} and god(s) in nature, without having to reify the highest good into 'some one first separate Good-itself' (as Menn puts it), separate from all the things like stars and humans that naturally have it; at least not in the context of an aporia bout how the good exists in nature."