Cultivating innate sensitivities vs. Habituation to convention


0143  | [Continuing my study of Lawrence Gavin’s essay, Acquiring Character: Becoming Grown-Up-]

Per Lawrence:

“Aristotle’s focus is on denying that we acquire [the virtues] by nature” (p.245)

Well that makes it plain enough to see which side of the line that Aristotle stands!

Suffice it to say that I, a Socratist, totally disagree with this. It’s obviously not the case that people are wholly “blank slates” as Aristotle and his minions (parasites like Locke and Hobbes) think. People are born with varying degrees of skill/talent — and in various areas, too. Even if all humans could learn to play the flute to a certain decent level, not all humans have the talent for playing the flute excellently. Certainly a person with little talent for flute-playing who has been given music lessons is going to play the flute better than someone born with a great talent for flute-playing but has not been given any music lessons. But if both persons are given the same music lessons, the person born with a great talent for flute-playing is going to excel in flute-playing quite beyond the person with little innate talent. Obviously, if the person born with the innate talent is given richer opportunities and higher-quality music lessons, then she is going to excel even more than if she only received music lessons of a mediocre quality.

But this isn’t all I have to say about “nature.” I think that if Aristotle wants to deny “nature,” then actually he is the one who advocates for an “intellectualism,” and not Socrates at all. Socrates actually accounts for the cultivation of our natural abilities quite explicitly in the Republic, when he suggests musical training for the spirited part of the soul.

And so actually, the notion of acculturating a person to develop their various sensitivities is not original to Aristotle. However, I don’t think that Socrates would have gone so far as to think of training a person to behave a certain way. Cultivating one’s innate sensitivities is quite different from being habituated to certain customary behaviors that are deemed “respectable” by society. The former is Socratic, while the latter is Aristotelian. Furthermore, having to habituate oneself to “moral” behavior, rather than cultivating what’s intrinsically natural implies another troubling view that Aristotle holds: that there is no true morality grounded in nature. But I think that there is a true morality, and that it’s grounded in something innate and also given to all, and I also think that it has a proper domain — the self.

And so, deferring to convention is an original invention by Aristotle.

And just as a reminder from yesterday’s work, “Socratic Intellectualism” is actually a misnomer concocted by Aristotle to slander Socrates.

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1527  | [On Gavin Lawrence’s The Function of the Function Argument]

Surprisingly, I actually agree with one teeny tiny sentence that Lawrence says. He writes:

“Happiness is not simply a matter of what constitutes happy living, but of what constitutes a happy lifetime.” (p.447)

Of course, this isn’t new to Aristotle. Solon had said as much in Herodotus’ Histories, and it’s also alluded to in some of Plato’s dialogues concerning the “soul” (soul meaning something like “life-story” or “epos”). It’s also a basic understanding common to the Homeric culture (as can be evidenced by stories like Iliad and even Odyssey). On my understanding, eudaimonia isn’t just a fleeting moment of feeling or mood. It is to live a whole lifetime (regardless of how short or long that is), and for one’s life-story to end well and for that ending to be relevant to one’s life-story. This also means that to be eudaimonia requires that a person’s life-story come to an end at some point. Of course, since the only way for a person’s life-story to come to an end is for the person’s biological life to end, it means that eudaimonia requires a person to die (biologically speaking) — at some point. Further on this view, one might say that immortal beings like the gods or perhaps even imaginary beings like vampires or elves who also tend to live forever (short of some mishap), are incapable of being either happy or unhappy, since their life-stories usually never end…

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2017 | [Continuing my study of Lawrence Gavin’s essay, The Function of the Function Argument –]

Lawrence says that there’s a “function argument” in Plato’s Republic, and that “Aristotle’s argument is clearly indebted to Plato’s version of it in Republic i 352d1-354a11.” (p.449)

This is Lawrence’s claim. But I took a look at this part of Republic, and I don’t see how there is anything here that would inspire or buttress Aristotle’s version of a “function argument.”

◊ For one thing, nowhere does it explicitly say in the noted passage that humans have a function/ergon. Socrates only says this at 353a:

“Now I think you will understand better what I was asking earlier when I asked whether the function [ergon] of each thing is what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else.” But, just because some things do have functions (eg, eyes and ears), and just because those things that do have functions can each be measured according to their own appropriate standards, doesn’t thereby mean that all things have functions. Surely, even if a human’s eyes, nose, mouth, soul, and hands have a function — it isn’t necessarily the case that the human herself must also have a function!?

That is, all function is in relation to the human. But [perhaps] the human herself has no function. One can be a baker or a philosopher, and these have functions, and their functions are in relation to the human. But the human has no function — unless it is in relation to something else… (But what would that be?) At best, the human function in relation to ourselves is simply to exist.

But Lawrence suggests that humans do have a function. He says:

“For Aristotle, for any functional item, an X-er, it will be true that its function, as such, is to x; and so, if the Human qua Human has a function, this will be, formally speaking, to human… We are being given something of the substantive content of what it is to human, viz., reason-involving activity. So by FG the human good will consist in this activity done well…” (p.453)

◊ There’s a couple problems already with what Lawrence says here. One problem is the one that I mentioned above. Humans don’t have functions, and Socrates/Plato never suggest that humans have functions. But Aristotle/Lawrence apparently do think that humans have functions. So one problem is that Aristotle/Lawrence falsely attributes a mangled “function argument” to Socrates/Plato. (Considering how mangled it is, one could consider it to be a case of slander to attribute such nonsense to Socrates/Plato.) Now, if Aristotle/Lawrence want to think that humans have a function, I’m perfectly fine with them saying that — so long as they claim it as their own view. But to pretentiously defer to Socrates/Plato as a source for a mangled argument is not okay, since Socrates/Plato never actually made the conclusion that Aristotle/Lawrence derive from the little that Socrates/Plato actually do say.

◊ Another problem is that Aristotle/Lawrence think that the function of a human is “reason-involving activity.” But I don’t see why it should be so. There’s no clear evidence that shows that “reason-involving activity” is the “function” of a human (presuming for a moment that a human even has a function). I know that it’s what Aristotle asserts, but I have no particular reason for accepting his claims.

Furthermore, it’s unclear what “reason-involving activity” even means; it’s very vague. A lot could hinge on the way that Aristotle/Lawrence define “reason.”

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2258  | I want to exist. I want to have lived. That is why I have been writing so furiously these past couple months.

And I want to continue doing philosophy. I want to continue to study at Harvard. I don’t want to stop. ⛺️

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2339 | Now, if Aristotle/Lawrence were to defer to Socrates and try to explore what “human function” might be, then we have to go back to what Socrates says that ergon is at 353a in the Republic, and read much more carefully. According to Socrates, function/ergon is the activity that the thing “alone can do or what it can do better than anything else.” In other words, it has to be an activity that’s unique to the subject.

Now, note that Aristotle often speaks of “characteristic” or “habitual” activity. To be clear, just because some activity is “characteristic” doesn’t necessarily make it a function/ergon according to Socrates definition. For example, it might be characteristic for humans to be bipedal or have opposable thumbs, etc. Still, there are other nonhuman animals that are also bipedal (or have opposable thumbs, etc) — eg, chickens, kangaroos, and apparently some cockroaches are also bipedal. Humans also have a habit of eating and sleeping. But eating and sleeping fail to be human “functions” in the sense that Socrates thinks of function because eating and sleeping aren’t things that only humans can do or what humans can do “better” than anything else.

What does Aristotle/Lawrence think that the human function might be (if humans can and do have functions)? Presumably, Aristotle/Lawrence think that human function is “reason-involving activity” (from what Lawrence said in his essay on page 453). But I thought that this was vague, at best. For philosophy, I think that it’s better to be less ambiguous. So I’ll just say what I think that Aristotle thinks that human function might be: according to what I remember Aristotle saying towards the end of the NE, the human function is the activity of “contemplation.”

But is this correct?

Aristotle would only be correct in thinking that contemplation is the human function (according to the Socratic definition of what “function” is) if it were something that only humans could do and/or if it’s something that humans can do better than anything else.

So, is it? Is contemplation something that only humans can do? Or, something that humans can do better than anything else?

I kind of want to say, no. Of course, it all sort of depends on precisely what “contemplating” means, but I definitely think that nonhuman animals engage in contemplation. I mean, I can’t say for sure what they’re thinking about, but I have a good hunch that nonhuman animals do engage in contemplation. There may be a difference in degree, but I don’t think it’s a difference in “kind” of activity. And some aspects of contemplation — eg, calculating, recalling, etc — can actually be done “better” by computers/artificial-intelligence. Of course, people didn’t have computers in Aristotle’s time. But this only helps to proves that Aristotle is wrong in thinking that contemplation is the human function.

Should we then think that humans have no function?

Well, there is still that activity of speaking and writing. It’s not something that most nonhuman animals can do. Still, some nonhuman animals can and have participated in some degree of human language. So, this may also turn out not be a human function either. Furthermore, the AI’s that are now being developed may soon be able to surpass humans in certain aspects of speaking and/or writing — if they haven’t already in some cases.

So, in conclusion, if we are going to assert that humans have a function (and I have a serious doubt that we do), we have to keep looking and keep our minds open. With all the progress we’re making in technology, we’ll have to compare ourselves not only with nonhuman animals, but also with computers and AI if we’re to truly discover what makes us unique.

In the end, it might even turn out to be the case that what makes us unique is precisely the fact that we’re not unique at all. Or, maybe it’ll turn out to be the case that we’re some weird kind of super-glue, partaking in a little bit of every kind of activity, and that’s our so-called “function.”