Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.29

Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou (ed.), Aristotle – Contemporary Perspectives on His Thought: On the 2400th Anniversary of Aristotle’s Birth.   Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. 385.  ISBN 9783110564174.  €129,95.  


Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (robert.mayhew@shu.edu)

Preview
[Authors and titles in this volume are listed at the end of the review]

In May 2016, 250 scholars from 42 countries and five continents traveled to the University of Thessaloniki to celebrate the 2400th anniversary of the year of Aristotle’s birth. The event (the World Congress Aristotle 2400 Years) was organized by Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies. The total number of participants and attendees approached 600. The volume under review contains revised versions of twenty of the invited papers. A selection of the other presentations is being edited by Sfendoni-Mentzou, and will appear as Proceedings of the World Congress Aristotle 2400 Years.

In the space available, I can do little more than give a brief indication of the subject matter of each essay, with occasional elaborations and more specific evaluations.

The volume is divided into five parts. Part I is Philosophy of Nature, subdivided into Physics, Biology, Psychology, and Meteorology. There are two essays under the heading Physics. Heinemann’s “Aristotelian Supervenience” seeks to answer the question “What is Aristotelian about Aristotelian Supervenience?” (as modern discussions of Aristotelian supervenience—a counter to Humean supervenience—often have little to say about the content of Aristotle’s works). I do not know the contemporary literature on supervenience that well, but in answering this question Heinemann devotes a lot of space to Physics 1-3, and I found that material quite insightful. Sfendoni-Mentzou’s “Aristotle’s Dynamic Vision of Nature” is a defense of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature in response to the common view that, in light of Newtonian physics, the Humean rejection of metaphysics, and later trends, it was a failure. She sketches—in quick succession—her take on (inter alia) continuity, infinity, potentiality, time, and nature. But her most interesting, extended, and (I expect) controversial discussion concerns what she sees as the relevance to contemporary physics of Aristotle’s conception of prime matter.

There are two essays under the heading Biology, both of them excellent. In “‘For a Human Being Reproduces a Human Being’,” Lennox examines this oft-repeated statement of Aristotle, and argues that by considering each instance in context, one encounters “some distinctively Aristotelian theses about biological generation: it is goal-directed, and both the initiator of biological generation and its goal are identified, in distinct ways, with the formal nature.” In his brief concluding section (with the terrific subtitle “Aristotle Resurgent”), Lennox sketches the relevance of his subject matter to contemporary philosophy of biology. In “Aristotle’s Generation of Animals on the Separation of the Sexes,” Lefebvre provides an excellent account of Aristotle’s explanation of the usefulness of the male (in GA 2.5) and (at greater length) his explanation of the separation of male and female (in GA 1.23 and 2.1). Lefebvre connects these discussions to Aristotle’s hylomorphism and conception of the inequality of the sexes.

There are three essays under the heading Psychology, though the first of these—Calvo’s “On the Notions of Ψυχή and Ζωή in the Aristotelian Biology”—could have been placed in the previous section. Calvo argues that there is a tension between, or a difficulty reconciling, Aristotle’s conception of the soul in its biological context, and his explanation of it by means of such metaphysical concepts as entity, essence, matter and form, and potentiality and actuality. This shows, he argues, that there is a similar problem reconciling or explaining the relationship between Aristotle’s conceptions of ψυχή and ζωή. Bos’s “Aristotle on Life-Bearing Pneuma and on God as Begetter of the Cosmos” is a brief but useful introduction—for those who do not know it—to his idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s conception of soul, pneuma, god’s nature and role in the universe, etc.1 In DA 2.6, Aristotle writes that “We speak of an accidental object of sense where, e.g., the white object that we see is the son of Diares” (418a20-1). Polansky and Fritz’s “Aristotle on Accidental Perception” discusses the kinds of accidental sensibles and the ways in which they are accidental, and the importance of accidental perception, beginning with the account in DA 2.6, but going beyond it to other texts and other important issues (e.g. common sensibles).

The sole work placed under the heading Meteorology2 is Tassio’s “Mechanical Properties of Solids in Aristotle’s Meteorologica.” This is not so much an essay as a highly useful enumeration and description of the material properties discussed in Meteorology 4: πηκτόν (apt to solidification), τηκτόν (apt to softening by heat or dissolution by water), μαλακτόν (malleable by heat), τεγκτόν (apt to softening by water), etc.

Part II is Philosophy of Human Action, subdivided into Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics. There are two essays under the heading Ethics. In the brief but excellent “Extended and Embodied Values and Ideas,” Scaltsas provides answer the questions: “to what are the ‘external goods’ external”? and “where is the goodness of ‘external goods’ seated”? Dragona-Monachou’s “The Relevance of Aristotle’s Views of Ethics and Medicine to Bioethics” is a brief survey of previous literature on the subject—over a dozen essays, chapters, and papers are mentioned—aiming to show that “Aristotle is present today not only in ethical or moral debates, but also in bioethical ones.” I didn’t find this the most convincing way of establishing Aristotle’s contemporary relevance in this field.

Both essays in the section of Politics deal with democracy. Reading the first half of Pellegrin’s “Aristotle and Democracy,” one might conclude that it is mistitled, as he discusses oligarchy as much as democracy, and comes to conclusions that are not specifically about democracy. But after discussing the ways in which democracy and oligarchies have both good and bad elements, and pointing out that they are in a sense two sides of the same coin, he goes on to argue that democracy is both better according to Aristotle and more central to his political philosophy. In “Aristotle and the Democracy of the City-state,” Contogeorgis wants to correct the longstanding errors of a number of thinkers concerning the relationship between the deviant democracy and the corresponding proper πολιτεία (i.e. the polity) in Aristotle’s political philosophy.3 On his view, “in order to understand Aristotle’s view on democracy, one must start from his fundamental views on the correct πολιτεία, as he calls it, and from the anthropocentric phase that people of the city-states of that time experienced.” I do not quite get the last phrase of this line (and a number of others besides), but I think the gist of his approach—which may be worth taking—is in effect to view πολιτεία as the correct version of democracy, rather than democracy as the deviant version of πολιτεία.

There is one essay each under the headings Rhetoric and Poetics. In “Aristotle and the Dialectic Turn of Rhetoric” (one of my favorites in the volume), Rapp makes clear the close affinity between rhetoric and dialectic, which he claims represents a turn away from earlier conceptions of rhetoric and toward a new approach to the subject, which makes rhetorical argumentation central to the τέχνη of rhetoric (a fact not fully appreciated by scholars of rhetoric and the Rhetoric). In a brief (four-and-a-half-page) piece entitled “Aesthetic Judgment according to Aristotle’s Politics, Moutsopoulos presents “three irrelevances in Aristotle’s Politics” the “unimportance” of which “reveals the everlasting brilliance of his mind.” They are related to Aristotle’s claim that οἱ πολλοί together are better (aesthetic) judges than a single person.

Part III is First Philosophy, subdivided (unnecessarily, I think) into Ontology (the first two essays) and Theology (the third). In “What is Aristotle’s Metaphysics?”, Berti argues that the standard interpretation of the Metaphysics—namely, that it is concerned with ontology and theology—goes back to Alexander of Aphrodisias, and is in fact wrong. After sketching the history of this interpretation, he argues for an alternative: the main concern of the Metaphysics is neither ontology nor theology, but the science of first causes. Couloubaritsis, in “The Complex Organization of Aristotle’s Thought,” similarly offers a new interpretation, one that rejects “reducing Aristotle’s work to an ontology,” instead focusing on the neglected themes, as he puts it, of henology and agathology. In “Interpretation Problems in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Λ,” Pentzopoulou-Valalas claims that Metaphysics Λ “is by no means a theological treatise.”4 She surveys previous interpretations of the infamously cryptic sentence καὶ ἔστιν νόησις νοήσεως νόησις, and then presents her own interpretation. The entire essay is 6½ pages long, with roughly two pages devoted to her own interpretation, so it should come as no surprise that I found it in need of expansion.

Part IV (Theory of Thinking, with a single subsection, Epistemology) is one of the highlights of the volume. It consists of two essays. Aristotle in the Sophistici Elenchi claims: “There is a certain kind of τέχνη which is not of the same sort as are those τέχναι which are able to prove things” (11, 172a39-b1). Bolton’s “Two Conceptions of Practical Skill (Τέχνη) in Aristotle” is an illuminating discussion of these different kinds of τέχνη. In 1992, McKirahan translated Posterior Analytics 2.19, 100a12-14 (οἷον ἐν μάχῃ τροπῆς γενομένης ἑνὸς στάντος ἕτερος ἔστη, εἶθ’ ἕτερος, ἕως ἐπὶ ἀρχὴν ἦλθεν), a passage which has long troubled scholars, thus: “As happens when a rout has occurred in a battle and one man has stopped, another stops and another until it reaches the original position.”5 In “‘As in a Battle When a Rout has Occurred’,” McKirahan argues that his translation and understanding of the line—and at least fourteen other renderings of it, included in an appendix—are implausible. He argues at length and persuasively that it should be rendered (I am including more context here): “So the states come from perception (as happens when a rout has occurred in a battle and one man has stopped, another stops and another) until one reaches a principle.”6

The volume ends with one essay in Part V (Aristotle in History of Philosophy): Moran’s “Aristotle’s Conception of οὐσία in the Medieval Christian Tradition.” It is a pity that this is the sole essay on the reception of Aristotle, as (its quality aside) it is not a good fit with the rest of the collection and with the idea that this volume contains contemporary perspectives on Aristotle’s thought. I believe there were a number papers on Aristotle in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance presented at the conference; Moran’s contribution would likely have been a better fit in the other volume Sfendoni-Mentzou is editing (mentioned above).

Clearly, the essays in this collection cover much of the vast range of Aristotle’s philosophy and science, and many of them do deal with the contemporary relevance of his thought (as one would expect from the volume’s subtitle). Although I liked some essays more than others (in some cases because of how persuasive I thought they were, in others owing to my own scholarly interests), I would say the overall quality is quite high for a conference proceedings, though I thought a few were too brief for the subject they were covering and needed to be developed further. I encountered a few typos, most of them part quite minor.7

Authors and titles

Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou: Preface
Gottfried Heinemann: Aristotelian Supervenience: Potentialities and Powers in Aristotle’s Definition of Change
Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou: Aristotle’s Dynamic Vision of Nature: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective on Contemporary Science
James G. Lennox: ‘For a Human Being Reproduces a Human Being’: A Mundane, Profound, Aristotelian Truth
David Lefebvre: Aristotle’s Generation of Animals on the Separation of the Sexes
Tomás Calvo: On the Notions of Ψυχή and Ζωή in the Aristotelian Biology
Abraham P. Bos: Aristotle on Life-Bearing Pneuma and on God as Begetter of the Cosmos
Ron Polansky and John Fritz: Aristotle on Accidental Perception
Theodossios P. Tassio: Mechanical Properties of Solids in Aristotle’s Meteorologica
Theodore Scaltsas: Extended and Embodied Values and Ideas
Myrto Dragona-Monachou: The Relevance of Aristotle’s Views of Ethics and Medicine to Bioethics
Pierre Pellegrin: Aristotle and Democracy
George Contogeorgis: Aristotle and the Democracy of the City-state
Christof Rapp: Aristotle and the Dialectic Turn of Rhetoric
Evanghelos Moutsopoulos: Aesthetic Judgment according to Aristotle’s Politics
Enrico Berti: What is Aristotle’s Metaphysics?
Lambros Couloubaritsis: The Complex Organization of Aristotle’s Thought
Teresa Pentzopoulou-Valalas: Interpretation Problems in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Λ. The Case of the Sentence: καὶ ἔστιν νόησις νοήσεως νόησις
Robert Bolton: Two Conceptions of Practical Skill (Τέχνη) in Aristotle
Richard McKirahan: “As in a Battle When a Rout has Occurred”
Dermot Moran: Aristotle’s Conception of οὐσία in the Medieval Christian Tradition: Some Neoplatonic Reflections

Notes:


1.   See e.g. his The Soul and Its Instrumental Body. A Reinterpretation of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Living Nature (Leiden 2003). Of course, idiosyncratic does not mean incorrect.
2.   This subject-heading is misleading, as Chemistry would arguably be a better description of what Aristotle is doing in Meteorology 4.
3.   In a footnote, he names over 25 of these thinkers, including Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas.
4.   I was thrown by this remark, as the opening line of her essay (on the previous page) is: “Book XII (Λ) presents Aristotle’s theology.”
5.   McKirahan, Principles and Proofs (Princeton 1992).
6.   I think it is worth considering whether later Peripatetic uses of this analogy tend to support or count against McKirahan’s interpretation. See Theophrastus, De vertigine 9.75-76 and [Aristotle], Problemata 18.7.917a31-32 and 26.8.941a11-13.
7.   A half dozen examples: Devine → Divine (ix), tyran → tyrant (199), commented it → commented on it (245), alining → aligning (258), Charmidis → Charmides (p. 273), in few → in my view (?) (280).

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