Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Aristotle's Priorities

In Aristotle’s Politics, he says this:
κα πρότερον δ τ φύσει πόλις οκία κα καστος μν στιν. [20] τ γρ λονπρότερον ναγκαον εναι το μέρους: ναιρουμένου γρ το λου οκ σταιπος οδ χείρ, ε μ μωνύμως, σπερ ε τις λέγοι τν λιθίνην διαφθαρεσαγρ σται τοιαύτη), πάντα δ τ ργ ρισται κα τ δυνάμει, στε μηκέτιτοιατα ντα ο λεκτέον τ ατ εναι λλ μώνυμα.
The polis is prior to the family and to each of us, since a whole is by nature prior to its parts.  For if the whole is destroyed, [a person] would not exist, nor would a foot or hand, except equivocally, as if someone were speaking of the stone.  For all [the parts] are defined by their powers, so it should not be said to be or to be such, except equivocally.
That overly literal translation is a bit murky.  I will clear it up momentarily.  For now just notice the first, italicized sentence.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says this:
νδρ δ κα γυναικ φιλία δοκε κατ φύσιν πάρχειν:νθρωπος γρ τ φύσει συνδυαστικν μλλον πολιτικόν, σ πρότερον κα ναγκαιότερον οκία πόλεως, κα τεκνοποιία κοινότερον τος ζοις.
The friendship appears to belong to man and woman by nature, for [the human being] is by nature more a coupling [animal] than a political one, in so far as the family is more prior and more necessary than the polis and the production of offspring is more common to the animals. 
Here we have, at first glance, an obvious contradiction.  Is the polis prior to the family or vice versa?  In the first example, Aristotle’s meaning is textbook functionalism.  We cannot understand what a hand or foot really is except by understanding its power, which is to say its function.  We cannot understand the latter without understand how it contributes to the greater whole that is the human body.  If the family and individual cannot function properly except as part of a complete political community, the polis is logically prior to the family and individual. 
I confess that, until tonight, I had careless assumed that in the second example Aristotle was speaking of temporal priority.  Perhaps there were families before there were cities.  There is no contradiction involved when logical and temporal priority are reversed.  A craftsman might fashion a doorknob before the door; however, the former still makes sense only if you understand what the latter is. 
Wolfgang Kullmann set me straight in his essay “Man as a political animal in Aristotle,” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr., 1991).  Kullmann is trying very hard to demonstrate that Aristotle did not believe in any pre-political period in human history.  Aristotle’s anthropoi cannot exist (at least as a species) apart from political life any more than lions can exist without hunting.  I am pretty sure that is right about that. 
He argues that the first statement belongs to political science and the second to biology.  The second statement is biologically correct in so far as coupling is a more common and therefore more basic characteristic of animals than political behavior.  That strikes me as correct.  The first statement belongs to political science which, Kullmann says is more precise than biology for Aristotle.  I am pretty sure he is wrong about that. 
His argument does point the way to resolving the two statements by separating out two senses of logical priority.  When we are doing functional analysis, wholes are clearly logically prior to parts.  Human bodies are logically prior to human lungs.  When we are doing cladistics, more universal traits are logically prior to more specific traits.  Lungs generally are logically prior to mammary glands generally. 

The great innovation of evolutionary biology in general was to map the second type of logical priority onto temporal priority.  For the most part, the one is the other.  The great of innovation of Darwinian biology in particular is to understand how functionality emerges over time. 
My interpretation saves Kullmann’s more important point.  When Aristotle speaks of political animals he means creatures that are not only gregarious but are capable of cooperating for some common purpose.  This involves a dimension of morality or justice in so far as the goods achieved by cooperation can be more or less equally distributed among the cooperators and some cooperators may be tempted to take a share in the spoils without joining in the common effort.  Whether Aristotle recognized the dimension of morality among other political animals isn’t clear to me; however, modern sociobiology leaves no doubt about this.  Cooperation is not evolutionarily viable unless there are mechanisms in place to ensure basic fairness.

What distinguishes human beings from all other animals is logos: the conscious communication of views about what is in the common interest and what is just.  If political nature is logically prior to logos in the cladistic sense and if this trait is also temporally prior, then our ancestral tree branched into political nature long before it budded into human nature.  We were political animals before we were human.  


  1. Your blog would be easier to read if you used a black or dark font against a neutral or a light-colored background. White font on a red background strains the eyes and makes it hard to read.

  2. Xenophon: I will take this into consideration. I haven't changed the look of the blog for a long time. Perhaps this would be a good idea. It may be a bit before I get to it.

  3. Thanks for the change, it's much easier to read. I struggled to read it previously and I'm sure others did as well.

  4. Thank you, Xenophon. But I have to ask: what was it like to sit and listen to Socrates?