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An Introduction to Aristotle

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

This course will provide an outline of Aristotle’s thought and a close reading of key passages. It would be difficult to overestimate the scale of Aristotle’s accomplishment and the importance of studying his thought for our current self-understanding. The majority of the categories and disciplines of modern intellectual life derive directly or indirectly from Aristotle’s work; e.g., political science, ethics, biology, physics, metaphysics, cosmology, theology, psychology, and rhetoric, not to mention terms like substance, potentiality, actuality, reality, essence, etc. At the same time, it is often asserted that Aristotle’s work has been eclipsed by progress in the various modern sciences. Modifications to certain of his principles and empirical findings are necessary, but it is possible to argue that his fundamental approach is the right one. For example, the partial success of modern science has led to a kind of schizophrenia in our self-understanding between the scientific and the ordinary views of the world and of our place in it. By contrast, Aristotle works out the grounds, ends, and various branches of philosophy “dialectically.” This classical sense of dialectic arises from the conclusion that the only authentic way to  the true principles of human existence is through our ordinary ways of experiencing and speaking about them. This orientation is summed up in Aristotle’s saying that we must proceed from what is first for us in order to approach what is first by nature. Whatever we learn must comprehend the nature of the human being able to learn.

The particular difficulty and benefit for us in reading Aristotle now is that modern philosophy and science are founded on a rejection of the scholastic version of Aristotelianism transmitted by the monotheistic religions. But that rejection took place on the grounds of an agreement with scholasticism as to the fundamental alternatives of thought. As a result, whereas modern thinkers frequently suggest that Aristotle’s philosophy depends upon theological and cosmological principles long since rejected, it would be more accurate to say that precisely the reverse is the case:  modern thought depends upon such presuppositions intrinsic to its rejection of scholasticism, while Aristotle’s dialectical ascent to the principles of life is free of any such a priori commitments. For these reasons, some brief comparisons with the basic structure of modern science will be offered.

Our examination of Aristotle will begin with a reading of some of his programmatic remarks about the beginning of philosophy in ordinary experience and in the arts and sciences. We will then discuss in outline, firstly, his “philosophy of human affairs” (ethics and politics, and their constitution in poetry and rhetoric) and, secondly, his philosophy of the living world and its principles (biology, physics, and metaphysics). Brief selections from a range of pivotal considerations and conclusions will be discussed in more detail.
Monday: The “architecture” of Aristotle’s philosophy
    Reading: Nicomachean Ethics I.1-3, Metaphysics I.1-3, VII.4, Physics I.1, and Topics I.2, Parts of
Animals I.5

Tuesday: The practical sciences, part one: Character, virtue, practice and theory
    Reading: Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric

Wednesday: The practical sciences, part two: Human nature, regime, and culture
    Reading: Politics, Poetics

Thursday: The theoretical sciences, part one: The nature of living beings
    Reading: Physics, de Anima, Parts of Animals

Friday: The theoretical sciences, part two: The question of being and the question of the human good
    Reading: Posterior Analytics, Metaphysics, Protreptikos

Difficulty: Introductory. The class will introduce broad articulations and terminology of Aristotle’s thought and to introduce selected portions of text for discussion. We will seek to make immediate sense of these texts with as unsophisticated a language as tenable. However, the material is dense and any prior reading in Aristotle will be helpful.

Text and Preliminary Reading: If you have any chance for preliminary reading I suggest the following translations: (1) the accurate renderings by H. G. Apostle and L. P. Gerson, or (2) those by Joe Sachs, which, despite some idiosyncratic decisions, issue from an even better understanding of Aristotle. A reader containing the passages which will be examined in detail will be available in PDF form on the course website in June, but for technical reasons it must use the older standard versions from the Oxford series edited by W. D. Ross. These translations are not always consistent and use some unhelpful translations, they are scholarly. They are also freely available on the web, although without their original notes (e.g. at the site eBooks@Adelaide).