Aristotle: On Where to Begin

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, June 24, 2016 Under: Architectonics

Of late I have been exploring Aristotle’s thought.  Common approaches to this thinker – familiar in introductions, courses and elsewhere – focus upon Aristotle’s ethics and his teleological conception of nature.  His Four Causes also feature prominently as a source for proofs of God’s existence by much later thinkers.  These appear in the context of age-old and well-established debates about the nature and value of virtue ethics, and the problems of maintaining a teleological conception of nature in a Darwinian world.  Their prominence in philosophy introductions, A-levels and undergraduate courses shape our conception of Aristotle and his potential. 

My own approach comes out of my work on architectonics.  Aristotle’s role in this field is as neglected as architectonics is generally. Such philosophical ambitions as architectonics brazenly represents have been written off and yet the contemporary problems of interdisciplinarity and specialisation call for renewed attention to architectonic ambitions.  What does Aristotle have to offer to any attempt to found and organise knowledge as a whole and the activities of those who seek it?

The inaugural gesture of Aristotle’s architectonic is to reject any totality of knowledge and divide knowledge into sciences or disciplines.  Unlike Plato, for whom a hierarchy of disciplines allows us to ascend to the totality or unity of knowledge, Aristotle makes knowledge non-totalisable.  Architectonics begins with division.  How does he characterise what he has divided?  Are we left with fragments of a lost unity or living, breathing disciplines spearheaded by committed and determined practitioners?  How are sciences or disciplines founded and able to carry out their activities with confidence and success?

In order to answer these questions we may begin either with Aristotle’s logic or his empirical research.  Both were hugely ambitious.  Logic was to provide a theory of argument to cover every case.  As such it was to provide the method for founding any discipline or science.  This is the concern of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics.  The Greek term epistêmê gives us the technical meaning of a ‘science’ for Aristotle.  Its foundation or ground was to be the underived principles from which its theorems are derived.  Principles cannot be derived or proved, ensuring that we have no infinite regress, but are the basis for the proof or demonstration of theorems that will form the body of rigorous, scientific knowledge about a particular subject.  The confidence of those working in disciplines must be secured in this way because a science establishes logically valid and coherent results with a secure foundation.  Logic seems to be a meta-discipline which is located neither in the theoretical sciences, practical sciences or productive sciences, but makes possible the division, foundation and organisation of the sciences that forms Aristotle’s architectonic.  We could then begin with Aristotle’s logic as the structure and method which will enables disciplines to be founded and secured in themselves and in relation to one another.  The other approach would be to consider the Aristotle who got his hands dirty when engaging in rich empirical research.  Instead of beginning with the architectonic at its most abstract we may begin with it at its most concrete.



Drawing of a female shark with pup from Rondelet's Libri de piscibus marinis … (1554)

In The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Sciences (Bloomsbury, 2014, paperback edition 2015), Armand Marie Leroi takes the second approach.  He approaches Aristotle sympathetically as a fellow scientist.  Leroi is a biologist.  He comes to feel, to empathise, with Aristotle’s experiences and practice, with his engagement with the world in all its concrete, gritty, grimy and visceral detail: ‘His philosophy will embrace dirt, blood, flesh, growth, copulation, reproduction, death and decay – the daily experience of the farmer and the fishmonger’ (41).  The book is semi-autobiographical and this seems appropriate.  Leroi feels the authenticity and judges the rigor of Aristotle’s thought about the natural world because he identifies with the practice out of which it grew and with which it is infused.  Yet this is not an uncritical account, it is not an ode to Aristotle.  Leroi highlights failings such as a reliance on authority and the texts of others.  Aristotle’s zoology can be ‘eratic’ (52).  Yet he also finds a healthy scientific scepticism.  When beginning with traveller’s tale he vets them ‘as best he can’, rejects the implausible and retains the probable (54).  Aristotle was able to diagnose absurdity, hearsay and myth even though he lived in a world saturated with it, a world in which venerated and revered authors were nevertheless misled by appearances or carried away by folklore and popular imagination.  

Leroi engages with the notion of ‘inventing’ science.  He seeks to unearth the conditions of this task and to consider how we can make sense of a term like ‘science’ or ‘scientist’ in a world so different from our own.  From a modern, ‘scientific’ viewpoint things seem murky and unclear because myth, folklore and speculation over-determine the space of thought.  For Leroi Aristotle went far in clearing the ground of accumulated myth and folklore in order to think and practice more freely:  ‘As he constructed the empirical foundation of his science he must have gleaned, and silently suppressed, vast amounts of dubious data’ (44).  His empirical investigations could now be orientated by his logical conceptions of valid argument, which included induction, and his empirical observations.  Aristotle’s keenly observed evidence, drawn from his senses by first-hand experience and experiment, could be reflected upon without preconceived ideas and mythological phantasms clouding out rigorous thought.  There is in Aristotle’s zoological writings ‘… only a hint of the thickets of fable and myth that he hacked through’ (ibid).  Leroi finds a kindred spirit in Aristotle, one who is sufficiently sceptical about what is handed down to immerse himself in empirical research in the lagoon (in fact an inland sea) of the Island of Lesbos (now known officially as Lesvos) (14), and find anatomical explanations for what he saw.

Leroi is full of scorn for unscientific understandings.  We might find his judgements about Socrates and Plato in particular to be hasty and dismissive of ideas that require more attention.  Yet this is perhaps a reflection of a working biologist’s commitment to the rigor of their science.  When he abhors the alleged anti-scientism of Socrates and Plato this reaction seems to be that of a committed practitioner.  It does not in any case undermine the greatest strength of this book which is its sympathy for Aristotle’s purpose and the understanding of his architectonic project that follows.  When Aristotle began by dividing knowledge into distinct sciences he called for committed workers, for what Alain Badiou calls ‘militants of truth’.  As such a working scientist like Leroi can appreciate the dedication and commitment of Aristotle in empirical research, his faith in this distinct and singular science we would come to call zoology.  An appreciation of Aristotle’s dedication is evidenced in Leroi’s words:  ‘He began his lectures with the most abstract principles and followed their consequences for hours till yet another part of the world lay before them dissected and explained’ (6).

What is the value of Aristotle’s inaugural division of the disciplines?  Surely this is merely a truism today, an accurate but obvious description of the state of things where specialisation has established distinct disciplines beyond doubt and entrenched them in their terminology, bodies of research and institutional forms.  Yet the reduction of knowledge to some totality is still a prospect or at least a project with force today.  Aristotle’s non-totalisable conception of knowledge still has critical value and force in a world where a potential Theory of Everything, envisaged as the unity of relativity and quantum theory, is dream of.  Social science research methods vie with one another to unite various disciplines.  Quantification is proposed as a universal method.  Even interdisciplinarity must be questioned for its methods of relating disciplines.  Do interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, projects reflect the division of disciplines when they seek to relate them through their difference or does it smuggle conceptions of the totality of knowledge into interdisciplinary practices or transdisciplinary projects.  Have we examined the concepts that form the basis of attempts to relate disciplines, to enable exchange or ignite new trajectories where disciplines meet.  

Aristotle’s commitment to division reflects an understanding of knowledge that still matters.  Alain Badiou divided the conditions of truth in order (art, science, politics and love) so that those working towards a truth are not subsumed by the paradigms and projects of other disciplines.  An artistic truth cannot be reduced to a scientific one; it cannot be subsumed by methods that do not arise out of its faith and commitment in working towards a singular truth which is unrecognised by the current state of the situation.  Thus, rather than a description of the state of things, Aristotle’s inaugural gesture of division is performative, it is a starting point for considering the structure of reality (ontology) and of knowledge (epistemology).  It represents a manifesto for the practice of seeking knowledge, a commitment to distinct disciplinary activities.  It is to provide the space, to clear the ground, for distinct disciplines to flourish without being stifled by preconceived ideas, dominant methodologies or universal methodologies.  As we saw, Leroi’s book appreciates that Aristotle put this into practice in his zoological research.  



The Cuttlefish (a 19th-century lithograph, from Leroi’s The Lagoon)

 

We have seen that Leroi’s reading of Aristotle is based upon their shared commitments and a sense of fellowship: 

There is a sense in which his philosophy is biology – in which he devised his ontology and epistemology just to explain how animals work.  Ask Aristotle: what, fundamentally, exists?  He would not say – as a modern biologist might – ‘go ask a physicist’; he’d point to a cuttlefish and say – that (8).

This is a refreshing approach to Aristotle.  Rather than becoming snagged and frustrated by teleology and other supposedly unscientific notions, Leroi enters into the concrete working out of Aristotle’s abstract logic and its principles in an empirical, scientific practice.  The richness of empirical research comes to characterise Aristotle anew.  Plato is blamed for influencing Aristotle with teleological ideas (86) while Leroi seeks to embrace the scientist in Aristotle and resents the residues of anti-scientific forces that remain in his work.

In : Architectonics 



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Aristotle: On Where to Begin

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, June 24, 2016 Under: Architectonics

Of late I have been exploring Aristotle’s thought.  Common approaches to this thinker – familiar in introductions, courses and elsewhere – focus upon Aristotle’s ethics and his teleological conception of nature.  His Four Causes also feature prominently as a source for proofs of God’s existence by much later thinkers.  These appear in the context of age-old and well-established debates about the nature and value of virtue ethics, and the problems of maintaining a teleological conception of nature in a Darwinian world.  Their prominence in philosophy introductions, A-levels and undergraduate courses shape our conception of Aristotle and his potential. 

My own approach comes out of my work on architectonics.  Aristotle’s role in this field is as neglected as architectonics is generally. Such philosophical ambitions as architectonics brazenly represents have been written off and yet the contemporary problems of interdisciplinarity and specialisation call for renewed attention to architectonic ambitions.  What does Aristotle have to offer to any attempt to found and organise knowledge as a whole and the activities of those who seek it?

The inaugural gesture of Aristotle’s architectonic is to reject any totality of knowledge and divide knowledge into sciences or disciplines.  Unlike Plato, for whom a hierarchy of disciplines allows us to ascend to the totality or unity of knowledge, Aristotle makes knowledge non-totalisable.  Architectonics begins with division.  How does he characterise what he has divided?  Are we left with fragments of a lost unity or living, breathing disciplines spearheaded by committed and determined practitioners?  How are sciences or disciplines founded and able to carry out their activities with confidence and success?

In order to answer these questions we may begin either with Aristotle’s logic or his empirical research.  Both were hugely ambitious.  Logic was to provide a theory of argument to cover every case.  As such it was to provide the method for founding any discipline or science.  This is the concern of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics.  The Greek term epistêmê gives us the technical meaning of a ‘science’ for Aristotle.  Its foundation or ground was to be the underived principles from which its theorems are derived.  Principles cannot be derived or proved, ensuring that we have no infinite regress, but are the basis for the proof or demonstration of theorems that will form the body of rigorous, scientific knowledge about a particular subject.  The confidence of those working in disciplines must be secured in this way because a science establishes logically valid and coherent results with a secure foundation.  Logic seems to be a meta-discipline which is located neither in the theoretical sciences, practical sciences or productive sciences, but makes possible the division, foundation and organisation of the sciences that forms Aristotle’s architectonic.  We could then begin with Aristotle’s logic as the structure and method which will enables disciplines to be founded and secured in themselves and in relation to one another.  The other approach would be to consider the Aristotle who got his hands dirty when engaging in rich empirical research.  Instead of beginning with the architectonic at its most abstract we may begin with it at its most concrete.



Drawing of a female shark with pup from Rondelet's Libri de piscibus marinis … (1554)

In The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Sciences (Bloomsbury, 2014, paperback edition 2015), Armand Marie Leroi takes the second approach.  He approaches Aristotle sympathetically as a fellow scientist.  Leroi is a biologist.  He comes to feel, to empathise, with Aristotle’s experiences and practice, with his engagement with the world in all its concrete, gritty, grimy and visceral detail: ‘His philosophy will embrace dirt, blood, flesh, growth, copulation, reproduction, death and decay – the daily experience of the farmer and the fishmonger’ (41).  The book is semi-autobiographical and this seems appropriate.  Leroi feels the authenticity and judges the rigor of Aristotle’s thought about the natural world because he identifies with the practice out of which it grew and with which it is infused.  Yet this is not an uncritical account, it is not an ode to Aristotle.  Leroi highlights failings such as a reliance on authority and the texts of others.  Aristotle’s zoology can be ‘eratic’ (52).  Yet he also finds a healthy scientific scepticism.  When beginning with traveller’s tale he vets them ‘as best he can’, rejects the implausible and retains the probable (54).  Aristotle was able to diagnose absurdity, hearsay and myth even though he lived in a world saturated with it, a world in which venerated and revered authors were nevertheless misled by appearances or carried away by folklore and popular imagination.  

Leroi engages with the notion of ‘inventing’ science.  He seeks to unearth the conditions of this task and to consider how we can make sense of a term like ‘science’ or ‘scientist’ in a world so different from our own.  From a modern, ‘scientific’ viewpoint things seem murky and unclear because myth, folklore and speculation over-determine the space of thought.  For Leroi Aristotle went far in clearing the ground of accumulated myth and folklore in order to think and practice more freely:  ‘As he constructed the empirical foundation of his science he must have gleaned, and silently suppressed, vast amounts of dubious data’ (44).  His empirical investigations could now be orientated by his logical conceptions of valid argument, which included induction, and his empirical observations.  Aristotle’s keenly observed evidence, drawn from his senses by first-hand experience and experiment, could be reflected upon without preconceived ideas and mythological phantasms clouding out rigorous thought.  There is in Aristotle’s zoological writings ‘… only a hint of the thickets of fable and myth that he hacked through’ (ibid).  Leroi finds a kindred spirit in Aristotle, one who is sufficiently sceptical about what is handed down to immerse himself in empirical research in the lagoon (in fact an inland sea) of the Island of Lesbos (now known officially as Lesvos) (14), and find anatomical explanations for what he saw.

Leroi is full of scorn for unscientific understandings.  We might find his judgements about Socrates and Plato in particular to be hasty and dismissive of ideas that require more attention.  Yet this is perhaps a reflection of a working biologist’s commitment to the rigor of their science.  When he abhors the alleged anti-scientism of Socrates and Plato this reaction seems to be that of a committed practitioner.  It does not in any case undermine the greatest strength of this book which is its sympathy for Aristotle’s purpose and the understanding of his architectonic project that follows.  When Aristotle began by dividing knowledge into distinct sciences he called for committed workers, for what Alain Badiou calls ‘militants of truth’.  As such a working scientist like Leroi can appreciate the dedication and commitment of Aristotle in empirical research, his faith in this distinct and singular science we would come to call zoology.  An appreciation of Aristotle’s dedication is evidenced in Leroi’s words:  ‘He began his lectures with the most abstract principles and followed their consequences for hours till yet another part of the world lay before them dissected and explained’ (6).

What is the value of Aristotle’s inaugural division of the disciplines?  Surely this is merely a truism today, an accurate but obvious description of the state of things where specialisation has established distinct disciplines beyond doubt and entrenched them in their terminology, bodies of research and institutional forms.  Yet the reduction of knowledge to some totality is still a prospect or at least a project with force today.  Aristotle’s non-totalisable conception of knowledge still has critical value and force in a world where a potential Theory of Everything, envisaged as the unity of relativity and quantum theory, is dream of.  Social science research methods vie with one another to unite various disciplines.  Quantification is proposed as a universal method.  Even interdisciplinarity must be questioned for its methods of relating disciplines.  Do interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, projects reflect the division of disciplines when they seek to relate them through their difference or does it smuggle conceptions of the totality of knowledge into interdisciplinary practices or transdisciplinary projects.  Have we examined the concepts that form the basis of attempts to relate disciplines, to enable exchange or ignite new trajectories where disciplines meet.  

Aristotle’s commitment to division reflects an understanding of knowledge that still matters.  Alain Badiou divided the conditions of truth in order (art, science, politics and love) so that those working towards a truth are not subsumed by the paradigms and projects of other disciplines.  An artistic truth cannot be reduced to a scientific one; it cannot be subsumed by methods that do not arise out of its faith and commitment in working towards a singular truth which is unrecognised by the current state of the situation.  Thus, rather than a description of the state of things, Aristotle’s inaugural gesture of division is performative, it is a starting point for considering the structure of reality (ontology) and of knowledge (epistemology).  It represents a manifesto for the practice of seeking knowledge, a commitment to distinct disciplinary activities.  It is to provide the space, to clear the ground, for distinct disciplines to flourish without being stifled by preconceived ideas, dominant methodologies or universal methodologies.  As we saw, Leroi’s book appreciates that Aristotle put this into practice in his zoological research.  



The Cuttlefish (a 19th-century lithograph, from Leroi’s The Lagoon)

 

We have seen that Leroi’s reading of Aristotle is based upon their shared commitments and a sense of fellowship: 

There is a sense in which his philosophy is biology – in which he devised his ontology and epistemology just to explain how animals work.  Ask Aristotle: what, fundamentally, exists?  He would not say – as a modern biologist might – ‘go ask a physicist’; he’d point to a cuttlefish and say – that (8).

This is a refreshing approach to Aristotle.  Rather than becoming snagged and frustrated by teleology and other supposedly unscientific notions, Leroi enters into the concrete working out of Aristotle’s abstract logic and its principles in an empirical, scientific practice.  The richness of empirical research comes to characterise Aristotle anew.  Plato is blamed for influencing Aristotle with teleological ideas (86) while Leroi seeks to embrace the scientist in Aristotle and resents the residues of anti-scientific forces that remain in his work.

In : Architectonics 



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