Aristotle and Other Platonists

Aristotle and Other Platonists

Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, Cornell University Press, 2005

This is a fantastic book. This not being a formal academic review, I can praise Aristotle and Other Platonists by Lloyd Gerson in a way that might otherwise seem excessive. The book’s overall thesis is clear and well-argued. Aristotle, according to Gerson, was a Platonist malgré lui. Despite his frequent and oftentimes scathing critiques of the Forms, Aristotle either (1) believed in some account of the Forms qua intelligibles (νοητά) in the mind of God in Metaphysics Λ and (2) rejected theories of the Forms that Plato himself critiqued in the Dialogues. Hence, the common and well-known “history” of ancient philosophy, Plato vs. Aristotle, conceals much more than it reveals. While some of Aristotle’s many criticisms of the Forms are probably at odds with what Plato held—Aristotle tells us as much—it is not clear that he ever abandoned Forms. For both considered Form more of a substance than the material composites of form and matter. As Aristotle says, form qua form is “prior and more evident” than the composite. This, combined with his claim that metaphysics is the study of immovable and separable substances, would be sufficient for most ‘Neo’-Platonists to enlist Aristotle into the Platonic camp.

But Gerson doesn’t rest his case here. Rather he attempts to show that, at every part of his corpus, Aristotle’s position can easily be interpreted and incorporated into the Platonic program. This integration is possible only because so much of Aristotle’s philosophy relies on Platonic assumptions. Most of the ‘developmentalist’ accounts of Aristotle, on the other hand, dogmatically assert that Aristotle must have gotten more ‘anti-Platonic’ overtime. These stories trade on the obvious truth that a thinker’s ideas change as he responds to new questions, reassesses his position, etc. However, Gerson shows, rather convincingly that, no matter how one construes Aristotle’s development—and there have been numerous and oftentimes contradictory proposals—his philosophy remains either outright Platonic or at least implicitly dependent on Platonic theology. If one goes with Werner Jaeger’s account, one will still have to admit that the Metaphysics contains what Neo-Platonists took to be Plato’s account of the Forms all along qua eternal intelligibles thought by the Demiurge. On the other hand, if one wants to assert that Aristotle developed in an ‘empiricist’ or ‘materialistic’ direction, one will need to assert that the Categories, which Plotinus and Porphyry took to be about sensible substances (for Aristotle says that the ἴδιον of substance is that it admits of contraries—μεταβολή) is a complete account of substance as such. An unlikely story. In short, Gerson argues that one ought instead to reject such question-begging and tenuous accounts of development altogether and read the corpus holistically.

When one does this, the harmonist or Neo-Platonic reading seems almost inevitable. It is so not because they believed Aristotle and Plato held identical views. They surely did not. Rather harmony is possible because there was sufficient overlap between the two regarding the essential principles of metaphysics, ethics, psychology, and epistemology. Aristotle, like Plato, seems to have thought that the immaterial intellect was separable—he says so not only in the exoteric dialogues but in De Anima. Aristotle, like Plato, though that the intellect is more properly called the person (whose body is its ὄργανον or tool) than the body. Aristotle, like Plato, thought knowledge and being in the strict sense referred to eternal and immaterial substance.

The claim most often repeated by anti-harmonists is that Aristotle criticized the Forms. This is taken as a smoking gun. How can Aristotle be a Platonist when he attacks and dismisses the heart of metaphysical Platonism? Many things could be said here, all of which Gerson states more admirably than I can here. But first one ought to point out that Plato critiques the Forms as well in Parmenides and Sophist. Both of these critiques are important for distinguishing Plato’s view from those criticized by Aristotle. The Parmenides shows that Plato must have thought that the so-called third man was not a decisive argument against Forms. This is because Forms are not individuals that share in the ‘what it is to be F’ the way material individuals do. The Form of Dog does not bark, nor does it have hair, etc. The ‘what it is to be an F,’ as Aristotle acknowledges in De Anima is a different, but nonetheless real kind of whole. In a strict sense, Forms are neither universal, like terms or concepts, nor individuals, like individual material substances. They are indifferent to number insofar as number is posterior to and the image of Form. Or better yet, Forms are a one-many, the way Plotinus describes the second principle. One can only distinguish them through sameness, difference, motion, and rest. But this is not how one distinguishes particulars from universals. For instance, ‘circularity’ or the ‘what it is to be circular’ must exist if there are many circles, none of which is strictly identifiably with circularity as such due to the presence of matter and accidents. This ‘what it is to be,’ insofar as it is an intelligible something, is rather the precondition for the possibility for there being any individual circle or any universal concept of circles. It grounds the existence of both by being indifferent to the universal-particular distinction.

The second dialogue is arguably more important, though, insofar as it contains a critique of the ‘Friends of the Forms.’ These friends hold views that are almost identical to those rejected by Aristotle in Metaphysics. The friends think Forms are separable and isolable individuals, little islands of intelligibility as Gerson puts it, existing apart from νοῦς and from each other. Yet the Sophist highlights a major problem with this view, namely that Forms would be unknowable were the friends right. Since every being changes when acted upon, and since thinking is an action, it follows that things thought are changed when acted upon. Yet this would entail that the eternal Forms change when known by finite minds, which is absurd. One ought to say that the Forms are in an eternal kind of motion, a motion that befits immaterial intelligible things—the motion of being thought or understood by Mind, who is identical with what it thinks. Only if the Forms are eternally in act can they serve as an adequate foundation for our knowledge of their images in this world. The Sophist forces one to conceive of the Forms as ‘living,’ and ‘acting’ beings. Platonists oftentimes interpreted this in tandem with the Timaeus’ account of the Demiurge who makes the world as much like himself as possible and does this by making matter like the Forms. For this to be the case, the Forms must somehow be ‘part’ of the Demiurge or vice-versa. Consequently, Platonists often claimed that the Forms were never intended to be abstract or lifeless universals nor were they supposed to be individual pockets of intelligibility, (the Intelligible Horse for instance). Nor were they supposed to explain the existence of any particular informed thing. For, as Aristotle says, man comes from man. Forms do not cause this or that particular man to be. Platonists conceded that generation and corruption, along with the ‘Aristotelian’ four causes, are sufficient to explain the existence of a particular composite. However, Forms or intelligibles are the necessary precondition for there being true univocal predication. How is it the case, in other words, that particular circles really are alike insofar as they are circles? The mere presence of universal concepts or terms abstractable from material circles is insufficient to explain why these universals are abstractable, predicable, and knowable in the first place. Plato and Aristotle are giving accounts at different levels of intelligibility so to speak. Aristotle has many fine things to say about particular, universal, inseparable, and separable substances. But he never tells us why these sensible and particular substances are intelligible. Why is being qua being given or manifest to mind at all? He more or less takes this for granted, as we all must. For Plato, though, the intelligibility of being too mysterious not to have some explanation.

These are some of my take-aways from Gerson’s excellent study. In particular I would recommend chapters 3 and 7, which contain some of the best accounts of the Categories and the Forms that I have come across. Lastly, I would recommend this book to all Platonists who find Aristotle’s criticisms somewhat grating and perplexing. (I confess that I am such a one). We must claim Aristotle as one of our own, as Platonists have traditionally done. Despite the ramblings of contemporary materialists and naturalists, Aristotle’s natural philosophy is still viable, even if his particular claims about physics or biology are not. There is no reason to reject the division of being into act and potency, form and matter, etc. Platonists need Aristotle when it comes to natural teleology, the intelligibility of motion, and much else. Again, this is more or less how he was used by the ‘Neo’-Platonists. Gerson’s book goes a long way to healing an artificial divide, restoring our vision of ancient philosophy, and uniting Ur-Platonists of all kinds against common enemies: nihilists, nominalists, materialists, and skeptics of all stripes.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


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