Progress, Plato, Aristotle

More Platonic reflections from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in CoPhi today, and Russell on Aristotle.

Goldstein continues her reply to the philosophy jeerers and their slight that philosophy bakes no bread and gets us nowhere. She might have recalled William James’s opening salvo in Pragmatism acknowledging the former but entirely repudiating the latter.

Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers, I feel impelled, per fas aut nefas, to try to impart to you some news of the situation.

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives. These illuminations at least, and the contrast-effects of darkness and mystery that accompany them, give to what it says an interest that is much more than professional.

In fact, philosophy constantly progresses in this way, by illuminating the “covert presumptions” that lie buried beneath our awareness. Facing, discussing, and sometimes revising or rejecting our various unexamined convictions can be the epitome, and always is the requisite condition, of progress at the level of reflective thought. What is truth, beauty, or goodness? You may think you know, but we need to talk about it.
The path of progress for Plato is dialogic, argumentative, and collaborative, like much scientific discourse; but unlike most scientific results, those of philosophy register most powerfully in personal terms, and are revealed in the progressive personal transformations of individuals rather than in “paradigm shifts”  impacting whole disciplines and epochs.

What is Platonism? It’s an unfamiliar idea about ideas, that when they embody truth they do so by subsisting in an abstract realm beyond the reach of everyday sense (and common sense). “A Platonist asserts that the abstract is as real as the concrete, the general as realized as the particular.” Or moreso. A Platonist is the diametric opposite of a Pragmatist.
And, a Platonist asserts the eternal intertwining of goodness, beauty, and truth: a Sublime Braid that cashes out for Plato’s Socrates as humility and piety of a secular sort, a “strengthened kinship with the cosmos” through an uplifted infatuation with wisdom and “love for that which isn’t oneself.”

Aristotle’s student Alexander, “arrogrant, drunken, cruel, vindictive, and grossly superstitious,” was evidently not a good philosopher. Russell doubts he learned much from his tutor, but he did us the service of keeping Hellenic civilization alive long enough to produce a big chunk of our curriculum.

Aristotle was optimistic and teleological (or purpose-driven), convinced that “the universe and everything in it is developing towards something continually better.” Coulda fooled us, or most of us. (But Goldstein’s husband Steve Pinker, with his Better Angels, might offer qualified agreement.)

Aristotle’s “good,” unlike Plato’s remote and abstract Form, is immanent and practically universal. It’s that activity of the virtuous soul called eudaimonia, flourishing, or happiness. Everybody wants some, for its own sake. Aristotle’s god is another story.

And what is virtue? It’s any action that tends to produce happiness (but don’t confuse happiness with fleeting pleasure. One swallow does not make a summer.

Some more possible points for discussion today: If Aristotle’s metaphysics is Plato diluted by common sense, what’s so common about it? Does each of us have an “essence”? What do you think of Aristotle’s airy and impersonal God? Is happiness the only thing in the world that’s intrinsically good, for its own sake? Is Aristotle’s golden mean really golden, or is it vapid, formulaidc, and equivocal? Is it true what Fish said to Boghossian, that philosophical conclusions “do not travel”? What can that possibly mean, from a peripatetic or pragmatic point of view? 

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, “regarded as the kicking-off point for the rise of Classical Greece and the birth of Western civilization” (if you want to call it that). We’re debating, at this late date, the deplorability of racists and other haters? People who casually fling the ugly word that rhymes with stitch, and worse, are offended by that perfectly apt and descriptive word?  That’s deplorable.
Why is it so hard to live in the present? Past and future do seem more safe, sane, and secure. But here and now is where it’s always happening, and here and now is where we store our past and hatch our possible futures. Here’s where the progress has to happen.
5:45/6:29, 57/88, 6:57

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