I’m too sexy for contemporary Aristotleanism
February 5, 2015 § 186 Comments
I’ve mentioned before that, as unfashionable as it may seem, I think I am probably some sort of metaphysical Platonist. I’m not really a philosopher, but as I understand it in order to be an Aristotlean I would have to believe that universals or forms don’t exist except as abstractions from actually existent particulars. (I could easily have that wrong – actual Aristotleans should feel free to correct me, as I am just responding to what I’ve read from my own perspective). So airplane-ness doesn’t exist unless particular airplanes really exist, and airplane-ness ceases to be once all airplanes no longer exist. The species or category ceases to exist once all instances of it are gone, and presumably reappears if new instances appear. Furthermore, if we postulate some unique kind of vehicle which never actually is invented at some point between the Big Bang and the Gnab Gib, never actually occurs in our universe, or perhaps even is not comprehensible to limited human intellect – call this conveyance a grook – then grook-ness just doesn’t exist at all, even in the mind of God.
(As an aside, it seems to me that the endless war between philosophical idealism and realism might be a consequence of the fact that we are Imago Dei and thus live in world which is external and real to us but which is subordinate to the mind and ideas of God. Somewhere in there is an argument for theism, for silly people who need such a thing).
Another problem I have with Aristotleanism (or at least with my own understanding of it) is that I don’t think it is essentialist enough about reality. I’ve mentioned before that Aristotleanism appears to me to be too reductionist when it comes to certain – I’ll use what I hope is the neutral term ‘attributes’ – of certain things, especially attributes of artifacts made by human beings. Said differently I believe that artifacts do have objective essences independent of human purposes, and are not merely collections of accidents cobbled together and possessing only human-subjective meaning: mousetraps in my view have a mousetrappishness to them even in a forest when no man is around to hear them snap shut on a mouse. (Once again the fact that we are Imago Dei may come into play here).
Beyond that I think that Aristotleanism, at least as expressed by present-day Aristotleans, has positivist tendencies. Positivists make a kind of argument from incredulity to the effect that if formal completeness is not possible then definite meaning must be impossible: if it is impossible in principle to specify the essence of a thing formally and completely, it is impossible in principle to say anything definite about the essence of that thing. Therefore, it is suggested, objections to completeness claims are irrational: definitions just are complete specifications of essence a.k.a. species, else definition is not possible. If we have to abandon our completeness claims we have to abandon reason altogether. So “if we accept argument A it implies that we will always necessarily have an incomplete definition of the essence of thing X” is employed, fallaciously in my understanding, as a reductio ad absurdam of argument A.
The postmodern, with just slightly more insight than the positivist, understands that completeness claims – claims that (say) a definition can completely specify the kind of thing that a real object essentially is ontologically – are incoherent. Unhappy with the fact that he is not God even in a limited sense, the postmodern simply embraces this putative incoherence and descends into madness.
By way of further background, genus, for the Aristotlean, refers to mutually exclusive categories like ‘bacteria’ and ‘cat’. The existence-in-principle of a formal hierarchical structure defining mutually exclusive categories from the highest level of generic Being to a bottom layer of species is (I am led to understand) central to the Aristotlean project. No cross-classification of genus is permitted: attributes shared across genera are properties or accidents. Properties are essential inasmuch as they flow from a thing’s essence, and are otherwise accidental. The color of a leaf is a property of leaves, since it is the essential nature of a leaf to have a color; but that the color of that leaf happens to be green or red is accidental.
What fully constitutes a thing’s essence on this account is its species, that is, its formally specific terminal position in the taxonomic tree of an in-principle formally definable reality:
The Porphyrian Tree forms an upper semi-lattice, as attributed by Thomason (1969) to all taxonomic systems (without reference to the Tree). Hence any two kinds K1 and K2 have a least upper bound (LUB), that is, a lowest higher kind that contains them both … hence there can be no cross-classification …
The reason why there must be a summum genus and an infima species within a [taxonomical Porphryian] tree is that otherwise there could be no definition at all. If an entity could fall, in principle, under even higher genera, or be a member of a species that contained ever lower species, it would be impossible to give its definition. In the former case, the proximate genus would be undefinable since there would be no final answer to the question ‘What is it?’ Whatever answer one gave to the question of the proximate genus, it would be incomplete. … Similarly, if species could forever be broken up into smaller species, we could never reach a specific difference. For every time we thought we had reached it, it would turn out that what we had reached was either an accident, and so no part of the definition, or else just another part of the genus of the object being classified, with differentia yet to be found. – David Oderberg, Real Essentialism (emphasis mine)
But answers to questions about Being – for example questions which ask “what, essentially, is this real thing right here-now as ontologically distinct from other things” – are always, necessarily incomplete. That is the nature of the world as we actually find it in conjunction with the nature of the language we use to describe that world. The essences of real things – what makes it that kind of thing and not something else – cannot ever be completely specified by formal definitions, formal models like taxonomic trees, and formal expressions like language; not even in principle.
Men and women are human beings, but maleness and femaleness is in my view a manifest specific difference between them. Other animals are also differentiated by sex, so it seems to me that either the real word actually does exhibit cross-classification at the level of genera or that we have to treat maleness and femaleness as a kind of mere accident. If I were an Aristotlean of the sort committed to the existence-in-principle of an upper-lattice porphyrian tree formally partitioning reality, it seems to me that I would have to believe maleness and femaleness to be accidental. Sex may be an essential property – a property which follows from man’s essence in the normative case – but like the color of a leaf, whether differentiated into male or female in particular is merely accidental — like being left handed, right handed, or ambidextrous. Maleness and femaleness, then, are not part of the essence of a particular person– they do not specify anything essential about that person, only something accidental. Sexedness is essential to man generically speaking but, simultaneously, maleness and femaleness in particular are as accidental as eye color.
It is possible and even likely that I don’t understand the Aristotlean arguments I have read, or that there is something wrong with my own thoughts. It is also possible that the contemporary Aristotlean framework is not internally consistent, in which case there would be no unequivocal way to understand it at all. To the extent that it is characterized by positivist incredulity at rejection of completeness claims about formal definitions – incredulity at rejection of the claim that completeness is possible in principle (even if no particular definition of a particular species is asserted to be complete) – then the latter must be the case.
But whatever else does obtain, I suspect that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.