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Aristotelian Antics – An Introduction to the Stagirite and his Islamic and Christian heirs

Lecturer: Jon Rubin

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 2 2021

And then – my brow raised higher still – I saw,

among his family of philosophers,

the master of all those who think and know.

When, at the start of the fourteenth century, Dante refered to the, “master of all those who think and know” no name was necessary. All his readers would have recognised the allusion to Aristotle. For two thousand years, he was often refered to simply as The Philosopher.

  • When Descartes refounds the philosophical project, it is still within and against an Aristotelian context.
  • When Kant takes his transcendental turn, his Copernican revolution, nevertheless his division of inner and outer sense remains embedded within an Aristotelian heritage of discussions of quantity and quality (and of course his table of categories retains an Aristotelian hue.
  • When Heidegger accuses philosphers of obscuring the difference between Being and beings, it is Aristotle that is the primary target.
  • More than over-turning Plato, it is escaping Aristotle’s shackling of difference that is the initial project of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.

Aristotle needs to be read and understood if we are to also understand why, for two and a half thousand years, so many philosophers have engaged, disengaged and been enraged by his thought.

Aristotle’s Collected Works has 48 different titles with topics running from animals to rhetoric and dreams to the names of the winds. This is believed to be about a third of what he wrote and much of what has survived was not meant to be published. No single course can do more than scratch the surface of this work and legacy. This course will therefore focus on one particular conceptual constellation of his work and its paricularly problematic impact on his Islamic and Christian followers. This constellation is formed out of a series of interlocking dyads:

  • necessity/chance
  • actuality/possibility
  • essence/existence
  • activity/potentiality

Aristotle is not Leibniz, not everything has to have a reason – but necessity is at the heart of Aristotle’s concern with philosophical explanation and it proves just as problematic to keep necessity (in its logical, material and divine forms) bound and away from human affairs as it did for his followers. Not everything has to have a reason, but what if it did?

The first five weeks of the course will examine five texts from Aristotle’s vast corpus, specifically focusing on the problem of necessity in them:

  • The Organon (the collection of his logical works)
  • The Physics
  • The Metaphysics
  • On the Soul
  • The Nichomachean Ethics

Each two hour lecture will have two parts. The first part will provide a general overview of the text being discussed, identifying key problems within it; its location within the Aristotelian corpus and some discussion of it’s early reception and impact. The second part of the lecture will offer a close reading of one or two selected passages that illustrate a key philosophical problem from within the text.

The second part of the course will look at three Islamic philosophers and three medieval Christian philosophers, before ending in the seventeenth century to see how Spinoza and Leibniz battled over the problem of necessity.

  1. Avicenna: The division of essence from existence
  2. Al-Ghazali: The Incoherence of the Philosophers
  3. Averroes: On the human intellect
  4. Aquinas: Of Existence and Essence
  5. Scotus: Contingency and Freedom
  6. Suarez: On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence
  7. Spinoza and Leibniz on necessity and possibility