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Posts tagged ‘Aristotle’

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.

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The Incompatibility of Democracy and Capitalism

In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean explains that those who wanted to reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism realized in the mid-twentieth century that democracy and democratic institutions and practices were a threat to their efforts.  In the wake of the New Deal and Great Society, Americans had grown to expect the government to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens–the poor and the elderly.  The government was regularly called upon to rectify historical wrongs, as in the case of racially segregated schools where schools for Black children were not equal to schools for white children.  Labor unions sought collective rights to bargain for better contracts.  Environmentalists sought government regulations to protect water and air and other natural resources from contamination and against climate change.  Americans saw the government as a source of positive change.

In my last post, I lay out MacLean’s case for how libertarians like James M. Buchanan and Charles Koch sought to sow the seeds of nihilism, suggesting that politicians, scientists and educators were not aiming to serve the public good, but for their own interest and therefore should not be trusted.  In this post, I address the recognition that these folks came to have that their dreams of capitalism without restraint were at odds with democracy, and the ways that they employed the rhetoric of democracy to undo the democratic gains of the twentieth century, especially in the areas of civil rights, labor unions, health care and social security, and public support for those in poverty.

As MacLean explains, average American citizens had come to realize that they could have power to influence government by joining their voices into a collective.  Buchanan aimed to break the power of these collectives by casting them as undemocratic special interests.  Following his notion of “public choice theory,” where politicians’ goal is only to be re-elected and not to do what is right and just for the common cause, Buchanan argued that politicians had become beholden to “special interests” of labor unions, including teachers unions, and civil rights organizations who would work to defeat them in elections if they did not do what they asked.  In this way, Buchanan and his cohort turned the process of making politicians accountable to their constituents into a situation in which politicians were held hostage to those special interests.  This rhetorical move is particularly ironic given the Koch brothers active efforts to defeat politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act.  MacLean traces this strategy back to Brown V. Board of Education, when Black families sued counties and states that refused to integrate and were then cast as seeking special protections when what they wanted was equal protection under the law and equal access to high quality education.  This move culminated in Pres. Reagan casting recipients of assistance for poor families as “welfare recipients” who were taking advantage of the government.

By making collective appeals to the government–the only appeals that were effective for those who were historically excluded–by calling these appeals those of special interests, they were able to turn the tables for how to influence government back to those individuals who had the wealth to do so.   If collectives were suspect, and only collectives could make a difference for the working class, then making collectives seem undemocratic returned the power to the undemocratic moneyed individuals who could then use the same “public choice theory” that politicians only cared to keep their jobs to threaten politicians that they would lose their jobs if they voted in support of the collective interests of the common people.

In Politics III.8, Aristotle says that democracy occurs “when those who control [the constitution] do not have much property, but are poor” (1279b18-19).  With this definition of democracy, Aristotle points out the very problem that Buchanan and the Kochs encountered: democracy wants to address the concerns of the poor, who outnumber the rich.  Outnumbering the rich, the practioners of democracy are at odds with the rich who aim  to produce wealth without restraint or concern for others and without having to support the community in which such wealth is produced.  The only recourse for the rich is to make the democratic practices themselves suspect and to replace them with the force of their wealth, which is in fact the current state of affairs.

Herein lies the ruse of libertarianism, whose view of freedom is not unlike the view of freedom that Aristotle associates with the democrats: to do whatever they want without license.  Aristotle implores them to recognize that the law is not slavery, but salvation, as I explicate in a recent article.  The law is considered slavery when it is viewed as coming from somewhere else.  Law is recognized as coming from somewhere else when government is seen as otherwise than the citizens, which is what Koch et al want — to be the source of government and law at the expense of the democratic many.  To the extent that they want to be free of government, they want to be above the collective determination of what is good. Outnumbered, they alone want to say what is good.  Their wealth has made them think that they are not dependent on others and so it has made them, like the Cylcops, as one who is “clanless, lawless, and homeless” (Pol. 1253a4). Following the association of wealth with virtue that can be traced back to the ancient oligarchs, who thinking themselves unequal in one way, supposed they were unequal in all ways, they think that their wealth makes them as the one who is so outstanding in virtue that they should not be a part of the city (1284a4-7).  As MacLean shows, they aren’t really opposed to the city and the law altogether, but they want it to divide the city in such a way that the government serves only their interests rather than that of the democratic majority.  Arguing that the collectives are undemocratic, they aim to make the government undemocratic for their own ends.  They are willing to put their wealth to work to turn the law and government from the public good to their own private goods.  They do this because they suppose they are better than the democratic majority, but it is worth noting that Aristotle will go on to say that the multitude is stronger, richer and better, when taken as a collective (1283a39-41).

The libertarian critique of government works as a ruse: it criticizes democratic efforts as undemocratic in order to undo democracy.  It works to encourage the majority to think it is undemocratic for the government to restrict those trying to make the community undemocratic.  This stealth move puts democracy in chains.

How Scholars Work and Some Thoughts on the Prime Matter Arguments

I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment.  My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.

When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked.  One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective!  I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me.  That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter.  It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months.  I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together.  This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?

When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter.  It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore.  For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work.  But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole.  So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more

Alternative Facts and The Politics of Perception

On Saturday, the Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference to tell the press that estimates of crowds at the Inauguration were false.  When Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway why the Press Secretary used his first press conference to lie to the press, she said he did not lie, he used “alternative facts.”

Trump himself has repeatedly made claims that are verifiably false.  He claimed that the Democrats had rigged the debates to go up against an NFL game, though the NFL schedule was established after the debates and that the Koch brothers asked for a meeting with him when they did not.  Those are just two examples in a sea of many.  A lot of people are rightfully concerned that the Administration will offer its set of “facts” that are in no way connected to what has happened or what has been said.  These concerns have opened a question about what it means for us to share a reality.  If politics is a matter of sharing a world, this common reality must be established and is not given in advance.  This common reality is fragile.  This common reality is informed by our desires to see the world in a certain way.  It feels like now more than ever we are fighting to establish a common world, but the history of alternative realities constituting American politics is long. Read more

#APS16: Ancient Philosophy Society Talks Gender

Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College.  A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage.  I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own. Read more

On Robin James’ Resilience and Melancholy

On March 12, 2016 at the University of Colorado, Denver, at the meeting of PhiloSophia: Society for Continental Feminism, I will be speaking on an Author Meets Critics panel discussing Robin James’ recent book.  Below are my comments.

I like this book. I like how Robin James says important things to a popular audience from a background in academic philosophy that remains unbeholden to that world. I like her independent voice. I like how, in Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, James exemplifies what philosophizing out of a singular moment and specific site looks like. Her moment is neoliberalism and her site is pop music. James uses music as more than an example; in her hands, music is a place for developing a conceptual apparatus for neoliberalism. In music, we hear how the demand to turn damage into something productive works to make oppressed persons assimilate into the neoliberal apparatus.

James references a whole slew of sources that signal the breadth of her influences in this project–from Adorno and Marcuse to Deleuze and Guattari, queer theorists Jack Halberstam and José Estabon Muñoz, New Media Studies theorist Steven Shaviro, political theorists like Jodi Dean, Lester Spence and Mark Neocleous, as well as cultural studies scholars like Zandria Robinson. Beyond those we recognize as theorists, James draws insight out of the work of pop musicians Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, Atari Teenage Riot and Rihanna.  With this book, James expands the sphere of those figures worth putting to work in philosophy, just as her working out of music multiplies the sites in which thinking occurs outside of the center of well-respected philosophical discourse.

In this comment I move back to those well-respected in philosophical discourse, somewhat abashedly and certainly not because I think James’ argument needs to be put in conversation with those folks in order to gain legitimacy. By no means. James’ work addresses a strain in political philosophy that shows her to be calling into question, even turning on its head, the structural framework within which we have thought about how to expand the sphere of the political to include those at the margins. It’s fitting that this structure is turned on its head through voices unheard in philosophy. Read more

Day 24: Against Efficiency

This month I have found myself thinking about the ways that concepts from commercial life have come to pervade our thinking about ethical and political life to our detriment.  Debt economics was one way.  Efficiency is another.

In Republic II, Plato has Socrates justify having each person in the city do one task with recourse to efficiency.  What would be more efficient?  Accepting this point and the notion that each person has a nature suited to only one particular task leads to the city where each person is assigned a place.  Multiple machinations and myths are required to keep things in that order.  I believe that Plato is showcasing to us a political order based on a series of assumptions that he does not defend in order to challenge those assumptions.  One of those assumptions is that efficiency is good for human beings. Read more

Aristotle on Happiness

Aristotle scholars spend a lot of time arguing over whether and in what way a life of action, what is called a ‘practical life’ (from the Greek praxis), which includes a life focused on ethical and political concerns, can possibly achieve happiness, or whether only contemplation — the theoretical life of the philosopher or thinker or scientist — can achieve complete happiness for human beings.  Commenters suppose from several chapters in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 that the case is obviously on the side of contemplation.  Then they fight over how to limit that claim or re-interpret it.

But today, I’ve been prepping those passages to teach and I just don’t think they add up to the obviously strong argument for contemplation against deliberation that pretty much everyone who reads Aristotle seems to think they do.  One argument in particular — that it’s what the gods do — seems just not the case.  What the heck then is Aristotle doing?  Here’s what Aristotle writes:

But that complete happiness is a certain contemplative activity would appear also from this: we have supposed that the gods especially are blessed and happy–but what sort of actions ought we to assign to them?  Just acts?  Or will they appear laughable as they make contracts, return deposits, and do anything else of that sort?  But what about courageous acts?  Do the gods endure frightening things and run risks, because doing so is noble?  Or liberal acts?  But to whom will they give?  And it is strange if they too will have legal currency or something of that sort.  And what would their moderate acts be?  Or is the praise, “they do not have base desires,” a crude one?  All that pertains to actions would appear, to those who go through it, petty and unworthy of gods. (1178b8-17, Bartlett and Collins translation)

Puh-lease, Aristotle.  It seems just as likely from all this that the gods don’t do any of these things because the gods don’t really live virtuous lives.  Do the gods do just acts?  No, Zeus steals women and cheats on Hera on the regular.  The whole of Hesiod’s Theogony seems to be about the frightening risk-taking acts of gods.  But no, not because it’s noble.  They want power, or they’re just bored.  Liberal acts?  Well, basically, that seems to be all of Homer and most of Hesiod where Zeus gives things to gods, and that part where Zeus and Prometheus divide stuff up and give it out.  “And what would be their moderate acts?”  Got me there, Aristotle: we don’t know, because no god has yet to be moderate. Read more

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. Read more

One Sex, Two Sex, Aristotelian Sex: APS’15 talk

I have of late found myself turning to Aristotle’s biological works to think more carefully about Aristotle’s conception of nature, because I think it is there that the strongest challenge to my reading of physis as the internal principle by which things move from within themselves to fulfill themselves is found.

In the biology, the male semen seems to impose its form on the female menses, suggesting that at the microcosmic level of natural generation, form is imposed on material, external principles master what needs forming.  But as I investigate Aristotle’s biology, I have come to learn that material in Aristotle might not be what we’ve thought it was.

On Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 11 AM at the Ancient Philosophy Society meeting at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I am presenting a paper (part of my current book project) that focuses on the strange and evasive role of vital heat in Aristotle’s biology.  I argue that the complexities of vital heat might tell us something about whether Aristotle has a one-sex or two-sex model of sexual difference and that his model might also recast our understanding of Aristotelian material. Read more