Friday, 6 January 2017

The 2300-year-old duel



It’s said that “for two millennia, Western history has been the expression of a philosophic duel. The duellists are Plato and Aristotle” – the former, in Raphael’s famous painting, pointing to the heavens for insight; the other insisting that knowledge is derived from this earth, from reality.

Raphael’s choice of posture was impeccable.

So too is their reading matter. Plato clutches his Timaeus, a long and unfeasibly influential monologue on mysticism and divine creationism. Aristotle holds his Ethics, a guide to living in reality.

This passage from The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science outlines the the essence of the two opposing views:

Devoid of scholarly citation, empirical evidence or even much reasoned argument, The Timaeus is a drawing-room monologue that delivers, with bland assurance, one implausible assertion after another. Deeply religious, it aims to reveal why a divine workman, the Dēmiourgos, constructed the world…
    He [Plato] claims to want to give an account of the visible world; however, he begins by cautioning us that he will deliver only an eikōs mythos – a plausible tale. In part this is because he’s really after an account of the world that lies beyond the senses; and any account of this flawed, but visible, world will bear an uncertain correspondence to that perfect, but invisible, one. But it is also because he’s not terribly interested in giving a rational account of even this world. Plato gives the game away with his account of the origin of the animals. Once, he says, there existed men who were to varying degrees depraved or just foolish. They were transformed into the various animals – creepy-crawlies, shellfish and the like – according to their diverse vices. Birds ‘sprang by a change of form from the harmless but light-witted men who paid attention to the things in heaven but in their simplicity supposed that the surest evidence in these matters is that of the eye’. He’s talking about astronomers.  
    Did Plato really believe that birds were reincarnated natural philosophers? Or did he simply seize the chance to crack a poor joke? Let us be charitable and assume the latter, for the former is too bizarre even by the elastic standards of fourth-century zoology. But that joke betrays the true nature of The Timaeus: it is not a work of natural philosophy at all, but a poem, a myth, a ponderous jeu d’esprit that revels in its own ambiguity…
    Nor may we simply excuse Plato as being the product of his age. To be sure, the physiologoi also had a taste for grand theorising free of the constraints of empirical evidence. But they, at least, meant what they said. They do not snigger or dodge behind the shelter of myth. Moreover, just a few years after Plato had composed The Timaeus, one of his own students would commence a relentless, reasoned assault on the citadel of reality, this reality, that in modern print runs to more than a thousand pages: an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, analysis of what his predecessors thought about the causes and structure of the natural world, why those predecessors (more often than not) are wrong, what he thinks they are and the empirical evidence for thinking so. Aristotle would turn his back on his teacher’s idealism and see the world, our world, for what it is: a thing that is beautiful and so worth studying in its own right. He would approach it with the humility and seriousness that it deserves. He would observe it with care and be unafraid to dirty his hands doing so. He would become the first true scientist. …

* * * *

In the collection of treatises now called the Metaphysics, Aristotle investigates fundamental reality. His ideas are not easy to understand: exegesis of its fourteen books has kept scholars busy for hundreds of years and will certainly do so for hundreds more. Happily we do not have to follow them to appreciate the luminous quality of its opening words:

          “All men, by nature, desire to know. An indication of this is the delight that we take in our senses; for
      even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and, above all others, the sense of
      sight . . . The reason is that this, most of all the senses, acquaints us with, and brings to light, many
      differences between things.

Aristotle does not mean ‘know’ just in the sense of ‘understand’; he also means ‘perceive’. Thus in the first instance we should read his words as the claim that men take pleasure in the exercise of their senses, and the reason why they do so is because it allows them to perceive all the different things of which the world is composed. This is merely an opening gambit. For Aristotle goes on to argue that ‘knowing’ in the sense of ‘perceiving’ is the foundation of ‘knowing’ in the sense of ‘understanding’ – indeed, is a requirement for wisdom. The reason, then, that this statement comes at the very start of the Metaphysics is plain. Aristotle is raising his battle standard and declaring war on the Academy’s idealism. His project is not Plato’s, for it concerns this world – and he wants us to know it…
    Aristotle’s scientific method is all of a piece with his epistemology. We have to begin, he says, with the phainomena

Nothing could be further from the mind of a Platonist.

Written by an author, broadcaster, and professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London, The Lagoon is a fascinating insight into Aristotle’s reality-based philosophy, introduced in the way Aristotle himself derived his thought: inductively.

I thoroughly recommend it.



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