Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Aristotle wasn't an Aristotelean Essentialist

About three weeks ago, Brian Leiter linked to a tribute by Timothy Williamson for Ruth Barcan Marcus.

Anyone who has studied modal logic will be well appraised of her work, least of which the formula which bears her name. However, that's not why I'm linking to it. Rather, I have a bit of a bone to pick.

And it's not about Professor Leiter's beef with the entire notion of "analytic philosophy", my concern with Professor Williamson's talk centres around the fact that he, like many uh, analytic philosophers before him, propagate the myth of "aristotelean essentialism".

Williamson writes:

"Quine’s original criticisms were technically unsound, and he was forced over the years into a series of revisions that eventually reduced the charge to one of a commitment to Aristotelian essentialism. Even there, technical results vindicated Professor Marcus’s later reply that the commitment was to the intelligibility, not the truth, of essentialism, and that in any case there may well be a scientific basis for some form of essentialism. Philosophy has gone Marcus’s way, not Quine’s, but the vindication of her paper was a gradual process: it was years ahead of its time."

Do you see it? He doesn't even scare quote it! So what's up with it then? Why do these non-existent analytic philosophers constantly refer to essentialism as "aristotelean"?

To be sure, labeling one's opponent an “Aristotelean” has been a fairly common rhetorical move in philosophical circles since Descartes, but the recent instance was born with Quine, dean of those analytic philosophers.

In his essay Reference and Modality, he claimed that accepting modal quantified logic entailed “an invidious attitude towards certain ways of necessarily specifying x, and favoring other somehow revealing the “essence” of the object... evidently this reversion to Aristotelean essentialism is required if quantification into modal contexts is to be insisted on”. (Quine, Willard Van Orman “Reference and Modality”, From a Logical Point of View, p.155)

Given the history of the epithetical use of the “Aristotelean” adjective, it could be taken for granted that Quine's comment is there to sting rather than to bite. However, does Quine do Aristotle justice in associating him with the doctrine he describes? I would argue that he does not, and that Quine's notion of “Aristotelean” essentialism was not something Aristotle propounded.

In fact, the doctrine of "Aristotelean essentialism" Quine describes bears only a tangential relationship to Aristotle's own metaphysical views, although there is enough of a connection to guess at where Quine could have associated Aristotle with essentialism.

To be clear, I'm not defending nor rejecting the philosophical views presented by either Quine or Aristotle. Nor am I attempting to discuss Aristotle's views in the wider context of “modern” essentialism to be found in the views of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam. Rather, the narrow aim of this paper will be to see if what Quine describes as Aristotelean essentialism has a discernible analogue in Aristotle's writings.

(Part of the problem is that David Charles' 2002 book Aristotle on Meaning and Essence (Oxford University Press) deals with the contrast between modern and Aristotelean views on essence to an extent it would make my comments irrelevant save for the fact that there appears to be a more straightforward line of argument against Quine's Aristotelean essentialism)

In Reference and Modality there is a note at the mention of Aristotelean essentialism points to another essay in the same collection, Quine's very famous Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which, presumably, is meant to serve to elucidate Quine's views on Aristotle.

Quine writes:

The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning. For Aristotle it was essential in men to be rational, accidental to be two-legged. But there is an important difference between this attitude and the doctrine of meaning. From the latter point of view it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not. Thus from the point of view of the doctrine of meaning it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa. Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, From a Logical Point of View, p.22)

Although the quote appears within the context of a discussion about meaning, the comments on meaning are not really relevant to the present discussion. What is clear is that Quine takes Aristotle's “notion” of essence to be a metaphysical view. However, this not much to go on.

Thankfully, Quine offers a clearer and fuller discussion of what he believes to be the erroneous metaphysical commitments of the modal logician on account of their “Aristoteleanism”.

In his book Word and Object, Quine writes:

Mathematicians may conceivably be said to be necessarily rational and not necessarily two-legged; and cyclists necessarily two-legged and not necessarily rational. But what of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling? Is this concrete individual necessarily rational and contingently two-legged or vice versa? Just insofar as we are talking referentially of the object, with no special bias toward a background grouping of mathematicians as against cyclists or vice versa, there is no semblance of sense in rating some of his attributes as necessary and others as contingent.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p.199)

Quine then links this view to Aristotle, and although he concedes that this view isn't necessarily Aristotle's, he makes this concession in a backhanded way. He writes: “Curiously, a philosophical tradition does exist for just such a distinction between necessary and contingent attributes. It lives on in the terms 'essence' and 'accident', is a distinction that one attributes to Aristotle (subject to contradiction by scholars, such being the penalty for attributions to Aristotle).”

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p. 199)

Nonetheless, and despite Quine's penchant for humour, his views on what Aristotle held, or more charitably, what an Aristotelean would hold, are quite clear. For Quine, to be an Aristotelean essentialist is to propound a metaphysical doctrine which presumes a firm distinction between necessary and contingent attributes, that is, between attributes which are logically necessary and attributes which are not. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to arguing that this is not a view Aristotle actually held, although how Quine arrived at this view is not without cause.

So what is essence for Aristotle? (Although essence is the main term that gets used by Quine, it, like many philosophical words, has both a technical and vernacular use, and it should be noted that “essence” is the medieval term for Aristotle's more technical “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”) Well, it was one of the four possible candidates for substancehood.

Aristotle equated essence with substance, and a good part of Aristotle's Metaphysics is given over to arguing this point, as well as showing that the other three possible candidates for substancehood, “the substrate, the universal under which the thing falls, and the genus or kind to which the thing belongs” (Penguin Classics Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. xxix), are not substances.

In Book Zeta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle, through his translator Hugh Lawson-Tancred, writes, “Well, the what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is, for each thing, what it is taken to be per se. For example, it is not the case that being for, say, you just is being for the musical man, since it is not per se that you are musical” (ibid p.178) Put more straightforwardly, Aristotle is arguing here that being musical is a quality, or in this case, an ability, one has, not something one is.

Anticipating Quine, Aristotle further refines this distinction. He writes,

Now an immediate objection would be that the mere assignation of a term does not make something one of the things that are taken to be per se...Suppose for example, that I had to define being white, and, to do so, I stated the account of a white man. The other case [the white man] involves rather the addition of something else to the thing to be accounted for [being white]. Staying with our [previous] use of anorak to be the term for a white man, one would illustrate the second case by just giving a definition of anorak as a white thing, but to be a white man is not just to be white.”

But then the question is whether being an anorak is a case of a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing at all. A reason for denying that it is is that a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is the same sort of thing as a thing with thisness...So, for example, a white man is not something with thisness, assuming that thisness is a exclusive feature of substances.

Now this gives a nice clear conclusion: a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing only belongs to those things for whom an account just is a definition.
(ibid p.179)

Despite the length of the quote, what Aristotle is trying to argue in this passage is that a white man is not an essence. So then, what is an essence for Aristotle? He writes, “so the only things that will have a what-it-was-to-be-that thing will be the species of a genus, species and nothing else whatever.” (ibid p.180)

In other words, For Aristotle, only species turn out to be essences, or substances.

It will help at this point to take a slightly closer look at substances. What is substance? In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes, “Also, some things are called things that are because they are substances other things are called things that are because they are affections of a substance” (ibid p.181)

This is not quite enough to tell one what substance is, but it is enough to indicate that Aristotle has an idea as to what it is not, which is an affection, or in more common terminology, a quality.

As Hugh Lawson-Tancred writes, “Aristotle holds that substances are things that have qualities or, conversely qualities are things that belong to substance” (ibid. p xxiv) Furthermore, “Aristotle's answer [to the difference between substances and qualities] is that the being of the quality depends on that of the substance but the being of the substance does not depend on that of the quality.” (ibid p. xxv) In other words, Aristotle holds that substances are the bearers of qualities.

Taking all this into account, a look back at Quine's story about the mathematical cyclist should help to understand Quine's error. On the issue “of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling”, it seems that Aristotle would point out to Quine that the enjoyment of mathematics and the pursuit of physical fitness through bicycling are both qualities, that is, both are dependent on there being a substance, in this case a human.

In Aristotle's view, both would be contingent to being a person, and that in specifying someone as a mathematician, the notion of necessity in not an issue, because being a mathematician would not qualify as a substance, the only place where the notion of necessity could plausibly be invoked with respect to modernizing Aristotle's philosophical position.

There is a further point which serves to demonstrate both Quine's error and also where perhaps why he described his essentialism as “Aristotelean”. With respect to substances, Aristotle argued that substances are ontologically prior to qualities. However, nothing Quine's writes about Aristotelean essentialism discusses necessary attributes as ontologically distinct from contingent attributes, something Aristotle would have insisted upon.

What Quine appears to have done in calling his essentialism “Aristotelean” is conflate substance/essence and quality with necessary and contingent attributes. Indeed, Quine's argument against “Aristotelean essentialism” relies on the fact that some supposedly necessary attributes of humans, such as two-leggedness and rationality, may also be necessary yet mutually exclusive attributes of properties contingent to humans, such as cycling and mathematics.

However, what this neglects is that even if Aristotle had said that people are essentially rational and two-legged, he would not be committed to the contradiction Quine notes, because cycling and doing math occupy different ontological positions from any essential properties. Again, describing math or cycling never invokes the concept of substance. Aristotle appears to be aiming towards something more subtle than the numerous different ways in which one can specify the attributes of an object, and there appears to be a fundamental, and perhaps incommensurable, difference between Quine's and Aristotle's ontologies.

So what, if anything, can one draw from this philosophically slight, quote laden essay? Perhaps just a cautionary note, that when one attributes a philosophical doctrine to a historical figure both loved and despised, it is best to be sure that the reference is accurate. In other words, it's not the essentialism that's important in this, it's the Aristotelean.

To that, perhaps Quine would have been more accurate calling modal logicians Lockean essentialists, but whether or not that is a fair summation of Locke's metaphysical views, a compliment or an epithet, will have to wait for another day.

I do however, think it's a bit funny that philosophers who pride themselves culturally on a particular kind of "clarity" and "rigour" would propagate this kind of canard. But I suppose making fun of people you don't agree with is just part of being human, if not the essence of being human.

Which reminds me - perhaps the only thing worse than aristotelean essentialism is the whole "for Aristotle, the essence of man is rationality" line, but let's save that for later.

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