Transcript: 37 - Hugh Benson on Aristotelian Method

Hugh Benson of the University of Oklahoma chats to Peter about Aristotle's views on philosophical method, and whether he practices what he preaches.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Hugh, I wanted to talk to you in this interview about Aristotelian method, which I suppose raises the question of what we would mean by a method. What do you think philosophical method means in the context of ancient thinkers like, say, Aristotle or Socrates and Plato?

Hugh Benson: I think that's a really good question to start with because I don't think we think much about method anymore, about philosophical method. And one of the things that I really like about Plato and Aristotle is they did devote so much time to the nature of philosophical method. I suppose I enjoy thinking about what I'm doing more than doing it. And fortunately, they did it and thought about what they were doing. But I think because they are concerned with method, I think there are some distinctive features about their concern. One of those distinctive features, I think, is that even though they recognize that there were a variety of philosophical activities, they thought of philosophy as primarily the search for knowledge or wisdom. And so for them, the philosophical method was really the method of acquiring knowledge or searching for knowledge. And so we might call it philosophical inquiry. And the other distinctive feature is perhaps as a result of that, that they saw philosophy as a search for knowledge, that they didn't think of philosophical inquiry as distinct from other forms of inquiry, like scientific inquiry or other sorts of inquiry. They thought of philosophical inquiry as the search for knowledge, maybe KNOWLEDGE in all caps, or robust knowledge, or understanding. But knowledge, as Aristotle sometimes calls it, knowledge "haplos," 'full stop.' And so that's what they were concerned about. And then when one looks at Aristotle, one sees that he has a variety of methods in mind when he's talking about philosophical inquiry. In the posterior analytics, which I know you've talked about already, he seems to talk about demonstration as a potential method of inquiry. In the topics, he seems to talk about dialectic as a method of inquiry. At the end of the posterior analytics and then throughout various treatises, he talks about induction or "epigoge," some kind of method based on the senses as a method of philosophical inquiry. And then in the metaphysics especially, and also in other places, he talks about the "aporetic" method, a method that's based on going through the puzzles on a given subject matter.

Peter Adamson: Because the word "aporia" means puzzle or problem.

Hugh Benson: That's right. And actually, it's centered in Socratic philosophy, as many of your podcasts mention.

Peter Adamson: So speaking of Socrates, one thing I wanted to ask you is, if we're thinking about inquiry, I guess an obvious place to begin thinking about inquiry is how does an inquiry begin? And Socrates, or at least Plato's version of Socrates, seems to have thought that this was a really difficult puzzle, that if you don't know anything, then you might be paralyzed and unable to begin. Do you think that that's actually a good puzzle? Is that a good place to start from when we're thinking about inquiry?

Hugh Benson: I'm not sure I think it is. I think certainly Plato and Aristotle were worried about beginnings. The Greek for that is probably "archae" and "archai" and "archae," the singular, the plural and singular are all over Aristotle and Plato's talks about method. In fact, I think one of the ways that Aristotle distinguishes between those methods that I mentioned earlier is by distinguishing between the different starting points of the method. I think Aristotle was aware of Meno's Paradox. He refers to it in the Posterior Analytics, although I think he's actually worried about a different problem there than the actual paradox. Part of Meno's Paradox is indeed 'how do we begin?' But I think we have to be careful in focusing on beginnings with Aristotle and Plato. We need to be careful that we don't take them to be some sort of Cartesian foundationalists and that they're looking for infallibly certain foundations to begin with. I think instead their worry about beginnings has to do with a worry about devising a kind of systematic, reliable method of inquiry. One way I think about this is a picture. I have this image of playing catch with a golden retriever. When you play catch with a golden retriever, you throw the ball out in the field, the golden retriever sees the ball, comes right back, tail's wagging, it's flourishing in the Aristotelian terms of flourishing. Life couldn't be any better for the golden retriever. But if you're like me and a little perverse, at some point you will trick the dog and either not throw the ball and make it think you have or throw it when it's not looking.

Peter Adamson: We've all done it!

Hugh Benson: My experience with a golden retriever is the golden retriever just goes through this mad search in the field, completely random - and I suppose people who know about this will tell me that there's a method to that madness, but from my perspective it just looks mad. What Aristotle and Plato's concerns about beginnings have to do with is making sure that we don't behave like golden retrievers in our search for knowledge. When we don't know where it is, what they're concerned with doing is giving us someplace to start and some procedure to follow. It won't be an algorithm, it won't guarantee success - but it'll be reliable and systematic and reputable.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so the bar is not set as high as Descartes would set it because the idea isn't to start from something that's absolutely indubitable, but the bar is set higher than just looking around at random and that's why we need a method. Okay, so if Aristotle thinks then that that is a good puzzle and that we do need a method in order to get started, what does he think is the answer? What's the right method to use or does it depend on what I'm inquiring into?

Hugh Benson: Well I don't think it quite depends on what we're inquiring into, although it might, but I think at a certain level of generality it doesn't. Aristotle distinguishes, I think, between two different starting points. He talks about some as being more knowable in nature and some as being more knowable to us. It's not really clear what that distinction amounts to. It might be an ontological and epistemological distinction, but it can't just be an ontological and epistemological distinction because Aristotle seems to think that both those kinds of principles are involved in philosophical inquiry. And in fact we can sort of now look back at those four methods if you think of demonstration, the starting point of demonstration. Demonstration is a kind of deductive system and its first principles for Aristotle have these really special properties. They're true, they're primary, they're immediate, they're better known, they're prior, they're explanatory, they're necessary. Those all look like something that's knowable in nature. Those look like Aristotelian first principles in the sort of strong sense of first principles and that's what distinguishes demonstration from some of these other methods. Induction, for example, its beginnings, its starting points or first principles look more like sensations or perception. Aristotle has an account of how one arrives at, or it looks like he thinks, of how one arrives at demonstrative first principles in the last chapter of the second book of the Posterior Analytics. Dialectic too looks like it might be a way to first principles, those first principles of demonstration, but its starting points are things like "endoxa," and it's difficult to know exactly what that means, but a fairly reasonable translation might be 'reputable opinions,' maybe even sort of the 'common sense.' And then the other method that I mentioned, the aporetic method, you might think that's a way of getting at those demonstrative first principles through a kind of starting point with puzzles and aporia, ways of getting at how to resolve those puzzles are ways of getting at the first principles of demonstration. So if you think in terms of starting points, you'd see a kind of structure, at least in so far as Aristotle has all these methods in mind, that you begin, you can think of part of the method is an acquisition of knowledge of theorems and that method is demonstration and the starting points of that demonstration are these first principles, these things more knowable in nature. And then there's another method, which may include both induction, dialectic, and the aporetic method for getting at the knowledge of those first principles. So it's sort of the starting points of starting points, so to speak. And we might, if we think of all those together, that the sort of starting points of that method you might think of as sort of a phenomena. And then the question is what to include in those.

Peter Adamson: And phenomena means the way things seem to us or something like that. Okay, so actually that makes it sound like if we're talking about these four things as methods, demonstration is a method in a rather different sense because the other three - so you've got dialectic, which is a consideration of reputable opinion, you've got sensation or some kind of empirical research, and you've got the consideration of puzzles. And those three would all kind of work in parallel to each other or something and would get us up, as it were, to first principles. And then once we have the first principles, we could use those to engage in this fourth kind of method, which is demonstration. And so as Aristotle says, Plato was right to ask whether we're on our way to the principles or on our way from the principles because that makes all the difference. Does that mean then that demonstration is a method or philosophical method in a very different sense from the other three so that we should sort of see the other three in one category and then demonstration in another category?

Hugh Benson: Well we might. I don't think it does. You might think that demonstration is more algorithmic than the other three methods. The other three methods may require more judgment, there's less guarantee, you'll get to what you're looking for. But I'm not sure that demonstration is all that algorithmic either, as any of us know who try to do proofs in geometry or logic. There aren't algorithms one can just follow and be certain that one will get the result. So I think they both take judgment, both sides of this method require procedures and recommendations on where to begin and how to follow the procedure once you begin there. And I mean it's certainly the case that there are differences too. I don't want to deny that. But I think Aristotle thinks that, for example, of the work that geometers are doing: some are trying to uncover the first principles of geometry, but some are trying to derive the theorems from those first principles and I think Aristotle would think they're both engaged in the acquisition of knowledge, new knowledge. So there are different procedures to be sure but they're both philosophical methods of inquiry and so it depends on what you think matters in making a method different.

Peter Adamson: Maybe one way of thinking about it would be that all four of these are parts of one big overall method which would be the Aristotelian method. I guess one thing that people often think about Plato and Aristotle is that Plato wanted us to turn our attention away from the physical things around us - and whether that's true or not is a matter of debate - but then they would say if you look at what Aristotle does it's exactly the reverse. So he's out there, he's dissecting animals, he's looking at the world around him so he's some kind of empiricist. But it seems to follow from what you just said that if he's an empiricist it's in a way that's modified by the fact that he has these other methods because for him turnings to sensation is just one of three ways to get to first principles and there's also dialectic and the aporetic method. So do you think that it really doesn't make that much sense to call Aristotle an empiricist as a result?

Hugh Benson: Well I think Jonathan Barnes calls empiricism or empiricist a slippery word and I think he's right about that. I think it depends on what one means by an empiricist. If what you mean is Aristotle spends a lot of time and energy talking about the role of the evidence of the senses in knowledge acquisition I think that's certainly true. He devotes a lot of attention in the treatises to how sensation or perception plays a role in knowledge acquisition, much more than Plato I think, even though I think Plato thought the evidence of the senses did play a role in knowledge acquisition. Aristotle seems to at least be filling that out in considerably more detail. Aristotle also finds fault in the treatises with people who don't seem to pay enough attention to the senses. So I think certainly in the sense of devoting attention to the evidence of the senses Aristotle is for sure more of an empiricist than Plato, in that sense. But I think you're right in terms of asking what the role of the evidence of the senses is in the method of inquiry, the differences between Plato and Aristotle aren't quite as great as they're often made out to be. I think part of it is to underestimate the value of the evidence of the senses for Plato but it's also I think to overestimate the value of the senses for Aristotle, because as you say, dialectic doesn't seem incompatible with the evidence of the senses but it doesn't seem to place a great amount of weight on the evidence of the senses.

Peter Adamson: Maybe it goes back to something you said earlier which is that he talks about trying to be true to the phenomena and for him that doesn't just mean things that you can see or experience, the way someone like Hume or Locke might think of experience. It could also mean things people say, things people do, things people tend to think about... these subjects, and he tends to think about sense experience as being somehow in parallel with that kind of information and it kind of all goes into one big batch of phenomena which we can use to generate inquiry.

Hugh Benson: I think that's exactly right.

Peter Adamson: Okay so that all sounds very good and in a way it sounds makes Aristotle sound like he's got a very plausible way of moving forward from an initial position of apparent ignorance. Do you think this is something that he actually does in his treatises? I mean it's one thing to tell us how he thinks we should go about doing philosophy and it's another to actually write some philosophy and use the method that he's described.

Hugh Benson: That's I think a really good question. It's a question that a lot of scholarship on Aristotelian method has been devoted to, I think especially in recent times. And in fact I think that tension between what Aristotle does in his treatises and what he says about method has led to an argument that has the result that demonstration isn't a method of inquiry, and the argument goes roughly like this: that demonstration is a sort of axiomatic proof-theoretic method based on axioms or definitions or first principles. The second premise is we don't get much of that in the treatises, we do get some, and people who want to defend demonstration have found more of it in the treatises than those who don't want to defend demonstration - but we certainly don't get most of it when one looks at the metaphysics as a whole, or De Anima as a whole, or Nicomachean Ethics as a whole - it sure doesn't look like the first elements. So we don't seem to get that in the treatises, but then the third premise is but the treatises are supposed to be examples of philosophical inquiry. So the conclusion is then that demonstration must not be a method of philosophical inquiry, it must be some sort of method of displaying the completed results of philosophical inquiry, or something like that. Now I'm not particularly persuaded by that argument, in part because I don't think the third premise that the treatises are meant to be examples of philosophical inquiry is obviously true, but what I do think is really valuable about that argument is it points to two things that we have to keep in mind when we think about Aristotelian method. One, we have to take very seriously the question what is it that Aristotle is trying to do in his treatises? Is he engaged in philosophical inquiry? Is he modeling philosophical inquiry? Is he displaying the results of philosophical inquiry? What's he trying to do in those treatises? And the second thing that argument brings out that's essential is that however we answer that it's important, and to some extent I think this wasn't recognized as it should have been earlier, it's important to accommodate what Aristotle says about his method with what he actually does. And not to keep those two things distinct, as it's sort of easy to do, if one just focuses on what he says.

Peter Adamson: And why is that important? Is it because if he says that he's going to do it one way and then he does it another way that would just be kind of philosophically unsatisfying or would it show that we must have the wrong idea about the treatises so maybe they're just for teaching purposes or something and not for inquiry purposes and that's why they don't match up? What exactly would be the worry there?

Hugh Benson: Well I think the worry is that we'd expect Aristotle to be 'genuine,' so to speak, not to describe a method that he's not willing to practice. I mean not to sort of recommend to us: 'here's a way of engaging in inquiry' and yet he goes off and does something else; he's got sort of a secret method back in his office that he actually uses. So I think that's part of it. I don't think, and in fact this is the point about worrying about the third premise, it's not obvious to me that what we have to do is accommodate what Aristotle says about his method with what he does in the treatises. What we have to do is accommodate what Aristotle says about method with what he does in terms of philosophical inquiry, then the question is: how do you figure out what it is that Aristotle is doing and engaging in inquiry? It may be in the treatises - probably is in some treatises, not in others, that sort of thing. But that's a sort of separate question. When is Aristotle engaging in philosophical inquiry? And when he is, that better match up to what he says about philosophical inquiry.

Peter Adamson: So there could be sort of an account of what the inquiry should look like, then there's the inquiry which may be happened off the page, and then there's the treatise you might think about something like the History of Animals, which doesn't look like he's actually telling you about his inquiries. It looks more like he's telling you the results of his inquiries.

Hugh Benson: If you think of dissection as a method of inquiry he's not engaging in dissection...

Peter Adamson: For one thing it's too messy!

Hugh Benson: ...he's engaging in the results of that method.

Peter Adamson: Last question. How optimistic do you think Aristotle is about all this? I mean he's got an inquiry method, or he's maybe got several methods of inquiry, and he certainly seems to think that he himself has made a lot of progress for example compared to his predecessors including Plato. Do you think that he thinks 'most people could do this if they gave it a shot and were as reflective about it as I have been and if they follow my advice.' Do you think that he thinks this is something only the elite could do? Him and maybe a few favored students? And do you think that he thinks - and this may be a slightly separate issue - do you think he thinks there's a lot more to do still or do you think he's pretty much polished it off and that philosophy is completed with him? So how optimistic is he both on the side of how easy this is to do, and how much has already been accomplished by the time he's dead, let's say.

Hugh Benson: There's a certain amount of conceit in Aristotle for sure, and there are moments in the treatises where you get the feeling that he actually thinks he's pretty much finished it all. But I think most of the time he doesn't feel that way. He thinks there's a lot of work to be done. He certainly thinks that it's very hard to do. I think he agrees with Plato that it's a long and difficult road to acquire this knowledge. I think what really distinguishes Aristotle from Plato in a way that's connected to this question of pessimism is that Aristotle seems much more interested in the intermediate states than Plato is. Plato has a view that robust knowledge is so valuable that he just doesn't much care about things that fail to be robust knowledge. Aristotle devotes a lot of attention to identifying and distinguishing, and even being willing to call those cognitive states "knowledge," short of the robust knowledge that he fails to have but he thinks that it can be acquired. So you get distinctions in Aristotle between 'knowledge that' and 'knowledge why,' between universal knowledge and particular knowledge, between knowing something universally and knowing it hoplos or full stop. All of that I think is part of Aristotle. You might even think of it as part of Aristotle's common sense. Plato is sort of willing to bite the bullet and say, 'I know we talk about Benson having knowledge but he doesn't have robust knowledge, so whatever he has just doesn't really matter.' Aristotle's willing to let me have a little knowledge, even though he would agree - we would all agree - that I fail to have robust knowledge. 


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