Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle

Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle

Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle

Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle

Synopsis

Aristotle attaches particular significance to the homonymy of many central concepts in philosophy and science: that is, to the diversity of ways of being common to a single general concept. His preoccupation with homonymy influences his approach to almost every subject that he considers, and it clearly structures the philosophical methodology that he employs both when criticizing others and when advancing his own positive theories. Where there is homonymy there is multiplicity: Aristotle aims to find the order within this multiplicity, and believes that doing so is crucial to scientific inquiry and philosophical progress. Christopher Shields investigates and evaluates Aristotle's approach to questions about homonymy, characterizing the metaphysical and semantic commitments necessary to establish the homonymy of a given concept. Then, in a series of case-studies, Shields examines in detail some of Aristotle's principal applications of homonymy--to the body, sameness and oneness, life, goodness, and being. Shields's aim is not only to give a fuller understanding of Aristotle's methodology and to illuminate his specific doctrines in a variety of areas, but to show that this methodology remains fruitful today.

Excerpt

Aristotle regularly identifies philosophical concepts as homonymous. Although the force of this appraisal is not always immediately clear, it is surely noteworthy that when offering this sort of claim Aristotle very often has a critical target in sight. Most often, though not always, he has Plato in mind, because he believes that Plato systematically underappreciates the complexity of core philosophical concepts. As a typical example, Aristotle argues that Plato incorrectly posits a single Form of Goodness which is the same for all good things; on this approach, everything which is good is good because it participates in a single, common Form, Goodness. According to Aristotle, Plato wrongly assumes that all good things are good in the same way, that their goodness is somehow common across all cases. When criticizing Plato for failing to appreciate homonymy, then, Aristotle means to assail this assumption by showing, as he often says, that goodness is 'spoken of in many ways' (EN 1096 23-4). If Aristotle's criticisms are justified, Plato goes wrong in analysing Goodness, as in other cases, by assuming a form of unity unsustained by reflective philosophical analysis.

Although most prominent in critical contexts, homonymy finds equal employment in Aristotle's own positive philosophy. For he does not infer, as some later figures do, that complexity impedes philosophical analysis. On the contrary, he argues that certain homonymous concepts, while complex, are nevertheless ordered around a core. That is, Aristotle appeals to homonymy to find order in multiplicity; and he thinks that the order he finds permits genuine analysis of a sort which makes scientific inquiry legitimate and philosophical progress possible. Thus, for example, Aristotle evidently exploits the homonymy of being when arguing for the possibility of a unified science of metaphysics, whose object of study is being qua being rather than some portion of being considered in isolation (Met. 1003 21-6). Aristotle's appeal to homonymy in this context is especially significant, since he had earlier called into question the possibility of a science of being on the grounds that there is no genus of being (An. Post. 92 14, Top. 121 16-19, 7-9). Aristotle evidently thinks that a science of being qua being is made possible at least in part by the recognition of being's homonymy (Met. 1003 34- 10). This appeal may . . .

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