Friday, April 7, 2017
A Horse is Of Course
I was interviewed today by David Tucker, Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. The interview will be posted soon and I expect that it will be available to anyone (I didn’t exactly ask!). If so, I will post a link here.
Our topic was Darwin and the Declaration. While I was preparing for the interview, something occurred to me that might be worth further thought. I am thinking it through here for the first time.
One of the greatest innovations in Aristotle’s writing concerned a way of confronting apparent paradoxes. A paradox occurs when something appears to be two things at the same time and the two things are apparently contradictory.
To take a simple example, consider an oblong table not quite so wide than your hips and longer than the reach of both arms. Standing at one end, it appears narrower than you. Now walk around it and look at it from its middle. From this point of view, it is wider than you. That is the paradox: “narrower than you” and “wider than you” are contradictory propositions. It can’t be both at the same time; and so, the table is impossible. If this seems silly, more intelligent people than you or I have been driven to distraction by such things. The obvious solution (once it occurs to you) is that the table is at least a two-dimensional object. Its multi-dimensionality allows it to be both narrower and wider at the same time.
Using this kind of strategy, Aristotle solved a wide range of problems in philosophy. How is it possible that a baby can be both entirely material (the stuff of flesh) and also entirely formal (it’s a baby and not just a lump of stuff)? Because organisms (and indeed all lumps) have these two dimensions‑material and form. To complete the explanation, Aristotle added efficient cause (the baby is being pushed out of its initial state by its phusis, or nature) and it is growing toward maturity (the telos or end of its growth).
Now consider a mature animal, say a horse. How do we understand what this is? On the one hand, it is one thing: this here animal. “This here” is frequent Aristotelian terminology; it points you toward the thing to be examined. On the other hand, it is many things: a head and a haunch, an outside with hide and eyeballs and an inside with organs. We can keep searching down to cells, subcellular devices, complex and simple molecules, etc. It is one thing and many at the same time.
We can also go in the other direction. The horse is one horse but there are other horses. While it is one thing, standing alone in the pasture, it is part of one larger thing: the species Horse. And Horse is one distinct thing and yet a part of a larger thing: Mammal, etc., etc.
Here is what occurred to me today: horse and Horse are not quite the same thing. To speak of a horse is to say that this here animal is horsy. It has traits that we recognize and that allow us to place it in a larger category. To speak of Horse is to speak about something just as real but rather larger: the collection of all the existing horses.
Aristotle got hung up on this, and had a difficult time deciding whether horse or Horse was the real object of theoretical understanding. Much the same thing happened in the philosophy of biology. Some have thought that Horse is an individual, bounded in space and time and therefore just as much an individual as the horse I am riding on.
We have here a paradox. A species is something attributable to this here animal; yet, it is also a larger thing and, more interestingly, a thing that not only extends across space but also backwards in time. Biological classifications are categories, conceptual boxes into which we place specimens; yet Horse is also a real object that occupies both local and temporal space, back to the ancestor of all horses.
What is the real thing, the individual animal or the species extending backward and forward (hopefully) in time? The task of philosophy is to explain how the answer can be yes.