Thursday, May 5, 2016
What is the human thing?
The working title of my paper for this year’s IPSA meeting in Poland is “the Darwinian dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals.” A bit clunky, but I am sticking with it. The argument between modern liberalism and socialism turns on the question whether the interests of human societies are subordinate to those of individual persons (liberalism) or vice versa (socialism). This is the political application of a fundamental metaphysical question: is the human thing the individual or the polis? I propose that Aristotle’s answer to this question is yes. What emerges from Aristotle’s thinking (whether he intended this or not) is that the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the citizen and the city. Here is the beginning of my treatment of this question.
What is the human thing?
One way to approach this question is to consider the nature of parts and wholes. The one is fundamentally subordinate to the other. A doorknob is a part of and hence essentially subordinate to a door because the definition of the former necessarily includes the latter. You can’t understand what a doorknob is unless you understand what a door is; however, you don’t have to understand the knob in order to understand the door. The same is true of semicircles and circles.
Applying this to biology, a hand or a kidney is part of a body and cannot exist or be what it is without being integrated into a body. Logos must proceed from the whole to the parts in order to understand the phenomena. Aristotle also argues that the body is essentially secondary and the soul primary, for a body without a soul (a corpse) isn’t really a body anymore. It is just a lump of interestingly shaped material. The soul, as he puts it in the De Anima, is the actuality of the body.
So what about the relationship between the individual human being and the political community? In the Politics, Aristotle famously states that an individual who is no part of such a community is like a severed hand. Of course unlike a severed hand, an isolated individual can go on living; however, he cannot live a human life. He is like a beast or a god, below or above the human thing. That seems to answer the question decisively in favor of the polis as the human thing.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle takes the opposite approach. He begins with the individual as the primary thing and family, friendship, and citizenship emerge from the individual’s pursuit of the good things for himself and for those he cares about. So which is it?
Aristotle grappled with a similar problem with various attempts to identify the fundamental unit of biology. At first glance it seems obvious. A horse is a horse, of course. From that fundamental thing, present to observation, one can abstract in two directions. One can go downward to the parts of the horse: legs and organs and organic matter. One can go upward to the species to which the animal belongs and thence to genus, etc. But these logical steps are necessarily abstractions. A leg only makes sense as a leg if it is part of a whole animal. The species, likewise is real only in the sense that it is something true about this here animal: that it belongs in this category.
Yet Aristotle was also drawn in the other direction. What is most knowable is that which is less subject to qualification. To say that a horse has four legs may not be true of this particular horse since she might lose a leg and yet remain, for a little bit at least, a horse. It is reliably true of the horse species, however, and so the species is more knowable. If the knowable is the real, and this is a necessary assumption for all rational understanding of nature, then the species is more real than the individual.
This conundrum should be understood in the context of Aristotle’s argument with Plato. Plato’s Socrates can down decisively in favor of the species form. He argued famously that the form is primary and exists independently of the individual. When Aristotle makes the individual primary he is reducing the species form to a mere abstraction. When he makes the species primary, he is nonetheless keeping his distance from Plato. The horse species is nothing more nor less than all the horses present in every place and time.
Aristotle’s equivocation on this topic has its analogy in the problem of the species in modern biology. Is the species a set of characteristics by which we place an individual into a more or less artificial class? If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably… a duck. Alternatively, a species can be understood as a large object scattered across time. Chimpanzees are this branch of the ape clade and human beings are another. A third alternative is Ernst Mayr’s definition of an interbreeding population of sexually reproducing creatures. Each approach has its power. None can settle the matter in its favor.
To ask what is the human thing is to arrive at the same dilemma. The most obvious answer is that it is the biological individual. Social groups, including the primary social group which is the political community, are institutions. Individuals do the instituting. Yet Aristotle had a point in his Politics. If a linguistic community is an institution then so is an individual linguistic animal, the latter cannot become what she is without the former. Without a family or its functional equivalent a human person can neither survive to adulthood nor acquire that capacity for logos that is the definitive characteristic of human beings. It is possible to go a step further and point out that all human communities are possible because of the history of the human species on earth. Perhaps that is the human thing and particular societies stand towards it just as individuals stand towards groups.
I will argue from Aristotelian principles that the human thing is neither the individual nor the polis but, instead, is the dynamic relationship between the two. Individuals create societies and vice versa. This is possible precisely because the individual and the group are each asserting themselves against the other. This is not explicit in Aristotle’s writing; however, it is more or less intentionally what his thinking is pointing toward. It makes sense of Aristotle and, I will argue, it makes sense of both the theoretical questions discussed above and of their explicitly political implications. Applying Darwinian biology to Aristotle’s principles will allow us to understand both the human thing and, necessarily, the political thing.