Aristotle in the Postmodern World Alfredo Marcos

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Aristotle in the Postmodern World

Alfredo Marcos



Chapter 1


Chapter 2


Chapter 3

Practical Truth

Chapter 4

Science in act

Chapter 5


Chapter 6




Since the eighties Aristotle’s Biological Works have been the focus of intense intellectual activity. New editions and translations as well as detailed and creative studies have been published in English and several other languages. A major and extensive part of Aristotle’s Works is becoming available, perhaps for the first time since they were written, to a large number of scholars, not only to specialists in the subject, and they are arousing great intellectual curiosity.

This interest in the biological works has affected our interpretation the rest of the Aristotelian Corpus and has paved the way to a new understanding of Aristotelian thought as a whole. More specifically it has paved the way to a new understanding of Aristotelian thought as a whole. Paradoxical though it may seem, today, twenty-three centuries on, we may now be in the most advantageous position for understanding the Stagirite’s philosophy and applying it to contemporary philosophical problems.

This is the task I have undertaken in this book. I propose an understanding of the Aristotelian Corpus inspired by the biological works, and with the support of recent scholarship. This understanding has become bound up with other current philosophical discussions.

Indeed, the modern world was in part born as a reaction against Aristotelianism. We are now in a position to say that the image of Aristotle’s thought to which modern philosophers and scientists reacted was partial, to say the least. Many contemporary neo-Aristotelian philosophers are of the opinion that the new perspective offered by the recuperation of his Biological Works reinstates his thought for post-modern philosophy1. Aristotle’s work is also being recuperated in the field of science, and by way of example, I would mention two especially important cases, taken from widely differing sciences. In biology, Conrad H. Waddington has recovered the Aristotelian idea of epigenesis, which is guiding a new and flourishing line of biological research under the Evo-Devo label. And in economics, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recognises taking inspiration from Aristotle to develop his capabilities approach and the Human Development Index.

If in such diverse fields as biology and economics, Aristotle’s work has once more found its capacity to inspire, then much more rightly will it prove again useful in the Post-modern philosophical debate. My intention is to contribute to the forming of an idea of Post-modern reason inspired in a constellation of Aristotelian concepts, such as prudence (phronesis), practical truth (aletheia praktie), science in act (episteme en energeiai), metaphor (metaphora) and the imitation-creation pair (mimesis-poiesis). They all form an interconnected network, as will be obvious throughout the book, and together they make up an idea of reason that may prove suitable for the present.

Some of my interpretations will very probably go beyond Aristotle’s original intention. Nonetheless, my goal is not to revive the original meaning –whatever that may be– but to extract from his work, always alive and so prolific, any insight relevant to Contemporary philosophy. In this regard, I have dealt with the Aristotelian Corpus as if it were a living being and, instead of focusing on linguistic and historical analysis, I have gone one step further to apply the Aristotelian scholarship available to us to the philosophical thought of today.

In short, I have found that Aristotle’s works may again be a source of inspiration for dealing with strictly contemporary problems as long as we take Poetics, Rhetoric and the ethical writings as a theory of knowledge, a theory of rationality and as a methodology of science; providing we interpret the texts of the Organon as a rhetoric and axiology of science, and carry out a metaphysical reading of his biology and a biological reading of his metaphysics.

The book is organised as follows: Chapter One is an invitation to a philosophical reading of Aristotle’s biological works as well as a brief presentation of some key points for their philosophical appreciation. It shows the possible implications of the Biological Works for the Aristotelian Corpus as a whole. Why have I started off with an invitation, instead of a neutral introduction to Aristotelian biology? The reason is this: the Aristotelian biological works are not too often read, so it would seem advisable to persuade others of their great importance. It is crucial to consider the enormous weight that biology carries over Aristotle’s thought as a whole. To begin with, there are more texts on Biological issues than on any other topic. Moreover, biological study was a frequent practice and a driving force throughout Aristotle’s life. Our understanding of his metaphysics or ethics would be poor without an accompanying reading of his biology. We must not forget that for Aristotle, beings par excellence were indeed living beings.

Let us then briefly recall two pioneering studies of Aristotle’s Biology. Pierre Pellegrin looked on Aristotelian biology as primarily concerned with a better understanding of animal life, rather than with a mere classification of animals. After Pellegrin’s valuable contribution, it is hard to go on seeing Aristotle as a thinker obsessed by taxonomies. What is even more important is that Pellegrin’s proposal, in demoting Aristotle’s taxonomic intentions, makes it possible to bridge the gap between metaphysics and biology through the key notions of eidos and genos once they are stripped of their supposedly classificatory function. On the basis of Pellegrin’s work, we may consider the meaning of these two terms to be the same, in both the Biological works and in the rest of the Corpus.

A second step along this path of interpretation is that taken by David Balme, another pioneer of Aristotelian biology. Just as Pellegrin argued against the taxonomic ideal, Balme also rejects the idea that definitional purposes are the main goal of Aristotle’s biological studies, arguing for an interpretation of form (eidos) as an individuating principle, and of genos as matter. Naturally, this inversion of the most traditional interpretation of Aristotle has been fraught with controversy. My aim here, however, rather than question his correct exegesis, is to find something in Balme’s interpretation for the philosophy of today. And in this regard, as we shall see, it must be recognised as being extremely fruitful.

For all these reasons, my personal approach to the Aristotelian Corpus began with the Biological Works. From that starting point, I have addressed the rest of his works. Aristotle very probably looked on himself as a passionate advocate of living beings, something which we should always bear in mind in our understanding of his works.

Chapter Two addresses the search for an updated model of rationality. Apparently, Aristotle was not looking for classification or definition as direct aims of his Biological Works. He did not study nature principally from the point of view of logos (logikos), and his caricature as Nature’s Secretary is quite definitely ill-founded, or at least partial. This being the case, in Aristotle’s works themselves we may find some guidelines for forming another, more flexible and less logicist, vision of rationality. In this chapter I make the following claim: far from the ideal of rigid scientific rationality sought by Modernity and from the irrationality proposed by Postmodernity we may find a more moderate halfway point for reason: a prudential rationality. Both scientism and irrationalism have become widely developed and established. Prudential rationality is still a working process to which this chapter seeks to contribute. Certainly, the notion of a prudential rationality is rooted in the Aristotelian idea of phronesis. It could even be said that two ideas of rationality coexist in Aristotle, one more logicist and one more prudential and flexible. As in all great thinkers, in the Stagirite we find mutually opposing tendencies, but what is important for my argument is that one of those lines, the one pointing to prudential rationality, is of great interest for the ongoing debate on rationality. In my opinion, such a concept has interesting affinities with the fallibilism proposed by such contemporary thinkers as Peirce, Popper, Jonas and Gadamer. Exploring and presenting these similarities reveals the relevance of the Aristotelian view of phronesis to present discussions.

Prudential action seeks, according to Aristotle, the truth of practical reason. In consequence, Chapter Three is given over to the Aristotelian concept of practical truth, as a middle path between naïve objectivism and radical subjectivism. Kant’s legacy tells us that our knowledge is not a passive representation of objects or an arbitrary construction on the part of the subject of knowledge. Our contemporary epistemology needs the reconciliation of the subject’s underpinnings with the objective constraints. Obviously, this is not a simple task and numerous studies in contemporary epistemology are working on its elucidation. The notion of practical truth as construed as creative discovery, which I propose in this chapter, also seeks this end.

Chapter Four uses a realist approach to the problem of universals, while simultaneously examining the possibility of a scientific knowledge of the individual and the particular. We bring up the distinction between science in potency and science in act, as a key point in the interpretation of Aristotle’s views regarding knowledge of the particular. A common contemporary complaint against science is that it disregards concrete individual substances to focus on theoretical abstractions that tell us little or nothing about the world around us of singular beings and events. In Aristotle we find indicators of the possibility of a science of the individual and, consequently, a science relevant and reverent to the concreteness of reality. Such a science of the individual, we believe, is also subjected to truth, but to practical truth.

As we shall see, the concept of phronesis leads us to that of practical truth, which in turn takes us on to that of science in act, or science of the individual. But a science of the individual surely needs creative and linguistic resources capable of bringing us closer to the individual, different from those of mere conceptual language, supposedly literal and univocal. Aristotle suggests that it is the metaphor that possesses these creative and expressive capacities and Chapter Five deals with the Aristotelian theory of metaphor. The cognitive value of metaphor is also a recurrent topic in current debates. In recent years, we have become aware of a previously overlooked fact: there is an all-pervasive presence of metaphors in scientific language. They cannot be replaced by a so-called “literal language”, and are not mere aesthetic, didactic or heuristic devices. Their epistemic role is irreplaceable. This fact compels us to reconsider scientific language in relation to ordinary language, in its historical dimension and within the very status of scientific realism. If we accept that scientific language is largely metaphorical, can we still take a realistic approach to science? Aristotle presents these questions as well as some valuable answers. According to Aristotle, metaphor is not just an ornament for language but a way of looking into the individual concreteness of reality and a useful way of expressing it. A good metaphor, according to the theory we propose, is a genuine creative discovery of similarity that takes us back to the former notion of practical truth.

Finally, Chapter Six is concerned with an epistemic reading of Aristotle’s Poetics. Our construction of the concepts of metaphor and practical truth allow us to interpret the Poetics as a theory of knowledge. We find a tension between the notions of mimesis and poiesis, for the former concerns the representation of reality by means of imitation, while the correspondence between that imitation and what is imitated takes priority in the mimesis. The truth of the imitation consists in its likeness to the original. On the other hand, the concept of poiesis is a sign of creativity, of presenting before our eyes a reality constructed by art. Its value rests more on its originality and vividness than on any correspondence with the original model. The tension in question is resolved through the concept of practical truth or creative discovery, which helps us to integrate at once the mimetic and poetic features present in both art and science.

To sum up, the journey through the six chapters begins with biology (chapter 1), goes on via ethics (chapters 2 and 3) and metaphysics (chapter 4) to finish with rhetoric and poetics (chapters 5 and 6). The message we get is that Aristotle’s works could be actively used across post-modern debates: in short, they tell us that there is a third way, a better middle path for many of the dilemmas that threaten our philosophical discussions. For example, between identity and difference, the Aristotelian texts propose a midpoint for understanding reality: similarity. In the midst of the dilemma between abstract universals and concrete individuals, between science and life, Aristotle presents us with the possibility of scientific knowledge of individuality, while simultaneously accepting a real foundation for universals. Halfway between a sentimental anthropology of romantic tailoring and a rational anthropology, according to the philosophy of the enlightenment, Aristotle presents an integrated anthropology. On methodological issues, between the algorithm and anarchism, prudence flourishes.

Bridging the gap between realists and non-realists, Aristotle proposes an open view of reality that contemplates as real not only what is actual but also what is possible. Between knowledge understood as a mere subjective construction and knowledge as representation, as the mirror of nature, we can borrow from Aristotle the notion of practical truth, that is, an understanding of knowledge as a creative discovery, a notion in which the activity of the subject and the reality of the object meet.

Aristotle provides a dynamic, analogical, view of language with his theory of metaphor; a view that avoids both the equivocity of linguistic relativism and the semantic rigidity and alleged univocity of a so-called ideal language. From a cultural point of view, the Aristotelian proposal is halfway between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, between extreme optimism and pessimism, far from drama and supported by common sense and by a sound, balanced attitude.

On the way, this shift facilitates the relationship between science, arts and ethics, the three parts of the sphere of culture, which Modernity had separated. It also facilitates the integration of the sphere of culture itself with the world of life (lebenswelt). Aristotle offers the most promising ontological, epistemological and anthropological basis for undertaking a series of urgent reconciliations: of facts and values, of theoretical and practical reason, of understanding and sensation and of intelligence and emotion. Aristotle’s notions could help solve many dualisms of modern times, in their Platonic or materialist variety. I hope the present book will represent at least a small step in this direction.

I do not, however, wish to present the Aristotelian texts as containing all the answers to contemporary debates. From Aristotle’s texts we learn an intellectual modesty which is incompatible with such pretensions. Yet, at the same time, I trust the reader will find powerful arguments worth exploring and pursuing. My considered opinion is that to ignore Aristotle’s work would amount to mindlessly wasting a source of wisdom of great value for us today.

The present book is the result of more than ten years of research at the Universities of Valladolid, in Spain, and Cambridge. It has benefited from the comments and objections presented to the author during the courses taught at the University of Valladolid (Spain), the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá, the Università Campus Bio-Medico of Rome, and the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. Most of the book is based on papers published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (Cambridge, UK), Universitas Philosophica (Bogotá, Colombia), Thémata (Seville, Spain), and Epistemologia (Genoa, Italy).


Chapter 1


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