Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

The "intelligibility of the world" according to Aristotle

I am trying to puzzle out what Aristotle could mean in declaring the world to be "intelligible", and how far it differs from the modern viewpoint. (I'm reading about these ideas in Jonathan Lear's Aristotle: The Desire to Understand.)

The example I'd like to consider is the "sodium-potassium pump" – this is something we learned about in high-school biology. It's basically a molecule that pumps sodium atoms in one direction and pumps potassium atoms in the other direction, across a cell membrane. I forget the details, but note that we speak of it as a "pump", as if it were a thing with a purpose. I think this illustrates the difference in thinking between the Aristotelian and the modernist. The modernist would say that it is is in actuality just a collection of atoms – that it doesn't really have a purpose. Any "purpose" there is ascribed by our minds as a convenience, a convention – just a way of speaking to make things easier to grasp.

On the other hand, the Aristotelian would say that the sodium-potassium pump has been assembled for a purpose. Not, indeed, by a Creator (Aristotle was not a theist), but by a weird thingy in the sodium-potassium pump known as its "form". All objects in the natural world (rocks, trees, moose, etc.) have this weird thingy, or form, that defines them, determines their structure, and, in the case of living things, makes them grow and mature. So for the Aristotelian, the sodium-potassium pump does have a real, objective purpose (not just in our minds, not just a convenience of speaking) that is given to it (by its "form").

This much I have been able to gather from Chapter 2 of Jonathan Lear's book. Many of Aristotle's ideas provide a framework for Catholic teaching (particularly that of Thomas Aquinas), so I am naturally quite interested in how it works. And yet classical philosophy is taught neither in the schools nor from the pulpit.


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