It’s Alive! The Creatures from Aristotle’s Lagoon

While making my way through B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity a few days ago, I happened across this passage at the beginning of the book, a characteristically blunt criticism of ancient Greek philosophy, and in particular, of Aristotle’s philosophy of science:

Twenty-five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least. Physics and biology have come a long way, but there has been no comparable development of anything like a science of human behavior. Greek physics and biology are now of historical interest only (no modern physicist or biologist would turn to Aristotle for help), but the dialogues of Plato are still assigned to students and cited as if they threw light on human behavior. Aristotle could not have understood a page of modern physics or biology, but Socrates and his friends would have little trouble in following most current discussions of human affairs (p. 3).

By some great irony, I happened to open this morning’s New York Times Book Review and found a review there, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, of Armand Marie Leroi’s new book, Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. I found this passage from the review positively reinforcing:

Armand Marie Leroi is a scientist, and Aristotle is his hero. This conjunction is interesting because, in the official telling of modern science’s origins, Aristotle is hardly regarded as heroic. Instead he’s portrayed as the obstacle over which the early heroes of the scientific revolution — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo — had to leap in order to impose a genuinely explanatory methodology over the often deceptive input of sense perception.

This one, too:

…Leroi’s heart belongs to Aristotle, who not only was, like him, an enthusiastic student of biology, particularly of zoology, but who also, unlike Plato, was besotted by the world of appearances. Aristotle, as Leroi makes wonderfully clear, exemplifies one kind of scientific aptitude. He was an enthralled observer of the natural world, bedazzled by data, seeking causal explanations not in abstract numbers but in concrete details acquired through avid sense perception.

Likewise this bit of verbal behavior from Leroi himself:

“As I contemplate the elaborate tapestry of his [Aristotle’s] science, and compare it to ours, I conclude that we can now see his intentions and accomplishment more clearly than any previous age has seen them and that, if this is so, it is because we have caught up with him.”

A far cry from Skinner’s assessment, to say the least.

I haven’t read Leroi’s book myself, but while browsing it online, I was intrigued to discover that Leroi quotes from or cites recent work on Aristotle’s philosophy of science by (among others) Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox. I single those two scholars out because Gotthelf in particular had made it his life’s task to rehabilitate Aristotle’s reputation as an epistemologist, scientist, biologist, and philosopher of science in explicit opposition to mainstream views like Skinner’s; Lennox was his long-time associate and partner in the endeavor. Gotthelf tells the story of his engagement with Aristotle and lays out the case for intellectual rehabilitation in his 2012 book, Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology. Suffice it to say that for Gotthelf, it all began with Ayn Rand—specifically with Rand’s 1963 review of John Herman Randall’s 1960 book, Aristotle.* This passage from Rand’s review must surely have had something to do with it:

Above all, this book [Randall’s Aristotle] is important culturally, as a step in the right direction, as a recognition of the fact that the great physician needed by our dying science of philosophy is Aristotle–that if we are to emerge from the intellectual shambles of the present, we can do it only by means of an Aristotelian approach. (Review of Randall’s Aristotle, in The Voice of Reason, p. 12)

If Leroi’s defense of Aristotle is any indication, Gotthelf and Lennox seem to have succeeded at their task of making a scientist out of Aristotle–and of starting the first chest compressions on Philosophy.

This passage from Rand’s review, in retrospect, has a kind of subtle interest to it:

The best parts of Professor Randall’s book are Chapters VIII, IX, and XI, particularly this last. In discussing the importance of Aristotle’s biological theory and the ‘biological motivation of Aristotle’s thought’, he brings out an aspect of Aristotle which has been featured too seldom in recent discussions and which is much more profound than the question of Aristotle’s ‘functionalism’: the central place given to living entities, to the phenomenon of life, in Aristotle’s philosophy.

For Aristotle, life is not an inexplicable, supernatural mystery, but a fact of nature. And consciousness is a natural attribute of living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action—not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension. …

Life—and its highest form, man’s life—is the central fact in Aristotle’s view of reality. The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle’s philosophy is “biocentric.” (pp. 10-11).

Granted, some of what Rand says here is debatable and slightly tendentious. For one thing, it’s unclear whether Aristotle has a word for or the concept of “consciousness”; so it’s unclear whether he could discuss consciousness under anything like that description. For another, as Goldstein aptly points out (and Jonathan Lear and others have pointed out before her), “Aristotle can’t be entirely naturalized.” The supernatural plays an obvious role in Plato, but there are gods in Aristotle, too.

That said, I do think Rand was on to something, and that she verbalized the insight long before it became fashionable to do so. I think she’s right about Randall’s book; those are the best chapters in it. She’s also right to emphasize the biological motivation and character of Aristotle’s thought, and was right that as of 1963, that part of Aristotle had gotten relatively little attention. (The sustained attention began with the pioneering work of David Balme in the 1970s.) On a more technical note, Rand is also right, I think, to suggest that the attempt to interpret Aristotle as a “functionalist” was an anachronistic red herring. And she’s also right that Aristotle has something to teach us about the “meaning of life,” whether in the sense of zoe or of bios or the relation between them.

I’ve been beating up a bit on Rand here lately, but I regard her valorization (and popularization) of Aristotle as both insightful and prescient. Among other things, it had the salutary and intended consequence of motivating a small cottage of industry of scholars to give Aristotle the scholarly attention he deserves, with a view to bringing what they learned with them into contemporary philosophy. The cottage industry I have in mind included Gotthelf and includes Lennox, of course, but it also includes Neera Badhwar, Jurgis Brakas, Roderick Long, Robert Mayhew, Kelly Rogers, and Fred Miller, and more recently, Greg Salmieri, Corinne Bloch, Monte Johnson, Mariska Leunissen, and PoT’s own Carrie-Ann Biondi.** In fact, a sociologist of knowledge would have an interesting story to tell about how we got from the sea creatures in Aristotle’s lagoon to Leroi’s book–via Aristotle, John Dewey, John Herman Randall, Ayn Rand, David Balme, B.F. Skinner, and Allan Gotthelf (and the other scholars I just mentioned). I wonder whether anyone will end up telling it.

Incidentally, Reason Papers is looking for a review of Leroi’s book. If you’d like to do the review, or know someone who might or would, please contact Carrie-Ann Biondi or me via the journal.

*The book was published a year before, and reviewed in Reason Papers about a month before, Gotthelf’s death; I don’t know whether he saw the review or not.

**This list consists of Aristotle scholars either (a) directly influenced by Rand to go into Aristotle scholarship, or (b) mentored by people highly influenced by Rand. Obviously, it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list of prominent Aristotle scholars, or confined to people necessarily influenced by Rand.

Postscript, December 8, 2014: I just noticed this interesting piece on Leroi’s book at Daily Beast from a few months back (hat-tip: Edward Feser). I was amused by this passage:

Some of his observations about animals appear equally bizarre. He reports that the European bison fires caustic dung when pursued and that the trunk of an elephant is in fact a snorkeling device that allows it to swim. He even claims that hen partridges conceive just by smelling the scent of males.

As the author later points out:

It was only fairly recently that two of Aristotle’s seemingly bizarre claims were actually confirmed….[E]lephants do occasionally use their trunks as snorkels while swimming.

Confirmation from Google Images, the omniscient source:

24 thoughts on “It’s Alive! The Creatures from Aristotle’s Lagoon

  1. I agree with most of what you say here, and the following comment will not contradict it, at least as far as I can tell. There is a very conservative streak in Aristotle — a tendency to affirm the status quo — that infects a lot of his thought. Thus, as I understand it, Aristotle held that a woman is a deformed or deficient man; slavery is both natural and right; homosexuality is somehow dysfunctional; and monarchy is obviously the best form of government. For an otherwise brilliant philosopher, he seems to have had great difficulty questioning the social mores of his time. By contrast, Plato strikes me as much more open-minded — much more willing to question the status quo. Thus, women could be guardians, and the guardians should not own any private property, lest they be tempted to abuse their power. That last bit is especially lovely, isn’t it? 🙂

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    • There’s a long and a short answer to that. The short answer is just to agree with it (except for the part about not owning private property…no, it’s not lovely!). So, short answer: Aristotle does have a conservative streak, and Plato has a radical streak, and Plato’s radical streak is, on the issues you mention, more progressive than Aristotle.

      The long answer raises issues I can’t really do justice to here, but is at least worth mentioning. What makes Aristotle ethically and politically conservative, I think, is the very thing that makes him a better scientist than Plato–his empiricism. Aristotle regards his normative theorizing as answerable to what people (some of them, or some mix of them) actually believe. So if lots of people, or the ‘right’ people believe that p, ethical theorizing somehow has to accommodate p, or be structured around the idea that something about p must be right. Most of Aristotle’s reactionary beliefs about women are highly conventional. (I have to confess that I don’t quite understand Aristotle’s pathologization of homosexuality. If homosexuality was widely practiced in Greece, on what basis could he have pathologized it? But he did.) The now-standard comparison is of Aristotelian dialectic to Rawlsian reflective equilibrium. They both have a certain plausibility, but both facilitate a kind of epistemic conservatism.

      The irony is that Rand was very adamant in her rejection of Aristotle’s ethics and politics, and what she was rejecting was primarily his conservatism. (On sexual matters, she was a reactionary herself, but my point is, she rejects conservatism as a principle.) She goes out of her way to distance herself from Aristotle’s ethics and politics in the Randall review, and in “The Objectivist Ethics,” she says: “The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it, and why he evaluated them as noble and wise” (p. 14). Aristotelians have taken exception to that reductionistic-sounding claim, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. It’s more or less an unsympathetic summary of the method that Aristotle himself lays out in Topics I.

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  2. Part of the answer is also that Aristotle didn’t quite hold his views in the way Gordon’s descriptions suggest, and they certainly aren’t as obviously unjustified as he suggests. His biological theories about sexual dimorphism weren’t driven by ideology, but by plausible theorizing (see Mayhew’s book on the female in Aristotle’s biology), his views of female psychology were rooted in false empirical beliefs that nonetheless would have seemed quite plausible in his time and place (keep in mind that people still disagree sharply about what in human psychology is native and what is acquired; it isn’t as though these sorts of disagreement can be settled by going outside and looking around), and in any case are fairly similar to the sort of views common among educated people until about a century ago, though in fact Aristotle is perhaps rather more generous in his estimation of women’s intelligence than many Victorians. He also didn’t simply assume that his view was right; he takes up Plato’s challenge to find a relevant difference between men and women (see my forthcoming ‘Aristotle on the Politics of Marriage’ in Classical Quarterly, and / or Deborah Modrak’s work on the topic). As for slavery, he bothered to offer a critical justification, unlike Plato or the vast majority of his peers, one that succeeds in showing why slavery is unjust when it is and distinguishing slavery from other ways of being subject to authority — again unlike Plato, for whom everyone except his guardians or a political expert is practically indistinguishable from a slave. Even his claim that some people are naturally suited to be slaves was not quite so empirically outrageous as it now seems to us; I think Richard Kraut is right that the empirical component of the theory even had some limited apparent explanatory power (see his Aristotle: Political Philosophy), and in any case the chief failure of the theory is not empirical but ethical. As for monarchy, he didn’t remotely think there was anything obvious about it, and in fact he supports it less strongly than Plato. Besides, his highly qualified defense of kingship is actually quite defensible, but for that you’ll have to wait for the publication of my book Aristotle on Political Community. The most important points, to my mind, are that for the most part where we now know that Aristotle was wrong it is because of what we have discovered in the intervening centuries and not because he was some kind of uncritical ideologue, and as philosophers as ideologically opposed as Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre have said, Aristotle himself provides the best framework for critiquing those errors and correcting his mistakes. The Aristotelian tradition is alive and well; that’s more than can be said for virtually every other major philosopher in the history of western thought.

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    • I don’t really think you (David) and Gordon are disagreeing. You’re just focusing on different things. You’re focusing on the fact that relative to his epistemic context, Aristotle wasn’t culpably ignorant; Gordon is focusing on the fact that all things considered, Aristotle’s views on a range of related issues were false, and that we need an explanation for his systematic failure to track the truth on those issues.

      Without really disagreeing with what you’re saying, I would still agree with Gordon that there is something inherently conservative about Aristotle’s dialectical methodology. It comes out in the famous passage at NE VII.1 that people like to cite as Exhibit A of Aristotelian dialectic-as-applied-to-ethics. Here’s the Internet Classics translation, just for convenience’s sake:

      We must, as in all other cases, set the observed facts before us and, after first discussing the difficulties, go on to prove, if possible, the truth of all the common opinions about these affections of the mind, or, failing this, of the greater number and the most authoritative; for if we both refute the objections and leave the common opinions undisturbed, we shall have proved the case sufficiently. (my emphasis)

      The stricture on theorizing is that we have to regard an unspecified set of legomena as data-points requiring vindication by our theory, and the theory fails if we fail to do so. It’s not that that’s necessarily a case of blind ideology or fideism, but it does constrain inquiry in a conservative direction. On the view defended at NE VII.1, it can in principle be a legitimate objection to a defense of p that p flouts common opinion. But that epistemically privileges common opinion, and doing that, I’d say, is a sufficient condition for epistemic conservatism.

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    • My knowledge of Aristotle isn’t anything like yours, so I’m willing to be corrected on these issues, at least up to a point. But I get very puzzled when you say something like this: “Even his claim that some people are naturally suited to be slaves was not quite so empirically outrageous as it now seems to us.” I really don’t understand this statement. It is one thing to observe that people have different levels of intelligence, etc, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to justifying the claim that they are naturally suited to be slaves. I think that latter claim really is outrageous. Then add the fact that people in the ancient world came to be slaves in all sorts of ways, including being conquered in war. How does Aristotle’s justification of slavery even apply to those people? Surely he must have known about these cases. Now, i agree with you that not many philosophers, ancient or modern, were much better. However, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of the prevailing ideology every single time. At least the others challenged the status quo here and there.

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      • But suppose that the people marked out as “natural slaves” were so lacking in intelligence that they were incapable of using reason autonomously to live their lives in a competent way. In other words, left to their own devices, they couldn’t do it. In that case, they’d be like children, and they’d need external guidance from those who had reason. So I think David is right that Aristotle’s theory is not that empirically outrageous. Natural slaves might well have been that irrational (or arational) in the Greek polis. What Aristotle missed was the possibility that the social conditions of the Greek polis are themselves what explain the apparently infant-like behavior of “natural slaves.” If you deprive people systematically of the opportunity to exercise their reason, then subject them to tedious and mind-numbing labor, it will eventually look as though they are stupid and lacking in an internally-driven capacity for reason. Well at that point, they are lacking in it. But that’s because social conditions have made them that way, and would have made anyone that way. It’s easier for us, in retrospect, to see the relevant causal factor in operation than it was for Aristotle. But I agree that it is a vital question why it was so opaque to Aristotle.

        Incidentally, I don’t know whether David or Richard Kraut had this in mind (in re the explanatory power of Aristotle’s theory), but people still widely accept one exemplification of Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery. Putting aside advocates of animal rights, people widely apply it to animals, and particularly to dogs and horses. So it might be that Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery has no application to human beings, but that it is a perfect account of our relation to animals (or at least some animals). That suggests that theory has explanatory or normative power if you apply it to the right context, because it captures something about the moral world. It just doesn’t capture what Aristotle thought it captured because he applied it to the wrong place.

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      • I can’t do justice to your concerns here — and for the most part I’d be reiterating what others have written anyway — but to the extent that you can’t wrap your mind around how an intelligent and honest person could believe in slavery, I worry that you may be suffering from a kind of ideological short-sightedness yourself. It is only relatively recently that it has come to be widely recognized among educated people that slavery is never just. If you can’t see how people might have believed that it was just without being stupid or evil, then I don’t think you adequately appreciate the historical and cultural contingency of your own moral intuitions. Studying Aristotle more carefully could be one way to overcome that.

        But yes, Aristotle was quite well aware that most slaves were captured in war. He gives it a prominent role in his discussion, and explicitly disagrees with the most commonly held view among his contemporaries, viz. that victory in war gave the victors the right to enslave their defeated enemies (yes, that actually seems to have been the standard belief). He rejects that view and maintains instead that however someone becomes a slave, slavery is just only when the enslaved person lacks the capacity to be or become a mature independent rational agent. He not implausibly believes that such people are better off being slaves than they would be otherwise, and he makes it a necessary condition for the justice of slavery that it be beneficial to the slave. So he distinguishes between conventional slavery, which he regards as a paradigm of injustice, and natural slavery, and his account requires that slavery be practiced in a way that promotes the well-being of the enslaved. He does not say that he regards most or even many actual slaves in his society as natural slaves, and he explicitly notes that it is difficult or impossible in most cases to tell by how people appear whether they are naturally suited to be slaves. That’s not to say that he didn’t think that there were plenty of natural slaves around — he certainly seems to have thought so — or that he was criticizing slavery as it existed in his culture. But his account, even without modification, does in fact provide good grounds for criticizing slavery as it existed in his culture, and it in some ways departs dramatically from the common beliefs of the time.

        So even if Aristotle failed to see the implications of his theory or simply failed to care enough about enslaved people to put those implications into practice, it is at best misleading to say that he “came down on the side of the prevailing ideology” or did not question the status quo even in this most notorious case. When one then considers that he severely criticized the ideologies of the three most dominant sub-cultures in classical Greece — Athens, Sparta, and Macedon — along with virtually all of the prevailing intellectual traditions in the greater Greek-speaking world, the claim that he supports the status quo “every single time” becomes impossible to take seriously. If it isn’t true about slavery, it sure as hell isn’t true about money, manliness, honor, war, freedom, virtue, happiness, or, well, much else. In fact, the extent to which Aristotle disagrees with “the many and the wise” is part of what makes the charge that his methodology is necessarily conservative in an objectionable sense so implausible.

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  3. Two more points. First, Aristotle’s claims about homosexuality aren’t clearly consistent, but the view that he sometimes takes, that it is a pathological dysfunction, is not exactly crazy, even though at this point in our history I don’t think anyone even moderately informed could justifiably hold it. The obvious functional connection between sex and procreation leads quite naturally to the thought that sex which is non-procreative by its very nature is somehow dysfunctional, in much the way that the obvious functional connection between eating and nutrition quite naturally leads to the thought that eating food with no nutritional value whatsoever is dysfunctional (hence the comparison between homosexuality and eating dirt for pleasure). The reason why that’s wrong, in my view, is that for human beings sex has an interpersonal dimension that operates quite independently of its procreative function, and that sexual intimacy can be and often is a great good in people’s lives that is not undermined by being disconnected from its procreative function. But it is worth keeping in mind that the dominant ancient Greek conceptions of sexuality are closely bound up with hierarchy, subordination, and the reduction of the passive sexual partner into an object for the active partner’s pleasure. Plato, though sometimes less hostile to homosexuality (though the Laws strikes a rather dissonant note in the tune), was still quite a puritan about it in large part because it was difficult in his culture to see non-procreative sexuality as anything more than the instrumentalization of people’s bodies. It is to his great credit that he saw more in erotic desire than an appetite akin to hunger or thirst with the teleological function of preserving the species — which is pretty much all that Aristotle sees in it, so far as I can tell. But both of them failed to see much other value in sex itself, and to a non-trivial degree that was because sex as conceived by the norms of their culture had at best a very unstable and ambivalent relationship to human well-being.

    Second, on Aristotle’s method, I think here I’ve finally found a source of real disagreement with Irfan. I agree that Aristotle’s dialectical or ‘endoxic’ method is broadly similar to the coherentist model of reflective equilibrium. I disagree with the suggestion that the method is somehow intrinsically wedded to an objectionable sort of conservatism, particularly because Aristotle’s own use of it insists on ‘wide’ rather than ‘narrow’ equilibrium and demands not simply coherence but explanatory power, ultimately in the ideal case with explanations in one domain connected through explanatory accounts of other domains to first principles (to the extent that there is a necessary conservatism here, it seems to me to be a virtuous kind). On the big picture, I agree both interpretively and philosophically with Roderick Long’s defense, in Reason and Value, of Aristotelian dialectic against Randian foundationalism. Not only do most forms of foundationalism that are readily distinguishable from Aristotle’s method fail, but Aristotle’s method is not vulnerable to the most obvious objections that one might raise against it. In particular, a clear-headed Aristotelian is more likely than a strong foundationalist to regard her theories as open to challenge and revision, because she does not believe that her theories are deductively sound conclusions from indubitable foundational principles. Irfan has offered some sophisticated defenses of foundationalism in his dissertation (which I’ve read roughly 1/4 of) and some pieces in Reason Papers. I don’t pretend to have any knock-down arguments against it, but the largest problem with the project seems to be simply that even the defense of foundationalism itself depends on dialectical rather than foundationalist reasoning. As Roderick Long puts it, “the arguments given to convince us to restrict justification to the foundational beliefs generally rely themselves on the allegedly nonfoundational beliefs.” So it’s just not clear to me that any sort of foundationalism that is actually at odds with Aristotelian dialectic is even coherent. But even if I’m wrong about that, it doesn’t follow that foundationalism is immune to vicious conservatism or that Aristotelian dialectic is especially prone to it.

    Ok, defense of Aristotle over. I need to get to work.

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    • I agree with your first paragraph, but I find it puzzling why Aristotle got wrong what he got wrong about sexuality, and think we need an explanation for it. Yes, the dominant ancient Greek conceptions of sexuality are bound up with hierarchy, subordination, and objectification, but it’s a question why Aristotle wasn’t able to see through that. Why was he a prisoner of his times on those specific issues? I think a view like Aristotle’s dialectic, which requires the theorist to vindicate authoritative legomena, is particularly liable to Aristotle’s mistake. After all, it’s an adequacy-condition on the theory that it vindicate beliefs that are dominant, so it won’t be a surprise when when it “vindicates” are dominant-but-false-and-content-related beliefs. Even an appeal to wide reflective equilibrium won’t help here. If the view is sufficiently widespread, there will be pressure for any dialectically-arrived-at theory to vindicate it in some form. Whereas a radical might insist that some beliefs, though widespread, are delusions. It’s not clear to me that Aristotle has the resources to make claims of that latter kind. There’s a tension between a dialectical project like Aristotle’s or Rawls’s (on the one hand), and a radical “unmasking” project of the sort one finds in, say, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Foucault, Chomsky, or Rand (on the other).

      You’re right that there may be a fundamental disagreement here. I do disagree fundamentally with Roderick’s critique of Rand’s foundationalism in Reason and Value. If I had the time I’d write a response to it; in fact, David Kelley had originally invited me to respond to it (when the book was first proposed), but I didn’t have time then, either! It’s a big topic that I can’t quite handle here in one go, but one way of putting the point is this: I think there’s a tension between Aristotle’s use of dialectical method and his rejection of circular demonstration at Posterior Analytics I.2. APo rejects circular demonstration as fallacious, but dialectical method relies on it. The combination of commitments (I would say) is inconsistent, and requires modification.

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      • But Aristotle’s views of homosexuality are themselves a counter-example to your claim that his method requires that widespread views be vindicated — and there is a tremendous number of other equally good examples (I mentioned one in my response to Gordon about slavery; Aristotle rejects the common view that victory in war gives the victor the right to enslave the conquered; his rejection of the democratic and oligarchic conceptions of justice in Politics 3 would be another; you can find more examples on just about any page of the Nicomachean Ethics). I can see where you get the idea that the method has this requirement, but it seems plain as day that it doesn’t — Aristotle is not oblivious to the fact that most endoxa conflict with other endoxa, particularly when one remembers that the views of “the wise” deserve at least as much attention as those of “the many.” If the method really worked the way you suggest, Aristotle’s texts would not be full of arguments against other philosophers; he’d instead just point out that those philosophers disagree with the majority of people. As for circular demonstration, demonstration and dialectic aren’t the same thing, and in any case I’m not convinced that dialectic engages in circular argumentation anyway (many coherentists claim that this is how coherentist reasoning works, of course, but I don’t see that it must). I can’t defend the method properly here any more than you can critique Roderick’s book, but to the extent that your objections depend on the idea that Aristotelians are committed to vindicating common beliefs, then I think you’re just misreading Aristotle.

        And in any case, I don’t see how we can blame the dialectical method for Aristotle’s views on homosexuality when Plato makes his main speakers endorse more or less the same ideas — unless, of course, we acknowledge that Plato’s philosophy is no less dialectical and coherentist than Aristotle’s.

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    • Here is another source of Aristotle’s conservatism, and I think, like Irfan, that it connects his success as a scientist with his conservatism in ethics:
      “The obvious functional connection between sex and procreation leads quite naturally to the thought that sex which is non-procreative by its very nature is somehow dysfunctional, in much the way that the obvious functional connection between eating and nutrition quite naturally leads to the thought that eating food with no nutritional value whatsoever is dysfunctional.”
      At least sometimes, Aristotle seems to think that we can determine the proper functions of organs and organisms empirically, through observation. Then, once we have determined the proper function through observation, that function determines how that organ or organism OUGHT to act. Surely this is a recipe for a very conservative ethic. It will take you straight from “this is how things are” to “this is how things ought to be.” So to whatever extent Aristotle reasons in this way, we could expect him to come to very conservative conclusions. The Stoics exhibit the very same pattern of reasoning in lots of cases, using the idea of the Logos, and the results are likewise very conservative — the ways things are is the way they ought to be. By contrast, Plato’s wild metaphysics of The Good opens up the possibility that the actual world falls far, far short of the correct moral standards. I think that is the source of Plato’s moral open-mindedness, at least when he is open-minded. However, I have to concede the point that he was often just as conservative as Aristotle, and maybe sometimes more so. That’s clearly right.

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  4. For the record, I never said that Aristotle was either stupid or evil. I don’t think anything like that. Second, I take the point, which you’ve articulated and defended very well, that Aristotle’s views and justifications were much more subtle and sophisticated than I gave him credit for. Despite my criticisms, I do recognize his genius, so I am not entirely surprised that he was much more subtle and thoughtful on these issues than I gave him credit for. With that said, I still think that his conclusions on these issues manifest some sort of blind spot. Obviously I am not alone in this opinion. Here is a quote from David Keyt:
    “We cannot leave Aristotle’s ideal polis without considering its unattractive features: slavery, the subordination of women, ethnic prejudice, contempt for industry and trade, and denigration of labor. These are all reflective of popular Greek values of the fourth century BCE. But it was not left to modern times to question these values. The report of diverse voices is a part of Aristotelian methodology. We need look no further than the Politics itself for an indictment of Aristotle’s ideal. Aristotle reports the view of those who consider slavery unjust (I.3, 1253b 20-23), examines one of Plato’s arguments for placing women on an equal footing with men (II.5, 1264b 4-6), and discusses the democratic view that artisans are fit for full citizenship.” “Aristotle’s Political Philosophy,” in A Companion to Ancient Philosophy (Blackwell 2006), p. 405.
    Obviously it was possible to be more open-minded and counter-cultural on these issues, since some ancient people actually were.

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  5. You guys will have to admit that it’s pretty funny that after talking for months about such topics as Gaza, Ferguson, Marxism, Syria, guns, etc., so far the most contentious argument we’ve had on this blog has been one about epistemology…prompted by a post about sea creatures.* It reminds me of Erasmus’s claim about discussions of the problem of universals in his day: “They wrangle with one another till they are pale, till they take to abuse and spitting, and sometimes even to fisticuffs.” Well, I guess we haven’t gone that far. Yet. Feel free to take my guns, but you’ll have to pry my foundational cognitions out of my cold, dead, uh, brain or mind or whatever.

    *On Election Day!

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    • Aristotle’s essentialism is a complicated issue that we probably can’t handle in comments like these. One of the contributions of the Gotthelf-Lennox line of scholarship was to clarify what Aristotle’s essentialism amounted to in biological contexts, and to argue that it wasn’t what traditional commentators had thought it was. Counterintuitively, one of David Balme’s classic papers was called “Aristotle’s Biology Was Not Essentialist.” It’s arguable (and has been argued) that Quine and Poppper invented something that they called “Aristotelian essentialism” in the act of criticizing it, just as Gettier invented the supposedly Platonic definition of knowledge as justified true belief in attacking it. Bottom line: it’s complicated.

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  6. Pingback: From the Comments: Race Consciousness and Stubborn Old Dudes | Notes On Liberty

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