Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.53

William Robert Wians, Ronald M. Polansky (ed.), Reading Aristotle: Argument and Exposition. Philosophia antiqua, 146.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xii, 388.  ISBN 9789004329584.  $162.00.  

Reviewed by Joachim Aufderheide, King’s College London (


When I started reading Aristotle many years ago, I wondered why it was so hard. My fellow students felt the same way. Indeed, when reading Aristotle my flatmate regularly fell asleep — not because it was boring, but because it’s too much to take in if you don’t know how to read it. Generations of students have had the same experience: Aristotle is really interesting, but inaccessible to many.

As a teacher I respond by assigning smaller and smaller portions of the original text. But this response suggests that we can profitably read, say, a chapter of Aristotle. The editors of the volume under review caution against such an approach in favour of a more holistic approach. They not only charge analytic interpreters with a tendency to focus myopically on individual arguments, but they also contend, more surprisingly, that developmentalists neglect the larger context of an argument (2). So we need to keep in mind the macro-level of text organisation (whole treatises, books) if we are to understand the arguments at micro-level (topics, individual arguments). The editors put a new spin on this fairly wide- spread insight by stressing that Aristotle’s treatises consist in the search for the principles appropriate to the enquiry, where ‘the organized pursuit of principles is carefully and deliberately structured both at the level of fine detail and across the unfolding exposition.’ In short, we cannot ignore those expository principles at any level of analysis (3).

The volume consists of twelve papers (a full table of contents is included at the end of this review). They advance their hermeneutical claims by focusing on specific texts or interpretive impasses. Nine papers deal with theoretical philosophy, while only three address questions in practical philosophy (two of which are on the Poetics!). As usual with edited volumes, the papers differ not only in size (three papers are very long), but also in quality. Here are what I take to be the key hermeneutical insights.

1. In ‘Ways of Proving in Aristotle’, Marco Zingano argues exhaustively that proofs phusikôs and proofs logikôs need not be opposed to each other, but can work in tandem. Point taken.

2. In the second 40+ pages paper of the volume — ‘Aristotle’s Scientific Method’ — Edward Halper shows on the basis of Physics I and II that Aristotle does not expound his doctrine, but that he rather takes his reader on a journey of inquiry into the explanations of motion. Demonstration plays a much more important role in organising the material than does deduction. Interesting, but does it generalise?

3. Diana Quarantotto tries to illuminate Aristotle’s writing in ‘Aristotle’s Problemata-Style and Aural Textuality.’ Although there is much of interest, her conclusion that verbal communication has a great influence on the texts and that the verbal aspects sometimes shine through is hardly news.

4. The next paper, on ‘Natural Things and Body: The Investigations of Physics’ is nearly 40 pages long, and packed with interesting and useful reflections. Through a reading of the Physics and explaining how the De Caelo is related to it, Helen Lang exonerates not only the arrangement of the Physics (as in our editions), but also the order of other parts of the corpus. Although Lang does a great job at explaining what a topic is and how they relate to each other, many will have heard the claims that the texts should be arranged topically and that they are systematic wholes that begin with what is most important and then deal with what is less so. However, the paper begins with a fascinating and less familiar exposition of ancient Greek reading and writing techniques. This account strongly undermines the picture (or projection?) that Aristotle had lecture notes that he kept updating.

5. Mariska Leunissen helpfully expands in on the order of exposition ’Surrogate Principles and the Natural Order of Exposition in Aristotle’s De Caelo II’. She explains that Aristotle sometimes posits substantial claims (with hupokeisthô) in order to preserve the proper order. Good observation; point taken.

6. Some of Aristotle’s writing appears to be exploratory. After revealing some hermeneutical principles that underlie an inquiry into Aristotle’s writing, Philip van der Eijk argues plausibly in ‘Arrangement and Exploratory Discourse in the Parva Naturalia’ that the exploratory style is studied: Aristotle employs it for polemical, rhetorical, and primarily pedagogical reasons. He makes a very strong case for this reading in relation to the De Divinatione and De Somno. The results seem transferable to many other Aristotelian treatises, and not only theoretical ones.

7. In ‘The Place of the De Motu Animalium in Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy’ Andrea Falcon addresses the macro- organisation of Aristotle’s texts. He deftly argues against those who take De Motu to be a mixed-genre work, and places it firmly within natural science, highlighting that it belongs to the project of the Physics, even if it is less general than the Physics. The point about levels of generality lends support to, and further expands on, Lang’s thesis about the organisation of both individual works and the arrangement of these works in the Corpus.

8. William Wians’s paper ‘Is Aristotle’s Account of Sexual Differentiation Inconsistent?’ is one of three that show how to resolve an apparent contradiction within one work of Aristotle’s by taking into consideration the context in which the conflict arises. By highlighting the different stages of the argument, Wians can give a coherent account of the female’s contribution to the formation of the embryo. The other two papers conveying the same insight are 11 and 12 in the Contents, both concerning the Poetics. Thornton Lockwood’s ‘Aristotle on the (Alleged) Inferiority of History to Poetry’ qualifies the offending remark about history in Poetics 9 by arguing that Aristotle at this point is only speaking about the unity of the plot. Malcolm Heath’s perceptive ‘Aristotle on the Best Kind of Tragic Plot: Re-reading Poetics 13-14’ celebrates the complexity of Aristotle’s writing. Which plot structure makes for the best tragedy? Heath explains Aristotle’s apparently ambivalent answer by referring to pedagogical and dialectical reasons. He reminds us that patience must be one of the readers’ virtues.

9. Suitably placed after the papers on natural philosophy, the contribution of Vasilis Politis and Jun Su, ‘The Concept of Ousia in Metaphysics Alpha, Beta, and Gamma’, makes a case for approaching the concept of ousia from Books Alpha and Beta; not merely from Gamma. They argue that some of the aporiai in Beta question the ordinary understanding of ousia that many interpreters bring to Gamma. If, as they contend, the Metaphysics is a well-structured whole (at least up to this point), then we should start at the beginning if we are to learn properly about ousia.

10. In another paper on the macro-organisation, Ron Polansky substantiates the claim in his title, that ‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a Work of Practical Science’, through an insightful tour of the EN. Much hangs on the claim that ethics does not rest on or require deep understanding of natural science. Against numerous critics, Polansky maintains that we can reach the goal of the EN — becoming practically good agents — without studying Aristotle’s theoretical works: a good person does not have to be a natural philosopher!

Here is not the place to discuss the arguments of the papers in detail. My question is: does the volume work as a whole? My answer is a qualified yes. I’ll start with the bad news. I do not think the volume will help teachers much to bring Aristotle closer to the hearts (or minds) of their students. Accessing the hermeneutical insights from the papers requires significant background-knowledge of some of the less familiar Aristotelian texts such as De Somno or Generation of Animals: not exactly the stuff one usually teaches. Still, teachers should follow the example of the papers and be careful to contextualise properly the material we do make the students read. But presumably many of us do that anyway. Perhaps we can console the students by citing the claim that ‘in their functioning as pedagogical instruments, the treatises seem designed to be challenging. They are contrived to force the student — and the reader — to unpack their concentrated thought’ eventually leading ‘to the reader’s secure assimilation of the principles and what follows from them’ (4). As the papers make abundantly clear — many difficult in their own right — there is no easy way into Aristotle’s texts.

This nicely produced volume, then, seems primarily pitched at experts, especially those with a penchant for Aristotle’s natural philosophy. For papers 2 to 8 give a well-rounded account of how Aristotle proceeds in the texts falling under that rubric. The papers vindicate the editors’ claims about the structuring importance of principles, the pedagogical intent, and the careful organisation of the texts on the micro- and macro-level. I am not sure whether the editors’ hope that the volume ‘will inspire readings of Aristotle’s texts that open up new lines of interpretation of the corpus’ (6) will pan out. The papers are fine: all are learned, and some are very insightful. And there is currently no volume or book that deals with reading Aristotle. However, among the key hermeneutical insights, I could not find one that I had not heard of before. The strongest and potentially the most influential line shared by many contributions is the emphasis on instruction. Aristotle wrote the way he did because he pursued certain educational goals. So, instead of brushing off a difficult or tortuous bit of text as under- or over-written, we should try to make sense of it in terms of what it is supposed to tell the student. It is, basically, a plea to take the texts as we have them seriously. A group of Plato scholars, spearheaded by M.M. McCabe, operates under the assumption that Plato wrote nothing in vain. This volume might provoke a battle-cry for Aristotle scholars to adopt a similar strategy: Aristotle also wrote nothing in vain. This principle might indeed lead to new interpretations. At least, doing so will force us to think harder about the text, and to proceed even more slowly than many of us do already. This would be a good development.

Table of Contents

Introduction, William Wians and Ron Polansky 1–6
1. Ways of Proving in Aristotle, Marco Zingano 7–49
2. Aristotle’s Scientific Method, Edward C. Halper, 50–96
3. Aristotle’s Problemata-Style and Aural Textuality, Diana Quarantotto 97–126
4. Natural Things and Body: The Investigations of Physics, Helen S. Lang 127–164
5. Surrogate Principles and the Natural Order of Exposition in Aristotle’s De Caelo II, Mariska Leunissen 165–180 6. Arrangement and Exploratory Discourse in the Parva Naturalia, Philip van der Eijk 181–214
7. The Place of the De Motu Animalium in Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy, Andrea Falcon, 215–235 8. Is Aristotle’s Account of Sexual Differentiation Inconsistent? William Wians 236–256
9. The Concept of Ousia in Metaphysics Alpha, Beta, and Gamma, Vasilis Politis and Jun Su 257–276
10. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a Work of Practical Science, Ron Polansky, 277–314
11. Aristotle on the (Alleged) Inferiority of History to Poetry, Thornton C. Lockwood 315–333
12. Aristotle on the Best Kind of Tragic Plot: Re-reading Poetics 13–14, Malcolm Heath 334–351
Bibliography 353–368
Indexes 369–388
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