Aristotle, Plato, and the Order of Concretion


In my last post, I said I intended to discuss something called the “order of concretion” in the history of science and philosophy. That was rather a long time ago, I know…. But, I’m going to try again to continue this, so far as time will allow. Today, I want to go right to what I think is a central issue if we hope ever to reintegrate science with philosophy, as we should.

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

I said above that Aristotle thinks somewhat Platonically “despite himself.” He himself is very remarkably aware that matter will make a difference in the account of things, even if the extent of the difference remains as yet unknown. And Aristotle makes, in this connection, a distinction which is well known to the scholastic tradition, but not equally well understood: that, namely, between the “logical” consideration of a question, and the “physical” consideration of it. Why make that distinction? Its basis lies in the discovery that matter is a genuine principle. For, on the one hand, the mind and its act are immaterial; but the things to be known in the physical world are material. It becomes necessary, therefore, for the mind to “go out of itself,” as it were, in the effort to know things. This is precisely what gives rise to what is called the “order of concretion.”

But how much “going out of itself” will be necessary, or precisely how that is to be done, is not something that can be known without experience — the experience, as it turns out, not merely of an individual but of an entire tradition of thought. Here I am speaking of history, and history has, indeed, everything to do with what I am talking about. Aristotle’s disciples are not always as perspicacious as their master was. Some of them suppose that they should follow the master blindly in the supposition that history has no significant bearing on the “disciplines.” That supposition amounts, at least implicitly, to a still deeper assumption: the assumption, namely, that the materiality of human nature, and of the cosmos, is not so significant as to warrant a suspicion that historical time is implicated in the material essence of things. Aristotle did not think of time as essentially historical in the sense I am speaking of here. The discovery that it was essentially historical was not yet attainable.

Thus we arrive at the heart of the matters I am discussing. For we must ask, and later discuss at greater length, questions such as these: Is the material essence of an electron, or a cat, or a dog, or, say, any one of the 30,000,000, or so insects residing on the sun’s satellite known as “earth” a historical essence, or not? Aristotle tended to think not. But then again, he didn’t know that there were that many insects, or that the earth was a projectile (not to mention not being at the center, not being eternal, etc.)…. For him, therefore, a semi-Platonic investigation into the nature of such things was fairly understandable. But for ourselves, the same judgment cannot hold.

It is easy to make questionable assumptions about these matters — despite the fact that these assumptions necessarily appear even rather gross, once one recognizes them for what they are. Trying to follow in Aristotle’s footsteps uncritically entails treating the Aristotelian opinion — plausible in 350 BC, but scarcely now — that the world necessarily  always was and always will be — as merely an ephemeral opinion, of little consequence. But it is, on the contrary, a matter of major consequence.

…To be continued.


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  1. Edward Wassell

    What have we learned that is new about time and motion since the time of Aristotle through experimental science? Have we really learned anything new except for developing new tools to make more precise measurements? Have we come any closer to understanding the way things are other than being able to produce detailed theoretical models that have surprisingly good predictive power? Are the theoretical models telling us anything new about nature or are they simply doing the exact same sort of thing that Ptolemy was aiming at, namely predicting the future from a knowledge of the past. Are we really entering more into materiality with our models, or do the models themselves fail to grasp what matter is in itself because they are so mathematically abstract? I do think modern science has given us a much better understanding of natural history than what was available to the ancients who often surmised incorrectly. This wealth of knowledge ought to be the source from which natural philosophers following Aristotle can draw out better conclusions about formal, material, agent and final causality in nature. But I don’t see it as opposed to the general ideas Aristotle had formed of time, place, nature, motion, matter, life, soul… Reading my son’s ninth grade biology text, I noticed that the biologists are still unable to define life. They list six or seven characteristics from which one can test whether or not something is alive. But this does not seem like philosophical progress. It reminds me of Meno’s attempt to define virtue by giving lists of virtues. I still think Aristotle’s definition of soul is superior to anything from modern biology — the form of a natural body equipped with tools. Biologists certainly recognize the tool part — everything they discuss has a specific function, and they lay out the inner workings of a cell as if it were a sophisticated factory or a populous city. But they have trouble distinguishing the cell from works of human art, like computers and robots. We can imitate nature through our ability to produce robots, and we can manipulate living things through our skill and knowledge of how they work, but we cannot supply the principle of life to anything as nature does with such little effort. We can’t even wrap our minds around this principle of life and say where it resides. So in my opinion, the study of Aristotle’s natural philosophy is quite useful to place some perspective on what we know and what we do not. And it should give us guidance as to how to listen to nature to learn properly from her, and warn us against thinking we know what we really don’t know because of all our new specialized experience.

  2. Mind and Matter | Entirely Useless linked to this post.

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