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Book Review: Ömer Aygün’s The Middle Included

I volunteered to review this book for a scholarly review site in a field that is adjacent to mine.  I was asked to rewrite it because it did not accord with the standard ways of speaking about Aristotle.  I pulled the review and am publishing it here.  I mention this background because I think it is worth noting how deep a hold the traditional approaches to Aristotle have.  This hold makes people assume there is no more interpretation to be done on Aristotle.  It makes some scholars resistant to new and fruitful approaches that recover Aristotle from scholastic approaches.  It makes them assume that logic is clearly and obviously distinct from ontology and ethics.  Aygün offers a careful reading of the text to challenge this approach to Aristotle and by doing so contributes to the growing scholarship that unsettles a tradition that takes these questions to be settled.

Aygün, Ömer. The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016. xv, 272 p. $34.95 (pb). ISBN 9780810134003

It is a difficult and remarkable task to say something new about the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Such is the project Ömer Aygün undertakes in The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle to argue that Aristotle is not a thinker of the excluded but the included middle. Aristotle is traditionally understood as the father of logic based on his articulation of the law of non-contradiction.  The law of non-contradiction is both a logical and an ontological principle because Aristotle thinks that what is must be knowable, and insofar as it is knowable, it follows the principles of knowledge.  The law of non-contradiction, that the same thing cannot be said to be and not be of the same thing in the same respect at the same time, is the most reliable principle of knowledge for Aristotle.  But it is also a principle of being because it is not just that it cannot be said, but the same thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way in a subject.  The middle is excluded because if something is said to be of a thing there is no middle position wherein it could also be said not to be.  The middle is excluded because what is and what is not must be held apart.

Aygün offers a novel interpretation of this law by arguing that logos puts into relation that which is opposed and hence, is the middle that has traditionally been thought to be excluded. Logos, Aygün argues, joins what is opposed—contraries–without reducing or sublating what is opposed.  The traditional language of Aristotelian scholarship understands logos in terms of logic as a formal system or speech as a mechanism for communicating personal thoughts to another.  This language distances the contemporary reader from the richness of Aristotle’s language that shows the human being to be formed by logos in a way that conceives of the human as a being that draws the multiplicity of the world into a unity. The apparent strangeness of Aygün’s language is necessitated by the demand to make what we suppose is obvious in Aristotle become a question again.  His account of logos makes the human being “the middle included,” because, through logos, which he describes as a mediation, a synthesis, and a stretching, the human being joins together the difference and multiplicity that constitutes the world.

The book is divided into six chapters. Each chapter can be read on its own for the sense of logos investigated therein or as part of a larger argument about the fundamental sense of logos Aristotle assigns to the human capacity for logos.  The first chapter focuses on the Categories to show that logos operates as a measure of what is, of being.  This measure is unique insofar as it arises from what is measured, and in this way, is a process of joining together what seems fundamentally opposed.  The second chapter draws the connection between the being to whom the standard applies and the standard itself to explain the “logos of being” through the relation of potentiality to actuality.  The third chapter argues that natural beings exhibit their logos as the measure that governs them through the internal motions that define them: reproduction, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion.  The self-sustaining of natural beings through their effort to incorporate the external world invokes the sense of logos as ratio, where the work of the soul is to maintain the relationship to what is otherwise that preserves the natural being without making it become either wholly otherwise or wholly independent.  The fourth chapter extends this sense of ratio in De Anima to the logos of the sensitive soul to show that difference and relation must obtain between the organ and its object for sensation to be possible.  The fifth chapter argues for a third sense of logos as reason that characterizes the human capacity for action.  This sense of logos allows human beings to consider conflicting options and characterizes what Aygün calls positive states, hexis as the position in which a person can hold contrary interpretations of her objects of desire.  The last chapter draws these senses of logos together around the fourth meaning as speech. Aygün argues that this meaning shares a similar structure with the previous meanings because it breaks down a boundary between two contrary positions—what one has experienced and what one has not—which characterizes the uniquely human relationship toward what is.  Aygün argues that logos should be contrasted with nous whose relation to being is simple and immediate, a contrast that shows logos to be mundane rather than mystic and divine, as it becomes for Gnostic and Christian thinkers.

Especially strong is Aygün’s argument that logos involves a relationship between that which is different and irreducible.  What Aygün calls the inclusive version of the principle of non-contradiction distinguishes between ways of being in order to hold contraries together (35). The included middle joins what is different without making it merely a mixture of the opposed contraries, like mixing hot and cold produces warm. Aygün regularly turns questions of logic in Aristotle to questions of ways of being to show how central questions of being are for understanding the work that logos is capable of doing and the human animal that is defined by having this capacity.  Aygün makes his case with helpful examples from the elemental to wax, Oedipus to the Cyclops.

Interpretations that aim to provide one structure for the whole of a corpus provide a particular kind of satisfaction.  They also raise questions about whether the interpretation is being forced to fit the structure.  Aygün argues for a view that aims both to make logos similar in each situation and to set the human being outside the structure that measures all other beings.  The sense in which logos governs the various kinds of souls explains how the soul is in each case holding in relation.  The nutritive soul depends on the soil’s nutrients that are otherwise than the plant but incorporated into the plant for it to grow and to continue being what it is.  The animal’s perceptive soul holds the sensed object and the sense organ together in difference for sensation to occur.  Similarly, human action through logos takes in what is otherwise than a person’s character in order to for the person become more fully what they are.  Like the plant and animal, it is part of what it is to be human to be capable of taking in what the human is not.  Aygün distinguishes the human from the plant and the animal by emphasizing the passage at Politics VII.13, where Aristotle says that people become excellent through “nature, habit, and reason (logos)” (1332a40), for human beings are able to “act contrary to their habits and their nature because of reason (logon)” (1332b6-8).  While the world is what is otherwise than the plant and the animal, Aygün suggests that humans are capable of becoming otherwise to themselves.  The capacity to transform the innate is what Aygün argues is uniquely human (122).

One way to think about this process in a way that could make it fit the overall structure is that humans are what are otherwise than themselves in a way that animals are not.  What is other than the animal is the world.  Animals take the world as an object, while human beings can take themselves as an object.  Because humans are otherwise for themselves, they must be mediated to themselves through logos, which is the source of their capacity to extend this measure to the world.  This capacity is so human that the human seems to become animal when this capacity is lost, which if that is the case, makes this capacity itself just as much an innate and unchangeable capacity as the animal’s innate capacities the animal does not concern itself with changing.  This way of understanding logos would seem to put the human in a parallel structure to the animal.  But Aygün makes the case that the human is uniquely situated to logos.  The capacity that seemed to gather all beings is now shown to divide some beings from others.  As the animal who has logos, the human is the animal who by taking the self as an object can be the relation between the world and self. This exclusive role of the human depends on an analysis of deliberation that makes it a capacity of holding together contraries, where what is held together is the self with a self that is otherwise or at odds with the self, one way to think of the relationship between the good and the painful (138).

Aygün again makes a dual move of arguing that logos maintains the same structure, while the human occupies a unique relationship to that structure in the last chapter on Politics to argue that the contradictory terms are firsthand experiences and non-firsthand experiences (146).  As Aygün argues, because human logos is capable of speaking about that which is not immediate experience as pleasure and pain, it can be mistaken about causes, but it can also be a matter of disinterested wonder.  This non-immediacy is what allows us to see things from other people’s perspectives and to imagine things being otherwise than they are, and it is in this sense that logos is fundamentally political.  Following the structure already developed, this political capacity would seem to be a way of finding one’s being in the world with others as something that can be transformed.

Here again, the interest in presenting a universal notion of logos in Aristotle alongside the interest in distinguishing the human from the animal raises questions about whether the difference between them is structural or a difference of degree. Aygün analyzes human logos by contrasting bee, bird and human communication in what is the most original contribution of the book.  He uses this contrast to explain the specifically human logos capacity to make declarations—to affirm a way that things are—and to pray—to imagine things otherwise.  Aygün’s analysis of logos is revelatory of the connection between language’s capacities of being human and being political.  Yet while Aygün establishes a clear distinction, it is not obvious that all animals maintain this distinction from human beings, or that phônê is so easily distinguished from logos.  When animals signal pain and pleasure to one another this signaling could be interpreted as affirming or rejecting a certain way that the world is.  When animals encourage a response to this way the world is, they seem to be motivating change in behavior or change to the world in a continuum with human capacities through their capacity for aesthesis (perception) and phantasia (imagination) as described in De Motu Animalium.[1]  Aygün’s case hinges on the ability of human logos to fail because of its non-immediacy, but animal signaling can also fail.  The animal can fail to go alongside with the other.

I have long thought of logos in Aristotle as a capacity whose performance shows one to be a part of the community of those who, having logos do the work logos enables—determining together what is good and just as described in Politics I.2.  In this sense, the capacity for logos is testified to by its activity.  Those who do this activity are beings who have the capacity.  It is difficult to tell in advance which beings have it.  And it is not prescribed from the outset whether the activity is about the just or merely the pleasant, and hence whether the capacity manifested is logos or not.  Because of this difficulty, the question of who has this capacity is never determined in advance.  The concern of political community is in remaining vigilant to include those who by claiming to belong attest to their capacity for logos.  It is in this way that I have previously understood Aristotle’s account to be an inclusive view of logos.  Aygün’s inclusive account of logos paradoxically extends a sense of logos to all putting in relation in a way that makes stricter the line between who has logos and who does not.  In this analysis, logos becomes inclusive while its political consequences are exclusive.  This unexpected thesis is provocative and a welcome addition to the discussion of the role of logos in Aristotle’s politics, in the being of the human, and in Aristotle’s corpus as a whole.

[1] For a broad notion of the animal capacity of aisthêsis (perception) that includes judgment and for phantasia (imagination) that mirrors thinking in the human, see Charles Kahn, “Aristotle on Thinking,” in Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima, ed. M. Nussbaum and A.O. Rorty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 359-379 and Martha Nussbaum, “The Role of Phantasia in Aristotle’s Explanations of Action,” in De Motu Animalium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 221-269.


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