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Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Biology$

Allan Gotthelf

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199287956

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199287956.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface

(p.vii) Preface

Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Biology
Oxford University Press

In 1961, midway through my undergraduate studies, I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I loved the novel. It glowed with respect for the mind, and for much else that I valued or came to value. Rand loved Aristotle, and that love permeated especially her later writings, from Atlas Shrugged on. She credited him with defining ‘the basic principles of a rational view of existence and of man's consciousness’, with rejecting Plato's otherworldly metaphysics, and with showing (in outline at least) how reason can come to understand this world based on sense‐perception. Rand thus saw Aristotle as the father of science, and attributed the Renaissance and Enlightenment (and all of their products) to his influence:

If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is the result of Aristotle's influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man.1

I started reading Aristotle myself and found much of profound value philosophically, certainly more than I had found in the contemporary philosophy materials I studied for my regular courses. I had been fortunate to meet and get to know Rand, and I talked with her about Aristotle (and much else) on and off over the next fifteen or so years. Two ideas I would like to highlight here that attracted me to Aristotle from the beginning (in the first case, with the help of Rand's own discussion of the issues) were: (i) an understanding of causality and explanation in terms not of events and laws but of things with natures and potentials; and (ii) the idea that developed human knowledge takes the form of axiomatically structured bodies of understanding, which reflect a grasp of the essential natures and potentials of the relevant things (including their attributes), a grasp acquired through systematic sensory observation and a broadly inductive methodology.

And so began an adventure, which has not abated to this day and is reflected in the chapters of the volume before you. I set out to master what I could of Aristotle's philosophic and scientific thinking, of his understanding of human nature and psychology, and of his view of the life and actions proper to human beings as rational animals. I chose Columbia as the place to do my graduate work, in part so I could be in New York and study with Rand, and in part because John Herman Randall, Jr. was at Columbia; I knew that whatever the limitations of his Aristotle (1960), the book and the man had much to teach me.

(p.viii) In my early work on Aristotle during that first year at Columbia, 1964‐65, I was caught up in Aristotle's insistence that living organisms come to be, are structured, and function for the sake of something. Acorns and embryos are goal‐directed in their development, as are mature organisms even in their vegetative functioning, even though there is no consciousness within to direct that development and functioning. How is this thesis to be understood?

I struggled with that issue for some years and eventually decided to make it my dissertation topic. What I took from Rand, and what I think in the end made all the difference to my ‘irreducible potential for form’ interpretation, was the insistence that we pose the problem in terms of natures and potentials. Readers of Part I of this volume—the chapters on ‘Teleology, Irreducibility, and the Generation of Animals (GA)’—will find this insistence a pervasive theme, on which I draw in many different contexts. (See, first of all, chapter 1, sec. IV.)

Although I had worked out the heart of my interpretation of the teleology before I came across David Balme's work, reading his 1972 Clarendon Aristotle volume—Aristotle's De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I (with excerpts from II.1‐3)—was a revelation. Randall had introduced me to Aristotle's biological treatises and their underlying naturalism, but Balme taught me how to study them; and especially as I read on in his writings, he taught me their value—the value of the whole of the biological corpus—for a deeper understanding of Aristotle's philosophy. I met Balme in 1973 and we stayed in close touch as colleagues and then as friends until his death in early 1989; I was proud to edit his Festschrift in 1985. I tell some things about the man and his work in my introduction to that volume (Gotthelf 1985a), and discuss his work in some detail in some of the chapters below.

Thanks to Randall's influence, as I've mentioned, I had started reading in the late 1960s the main explanatory treatises in the biological corpus: Generation of Animals, for the teleology, and Parts of Animals, in part for the teleology, but in part to see to what extent my earlier‐mentioned suspicion that Aristotelian explanatory science has a demonstrative structure was sound. In that first substantial read of PA, I thought I could detect glimmers: Aristotle seemed at times to move in his explanations from features which he clearly took to be more fundamental or essential to the animals in question to features of those animals that were less fundamental or essential. But in the limited time I had for that issue, I couldn't grasp the whole of Aristotle's project in PA. It wasn't until 1985 that I took on the problem directly, in a paper I developed for a conference G. E. R. Lloyd and I had organized at Cambridge. Chapter 7 of the present volume, which grew out of that conference paper, remains my statement of my view on this topic (especially when read in light of the elaborations provided in the chapter that follows it).

Although I am perhaps best known for my work on Aristotle's biology and natural philosophy, I have had strong interests throughout my career in Aristotle's (p.ix) metaphysics and ethics. The two chapters constituting Part III of this volume address metaphysical themes on which the biology sheds light and touch on aspects of my interpretation of the theory of substance in the central books of the Metaphysics, on which I hope to write more fully some day.

Personally, I view my interpretation of Aristotle's natural teleology, and my account of the broadly axiomatic structure of biological explanation, as my most important work. Third on that list are the various ways in which my work on particular philosophical topics may have contributed to the opening up, for other admirers of Aristotle, of the three main biological treatises for subsequent study. This includes especially the work I have done—much of it jointly with my long‐time friend and colleague in so many Aristotelian endeavors, Jim Lennox—to help make the History of Animals, the largest and still least studied treatise in the Aristotelian corpus, more accessible to scholars. That work is presented in the three chapters of Part IV, ‘Starting a Science: Theoretical Aims of the History of Animals (HA)’.

Part V, ‘Aristotle as Theoretical Biologist’, contains two chapters that are personal favorites of mine. ‘Darwin on Aristotle’ was motivated by a strong streak of hero‐worship: I love the famous 1882 letter praising Aristotle that Charles Darwin wrote during the course of his first reading of Aristotle's biological work, and I was irritated beyond belief by an essay I read in the early 1980s that tried to debunk the letter. ‘Debunk the debunker’ was my motto, and I am confident I succeeded. I also had great fun doing some straight historical detective work, on details such as when, exactly, so‐and‐so died (see, for instance, chapter 15, n. 4).

The last chapter of Part V, which I consider also a ‘coda’ to the entire volume, for its synoptic character, is a lecture that I have delivered many times to general audiences. I was prompted to write it by an experience I had during my annual visits to Clare Hall, Cambridge in the 1980s, when I would describe my interest in Aristotle's scientific work to the other (often natural‐science‐oriented) visiting fellows. ‘Oh, but he's not a real scientist’, they would say, or ‘Oh, but his work held back the course of science for 2,000 years’. My response, which I delivered for the first time at Clare Hall in 1987, is ‘Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict (with emphasis on his biological works)’.

I have added to each chapter an opening unnumbered footnote in which I indicate the chapter's origin and/or its role in my thinking about Aristotle. With these introductory footnotes, with the grouping of the chapters into Parts, and with the extensive cross‐references among chapters, I have not thought it necessary to add substantive introductions either to the five Parts or to the volume as a whole.

I have mentioned my interest in introducing scholars and students of Aristotle to the main biological treatises, not just as sources of philosophical insight, but as whole works in their own right. As indication that I think the chapters in this volume can do that, especially in Parts I, II, and IV, I have included in the titles of (p.x) those Parts the name of the relevant treatise. Thus, in offering Part I as a body of study of Aristotelian teleology, I also offer it as a useful and reasonably systematic introduction to the Generation of Animals. Likewise, Part II, which provides a study of axiomatic, and more broadly explanatory, structure in Parts of Animals, can be a useful entrée into PA, as can Part IV into HA.

Although the original versions of some of the chapters in this volume go back to the 1970s and 1980s, several stem from a week‐long ‘intensive course’ I gave in the summer of 1994 at Tokyo Metropolitan University, aimed at bringing professionals and advanced graduate students in northern Japan up to date on work on Aristotle's biology. Lasting some eighteen hours in total, the course was called ‘Aristotle's Biological Enterprise and its Philosophical Significance’; the programs for each of the first four days are mirrored in the first four Parts of this volume. (The coda had been given at Keio University a week earlier, as introduction to the course.) The Tokyo course had been organized by Professors Shinro Kato and Shigeru Kanzaki, with assistance from Professors Kei Chiba and Toshio Kuwako, among others. A good deal of the material in the Tokyo course had been written up or outlined just a few months earlier for a seminar called ‘Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology’ that David Charles, Jim Lennox, and I gave together at Oxford in Trinity Term 1994. I will on occasion refer in footnotes to those two very exciting events.

I have offered on the acknowledgments page my thanks to the publishers who are kindly permitting me to reprint earlier published work. I would like to express a special thank‐you to two fellow scholars who graciously permitted me to reprint here all or part of papers I co‐wrote with them: Mariska Leunissen, for chapter 5, and Pieter Beullens, for the appendix to chapter 12—all the more so because, in both cases, the original collaborative work was so extraordinarily pleasurable.

At a lunch in Oxford in the early to mid‐1990s, soon after he had become philosophy acquisitions editor for Oxford University Press, and several years after Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology had come out, Peter Momtchiloff asked me for a book of my own on the philosophical significance of Aristotle's biological work. I explained that my Tokyo lectures might be the basis for such a volume, and that, if I could pull it all together, I would love to publish with him. Peter's patience is legendary, and here we are some sixteen or so years later, with not quite a book but much more than a collection of papers. Thank you, Peter.

I would like also to thank Pat Corvini for meticulous pre-submission copyediting, and the Oxford production crew for their post-submission work. Nigel Hope provided wide-ranging and very helpful copyediting and Michael Janes very valuable proofreading. My most special thank-you goes, however, to Elmandi du Toit, in charge of production, for her wonderfully sensitive and creative attention to my concerns throughout. I am also grateful to the Press for accepting my request to use for the book’s cover the color called ‘Cherokee red’; it is a tribute to my favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose signature color it was.

(p.xi) The godfather of this volume, however, is my friend David Charles. In 2004, while in Pittsburgh for the conference that issued in Lennox and Bolton 2010, David suggested that I ought to think of publishing my Aristotle papers as a book, since they formed a unity in important ways. In the course of the nearly six years it has taken me to put this volume together, David has kindly provided me with written comments on all of the previously unpublished material. I also would like to thank the delegates of the Press for accepting the volume and Julia Annas, Lindsay Judson, and Peter Momtchiloff for admitting it into the Oxford Aristotle Studies series.

My time at the University of Pittsburgh these past seven years has been a rewarding one; I would like to thank especially the Anthem Foundation and the BB&T Charitable Foundation for their funding of the University's Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism, which has supported my position here. Through the years of final writing, assembly, editing, and proofreading, I was fortunate to have two outstanding research assistants at the University of Pittsburgh, first Greg Salmieri and then Keith Bemer, both of whom contributed greatly to the assembly of this volume. Greg is now an Aristotelian scholar and a philosopher in his own right, and this volume's name index (s.v. Salmieri, G.) will send you to some praise of his work. Keith is currently at work on a dissertation on Aristotle's History of Animals, which I expect will take us well beyond Part IV of this volume. Keith is also to be credited for the index locorum to this volume, and Peter Distelzweig for the subject index. Greg and Cassandra Brazié Love gave me valuable advice on this preface. I thank them all.

My debt to David Charles runs deeper than as catalyst for this book. I first met David in 1984, when he attended a seminar at Oxford I gave with John Ackrill. Our more than twenty‐five years of electric and rewarding discussion since then, of the topics covered in this book, of much else in Aristotle, and of much else in philosophy, have been among the high points of my professional life.

I have already spoken of my joint endeavors with Jim Lennox. Our interactions and our warm friendship go back over thirty years, and his work has been a great influence on my own. Perhaps the best signs of this are the number of citations next to his name in this volume's name index—a far greater number than those for any other scholar (except David Balme)—and the fact that, of the thanks from me to other scholars for written comments on earlier drafts of my work, the greatest number are to him. I am also delighted to have this opportunity to express publicly to Jim—and to Rob Bolton, another friend and colleague from whom I have learned a good deal—my profound and humble thanks for conceiving and organizing the 2004 Festschrift conference at Pittsburgh for me, as well as the volume based on it, which, as I write this preface, has just appeared in print: Being, Nature, and Life in Aristotle: Essays in Honor of Allan Gotthelf (Lennox and Bolton 2010). Indeed, let me also take this opportunity to thank each of the scholars and friends who (p.xii) contributed to that volume, both for that contribution, and for their friendship, and for everything I have learned from them over the decades.

I end, where I started, with my formative debts to Ayn Rand and David Balme for helping me to see Aristotle's philosophic power and his love of the living. This book is dedicated to their memory.

December 2010


(1) Rand 1961, 20 (2005, 17‐18).