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: