Aristotle’s account of definition

On the one hand, Aristotle is clear that his account of definition is only appropriate for expressing the essence of physical beings (and mathematical things). On the other hand, the only natural thing that we can define perfectly is the human animal, who, oddly enough, is formally definable only through a power that Aristotle repeatedly proves is non-physical. Reason, the one positive, formal specific difference in a physical substance is not physical. What to make of this?


1.) We could see the genus/ species structure not as biological but as anthropological. Man alone is defined because definition as such is only appropriate to the ontological structure of human persons. We have only found one definition because the criteria of termination for the thing can be satisfied only at the limit of nature and not at the subordinate grades.

2.)   We could see definition as requiring introspection. Only what is present to itself can define itself. Perhaps each choir of angels can define itself, the lower choirs, and human persons. By this account, persons can define only themselves and what they themselves give formal being to: artifacts and (perhaps) mathematicals.

2b.) We could see all causes as known only by introspection, and that definition as a sort of cause. This is my idiosyncratic reading of Hume, who denies the possibility of knowing causes in the first book of the Treatise (which seems to focus on our knowledge of nature) and then speaks about causes ad nauseam in the second book (which deals with the sort of moral facts one can know by introspection.) I’ll continue to believe this crazy idea until Brandon refutes it.

3.) We could see man as a paradigm for what is definable. Banez seems to understand man in this way when, in his commentary on the Fourth Way, he objects that the premises of the argument would mean that man is the cause of all animals, but then proceeds to simply say that man is such a thing.

4.) We could just deny that we lack definitions of other natural things. True, we have no good definition of any animal or plant, but we have a pretty good definition of malaria, diabetes, acceleration, etc. But this seems just wrong. We don’t have a good definition of a malaria parasite, only an account of how it affects us and some general essential facts that fall short of a species making difference. For acceleration, see #2.


Faith in the starting points of reasoning

Chesterton claims in Orthodoxy that reason itself is a matter of faith since one needs to have faith that ones reason actually knows anything true. But what does this mean?  True, discursive reasoning has to start somewhere, and one can’t have a starting point that isn’t seen as capable of showing us something true (even when we’re making a reductio ad absurdum) but where does faith come in to any of this?

Here’s an etymological argumentWe need to have confidence that our starting points will work, but this confidence is a kind of fides. All confidence, or at least all confidence prior to reasoning, thus counts as faith (the same argument could be made from the fact that the first axioms must be credible, or even from our modern word “belief”). But then who or what are we having the faith in? The proposition? It certainly inspires no confidence as a proposition – since if it did we would have confidence in any proposition whatsoever. To say we have confidence in its credibility says no more than that we have confidence in it in virtue of its power to inspire confidence.  Roars from the gallery, but nothing’s been said.

To solve this problem both Plato and Aristotle posited a power distinct from discursive reasoning (nous) that generated starting points. Both thought that one could develop this power though dialectic – and one of Aristotle’s longest books deals with precisely this. But both are also clear that there is always a gap between dialectic and the finding of the starting point. If, by way of comparison, you learn formal logic, then there’s no gap between what you know and the power to make a valid syllogism; but if you learn dialectic perfectly there will still be a gap between your arguments and the definition or credible starting point they are trying to reach. Dialectic closes the gap but it can never cross it. This is one thing Plato is driving at in the famous “catching fire” passage in the Second Letter, and it explains why Aristotle has to end the Posterior Analytics with nothing more than an image of soldiers coming to a stand. No one in the intervening centuries has proposed anything better. We can give tips and tricks that might get us closer to the definition, and we come up with definitions and starting points that were really worthy to be developed all the time, but we’ve never come up with a process for generating them.

In light of this, we can take it as a worthy starting point that starting points are reached by non-algorithmic processes. There are perfectly solid and well established algorithms for syllogistic validity, mathematical processes, syntactical and grammatical relations, and even for processes that close the gap of discovery, but as far as anyone can tell, there is not and cannot be any program we could write that could terminate in something that was a worthy starting point for reasoning.  The total absence of such an algorithm – and even of  a plausible method by which such a thing could be found, or modest advance toward finding it – certainly counts as a problem for any theory of mind that  would involve seeing it as some process or form capable of instantiation.

But if there is no good account for how to pick out axioms then any subsequent algorithms cannot count as reasoning since reasoning is not just the execution of valid inferences but the execution of valid inferences from staring points deemed worthy of discourse. Go ahead and try to give an example of one – in giving the example you belie the attempt.

But then what about Chesterton’s point? In light of the above, reasoning is based on faith in the sense that the axiomatic, though it clearly seems to come from a process, nevertheless does not come from a process that we can lay out in front of ourselves and dominate over. We can be confident in a starting point, we can confirm or strengthen confidence in a starting point, but we can’t account for the confidence by laying out any algorithm terminating in it. The confidence is thus encountered as a confidence in something other than our selves, that is, in something other than what we can account for, dominate, reproduce, etc. We suffer inspirations, axioms, definitions, and even hypotheses.

But then we have to account for how in the world such things can be rational. We can base them in nature only if nature, beyond as it is in the human self, is also rational or something transcending reason. Absent this, we have not accounted for reasoning. It’s doubtful that we’ve even accounted for prejudice (since even prejudice is motivated by some desire to be right).



Consciousness and soul

If we agree that whatever is conscious is alive, all our discussions of consciousness are in complete continuity with the ancient accounts of soul, and can be seen as extensions of that ancient conversation about it. And this in spite of the fact that Locke originally coined the term consciousness as a replacement for the idea of soul. But our modern alternatives of dualism and eliminativism are the same as the ancient accounts of the soul as the person and the soul as a harmony.

God and the absence of design

If God created the universe we would expect to find design in it, but there would be more than this. Design is some sort of adaptation of what a thing is to a good, but intelligent beings dispose things in more ways than this.

If God were to create a world anything like ours, we would find design there, and so we’d see, for example, hearts and eyes given in advance on the evolutionary menu as preferred structures for oxygenating cells and transducing photons. If this were true, we could speak of hearts and eyes as teleological structures with respect to these functions. But these sorts of structures can also be used intentionally for other purposes, e.g.:

1.) As purely physical quantities. One could use an elephant to push down a seesaw, or a multi-ton weight. Achilles could clog the river just as well with hay bales as with corpses. All this remains true even if we posit real purposes for elephants, hay, etc.

2.) As chemically- constructed beings. One can burn a lamp as well with petroleum as with whale fat, fertilize a field just as well with leaf-mulch as with factory chemicals.

3.) As food. What is the function of a chicken entirely bred for flavor? Taste somehow becomes intrinsic to its constitution. But even absent this, things clearly intend to eat, and so to dispose things in a way other than their nature.

4.) As signs. Consider the antikythara mechanism or the wreck of Uluburun. In their own time, it was an interesting trinket or a load of consumer goods or finite value which might be easily exchanged for some consumer good, but for us they are priceless finds and insights that we would never think to treat in the same way. Still, for all this the mechanism and the goods on the ship had clear functions other than this one that they are now playing.

Notice that all these notions are tied up with the idea of destruction or loss (though the last need not be) they all count as certain frustrations of design in the sense of an intrinsic relation between a nature and its good. But all can be intended by some designer. More problematically, all can be intended within a species with respect to different individuals.

Brentano, who goes over most of this, takes this as evidence that we cannot know the purposes of things beyond a very general level.

Even if we limit function to proper function, within this domain there is still a diversity and structure of possible expressionsof some on nature. Things may, we suppose, have dispositions or talents that might be developped in one way to the exclusion of other modes of action. There might be, for all we know, just as much diversity among hydrogen atoms as among men of all times and places.

The Trojan Horse

I was accustomed to see the Trojan Horse as cunning, but only after re-reading Aeneid II very slowly did it become apparent that it was above all daring – a last, desperate, long shot gamble that paid off. The Greeks built the horse and simply left it on the beach, retreating to a nearby island to watch what happened. One option was always that the Trojans would see it as a trap, or a bad omen, or something to be otherwise destroyed or abandoned. Had they destroyed it they would have discovered it was a trap, which would leave the Greeks discovered and with no foothold on the land any more.

True, in Vergil’s telling the Greeks got several lucky breaks (Laocoön, the main proponent of destroying the horse, was eaten by a serpent, and this was taken as an omen), but the suggestion to take the horse was flying about the population long before this happened. The Greeks, it seems, were counting on the human desire never to turn away something free or there for the taking, which they took as strong enough even to overpower our suspicion of those who just yesterday were trying to kill us. So perhaps they made less of a gamble than one might think.

The holy and the sacred in war

Gerard and Levinas somewhere distinguish the sacred from the holy. Holy is what is utterly set apart from secular or profane use, sacred is that which asks for ultimate dedication, and so immediately raises the question of what we would kill or die for. For Levinas, this leads to the idea that God must be holy but not sacred. True, to die for something is not the same thing as to kill for it, but something worth dying for, as heroic as this is, is also something worth killing for.

It is impossible to entirely divide (1) holy from the sacred, or, within the sacred itself,  to divide (2) something worth dying for from (3) something worth killing for. The problem arises presiely when we try to divide them, though this is most familar to us by the attempt to divide 3 from all the rest. Logically, we must first lose sight of 1, for we cease to see anything set apart from secular or profane use. The state invokes the authority to kill for its own sake, quite apart from any holy thing worth preserving. That said, the state will continue to appeal to things in (2) – it will raise the ideals of the state to absolutes worthy of total self-surrender, even if there is nothing holy referenced by the surrender. At this point we make divinities of abstractions, that is, we make slogans: liberty, equality, brotherhood, Unite!, Overcome! Question! Freedom!

But the slogans and the abstractions easily lose their saltiness and we appropriate the power to kill even apart from anything holy or worth dying for. The war ceases to be for anything, including even the desire to win it. At this point we get spectacles like the last few years of Vietnam or of the recent wars in Afganistan and Iraq.

But this decadence only describes those watching the war, whether as politicians or the public at a safe distance. For those actually fighting, what they are fighting for is never a vague abstraction and cannot be lost- you’re fighting for the guy next to you, and you know he is doing the same.   What you would both kill and die for is always concrete and at hand. Teilhard somewhere talks about the sense of transcendence that falls over men when they know the mission will happen tomorrow – the sense of being utterly outside oneself and unified in a sort of charity. This is the feeling of total transcendence within unit cohesion that made the Greeks think that war was reality and that peace was nothing but a fluke or preparation time for it. Even wars that are culpable in relation to the corrupt and decadent Statesmen who declare them can still give a true and bona fide experience of the sacred to the men who fight in them. This is something that we should venerate in all of them, and that, even if it is not exactly right to say we envy it, we can still see as something that places them above those of us haven’t had to go into the breech or out on patrol or into the field.


The hypothetical ontological argument and sorts of possibility

After a lengthy and very fair account of the Ontological Argument and its criticisms, Brentano concludes that the argument is sound if put hypothetically: if God is a real possibility, then he exists. The claim is that God, by definition, cannot exist contingently, and so if there is no God then God is impossible, just as in mathematics if there is no greatest prime number, then such a thing is impossible. Modus tollens suffices to show that possibility would prove real existence. IOW, to be possible but not actual is peculiar to things that are generated from pre-existent matter, and neither God nor the mathematicals are such.

Objection: the argument confuses real possibility and logical possibility. Logical possibility is opposed to the impossible, real possibility is opposed to the necessary. If we deny logical possibility, all this amounts to is a report from our own consciousness that, at least as yet, we fail to see any logical contradiction in the idea “God”. This failure, for all we know, is the result of not having looked long or hard enough. So this leaves us trying to prove the point from real possibility – but this is exactly the sort of possibility that a necessary being cannot have. So establishing the possibility of God would either be impossible or would not establish anything about his real existence, making the argument unsound either way.

On approach to this is to see the claim “if God is possible, then he exists” as a counterfactual, like saying “if square circles exist, then logical contradictions exist”. On this account, we would at least be in a position to see that God either exists or is impossible. Repeated failures to prove God is impossible might count as evidence that he actually exists.

Again, if this argument works, agnosticism seems committed to saying that we can’t know whether God exists or is impossible. This is a more extreme claim just “he could be there or not”.

That said, I’m more tempted to throw out the opposition between the two possibilities than to throw out the argument. Mathematical existence is sufficiently clear on the link between the non-existence and impossibility to make Brentano’s argument work. The soundness of the Ontological Argument thus shows the incompleteness of the division of possibility into the real and the logical.

ST. 1.12.2

Having proved to his satisfaction that it is possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God, St. Thomas goes on to ask whether this vision happens by way of a similitude in the created knowing power. Properly understood, the question is startling. Of course we do have a similitude in our minds (i.e. an idea) when we know God. The question is exactly like asking whether we have an aroma in our noses when we smell something, our sound waves in our ears when we’re hearing something. Obviously we have an idea of God when we know him. But then St. Thomas denies that this is the case. “Idea” or “likeness” is a means created in us by which we see something other, but God, even if he is other, cannot be known by such a thing. Three arguments are given for this:

1.) Lower orders cannot make higher orders known in themselves. If I have a friendship of virtue, I can feel what is desirable in friendships of pleasure, since virtue is itself pleasant. But the same does not work the other way, because not everyone who experiences pleasure also knows virtue by experience. Lower forms of experience or awareness cannot make higher ones manifest, and so much more is it impossible for any created likeness to make God himself known.

2.) Created forms have existence from another, and God does not. No created form can is therefore a likeness of God, which is exactly what it would have to be if we knew God by a likeness.

3.) A created form must be a determinate logos, a this as opposed to a that. Even our logos of being is distinguished from the logos of truth. But the divine essence is purely uncircumscibed, a logos which contains within a single idea all that is in creatures.

And so the conclusion is that the divine essence itself unites itself to the intellect to be known. It is as though instead of knowing all physics we became the very laws themselves and all the possible interactions that have or could ever arise from them. But if this is the right analogy, then what is the status of the beatific vision as a moment in theology?


Self esteem

I’m Gen-X and so grew up in the curriculum of self-esteem, which seems at once admirable to work for and yet very suspicious. There is something fishy and hollow about just trying to promote self-worth, while at the same time it’s impossible to argue that a sense of real self-worth is a crucial aspect of any education. Why?

Some ideas:

1.) It should be a by-product and not a goal. Just as Aristotle argued that to seek happiness ends up giving both happiness and pleasure while to seek pleasure ends up losing both of them, seeking real accomplishments will give us a sense of self-esteem while seeking self-esteem will cause us to lose both real accomplishments and self-esteem. The reason seems to be tied up with…

2.) The moral licensing effect. People seem to have a finite desire for self-esteem, and after that they simply quit looking for things to fill it up. The difficulty is that this finite desire can be totally satisfied with nothing but positive feelings and good intentions, leaving one with no desire to do anything that is actually good. More problematically, we can use our good intentions to justify not doing good things.

“The meaning of meaning” (1)

The sense of “the meaning of meaning” is that while we can attribute a clear meaning and sense to most of our activities: getting food, filling up the car, opening an umbrella, etc., we can also ask whether any of these various meaningful things is itself meaningful. Many of the parts of the story make sense, but there is a question whether they are part of any larger story. Do all these events fit into a larger story of life as a class struggle? A divine test? A march of Enlightenment? A progression of historical dialectic? Is the story basically over, perhaps because the only point of development was to get to conscious beings?

Suppose belief N consists in claiming that all such accounts are either false or unknowable. N-ism means either that there is no such larger story in which our actions have some larger sense, or we are not in any position to know whether there is.

Thesis: N-ism just as much a claim about our place in the universe as any of the positive accounts or mythologies given above.

Reasons Against the Thesis:

1.) The whole point of N-ism is to deny that there is any “place” for us within the universe at all. There is no larger story in which our actions take part. There are the various meaningful activities of persons and groups of persons more or less proximate to each other, and that’s it.

2.) Transcendent meaning – pace the Marxists – seems inseparable from transcendent consciousness or life. Either the universe itself is some sort of developing organism, or it is infused with it, or some divinity acts within it. But this does not solve the problem of the meaning of meaning but only shifts the goalposts, since the universe-organism or god can raise the same question whether this transcendent story itself has any value within a larger, transcendent story. What motive do we have for asking about a larger story that any other organism or divinity would not have?

3.) The shift from all non-N thought to N-ism seems to involve a clear and definite shift from enchantment to disenchantment. The fundamental truth that we find ourselves immersed in is not a narrative account but more of a chaotic weather of things floating about and bumping into each other. Explaining stars and planets does not involve anything resembling a good tale or a legend.



« Older entries