Form as Neither Art nor External

I have already, with much frustration, attempted to make sense of the beginning of Lamda 3.  In light of the rest of the remaining parts of the chapter, it strikes me that there is a possibility that Aristotle had some Third Man-ish worries in mind.  But, be that as it may or may not be, there is undeniably an assault on the Theory of the Forms here. 

In conjunction with his opening statement that there must be 1) a subject 2) a form 3) an initial mover, Aristotle says we must next,

“observe that every substance is generated from something which has the same name (“substances” including not only natural but all other products). Things are generated either by art or by nature or by chance or spontaneously. Art is a generative principle in something else; nature is a generative principle in the subject itself (for man begets man); the other causes are privations of these” (1070a4-10 trans. Treddenick) (1).

Aristotle continues on with an explication of form, matter and the hylomorphic compound consisting of form and matter.  Then he notes,

“Moving causes are causes in the sense of preexistent things, but formal causes coexist with their effects. For it is when the man becomes healthy that health exists, and the shape of the bronze sphere comes into being simultaneously with the bronze sphere”  (1070a21-24 trans. Treddenick) (2).

He concludes by referencing his aphoristic “man begets man” from earlier in the chapter and says,

Clearly then there is no need on these grounds for the Ideas to exist; for man begets man, the individual begetting the particular person. And the same is true of the arts, for the art of medicine is the formula of health”  (1070a26-30 trans. Treddenick) (3).

Aristotle it appears, is using nature, form, and account interchangeably in this chapter, for at least one important reason: to emphasize that form is a “generative principle in the subject itself,” and does not arise from outside itself.  This claim is already at odds with Plato’s concept of Form, and “man begets man” is evidently a common sense vindication of how things come to be, from which there is no deviation.  Indeed figs don’t come from thistles.

Plato dismisses Aristotle’s dictum that, “formal causes coexist with their effects,” i.e., they come to be at the same time (ἅμα).  Plato instead maintains that forms precede their effects, and that, returning us to the beginning of the chapter, conflates the form and the initial mover.  Thus, instead of  1) a subject 2) a form 3) an initial mover, there is 1) a subject and 2) a form/initial mover.  If a form is an external force, as it would have to be on Plato’s view, then by Aristotle’s understanding above (“Art is a generative principle in something else”) this would make a form an art.  But Plato’s concept of form is clearly not an art, so either form has some other definition or there are no forms.



Μετὰ ταῦτα ὅτι ἑκάστη ἐκ συνωνύμου γίγνεται οὐσία· τὰ γὰρ φύσει οὐσίαι καὶ τἆλλα· ἢ γὰρ τέχνῃ ἢ φύσει γίγνεται ἢ τύχῃ ἢ τῷ αὐτομάτῳ. ἡ μὲν οὖν τέχνη ἀρχὴ ἐν ἄλλῳ, ἡ δὲ φύσις ἀρχὴ ἐν αὐτῷ (ἄνθρωπος γὰρ ἄνθρωπον γεννᾷ), αἱ δὲ λοιπαὶ αἰτίαι στερήσεις τούτων.

Τὰ μὲν οὖν κινοῦντα αἴτια ὡς προγεγενημένα ὄντα, τὰ δ᾿ ὡς ὁ λόγος ἅμα. ὅτε γὰρ ὑγιαίνει ὁ ἄνθρωπος, τότε καὶ ἡ ὑγίεια ἔστιν, καὶ τὸ σχῆμα τῆς χαλκῆς σφαίρας ἅμα καὶ ἡ χαλκῆ σφαῖρα.

φανερὸν δὴ ὅτι οὐδὲν δεῖ διά γε ταῦτ᾿ εἶναι τὰς ἰδέας· ἄνθρωπος γὰρ ἄνθρωπον γεννᾷ, ὁ καθ᾿ ἕκαστον τὸν τινά. ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν τεχνῶν· ἡ γὰρ ἰατρικὴ τέχνη ὁ λόγος τῆς ὑγιείας ἐστί.

Plato’s Theory of Forms as the Object of All “Lovers”

Plato is a notorious indulger of etymology.  Not only in the Cratylus, the most famous and lengthy application of that science, but everywhere in the Platonic corpus there are appeals to the source and the sense of words.  Often these etymologies strike the reader as ludicrous, not necessarily because we know better through linguistic rigor, though we do, but because surely some of the explanations offered had to have been absurd to even the Greeks of the time.  It is frustrating then to determine the purpose of these etymologies: are they mini-myths guiding us to some moral end? are they jokes? are they (improbably) earnest explanations on Plato’s part, shockingly ignorant of the actual derivation of the word?

Whatever the explanation turns out to be, the most helpful method of exposition will be to unravel the etymology following Plato’s own announced method of explanation.  When we come to the Republic, Book V, we meet with one of the most famous explanations in all of Plato, etymological or otherwise (474c).  Here Socrates embarks on the task of explaining who the real philosopher is.  He begins by reminding Glaucon that it was agreed that “lovers” of something love all of it, not one part.  He continues to give examples of these lovers, literally “philo-” prefixed to an adjective or noun, coining what we can straightforwardly translate as, “lovers of X” or “X lovers.”  His examples include lovers of boys, lovers of honor, lovers of wine and lovers of food.

Socrates, I offer, is under the conviction that when we say that when someone is a lover of X, he loves each particular manifestation of that X.  If one fails to do so, he is not a lover of X.  This is odd reasoning, one might say, because if I am a car-lover, meaning that I, a rich man, collect cars, but nevertheless do not have a penchant for Chevrolets, then somehow I am disqualified from the title of car-lover.  This appears out of sorts.  However, let us look at this from another extreme.  If someone were to be a donut-lover in this sense, that he only loved sprinkled, chocolate eclairs, would we be right to call him a lover of donuts?  In this case it is much more suspect; we would prefer to call such a man a lover-of-sprinkled-chocolate-eclairs. 

It is perhaps in this later sense that Socrates is appealing to our everyday use of language.  When we say we are a lover of wine, to use one of his examples, we are implicitly going over and above a confession for any particular instance of wine.  This is simply what the term means.  If I had simply been after this or that cup of wine, why then, after having imbibed it, I should no longer have a need for that moniker.  Yet the name sticks. I say I am a wine-lover, not was a wine-lover, because there is something compelling me, a desire for wine which transcends instances of wine, and goes further yet. 

This then is what Socrates is after.  So the lover of wisdom, literally the philosophos, is he who determinately seeks after all and every kind of wisdom that there is.  Not the wisdom here or there, but the true Form of wisdom.  He seeks after that which does not pass away, and precisely because he is never satisfied having learned this or that, it is shown that this or that is not what he was looking for.  He yearns for a glimpse of what is, for he hastens after knowledge, not opinion.        

Codes in Aristotle’s Moral Reasoning

“As Aristotle consistently says, the best generalizations about how one should behave hold only for the most part.  If one attempted to reduce one’s conception of what virtue requires to a set of rules, then, however subtle and thoughtful one was in drawing up the code, cases would inevitably turn up in which a mechanical application of the rules would strike one as wrong— and not necessarily because one had changed one’s mind; rather, one’s mind on the matter was not susceptible of capture in any universal formula”  -John McDowell (1)

The above viewpoint articulated by McDowell is also called by him “non-codifiability.”  That is, knowledge of ethical reasoning is non-discursive, it is irreducible to rules, precepts or other, linguistic or not, ways of conceptualization.

However, someone may object that such a view cannot be sustained, that in fact when ethical generalizations are made correctly, they are exemplars of codifiability.  In order to see why this is so, let us distinguish between two kinds of moral generalizations.

  1. Simple Generalization:
    In situation X, do Y.
  1. Sophisticated Generalization:
    In situation X, do Y most of the time.

It would be granted, I think, that moral reasoning involving type A would be problematic, for the reason that McDowell, merely echoing Aristotle, points out above.  There would be too many exceptions to this kind of rule to be productively reliable.  Furthermore, perhaps, such indeterminate applicability even undermines its status as a rule. 

Thus the Sophisticated Generalization is an improved version of the Simple Generalization, for it accommodates the “what if” scenarios implied in the Simple Generalization.  However, the Sophisticated Generalization, to return to the original objection, seems (problematically for the non-codifiabilist) to both explain moral reasoning and articulate it in a codifiable way.

However, let us see if the Sophisticated Generalization is actual codifiable.  Any statement allowing for variation or accommodation of an exception such as  “In situation X, do Y most of the time,” is really another way of saying that, “In situation X, do Y, except in case X1 do Y1, except in case X2 do Y2, etc.”  If this is the case though, this shows that the Sophisticated Generalization is not a general rule, but a set of particular rules collected into a dictum.  And if this collective of rules cannot allow for the nuance necessary in moral reasoning, for it will be hard to see at which point the exceptions will cease, then the Sophisticated Generalization falls prey to the same fault as the Simple Generalization.  Both are unable to parallel exhaustively, via a set of codes, the complexity or adaptive variation one encounters in day to day moral reasoning.    

(1) John McDowell, pg. 58, Virtue and Reason, in “Mind, Value and Reality”