Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some Surprises in Aristotle’s Topics

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post about Aristotle’s very pragmatic book on argumentation, the Topics. In the treatise, Aristotle describes arguments in terms of battles: each party looks for ground from which to attack, for instance. And in war, as they say, all is fair; the goal is to win. So, in the service of winning, Aristotle advocates using as much logical and rhetorical legerdemain as one can get away with. Forget the truth; just force your opponent to give up his position and adopt yours. For instance, he says, mix up the order of the points you need to establish so your opponent doesn’t know where you’re going. If he doesn't see the relevance of a point you’re making, he’s more likely to say what he really thinks and much more likely to concede the point.

This whole deceptive approach surprised me last year when I started the book. In other books – where Aristotle means only to train the reader in a search for truth, not to prepare him for battle – there is no discernible element of trickery. The life of a philosopher, according to Aristotle, is the most virtuous life possible. This year, in finishing up the Topics, I’ve found a few more surprises.

The first surprise has to do with a theory of perception that I previously associated only with modern studies in psychology. The goal of a definition, the Philosopher points out, is to make something more intelligible, so naturally the definition should be composed of terms more intelligible than the word being defined. But what is more intelligible? Usually, Aristotle says, the “prior” term is more intelligible, by which he means the more general or more basic term. X is prior to Y if X can exist without Y but Y cannot exist without X. Animals are prior to horses: animals could exist without the existence of horses, but horses cannot exist without there being animals. Aristotle would call the term animal “absolutely prior to” the term horse.

But sometimes the absolutely prior is not prior for us. In an example that reminded me of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland , Aristotle explains that a point is prior to a line, a line prior to a plane, and a plane prior to a solid. According to the basic formula, the point should be the most intelligible. But for us, a solid is more intelligible than a point. So while it may seem that teaching a subject should always begin with the tiniest elements and then putting them together to build larger patterns, sometimes we have to start with the big picture and break it down instead. In other words, Aristotle taught the principle of Gestalt psychology two millennia ahead of its time.

The second surprise addresses a problem I just recently blogged about: Plato’s notion that the Idea of a quality has that very quality. Plato said, for instance, that the Idea of redness is red. I always groan when he makes this mistake. Solidness provides a quick counterexample. A solid object like my desk has solidness. The things on the desk don’t bend it and don’t fall through it. If I swing my fist toward it, my fist will stop when it reaches the desk and make a sound. None of this is true of the “idea” of solidness in my head; I couldn’t swing my fist at it if I tried. No, Plato’s Ideas aren’t exactly the ideas in anyone’s head, but they don’t have any more physical solidness than my thoughts do. In a delightful surprise, I found Aristotle enjoining the reader to attack an opponent’s definition by showing that the predicates don’t apply to the Idea as well as to the object itself. Now, Aristotle didn’t believe in the Ideas as existences independent of all minds. But he knew many of his opponents did. So why not use their misguided belief to advantage?

My last surprise came in a passage on critiquing statements about relative terms. Look to see, Aristotle recommends, if your opponent has referred an activity to an intermediate goal rather than to its ultimate goal. Does he say, for instance, that some person is studying a craft in order to please his teacher rather than saying his goal is mastery of the craft? Then he is wrong; he should concern himself with the ultimate goal: mastery. But here Aristotle admits, as if he hasn’t thought about it before writing what comes before, that not everyone actually thinks this way. Most people, he concedes, prefer an activity to the cessation of the activity. The journey, we would say, is more important than the destination. The biggest surprise, a very pleasant one, is that Aristotle admits to being wrong.

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