Saturday, June 16, 2012

Aristotle would be amazed

An exceedingly brief review of De Anima, or, On the Soul.

As an amateur philosopher, it behoves to do some spade work in the vineyards of the ancients. So I picked up an edition of Aristotle, and was intrigued.

First, it gradually becomes apparent that Aristotle has something different in mind than we do with the word "soul". He is an inveterate biologist, and is interested in that which animates the organism. So in his day the very basic question of what separates the quick from the dead was, as it were, a very live question. What is the function of breathing? What is the nature of sensation, which must also cease upon death? What characterizes all living things- breathing (no), locomotion (no), vision or other higher sensations (no), touch (maybe), need for food (yes).

His proto-Darwinian thought is incredibly tantalizing, though typically tangled up with theology.
"The acts in which it [life] manifests itself are reproduction and the use of food- reproduction, I say, because for any living thing that has reached is normal development and whch is unmutilated, and whose mode of generation is not spontaneous, the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible."

Theology nowadays has of course been driven off the field from many of these questions. Its soul is a shadow of its former self- some sticky residue of intuition that consciousness could not possibly come from the same mechanisms that so evidently perform all the other wonders of life.

At any rate, one can readily tell that Aristotle would be delighted beyond words to see the knowledge we have today, so long in coming after his labored speculations. Indeed, only in the last 250 years have we markedly advanced beyond the ancients in the necessary knowledge (principally chemistry and evolution) to answer most of his speculations.

And speculations they were ... and endless hairsplitting and repetition that is, frankly, painful to read. He is frequently conversing with Plato, that mystic philosopher, and so has to trot out various commonly held theories of the day.
"Thinking, loving, and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has it. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they are activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible."
"Some hold that the soul is divisible, and that one part thinks, another desires. If, then, its nature admits of its being divided, waht can it be that holds the parts together? Surely not the body; on the contrary it seems rather to be the soul that holds the body together; at any rate when the soul departs the body disintegrates and decays. If, then, there is something else which makes the soul one, this unifying agency would have the best right to the name of soiuld, and we shall have to repeat for it the question: Is *it one or multipartite? If it is one, why not at once admit that 'the soul' is one? If it has parts, once more the questikon must be put: What holds *its parts together, and so ad infinitum?"
"Mind is itself thinkable in exactly the same way as its objects are. For (a) in the case of objects which involve no matter, what thinks and what is thought are identical. (b) In the case of those which contain matter each of the objects of thought is only potentially present. It follows that while *they will not have mind in them (for mind is a potentiality of them only in so far as they are capable of being disengaged from matter) mind may yet be thinkable." -translation by J. A. Smith 

This gives you an idea of the language, which clearly comes from a time before modern editing. In many places, one has a distinct sense of disjoint-ness; that something has been lost in the lengthy chain of transmission from the author. Someone may have fallen asleep! Yet, there is also a glimmer of sense here, in that the nature of the mind is open to some kind of analysis, even though Aristotle couches the idea in a pile of nonsense about thoughts and minds being identical when abstract, a sort of identity theory of computational simulation.

It is fascinating to experience a person from such a long-ago epoch, deploying his formidable intelligence on problems that were incredibly obdurate. And it is a scandal that his wooly speculations would be the standard of intellect for the next nearly 2000 years.

  • Republican unworthiness to hold national office, continued.
  • Unworthiness and vitriol, continued..
  • Chronicle of addiction: "And the jungle drums start to pound."
  • Free range continues his tale. "And wait until you hear this tale my friends because it is beyond Afghan crazy; it’s Pakistan crazy and the only level of crazy above that involves extraterrestrials."
  • Labor exploitation in IT.
  • US median family net worth dropped by almost half during this little depression.
  • Robert Reich: income = spending; lack of income = depression.
  • JP Morgan is a hedge fund, on the taxpayer's dime.
  • Inequality's relation to the crisis. Trickle up leads to an unproductive rentier class.
"According to the pro-inequality theorists, these growing surpluses [of concentrated corporate and private wealth] should have led to a boom in productive investment. Instead, they ended up fuelling commodity speculation, financial engineering and hostile corporate raids, activity geared more to transferring existing rather than creating new wealth and reinforcing the shift towards greater inequality."


  1. There was a program on the BBC a year or so ago titled "Aristotle's Lagoon" that I think you would appreciate.

  2. Hi, Kelly-

    Thanks so much for your link. I see a copy on youtube... Thanks also for your song spoof videos- they were fantastic., expecially the Tebow and Jedi knight songs. Amazing.

    1. Sometimes you just have to laugh. But do check out the program, it's hosted by a biologist.