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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Syrianus in Response to Aristotle

Today I am thinking about some of Aristotle's objections to the Platonic theory of Forms, and the response to these objections that is given by the late Neoplatonist, Syrianus. What is notable about Syrianus' response is that he seems to employ Aristotle's own concept of focal predication to refute the latter's objections. While Syrianus' refutation of Aristotle is quite polemical and heavy-handed at times, Syrianus clearly has a great deal of respect for Aristotle. One might describe his dialogue with Aristotle as an attempt to bring Aristotle back into line with what he views as the essential tradition of Platonism. His correction of Aristotle is thus not absolute; rather, by his correction of Aristotle he attempts to show that Platonism is indeed compatible with the most fundamental principles of Aristotelian philosophy, despite Aristotle's own failure to recognize this compatibility. 

Aristotle's arguments are presented in a few places. In Book A chapter 9 of Metaphysics, he summarizes some of his most important arguments; and Book M contains a parallel rewritten version of these same arguments. Aristotle's arguments are founded on the presupposition of a dichotomy of absolute univocity versus absolute equivocity – i.e. synonymy versus homonymy – between the Forms and their instances. To recall the theory of Forms, Plato posits the Forms as the exemplars of their particular instances, such that this individual man is only said to be a man by virtue of the Form of Man itself; or the beautiful is said to be beautiful only in virtue of the Beautiful itself. Aristotle is presupposing that the term "beautiful" is said either univocally or equivocally of both the Form and its individual instance, or of Beauty Itself and of this beautiful thing. On either assumption, or univocity or equivocity, Aristotle supposedly discovers that Plato's theory must necessarily fail.

On the presupposition that Forms and particulars are synonymous or univocal, Aristotle cannot see how Plato really succeeds in maintaining any meaningful understanding of the transcendent causality of Form. For example, the Form turns out to be just another particular, perhaps differing in degree of perfection, but still needing another Form to explain it, and so on ad infinitum – the famous “Third Man” argument. On the presupposition that Forms and particulars are homonymous or equivocal, there would seem to be no real community between Forms and their particulars, but only a common name, and perhaps a completely accidental similitude. To describe Forms as “paradigms” in which particulars “participate” is only to utter “empty talk and poetic metaphors.” Nor, however, will Aristotle admit of some middle way between synonymy and homonymy - e.g. a partial overlap of definition, with the added qualifications that Forms are eternal or intelligible, while particulars are temporal and sensible. For it would seem to be completely arbitrary how these properties are added to the definitions of each: i.e. the Form of Circle and a particular circle may share the same definition; but a definition has parts – e.g. a plane figure comprehended by a single line that is equidistant at all points from a single point not on that line, namely the center. To which part of this definition is the attribute “intelligible” or “sensible” to be added, or to the whole? In these, and other related ways, Aristotle seeks to disprove the Platonic position.

In response, Syrianus shows that there is a legitimate third option between pure univocity and pure equivocity; and this he shows by applying Aristotle's own device from Book Γ, the pros hen (πρός  ἔν) manner of predication. Syrianus approves of Aristotle's use of this technique, in his own commentary on Book  Γ, and he appears to reapply this very same reasoning, in his commentary on Book M, in response to Aristotle's own objections against the Forms of Plato in book M: Forms are neither synonymous nor straightforwardly homonymous with their particulars; rather, they are analogous (to use the term which would be employed by the medievals - not necessarily Aristotle's term here; this is an interesting and controverted issue in itself). That is to say, particulars are named homonymously with this qualification, that they nonetheless bear a common focal reference to their Form, which is primary and paradigmatic. Just as substance is the primary being with respect to its accidents, and communicates its being to them, so to speak, so is Form the primary being with respect to its particulars, and it communicates its being to them as their universal paradigmatic cause. Accidents are called beings only with reference to substance - and they are beings only by participation in the being of substance. Likewise, all sensible particulars are what they are only with reference to, and by participation in, their exemplar Forms.

Of course, Syrianus does not solve all questions with this response. Nonetheless, the specific objections of Aristotle, insofar as they rely on the dichotomy of synonymy versus strict homonymy (and an incomplete consideration of some middle ground) - and especially the "Third Man" argument - are at least rendered less convincing. But questions remain concerning how exactly the forms cause anything, as they are meant to; and, moreover, just what kind of things they actually are. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Πρὀς ἕν - Focal Predication in Aristotle's Metaphysics

The concept of πρὀς ἕν (pros hen - "towards one") predication is perhaps one of the most crucial notions in the whole of the Metaphysics. It is the explanation that Aristotle gives in order to maintain the unity of metaphysics as a science - indeed, the unity of every science. This concept will be of immense importance to the later Neoplatonists, who extend it to explain the relationship between Forms and particulars - and to refute Aristotle's own objections (the irony) against the existence of the Platonic Forms. Following in their footsteps, the medieval scholastics - most notably Thomas Aquinas - will later reformulate this notion in terms of the doctrine of analogy, extending it beyond the homonymous or equivocal predication of being to merely created things, to the relationship between created things and God Himself. 

The unity of the many senses of being is maintained, for Aristotle, by their common reference to the primary being of substance. This he explains in Book Γ, chapter 2, of Metaphysics:
The term being is used in many senses, but with reference to one thing and to some one nature and not equivocally. Thus everything healthy is related to health, one thing because it preserves health, another because it causes it, another because it is a sign of it (as urine) and still another because it is receptive of it. The term medical is related in a similar way to the art of medicine; for one thing is called medical because it possesses the art of medicine, another because it is receptive of it, and still another because it is the act of those who have the art of medicine. We can take other words which are used in a way similar to these. And similarly there are many senses in which the term being is used, but each is referred to a first principle. For some things are called beings because they are substances; others because they are affections of substances; others because they are a process toward substance, or corruptions or privations or qualities of substance, or because they are productive or generative principles of substance, or of things which are related to substance, or the negation of some of these or of substance. For this reason too we say that non-being is non-being. (1003a34-1003b11)
This is essentially a matter of definition. To say that being is meant in many senses is to assert that it has many definitions - or rather, that it has no definition, because it does not have the kind of unity of a genus with is differentiated into many species. Thus, all the "kinds" of being - the ten categories - are not species of being, having in common a single, generic, definition. At first sight, then, it would seem to be the case that "being" is simply equivocal. But this Aristotle denies. Being is not simply equivocal - rather, it is equivocal in a qualified sense, because it is said of all the categories always with reference to the single and primary category of substance. Substance is being most properly speaking; and all of the accidents - as well generative or corruptive processes, or non-being itself - are named only with a focal reference to the being of substance. 

This is primarily a logical claim, and yet it must certainly have something to do with metaphysics, since it is in the Metaphysics that Aristotle employs this principle. It is important and highly interesting to note that, although logic and metaphysics are distinct sciences, they alone of all the sciences are the only two that appear to be equal in scope: logic and metaphysics both study the entirety of being; the difference is in the ratio or formality under which being is considered, either as thought or simply as being. This is indeed why logic is of the utmost importance in the practice of all the sciences: because it is truly universal, in a sense - not in the architectonic, governing sense in which metaphysics is universal. Logic is, so to speak, universally useful (it is a practical science, after all - one of the seven liberal arts). This is seen, for example, in Aristotle's discussion of the good in the Nicomachean Ethics, where "good" is not said univocally, but with a focal reference to some final good which constitutes human happiness. To this claim about how we speak of the good, there also corresponds a profound metaphysics of the good. Thus, although a logical claim is not per se a metaphysical claim, one might have good reason to think that to every logical claim about things there corresponds a metaphysical or ontological truth about the structure of reality. 

Thus, in this particular case, the logical observation is that, in the way we speak, it is the mode of  signifying something as substance which first and foremost bears the notion of the subject in any predication. We can predicate things of any of the other nine categories too - but we never predicate substance of an accident, and we always end up predicating the accidents of a substance. Substance is the root of all predication, the final and fundamental condition for speaking predicates. Now, it is not necessarily true that from every logical claim, the corresponding metaphysical claim can be directly inferred; indeed, it is quite dangerous to attempt to do so. (To one who tries to follow this method, Aristotle's claim about the priority of form in book Z would seem unintelligible, as we have seen in my previous post. Hopefully I will get to write in more detail later on the relation between logic and metaphysics.) Nonetheless, by proper method in the science of metaphysics on its own terms, one can discover the ontological basis for all of logic itself. And on the basis of such method, one can see, with Aristotle, that it is indeed substance which communicates being to all other modes of being. For substance alone is that mode of being which is the most independent, self-subsistent, and determinate; all other modes of being are contingent upon the being of substance itself. Logical analogy seems to correspond to a real structure within the fabric of reality. 

In my next post, I will introduce an important Neoplatonic philosopher to this blog: Syrianus, master of the academy in Athens from about 431-437 AD, and commentator on parts of Aristotle's Metaphysics. Syrianus is perhaps best known for being the teacher of Proclus, who himself became known as one of the greatest and most influential philosophers of Late Antiquity. Syrianus and Proclus were both thoroughly acquainted with the works of both Plato and Aristotle, and they appeared within the context of a trend in Neoplatonism towards the harmonization of these two great masters. However, they were far from uncritical of Aristotle, and they were well aware of Aristotle's own heavy-handed criticisms of the Platonic theory of Forms. I hope, next week, to take a look at Syrianus' use of Aristotle's own notion of πρὀς ἕν predication - the doctrine of analogy or focal meaning - to refute Aristotle's objections against the Forms.