Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.42

Sylvain Delcomminette, Aristote et la nécessité. Tradition de la pensée classique.   Paris:  Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2018.  Pp. 643.  ISBN 9782711627363.  €45.00.  


Reviewed by Claudio César Calabrese, Universidad Panamericana (ccalabrese@up.edu.mx)

Sylvain Delcomminette, professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, gives us a perspective from which to understand and discuss the complex framework of ideas that we call “Aristotle’s philosophy”. We can put his central thesis forward in the following way: if philosophy and necessity were intimately interconnected in the Stagirite’s thought, then this would allow for a coherent and detailed explanation of his philosophy. The author organizes this task into five parts, each divided into a number of chapters.

The first part ("L’Idéalisme Langagier d’Aristote", pp. 25-111) is composed of the following chapters: I. "Status et Fonction de l’Analyse du Langage" (pp. 25-40), where professor Delcomminette studies the famous text of De Interpretatione I, 16a3-8: “the sounds of the speech are the symbols of the heart’s affections”. Here, Aristotle marks off four levels of significance: the things, the affections of the heart, the sounds of the speech and the characters of the writing. While the first two are common to everyone (the affections of the heart are images with a certain degree of similarity compared to the things), the next two can vary, since the sounds of the speech are signs of the affections, making writing a sign of a sign. The core of the investigation establishes that Aristotle postulates the existence of an extralinguistic reality, with which the heart is in contact without the mediation of language (p. 25); through language we notice an experience that has been beforehand generated in the heart.

In Chapter II, "L’ Être et la Liaison" (pp. 41-63), the author considers the characteristics of apophantic statements, through the notions of copula and predicate (pp. 41-50) and through the doctrine of the categories (pp. 50-63). Chapter III ("Le problème de la contradiction", pp. 65-75) studies the unity of a proposition and the terms which are linked in it. The notion of necessity is considered here from a logical perspective as well: in order for a proposition to be true it is necessary that its negation be false. Chapter IV ("Le Nécessaire et le Status des Modalités", pp. 77-106) expands on the way Aristotle establishes certain operative concepts (especially, being and necessity) starting from an analysis of language that allows experiences to be transformed into objects of science. The second part ("Science et Nécessité", pp. 111-244) considers two Aristotelian treatises, the Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, which present what was later called his “theory of science”. Aristotle states there that all science must be based on axioms or primary principles, from which all further developments are derived (through syllogistic demonstrations). Thus the study of logic and of the theory of science shows, on the one side, that all necessity is included in the principle of non-contradiction and, on the other, that the latter can be expressed through definition. This second part is divided into four chapters: V. "La Démarche Analytique" (pp. 111-24); VI. "Nécessité et Raisonnement" (pp. 124-53); VII. "La Nécessité dans la Théorie de la Science" (pp. 155-211); VIII. "La Connaissance des Principes Propres de la Science" (pp. 213-42).

The third part, "La Nécessité et le Devenir" (pp. 243-322), works on the Aristotelian project of establishing a science of becoming, or what we know as “physics.” The core of this part might be articulated in the following terms: if science is only of what is necessary, can we discover necessity in the realm of becoming? This part consists of two chapters: IX. "Modalités et Temporalité" (pp. 245-277) and X. "Nécessité et Contingence dans le Devenir" (pp. 279-322).

The fourth part, "Fondation Métaphysique de la Nécessité" (pp. 323-527), is extremely important, given that it sustains the unity of the Metaphysics. This unity – as our author signals – can only be sustained on condition of reading it as continuous with the previously studied theory of science; the leading thread of this reading is also the concept of necessity. This section is composed of four chapters: XI. "Nature et objet de la Métaphysique" (pp. 327-360); XII. "Le Principe de non-contradiction" (pp.361-386); XIII, "Ousia et Définition" (pp. 387-447); XIV. "Vers l’Unité des Principes" (pp. 449-527).

The fifth and last part, "Une Éthique de la Contingence ou de la Nécessité" (pp.529-73), presents an analysis of ethics as something that concerns contingency and the non-necessary. The elaboration of this last part answers two questions: Does ethics belong to the domain of freedom in so far as it goes against necessity? Does necessity play a solely negative role in ethics, as a limit of inclinations or of free choice? The answer to both questions unfolds through three chapters: XV. "Le problème de la responsabilité morale" (pp. 531-61); XVI. "Le rôle de la connaissance dans l’éthique" (pp. 543-61); XVII. "La nécessité dans la vie humaine" (pp. 563-73). The book offers a very wide bibliography (pp.579-608) and two indexes, one of authors or Index Nominum (pp. 609-14) and another of quotes or Index locorum (pp.615-42), which enhance the work’s scientific value.

The central value of Sylvain Delcominette’s labor resides in his carrying out an overall interpretation of the Stagirite’s work. Is this work meticulously coherent? The author gives a positive answer and provides solid arguments, distinguishing “coherence” from “systematic character”: the former is a requirement for philosophy and the latter is a characteristic which has been imposed on philosophy, originally by German idealism. Aristotle’s thought has internal coherence in analyzing language as a tool that strives to purify experience to make science possible. A task of this nature is only possible if we supply fundamental propositions or principles: in the field of the special sciences, Aristotle has identified the first principles with concepts. From an epistemological or foundational point of view, Aristotelian philosophy is far from being reduced to empiricism, for it defines science by what distinguishes it from experience (and places it above experience). The knowledge of necessity is essential to science; it provides a scientific universality which is the knowledge of eidos or ousia.

In order for this approach not to appear to mirror a science limited to the study of eternal connections between essences, we should go to the most important innovation with respect to Plato: the foundation of a science of the becoming, starting with the notion of teleology. In Delcomminette’s words : “La téléologie permet ainsi à une pensé originellement développée de manière purement logique d’étendre son empire sur la temporalité et le devenir. Ce faisant, loin de prendre ses distances avec l’idéalisme, Aristote repousse ses limites en reconnaissant à la pensée une puissance inédite” (p. 576). The metaphysical position underpinning this statement can be put in these terms: if eidos is the condition for the possibility of science, this is because it is the very background of being; Aristotle calls it primary ousia in his Metaphysics, and he identifies it with activity, which, in its purest form, is thought. Science is possible because thought has been previously present in the world in some way, under varied forms and degrees, as it alone can be found in pure actuality. All potentiality derives from some actuality – both from a logical-epistemological point of view, and from an ontological point of view. All this reveals a fundamental actuality, which Aristotle calls “God”. The return to this actuality represents at the same time an ethical ideal; from this perspective as well we observe the Platonic roots of a philosophy that grants thought a normative value. This is understood on two levels: (a) in so far as praxis does not access morality except under the control of the intellectual virtue of phronēsis; (b) thought, in its purest form, gets to be the ultimate end, which allows man to reach perfect joy. Necessity, far from being a burden, is witnesses to thought at home in reality.

This book’s most significant contribution consists of revealing the profound unity of Aristotle’s work in an academic context where what is fragmentary and, thus, sometimes contradictory tends to be privileged. In my opinion, the author expands the consequences of Aristotle’s distinctions within the concept of necessity, which we find in Metaphysics Δ.5. I definitely welcome a book that opens an argumentative space to rethink Aristotle, starting from the unity and coherence of his thought.

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