BMCR 1995.10.03

1995.10.03, Barnes, Cambridge Companion to Aristotle

Jonathan Barnes, The Cambridge companion to Aristotle. Cambridge companions to philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xxv, 404 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780521411332 $59.95.

It is obviously difficult to write a good philosophical companion or handbook on any great philosopher of the past which would provide students and perhaps also more mature scholars with a guide which is reliable, helpful, inspiring, informative, and easy to use. The task becomes even more difficult with Aristotle who is not only one of the most important philosophers of all time but also an extremely important scientist in many areas. Further difficulties emerge if one takes into account the fact that interpretative problems are not only confined to Aristotle’s philosophical arguments but also extend to the reconstruction of the intellectual context, the dating of the source material and other historical questions. Perhaps the reader of the handbook should also know something about the different approaches and controversies in the extremely versatile and intensive Aristotelian scholarship of the last couple of decades, to say nothing of Aristotle’s enormous influence on Western philosophy and science during the last 2300 years.

Naturally, all these aspects of Aristotle, Aristotelianism, and Aristotelian scholarship cannot be covered in a single volume. The editor and the writers of an Aristotle handbook, therefore, have to face difficult choices. Jonathan Barnes has cautiously and wisely limited the aims of the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle to a strictly philosophical level. Those aspects of Aristotle’s thought are emphasized which are judged to be philosophical from the viewpoint of modern analytical philosophy. There is relatively little concern with the historical origins or context of his philosophy, and the primarily scientific parts of his works are only discussed in one brief chapter. However, the choice of approach has not led to frivolous anachronisms since all the writers are certainly professionally competent in classics. It is Aristotle’s philosophy, not philosophy inspired by Aristotle, that is outlined in the Companion. No comprehensiveness has been aimed at even in philosophical aspects. According to Barnes, it would be impossible to discuss all the important ideas of Aristotle in a single volume: the subject is too large and too difficult. It has been a sensible choice to prefer a limited number of interesting and inspiring philosophical questions to a flat and superficial summary.

Nonetheless, most important aspects of Aristotle’s thought have been covered pretty well in the nine chapters of the Companion. Barnes himself has written an introduction and three chapters: one on the life and work of Aristotle, one on metaphysics, and one on rhetoric and poetics. Robin Smith has written an excellent piece on logic, and the two chapters by R.J. Hankinson cover both Aristotle’s philosophy of science and his scientific works. The remaining three chapters are by Stephen Everson on psychology, D.S. Hutchinson on ethics, and C.C.W. Taylor on politics.

The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle is, however, a much thinner book than the corresponding volume on Plato (560 pages), edited by Richard Kraut a couple of years ago. This might sound surprising, given the respective scope of the two philosophers’ written work, as well as their philosophical importance. The Barnes volume, however, manages to make a much more compact and balanced impression than the one by Kraut, which could not help looking like a mixed bag even though it certainly also contained a lot of valuable scholarship. The fact that Barnes has collected a considerable proportion of his writers from among his former students in Oxford might have contributed to the coherence of the book. One the other hand, somebody might regard such a narrow selection of writers as a shortcoming.

The Companion is intended for beginners in Aristotle. Therefore, the treatment is elementary, i.e., it does not presuppose much previous knowledge of the subject, but fortunately, it is not popularizing in a misleading way. It would of course have been unwise to suggest that there is an easy way to understand Aristotle’s philosophy. The readers are supposed to be intelligent undergraduate and graduate students who are ready to begin serious philosophical work on Aristotle. With a view to this kind of audience, it has been pedagogically wise to avoid idiosyncratic readings of Aristotle. The writers have been encouraged to present views which most analytically schooled philosophers would be inclined to regard as initially reasonable whether or not they would also accept them as ultimately defensible.

Little room is given to polemics for or against particular controversial interpretations of Aristotle’s ideas. This is understandable, given the limited space of a single volume, but modern scholarly controversies have also been avoided because Barnes and the other writers try to encourage students to consider and discuss what Aristotle himself said rather than what some later scholars said about Aristotle. This is all very sensible, especially in light of the prevailing tendency to teach students to approach Aristotle through evaluating competing interpretations outlined in very recent scholarship. If the Companion successfully replaces articles and student essays titled “Y’s criticism on X’s account of W’s interpretation of Aristotle on P” with ones titled straightforwardly “Aristotle on P” it certainly fulfills its task very well.

Still, it could have been helpful for students and more advanced readers to give at least a rough map of the most heated controversies of current Aristotelian scholarship. The writers are usually careful enough to point out the questions where the interpretation of Aristotle’s position is under serious scholarly dispute. Some of them mention different alternatives to interpret controversial doctrines and passages. However, one might be inclined to feel slightly disappointed with the sparseness of information provided by a couple of chapters. I confine myself to brief comments on the treatment of ethics (Hutchinson) and metaphysics (Barnes).

Hutchinson’s piece on ethics seems to be based on his own book The Virtues of Aristotle (London 1986). The treatment of individual moral virtues has been given quite a lot of space, whereas themes like practical reasoning, moral responsibility, weakness of will, and various metaethical and methodological problems that analytical philosophers have traditionally found most interesting are discussed rather sparsely. Perhaps his choice does justice to Aristotle’s original intentions and emphases better than standard analytical scholarship since it is true that about a half of the pages in Aristotle’s ethical works are devoted to the study of particular moral virtues and friendship. Hutchinson pays very little attention to the relation between Aristotle’s method in ethics and his theory of science and the alleged internal tension between the practical and the contemplative ideals of the good life, the topics of perhaps the two most intense controversies in the interpretation of Aristotle’s ethical thought. He says that he has concentrated on arranging a clear presentation of what he takes to be the central elements of Aristotle’s moral view. The results are certainly of first-class quality. There is, however, a danger in this process, where the order of Aristotle’s own exposition is changed substantially and scattered passages are collected together in order to argue for a single, coherent doctrine, to smooth out all the roughnesses, tensions and even contradictions of Aristotle’s thought. Perhaps Hutchinson’s exposition is a bit too harmonizing, and the readers would have benefited more from a discussion in which the difficulties in Aristotle’s argument would have been given more attention.

Barnes’ approach in the chapter on metaphysics is very different. He certainly does not smooth out the difficulties. On the contrary, he attempts to show that the four different characterizations of the subject matter of study given in a treatise, or rather a collection of essays, which has later been called the Metaphysics cannot sensibly be interpreted as four compatible descriptions of the same discipline. The characterizations of metaphysics as the science of first principles, the study of being as being, theology, and the investigation into substance do not cohere; therefore, there is no one science which they describe and in a sense no such thing as Aristotelian metaphysics. Barnes’ argument is admirably clear and convincing. He also especially stresses that the central books (VII-IX) of the Metaphysics, which are devoted to the study of substances, are very difficult and controversial: not only the details of Aristotle’s argument, but his general thesis and his overall metaphysical position are subject to scholarly dispute. Barnes modestly admits that his account is only a simplistic sketch of one possible interpretation of Aristotle’s remarks about substances. However, one would have been glad to know what the main options of interpreting the contribution of the universal and the particular in a thing’s identity and substance are in light of recent scholarship on the central books of the Metaphysics (Frede-Patzig, Irwin, Gill, Witt, Lewis, Furth, Loux, Spellman, etc.).

My criticisms are minor. The general quality of the articles in the Companion is very high. The book is above all an inspiring and informative guide for philosophically ambitious students of Aristotle, but even a more advanced reader finds much of interest and pleasure in it. Personally, I found the chapters by Smith, Everson, and Taylor the most enjoyable contributions, but there is much of value in the others, too. It is particularly helpful to have an updated version (more than a hundred pages!) of the excellent Aristotle bibliography, originally compiled about twenty years ago by Barnes, Malcolm Schofield and Richard Sorabji for an anthology of Articles on Aristotle.

The pedagogical aims of the Companion seem to have been fulfilled in an excellent way, at least mostly. Let me, however, conclude with another minor criticism concerning a feature in the pedagogical strategy of the book. In a hilarious introductory chapter, Barnes not only describes the aims and scope of the volume, but also gives more or less convincing reasons for studying the history of philosophy in general. Furthermore, he uses rather strong words in order to express his strong preference for Aristotle over other classics in the field, such as Descartes and Plato. Barnes unhesitatingly recommends Aristotle to the students of the history of philosophy since he is “incontrovertibly superior” to Plato, whose “philosophical views are mostly false, and for the most part, they are evidently false; his arguments are mostly bad, and for the most part they are evidently bad”. Well, it is always touching to see somebody waving flags to one’s hero in such an enthusiastic way, but why should one be encouraged to stab one’s neighbor in the back? Aristotle might be demonstrably superior to Plato, but perhaps that is not a good message to be categorically declared by a leading authority of the historiography of philosophy to the novice graduate students who are only in their process of picking up one or two favorite heroes as subjects of their scholarly work and who are perhaps not yet able to appreciate all the subtleties of the good old English sense of humor.