Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on How One Becomes What One Is

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on How One Becomes What One Is

Article excerpt

THE DE ANIMA POSES CERTAIN CHALLENGES to those readers who would like to see Aristotle self-bound to the principles of logographic necessity proposed by his teacher Plato.(1) When held as a standard, Socrates' call in the Phaedrus for a logos organized like a living being with a body of its own, whose organized parts are to be composed in fitting relation to each other and to the whole, is a call that seems to reveal an Aristotle who lacks a certain mastery of the written word, or who lacks a certain reverence for teachers. The unity of the De Anima is as much open to question as the unity of the soul of which it speaks. Yet Aristotle would have it that "in our inquiry into the soul, in going forward, we must be thoroughly perplexed."(2)

For most readers of the De Anima, problems concerning the order and consistency of the work are signs of the fragmentary character of the text, or of errors in Aristotle's thinking. Recent interest in this treatise has been sparked largely by two collections of essays, Martha C. Nussbaum's and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty's Essays on Aristotle's "De Anima," and Michael Durrant's Aristotle's "De Anima" in Focus. The editors of these collections, in their own ways, make various arguments for the coherence or importance of only some of the parts of the De Anima and certainly not for the work as a whole. Both collections provide us with a number of provocative interpretations of some particular facet of Aristotle's text, yet manage to introduce them by means of peculiar disclaimers. Durrant's collection, which includes a translation of the De Anima, provides only the pertinent extracts from book 1, since this book "is mainly of secondary interest, being principally Aristotle's criticisms of the views of his predecessors."(3)

Nussbaum claims that "the text of the De Anima is unusually corrupt--above all, in the third book, which is in as bad a condition as any extant work of Aristotle."(4) She bases this claim on the large consensus among scholars that, as with all of Aristotle's surviving manuscripts, we are left with a patchwork that has emerged from the various versions of the text penned by Aristotle himself. Although conceding that "the strongest argument that has recently been advanced for the disunity of the treatise is weak indeed"(5) Nussbaum is willing to conclude--on what grounds it is hard to decipher--that "it is still perfectly clear that book 3 is internally mess."(6) Rorty, in her own introductory essay, seems less eager to put into question indirectly the worth of any of the essays included in the volume, and in fact suggests that a much needed advance in the literature is finally being supplied. She compares past commentaries on the De Anima to those that have been chosen for this particular collection:

   The read-and-raid school of interpretation often constructs intriguing
   "Aristotelian" positions that Aristotle did not himself develop, and that
   he would have understood only with great difficulty. When they bring
   Aristotle's discussions to bear on a wide range of current philosophical
   issues, the authors of the essays in this volume attempt to avoid fanciful,
   anachronistic reconstructions of his views. They locate their
   interpretations firmly within the context of the entirety of the
   Aristotelian corpus. While expounding and explaining his views to the
   modern reader, they have also attempted to interpret Aristotle in
   Aristotelian terms.(7)

Interpreting Aristotle in Aristotelian terms may not, and I contend does not in the Nussbaum and Rorty collection, amount to an attempt to understand Aristotle as he understood himself. While it is of course necessary to refer to the whole of the Aristotelian corpus when interpreting one of its parts, there is a common impulse in the various essays to ignore the whole of the text at hand. The authors approach the text with limited and ultimately limiting concerns, focusing only, for example, on specific psychobiological problems, or specific issues in contemporary philosophy of mind, proceeding as if the discussions they abstract from the text as a whole are themselves self-sufficient wholes. …

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