Sunday, 17 January 2016

If Aristotle Visited Us Today

Posted by Eugene Alper
The term 'metaphysics' was born with Aristotle. He was the first who aspired to gathering together all previous philosophical knowledge, and integrating it in a single great work.
Perhaps he felt hopeful – as one might feel on a fresh morning in the woods, with the first rays of the sun filtering through the trees. Although he was teased by a few outstanding questions, perhaps Aristotle felt that the end was truly in sight.

Yet if Aristotle visited us today, he might conclude that philosophy is in major crisis. For we have been asking the same fundamental questions – the same perennial questions – for two and a half millennia. And because of that, he might note, we are in a less enviable position than he was. For accumulated knowledge without obvious fruit affects one’s sense of self-confidence. It also undermines hope: the more knowledge, the less hope.

It is natural for the teenager – by way of analogy – to be hopeful about the future, to think that by the age of forty she will certainly know how to live a life, as opposed to her parents who, for some reasons, still do not. But when the age comes, and the former teenager asks the same question and still finds no answer, and suspects something even worse—that at the age of fifty and sixty and seventy she may still have no answer—a sense of unease dawns on her. This is what they call midlife crisis.

One wonders whether Aristotle might see, in the philosophic state of humankind today, the same sort of midlife crisis. He himself had a limited literature or recorded history to look back upon – but we, he might observe, have 2 500 years. This long view of the well-recorded past might give him – as it gives us – a deep sense of unease.

On the one hand, seeing so much treasure accumulated in literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, one can reasonably say, 'Look at the baggage of fine thought we are bringing along. Does this not give hope that its accumulation in the future may be even greater, and that, just as we have seen in technology, there may soon come a qualitative breakthrough? Isn’t this the evidence that we may be onto something? Just one more step, just one more realisation, and we may understand what the good life is?'

On the other hand, this very outlook on the past shows that our thinking, in the most fundamental ways, does not improve with time. Like the bird which greets each morning with the same old song, we fail to recognise that there is nothing new, that our questions are not different from the questions already asked by Aristotle long ago, or better than the answers he already gave.

Our baggage today, Aristotle might observe, is dubious and heavy, for the very ability to know the past and to observe the distance one has travelled without much philosophic growth may make one lose heart. Our human thinking, he might conclude, is somewhat defective, somewhat limited by nature. It could be that, by nature, our mind is incapable of going beyond the Biblical God, Plato’s One, or Aristotle’s Primary Cause. Or it could be that, by nature, our mind does better when dealing with things measurable, yet not so well with things abstract.

Perhaps, then, there is no exiting from the loop, no jumping out of the rut. On the most fundamental issues we will still think in inescapable circles, resembling the fish in the bowl, who thinks it is moving forward while sliding along the concave glass.


  1. It's a desperately pessimistic essay, but true. And when we consider the reasons why it is true, it is worse. And when we look beyond philosophy to see the same in politics, it is even worse. The philosophers Kamlah and Lorenzen convincingly proposed that we are "thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics", which means that our thoughts are not our own. Our best philosophical efforts are merely a product of the ways that language works.

  2. Well, imagining Aristotle entering our age, the first question is where he would find himself geographically and the second whether he would think 2500 years of recorded history is truly enough to unfold big questions human being has raised? For as we look back to him, he looked back to others. The oral tradition shouldn't be underestimated for the knowledge it brought along before Aristotle's life.

    There are connections in perception that refer to different comprehensions intellectually but also emotionally, depending on when and where you are born, mostly. Is philosophy in crisis today, or maybe it always was? Or maybe philosophy is not in a crisis at all but this image is only raised by a wish that the world would look more like how we would like to see it? We cannot escape the human, everything is a reflection of what we can think off. Though we should be careful to not reduce philosophy to become a morality itself.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Eugene, and Thomas and Tessa too for the equally thoughful comments. I particularly like this challenge, "Is philosophy in crisis today, or maybe it always was?" You see, my concern with Eugene's post is if it presents Aristotle as that wise figure from the 'golden age' of the subject. My understanding is that Aristotle was in his lifetime considered to be a bit of a twit, "a chatterer" and his method was essentially to summarise popular opinion on everything. His science and logic are deeply flawed to the extent that Karl Popper accused him of holding back knowledge for more than a thousand years. I suppsoe that's some sort of achievement, though!

    Point for me is that philosophy certaily IS in a crisis, but that this (as Tessa suggests) only where ti always is. Philosophy requires crisis: it is the stimulus to new ideas.

  4. Thank you very much, Thomas, Tessa and Martin, for your thoughts. Maybe I can add (or clarify) that to me this post is not so much about Aristotle (he could be replaced with Plato or any other thinker of that era), as it is about what the mass of recorded knowledge does to our thinking. If the world had not had chisel and rock, paper and dye, velum and ink, microphone and magnetic tape, the digital camera or some other convenient way of capturing language and knowledge, we might not have the sense of linear progression as we have it today. Instead, we might perceive life as going in circles, for example, as I think some ancient philosophers did. Without such tools, each generation would learn only what could be transmitted to them orally, which is by definition limited to what could be remembered by one previous generation, or two at most. Beyond that, we would perceive the past as completely dark. And as a result we might feel, er-r-r, infantile. But the world does have these tools, and as a result we do have accumulated knowledge, and we do have recorded history going back for about 2500 years. The availability of this knowledge and history does not let us feel infantile any more, but rather mature. And inevitably, as Thomas said, pessimistic. You may be right, Tessa and Martin, that philosophy might have always been in crisis, but today we see it better than at any time in the past--precisely because we can read about all her failed attempts to find answers to the perennial questions. Whereas Aristotle (or Plato) could not. Thanks again!

  5. there is nothing new, that our questions are not different from the questions already asked by Aristotle long ago, or better than the answers he already gave.....para mi ├ęsto esel resumen dectu idea. Estoy de acuerdo y agradezco que compartas conmig

    1. "For me, this summarizes your idea. I agree and thank you for sharing with me" ;)