Aristotle in the shadows

At the moment I’m reading a book which is emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s critique of economy and politics as a basis for the of the way that the early social theorists framed their thought. As well as this, I seem to hear Rienhold Niebuhr’s name mentioned a lot, that is very obscure that so many people know the theologian, but I digress…

As well as reading Aristotle, it has made me more sensitive to when Aristotle is referenced. A couple of weeks ago, there was a letter in the (I think) Times Educational Supplement by a Frank Furedi concerning the importance of Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’ applied in higher education policy, and policy in general. The point he made was of a general critique of the status quo.

If social theory is anything, it is a critique of the status quo. But why do we find ourselves constantly going back to Aristotle in terms of his Ethical writings? I suspect that it is direct, yet diverse. To be the greatest bodybuilder means something different than to be the greatest engineer, but both involve temperance and a practical wisdom to face a given situation or set of situations. I’ve also come across a TED Talk (by Barry Schwartz) which mentions that the ‘profit incentive’ which is assumed as a dogma among the media pundits of today, and many people who think that the seeking of profit is either an unadulterated good, or a nuanced but necessary good, does not have to be the case.

I am hardly a person to understand the nuances of Aristotle’s psychology, but I find it interesting that his approach, which is distinctly outside of the Christian tradition (by time, but not by influence) is finding influence. I used to often hear the critique among many persons that Marx gets it wrong in terms of his philosophical anthropology, but he’s one of the few social thinkers who really attempt philosophical anthropology. Perhaps he may have been wrong with anthropology, but the inference to begin with human nature and then conclude the conditions of wellbeing for communal human nature is distinctly in the Aristotelian style of philosophising.

I’ve said this in many blog comments and perhaps even personal conversations: I utterly dislike the way that current politicians (especially those who wear a green tie with a yellow coloured party symbol) use the terms of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ in such clandestine ways that we don’t really know what is meant, nor is there any attempt to justify them.  A certain amount of clarity, as well as the transparency of one’s reasoning is fundamentally important, not just for the wellbeing and oppurtunity of genuine political involvement of the people (demos), but also for the justified authority of the state.

(editorial: I found the links to refrerenced articles and put the URL’s up)

“Aristotle transition”: from moral psychology to political critique

Lately I’ve thought about a collection of vaguely related things which I’m now trying to put together in my thoughts in this post. My favourite stories include the three great Epics that look at the heroes of the Trojan war. Homer’s Iliad is a catalogue of the destruction and violence in the conflict shown mainly from the Greek side, it was (so apochypha says) one of the first times that Hellenes came together for an alliance. I’m reminded of the line from the intro script of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith which says ‘there are heroes on both sides’ (which in the case of the Clone Wars, wasn’t really the case, its more that there were villains on both sides and it was the same person).

The Odyssey is slightly more a human story about the after effects of war. Particularly including the female plight of Penelope, and the pathos of Odysseus who wishes simply to return home. Many stories tell of those who still face a battle of other sorts after their war has finished. The Aeneid takes an interesting Roman take on the legend; where the perspective of the losers of the war gives a greater understanding of the human condition. Compare Achilleus who is a man at his best in the winning side of a war, against say Aeneas (or even Odysseus), the latter of which are men although great, show fatigue and signs of wear. The world for them is far from perfect but they must show eminence in some way. I’ve always romanticised of the Greek way of thinking (in philosophy, culture, history) to have reflected this kind of masculinity. Perhaps it is the philosophers Plato (himself a wrestler) and Aristotle (by an unrelated coincidence a tutor to one of the greatest real-life military leaders) who try to capture that Homeric heroism. In putting Homeric heroes into this philosophic context, I pose a general question: is a person great in spite of their situation, or because of it?

Aristotle’s ethics of excellence

Aristotle writes his ethical works in a wider systematic context that from moral psychology, we then transition to a discussion of politics. That is to say, from the individual’s constitution and his nature, we may then go on to understand the behaviour of individuals in a community. This is the nature of politics and the state for Aristotle. Let’s start off with considering some aspects of Aristotle’s normative notions about ethics, Aristotle considers what thing there is as an intention or an object of endeavour that is to be pursued not for any reason but itself, this would be happiness. It seems that for Aristotle, there are many different ways for people to pursue that happiness and many people would not have the same route to it. As part of Aristotle’s wider teleological view of the world, a person is best when they perform the function that they are best at. Excellence (arete) is associated with happiness. To be the best you can be is to fulfill your highest good. For Achilleus that means being the greatest of warriors and for Odysseus it means to have great cunning to see you through many dangers.

Aristotle differs from Plato in that the latter places a high emphasis on knowledge, and basing virtue as knowledge. To be a virtuous person is to know what virtue is, and to know what virtue is seems sufficient for virtue as a person’s state of being. This sound very intellectual and invites its own sorts of issues (and it’s probably an overstatement of an early Plato). Aristotle bases his notion of human well being on action. In the vein of numerous 80s movies: money walks and bullshit talks; you can talk the talk but can you walk the walk? The practical ethic of my life is that words mean nothing (sorry readers), words mean nothing without real action. My personal ethic is that the great measures of a person involve the things not said.

Aristotle perhaps even more than Kant, chimes into my everyday sensibility about living. For Aristotle there are different kinds of skilled persons, there is the intellectual whose aim is knowledge, the communal person whose aim is the wellbeing of the communion of people in the state, and there are those who aim for eminence in a specific skill or craft (and I’d add anachronistically, their ‘art’). These people strive for the good in their own ways it seems. Although I cannot speak much more for my understanding of how Aristotle understands the intellectual type specifically, it seems that he has a general statement about how wellbeing is achieved for all three of these kinds of individuals.

Virtue is achieved by being great at whatever lot your life is in; whether a good politician, a good scientist or a good carpenter. Skills in these domains involve a degree of action as well as theoretical knowledge. Aristotle says how theoretical knowledge of virtue is a comfort in one sense, and a hindrance in another. It’s like when you give someone encouragement and the words alone make them feel better, but if you tell them to follow that encouragement through (or perhaps more colloquially put: get off your arse and get on with it), motivation seems a bit less. Words are comforting exactly because they are not action, it is not enough to know what is good or virtuous but to act on it. I think this is the essence of the common phrase: ‘easier said than done’. I’m reminded of this Aesop fable:


A pair of Oxen were drawing a heavily loaded wagon along a miry country road. They had to use all their strength to pull the wagon, but they did not complain.

The Wheels of the wagon were of a different sort. Though the task they had to do was very light compared with that of the Oxen, they creaked and groaned at every turn. The poor Oxen, pulling with all their might to draw the wagon through the deep mud, had their ears filled with the loud complaining of the Wheels. And this, you may well know, made their work so much the harder to endure.

“Silence!” the Oxen cried at last, out of patience. “What have you Wheels to complain about so loudly? We are drawing all the weight, not you, and we are keeping still about it besides.”

They complain most who suffer least.

From Ethics to Politics

Aristotle makes a systematic shift from human psychology to political (or social) thinking. This is a shift that is replicated in many philosophers and thinkers after him, the Social Contract theoriest make this shift from an account of human nature to an (implicit) judgment of how best to deal with human nature in the political community and rule of law. Kant makes this shift and it seems in a sense very obvious to judge politics, or even economics on what our presumption of Human nature is. Perhaps the most obvious candidate of this is Karl Marx. Marx wrote about the value of labour and the value that work gives in people’s lives, that is to say, in his earlier works. Work and activity can indeed make one fulfilled in life, but where Marx gets critical is in identifying conditions of working where oppression and exploitation subvert the value of work as fulfillment to work as misery. In this light, we may see Marx as following a long tradition of philosophical reasoning as following political thinking from human nature. I remember Alain de Botton stating in an interview not long ago that he believed governments should be more ‘paternalistic’ and tell people more how to behave, or better stated, encourage people to achieve wellbeing. There are some of initiatives to encourage policy to integrate with the aim of encouraging wellbeing today in various thinktanks such as the New Economics Foundation or the Transition Town movement.

Aristotle did something amazing in his time for a philosopher, he commented on his contemporary political situation. In the Politics, Aristotle compares the different contemporamous and historical forms of governance and weighed up their advantages and disadvantages. Keeping wellbeing in his mind, Aristotle critically considered the citystates of Carthage and Sparta in relation to how wellbeing is achieved among their people. Aristotle also had considerations about the structure of society in relation to how it fulfilled the ‘telos’ of collective wellbeing. The state had a role as the institutions of family and commerce in the life of the fulfilled (or unfulfilled) person, it almost reminds me of Althusser. George McCarthy’s ‘Dreams in Exile’ (which I’m still reading) makes a point that we should consider Aristotle as a sociological thinker, and indeed he is. Consider especially one of his surviving works, the ‘Athenian Constitution’ (well it’s probably not actually his writings but it would have had his blessing), which is seen now as a work of history, an understanding of the political history of Athens also involves an understanding of the implications of the changes, civil instabilities and policies which affected the life of the Athenian. Aristotle compares favourably to a sociologist today, but perhaps sociologists should be more philosophical.

The Case of Priam

“I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Consider the importance of human wellbeing. Can we achieve wellbeing on our own, or can some situations make wellbeing impossible? This very question invites social critique and critique of the political economy of today. There are many historical contingencies that form our present, but beneath the contingent and changeable conditions, is a general human nature. Aristotle gives the example of how Priam, the Trojan King who loses everything, yet remains a great man, is robbed of wellbeing. Great men and women are blighted by many situations outside of their control, from war, economy, to natural disasters; experience perhaps shows contrary to that old adege of Plato that ‘the good man cannot be harmed’.

Wellbeing is far more than simply egoism and the individualistic search for happiness. Wellbeing involves a social and economic system. Wellbeing involves the dynamics of inequalities and social injustices. As a methodological point, Aristotle starts from his notion of human nature to create the critique of politics that he makes. Aristotle made the point of how the profit motive is not conducive to happiness and we should not suppose that profit and gain is unlimited, much like our resources.

It is also fair to say that the economic system in 3rdC Athens is much different today, how different exactly I’m not fine grained enough to say, but I suppose we can consider how industries such as technology and manufacturing, energy and entertainment take such predominance and influence today in a way I am not sure is comparable to the ancient world. However is the world so different that Aristotle’s ‘transition’ from ethics to political critique is not relevant? I should rather change it to another question: is it possible that famine, social inequalities and war are able to be a light on people’s happiness, irrespective of how virtuous they are as people? If the answer is yes, then Aristotle’s methodological transition has a lot of potential for sociological method.


Reading Aristotle’s Politics (Bk 1): The body politic

A few remarks.


Reading Aristotle in general reminds me of how little we have moved on from him in regards to us using the same kinds of terminology. We still consider communities, states, and other social units

2. Hierarchies.

Aristotle deems that there is a certain systematicity or heirarchical structure to the political order. By political order I also mean the social order. I wonder how a feminist would read Aristotle, we can easily read this as a justification of the social order, or a value neutral appraisal of patriarchal order. We can be even more neutral and see this as a non patriarchal order, but some kind of naturalised system of rule.


Aristotle seems to think that the social ordering is a natural phenomenon, perhaps akin to how an ethologist would look at the community structures of animal life. The likes of Dawkins, I presume would disagree, on the basis that it is exactly because of natural selection and the unique composition of homo sapien development, that our previous ancestral tendencies can be overthrown, so that we do not need to see the social order as an extension of some naturalised order of dominion. This is not something I can easily come down on, not from reading Aristotle, or even Dawkins as this is a much wider issue; but Aristotle opens the wound for this issue and the modern reader is left to decide whether to accept this naturalising interpretation or not.

2.2. The family is a unit that serves a function, so says Aristotle; it serves the head of the family, and serves the wider community and state stuctures. Perhaps here, we might even say that Aristotle was the first social theorist! It is here that later social theorists have theorised about the superstructure of society. Althusser would say that there are subservient aspects of society which ultimately serve the prime motive of society; supporting the ruling class and its economic system. The family, education, commerce and perhaps even religion, are all part of the ‘telos’ of the larger social machine.

Alternatively, we can go the way of the structural functionalists; like Durkheim or Parsons, and say that society works in the functional manner. Instead of a heirarchical scaffolding a la Althusser; we could consider the political order as an organic being, with components that serve functions (telos). Aristotle seems to think that each political organisation has a function, from within (to serve its constituents) and from without (to serve the wider body politic). Contrary to the Durkheimian organic analogue, however, is a a power narrative/analogy. Every social unit, from the family, the community and the state; needs to have a head. The family has the patriarch/master, the community has its leader and the polis has its statesman. This probably seems antiquated to many readers, and my initial thought is that it seems to naturalise the status quo political as some kind of paternal ruler; where ‘Father knows best’. Consider the ‘culture of personality’ propaganda of Stalin; the naturalising of Folk cultural themes in the Third Reich or even science fiction examples dictators like ‘Ming the Merciless’. Aristotle almost reads like prosthelytism to dictatorship. At this juncture I raise the question: at what point does analysis become justification?

I sound very negative in this reading, and perhaps more so than I thought I would be before writing this post.


Aristotle says something like: ‘A barbarian makes no distinction between a woman and a slave’. I thought this was a very crude and ambiguous phrase. One thing because it almost sounds like ‘The Philosopher’ is making a positive claim about the political status of women. The hell he isn’t. Going back to the ‘telos’ discussion of 2.3; Aristotle seems to think that the optimal telos of an object is that one object should have one function only, and no more than one. Perhaps I’m misreading here as I am thinking of the analogy of the ‘Good knife’ contrasts with this analysis. I think Aristotle is trying to say that having only one function makes the political unit function properly. A ‘civilised’ family unit should have a wife unit that functions for producing children, but domestic tasks would be performed by slaves (of course note the casual acceptance of slavery in this period). A labourer class would produce future labourers. It would be a sign of doing too much, and social disorder if an individual performed too many functions, thus ‘A barbarian makes no distinction between a woman and a slave’, I think the most charitable way of looking at this is some bizarre formulation of the perils of the work/life balance.


Let’s talk about Talcott Parsons. People in the 20thC talk about social changes as if it means social decline. Over the 20thC in the US and to some extent, Northern Europe; typical social strata were undermined. In the UK traditional industries concerning primary resources like mining, fisheries and industrial production were closed down for various reasons; leading to the destruction of old local certainties and family traditions of sticking to a single professional trade. For various reasons, religion loses its influence and the nature of social relationships have significantly changed; family structures are not necessarily predominantly two parents, married, heterosexual or m/f. Alternative structures emerged, alternative spiritualities and religious practices emerged (including: none, humanism and apathy).  Social structures change, and so do their functions. It might be exactly because of their change of function that they change their social influence.

I’m not quite sure yet if Aristotle says anything about whether political groupings are subject to change; of course knowing the period of Athenian politics; ‘Tyranny’ and deposing leaders was a very well known phenomena; however that’s slightly different than losing faith in the Orpheus Gods…

As a concluding remark. Although I’m not reading Aristotle in a serious exegetical and detailed manner; there is so much in so few lines that begs of analysis and discussion. I think I now understand why some ‘Continental’ philosophers have turned to Aristotle for their insights. I suppose it is only natural for one who wrote on so many topics, that he would have resonance to the modern social sciences.


Perhaps the social order can be read in metaphysical terms. Metaphysical because the social system concerns ‘ontology’ (what is there) and ‘mereology’ (the relation of parts to the whole). Aristotle is truly systematic in that these metaphysical elements compose the social order. Its one thing to naturalise social order; but what if we used naturalised metaphysics to analyse the social world? I think the medieval in me would absolutely love this prospect. Of course this raises just as many questions and general objections about metaphysics and naturalised metaphysics in general. However, mereology and ontology find their utility here, if philosophy is anything; it is the use of as few concepts as possible to explain the most. Metaphysics might do some good here. I suppose this sounds slightly heretical, and ‘continental’.

Michael (following conversations with Antisophie)

On reading ‘Categories’

I’ve attempted several times to read Aristotle’s Categories. I’ve always put it off, as one of those books I’d read at some point in my life but never end up getting to read. My old Aikido teacher used to say something about difficult techniques which went something like: if you don’t do it now you’ll never do it. Without pondering that too much, sensei seems largely right.

I’m halfway through categories, and I thought of a few remarks of what I did actually understand of it.

1. The success of Aristotle’s ‘Categories’ is exactly in how ontology light this text is. One can easily read this text in terms of the linguistic components of understanding reality; that is to say, the fundamental categories of quality, relation, etc. are semantic properties which are useful heuristics to understand the world.

It takes a larger (and more contraversial step) to be say, realists about substance, relation, or quality. It’s an even bigger step (one not merited by reading Aristotle, but by reading Kant) to say that these categories are mental conditions of reality. To say that they are there, is simply enough for Aristotle

2. There’s a lot which seems so uncontraversial it is basically a word game. A double and a half are terms which are inherently defined to have relations (presuming its double-of or half-of the same unit). This kind of simplicity is important for philosophical treatise so as our data on the world comprises at least initially of the obvious.

3. Aristotle’s Categories can be read as a work of philosophical analysis, to assess the world in the typology of the categories is to say that these categories are distinctions worth making. Largely, they are.

4. Aristotle is claimed to be the spark of inspiration for later theses about categorial understandings of reality. Stephan Korner (another person I need to read properly in my life at some point) speaks of the strength of the notion of conceptual scheme in Aristotle, Kant and Frege’s thinking. I’d perhaps even add Carnap to that list.

5. Perhaps the most mysterious claim to me is the concept of ‘substance’ (Gk. Ousia). Aristotle says that no substance can be predicated of itself, this kind of talk seems dangerously platonic. In a sense I can understand that a substance concept of a universal cannot be instanciated as a predicate form. So “Socrates (man)” follows the “Predicate (Substance) form”. It makes sense to say for instance that one walked into a green wall but not a ‘green’. Perhaps this one important category brings up the fundamental problem that comes up with all categories; namely, we are invariably led to the old problem of universals.

My initial reading of Aristotle was of an understanding of typified reality that wasn’t heavy on the ontology side of metaphysics, and more on the analysis aspect of metaphysics; but with substance, we perhaps see the true face of Aristotelian metaphysics. Being drawn into the problem of universals is not in and of itself a resort to unfashionable metaphysics (for one may take a stance of say nominalism or conceptualism), but to not raise the issue at all is to avoid it. I’d prefer the latter route, it’s parsimonious.