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Is Aristotle dead?

January 22, 2012

Kurk writes

I think we, in the West, swim in Aristotelianism and methods and syllogistic conclusions to such an extent that we are blind to how big his contributions have been and still are.

Maybe. But high school students don’t usually read Aristotle. Nor Plato. Nor Homer. Nor Aristophanes. Nor Sophocles. Nor Herodotus. Nor Euripides. There is only one Greek writer which almost every college-bound high school student studies (perhaps not by name, but pretty much in the original fashion in which he wrote): Euclid.

(If the students come from a religious Christian family, they perhaps encounter another set of Greek writers, but likely in a way [e.g., an NLT-style translation] that completely hides the “Greek” qualities of those writings.)

No one but classicists study Aristotelian logic. Go into a logic class and you’ll learn about Frege and Boole and Cantor and Hilbert and Gödel and Turing and Russell, but if you hear mention of Aristotle, it will only be to point out how limited and incorrect Aristotelian logic is.

We have rationed Aristotle.   We, the 1% (education-wise), have read Aristotle. The rest only greet him in the diluted form of the “Western tradition.” Perhaps knowing Aristotle is a little like knowing whether the fork goes on the right or the left: a now obsolete marker of socio-economic status.

Here is how Stephen Hawking began his latest popular book:

We each exist but for a short time, and in that time we explore just a small part of the total universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast universe that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?… Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with the modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Hawking goes on to outline M-theory as the answer to the question of the origin of the universe.

If you think that Hawking is just plugging his own books by being outrageous, then consider former Harvard President Larry Summers’s view of what education should look like – he believes students should be watching “video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts” and that “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.”

Summers mocks the study of Thucydides:

Gen. George Marshall famously told a Princeton commencement audience that it was impossible to think seriously about the future of postwar Europe without giving close attention to Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).  As the Moneyball story aptly displays in the world of baseball, the marshalling of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life.

While I think that Summers has some points, I beg to differ with his view that study of foreign languages, history, and other traditional subjects is obsolete .  But it seems to me that Summers, not a completely ignorant man, has captured a certain zeitgeist in the general culture and even in higher education.  So, when Kurk asserts that we are swimming in Aristotelianism, I want to respond that we are lucky if we are able to save the memory of Aristotle’s name.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2012 8:02 pm

    I’m no philosopher, but when I read Summers and Hawking, I get this intense flashback to “assured results of scholarship”. That and how such and such a food will save you– no, wait, it will kill you– no, wait, maybe it’s just okay….

    Aristotle would do better if he could be played by some gorgeous actress in a movie asserting what a twenty-first century person he was.

  2. January 23, 2012 11:45 am

    Thanks Theophrastus. My reply to your reply also needed its own post.

  3. January 23, 2012 12:41 pm

    Chuck — I know what you mean. You know the old joke about the university president who complains about the physics department: “Why are those physicists so expensive, with their fancy labs? Over in the math department, all they need are paper, pencils, and trash cans. And, over in the philosophy department, they don’t even need trash cans.”

    It does seem that academic philosophy is now in a relatively fallow period. It is hard to point to any philosophical movement that grabbed the public imagination the way that, say, Continental existentialism grabbed the attention of the public in the post-War period (even to the point of Sartre being awarded the Nobel prize.) The mere fact that we know the terms “M theory” and “string theory” shows that physics has been more effective in grabbing the public imagination.

    However, I agree with you that there is something profoundly arrogant and offensive about Hawkings and Summers remarks; and that they are almost certainly wrong about their dismissal of different topics. Still, it seems to me that they are capturing a certain idea that is growing in popularity. Certainly talk of online learning is all the rage at major universities these days.

    By the way, did you see this report? The second chart, showing the decline in student attention to homework, was particularly interesting to me.

  4. January 23, 2012 2:07 pm


    “Aristotle would do better if he could be played by some gorgeous actress in a movie asserting what a twenty-first century person he was.” But I’m not sure he himself would approve. As Angela Curran notes:
    Tragedies with women protagonists… are [not] included among Aristotle’s list of preferred ones…. Central to Aristotle’s critical rejection of these women’s tragedies from his list of best tragedies is his view that it is the error of a good and decent protagonist that brings about tragic misfortune. [And females are inherently neither good nor decent.]“Feminism and the Narrative Structures of the Poetics”, page 296, Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle

    So if the state of philosophy weren’t so tragic now in the Academy (as Theophrastus’s linked report shows), and if we were considering him not a literary critic or a theorist of poetics and of plays but rather a philosopher, then what? Well, I’m not so sure Aristotle drank beer made by barbarians, so would he have felt comfortable here among fellow philosophers? Seems that many women don’t feel so comfortable there either, but for their own reasons. Also seems like things aren’t getting better much among aspiring engineers and scientists either.


    Maybe your experience is substantially different from my own. My introduction to Aristotle was not in a classics course but in undergrad Logic. My professor, the late William Jackson “Jack” Kilgore, a philosopher and long-time chair of his university’s Philosophy department, did not dispage but rather praised Aristotle and his old categorical syllogistic method. We learned of newer logics, of course. But Dr. Kilgore’s textbook that we used for the class also quotes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and much extrapolates the principle of moderation and observance of the mean in applying logic. The point, still taken, was that Aristotle’s philosophy was not dead. We all knew, of course, that Aristotle was.

  5. January 23, 2012 3:05 pm

    Kurk, my experience is different than yours. Logician philosophers like Tarski, Quine, and Putnam have no patience for Aristotle (Putnam, for example, once wrote a paper entitled “Aristotle after Wittgenstein.”) In mathematical logic courses, no mention of Aristotle is made at all.

    And that lacuna has good reason. Let me point to a popular philosophical logic book — Clark Glymour’s textbook (which is actually pretty good.) Now, it is true, chapter 2 is enttitled “Aristotle’s Theory of Demonstration of Proof,” but Glymour only uses Aristotle as a strawman to devastate him, and with good reason: Aristotle did not accurately describe the logic of his own era! You can use the “look inside” feature of Amazon to look at p. 52-53 of Clark Glymour’s popular textbook which begins:

    Although the theory of the syllogism is an interesting and impressive theory of deductive inference, it is not comprehensive. It does not include arguments that we and Aristotle’s contemporaries recognize as valid. In other respects it is too comprehensive: Aristotle counts as valid some arguments that we would not count as valid.

    Aristotle developed his theory of the syllogism as part of a theory of scientific demonstration. One of the great ironies of intellectual history is that while geometry was the paradigmatic Greek science and Euclid lived only a generation after Aristotle, the theory of the syllogism cannot account for even the simplest demonstrations in Euclid’s Elements.

    By the way, it is also worth reading the Preface (p. ix), which begins:

    An old story about a great teacher of philosophy, Morris Raphael Cohen, goes like this. One year after the last lecture in Cohen’s introductory philosophy course, a student approached and protested, “Professor Cohen, you have destroyed everything I believed in, but you have given me nothing to replace it.” Cohen is said to have replied, “Sir, you will recall that one of the labors of Hercules was the clean the Augean stables. You will further recall that he was not required to refill them.”

  6. nzumel permalink
    January 29, 2012 1:31 am

    Re. the quote from Hawking:

    “The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.”
    — Paul Feyerabend, Against Method

    And Feyerabend was a physicist before he was a philosopher. I tend to think of this quote when I hear Dawkins speak, too.

    That said, I have also heard someone opine (sorry, can’t remember who — books in a box…) that cognitive science has taken over the role that has been abrogated by *contemporary* philosophical studies, because cog-sci’s investigations into how human beings perceive and understand the world and how they interact with it are simply more relevant than modern philosophical investigation into those questions. Perhaps this means not the replacement of Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles — but rather that we should now look at the faculty of a different department for their intellectual descendants. I don’t know enough about contemporary philosophy to truly have an opinion on this.

    And I’m sure Feyerabend would not approve of the current conservative movement’s version of separating science and state…..

    Also, I would argue Aristotelian logic was the basis for the early Artificial Intelligence system-building research. Of course, most AI researchers today have moved on to probabilistic reasoning systems, and they fight about Frequentist vs. Bayesian statistical philosophies instead, if they think about philosophical questions at all.

  7. January 29, 2012 2:31 pm

    Nina, I disagree with Feyerabend in many things, and this is certainly one of them. I reject his characterization of science; but imagine the consequences: not just in education and research; but especially in matters of policy — remember that economics is a science.

    Cognitive science is certainly the dominant way of understanding philosophy of mind (in the same way that other sciences have become the dominant way of understanding natural philosophy); but in all those cases, the sciences have developed their own roots; almost completely separate from the philosophical roots. Cognitive science owes more to William James than to Plato’s Meno; philosophers who work within the scientific framework (such as Daniel Dennett or Noam Chomsky) tend to thrive, while those who cling to more classical models (such as John Searle or Hubert Dreyfus) tend to be less influential.

    By early AI system-building research, are you thinking of things such as the Newell-Shaw-Simon General Problem Solver? I think that GPS relied more on mechanical proof generation; but if Allen Newell was a disciple of Aristotle, by 1988 he was having having severe doubts about human syllogistic reasoning as you can see in his article with Polk: Modeling Human Syllogistic Reasoning in SOAR.

  8. nzumel permalink
    January 29, 2012 4:44 pm

    I was actually thinking of the STRIPS planner; and also the use of Frames and Ontologies as structures for knowledge representation. “Ontologies” in the AI sense, not the philosophical sense, that is.

    As for Feyerabend — I think what resonates with me from him is the idea that scientists can be as dogmatic as any believer in a faith-based system, and hence one should greet their pronouncements with just as healthy a skepticism and an awareness of which “school” or “paradigm” they come from, as Thomas Kuhn would say.

    One wishes this didn’t have to be pointed out, but it does. I certainly don’t believe that science shouldn’t inform policy — I believe exactly the opposite. But I also get the impression that Feyerabend likes to speak with hyperbole, so I discount the actual words he says, if that makes sense.

    Sorry if this all comes out incoherent or incomplete — can’t spend too much time wordsmithing this response (or my thoughts, for that matter). Errands call…

  9. January 29, 2012 5:13 pm

    Nina: Thanks for clarifying — that makes more sense!

    I agree about taking quotes from scientists with caution (and certainly going back to their original papers — the scientific equivalent of ad fontes?)

    I think that Hawking’s quote was of a different nature — he was, I think, capturing a widely held opinion rather than making an actual scientific pronouncement. Here is another way he might put it: how much philosophy in the last two decades has been inspired by physics? how much physics in the last two decades has been inspired by philosophy? The disparity is striking!

    (Worse, it seems that many philosophers who do try to incorporate physics into their philosophical writings are still stuck in the 1920s debates on the interpretation of quantum mechanics.)


  1. Yes, Dr. Summers, There is a Virginia « BLT

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