BMCR 2011.08.13

Aristotle On the Nature of Truth

, Aristotle On the Nature of Truth. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiii, 275. ISBN 9780521191210. $90.00.


This is a highly original book both in its approach and its conclusions, more so indeed than its title suggests. For if the book does not stint on detailed analyses of key Aristotelian texts and serious engagement with the secondary literature, its main aim is an account of the nature of truth which strictly exceeds anything Aristotle explicitly said or even thought. An arguably more accurate title would therefore have been On the Nature of Truth with Aristotle. If this book, then, cannot avoid being judged against Aristotle’s texts, it should not be simply dismissed when it departs from them. Instead, we must ask if these departures remain true to the spirit of Aristotle’s thought and/or are philosophically compelling in their own right. Only in this way can we do justice to the unique demands of this unique book and thereby ourselves fulfill the conception of truth as ‘justice’ that the book defends.

Long insists from the outset that “truth belongs neither to thinking nor to things, but to their encounter—an encounter in which truth is always a matter of ontological responsibility, that is, of ecological justice” (11). Thus Long in chapter six argues that the two supposed senses of truth in Aristotle (as a property of objects and as a property of propositions) in fact have their ground in a conception of truth as ‘encounter’. Yet in the cited sentence we cannot fail but note some terms that neither Aristotle nor most of his interpreters use in reference to the nature of truth. By ‘ecological justice’ Long intends “a way of inhabiting the world rooted in an ability to respond to the saying of things held accountable by the unicity of each and the integrity of the whole” (11). In ‘unicity’ we have another key concept for Long, one he defines as “the concrete phenomenon of singularity that announces itself in each ontological encounter” (2). This is clearly Long’s interpretation of Aristotle’s τόδε τι (179). It is because this unicity of things, as inexhaustible, constitutes a ‘recalcitrant remainder’ in ontological encounter that such an encounter is characterized by “an erotic principle that enjoins responsibility” (20). Long can thus also insist that the consonance of saying things as they say themselves is not identity for Aristotle and does not exclude discord: “Being remains elusive even as it lends itself to articulation” (13). Bringing Aristotle closer to John Dewey than Dewey himself recognized—and the influence of American Pragmatism on Long’s reading is fully explicit—Long insists that “Aristotle’s thinking too is alive to singularity, uncertainty, and ambiguity even as it feels the pull of order and stability” (16). Truth for Aristotle on Long’s reading therefore exists between the singular and the universal (159), as is suggested by the very ambiguity of the word εἶδος, which, while expressing the being of the individual, can also be thought independently of the individual (183).

All of the above can be summarized in the claim that “Truth is dialogical” (25). It therefore becomes important for Long to show that truth originally characterized human intersubjectivity and was only later extended to things (27-28). What made this extension possible is the ‘naturalism’ of the Ancient Greeks: things can belong as much to the things themselves as to our saying since there is no chasm here between subject and object (32; 54-55). Truth is ‘symbiotic’, by which Long means “the rich and complex ways the phenomena live together with our articulations of them or, more generally, the manner in which human-being lives in cooperation with the natural world” (48). Truth is therefore not correspondence (see also 164), but rather propriation : “the attempt to articulate . . . what is proper to each” without simply appropriating (249). This is its justice.

Can, then, such a conception of truth be ascribed to Aristotle? This turns out to require some hermeneutical violence. First, the scope of the term ‘justice’ must be extended beyond the human sphere to which Aristotle confines it. Long acknowledges that “Justice for Aristotle seems to be a human capacity situated squarely in the sphere of interhuman community. Yet already in Aristotle’s initial articulation justice as a relation to an other [sic], we hear the possibility of extending the meaning of justice beyond the sphere of interhuman community to the larger ecological community of things” (246). What is unclear, of course, is how we are supposed to ‘hear’ in Aristotle a possibility not at all articulated there. In a famous passage of the Politics (1253a10-15) Long indeed claims to hear a characterization of justice as “ a certain ability to respond to the expression of things by a being having λόγος ”, (94) because he finds expressed there the view that “what is good and just for the community itself is grounded in the human capacity to articulate things as they are; that is, to speak the truth of things to and with one another” (104). But this requires Long to translate the passage in a way that arguably inverts its meaning: “But λόγος is the ground on which what is beneficial and harmful appear, and thus also what is just and unjust.” If we can speak of a ‘grounding’ here at all, in the Greek it is λόγος that is ἐπί, and therefore ‘grounded in,’ the revealing of the just and unjust, not the other way around.

Since Aristotle attributes the activity of thinking to the unmoved mover and indeed makes this thinking paradigmatic, Long has no choice but to find his conception of truth instantiated there. But how? This divine thinking cannot be characterized by difference or relation since its object is nothing other than itself. Furthermore, the unmoved mover as pure ἐνέργεια excludes all potency and therefore any erotic incompleteness. In short, the unmoved mover’s eternal ‘thinking of thinking’ appears to be the very antithesis of a dialogical conception of truth. It is therefore here that Long finds himself compelled to defy the text most flagrantly. How else can one characterize his insistence on attributing potency or δύναμις, and thus “a sort of openness to determination,” to the unmoved mover (236)? The text itself is clear: if the object of god’s thinking were other than itself, it would be δύναμις and therefore not the best οὐσία ( Met. 1074b19-20); therefore, in the case of the unmoved mover thinking and what is thought must be the same (τὸ αὐτό, 1075a4) and one (μία, 1075a5). Faced with such explicit statements Long can only appeal to the “deepest significance” of grammar, insisting that in the articulation ἡ νοήσις νοήσεως νοήσις, the genitive by itself implies difference and potency (236). On the next page Long indeed must grant that this is something Aristotle “himself might have, strictly speaking, rejected” (237). Might have? Long does make one attempt to reconcile his reading with the explicit argument of the text: on p. 236 he suggests that while the οὐσία of the unmoved mover cannot be δύναμις, this does not require that the unmoved mover be without δύναμις. Yet Aristotle excludes δύναμις from the being of the unmoved mover precisely in order to exclude the possession of a specific δύναμις i.e., that of moving the heavens (since such a δύναμις would undermine the eternality of motion, 1071b17-20). Defying these problems, Long asserts that “God is relationality” (237) and an ‘erotic principle’, playing on an ambiguity: while for Aristotle the unmoved mover is the object of love and thus of a relation, Long turns Aristotle’s claim on its head by characterizing the being and activity of the unmoved mover as itself erotic and relational: “Thus, indeed, the divine does not point to a transcendental principle; rather, it articulates an erotic activity in the middle voice” (238).

Aristotle’s god is thereby made a model of truth as justice, where justice “is quintessentially relational.” On Long’s reading Aristotle seeks “to think god as a living activity of thinking that poignantly articulates the nature of cooperative encounter by which each and any thing enters into relation with others” (231). But then if Long’s characterization of the unmoved mover cannot stand as an interpretation of Aristotle—and it is hard to imagine how it ever could—then neither can his account of truth. The unmoved mover would in this case suggest a very different conception of truth: not dialogue, not correspondence, but a being-at-one-with what is thought.

God is not the only problem for Long. We ourselves, after all, have not only an intellect that is purely potential (that is no-thing before it thinks) but also, distinct from it, an intellect that, like that of the unmoved mover, is pure ἐνέργεια. It is therefore not surprising that Long minimizes this distinction between the passive and productive intellects made in De Anima III.5, maintaining unconvincingly that there is activity in the former and passivity in the latter (167). Even the distinction between thinking and perceiving is downplayed, as Long insists that “perceiving the forms of things is not a matter of pure receptivity—it is, rather, a way of cooperating with the λόγος of things” (119). His textual basis is the phrase κατὰ τὸν λόγον at De Anima 424a17-19. But whether the λόγος in question here is the form of things without the matter or the λόγος of the sense organ, what could it mean to ‘cooperate’ with this λόγος? What ‘give and take’ is there in the sense organ receiving the form like the wax receiving the impression of the signet ring? Long goes so far as to claim that “perceiving is dialogical: it names a cooperation according to λόγος between the powers of the soul and the things already at-work in such a way as to be perceived” (124). Long himself cites Kurt Pritzl’s just observation that it is “remarkable how much Aristotle’s account of cognition, including thinking, is taken up with describing cognitive faculties as passive” (p. 140, n. 67). Long, though oddly citing this observation without comment, still insists on the active character of the passive intellect and on perception being an active ‘cooperation’ with things.

Long’s attempt to overcome any sharp distinction between passivity and activity in both Aristotle’s metaphysics and psychology (in a note Long speaks of “the active ability endemic to receptivity in Aristotle” and of “the active receptivity endemic to Aristotle’s God,” p. 118, n. 6) of course yields some interesting results and in general draws our attention to mediations that no doubt exist in Aristotle. However, what is sacrificed in the process, and sacrificed because incompatible with a ‘co-operative’ or ‘dialogical’ conception of truth, is the fundamental distinction in Aristotle between pure activity that is self-identical and pure receptivity that differs from its object only in not yet being it. It is hard to come away from this book not thinking that if ‘dialogue’ is the metaphysical, psychological and ethical paradigm for Long, for Aristotle it is self-identity. Most philosophers today would probably find Long’s paradigm more appealing, especially as he makes a very persuasive case for it. However, a real philosophical debate on this issue requires confronting the fundamental difference of perspective between Long and Aristotle, rather than hiding it, as Long arguably does. Furthermore, before dismissing Aristotle’s view as some oppressive metaphysics of presence, we should note that he finds the self-identity that is his model in the activities of life, thought, and pleasure. Long is right to draw our attention to the ‘dynamic’ character of being and truth for Aristotle; the problem is that Long, unlike Aristotle, cannot conceive of such ‘dynamism’ without appeal to potency, finitude, and radical difference. Here, perhaps, Aristotle has something to teach us.