BMCR 2010.10.34

A Companion to Aristotle

, A Companion to Aristotle. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. xviii, 648. ISBN 9781405122238 $200.00.

[Note: The reviewer wishes to apologize for this late review.]

This book consists of 40 topical chapters, most between 12 and 20 pages in length; three are contributed by the editor himself while the rest of the volume features 36 other highly regarded authors with expertise in Aristotle’s philosophy (see the table of contents with authors below). Each was “left free to use her/his favored approach” to their assigned topic, while the system of references was standardized, and bibliographies inserted seriatim following each chapter rather than collected at the end of the volume. A general index is included but there is no index locorum. Some chapters have extensive notes qualifying claims made in the text or referring to comparative treatments by other scholars while others have no notes at all or just supply simple citations. Each surveys an important segment of Aristotle’s main philosophical contribution and any overlap, as well as repetition, is small although not insignificant. Differences among authors treating closely related topics are not marked and there is some evidence, especially in those chapters dealing with metaphysics, of cooperation among contributors, with mutual citations of others’ treatments. Uniformity in this regard was not insisted upon; but, where it is apparent it makes for smooth transitions from one piece to the next, with essays 9-12, for example, forming a coherent whole, thus allowing their readers with specific interests in Aristotle’s metaphysics to attend, in effect, a “mini-symposium”. Although not as clearly connected as the contributions on metaphysics, those on logic and method in Part II are quite substantive and well-chosen, even ambitious, as in Keyt’s attempt to bring the syllogistic up to modern- sounding standards of completeness or Smith’s exploration of the proof-strategies to be found in the Analytics. The editor’s useful survey of Aristotle’s methods in ch. 7 suffers a bit (I think) from its failure to deal adequately with what has recently come to be known as “endoxic method”;1 his two first chapters, on the other hand, which deal with the life and works of Aristotle are sufficiently rich and up-to-date to suffice for the needs of most readers, especially beginners.

The “Preface” announces the aim of the volume to be “to treat some central topics of [Aristotle’s] philosophy in as much depth as is possible within the space of a short chapter”; we are to be provided, then, with “a good sense of the kinds of problems that exercise Aristotle’s mind and the immense and lasting contributions he made in his investigations of them” (p. xvi). It should be said right up front that this ambitious goal has been achieved and that this “Blackwell Companion to Philosophy” succeeds rather more than most. The focus on problems and puzzles, in contrast with doctrines, is very welcome. It is not a handbook, then, or essentially a reference work but rather something to be consulted by those who are reading Aristotle for themselves and would like some guidance as to what to be looking for, including those places where Aristotle seems confused or remains puzzled. Gavin Lawrence, for example, ends his wide-ranging discussion of human excellence by noting that Aristotle’s practical philosophy is “completely alive to” particular points that remain perplexing and even “if it suggests many solutions, it is even better in the problems it sets” (p. 437). This is well said and not just true of his practical philosophy but applies to theoretical disciplines as well.

The quality of each contribution, then, is very high and should stimulate even the most seasoned specialists, especially in those areas bordering on, or just outside, their own specialties. The order of topics—from the life, works, and (presumed) development of Aristotle’s thought through the “tools of inquiry” (logic and methodology) and then on to theoretical, practical and productive fields of knowledge——is both traditional and well mapped out. In a review this short only a relatively few pieces will be singled out for special mention. Since criticism should be accompanied by laying out reasonable cases for complaint, while praise needs little such accompaniment, I will more often be positive than negative, especially since the collection as a whole is quite well conceived and executed.

One defect that mars the whole product, it must be said, is the presence of numerous typographical errors, most minor, but some quite irritating, especially given the high cost of the volume in its present hardbound format. Unfortunately, such sloppy production values are becoming par for the course of late in academic publishing and must be due in part, at least, to “farming out” crucial proof-reading and other editorial details to folks less equipped to handle them than was customary in days gone by. The errors here range from slight typos to crucial words left out or even the opposite of what was probably intended, as in an ‘ever’ on p. 620, line 23, that seems to this reader to have needed ‘never’, to judge by the context and sentences to follow. I have found dozens of mistakes in these 648 pages and would be pleased to report them to the publisher if Wiley-Blackwell is thinking of re-issuing the volume in the future since there will not be space available here for such a list of errata. If there are plans for a paperback version—which would, of course, be welcome—attending to this problem in another printing is surely called for.

The best papers in this excellent collection are generally those prepared by scholars who have written well-received books on their given subjects, as might well be expected, but does not “always happen, or (even) for the most part” in similar anthologies. I would place the efforts (appearing alphabetically) of Belfiore, Broadie, Cohen, Crivelli, Dahl, Hankinson, Lewis, Miller, Modrak, Pakaluk, Rapp, Richardson Lear, Wedin, inter alia, into this category. What distinguishes their work is the sure handling of multiple themes with due recognition of differing views while a compelling overall narrative often drives their pieces. Cohen’s chapter on the difficulties of defusing the (in)famous “inconsistent triad” of book Zeta of the Metaphysics is a good case in point. Ever since Lesher’s original challenge in 19712, some attempted resolution of this puzzle has been hard to resist and it remains very challenging, to judge by the many recent monographs, let alone articles, on this subject listed in the bibliographies of essays 10-12. The papers in the sections on ethics, politics and aesthetics—closest to my own expertise—are models of concision and full of useful information, especially for those more at home in other areas of Aristotle’s philosophy. Similar judgments could be made about the biology and psychology contributions. In all cases the selected bibliographies are quite comprehensive and generous. This is a book that will send its readers to other sources and profitably so.

Planning and producing a collection as fine as this one is by no means an easy assignment, and, since we are in an age in which handbooks, companions, guides and introductions abound,3 even introductions to specific “greatest (philosophical) hits”, Georgios Anagnostopolous is to be congratulated on completing what must have been a time-consuming and exacting task. Even those few essays in this volume that might (arguably) lack the sure and effortless touch contain solid and respectable contributions and the bar has been set pretty high by most of these authors. Let those who think they can do better try their hands at it.

Table of Contents

2 Aristotle’s Works and the Development of His Thought (GEORGIOS ANAGNOSTOPOULOS).
3 Deductive Logic (DAVID KEYT).
4 Aristotle’s Theory of Demonstration (ROBIN SMITH).
5 Empiricism and the First Principles of Aristotelian Science (MICHAEL FEREJOHN).
6 Aristotle on Signification and Truth (PAOLO CRIVELLI).

A. Metaphysics.
8 The Science and Axioms of Being (MICHAEL V. WEDIN).
9 Aristotelian Categories (GARETH B. MATTHEWS).
10 Form and Matter (FRANK A. LEWIS).
11 Aristotle on Universals (MICHAEL J. LOUX).
12 Substances (S. MARC COHEN).
13 Causes (R. J. HANKINSON).
14 Heavenly Bodies and First Causes (SARAH BROADIE).
B. Physics.
15 Mixing the Elements (THEODORE SCALTSAS).
16 Aristotle on the Infinite, Space, and Time (MICHAEL J. WHITE).
17 Change and Its Relation to Actuality and Potentiality (URSULA COOPE).
C. Psychology.
18 The Aristotelian Psuchê (CHRISTOPHER SHIELDS).
19 Sensation and Desire (DEBORAH KAREN WARD MODRAK).
20 Phantasia and Thought (VICTOR CASTON).
D. Biology.
21 Teleology in Living Things (MOHAN MATTHEN).
22 Form, Essence, and Explanation in Aristotle’s Biology (JAMES G. LENNOX).
23 Generation of Animals (DEVIN M. HENRY).

A. Ethics.
24 Happiness and the Structure of Ends (GABRIEL RICHARDSON LEAR).
26 Human Excellence in Character and Intellect (GAVIN LAWRENCE).
27 Courage (CHARLES M. YOUNG).
28 Justice (CHARLES M. YOUNG).
29 Friendship (MICHAEL PAKALUK).
30 Voluntary, Involuntary, and Choice (ROBERT HEINAMAN).
31 Aristotle on Action, Practical Reason, and Weakness of the Will (NORMAN O. DAHL).
B. Politics.
32 The Naturalness of the Polis in Aristotle (C. D. C. REEVE).
33 Rulers and Ruled (ROBERT MAYHEW).
34 Aristotle on the Ideal Constitution (FRED D. MILLER, JR.).
35 Excellences of the Citizen and of the Individual (JEAN ROBERTS).
36 Education and the State (RICHARD STALLEY).
A. Rhetoric.
37 The Nature and Goals of Rhetoric (CHRISTOF RAPP).
38 Passions and Persuasion (STEPHEN LEIGHTON).
B. Art.
39 Aristotle’s Poetics: The Aim of Tragedy (PAUL WOODRUFF).
40 The Elements of Tragedy (ELIZABETH BELFIORE).


1. See now Richard Kraut’s “How to Justify Ethical Propositions: Aristotle’s Method”, in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. R. Kraut (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 76-95; Kraut argues, as have others, that “endoxic method” is not limited to ethical argumentation but has a much wider scope, being in fact, the typical method employed by Aristotle in his major treatises (e.g. the Physics or Metaphysics) and not to be simply reduced to “dialectic” as that is conceived in the (early) Topics. The brief discussion on pp. 119-120 by the editor of Irwin’s proposed distinction between “strong” and “pure dialectic” does not do justice to the topic of just how much conviction “endoxic method” can be expected to convey.

2. James H. Lesher, “Aristotle on Form, Substance and Universal: A Dilemma”, Phronesis, v. 16, pp. 169-178.

3. A younger colleague of mine is adamant that this abundance of aids to study as opposed to original philosophical works is a definite indication of decline in the profession. While I don’t share this assessment wholeheartedly, there is, perhaps, a glut of such secondary sources out there, thus making it even more important to signal the arrival of successful attempts in the genre of companions to great thinkers, of which there is (arguably) none greater than the “Master of those who know”, in Dante’s famous description.