Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jokes from Aristotle

As I pointed out in a post last year, if the Great Books constitute a Great Conversation, as Mortimer Adler said, then “everything will lead you to everything else,” as C. S. Lewis said. And so I shouldn’t be surprised when coincidences come up in my reading plan. But it’s still a pretty special moment when I read one book that directly refers to another I have just read. And just such a moment happened last week when I read Sophistical Refutations, in which Aristotle addresses some of the arguments of Zeno and Parmenides -- arguments that form the core of Plato’s Parmenides, which I read just this past January.

Parmenides’ tricky arguments show up several times in Aristotle’s book. For instance, the Philosopher says, don’t let anyone argue that, since some objects are like each other and different from everything else, they are all both the same and different. In another place, he surely has Plato’s dialog in mind when he declares that a thing that grows is not therefore both greater and shorter than itself. And thinking of Parmenides but anticipating an argument of Hegel as well, Aristotle explains that “What is-not” is not a thing just because we can say and think the phrase, and that Being is not nonexistent just because it is nonexistent in some respect.

It’s unclear to me whether Aristotle addressed Sophistical Refutations to students of logic, to what we might call debate competitors, or to budding lawyers. All of the above can use its advice, though, to combat specious arguments and to prepare defenses against the traps of sophists. But, even though Aristotle mainly seeks to train a defense against sophistry, he also has to teach the opponent’s methods, and in doing so, he presents the reader with an entertaining catalog of ancient tricks, riddles, and jokes.

One of the first examples involves what Aristotle calls a “fallacy of combination,” meaning a trick involving a phrase that can modify more than one word. His example essentially runs this way:
I saw the man being beaten with my own eyes.
Really? How can a man be beaten with your eyes?
In his weekly e-newsletter World Wide Words, Michael Quinion often shares examples of published mistakes of this kind. (I had to edit that sentence to make sure I didn’t commit the error myself and make it sound as though Quinion made the mistakes himself.) Recent cases include these gems:
We are making a short 3 minute comedy/drama about God coming down to earth to enter into competitions and film festivals throughout the UK. 
Woman Hit by Triathlon Cyclist in Coma
For syllogisms that involve a  fallacy of Accident, Aristotle provides the following example:
This dog is mine.
This dog is a father.
Therefore, this dog is my father.
Finally, in a chapter on ambiguity, he offers the following humorous exchange:
Which cow will calve afore?
Neither, both will calve behind.
I have thought of one more potential audience for Aristotle’s instruction: writers of children’s magazines. Did you ever see a fish bowl? Did you ever see a man eating tiger?

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