Is There an Aristotelian in the House?

Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.

Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.

The guy on the right.

Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.

My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.

I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?

Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.

Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.

I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.

So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:

He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.

Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.

But I digress.

Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.

Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.

Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.

Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.

It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.

So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…

Image result for a man for all seasons norfolk
“I trust I make myself obscure.”

Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.

Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.

  1. Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
  2. The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

22 thoughts on “Is There an Aristotelian in the House?”

  1. You’re being tripped up by two different usages of “Aristotelian”. You are using it in the sense of “a method of determining the truth or falsehood of a statement by building from others statements, the truth or falsehood of which are axiomatic” whereas the other party in your dispute is using it in the sense of “those statements which Aristotle can be demonstrated to affirm or deny.”

    It is non-contradictory to affirm the validity of the “Aristotelian Method” (usage one) while admitting errors in “Aristotelian Thought” (usage two).

    Hope that helps.

    1. Thanks. I think I understand that, but what seems to happen and what seemed to happen that evening was that the second thing, that Aristotle is factually wrong about certain stuff, is used to dismiss the first thing, that he is the father and foundation of any scientific method worthy of the name.

      I can maintain that distinction, in other words, but I don’t think my interlocutors were maintaining it.

    2. Also, I recounted the Chesterton meeting story because it was the occasion for this train of thought, not to come up with some table-pounding argument that would settle, somehow, that discussion. I’m really more interested in getting the distinction straight in my own mind.

  2. Let’s see if I can voice dictate thoughts upon your post and still have you understand what the AutoCorrect eating messes up. Lol

    I think what you’re scientists Are resting upon is the difference between impetus and inertia.

    I think there’s a lot to be said with the confusion here; at least philosophically

    1. … The distinction you make to say that we don’t really know what inertia is and that there’s a difference between things like say, inertia, and say, a horse. The difference you are drawing upon is the difference between impetus and inertia it’s self, as we are able to know things.

      It’s interesting to me because I think you bring up the very fact of a kind of infinite relativity involved with the horse: This is to say, that no matter how much we might think that there is this actual thing that the term horse identifies in its hoarseness, if we can bring in Bertrand Russell discussion, and talking about the horse we never find the horse this is to say, that no matter how much we might think that there is this actual thing that the term horse identifies in its hoarseness, if we can bring in Bertrand Russell discussion, and talking about the horse we never find the horse. in fact we only find a horse in so much as there is a situation that is already given outside of the direct knowledge or thinking about the horse which informs us to the fact that there is this particular thing called a horse that are words and discussion about it identify. This idea is based in impetus. The impetus is that thing that is the horse right there, and the active talking about the horse is it self the inertia of the discussion.

      You were saying that inertia has nothing that we can know about in the same way as a horse; in short, and in a manner of speaking, you were saying that the thing called “inertia“ does not have an impetus. It does not have this thing that already exists to everything else of our experience that van knowledge can coalesce around to say that the terms it’s using identifying this specific thing called inertia.

      But I would say that both of these things have inertia and impetus.

      That the reason why you are thinking that inertia as a thing is not the same as a horse as a thing is because you see the term “ inertia“ as inherently involved with an impetus that you can’t find. But I would say that if we keep the qualifications of knowing equal between inertia and the horse that likewise we cannot find the horse.

      But then on the other side of it, the very idea, the very notion, the very means by which we identify inertia is it self the impetus: The thing that impetus identifies is it self the impetus, it is the very thing that we are talking about.

      I think the problem that you’re having with Aristotle is that – If I mightpresume, – you’re not understanding the dual nature of his discourses. Quite similar to conventional physics and quantum physics, neither reduces to the other, and one cannot prove the other, but indeed both are the case and rely upon each other conspiratorially To Grant Us this real experience.

      But likewise the scientists who came into your discussion group and announce to everyone how lacking Aristotle wise, I think was exhibiting a much larger ignorance and indeed methodological sin than you do in your post. 😁 if that’s any consolation.

      1. Bertrand Russell.

        Well, since more recent philosophers are evidently here being used as *obvious* trump cards to older and presumably outdated and surpassed philosophers, such that thoughts of a more recent philosopher in place of addressing any old and less current thoughts, it must be pointed out that Russell’s successors in Analytic Philosophy specifically rejected the idea that philosophy has anything to say about epistemology or ontology. Those concepts are not accessible to their methods, and their methods encompass all that is possible in *real* philosophy. In other words, they very humbly decided that their assumed epistemology and ontology would never suffer examination. and dressed it up as a feature, not a bug.

        But be that as it may, since the followers of Russell are more recent than Russell by definition, and they state that nothing sensible can be said about the question I asked, as it depends on epistemology and ontology which they expressly reject. I need not address the issue!

        Wow, this is convenient. Much more efficient than dealing with those stodgy old philosophers! It’s like kids these days, who having heard a million Beatles knock-off, wonder what all the fuss is about – Coldplay is as good as those guys! While people who heard the Beatles first see a whole bunch of derivative nonsense passing for music. Thus, when Russell starts in with his critiques, the callow youngsters are all ‘wow, man! Deep!’ while those of us who started at the beginning see issues raised by the PreSocratics and crushed by Plato and Aristotle.

        But that attitude don’t get you tenure, so the kids don’t hear it.


      2. I only brought Russell up as an easy accessible philosopher, because he specifically has a discussion where he talks about “the table”. My use of Russell was actually incidental. But you choose to make it central; I think that shows that you have not reached a certain ability in thinking, you have not come to a certain kind of awareness of what is going on in philosophical thought.

        But that’s OK.

        Though I am not currently involved in Aristotle‘s philosophy, and it’s been a few years, I cannot go right in and say oh over here and his writings over here talk about this so I apologize for that lack of specificity. Nevertheless Aristotle says as much as my example from Russell.
        That is,
        If one reads Aristotle with a dual mindset, that Aristotle is not naïve as to what he is talking about and his topic matter. When one reads Aristotle in mind that he is indeed a keen philosopher, then one finds that his mentor, as some people are known to say: everything comes back to Plato.

        I think it’s interesting though, how easily you can set your own thinking aside and entertain what someone 2000 years ago might have thought separately from your thinking. It is interesting how you are able to identify your self and your thoughts and yet also identify and somehow think differently of someone else’s thought.

        It is an interesting logistical puzzle to me just how people do that. How are you are able to think about things and then completely throw that or partition it off or set it aside somehow and then entertain another body of thoughts as if it’s not you thinking about them — but not only that, all the while never bringing in the fact of your thinking about things in the process of being able to segregate various philosophical discourses.

        But that’s OK also.

        It’s a very centric and privilege view of the universe. But I think it indicates a certain lack Or myopia of of view. And of course the world is filled with such nearest sighted assertions.

        You took my comment as attacking you, which I was not. I definitely was supporting you. I’m sorry that you are blind to it. I’m sure you are very self-sufficient and don’t need anyone to agree with you except those people that you deem worthy.

        Yet , I would imagine you are already so defensive and so sure of the correctness of your ideas that you are unable to see support when supplied. In fact I would even venture to say that you probably don’t even feel that you need support from anyone. That the surety of your intelligence and your view about what philosophy is and is not is sufficient to establish your predominance in the field.

        And that’s fine too.

        It’s too bad that such a great mind such as yourself can’t join or except or even acknowledge other people‘s intelligence, again, except the people that you deem intelligent and worthy of consideration.

        What a difficult life that must be to constantly have to sort out who is worthy of you. But maybe it’s easy for you.

        Check please. 😆

      3. Perhaps Glen Miller has got some deep philosophical insights into the psychological stages of generativity and stagnation.

        Sorry. I am not your enemy.

      4. First cause, or uncaused cause is impetus. My point was indicting the scientist who sees history with reference to naive and ignorant Aristotle and the all
        Powerful and more intelligent modern man. Perhaps I misread your post.

      5. I apologize for being defensive. I was not attacking you; I thought we were having, or you were talking about, a philosophical discussion about Aristotle. And so I decided to give you some input from how I see Aristotle having contemplated various aspects of his ideas.

        I know that often, especially online, all people want to do is attack and shoot down and show how they are so much better and how I am ( you are )so much stupid.

        Perhaps that is what you read in my comment. But that is not how I work. So by haps I see that you are being offensive and going on the attack in the same way. So I apologize if there was a mutual effort on both our parts, unfortunately rooted in the typical ignorance that pervades the Internet.

  3. You could take your question, if you can sum it up a bit more briefly, to Edward Feser’s blog. The commentors are particularly acrimonious, but there are a lot of Thomists and Aristotelians among them who might be able to at least get you started.

    I’ve read more Aquinas than Aristotle, if only because that is what my classes at the time required, but I hate to see Aristotle dissed for (essentially) not being perfect on every topic too. Especially when it is his philosophy that gave us a chance to start to really understand some small areas of God’s working and plans, insofar as it showed the world as a truly rational and intelligible one in a way only Aquinas has equaled (surpassed really, if only because St. Thomas had Divine Revelation to help.)

  4. You might suggest to the two boys Henry Veatch’s Rational Man and Aristotle: A Contempory Appreciation. These may clear up their confusion about Arsistotle.

  5. I suspect you might like the following paper by Carlo Rovelli, one of the world’s foremost physicists on the subject of quantum gravity, in which he points out that Aristotle’s physics is actually a very good approximation of Newtonian physics for the particular kinds of cases Aristotle was thinking about :

    It gets into equations, but most of it is not difficult, and it is eminently skimmable.

    There does seem to be a pattern of thought in which people condemn first steps for not being last steps; I think this comes from falsely assuming that the problems and questions have always been obvious when in reality they, too, had to be discovered.

  6. Joseph,

    I second Edward Feser’s blog. He often revisits past issues or controversies and is always well worth a look.
    I’ve immensely enjoyed reading his posts even if some of them are over my head.
    The commentators are just as interesting.

  7. Sorry for the late comment, I’m behind on my blog reading and unfortunately don’t have anything profound to add about the philosophical questions. But the late Mitch Hedberg has definitively answered footnote 2:

    “I think Bigfoot is blurry. That’s the problem. It’s not the photographer’s fault. Bigfoot is blurry and that’s extra scary to me. There’s a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside. Run! He’s fuzzy! Get out of here!”

  8. The only Aristotle I’ve read was an English translation of the Nicomachean Ethics. And while it’s been enough years that I’ve forgotten which of his Examples From Nature are scientifically spurious, I have ever since considered the ethical principle of the N. Ethics, that of finding the Just Middle, to be good and sound. As our Lord says, “neither to the right nor to the left,” as describing the strait way of righteousness. Or as a more modern wag has it: “Always walk your dogmas in pairs, and on short leashes.”

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