25 July 2006

On Toposes and Aporia

Perhaps you missed this comment in a recent review of N. Rescher, Philosophical Dialectics:

But the book does have a relevant problem, one that was easily avoidable. If ever a book seems not to have been copyedited and proof-read, it is this one. Typographical errors abound, including many glaring mistakes. I do not recall more of them, ever, in a serious philosophy book: approximately every second page contains one. Almost inexplicably, too, some entire passages appear twice within the book. A short paragraph from p. 31 recurs on p. 35; p. 78 repeats material from pp. 38-9; pp. 79-80 reprise, with a few trivial changes, a passage from p. 39 (oddly, the later appearance corrects a substantive typographical mistake from the earlier one); much of p. 80 all-but-repeats some of pp. 37-8; and a paragraph on p. 40 occurs again, with minimal alteration, on p. 81. That is not all: p. 103 quotes a lengthy passage from Peirce (referencing it cursorily in n. 10, on p. 113) which also appears in n.6 (appearing on p. 113); pp. 104-5 feature a passage used at pp. 97-8; this is followed immediately, on p. 105, by a few sentences from p. 99.
A pity, I think. Apparently, if Rescher had divided the book somewhere between pages 41 and 78, he could have had two books for the effort of one.

I wonder if you've heard mathematicians speak of 'toposes' (plural, for them, of topos), which is a branch of category theory. In an reverse twist, the NDPR reviewer seems to think that aporia is plural, presumably of aporion:

And how are those principles implemented within philosophy? Aporetically! Even individual philosophers, it seems, incur this predicament: "generally the answers that people incline to give to some questions are incompatible with those they incline to give to others" (p. 17). We strike our toes on "cognitive dissonance" (ibid.), on "puzzlement and perplexity" (ibid.). Aporia arise. ("An apory is a group of contentions that are individually plausible but collectively inconsistent" (ibid.)) Socrates would be proud of his legacy.

Examples abound, and Rescher mentions several -- starting with ones about virtue, knowledge, meaning, explanation, and the problem of evil. How should a philosopher react to these aporia? Precisely as philosophers do react:

one can . . . become a skeptic, and walk away from the entire issue, or else one can settle down to the work of problem solving, trying to salvage what one can by way of cognitive damage control. . . . (p. 19)
Mathematicians can be excused for this sort of thing, but not, I think, philosophers--and not, certainly, editors.


Brian Burtt said...

One wonders where things went wrong because Rescher himself is a stickler for detail. He would often deliver his manuscripts to the University of Pittsburgh Press (one of his publishers, and a place I worked for a while) already perfectly edited and typeset...

Monte Ransome Johnson said...

Note on the spelling of the Greek word “aporia” and its cognates in English.

The word a)pori/a has several rich connotations in Greek, not all of which can be captured by translation into a single English word such as: poverty, difficulty, impasse, problem, perplexity, puzzle, doubt, etc. Translators and commentators have different ways of coping with this.

One solution is simply to use the Greek word a)pori/a and its plural a)pori/ai. This is what Ross does in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, for example, and he is followed by others (such as E. Halper in his essay ‘The Origin of Aristotle’s Metaphysical A)pori/ai’).

At the other end of the spectrum, another solution is to invent an English word. N. Rescher in his recent book Philosophical Dialectics (Albany 2006) refers to the “aporetic method in philosophy” and in this context to “an apory” (“a group of contentions that are individually plausible but collectively inconsistent”, p. 17); plural “apories”. Rescher spells out his orthographic rationale in a note: “The word derives from the Greek apori/a [sic] on analogy with “harmony” or “melody” or, indeed, “analogy” itself” (p. 110 n.1). (His reviewer in NDPR, who uses the term “apory” but then pluralizes “aporia” is confused (“Aporia arise.”)).

The most common, and perhaps least adequate solution, is to transliterate the term. The Ionic word h( a)pori/a –i/h is usually transliterated as “aporia”. And it would seem that “aporia” has made into the English lexicon. The second edition of the OED (1989) has “aporia” (citing a gloss in Puttenham’s Eng. Poesie of 1589) as a headword (Cf. Madigan, On Aristotle’s Metaphysics 3, n. 3, who does not find it in the OED, but finds support for the use of the English word in Webster’s Third International).

In Greek the plural is ai( a)pori/ai (see, eg., Arist. EN 1146b6), and so one expects the transliteration “aporiai”. This is in fact found in, for example, J. Barnes (Aristotle, p. 37f) and A. Code (‘The Aporematic Approach to Primary Being in Metaphysics Z’). But one finds the Latinized plural “aporiae” in J. Owens (Doctrine of Being, p. 211f), J. Cleary (Aristotle and Mathematics, p. 199f) and A. Madigan (Aristotle Metaphysics Books B and K 1-2; Alexander of Aphrodisias On Aristotle’s Metaphysics 3).

The adjectival neologism “aporetic” (see, e.g., Barnes, Aristotle, p. 37) is “aporematic” in Ross (Aristotle Metaphysics I, p. 252) and Code ‘Aporematic Approach’. The combining form “–mat” and “–matic” was used like “automatic” from 1935 onwards, chiefly in proprietary words (traffomatic, Hoovermatic, and now the ominous “Votomatic”) to denote “devices working automatically or mechanically” (OED s.v. –matic). This has no relevance to the methodological concept of aporia, and so I think the simpler “aporetic” better. At any rate, the OED does not have “aporematic” but does have “aporetic” (citing a 1605 source with “aporrhetique”, “aporetique” in 1656, and aporetic in 1935, indicating the French origin of the neologism).

Either we should adopt Rescher’s rationalization of the English word, and start talking about the “apory” and the “apories” (as we do the “analogy” and the “analogies”), or we should transliterate from the Greek (aporia, aporiai). I can see no reason to use the Latin ending –ae for the plural, other than the fact some of the most important writers on the topic (such as Owens and Madigan) do.