Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.22

Fran O’Rourke, Aristotelian Interpretations.   Sallins:  Irish Academic Press, 2016.  Pp. vii, 366.  ISBN 9781911024231.  $32.69.  


Reviewed by Angela Curran, Kansas State University (afcurran@ksu.edu)

Table of Contents

Fran O’Rourke, a professor at University College, Dublin, writes on a wide range of topics in Aristotle. This collection brings together ten of O’Rourke’s essays, previously published between 2003 and 20015. The volume begins with a personal introduction written for this volume in which O’Rourke reflects on his life growing up in on the Western coast of Ireland and how this upbringing instilled in him a love of philosophy and Aristotle, in particular. The collection ends with a fascinating discussion of the James Joyce-Aristotle connection. The chapters in between engage in a lucid and insightful manner on a host of themes in Aristotle ranging from metaphysics, poetics, ethics, politics, and science.

With a volume of previously published work, there is always the danger that an author will bring together essays with no common thread solely for the sake of making his or her work available to a broader audience. Fortunately, with this volume, O’Rourke has chosen essays with, broadly speaking, a common theme. “Each essay is in one way or another motivated by the attitude of marvel that Aristotle recognized as the wellspring of philosophy, which he himself conveys frequently in his writings” (p. 21). As O’Rourke reads Aristotle, wonder or marvel (O’Rourke uses “wonder” and “marvel” interchangeably as translations of “thauma”) is “especially revealing of human knowledge and inquiry” (p. 31). By this, O’Rourke seems to mean that the attitude of wonder, which is “the reflective admiration of that which we know but do not fully comprehend,” is the impetus for knowledge (epistēmē) and is even an ‘incipient knowledge’ (gnosis).” For when we marvel at things in nature we become aware that what we are immediately acquainted with surpasses our understanding (p. 31). O’Rourke says that Aristotle’s phrase from the Parts of Animals, “all things are marvelous,” could serve as the motto for the volume. For, as O’Rourke reads Aristotle, the wondrous or marvelous is for Aristotle the motivating factor behind all areas of inquiry, whether they are philosophical or artistic, ethical or scientific (p. 39).

The view that Aristotle thinks that poetry is a source of knowledge is a strong focus of much contemporary analysis of the Poetics. O’Rourke contributes to this debate in three chapters in the first part of the book (Chapters 1, “Wonder and Universality, Philosophy and Poetry in Aristotle,” 2, “Philosophy and Poetry in Aristotle: Interpreting and Imitating Nature” and 5, “Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Metaphor”), by discussing the role that wonder plays not only in the origins of philosophy but also in poetry. The first two chapters examine the role that wonder and a desire to understand play in explaining the shared work of philosophy and poetry. Both activities share a common origin in the lived experiences of human beings. The desire to understand more fully the items in one's experiences is the impetus for human beings to do philosophy and to make and appreciate poetry. The best poetic plots “jar and jolt” the viewer’s categories of experience by presenting a series of incidents that are unforeseen, yet shown upon reflection to follow one another, by necessity or probability (p. 35).

In Chapter 5, O’Rourke offers an insightful discussion of metaphor’s power to evoke marvel and astonishment. Indeed this chapter is the best illustration of what O’Rourke calls Aristotle’s “metaphysical” approach to knowledge and inquiry, which is a consistent theme throughout the book. Metaphors make use of analogical reasoning. A good metaphor (for instance, an old man is a "withered stalk") encourages the listener or reader to search out the common notion that unites two terms (Rhetoric 3.10, 1410b18). O’Rourke sees Aristotle as a forerunner of cognitive accounts of metaphor, which stresses the role of metaphor as a tool to discover “likeness in unlikeness” (p. 116) by jolting the mind with the surprise of recognition (p. 115). Thus, O’Rourke sees metaphor as a prime illustration of the metaphysical nature of a human being’s knowledge, even in an everyday context. For in grasping the similarity introduced by the metaphor, the listener goes beyond the confines of immediate experience and moves closer to the metaphysician’s understanding of the similarity between all beings as beings (p. 118).

Chapter 3 looks at Aristotle’s views on what we can know about human nature. Humans occupy a special role in the natural world as beings possessing logos, reason. The capacity for reason distinguishes humans from all other animals (p. 59). O’Rourke’s examination of knowledge in Aristotle leads him to a wide-ranging and interesting discussion of Aristotle’s hylomorphism to explain the relation between body and soul. The problem is that Aristotle also thinks that a human being's nature contains an element of divinity (p. 84). O’Rourke concludes that the divine and immortal aspect of a human being ultimately threatens Aristotle’s views on the unity of individual human beings as hylomorphic composites of form and matter, and points to the idea that, “the destiny of Aristotle’s man lies beyond his natural state, and is in some sense beyond his control” (p. 84).

Chapter 4, “Knowledge and Necessity in Aristotle,” examines the metaphysical foundations of Aristotle’s empiricism. While all knowledge begins with sense experience, understanding is ultimately anchored in a principle that governs truth, the principle of non-contradiction. O’Rourke explores a significant difference between Aristotle and modern empiricists: scientific knowledge is not only universal in scope, but necessary in character, and made possible through explanations of the ultimate causes of primary substances, fixed natural kinds that are ultimately understandable through their final causes (p. 96). Thus, Aristotle’s essentialism is the foundation of his epistemology.

O’Rourke considers the often-raised objection to Aristotelian essentialism that not all human beings have the capacity for rationality, for instance, mentally impaired human beings. He maintains that Aristotle can respond by saying that the “necessity” of humans' being rational animals is “hypothetical”: what is necessarily the case is not that all human beings are rational, but that necessarily, given the adequate and proper circumstances, all humans acquire rationality, as “an acorn will become an oak tree” (p. 96). “Attainment of an individual’s final immanent purpose is dependent upon the natural conditions being present for its development; this occurs, not by necessity, but for the most part” (p. 96). By extension, a baby human being will become a rational animal, given the appropriate conditions.

O’Rourke continues with a discussion of Aristotle’s essentialism in Chapter 6, “Aristotle’s Political Anthropology,” which is a fascinating discussion of what is involved in Aristotle’s definition of a human being as a political animal. One central problem concerns how to reconcile the idea that the individual depends on political association to flourish with Aristotle’s view that the best sort of life described in Nicomachean Ethics Book 10 consists life of contemplation (theōria). O’Rourke addresses this problem by understanding the claim that a human being is a rational animal as a claim about essence. The essence of a human being involves logos, the capacity to reason and communicate (1253a10). Logos, so understood, can only be fulfilled within a community (p. 142). We need to be part of a polis, then, to develop and exercise the natural and distinctive capacities for discriminating right from wrong and communicating through language. While humans are happiest when contemplating, they nevertheless achieve what is most distinctive about their nature when they participate in the shared life of political association (p. 143).

Chapter 7, “The Metaphysics of Evolution,” is a carefully argued essay that is grounded in a close reading of Aristotle’s work as well as a familiarity with contemporary criticisms of Aristotle. The chapter addresses the important question whether Aristotle’s doctrine of substantial form necessarily excludes evolution. This question is of interest because contemporary critics who maintain that his ideas rest on an outmoded view of biology have dismissed Aristotle’s metaphysics and his theory of scientific explanation. O’Rourke argues that Aristotle would not accept evolution because of his doctrine of the fixity of the species (p. 173). However, O’Rourke argues that Aristotle’s notion of form, “construed as the power of constructing new individuals of that form” (p. 172) is compatible with evolution. Heredity is determined at the genetic level, and genes have form (eidos), even if this form is also open to mutation (p. 174). Aristotle’s insight about form as the principle that explains the growth and development of an individual can then be seen in modern discussions of genetic form. O’Rourke concludes: “the principles of his metaphysics acquire new verification and relevance” (p. 174).

Chapter 8, “Evolutionary Ethics: A Metaphysical Evaluation” and Chapter Nine, “Aristotle and Evolutionary Altruism” present O’Rourke’s view on how Aristotle would respond to contemporary sociobiological discussions of evolutionary ethics. These approaches, such as those found in E. O. Wilson, argue that we are ethical because being so is fitness-enhancing for the species. O’Rourke concludes that Aristotle would reject such an approach to ethics. Aristotle’s ethics offers us reasons why we should want to be moral: being ethical is what makes possible human happiness and flourishing (p. 195). Aristotle’s approach would be pointless if biology is destiny. Ultimately, according to O’Rourke, sociobiological approaches to ethics fail because they do not come to terms with the nature of a human being as a rational being that chooses to fulfill that nature through individual actions that express universal as well as personal values (p. 197).

One topic for further debate concerns O’Rourke’s claim that wonder and understanding occupy similar roles in Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Poetics. This claim is an essential aspect of O’Rourke’s cognitive reading of the Poetics, according to which poetry is the source of knowledge about human affairs. Jonathan Lear, a skeptic about the cognitive view, thinks that the relationship between wonder and understanding in the Poetics is the opposite of that presented in the Metaphysics (Lear, “Katharsis,” in A. O. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, Princeton 1992). Wonder at the natural world gives rise to philosophy and the inquiry into the ultimate nature of things (Metaphysics 1.1). However, in the Poetics Aristotle says that events are astonishing (thaumaston) when they occur “contrary to expectations but on account of one another” (Poetics 9, 1452a4-5). Lear interprets this to mean that it is the understanding that unexpected events occur on account of one another that gives rise to amazement while, in the Metaphysics, it is the other way around. O’Rourke seems to concede Lear’s point, but then suggests that amazement can lead to mystery, which leads to inquiry, so there is no problem in thinking that wonder prompts understanding in the same way in these two texts (p. 35).

Here I think O’Rourke may be conceding too much ground to Lear, and a stronger response is available to him. When things happen contrary to expectations, this is astonishing, and it produces a desire to understand why the unexpected event occurred. When the plot links incidents via a necessary or probable connection, the audience can reflect on the structure of the plot and come to understand, in retrospect, why the events, while unexpected, were a result of what went before. So, astonishment gives rise to a desire to understand and the search for an explanation, just as Aristotle outlines in Metaphysics 1.1.

In O’Rourke’s work, a clear picture emerges of the critical role that metaphysics plays in Aristotle’s approach to philosophy, art, ethics, science, and politics. With its focus on the topic of wonder as the wellspring of philosophy, Aristotelian Interpretations succeeds in providing a fresh perspective on tried and true topics in Aristotle, as well as advancing a fruitful discussion of the relevance of Aristotle’s essentialism for contemporary philosophy.

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