Saturday, August 8, 2009


Impromptu online discussion on the subject of the source of modern Western human thought, Aristotle and his metaphysics.

The radical difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former considers his personal and interior experience to come first, whereas the latter looks firstly at reality which is exterior to him (obviously this is less poetic!). It is fashionable to consider Plato to be a philosopher, even though he is more of a poet of the soul, and to denigrate Aristotle whom we find less amusing, and moreover whose musings are not as easily accessible. In particular, Aristotle is criticized for his theory on the spontaneous generation, his treatise on the heavens which today seems rather infantile, etc., as if this chap were a scientist… but Aristotle was first and foremost a philosopher, and was only interested in science “accidentally”, using the tools of his time!

This preference for Plato is linked to the poetry of his discourse, to the exaltation of intimacy and interiority (immanent and immediate experience), to his explanations which are often metaphorical… He has always exerted a great seduction, which is normal as he is a poet, whereas Aristotle is hardly poetic, and is sometimes lacking in humor! William of Ockam, in the 14th century, gave a new life to Plato; later Descartes brought him to the forefront, and practically permanently! Later still, some mystics like Simone Weil expressed their love of Plato and their aversion for Aristotle. It is too bad really, and this probably proceeds more from ignorance than discernment. In particular, Plato held women to be slightly more evolved than animals, and without a soul. It is Aristotle who was the first in Ancient Greece to speak of friendship – philia – between man and woman, returning dignity to women by elevating them to the rank of human beings, on an equal footing to men… I’m not certain Simone Weil knew that, and even less so for many unconditional contemporary admirers of Plato!

So one must read “Nicomacian Ethics… which is a simple book, much more so than the treatise on the soul or the treatise on metaphysics. Aristotle is the first to have given a real metaphysics to the Western world, i.e. a science beyond physics, what he called “first philosophy”, but what was later named meta-physics (beyond physics) for this treatise was found, after his death, on his bookshelves, just after his book on physics. Today one must speak of “first philosophy”... if you speak of metaphysics, you get penalty points… even if they are one and the same thing! Being that we have celebrated the death of metaphysics, this shouldn't come as that much of a surprise! :)

So, in two words if possible, what is Aristotle’s metaphysics? Precisely because he distinguishes himself from his master Plato (whom he followed for 15 years, in silence), who set thought before reality, Aristotle sets reality before the idea he makes of it, and he does this through what some call the judgement of existence”: THIS IS. One must note that in the fundamental assertion “This is”, the “this” is not “me”… !!! This is the radical difference with the notorious “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes, who sets the “I” before the “this”, or the internal experience before the perceived external reality, in other words sincerity before truth.

Consequently, Aristotle seeks foremost reality as it is other than himself and which is unmindful of the idea he makes of it to be what it is. He then looks at what intelligence is, where it comes from, what it is made of, according to what model and in view of what, five interrogations which can be associated to his five senses: what it is (sight); where it comes from (hearing); what it is made of (touch), according to which model (taste), and in view of what it is (smell). To answer your question more concretely, it is obvious that seeking what is true entails a constant back and forth between our sensible touch of reality and intelligence, in other words a perpetual round trip between the abstraction of reality through the senses, delivering the observation to intelligence, and reinjecting into reality what I understand of it, to verify the adequacy between my intelligence and reality. Thus, for Aristotle, truth is the adequacy between intelligence and reality. Well, it isn’t easy to speak of these “things” in a few lines… We’ll speak again, hopefully… and it is important to have fun around this neck of the woods, is it not? :))

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  1. Very nice and useful post. The difference is sometimes in observation and this "sometime" may be bigger than the perceived real time!

  2. "Thus, for Aristotle, truth is the adequacy between intelligence and reality".

    Wow, I love this one. I don't know why exactly yet, but it feels very 'true'.

  3. To be fair to Aristotle, he was as much interested in conversation as Plato was. The opening sections of all his works present (though some would say "misrepresent") the views of other philosophers and revolve around analyzing the terms that they use in order to develop a vocabulary with which to discuss the subject matter with some rigor-- essentially to create the conditions by which one can have "adequacy between intelligence and reality." So, in that sense, Aristotle developed the Socratic method into the "literature review" used by scholars today.

    It's also fair grounds to discuss Aristotle's scientific works: biology is the topic he wrote about the most-- and even if we see some of his ideas as having been falsified, his work was often the best theoretical work done prior to the scientific revolutions of the late renaissance.

  4. "What is does not depend on us, we depend on it."
    "Ideas are one thing, what happens another."

    These two John Cage quotes echo, in a way, what you are saying about Aristotle's outlook. We have to free ourselves from our thoughts about the world to see the world.

    "Step aside. Make room for the world." That's an old aphorism of mine. And, basically, what I was trying to say is "free yourself from subjectivity."

  5. gracias per tu comento su mi blog, veo que tu blog es tambien interesante:)

  6. @Harry,
    Indeed, the initial source (external experience vs intuition) of a philosophy can have huge consequences downstream.

    It does indeed :)

    Thanks for dropping in. I see you know a bit about Aristotle. Before anything else, Aristotle is a philosopher, and his metaphysics (the science of Being as Being) is the summit of his intellectual quest. Being is neither concrete nor abstract, to the left nor to the right, contemporary nor historical: it is. Hence, his analysis hasn't aged a bit. :)

    Love your aphorism. Cage is also spot on. :)

    Thanks for dropping in. :)

  7. Can't really add anything else - all was said. Apart from: you have a new follower. Wonderfull food for thought. (aka Klara)