26 February 2005

Antiquarian Musings?

A commentator wrote:

...if we do not reject the biology that supports the fairly standard sociobiological account of humanity offered up by the likes of E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, etc., how is ancient philosophy anything more than quaint, obsolete musing by the intellectual equivalent of children?

A pointed way of raising a fair question, which one might rephrase: Given developments in science since the time of Plato and Aristotle, are the accounts offered by these philosophers even close to being ones that we can regard as true?

Admittedly nostalgia is often a snare for philosophers. Quine in his lectures on Hume describes the worldview of classical, Newtonian physics--how it looked that nature was like then--and says, in effect, 'Would that the world actually were that way!' I've heard analytic philosophers say that they remain obsessed with the Tractatus because they very much wish that it were right. It ought to be right, they think. (No, it's not right.) Perhaps ancient philosophers, too, are indulging in nostalgia--for the good ol' days when it looked as though there were substantial forms and 'ends'?

Aren't ancient philosophers faced with a dilemma: "Either admit that you are simply doing history of ideas, or justify--in a way that contemporary philosophers and scientists would regard as reasonable, if not compelling--this talk of 'nature', 'form', 'matter', and 'ends'. " But have we provided the latter?

The commentator posed this question to me. I have some answers, but I'd rather--no, this is not avoidance!-- throw open the question first to others.


Davis Nelson said...

Isn't it possible that the burden of proof ought to run in the opposite direction? Again and again, the modern philosophers named, like so many other moderns, make philosophical errors that were explicitly recognized and avoided in antiquity. These moderns rarely seem to evidence the slightest awareness of these errors - be it in connection with consciousness, human nature, language, ends and means - you name it. Until we see some indication that these philosophers understand the distinctions made and errors avoided in antiquity, why should we take their conclusions seriously? Sometimes, I'm inclined to think that modern philosophers ought to be called "professors of false issues and confused controversies". It's not the science that undermines Aristotle's philosophy. Rather, it's the breathtakingly flawed philosophical interpretations of the products of that science. There are few better examples than Stephen Pinker, when he appears to suggest that all of human intellect can be explained in terms of brain action alone. While I haven't read that much of his work, I can't recall him displaying any significant understanding of the classical issues addressing arguments for an immaterial component to the human intellect. Indeed, his seeming dogmatic empiricism probably would function as a major roadblock to his ability to understand the classical arguments.

Duck said...

Siris has a post relevant to this - check it out!

Wes DeMarco said...

The question of the relation of Aristotelian thinking to modern biological science and its interpretation is a centrally important question, both because biology is so crucial for our self-understanding and because it's so important for Aristotle.

While it's wildly implausible to think that Stagirite doctrine verbatim can solve outstanding contemporary problems about species, the unit(s) of selection, and so on, an Aristotelian approach can provide a plausible alternative that is at *least* shoulder to shoulder with the best contemporary options.

Another reason we cannot simply read the solutions out of Aristotle is that there are problems internal to Aristotelian biology. Not least is the fact that Aristotle provides no good example of the purposive function of a natural whole (his plausible examples all concern, as Pellegrin and others have noted, *parts* of animals), which is shall we say a bit of a difficulty given the purport of a metaphysics of natural wholes and their forms.

The form or essence of a living whole *is* a function--an ecological function. The form of a horse is not 'neighing animal' (as Aristotle, hopefully humorously, suggests), but grassland grazing animal. The proper function of a lion is 'savannah predator.' A leech is a wetland parasite, and so on for other cases of scavengers, predators and other classes of biotic function.

While there is no one unit of selection, the primary locus of selective pressures is *here,* on the ecological function that living things most fundamentally are. Genes are affected indirectly, along with whole animals filling their functions in context.

Here too we find that curious ontological ambivalence of form and essnce where this function in this embodiment is the individual composite, while the function together with its body-type mark the species form and the pure function indicates a pure form that admits of different realizations. The suggested approach is an ecological contextualism that rejects both radical individualism and holism in biology. The pivotal idea is the notion of form and the distinction between informing form, species form, and pure form.

This understanding, while it emphasizes the *pros ti* more than Aristotle himself, links the Stagirite's analysis of organic *bios* and form as function. I have even argued that, thermodynamically updated, Aristotle's idea of "natural heat" is important and timely.

That an Aristotelian account of biological form (together with a 4-causes approach that takes stock of the most important factors recognized by the best science of the day) is a serious *contender* in contemporary debates is what an Aristotelian should want to show, not that the moderns are all idiots or that the Stagirite had really solved all the problems in the 320s.

(And now for a moment of shameless self-promotion....) For a programmatic statement of this Aristotelian approach, see "The Greening of Aristotle" in *The Greeks and the Environment* ed. Westra and Robinson.

Jim Ryan said...

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the best work in moral philosophy, I'd say. That sociobiology gives a causal account of the human nature Aristotle identifies there is irrelevant. Or if the point is that sociobiology has disproven Aristotle's moral philosophy, then the point is deeply lacking in evidence.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I have enough Quine and Dreben in my background that I do not see that ancient philosophy is any worse off, in regards to modern science, than any other branch of philosophy.

At one time I thought it problematic that there could be any constructive philosophical discourse at all.

Ancient philosophy then seemed worth investigating as its own 'language game'--on the grounds that this is the way that philosophy would need to be done, if it could be done at all.

djr said...

Forgive me if I seem a bit rough around the edges. I'm a bit smoothed out by the above responses, but I'm still a bit suspicious that I am just an antiquarian in love with a collection of hopelessly flawed thinkers. I had almost suggested that noone should interpret my comments insultingly, but it would be more accurate to say that everyone ought to interpret my comments as a potential insult, though I more than anyone else would be subjected to the insult...

As I've said before, much of my hesitation has to do with my self-suspicion about my own lack of philosophic sophistication. I, of course, think that sociobiological accounts of human 'values' are philosophically untenable, that even a cognitive scientist like Pinker has simply made up his brain that his mind is his brain, and that Aristotelian ethics stands toe-to-toe with all the other main modern contenders. But when one finds one's own views being dismissed out of hand with hostility, it may be a symptom of blind dogmatism or it may be a symptom of the sheer idiocy of the ideas being rejected.

A broadly Aristotelian ethics is, of course, taken seriously as an option by philosophers who are not fools. But many of them seem either to tinker with metaphysics in a way that most contemporary thinkers find suspicious (all Thomism is, of course, under suspicion for just this reason) or to fail to address the real problems that arise from a thoroughgoing non-teleological account of nature. The basic danger, as I see it, is that every pros ti justifies itself. Nietzsche put it well, I think, in the opening of the Gay Science when he wrote, "Hatred, the mischievious delight in the misfortunes of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species." Of course, we may note that current human practices do not seem to be very well-suited to preserving many species, let alone our own, but can we conclude more than that the ecological form of humanity is 'invasive species'? (a frequent claim in ecology courses at some universities, i might add) Of course, human beings are rational (so 'naturalist' virtue ethicists like Hursthouse like to emphasize), but this tells us nothing about our ends except the means by which we characteristically attempt to meet them (and so much Mill said in Utilitarianism, even invoking the language of virtue). Furthermore, modern biological science, by denying any real essence to human beings, would seem to leave few resources for finding fault with individual members of the species who do not behave in ways that others do, simply because their behaviors are every bit as much an expression of their 'nature' as the behaviors of the rest of the species; they are 'defective' only by differing from the statistical norm or by being poorly adapted to their environment. In short, can a 'naturalism' that does not engage in more metaphysics than standard biological science avoid the pitfalls of the 'naturalistic fallacy' or, on the other end, justifying whatever happens to be the case about a species and the members of the species?

I find it interesting that all of the constructive responses here have come from an Aristotelian perspective, and none from a more Platonic or generally more metaphysical direction (e.g., Thomism, which is ultimately more 'Platonic' than most neo-Aristotelianism precisely because it is theistic and, in some cases, dualistic in one subtle sense or another). MacIntyre is the only Thomist I know of who has argued strongly for an Aristotelian-Thomistic ethics outside of the confines of more restrictedly theistic intellectual circles (the better-known Thomists of the 20th century, both neo-Thomist and 'transcendental' Thomist, seem to have failed to adequately address the issues raised by philosophical naturalism). But MacIntyre's work breaks down for me precisely at the point where he fails to make the most distinctively Thomistic arguments, those metaphysical arguments that make Thomism distinct from other forms of neo-Aristotelianism. The only quasi-Platonic philosophy I know of (exempting Leo Strauss and those in his tradition, such as Stanley Rosen, who are 'Platonists' in an interesting but unusual sense) is that developed by Iris Murdoch, who has been criticized precisely for failing to deal with Darwin. Charles Taylor's ethical framework owes much to Murdoch, though he rejects 'naturalism' in interesting but obscure ways. I know that at least some of the scholars working in ancient philosophy prefer Plato to Aristotle; are any of them reading this?

At any rate, I am more appreciative of these responses than I may seem. At the very least, I can see that if studying ancient philosophy really is merely nostalgic antiquarianism, I'm in decent company.

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