Having seen in Week I that philosophy is born out of myth, we must now acknowledge that myth as such is not philosophy. On the contrary, the path that leads from myth to science, through poetry and philosophy, could be called the path of "demythologizing". This term refers to the process of taking the "myth" (in the modern sense of "false beliefs") out of myth-i.e., questioning our unquestioned beliefs in hopes of transforming them into a more reliable expression of the truth. Thus, for example, when I suggested in the previous lecture that we all regard "the tree of philosophy" as the myth for this course, I was not really doing philosophy. Rather, I was preparing the ground in which the tree itself will be planted. After you finish this course, I hope you will take the time to question seriously not only the myth, but also the (poetic) analogy that "philosophy is like a tree". But if you question this presupposition here at the beginning, you may find that the ground of your mind will be too hard to receive the insights this myth can inspire.
One such insight is that, just as a tree is an organic whole consisting of four main parts (the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the leaves), so also many, if not most, sets of philosophical ideas are organized according to such a pattern. We have already seen several such patterns in the first two sessions. But before we look at some examples of how demythologization worked in ancient Greece, I would like to point out several other interesting fourfold patterns.
If the "myth, poetry, philosophy, science" pattern is regarded as a description of the way human thinking develops on a macrocosmic scale (i.e., in human cultures), then we should not be surprised to find a similar pattern operating on a microcosmic scale (i.e., in human individuals). One of the most common ways of describing the stages of an individual's development is to refer to a person's birth, youth, maturity, and old age. By correlating each of these with a progressively higher level of consciousness, the pattern shown in Figure II.1 emerges. Just as the progression from birth to youth coincides with the awakening of a child's unconscious mind, so also the progression from youth to maturity requires the gradual sharpening of consciousness, until a distinct awareness of one's own self arises. And the self-conscious person whose natural development is not interrupted eventually enters into a new stage which, for want of a better term, we can call super-consciousness. The elderly
are regarded as wise in all traditional societies not primarily because of their many years of experience, but because a new way of thinking opens up to them; if they take advantage of it, this enables them to look out beyond themselves to the wider implications of things.
The wisdom that results for those in their "golden years" bears a striking resemblance to the way we imagine people living in the so-called
Figure II.1: The Development
of the Individual
"golden age" that many cultures look back to (see Lecture 3). Yet the latter corresponds not to old age but to the pre-natal experiences of the baby in its mother's womb. Mapping these relations onto a circle appropriately suggests the cyclical character of the development we are here considering: super-consciousness may well involve a recapturing of something a person loses at birth-an idea we will see Plato defending in
The Four Powers of the Mind
Each of these four stages can also be correlated with a particular "faculty", or power, of the human mind, as shown in Figure II.2. Imagination is the power governing the earliest years of our life, just as myth governs the thinking of those who live in primitive cultures. As everyone knows, the difference between fantasy and reality is not distinct in the mind of a true child. In youth, how-
ever, this power is overcome by passion: as the physical body changes in puberty, so also the mind changes the way it adapts to the world. The poet is driven by this passion to express in words what for the child is only a dream. Philosophers, by contrast, are not usually known for their passion. This is because the power corresponding to mature self-consciousness is the power of understanding. This power, when developed to its fullest extent, is transformed into the power of judgment. The task of scientists is to transcend their own point of view in order to judge how the world really is. Likewise, the people who truly deserve to be called "old" are those whose minds are governed primarily by this power of judgment.
Determining what each of these powers aims to express will give us a more complete understanding of the interrelationships between these ideas. Myth uses imagination to express beliefs. Poetry uses passion to express beauty. Philosophy uses understanding to express truth. And science uses judgment to express knowledge. We can represent these ultimate goals by mapping them onto a square that encompasses the circle presented in Figure II.2, as shown below:
Figure II.3: Four Aims of Human Thinking
I have taken the time to show you these patterns not only because I think they are intrinsically interesting, but also because they should help you see philosophy in its proper context. And the better your understanding of that context, the stronger will be the roots of your own philosophical "tree". The diagrams in Figures II.1-3 depict logical patterns, so many of their implications will not become clear until we study logic in the second part of this course (especially Week V). Nevertheless, it might be helpful at this point to take a brief look at the origins of logic itself, since the proper employment of logic is necessary in order for demythologization to take place.
The English word "logic" comes from the Greek word logos, meaning "word"-including the spoken word ("speech"), the written word ("book"), and the thought word ("reason"). But in Ancient Greece logos was also sometimes used to refer to what we can call the hidden meaning in a myth. In this sense, the logos of a thing is its final purpose or ultimate nature. This is how the Bible uses the word when, for example, St. John's Gospel begins by exclaiming: "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God." The person who lives in a myth experiences this logos firsthand, and so has no need to explain it. The poet is the first to recognize the need to use words to express the passion with which an experience of the logos fills a person. The philosopher tries to understand the logos in such a way as to separate truth from fiction. And the scientist forgets the logos altogether in search of concrete facts that can be manipulated. This "forgetting" is the source of the modern problem of meaninglessness or "alienation" and will occupy our attention at several points later on (see e.g., Lecture 18).
The process of moving from an intimate experience of the logos to a state wherein its presence is forgotten is the process of demythologization. Forgetting the logos is in a sense a catastrophe for mankind, and yet in another sense, as we shall see in Lecture 9, such forgetting (or at least, ignoring) is a necessary requirement in order for knowledge to arise. Science requires us to forget the hidden logos because factual knowledge admits only what is openly revealed. Indeed, the difficulties we all have in thinking in terms of this logos arise as a direct result of the fact that we live in an age dominated by the scientific world view, which finds no proper place for the logos. Yet it is always possible for a person to recapture the meaning of myth, even after forgetting it in the process of attaining knowledge. Nurturing the tree of philosophy within ourselves is one of the best ways to revive the memory of that forgotten reality.
The earliest demythologizers in ancient Greece were the philosophers who lived during the period of time from Thales to Aristotle (see Figure I.5). With two important exceptions (to be discussed in the next lecture), these philosophers are referred to as "presocratic" philosophers, because they lived before a very influential philosopher named Socrates. One of the main concerns of the presocratics was to describe the nature of "ultimate reality". And this, as I mentioned in Lecture 1, is the main task of the branch of philosophy we now call "metaphysics". Several of these early demythologizers regarded one of the four traditional "elements" (or something like it) as constituting ultimate reality. Thales himself argued that everything can ultimately be reduced to water. Anaximenes (c.585-c.528) disagreed, claiming the most basic element is actually air. Not long afterwards, Heraclitus (fl.500-480), who had some interesting ideas about the logic of opposites (see Lecture 12), suggested that fire is the best candidate for a basic metaphysical building-block. Democritus (c.460-c.371) then defended the earliest form of "atomism", viewing the fundamental element as "being", or simply what is. By this he meant something similar to what we mean by "matter", thus suggesting at least a rough correspondence to the earth element, since the latter clearly refers not merely to soil, but to all solid matter. These four early metaphysical positions can be mapped onto a cross, as follows:
Figure II.4: The Four Elements in Ancient Greece
As the diagram suggests, the best of the early answers to the question of ultimate reality was given by Anaximander (c.610-c.546), who argued that none of the four elements is properly regarded as basic, since they necessarily stand in opposition to each other (like wet and dry, hot and cold). If one element were "boundless", then it would destroy all the others. He stood, as it were, at the center of the cross, recognizing the need for all four elements to be held together in a creative tension. Empedocles (c.495-435) further developed this view, regarding all four elements as basic realities, explaining the tensions as being held together by the opposing forces of "love" (philia) and "strife" (neikos).
Regardless of which answer to this question you think is best, we must beware of regarding any of them as attempting to explain the nature of the physical world. For the word "metaphysics" means "after" or "beyond" physics (i.e., "nature"). So we must be careful not to think these philosophers were arguing that everything on the earth is quite literally made out of (for example) fire. That is obviously not true, otherwise we would have all burned up long ago! Moreover, such explanations are the task of science, not philosophy. Instead, we should regard these philosophers' theories as the earliest attempts to discover a single, irreducible truth that lies behind the diverse appearances of our everyday experience. In other words, they were trying to grasp the hidden meaning of their own mythical heritage from a position outside the myth itself. The result was what we might today call "symbolic" explanations for how we can solve the problem of metaphysics. (The nature of symbolism will be discussed in Lecture 31.) However, as we shall see in our next session, all these solutions were bound to fail.
5. Philosophy as Rational Dialogue
The great dividing line in ancient Greek philosophy, distinguishing philosophers whose ideas seem remote and unfamiliar from those whose ideas seem to be more clearly relevant to contemporary philosophical concerns, comes in the form of a single philosopher who, as far as we know, never wrote a book. That philosopher, Socrates (470-399), gave a completely new interpretation of the philosophical task, the full implications of which took over two thousand years to unfold. We know about Socrates' life and ideas primarily through the writings of one of his close followers, Plato (427-347). Together with Plato's star pupil, Aristotle (384-322), these men form the core of the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. Although there is no need to remember their exact dates, it is important to know what order they lived in. Thus, the following time line reminds us that Socrates was rather old when he influenced the young Plato, and that he died before Aristotle was born:
Figure II.5: The Three Great Greek Philosophers
Little is known of Socrates' life, and some scholars even question whether such a person ever really lived; but for our purposes we can ignore such debates. For even if his character was merely an invention of Plato and his contemporaries, the fact is that it soon came to serve as a "myth" that has guided the development of western philosophy for more than two millennia. Socrates was a highly original thinker who practiced what he preached. Although he was a member in good standing of the political elite in Athens, he willingly gave up his position sometime in mid-life in order to live a life of "extreme poverty" as a philosopher (PA 23b). During this time he spent his days going around engaging people in conversations on various issues. He often clashed with the Sophists, the popular professional philosophers who would dispense their "wisdom" (typically, hair-splitting distinctions without any universal applications) for a fee. Although Socrates insisted he was not a teacher (33a), a group of young men (one of whom was Plato) soon gathered around him, interested in learning the art of doing philosophy in this new way.
The most significant part of Socrates' career, as recorded by Plato in his Apology, began when his lifelong friend, Chaerephon, asked the Delphic oracle whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. When Socrates heard that the priestess had answered "no", he felt he had been presented with a riddle to solve, since he believed he did not deserve to be called wise. So he went around interviewing all those who had the reputation of being wise, such as politicians, poets, and artisans, in hopes of learning from them what wisdom really is. But in each case, their attempt to explain their own "wisdom" was frustrated by Socrates' persistent questioning. Not only were they unable to explain in what their "wisdom" consisted, but Socrates publicly attempted to "prove" to such men that they were not, in fact, wise. Naturally, by questioning all of the traditional myths held by the wealthy and powerful members of his society, he made plenty of enemies! But for Socrates this was not important, since in so doing he was able to discover "that the people with the greatest reputations [for wisdom] were almost entirely deficient, while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence" (PA 22a).
Socrates' final conclusion (PA 23a-b) was that the oracle did contain a riddle, but its solution is a bitter pill to swallow for those whose role in society requires them to defend the glories of human wisdom:
[Some people have described] me as a professor of wisdom.... But the truth of the matter ... is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.
Understanding the implications of this insight is of utmost importance if we are to understand the development of philosophy, and especially of metaphysics, in the succeeding two thousand years. For in this statement Socrates clearly states the first criterion for being a good philosopher: we must recognize our ignorance!
The price Socrates paid for this insight was his life. For the powerful citizens of Athens took him to court, accusing him "of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state" (PA 24b). During his trial, he defended himself not by pleading for mercy or promising to behave in a more civilized way, but by speaking openly and harshly to his accusers. He explained how the philosophic life is a life that is worth dying for. The philosopher is the person who obeys the imperative of the inscription on the temple at Delphi, "Know thyself". The person who fails to accept this challenge is in a sad situation, for "life without this sort of examination is not worth living" (38a). Indeed, Socrates clearly regarded the life of self-examination as one lived in service to God: although he intentionally cast doubt on the proliferation of gods in the Greek tradition, Socrates himself regarded philosophy as a divinely inspired vocation. Only by living such a life can a person be virtuous, and so help to usher in a just society:
For I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls ... Wealth does not bring goodness [i.e., virtue], but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state. (30a-b)
Such statements, of course, must have seemed like a slap in the face to those he was speaking to, many of whom would have regarded Socrates as a friend, since he had himself been a member of that very court at one time. So it is hardly surprising that when the votes were counted, Socrates was condemned to death (albeit, by the surprisingly narrow margin of 281 to 220). But instead of being outraged by this decision, Socrates accepted it with calm integrity, predicting that the number of those who are willing to question the status quo-i.e., the number of philosophers-will increase, rather than decrease, as a result of his death (PA 39c)! Rather than shrinking back in fear of death, he boldly described how his task as a philosopher had been the task of learning how to die. Thus Plato's Apology ends (42a) with Socrates exclaiming: "Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live, but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God."
Socrates' prediction concerning the growth of philosophy turned out to be accurate. For in the wake of Socrates' death, Plato's writings preserved many of Socrates' key insights. Unfortunately, "postsocratic" philosophers have all too often not been so willing to question those who wield the power in society. This is partly because the relationship between philosophers and the "city" has changed radically since Socrates' time. Philosophy now tends to be accepted as part of the status quo, a subject among other subjects to be studied in pursuit of a "whole person" education. And this change began, rather ironically, with Plato himself.
Plato presented his philosophical ideas in the form of Dialogues. These books transform Socrates' habit of persistent questioning into a specific philosophical method. On one level, a Dialogue is simply a book that records a conversation between a main speaker-usually Socrates in Plato's Dialogues-and one or more secondary characters. In the course of this conversation the main character acts as a "midwife" for the potential insights waiting to be "born" in the minds of the secondary characters. (Socrates' mother, incidentally, was a midwife by profession.) In other words, just as a good midwife coaches the pregnant mother so that the mother can give birth to her baby (rather than the midwife having to take the baby out by force), so also Socrates asks questions and offers suggestions in order, as it were, to "coach" the secondary characters into discovering the desired conclusion without having to be told what it is. But on a deeper level, the significance of this new method lies in its appeal
to a higher authority, reason, as the proper arbitrator of all disputes. As depicted in Figure II.6, the dialogue is carried out under the assumption that this higher authority, to which all participants have equal access, is capable of imparting a deeper understanding of ultimate reality, or truth.
Plato used the method of dialogue to construct, on the basis of his understanding of Socrates' ideas (though undoubt-
The Method of Dialogue
edly going beyond them in certain respects), the first thoroughgoing system of metaphysics with a modern ring. His philosophy, which provides the archetype of all "idealist" metaphysical systems, is far too complex to study in any depth in an introductory course. However, looking briefly into his theories of knowledge and of human nature should provide us with a good sampling of how his idealism works.
The branch of philosophy concerned with answering questions about the nature and origin of human knowledge is called "Epistemology" (from the Greek words epistemos, meaning "knowledge", and logos, here best taken to mean "the study of"). Metaphysics and epistemology are always intimately related to each other, because a philosopher's understanding of what reality ultimately is will inevitably influence his or her account of how we know what is real, and vice versa. So for the remainder of our study of metaphysics, I shall include in my account of each major philosopher a description of his epistemology.
Plato's epistemology is based on the metaphysical assumption that "universals" (or what he sometimes calls "forms" or "ideas") are the only true reality, whereas "particulars" (i.e., "matter" or "things") are only appearances of this reality. In much of our everyday experience we therefore suffer from the illusion that the things and objects around us in the physical world constitute the ultimate reality. But the actual situation for human beings, according to Plato, is that our ideas reveal to us not merely subjective inner states, but the true nature of reality itself. The philosopher's ultimate task, therefore, is to look beyond the mere appearances of things in order to come to know these ideas.
In Book VII of his greatest dialogue, Republic, Plato portrays Socrates as comparing the human situation to a group of people who have
Figure II.7: Plato's Cave
been prisoners inside a cave since their childhood. Their necks and legs are chained in such a way that they are unable to look toward the opening of the cave. There is a wall behind them, and on the other side of the wall other people carry objects of different sorts that stick up over the wall. Behind them all is the light from a great fire, later identified as the sun. The prisoners are able to see only the shadows these objects cast on the back of the cave. Having never known anything other than these shapes and images, they mistakenly treat the shadows as the real objects.
The analogy, at least in this simplified form, is quite straightforward. The cave represents the world we live in and the prisoners in chains represent those who have not yet learned to philosophize. The shadows are the material objects ("appearances") we normally treat as real. And the objects casting the shadows are the true "forms" of these appearances, whose nature can be revealed to us through philosophical reflection. The philosopher's task, therefore, is to become aware of these true forms by breaking the chains that bind us to the illusory reality of the material world; this is done by reflecting upon our ideas, and learning to treat them as the ultimate reality. This is Plato's version of the recognition of ignorance: our ignorance remains only as long as we continue to make the mistake of treating the material world as ultimately real. For this happens whenever we turn our backs on the sun, which represents the highest of all ideas in Plato's system, the idea of "the good". Goodness is the reality from which the light of reason and truth shines forth, thus enabling us to see all the other eternal forms.
Plato constructed a hierarchical system of ideas, ranging from those that are more closely connected to the material world (e.g., ideas relating to human desires) to those that can take us virtually all the way out of the cave. Of the latter, truth and beauty join goodness to constitute the three highest ideas. Although we sometimes find approximations to them in the material world, these ideas can never in themselves be perfectly manifested in the world of appearances. We can never point to something in the world and say "there it is; that is the thing we call truth". This is because truth is an eternally existing form that never changes or passes away. Plato advised young philosophers to begin by coming to know the lower forms, working their way up to a universal vision of ultimate reality, which (like the "super-conscious" state discussed in Lecture 4) is likely to occur only rather late in life. The form of knowledge that serves as the most reliable guide along the way, he argued, is mathematics, and within mathematics, geometry. Perhaps this is one good reason why the use of diagrams can be helpful in understanding difficult philosophical ideas.
Those who succeed in attaining the goal of a universal vision, Plato believed, are the best qualified to govern the ideal state (the "republic"). The policies Plato thought such "philosopher-kings" should enforce have often been harshly criticized for various reasons. We will look more closely at political philosophy in Week IX. At this point it will suffice to point out that Plato's theory of the philosopher-king deserves to be seriously considered: for who is more capable of ruling in a just and benevolent way, a person who is hungry to possess power and authority, or one who has seen and understood the ideas of power and authority as they truly are?
In working out his theory of forms Plato, like most great philosophers, regarded the question of the ultimate reality of mankind as one of the most significant aspects of his metaphysical theory. So let's conclude our discussion of Plato's idealism by looking briefly at its implications for human nature. If the material world is an illusion, then the human body is obviously not the defining reality of human nature. On the contrary, the body, according to Plato, is what chains us to the cave, limiting our vision to the shadows of reality. Our true reality lies in the idea, or form, of "humanness" and is best expressed in terms of the idea of a "soul" (psyche). The soul is the eternal reality that is, as it
were, imprisoned in a body whenever a person is born into this world. As shown in Figure II.8, it consists of three main parts, or powers: the "appetite" is the lowest part (corresponding to the body's belly), the "reason" is the highest part (corresponding to the head), and the "spirit" is the intermediate part (corresponding to the heart).
Since the soul is eternal, there was never a time, according to Plato, when it did not exist. Before our birth, our soul
Figure II.8: The Three Powers of the Soul
existed in its eternal form in the realm of ideas, to which it will return after we die. In this realm the soul has easy access to all knowledge, because the eternal forms are not obscured by the darkness and limitations of the cave. The experience of birth causes us to forget what we used to know. Hence, Plato's metaphysics provides the basis for his solution to one of the most difficult questions in epistemology: "How do we come to know what we do not already know?" The answer offered by Plato's idealism is, quite simply, that all learning on this earth is actually remembering what we knew before we were born.
Today I have had time only to skim the surface of the ideas put forward by Plato (and Socrates). We could spend the rest of this course examining the intricacies of his idealism, and even then we would have just begun to understand the depths of his thought. Plato himself believed his system of eternal forms was capable of transforming philosophy into a science, a body of well-established knowledge-a goal shared by many philosophers ever since. And yet, how this is to be accomplished has been a matter of continuous controversy. Indeed, in the next lecture we will examine the ideas of a pupil of Plato's who believed a scientific philosophy can be established only by following a radically different path.
6.Philosophy as Teleological Science
In the previous lecture we looked at the ideas of Socrates and his follower, Plato. Socrates' appeal to universal reason and Plato's use of dialogue to construct a system of idealism, based on Socrates' teachings, revolutionized the development of philosophy in ancient Greece. I concluded by mentioning Plato's notion that idealism can lead to the construction of a universal science. The fact that virtually no scientists today would look back to Plato's ideas as the source of modern science suggests that Plato failed in this task (at least, given modern notions of what science is). However, as we shall see today, the very different system proposed by Plato's most influential pupil was to succeed in this goal in a way his teacher's ideas never would.
Having studied at the famous school Plato had founded, called the "Academy", Aristotle taught there until after Plato's death. During those twenty years he obviously must have become thoroughly familiar with Plato's ideas. He then left the Academy, however, and served for about three years as the private tutor for Alexander the Great. Upon his return to Athens, he set up his own school, where he developed and taught a system of philosophy that many regard as being diametrically opposed to Plato's. Unfortunately, all that survives of Aristotle's writings are his lecture notes and textbooks intended for use by his students. As a result much of his writing is dry and considerably less entertaining than Plato's lively Dialogues. Whereas Plato's writing style sometimes obscures his meaning by being too loose, Aristotle's meaning is often obscured by his rigidity. Something in between would, no doubt, make for a more suitable style for presenting philosophical insights.
Aristotle based his system on a metaphysics that virtually stands Plato's idealism on its head by arguing that particulars, not universals, are ultimately real. He connected particulars with a special term, "ousia", which itself means "reality", though it is usually translated as "substance". The basic question in his "first philosophy" (as he referred to metaphysics) is therefore "What is substance?" He answered this question by defining a substance as an individual, existing thing (see AC 1b-4b). Such a "thing" is not merely a form, nor is it a hunk of matter. Instead, it must always combine matter and form within itself. Substance combines form and matter in such a way that the matter fulfills a necessary function, rather than being just an accident or an illusion. For the material of a substance gives it its "distinctive mark", which is that, "while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities" through a material change. For example, the chalk I am now holding in my hand would still be an example of the substance "chalk" even if it changed from having the quality of white chalk into having the quality of red chalk. This way of looking at the nature of reality is typically called "realism".
Aristotle further developed his realism by distinguishing between "primary" and "secondary" substances. Whereas "primary substances ... are the entities which underlie everything else", secondary substances are the characteristics that can be "predicated" of that individual thing, especially if they are part of the definition of what it is (AC 2a-b). Strictly speaking, the latter should be limited to the "genus" and "species" to which the individual thing belongs. For instance, I as an individual human being am a primary substance. The fact that I am a man (species) and an animal (genus) are therefore secondary substances, describing what kind of substance I am. In a looser sense, however, anything that is "either predicated of [primary substances] or present in them" can be regarded as a secondary substance. Thus, primary substances usually appear in the subject of sentences, whereas secondary substances usually appear in the predicate.
Aristotle developed his theory of substance at the beginning of his book, Categories, where "category" is defined as a "most general kind of thing". The word "form" can itself be regarded as meaning "of such a kind", so a category is a very generalized form. In Categories Aristotle collected a list of the ten most general kinds of form, the first being substance itself (i.e., the kind of form that is made real by participating in matter). The other nine are characteristics that help us understand what a particular substance is like. There is no need for us to go into detail here about the nature and function of these categories. It will be enough simply to list the other nine in the order Aristotle presented them: quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection (AC 1b). Much of Aristotle's discussion of these categories concerned the way we use such terms in language (thus foreshadowing today's emphasis on linguistic analysis, to be discussed further in Lecture 16). But he also clearly regarded them as providing an orderly and systematic way of understanding reality itself (i.e., substances).
In applying his realism to particular cases Aristotle used a teleological method. That is, he argued that a thing's form can best be discovered by inquiring about its purpose. The Greek word telos ("purpose") also refers to the end or goal of a thing or event. Why does it exist? What is it used for? Such questions can help us explain why a specific piece of matter has the particular form it does. Aristotle used his teleological method as an integral part of his task of classifying numerous natural and intellectual objects. For his philosophical method had a dual emphasis on logical (linguistic) classification and teleological (empirical) observation. This dual emphasis has had a profound influence on those who have since followed what is often called the "empiricist" tradition.
Modern science is, of course, one of the fruits of the empiricist tradition. So it should come as no surprise to find that many of the names we now give to the different branches of the sciences, as well as other academic disciples, were first established as such by Aristotle's teleological classifications. Many of his books were devoted to naming and providing a basic grounding for disciplines such as "psychology", "zoology", and even "metaphysics" itself. Thus, for instance, he distinguished between mathematics, physics, and theology by saying they deal with formal, material, and divine causes, respectively (AM 1026a). Moreover, he established many distinctions we now take for granted, not only in philosophy (such as essence-existence and cause-effect), but also in empirical science (such as genus-species and plant-animal-human). This certainly justifies the view that Aristotle was a "grandfather" of modern science, even though his own teleological methodology is now discredited by most scientists. (Most, but not all. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is a significant example of a recent book written by scientists who do recognize the value of the teleological method.)
Let me explain the epistemological difference between Aristotle's realism and Plato's idealism by using this piece of chalk as an example. How do we know this piece of chalk is a piece of chalk? What makes it what it is? Plato would say the idea of chalk, its "chalkness", gives this object its reality. For even if we were to go on a crusade all around the world destroying each particular piece of chalk that now exists, we would not in so doing change the reality of "chalkness" in the least. Even if we systematically erased all written references to chalk in all the world's literature, and waited for the death of every person who had ever seen or used chalk, its idea would still be just as real as it is today: it would still be an eternally existing form, waiting to be remembered by some future generation. This piece of matter we call chalk is real only because it participates in a real idea, the idea of chalkness.
Aristotle, by contrast, would say the reality of this particular substance I am holding in my hand, called "chalk", is dependent not only on its participation in the form of "chalkness", but also on the ability of some collection of matter to instantiate (i.e., serve as a real example of) that form in the world we experience. This means the matter must be able to fulfill the purpose of chalk. What purpose does chalkness bestow on a lump of matter? What is chalk used for? Obviously, when it appears in a classroom, at least, chalk is used to write things on the blackboard. So if I drop this piece of chalk on the ground and then crush it-like this (don't tell the cleaners I did that!)-then Aristotle would say I have destroyed the substance, the reality of the chalk. In this case the matter is still there, but its form no longer exists as chalk.
For both Plato and Aristotle, then, a thing's form is a necessary factor in determining its reality. But for Plato the form alone is sufficient, while for Aristotle a definite link with matter is also required. Their views can be summarized quite simply in the following way:
form = reality
matter = illusion
form + matter =
This summary only scratches the surface of Aristotle's account of the nature of substance, but it will suffice for our introductory purposes.
What about Aristotle's view of human nature? How did his new metaphysical standpoint, his realism, influence the way he understood the reality of being human? He agreed with Plato that the soul (psyche) is the form of the body. As such, its main functions are described in terms of "the nutritive, the appetitive, the sensory, the locomotive [powers], and the power of thinking" (DA 414a). The body itself is now regarded not just as an accident or an illusion to be overcome, but as a necessary constituent of the human substance, through which these powers are realized. This view probably feels far more natural to most of you than Plato's idealist view; yet some of its consequences may be less than desirable. For if the body is a necessary element in being human, then when the body dies, so does the reality of the individual existing person. A soul alone would have no more reality than the mere idea of chalkness and would be of no more use than the pile of chalk dust here on the floor is for writing on the chalkboard. And this negative implication of Aristotle's realism, for anyone who believes in life after death, begins to make Plato's idealism look not so bad after all! (Another way around this problem would be to believe the body itself is somehow brought back to life, albeit in some transformed state, after we die. We will discuss this possibility further in Lecture 35.)
Aristotle himself may have been trying to make up for this potentially undesirable consequence of his realism when he argued that the human soul has a distinctive purpose that makes us different from all other earthly substances. Plant souls are characterized by nutritive and appetitive powers. Animal souls share these characteristics, but add sensation and locomotion (i.e., the power to move). Human souls share all the ends, or purposes, that define plant and animal souls, but rise above these through the power of rationality (nous). Viewing God as a purely rational being, Aristotle thought this aspect of human nature reveals a "spark of the divine" in each of us. Accordingly, he described the human soul as being that of a "rational animal"-a notion that has become one of the most widely accepted ways of defining human nature. By treating rationality as itself a characteristic of the divine soul, we can map Aristotle's distinction onto a cross, as shown in Figure II.9.
This view of the soul provided Aristotle with a way of allowing for a type of survival after death. In DA 430a he stated that, when the soul "is set free from its present conditions" (i.e., when a person's body dies), the remaining core of rationality "is immortal and eternal". This implies that the "spark" of rationality in an individual's soul will eventually return to the "fire" of God from which it came. Although this still does not allow for survival of the individual, it does at least provide a universal goal to keep us going and to make life worth living. If the purpose of life is to expand and develop rationality to its maximum extent, then obviously philosophy is the most meaningful vocation a person can pursue. For in Aristotle's view, the universal and philosophical
Figure II.9: Aristotle's Four Life (Soul) Forms
part of you, and that part alone, will survive your death.
Many other aspects of Aristotle's philosophy would be interesting for us to discuss here if we had more time. I'll conclude by simply mentioning his idea that all movement in the world originates in a "prime mover" that is itself "unmoved". This Being is also the "final cause" (i.e., the ultimate purpose) of all movement. In other words, all changes in the world around us are driving toward a final point of rest, where they will return to their source in the unmoved mover, as depicted in Figure II.10.
Figure II.10: The Prime Mover as Final Cause
A similar idea was developed in considerable detail by the twentieth-century paleontologist, Jesuit priest, and mystical philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who argued that the entire cosmos is moving toward the goal of ultimate unity-in-diversity, called "the omega point"-"omega" being the last letter of the Greek alphabet and a symbol of eternal destiny. And this is just one of many examples of how subsequent philosophers, especially after the appearance of Christianity, have developed Aristotelian ideas into interesting accounts of how the universe might be related to the Being we normally call God.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER THOUGHT/DIALOGUE
1. A. Which of the four elements do you think is most basic, and why?
B. Why are there only four basic elements?
2. A. Can a myth ever be completely demythologized?
B. Could an "eternal form" change?
3. A. Is matter an illusion?
B. Why is it so difficult for philosophy to establish itself as a science?
4. A. What is purpose?
B. Does irrationality have a purpose?
1. Hans Peter Duerr, Dreamtime: Concerning the boundary between wilderness and civilization, tr. Felicitas Goodman (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985).
2. Frank N. Magill (ed.), Masterpieces of World Philosophy (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), "Anaximander" and "Heraclitus", pp.1-5, 12-16.
3. Reginald E. Allen (ed.), Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle (New York: The Free Press, 1966), "Presocratic Philosophy", pp.25-54.
4. Plato, Apology (PA) and Book VII of Republic (PR) (CDP 3-26, 747-772).
5. Aristotle, Categoriae (AC), Book III of De Anima (DA), and Book V of Metaphysica (AM) (BWA 3-37, 581-603, 752-777).
6. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), "From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede", pp.243-312.
7. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), Ch. Two, "Design Arguments", pp.27-122.
8. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, tr. Bernard Wall (London: Collins, 1959), Book Four, Ch. Two, "Beyond the Collective: The Hyper-Personal", pp.254-272.
Send comments to the author: StevePq@hkbu.edu.hk
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