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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

An Ultracompact Abridgement of "Aristotle: The Desire to Understand"

Below is an extreme abridgment of Jonathan Lear's engaging book on Aristotle's thought: Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. A sentence has been selected from each of its 29 sections. Interested readers are referred to Lear's lucid 352-page work.

The aim of this book is to come to a deeper understanding of Aristotle's claim that all men by their nature desire to know. Nature is a principle or cause of change or rest in that to which it primarily belongs. We do not think we understand something, Aristotle says, until we have grasped the why of it. He thinks there are four ways in which we cite the cause of a thing: the matter, the form, the primary source of the change, and the end or that for the sake of which something is done. Aristotle believes that the organization and development of animals manifests a certain rationality (though of course he does not understand the basis for this rationality).

For change to be possible, there must be something which exists before the change which has the potentiality to become what emerges in the change. If one needs to specify a distinct cause of a change, as Aristotle does, one must specify a thing, a substance, and not an event. Aristotle argues that if we are to understand space, time, and matter, we must understand the infinite. Aristotle develops his theory of the inifinite in order to account for three apparently distinct phenomena: the infinite divisibility of magnitudes, the infinity of numbers, and the infinity of time. It is worth seeing how the developed theory copes with one of the great challenges to the possibility of change: Zeno's paradox of the arrow.

Aristotle thinks he can give an adequate account of soul and its relation to body by relying on his distinction between form and matter. Aristotle's strategy is to shed light on the form of living organisms by a study of their characteristic activities, most notably perception and movement: for a sense faculty to take on the sensible form is for it to become like the perceptible object with respect to sensible form. He argues that there must be a special faculty of mind which is able to grasp essences. Active Mind is the prior actuality needed to explain how thinking occurs in the individual; ultimately, another way to describe this active thinking is to call it ‘God.’ Aristotle's theory of deliberation (bouleusis) is a theory of the transmission of desire.

The point of the Nicomachean Ethics is not to persuade us to be good or to show us how to behave well in the various circumstances in life: it is to give people who are already leading a happy, virtuous life insight into the nature of their own souls. Only in the peculiar activities of human life will we discover the peculiarly human ability to be happy. The organization of desire which enables man to live a truly happy life Aristotle calls virtue. One form of failure particularly fascinated him: that in which a man decides that a certain course of action  would be best for him, and then acts against his own judgement – in other words, incontinence. One of the high-water marks of ethical activity is a particular exercise of human freedom: that in which a person who has absorbed ethical values consciously acknowledges and endorses his own character. The reason the Politics follows almost inevitably from the Ethics is that man is not an animal for whom the good life comes easily; laws are needed.

Man is not only a political animal; he also has within his breast the desire to understand. One of Aristotle's greatest intellectual achievements, and one for which he is rightly famous, is the discovery of formal logic. And Aristotle suggests that what is needed for mathematics to be both true and knowable is for there to be a bridge between the physical world and the (fictitious) world of mathematical objects.

Rather than focussing solely on particular aspects of reality – say, the heavens or living organisms, as the sciences of astronomy and biology do – man can also abstract from all the particular properties which make things they are and consider them merely as existing things (being as being). The most certain principle of being is that a property cannot both belong and not belong to a subject at the same time and in the same respect – this principle is commonly known as the principle of non-contradiction.

Metaphysics VII represents Aristotle's mature thoughts on substance, yet understanding what he says there is extraordinarily difficult.  His task is to find a candidate for substance which will satisfy both these beliefs: that the world is ultimately intelligible, and that reality forms a hierarchy. Aristotle's world needs a mind that is actively thinking primary substance: God does not intervene in the world, but the world can be conceived as an expression of desire for God. Man is a creature who bridges the gap between the divine and the natural world, and Aristotle commends the contemplative life above all others.


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