An Approach to Aristotle's Physics:
With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing

154 pages,
ISBN: 0791435512

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The Importance of Aristotle's Physics
by Arthur Melzer

While the Martian rover, the latest wonder child of modern science and technology, has been toddling about the surface of Mars, back here on earth a Professor David Bolotin of Saint John's College, Santa Fe, has published a brilliant commentary on Aristotle's Physics defending the thesis that "Aristotle's physics is true in its fundamental claims, and that it surpasses all subsequent physics both in its articulation of the main features of the natural world and in its clarity about the central problems in the study of nature." How can we take this seriously? Let me try to suggest how.
We live in very strange times. In our age, modern rationalism seems simultaneously to be reaching its peak and its nadir. On the one hand, modern science continues its breathtaking conquest of the natural world, and modern political rationalism-in the form of free-market liberal democracy-having vanquished its major rival, is spreading to ever further reaches of the planet. But, on the other hand, this all-conquering rationalism, which subjects every phenomenon to subversive questioning, has begun at last to make powerful inroads on.itself. After all, is the demand for rationality, especially as defined by Western science, itself rationally defensible? Today we face a large if amorphous movement-known variously as postmodernism, new historicism, poststructuralism, or multiculturalism-which has come to doubt the whole foundation of modern Western rationalism. Thus, alongside the amazing practical successes of modern thought, its theoretical legitimacy is being questioned now as never before.
There is both good news and bad news to this theoretical crisis. The bad news is that the general level of confusion, uncertainty, and nonsense is greatly on the rise, and this may ultimately eventuate in the destruction of civilization as we know it. The good news is that, with the shaking of all established traditions and the liberation from old habits of thought, we become open to different and potentially better ones. For the first time in many centuries, for example, we are now open to a genuine encounter with Eastern thought as well as to a new, more authentic understanding of pre-modern Western thought-and that includes, of course, Aristotle.
To be sure, the turn to the East, and more generally to the non-Western, is more fashionable than the return to Aristotle. Whether in the classroom or at a cocktail party, one has a far easier time questioning modern science in the name, say, of the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation than in the name of Aristotle's theory of the eternity of the visible universe. Many postmodernists, for all their claims to have transcended the Enlightenment, still harbour many of the characteristic prejudices of that movement, including an inveterate suspicion of Aristotle (along with organized religion). For the contemporary intellectual, returning to Aristotle still feels too much like admitting one's parents were right all along. Yet recently, notwithstanding this resistance, there has in fact been a major renaissance in the study of Aristotle's practical writings: Heidegger and his students like Hans-Georg Gadamer have returned to the Ethics and the Rhetoric in appreciation of their subtle phenomenology of practical life. Communitarians, as well as civic republicans, have turned to the Politics for its unsurpassed depiction of the ancient polis or city-state, with its richly communal and civic life. And proponents of so-called virtue ethics have rediscovered Aristotle's Ethics as the classic exposition of a morality of virtue and character-the sought-for "third way" transcending the sterile modern dichotomy: Kant or utilitarianism.
Yet, amidst this grand Aristotle renaissance, at least one item has clearly been left out: the Physics. It is not hard for us to imagine that Aristotle possessed some ancient wisdom about human life that we moderns have somehow lost touch with and forgotten. But can it really be that he knew something about physics, about the forms and changes within the natural world, that we, who have split atoms and walked on the moon, do not know? Isn't Aristotle the one, after all, who defended not only the eternity of all existing species, but geocentrism and teleology?
Yet, before confronting this troubling question of the proper content of physics-Aristotle's and ours-there is a prior question to consider. What is the proper goal and purpose of physics? Not every culture pursues the scientific study of nature. Why and how is it good to do so? If we are willing to grant that Aristotle may possess a practical or human wisdom that we lack, then perhaps he has something to teach us about this question as well, about the value of science. Certainly, modern scientific rationalism-confining itself to the objective realm of "facts", which it contrives to separate from a subjective realm of "values"-gives no answer to the question at all. It cannot rationally explain or defend its esteem for, and heedless pursuit of, rational knowledge. But the philosophic founders of modern science, not adhering to the fact-value distinction, did indeed defend their new scientific project. The end of knowledge, said Thomas Hobbes, is power. Science has the purpose, declared René Descartes, of making man the master and owner of nature. And the purpose of all this technological power and mastery is to enhance the security and comfort of man's physical being. From the beginning, that was the purpose of modern physics, and to date that has been the result.
Today, however, it has become obvious to all that this is a very problematic view. On the simplest level, the fears of environmental degradation and nuclear war, under which we are all condemned to live, testify to the inherent dangers of a science that is able to expand human power but not to increase human wisdom. To be sure, science has also kept its famous promise, securing for us great comforts and pleasures. But this is just where Aristotle would see the greatest problem. The human mind is the source of human dignity. Thus, shouldn't the perfection of the mind- science or philosophy-have some worthier and more satisfying purpose than finding comforts for the human body? When we are done making our lives comfortable and secure, after all, we must still face the question of what we are living for. And shouldn't we seek the answer in the fullest activity and actualization of that faculty which makes us human, that which we most are, our highest and innermost self? To live contemplatively, in the thoughtful comprehension of nature, Aristotle argues, is our truest end and satisfaction. We do not know in order to live, therefore, but live in order to know. Modern science has it precisely backwards. To be sure, the ancient world was not ignorant of the temptation to subordinate thought or science to the needs and comforts of mere life. Archimedes, for example, was famous for his many inventions. Yet even this greatest of ancient technologists held unswervingly to the supremacy of contemplation. As Plutarch describes him:
"He would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such [technological] subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life."
Not only Aristotle, but virtually all pre-modern philosophers subscribed to this contemplative ideal. The true purpose of physics is to feed the soul, not the body.
One might want to object, however, that modern physics, in fact, does both. After all, don't most scientists, however practically useful their work, also take delight in knowledge for its own sake? Doubtless they do. But this delight is not necessarily the same, in kind or degree, as what the classics have in mind. For one thing, the unique way of life they call philosophic or contemplative presupposes not merely an enjoyment of learning but a radical "turning around of the soul", in Plato's phrase. As I understand it, this means that only after a rare journey of disenchantment, emptying the soul of all of life's false hopes and charms, can one make full contact with the soul's true need: a specific hunger to know oneself and one's world.
But modern physics does not grow out of, and was not designed to address, this specific need. From the start, its aim was not to understand or admire the world, but to control it. Dismissing the natural questions of "Why" and "What" for the single problem of "How", it redefined the meaning of "knowing" and "truth" in terms of the ability to predict and manipulate. Similarly, its famous reliance on "method"-an artificial technique for thinking-involved a conscious break with the natural, common-sense way of knowing. That method, moreover, was both experimental and analytical. As experimental-as going beyond the passive observation of nature to the artful manipulation and "torture" of it (in Bacon's phrase)-it broke with our natural way of encountering and experiencing nature. As analytical and reductionist, it replaced the multiform and sensually heterogeneous world of ordinary experience-the world of dogs, trees, and rocks, of sounds, smells, and colours-with the abstract and homogeneous world of atoms in motion. From the start, in short, it was not a physics for the soul: it disdained to be intellectually satisfying and dismissed the attempt to pursue knowledge in the form that our nature desires it. Its service to the soul was limited to its dubious effort to expel religion or superstition from the world.
None of this, of course, need prevent it from being true. But true in what sense? It has succeeded remarkably well in the limited task that it set for itself: it has constructed a world of hypothetical entities and laws that enables us to predict and control a large range of natural effects. But inevitably we are impelled to ask a further question: is this hypothetical world of atoms and forces the "true world", the world as it is "in itself", the ultimate reality that lies behind the merely apparent world of ordinary experience? Here opinion is divided, but the nay-sayers seem to have gained the upper hand.
One particularly powerful argument on the negative side, and the one to which Bolotin appeals, goes roughly as follows. Science can claim to have escaped the merely human perspective and to have ascended to the "in-itself" only if it can claim to have freed itself completely from all unscientific ideas and opinions. Yet science remains unshakeably dependent on our pre-scientific, common-sense experience of the world for the understanding of the questions it is trying to answer, the phenomena it is trying to explain, and many of the concepts it employs. Science is like a great tree reaching for the sun, but which lives only because it remains rooted in the earth. In the end, the scientific view of the world is only a very elaborate modification of the pre-scientific view and not a transcendence of it. Like metaphysicians of the past, the scientist is tempted to believe that he can escape the merely human perspective on the world. But he cannot.
Yet if such an escape is impossible, even unintelligible, then perhaps it does not make sense to continue to disparage our ordinary experience of the world as "merely human" or "unscientific". Once we see that no science or metaphysics could ever ascend to a "true world" lying behind the one we experience-thus devaluing the latter as "merely apparent"-then we are brought back to the naive view that the common-sense world of our direct and immediate experience is the true world. We learn a new respect for the surface of things. Yet if that is the case, then we also need a new physics, not perhaps to replace but at least to supplement the prevailing one, a physics that will remain loyal to the world in which we all live, a physics that will measure its success and truth not by its ability to predict or control, but by the phenomenological accuracy with which it articulates and describes the world as we actually experience it. But this new physics already exists and is to be found, according to the book under review, in the writings of Aristotle.
With this claim, however, we encounter the final obstacle in our journey back to Aristotle. His Physics does not, in fact, limit itself to a phenomenological description of the world as it appears, but endeavours to give causal explanations, which, moreover, make reference to entities and forces outside the range of possible human experience. Such, for example, are his famous doctrines of the eternity of the visible universe, geocentrism, and teleology. And, what is more, these doctrines are all demonstrably false.
The key to Bolotin's response to this problem lies in his subtitle: "With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing". There is a long and venerable tradition according to which Aristotle (along with most other ancient authors) wrote his books on two levels and for two audiences: a more soothing or conventional surface for the superficial reader and a deeper, "esoteric" teaching for the genuinely philosophic reader. Most contemporary scholars-still heirs of the Enlightenment in this too-have been reluctant to believe that a philosopher would be anything other than open and frank in his writings; but, as Bolotin shows, there are a great many explicit statements from almost every period to the effect that "many of the books of Aristotle appear to have been contrived with a view to concealment" (as Themistius, a Greek commentator of the fourth century A.D., put it). Again, the Islamic philosopher Alfarabi, writing in the tenth century, stated:
"Whoever inquires into Aristotle's sciences, peruses his books, and takes pains with them will not miss the many modes of concealment, blinding and complicating in his approach, despite his apparent intention to explain and clarify."
So common was the view of Aristotle's esotericism in the second century A.D. that the Greek writer Lucian, in his satyric dialogue The Sale of Lives depicting a slave auction of philosophers, markets his Aristotelian as follows:
Hermes: Come now, buy the height of intelligence, the one who knows absolutely everything!
Buyer: What is he like!
Hermes: Moderate, gentlemanly, adaptable in his way of living, and, what is more, he is double.
Buyer: What do you mean?
Hermes: Viewed from the outside, he seems to be one man, and from the inside, another; so if you buy him, be sure to call the one self "exoteric" and the other "esoteric".
Bolotin argues that, for a variety of reasons, fear of persecution being the most obvious, Aristotle wrote his Physics in this double manner. The famous doctrines which we find so problematic-such as geocentrism, teleology, and the eternity of the species-belong (at least in their strong formulations) to the merely surface teaching, where Aristotle presents an account of ultimate causes calculated to soothe political and religious authorities while also bolstering our trust in nature. Beneath this surface lies Aristotle's true physics, characterized precisely by the renunciation of the pursuit of ultimate causes and of grounding for the trust in nature. Liberated from this distorting pursuit, it is free for the true task of physics: the patient phenomenological description of the directly perceptible character-which is at the same time the truest being-of the world of nature.
In his second chapter, for example, Bolotin takes on the question of teleology or of purposes in nature. Through a careful and-initially-very literal reading of the text, he shows how Aristotle's apparent defence of teleology contains various perplexities and hints that point to an alternative thesis. This second thesis holds, on the one hand, that teleology as a causal theory-maintaining that purposes or intentions cause changes in the world (like the growth of a seed into an apple) and do so in the absence of any rational agent to know and act upon those purposes-is not ultimately a credible or even an intelligible view. But, on the other hand, it also holds that if, renouncing this search for the ultimate causes of change and generation, we endeavour to describe the experienced character and truest being of natural objects, like an apple, we must look, above all, to its form-that is, its mature form, which is the end or term of its development and which includes its edibility (i.e., its use or "purpose"). A truly empirical physics will be teleological in this sense.
In the present work, Professor Bolotin does not present or even claim yet to possess a complete interpretation of the Physics. He focuses on a few select topics-teleology, place, lightness and weight, and infinite divisibility-in order to establish the basic plausibility of his way of reading Aristotle and of Aristotle's way of understanding nature. In this he succeeds admirably. His treatment of these topics and texts is immensely impressive, combining the most painstaking caution and textual precision with truly philosophic boldness. A brilliant work, it is nevertheless argued with a disarming and understating simplicity. Indeed, Bolotin speaks with such unselfconscious directness and effortless clarity that one easily forgets, amid the details of his argument, that he is throwing down a serious challenge to several centuries of Aristotle scholarship and the whole edifice of modern science. This small book is a work of the first importance.

 Arthur Melzer is a professor of political science at Michigan State University and the author of The Natural Goodness of Man.


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