Skip to content

Book Panel at Antioch College TODAY

As part of the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Collaborative Initiative, I and my collaborators Lewis Trelawny-Cassity and Kevin Miles will be discussing my book Aristotle and the Nature of Community tomorrow, April 17, 2015, at Antioch College, MacGregor 149 at 4 PM.  This panel will be convened in conjunction with the philosophy roundtable that meets regularly in Yellow Springs.  I’m posting my comments below:

It’s an honor to be given this time and this venue to discuss my research.  I’m grateful to Lewis Meeks Trelawny-Cassity and to Kevin Miles for the time and the consideration they have given my book.  Kevin Miles was the first person with whom I read the Politics.  Since reading Plato and Aristotle with him as a graduate student, I have found a persisting tension between the project of elucidating the question of a text and offering a sympathetic account of it.  My own interest in developing a positive account of Aristotle’s Politics might seem to repress rather than illuminate the questions of the text.  My drive has been to give the strongest reading in an effort to find an alternative to modern conceptions of political life.  I hope that today and not only today, I can try to get clearer about the questions this reading forces upon us.

The concerns that both Trelawny-Cassity and Miles raise are the pressing ones of this book: the relation of logos and nomos to physis, the meaning and significance of “the political,” the question of the status of the polis in Aristotle’s writing, the methodological problems and possibilities of Aristotle’s Politics, and in light of those methodological questions, whether and how Aristotle’s Politics can legitimately be said to offer a response to conceptions of political life that are exclusionary.

DSCN2159Reason and Physis

The title of this book points to the (at least) double sense of “nature” to address the role of nature in thinking political life and theessence or nature of political life.  I do think much hinges on the role of nature in our conceptions of political life.  Trelawny-Cassity finds that I “frame[…] the fundamental philosophical problem as the conflict between reason (logos) and nature (physis).” I’d like to respond in two ways in order to get clearer on how and why I am concerned with nature in our efforts to think political community.  First, I don’t want to make the totalizing claim that this is the philosophical problem.  I do think that the history of political thought has been construed in terms of this opposition and that the history of that opposition is responsible for the history of exclusionary structures of political community.  I think overcoming those exclusions involves rethinking the relation of reason to nature, and really, rethinking the concepts of reason and nature themselves.  Second,I take Trelawny-Cassity’s point to be that it is not logos but nomos that has been opposed to physis.  My reason for framing it in terms of logos was to articulate the way that nature has been opposed to human contributions in order to challenge the view that nature is what is set outside the human, making the human being as Spinoza writes, “a kingdom within a kingdom.”  I wouldn’t say that I set up the opposition between logos and physis and not nomos and physis because I would want to resist or ignore the opposition being between nomos and physis as much as I want to resist it being between logos and physis.  On the contrary, I think opposing nomos to physis is central to my framing the question in terms of the opposition between logos and physis.  Nomos is part of the activity that I include in logos broadly construed. Both of these oppositions define the natural as that which has no contribution from the human.  My argument about physis is not to de-emphasize nomos but rather to suggest that nomos, law, legislators and so forth, do not make our fundamental political being together, a being together defined by its concern for not only living but living well, something that is merely conventional, something that we as humans could choose to divest ourselves of.  Rather, we are always already within this being together and we thrive as human beings here.  This is why I consider fundamental the question of how to conceive of nature, a question whose answers will influence how we conceive of logos and nomos.

Social and Political

Trelawny-Cassity points to a social inclination in Aristotle that is distinct from a political one.  To respond to that claim I want to first directly address Aristotle’s arguments about political community and second, offer some comments on how I understand political community in Aristotle.  First, to say that human beings are social by nature but that political life is not natural, in the sense that I am using natural, would, it seem, rob my, and Aristotle’s, claim of the force I think it has.  I would say that Aristotle defines political community in terms of the end toward which it aims–living well–in contrast to the prior communities that aim at living.  If sociality is just that there is a pros ti, a relationality or being towards (Sean Kirkland gave a great paper on the pros ti in the Politics at the APS last weekend), then it would seem that we might be connected to others without concern for living well.  And here, Trelawny-Cassity is right to point to the influence of Arendt on my reading, though I think this is pretty squarely in Aristotle.  If there is in fact a being together that is focused on living but not yet living well then it would seem that human beings are not always already concerned with how to live together but only with living.  Aristotle’s forceful claims that the political community is natural seem to resist the notion that we could be just concerned with living on the one hand or concerned with living well but by ourselves on the other.  I argue that it is what we are as human beings in logos, in the activity whereby we show ourselves to be both related to others and concerned with organizing our pleasures and pains with a view to a future about which we make judgments regarding how it would best be that makes us political.  This activity is not an add-on or later development for Aristotle.

I would suggest that there is this sense of political life–the concern for living well in our fundamental being towards others–in Homer and in Greek tragedy, which leads me to my second point about method.  When I speak of political life in Aristotle, I think it works on two registers that are interrelated.  I do think that Aristotle knows, phenomenologically, the polis and thinks in terms of that structure, but when he defines political life I don’t think he is chiefly focused on the specific institutions around him.  I do think there is an ontological claim — it wouldn’t be a political community if it had all the things listed in Politics III.9–alliance, exchange, shared territory, security, and so forth–but did not concern itself with living well.  The difference between the political ruler and the household is not of size, we learn in the very first chapter of the Politics, but rather of their ends.  Thus, I would agree with Miles’ closing claim that political life might be less the polis and more a way of being together.  As Miles questions: “What if Aristotle’s community is more of an intangible relation in the sense Arendt has in view where she writes: “not Athens, but the Athenians, were the polis?

Moreover, I think Aristotle is making claims about what political community as such is in ways that can be employed as criticisms of the poleis that he observes.  I do not think that he is observing the structures he sees and dubbing them political.  In this sense, I think that political as a concept has normative force for him.  It describes a particular way of being together and thus shows how some factical ways of organizing community can fail to take their political being seriously if they remain focused on living and not living well.  Such factical communities would fail to cultivate the way that we by virtue of being human are concerned with living well.  They will fail to be political, while claiming to be political and this account of the political serves as leverage for critique of those communities.

Method, oh Madness

Comments from both Trelawny-Cassity and Miles have prompted me to reflect once more on my method and Aristotle’s method.  Perhaps what is most perplexing and fascinating, overly criticized and under-understood is how Aristotle’s descriptive account has normative force.  As in the example above, Aristotle defines political community as the community that aims toward living well and then judges communities as political or not based on whether they are aiming toward living well.  Since living well is the sufficient and all-encompassing end, communities that aim toward that end are the best communities and so there is a normative sense here about how we should be in relation to one another, a normative sense that can be used to criticize communities that fail to take living well as their end though they purport to do so (Pol. I.9).

Aristotle similarly deploys the definition of citizen as a descriptor that includes normative force.  When Aristotle says the citizen is the one who engages in rule and deliberation and then acknowledges that this definition most works in a democracy, I take him to be making a claim about what it means to be a citizen as such: to be political is to be engaged in the concerns for the end that defines a community as political–living well.  Those who engage in this activity are political.  Those who do not are not.  In my reading, to engage is to be political rather than to be recognized by the institutions of a particular polis as being capable of engaging.  Thus, being a citizen is a political activity and it is here that there is and can be contestation over whether the political community is including all those who are in fact engaging in the activity that makes the community political.  I’ll turn to this more in my discussion of community in the context of Miles’ comments below, but for now I want to mark the way this points to a method that defines and in defining holds force requiring those who would claim to recognize citizens to have an account of citizens that is in fact political and not just serving its own sense of the end of the polis.

The pointed question that Miles asks, “Does the available evidence suggest that Aristotle believed every homo sapien biped with speech was, by virtue of that, a human being?” gives me occasion to further consider my method in reading Aristotle.  Miles wonders whether I am taking Aristotle out of his time, and both Miles and Trelawny-Cassity remark on the importance of thinking of Aristotle today as I try to do in this book.  I think for Aristotle to be relevant today he must be both more emphatically read in his time and read with an eye for how he can come out of his time.

First, Aristotle in his time.  I have much to say on this point having to do with Gadamer, and how “the hermeneutic task consists in not covering up this tension by attempting a naive assimilation of the two but in consciously bringing it out” (Truth and Method, 306), with letting texts be strange, especially conceptions of the political, of reason, of language, of the individual and the citizen, and even of nature.  I have more even to say about women and slaves and Aristotle’s time and how’s Aristotle’s claims appear in his time.  But I want to set that aside to try to think about how I am taking Aristotle out of his time.  So let me shift the register of Miles’ methodological question by reframing it thus: “Do the conclusions that I draw from Aristotle’s reading of the relation of nature to logos require Aristotle to have seen them in order for them to be legitimately drawn from his text?”  I don’t think so.  I think part of the work that we who do the history of philosophy do is to make arguments for an account or a pattern within an ancient text that might have contemporary purchase, regardless of whether that logic was seen and encouraged by the author.  On the other hand, I strongly resist hermeneutic approaches that impose on ancient texts certain modern scientific and epistemological demands and thereby are quick to say the argument is wrong.

I see Kevin’s question as one that focuses on a particular social context and how and whether particular groups judged in a particular community are political. Part of the argument of my book is to challenge our reading that they are excluded on Aristotle’s terms.  But I’m even more interested in whether the structure of political life as presented by Aristotle is necessarily exclusive or driving toward an openness that institutes the concern for inclusion.  We’ve learned from feminism and critical race theory to be wary of accounts that purport to be equal and universal when their standards are coded as what most pertains to white European men (I recognize that what is contested here is even whether Aristotle’s account purports to be equal and universal).  Using these standards that claim to be equal and universal work to conceal these exclusions.  What I want to suggest in my account is not that it is solves these problems, but that it institutes a concern for them – for the question of whether the drive to apply equally does in deed achieve its purported goal.  The question that Kevin’s question leads me to is whether concern for the excluded that we do not yet even recognize as excluded can be instituted or if such instituting necessarily is exclusive.

Trelawny-Cassity suggests that if Aristotle’s account of slavery is used to defend slavery, then Aristotle is responsible.  I’m wary of that argument, in the vein in which Derrida suggests that writing is like a postcard sent out with no confirmation that the proper addressee receives it.  I don’t think Jesus is responsible for being invoked by bigots and racists.  But maybe the reason I think that is we tend to believe that Jesus was not a bigot or a racist but that Aristotle was.  I think this is a question again about methodology: Reading and rereading the Gospels with careful attention to their context and showing that they do not mean what people take them to mean is a way of challenging an accepted orthodoxy.  Given the weight of authority that people put into Aristotle, upsetting a received view of Aristotle–both the Aristotle-is-a-modern-liberal view and the Aristotle-is-a-chauvinist-slave-holding-racist-shit view–suggests that the arguments and texts that undergird sexist, slave-owning, barbarian-hating thinking, might not be so easily won from those texts.  In fact, those very texts might present strong resistance.

I turned to Aristotle to make my argument about political life for precisely that reason, because historically people put so much authority in his writings.  I don’t think ignoring them altogether successfully resists the way the tradition remains at work in our thinking.  Nor do I think the carefulness of reading a text immersed in its context is the same thing as saying that there is an esoteric reading that shows what he really meant.  I would say instead that the meaning has become hidden and secret to us because it is strange and foreign coming from another world that we too often fail to see as another world.  I won’t go down the road of how the Greeks became “the Greeks,” which is to say, how they became ours, how they became un-strange, but I am interested in the effort to make the Greeks strange.

Physi-cal Community

This brings me to concerns raised by both Kevin and Lew about my claim that a structure of openness is to be found in Aristotle’s Politics.  The Greeks did not make claims to universality.  For this, we hold them morally responsible.  Moderns make claims to universality.  For this, we applaud them.  Yet their attestations of equality, fraternity and liberty actually succeeded in more successfully covering over and continuing to cover over profound exclusions (cf. Charles W. Mills).  I argue that the structure of nature that I find in Aristotle’s Politics contributes to an institutionalizing of the question of inclusion in order that we might remain unsatisfied with the current political situation even as we strive toward universality.

I take this to be one of the two alternatives for thinking the problem of how community becomes exclusive.  This is the problem whereby having a definition, a common ergon or work whereby membership in a community is determined, involves defining the community in terms of those who achieve the definition and those who do not.  Historically, social contract theory has operated on this account because it suggests that a certain capacity to decide, to contract, is required to belong, and those who seem too close to nature–women (cf. Carole Pateman), American Indians, African slaves–like Aristotle’s categories of women, barbarians and slaves, are excluded from political life.  The solution from contemporary social contract theory perspective has been to move the goalposts–to show that indeed, women, non-Europeans and workers can engage in rational discourse.  But the problem on this account is that it requires a judgment from those already deemed rational, and thus already empowered to judge others, to judge whether others are rational. Image result for community

The response to this position has been twofold: one has been in the work of a number of contemporary European thinkers such as Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others.  They suggest that community is a common without measure that determines whether someone should be included or not–no shared ergon or work, “no common ground of being together,” as Nancy writes.  Perhaps the most difficult thing about that account of community is it difficult to think.  For my part, I have followed another path in thinking this openness in Aristotle, one that might be better captured by another contemporary European thinker, Jacques Rancière, who argues that politics is always the place of the dispute over who belongs:

Politics exists because the logos is never simply speech, because it is always indissolubly the account that is made of this speech: the account by which a sonorous emission is understood as speech, capable of enunciating what is just, whereas some other emission is merely perceived as a noise signaling pleasure or pain, consent or revolt. 23

And several pages later:

Politics exists because those who have no right to be counted as speaking beings make themselves of some account. 27

Instead of arguing that there is no measure, I argue that both the measure and the contestation over the measure are instituted when the measure is logos.  The question we make of our lives together can and does in political life reflect on itself to consider the ways we are taking up the question.

There seems then to be a threefold possibility: that politics makes no claim regarding belonging, that the community institutes a view of the good, or that politics perpetuates the dispute over belonging, as Rancière describes it.  I find in Aristotle a tension between instituting a view of the good and instituting the dispute over the good.  I do not mean to say by instituting the dispute that the problem of exclusion is solved, to be frank, I guess I don’t think that the community with no common is perceptible as community.  But I also think that there is a problem in supposing we can institute the good once and for all.  Such a move both ends the deliberative activity that constitutes politics and assumes a finality and completeness of our knowledge of the good, which I think has been pretty well-established as an authoritarian move.

In closing, we all know the anxiety of sending your work out into the world, wondering whether and how it will be received, like Derrida’s postcard.  In our increasingly marketized academy, I think it’s also difficult to know how to treat one’s own published work as persisting and not finished when you feel the pressure to move on to producing the next research project.  I’m grateful to Trelawny-Cassity and Miles for allowing this return, this rumination, this chewing of the cud, of my work and I look forward to further conversation and, indeed, collaboration.

Thanks to my husband for taking the picture at the top at a cafe in Athens.  The second is mine from the Temple of Athena at Delphi.

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: