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.
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 The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.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 Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern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…
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.
- 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.
- The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.