June 02, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation V

Aristotle, Physics, 1.1-3.3

This selection deals primarily with Aristotle's model of change, and includes a preliminary articulation of his metaphysics of matter and form. Aristotle is motivated by Parmenides' criticisms that change is illusory. While very little of Parmenides survives, the criticism seems to be that, in any change, something is annihilated utterly and something else spontaneous comes into existence ex nihilo. For example, when the unmusical man becomes the musical man, the unmusical man is annihilated and the musical man takes his place, appearing, seemingly miraculous, from the void.

Aristotle's solution is that the changeable familiar particulars are complexes -- the unmusical man is a complex of form (unmusicality) and underlying matter (the man). When the unmusical man becomes the musical man, the form changes, but the underlying matter stays the same. When the man himself comes to be or comes to not be, his underlying matter in turn -- for the sake of simplicity, let's call it his flesh -- stays the same during the change. Thus, for Aristotle, nothing comes to be 'essentially', and all change is 'accidental'.

We next get a list of the four 'causes' (this is a bad translation, but I can't remember what the more accurate term is, and 'cause' is conventionally accepted): material, formal, efficient, and final causes. All four are distinct types of answers to the question 'why is X the sort of thing that it is?'; Plato's answer to this question was that X participates in Forms A, B, C. The 'nature' (the Greek term, phusis, is the root of 'physics') of a thing is its final cause, 'that for the sake of which' it is the sort of thing it is, and Aristotle uses this to criticise as a sort of materialistic reductionism for organisms: the parts (organs) of an organism are oriented towards the flourishing of the organism, rather than the organism being merely constituted by its parts.

Finally, Aristotle adds another layer to his account of change: we already know what happens when something undergoes change, but this doesn't tell us what change is itself. This is defined to be 'the fulfilment of what is potential qua potential', which is exceedingly cryptic on its face, but is illustrated by several examples. My favourite is the buildable, potential, but not yet actual house. The actuality of the potential house qua potentiality is the building of it, ie, its being built. This definition leads to an account of causation, where the agent transmits (imposes) the form to (on) the patient. This creates a small paradox, which Aristotle will deal with more adequately in the Metaphysics: in building the house, the builder's potentiality qua builder is actualized, so that it seems the agent is itself a patient.

De anima or On the soul, 2.1-3.8

By 'soul', Aristotle means the form of living things. Three levels of soul are identified, which track on neatly to a vegetable/animal/human hierarchy. Much of the selection is an extended discussion of each of the five senses, with general treatments of sense perception on either side. The basic picture is that the form of the sensible material object is transmitted via a 'transparent medium' (which varies from sense to sense) to the sense organ; the sense organ is therefore an organ that "has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter" (2.12). In other words, when I see a pillow, my eye literally takes on the form of the pillow -- its just that the matter of my eye takes on this form in a different way than the matter of the pillow itself.

Incredibly, thought works in much the same way. The selection from book III is incredibly hard, and I'm going to need to read some secondary literature before I have more than a very general idea of what's going on, but it seems that the rational soul takes on the form of the abstract ('form of the form', contrasted with 'form of the material sensible', if I'm remembering right). I'm unclear how this form is introduced to the mind, whether it is active or passive, and so on. This is definitely one to come back to.

One intriguing passage is 3.2, which seems to be concerned about the numerical identity of the animal with all these diverse powers of sense. In Kantian terms, this is the problem of the unification of the manifold of sensation into a single mind -- and is one of the critical problems Kant will deal with in the Analytic of the first Kritik.

Metaphysics, 1

The opening book of the Metaphysics is mostly a historical survey of the science of the 'most universal' and 'general' principles. Chapters 3 through 7 deal with the pre-Socratics, especially Parmenides; here Aristotle seems to identify the critical deficiency as the lack of a matter/form distinction. Plato, of course, had this distinction, but Aristotle takes the next few chapters to criticise the Platonic doctrine. Two notable critiques include a variation on the third man argument (986b1) and pointing out that Plato has no way to account for all the change he admits of the sensible world.

Aristotle's third man argument may be quite similar to some objections the nominalists will make during the Medieval period. According to Platonic metaphysics, Socrates is a human by virtue of participating in the Form of Human. The third man argument of Parmenides points out that Human is, at least in some sense, paradigmatic of humanity; that is, Human is (itself) human, which therefore means that is a Form, Human*, participated in equally by Socrates, Plato, and Human; and an infinite ascent commences. Aristotle, instead, asks why it is that participation in the Human is sufficient for Socrates and Plato to be human -- how does the Form 'cause' Socrates to be human (in the same sense as 'the four causes')? Aristotle says that the only solution must be a Form, Human*, that relates Socrates and Human in this way; and we get the same infinite ascent.

I can't stand metaphysics. Especially the 1500 years of spectacularly obscure debates over universals. It's all so damn irrelevant.

Total pages read: 441

Interesting philosophical link: A review in The Nation of Martha Nussbaum's latest book.

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