The Arts and the Definition of the Human: Toward a Philosophical Anthropology

By Joseph Margolis | Go to book overview

Prologue
The Definition of the Human

IF YOU TAKE THE LONG VIEW of the career of Western philosophy, you may be forgiven for yielding to the fiction that its continuous history confirms a legible thread of discovery spanning the speculations of the Ionians and Eleatics and our more baffled inquiries at the start of the twenty-first century It hardly matters whether you believe the tale or trust it as an economy that cannot finally be toppled. In either case, I shall need your patience. I have the pieces of an imaginary history that yields a more than plausible sense of the entire human world by way of a sequence of conceptions that were never construed in quite the way I recommend. I trust that history, though I don't believe it to be strictly true.

Canonical history has it that Plato and Aristotle sought to reconcile changing and changeless being in the spirit of the Ionians and against the excessive strictures of Parmenides' dictum, which appears to make no allowance for the changing world though it addresses it insistently. If that dictum had never been contested, the whole of science and our grasp of the human condition might have remained hopelessly paradoxical—in the Eleatic way. I accept the usual reading, therefore, as the sparest narrative (fiction or not) that might be true. Except for two caveats: the first, that the actual lesson of the best work of classical philosophy could never have been formulated within the horizon of the Greek world anyway; the second, that what Plato and Aristotle accomplished in their heroic way remains distinctly uneasy, unfinished, uncompelling in their own time, just at the point they manage to harmonize the opposed notions of the changing and the changeless— that is, the point at which they simply compromise with Parmenides.

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