ARISTOTLE ON HIS PREDECESSORS

BEING THE FIRST BOOK OF HIS METAPHYSICS

Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

(About the) Metaphysics← TOC→Summary of Metaphysics I

III. HISTORICAL VALUE OF ARISTOTLE'S  CRITICISM

Perhaps the greatest of the many obligations which human thought owes to Aristotle and his school is that they were the first thinkers to realize at all adequately the importance of systematic historical research into the evolution of ideas and institutions. To such research Aristotle would naturally be led both by his natural bias in favor of acquaintance with detailed scientific fact and by his early medical and biological training, which predisposes him to make the development of a finished and articulate product from crude and indeterminate beginnings the central conception of his whole philosophy. Accordingly, we find that the first systematic histories, alike of ideas and of social institutions, are all the work of Aristotle and his immediate pupils. Thus, to take only a few examples, constitutional history, if we except a few tentative contributions from Plato,16 begins with the series of sketches of political institutions in various commonwealths, known to the ancients as the πολιτεία of Aristotle, though they must have been the work not of the master alone but of a whole band of pupils, of which we have an extant specimen in the recently recovered "Constitution of Athens." The earliest sketches of the history of Philosophy and Psychology are those contained in the present book and in the first book of the treatise de Anima, respectively. The earliest outline of the history of Physics is similarly that given by Aristotle in the opening chapters of the first book of his "Lectures on Physics." The first separate and complete history of Physics was composed by Aristotle's pupil and immediate successor, Theophrastus, and the first history of Mathematics by another disciple, Eudemus,17 and it is principally to second or third hand epitomes and to later citations from these works that we are still indebted for our detailed knowledge of the development of early Greek science in both these departments.

To make a discriminating use of Aristotle's sketch of previous philosophical thought we need, however, to bear carefully in mind both the special object for which it is avowedly designed, and certain mental peculiarities of its author. Our present book, as Aristotle is careful to indicate, is meant not as an independent contribution to the history of thought, but strictly as an introduction to Aristotelian "first" Philosophy as expounded in the subsequent lectures. Its purpose is not to give a full account of the "systems" of previous thinkers, but to afford presumption that the Aristotelian classification of causes and principles is complete, by showing that it provides a place for every sense of "Cause," and every principle of explanation occurring in the works of the pre-Aristotelian philosophers. This anxiety to confirm his own views by pointing to partial anticipations of them by earlier thinkers, and even by popular unphilosophic opinion, is very characteristic of Aristotle, who was profoundly convinced, as he says himself in the Ethics,18 that "a widely-held conviction must have something in it," and by no means shared Plato's superb disdain for conventional current "opinion" in matters of philosophy. No great philosopher has ever been farther removed than Aristotle from the mental attitude of a recent writer who protests eloquently against the intrusion into philosophy of "the vulgar prejudices of common sense."19

We have further to remember that Aristotle, like Hegel in later days, was convinced that his own philosophy was the "absolute" philosophy, the final formulation of that answer to the problems of the human intellect which all previous thought had been vainly trying to express. Hence he looks upon all earlier systems, from the point of view of his own doctrine, as imperfect and "stammering" attempts to formulate a thought identical with his own. What he says more than once of Empedocles and Anaxagoras he might equally, from his own point of view, have said of all his predecessors: "If the consequences of their doctrines could have been put before them, they would have arrived at my own results; but there was no one to point out these consequences to them, and consequently they failed to make their theories consistent." Unlike Plato, Aristotle shows little of the imaginative sympathy which is required of any thinker who attempts to give an uncolored version of the thoughts of minds less informed and less developed than his own. Hence, if we relied upon the letter of his statements about cruder and older philosophies, we should often be led seriously astray; when we have, however, made allowance, as it is usually easy to do, for this tendency to read his own system into the utterances of his predecessors, what he tells us is, in general, of the highest importance, and it is hardly too much to say that the first book of the Metaphysics, thus cautiously interpreted, is by far the most valuable single document for the history of early Greek Philosophy.20

Aristotle's version of the development of previous Greek philosophical thought may be briefly summarised as follows. The earliest thinkers unconsciously adopted the standpoint of a materialistic Monism. They assumed that the only things which exist are the physical bodies perceived by our senses, and that the only question which science has to ask about them is, what is the one ultimate form of body of which they are all transformations? (The Milesian school, Heraclitus.) In Aristotelian language, they were interested only in the material cause of bodies, the stuff of which they are made, and they assumed that there is ultimately only one such original stuff and that it is one of the perceptible forms of matter.21 Their later successors (Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the Atomists) saw that from such a point of view it is more plausible to regard sensible bodies as complexes of many different and equally primary constituents, and thus materialistic Monism gave way to Pluralism on the question of the material cause. At the same time, half unconsciously, they felt the need of asking a second question: What provides the motive impulse by which these constituents have been brought into just these combinations, and no others ? Thus we get a first confused recognition of the existence of efficient causes and their indispensability to complete scientific explanation. (Empedocles, Anaxagoras.) As order, arrangement, organization are naturally recognized as good, and their opposites as evil, this entails further the notion of a final cause or rational purpose as present in the order of nature, and thus the conception of end or purpose makes its appearance, though at first in a form in which the final and efficient causes of the natural order are not properly discriminated. (Empedocles, Anaxagoras.) Meanwhile, attention had been directed in an unsystematic way by the Pythagorean mathematicians to the importance of discovering the law or constitutive formula by which the elementary constituents of each different kind of object are combined. Socrates further developed this interest in formal causes or constitutive formula by his insistence on the importance for Ethics of accurate definitions of the various virtues. From these initial impulses arose the Ideal Theory of Plato, in which the conception of the formative law or formal cause, as hypostatised into a transcendent noumenon, is made the center of a great philosophical system, to the neglect, as Aristotle thinks, of the equally important concepts of efficient and final cause. Thus the upshot of the whole review of philosophical history is, that all the four senses of causation discriminated in the Physics have received recognition by preceding thinkers, but that they have not yet been defined with sufficient accuracy or distinguished sharply enough from each other. The task thus indicated as essential to the thorough scientific explanation of things is the task that the Aristotelian "first" Philosophy undertakes to accomplish. It is plain that, though Aristotle does not say this in so many words, he regards as the specially important figures among his predecessors Anaxagoras and Plato; Anaxagoras, because by his doctrine of Mind as the formative cause of the world-order he first gave expression, in however inadequate and unconscious a way, to the teleological interpretation of the universe, and Plato, because he was the first philosopher to put the problem of determining the "forms" or "real essences" of the different kinds of objects in the forefront of philosophical inquiry.

The extent to which lack of sympathetic imagination has vitiated the historical character of Aristotle's sketch of preceding philosophy appears to vary considerably as we consider his treatment of the different schools. From the point of view of the most recent investigation, little can be objected against his treatment of the early Ionian Monists, from Thales to Heraclitus, except a tendency to employ in stating their views technical terms of his own system, such as ἀρχή, "principle," στοιχεῖον, "element," and the like. When allowance has been made for this habit, we readily see that Aristotle's interpretation of these naïve Monistic thinkers is in all essentials thoroughly historical. The same is true of his brief but lucid account of the Atomism in which pre-Sophistic physical science culminated, and his still briefer characterisation of the place of Socrates in the development of thought. We can hardly say as much for his treatment, in the present work, of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. The attempt to distinguish in the system of Empedocles between the "four elements" as the material and Love and Strife as the efficient causes of Nature is quite unhistorical, and Aristotle's own remarks on Empedocles in other writings show that he is fully aware of this. Similarly it is, from the point of view of objective historical fact, a misapprehension to censure Anaxagoras for his mechanical conception of the relation between Mind and the "mixture." The teleological significance read by Plato and Aristotle into the notion of Mind as the source of cosmic order was certainly not prominent, if present at all, in the actual thought of Anaxagoras. Still, it may possibly be said that Aristotle is avowedly undertaking rather to show how far the utterances of the earlier thinkers would permit of logical development into something like his own doctrine than to determine their actual original meaning. This defence has, no doubt, considerable weight, but one may be allowed to question whether it justifies the interpretation of Anaxagoras' "mixture" into a quasi-Aristotelian theory of "indeterminate matter," or the criticism of it in the light of the Aristotelian conception of chemical combination.

There remain three schools of thought towards which it seems impossible to deny, when all allowances for a philosopher's natural bias have been made, Aristotle shows himself unsympathetic and unjust, viz., the Eleatics, the Pythagoreans, the Platonists. The sources of his lack of sympathy are in all three cases fortunately easily discoverable. A biologically-minded philosopher to whom the development of the individual is the most salient fact of existence can hardly be expected to show much tenderness for thinkers who regard all change as mere illusion, and consequently, as Aristotle observes, leave no room for a science of Physics at all. Hence it is not strange that, though Aristotle elsewhere correctly indicates the important influence of Eleatic dialectic on the development of physical speculation,22 his brief and unsympathetic observations in the present book should entirely obscure the fact that the criticism of Parmenides, by annihilating the logical basis of materialistic Monism, was really the most important turning-point in the whole history of pre-sophistic speculation.23 It is unfortunate, also, that his account of the two great thinkers of the Eleatic school, Parmenides and Melissus, has been gravely vitiated in the case of Parmenides by the assumption that the dualistic cosmology of the second part of his poem represents the author's own views,24 and in the case of Melissus, by a pedantic objection to that great thinker's incidental transgressions of the laws of formal logic.25

Similarly Aristotle's unsympathetic account of Pythagoreanism and Platonism is largely explained by the simple consideration that the leading ideas of both those philosophies are essentially mathematical, whereas Aristotle was by training and natural bent a biologist, and of a thoroughly non-mathematical cast of mind. His criticism of the mathematical philosophers in books A, M, N of the Metaphysics betrays much the same kind of misunderstanding as we should expect if a thinker of the antecedents of Herbert Spencer were to set himself to demolish the ideas, for instance, of Weierstrass or Cantor. In the case of the Pythagoreans, the difficulty of entering sympathetically into their thought was no doubt increased for Aristotle both by the naïveté with which their ideas were formulated, and by the absence of really trustworthy sources of information. It is pretty clear that down to the time of Aristotle there was no Pythagorean literature in existence, and in its absence Aristotle would necessarily depend for information upon the verbal statements of such associates as the musician, Aristoxenus, whose historical good faith is far from being above suspicion. (It is probably from the oral assertions of such associates who had been personally acquainted with the latest generations of Pythagoreans that Aristotle derived his decidedly improbable view that the Platonic doctrine of the "participation" of things in Ideas had been anticipated by Pythagoreanism.)26 Whether we ascribe the result primarily to defective information or to mathematical incompetence, one thing at least is certain, viz., that chapters 5 and 8 of our present book are quite inadequate as an account of the thinkers who laid the foundations of scientific arithmetic and geometry, and made a nearer approximation to the true theory of the solar system than any other pre-Copernican men of science. It is quite impossible to do justice to Pythagorean science, or even to understand its true character, unless the wretchedly inadequate discussion of Aristotle is supplemented by some historical account in which due prominence is given to the work of the school in Astronomy, Harmony, and pure Mathematics.27 Aristotle, it should be noted, had composed a separate monograph on Pythagoreanism which is now lost, but can hardly, from his lack of sympathy with mathematical modes of thought, have possessed any high philosophical value.

The Aristotelian criticism of Platonism has given rise to a host of divergent opinions and a mass of the most tedious of human writings. Every possible view has been taken of it, from that of those who regard it as a crushing refutation of the vagaries of a transcendentalist dreamer of genius to that of those who refuse to believe that Plato can ever have taught anything so crazy as the doctrine Aristotle puts into his mouth. This is not the place to discuss at length topics on which I may have a more suitable opportunity of enlarging in the near future, and I will therefore merely record here one or two conclusions which seem to me to follow from any unbiased consideration of the anti-Platonic polemic of the Metaphysics.

Aristotle, lecturing during the life-time of Xenocrates, his fellow-pupil in the Platonic Academy, undoubtedly intended to give a bona fide account of the Platonic doctrine. A mere polemical misrepresentation, where the circumstances were such as to make exposure inevitable, would have been suicidal. It is also clear that Aristotle intends to present the doctrine in question as that of Plato himself, and not merely of Xenocrates and the contemporary Academy. This is shown by the occurrence of occasional direct references to expressions employed by Plato in his oral teaching, as well as by passages in which the views of particular contemporary Platonists are distinguished from those of "the first" author of the doctrine, i. e., Plato. Hence it seems to me indubitable that, although the doctrine of the Ideal Numbers and their derivation from the One and the "Great and Small" is not to be found totidem verbis in the Platonic dialogues, Plato must actually have said substantially what Aristotle makes him say on these topics. If a philosopher of the genius of Aristotle, writing after twenty years of personal association with a teacher of whose lectures he had himself been an associate editor, and in circumstances which make intentional misrepresentation incredible, cannot be trusted to give a substantially correct account of what his master said, surely there is an end to all confidence in human testimony. I would further suggest that the doctrine ascribed to Plato by Aristotle is in the main consistent and intelligible, and can be shown to be a natural development of positions which are actually taken up in several of the dialogues, notably the Parmenides and Philebus. Most of the difficulties found in it by scholars have, I believe, been due to their own unfortunate unfamiliarity with the concepts of Mathematics and exact Logic. At the same time, I think it probable that Plato himself fell into occasional inconsistencies in the first formulation of such highly abstract principles, and certain that Aristotle, from lack of mathematical competence, has often failed to understand the meaning of the propositions he attacks. Some cases of such failure I have tried to indicate in my notes to chapter 9 of the present work. I will here terminate these introductory remarks with the two suggestions (1) that the growing interest of contemporary philosophers in the logic of the exact sciences promises to put us in a better position for comprehending the central thought of the Platonic theory than has ever been possible since its first enunciation,28 and (2) that it would be an interesting subject for inquiry whether the forcing of all philosophic thought into biological categories by the genius of Aristotle has not fatally retarded the development of correct views on the logic of exact science right down to the present day.




Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)

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[16]. See, particularly, the long and interesting passages on the successive transformations by which "patriarchal" government, according to Plato, passed into historical monarchy, and on the development of the Persian and Athenian constitutions in Laws, Book III. The better known sketch of the successive degenerations from the ideal constitution in Republic, Books VIII-IX, stands on a rather different footing, as its object is to establish an order of spiritual affinity rather than one of historical sequence.

[17]. The dependence of the epitome of physical theories known as the Placita Philosophorum, which has been preserved to us in a double form in the writings ascribed to Plutarch and in the Ecloge of Stobaeus, on the lost Φυσικαὶ Δόξαι of Theophrastus was established by Diels in the prolegomena to his Doxographi Graeci; the work of Eudemus is mainly known to us from the use made of it by the Neo-Platonic philosopher, Proclus, in his commentary on the first book of Euclid's Elements

[18]. Ethica Nic., 1173a1. "What everybody thinks to be good, that we say is good; he who rejects this ground of belief will not easily produce a more convincing one." Contrast Shelley's characteristic remark that "Everybody saying a thing doesn't make it true."

[19]. Russell, Principles of Mathematics, I., 348.

[20]. See Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, p. 370, on which these remarks are largely founded.

[21]. The last clause is scarcely applicable to Anaximander, whom Aristotle ignores as completely as he can throughout this sketch.

[22]. De Generatione, A8. 324b35 ff . (R. P. 148 A.) Compare Burnet, op. cit. 354-6.

[23]. See Burnet, op. cit. p. 192.

[24]. Cf. Burnet, op. cit. p. 195 ff.

[25]. Burnet, op. cit. p. 341-2.

[26]. See Burnet, op. cit. p. 302 ff, whose opinion as to the spuriousness of all the so-called fragments of "Philolaus," though not universally accepted by scholars, seems to me more than probable.

[27]. For excellent accounts of the school, see Bäumker, Das Problem der Materie in der Griechischen Philosophie, pp. 33-46; Milhaud, Philosophes-Geomètres de la Grèce, pp. 79-123; M. Cantor, Geschichte der Mathematik, I., pp. 137-I75. It was the non-existence of written Pythagorean literature which gave rise in later ages to the fiction of the "Pythagorean Silence," the imaginary division of the order into an inner and outer circle, and the tale of the drowning of Hippasus in revenge for his publication of the secrets of the school. See Burnet, op. cit. p. 101 ff.

[28]. Particularly valuable as illustrating the light thrown on Plato's philosophy by a study of the mathematical problems in which it originated, is the work of Prof. G. Milhaud, Les Philosophes-Géomètres de to Grèce, to which I have several times had occasion to refer in the course of this book.





















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