“Objective Essences,” Function of a Man, and other Absurdities


0213 | [On Jennifer Whiting’s essay Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense ]

Whiting makes a claim about what Aristotle thinks, in order to show how Aristotle plans on overcoming the subjectivist. Whiting wants to claim that, per Aristotle,

“our essence is objective and not whatever it seems to us to be.” (p.39)

But if this is true, then Aristotle is definitely not any kind of existentialist philosopher.

But, Plato is an existentialist philosopher — even the first one, perhaps. And I think that Plato’s deference to forms over appearances, is a testament to his existential philosophy. [NB: There is an important difference between “form” and “essence,” and the two are not quite the same thing.]

◊ On this matter, the issue isn’t so much as rightness or wrongness, as that my values and priorities are different from Aristotle. His moral theory doesn’t resonate with me (perhaps that makes him a human and me a monkey; I don’t care, as long as I’m not the same species as whatever Aristotle is). In any case, I would actually think that an “essence” is, essentially something subjective, and that it is the “forms” that are objective. This is because an “essence” is something made up of projected images existing solely inside of our “mental caves”, while “form” is recognized as the product of that which is objectively knowable and therefore prior to any mental projections that seem to “fix” the idea in our minds in an apparently “clear and distinct” way.

By necessity — ie, the necessity of our natures — we’re driven back into our mental caves. By nature we are “name-givers.” By nature we are logicians, language-speakers, and contemplaters. By the force of this aspect of our natures, we’re driven to give names to the things that we experience outside of the cave. And in each moment that we start to give things labels, categorizations, and essences, instead of just experiencing it with all of our senses with clear-eyes and open-hearts free from imagery, in that moment we also create ideas/images to project back inside of the cave.

Back inside of the cave then, it is these mental-projects — ie, “images” or “ideas” — that dominate the scene. Inside of the cave, the images rule and everyone who is bound to the cave must defer to these images, since they cannot yet leave the cave. But those who are unbound and have been outside of the cave realize that the images projected inside of the cave are, after all, only images and figments of the pseudoi logoi (ie, the “false accounts”).

This is the significance of the allegory of the cave in Republic. By taking us outside, Socrates tries to show us that these images/ideas have a source — and the source is an “external world”. The ideas don’t exist outside of the cave, since the ideas are only projections within the cave. Still, the images are based on the rich truth that exists outside of the cave.

◊ That which Aristotle calls “essence” is a refined version of the images. It is the result of many, many images generalized together to produce a certain kind of “core.” The problem with Aristotle is that he thinks that the “essence” — which is the “core” of these images — is itself the “thing-itself” (ie, the “onta”). And some Aristotelians think that the only thing that we can come to know are the images of reality projected inside of the cave (eg, folks like Berkeley who think that “existence is perception”).

◊ On the other hand, that which Socrates/Plato calls “form” is not the thing-itself (ie, the “onta”), but instead “forms” are recognized as the cave-painting-version of the unnameable “real” thing (ie, the “onta”). Plato knows that he can’t bring the real stuff into the cave. You can only try to lead the person to the outside of the cave. In an example, Socrates/Plato makes a distinction between the image-of-the-sun vs. the real and unnameable thing-itself which is outside of the cave. But since the thing-itself that’s outside of the cave can’t be named or spoken of (only experienced), it’s hard to help the people inside of the cave understand what you’ve seen — except by turning some of that experience into words. And this is how “cave-talk” (ie, ideas/images) are created. And in “cave-talk,” the thing-itself that the person has experienced outside of the cave is called “the sun,” and this word is itself an image of the thing-itself in the real world.

◊ The fundamental difference is this: Aristotle thinks that the idea is the thing-itself (presumably since it’s all we can know, being partially tied to the cave), while Plato thinks that the ideas are cave-versions of the thing-itself and admits of a reality that exists outside of the mind-cave.

Interestingly, I think that infants and nonhuman animals probably live outside of this “mental-cave.” And ironically, it is the mature, educated, adult humans who, through the process of learning how to speak, come to enter the cave and then somehow become “stuck” in it over time, forgetting about the reality of the external world that they once knew. Perhaps this is one difference between humans and nonhuman animals: the non-humans never enter a stupid cave, while humans do. But since they start out in the same place, the humans that do enter the stupid cave but manage to remember to come back out of it at some point, are capable of having the experience of being in both kinds of environments. And this experience of both is what likely produces the “meta” phenomenon. Of course, the humans that enter the stupid cave and forget to come back out are also lacking something important, since you can’t have a true “meta” experience if you forget that there’s actually a real world out there…

◊ In any case, Aristotle/Whiting is clearly wrong in thinking that “essences” are “objective.” Since essence is basically the purest and most refined shadow-projection inside of the cave, it is actually the most subjective thing that could exist. It isn’t objective at all.

But come to think of it, the idea of an “objective essence” is quite strange. This is like saying that ideas exist outside of the mind-cave. Isn’t this an “idealism”?

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0327 | [On Jennifer Whiting’s essay Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense ]

Whiting says something about a plant:

“Aristotle must apply to humans, methods which are similar to (or the same as) those used to determine that, e.g., photosynthesizing is constitutive of a plant’s health.” (p.40)

Now, I think that there’s something wrong here.

Only some plants photosynthesize — not all. Some plants are parasitic upon other plants and/or animals, and don’t actually photosynthesize themselves (and don’t need to, in order to stay healthy). Sure, the activity of photosynthesis can be an “activity-function” for some plants, but certainly not all. And if the plants that do engage in this activity do so for their own sake, then photosynthesis has a “utility-function” for these plants. Yet, we don’t say that the “utility-function” is the plant itself. We don’t even say that the “activity-function” is the plant itself. We say that the plant has this “utility-function” or “activity-function.” And in the case of “utility-functions,” the utility of photosynthesis is in relation to the plant, not to us.

There is certainly no problem in applying what is said for plants, to humans. Humans also have “activity-functions.” And these activities can also be “utility-functions,” since the activities may be beneficial for humans who engage in the activities. But we don’t say that humans themselves are a utility-function.

◊ Just to make a note of it, let me make it clear here that there is an important distinction between “utility-function” and “activity-function.” Both interpretations are based on the English translation of the Greek word, “ergon.” But, English allows for both of these two ways to think of the word “function.” What’s troublesome is that these two meanings can lead to quite different — even opposing — conclusions, and philosophers don’t always make it clear which they mean.

Well, what’s strange is that elsewhere, in Politics, Aristotle suggests that plants have a kind of instrumental-quality in relation to animals who eat them, and then that animals have an instrumental-quality in relation to humans who eat and also use them for labor. Aristotle further seems to be claiming that this instrumental-quality is something supplied by “nature”. He writes:

“So that clearly we must suppose that nature also provides for them in a similar way when grown up, and that plants exist for the sake of animals and the other animals for the good of man, the domestic species both for his service and for his food, and if not all at all events most of the wild ones for the sake of his food and of his supplies of other kinds, in order that [20] they may furnish him both with clothing and with other appliances. If therefore nature makes nothing without purpose or in vain, it follows that nature has made all the animals for the sake of men. Hence even the art of war will by nature be in a manner an art of acquisition (for the art of hunting is a part of it) that is properly employed both against wild animals and against such of mankind as though designed by nature for subjection refuse to submit to it, inasmuch as this warfare is by nature just.” (Politics, 1256b)

What’s really strange in this passage is that all the instrumental-qualities all end in benefiting the human. And what’s more, it is the whole plant itself that serves the animal, and the whole animal that serves the human. It’s all so conveniently “human-centered.”

In any case, the notion of one organism having an instrumental-quality for another organism isn’t anything new for Aristotle. It’s a good reason for thinking that perhaps what Aristotle means when he speak of “ergon,” is the “utility-function” meaning and not the “activity-function” meaning.

By now, I am getting a very strong feeling that either (1) Whiting is confused about what Aristotle means, or (2) she is deliberately attempting to mislead others in what Aristotle means (perhaps making him sound cleverer than he actually is), or (3) she is understanding Aristotle correctly but Aristotle himself is inconsistent and confused. If I were an Aristotle lover, I’d probably be doing one of these myself…

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1343 | [On Jennifer Whiting’s essay Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense ]

In her final chapter, Whiting’s final move to round up her argument is to claim that our natures — ie, human nature — say what is beneficial for us. Furthermore, our natures are knowable objectively and independently of our subjective beliefs. And it is the “objective” criteria that determine what is good-for us or not, and ultimately whether we have eudaimon or not.

Yet, Lawrence says that,

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

And Aristotle himself says in NE ii,

“So virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but nature gives us the capacity to acquire them, and completion comes through habituation.” (NE, 1103a)

So, if everyone is to be right, then Whiting must mean that while we have a capacity for acquiring nature, and thus a capacity for happiness (?), whether we achieve it or not depends on how well we develop and utilize that natural capacity. Still, Whiting’s point is that we can know objectively what consists in our happiness. We just have to look at what we’re naturally capable of. (Erm, that might be a problem…)

Whiting then she ends with this:

“But whatever we think of these more specific conclusions, Aristotle’s general identification of what it is to be human with rational agency is not altogether implausible–at least not to those of us who would prefer to trust our hearts to pacemakers than our deliberations and the pursuit of our ends to another, no matter how benevolent and wise he happens to be.” (p.46)

And now, I don’t understand how her last sentence fits together. It doesn’t make any sense?

Presumably, she thinks that we are “choice-makers” and “reason-havers,” since that’s what it means to be a “rational animal.” OK. Got that.

And then she says that she would prefer to trust in the science invested in technology (eg, a pacemaker), than to place her “deliberations and the pursuit of [her] ends” under the authority and control of someone else “no matter how benevolent and wise he happens to be.”

But, what does this mean?

Presumably, trusting our hearts to pacemakers is bad. OK, I think I got that. And if she’d prefer this bad thing over something else, then that “something else” must be worse than bad. And what’s worse than bad? It is worse than bad to place her “deliberations and the pursuit of [her] ends” under the authority and control of someone else. OK, I think I got that too then.

And now what do these things imply? How does this mesh with what Aristotle himself says about nature, what fellow Aristotelians interpret Aristotle as having said, and what she herself says about human nature and virtue and eudaimonia?

If I’ve understood her sentence correctly thus far, then she thinks that being free to make our own choices (being rational animals by nature, after all) trumps having our welfare being looked after by some wise and benevolent spirit? This is to imply that the aim of “rationality” isn’t necessarily to be benefited by exercising this activity. That is, being a “choice-maker” isn’t always and necessarily good-for us. And even being good-at making choices also doesn’t always and necessarily mean that we’ll be benefited by the choices that we make. Presumably, her point is that an “activity-function” need not have a “utility-function.” But if these are things that Whiting concludes, then is she or is she not contradicting herself from what she said earlier in her essay about overcoming the subjectivist? And furthermore, what does eudaimonia have to do with our natures as rational animals, if being good-at choice-making doesn’t necessarily benefit the choice-maker herself? Aren’t virtues supposed to make us happy, according to Aristotle anyways?

I appreciate the “spirit” in Whiting’s conclusion, and her apparent desire to reclaim a certain aspect of our “nature.” But her spirit is confused because it goes against Aristotle’s “anti-nature” strain — in which case it’s not a defense of Aristotle at all, but a refutation. And even if I could work out the confusion somehow, still the biggest problem for me is that it all sounds very “unSocratic.” According to Socrates, what is pleasant to him is also beneficial to him. But Whiting claims that what is pleasant (being free to make one’s own choices) actually isn’t always beneficial and vice versa — and this is precisely how things are for the oi-polloi.

Anyways, I still don’t see how humans themselves are a function. In fact, I don’t see how animals and plants have a function either. Stupid Aristotle.

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1529 | [On Jennifer Whiting’s essay Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense ]

I’ve finished Whiting’s essay, and have now moved on to another of Gavin Lawrence’s essays (one entitled, Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious?). But I wanted to take note of one more thing that Whiting wrote in her essay, before leaving her essay. It’s a somewhat unrelated point, but something I noticed (another one of the ways that Aristotle’s misinterpretations have ruined the world for over 2000 years, and continues to ruin the world that I now live in, and will continue to ruin so long as his minions continue to perpetuate his stupidities) which I thought was worth jotting down.

Whiting writes:

“At this point, someone might object to Aristotle’s assimilation of eudaimonia to the εὗ ζῆν (or welfare) of plants and animals. He might object that we can derive an adequate conception of a plant’s welfare simply from an understanding of its physiological structures and activities only because we identify a plant primarily–or exclusively–with those physiological structures and activities which are definitive of health; these things exhaust the essence of a plant. So contributing to (or damaging) the health of a plant is the only way to benefit (or harm) it. The same presumably goes for most animals. But we do not think that contributing to (or damaging) a man’s health exhausts the ways in which we might benefit (or harm) him. That is because we do not identify men primarily with the physiological characteristics definitive of health and Aristotle may not identify men with these at all. Something else is thought to be essential to human nature–namely, rationality.” (p.41)

If Whiting wants to get all “objective” on me, then I’m going say that I think that plants do have a daimon just as much as humans do. They just aren’t aware of it perhaps. But just because they’re not aware of it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a daimon, or that their daimon doesn’t matter, or that they can’t be harmed daimonically. And it’s also not the case that plants don’t have a daimon just because we don’t identify plants as having daimons; it could just mean that we’re bad at identifying daimon in plants — it doesn’t mean that plants don’t have them.

Since plants have daimons, plants can also be harmed daimonically — as in the case of genetic engineering.

As humans, we’re supposed to be more aware of things like daimons — even in plants, and even when plants aren’t capable of recognizing it in themselves. If we care about our own daimon, then we have a reason to care about all daimon — even the daimon of plants and animals.

Aristotle’s so stupid, and he’s also really super “elitist.” Plus, his idea of excellence is basically to super-size on peasant values — a difference in degree, rather than kind. But that’s not what human excellence consists in. I don’t know why Korsgaard wants to keep him as her avatar. Everything he says seems to go totally against any kind of argument for animal welfare and animal rights.

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1826 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

Lawrence’s version of Aristotle’s “Function Argument” is this:

“Where the X is something with a function, the X-an good (X’s success) is in its function, in the sense of being a matter of its function, of its x-ing.” (p.341)

◊ Example 1: ( eyes ) have a function — ( seeing ). Good ( eyes ) ( see ) well.
◊ Example 2: ( humans ) have a function — ( reasoning ). Good ( humans ) ( reason ) well.

So now, I have some questions/answers about this:
(a) How do we come to identify “seeing” as the function of the “eyes”? And “reasoning” as the function of a human?
◊ The point of my question is to suggest that the function of something can only exist in relation to us. Therefore, eyes can have functions and horses can have functions, but humans cannot have functions. Now, souls can have functions. At 353d-e in Republic, Socrates says that “souls” have functions. Its function is to lead, deliberate, and manage well. But the soul isn’t the human herself — is it?

(b) Do the eyes see without a brain, nerves, heart?
◊ No, they do not. The eyes are an organic member of a larger organism. Being such a specialized member, they also have a highly specialized function. It’s possible that “eyes” are different from “humans” in this way. Not everything that engages in activities has a function. Eyes do have functions because of the way they participate in a larger scheme. In other words, the function of the eyes are defined in relation to the larger scheme of which it is an integral part. But are persons like eyes? Are persons also a part of a larger scheme in this way? It seems that if a person is to have a legitimate function, then her function would be defined in relation to a larger scheme of which she is an integral part. But if there is a larger scheme, then what is it? If we wanted to know the function of a human, we’d need to know what the larger scheme is.

(c) Do eyes see without light?
◊ Presumably, there’s an external factor that also determines whether eyes see well or not — in fact, whether they see at all. If “seeing” were the eye’s function, then sometimes functions (and their excellence) can seem to depend on external factors. Socrates makes it clear that his purpose in using the “eye” example was to assert two claims: (1) some things do have functions, and (2) for those things with functions, the performance of the function is measured by a unique set of inherent standards. But notice that at least in some cases, the actual performance of a function can be affected by external conditions — such as in the case of seeing where there is little to no light. I think that this is something interesting, and perhaps important, to consider about performances.

(d) Is it correct to think that the eye is what is good/bad, or is it correct to think that the performance of the eye is good/bad (with no judgment passed on the eye itself)?
◊ This is the most important question, I think. In Republic, for the most part Socrates speaks of the excellence of the performance — not the excellence of the agent that performs. This ties in well with what I said in (c), since to some extent it can make sense to say that the quality of a performance depends on external conditions, but I think that it makes much less sense to say that the quality of the agent itself depends on external conditions.

But, I am a little troubled by something else now… At 353e, Socrates describes the soul being judged as “bad” when it performs its function “badly.” (Even in the Greek it says this, so it isn’t simply a matter of bad translation.) It’s the only instance (in book 1, anyways) that I can find of Socrates transferring the assessment of the quality of the performance onto the agent itself.

I can see how this can make sense. It’s common for people to think that the quality of the performance says something about the quality of the agent. But I wonder if this sort of judgment is entirely fair and correct — especially if the assessment of the agent indirectly seems to depend, at least in part, on external factors such as its environment…

Now, I am quickly in danger of having my first ever disagreement with Socrates/Plato. And, to be honest, I really don’t want to. So I’m going to try to avoid having a disagreement over this, and I think I can know a clever way to avoid it. All I have to do is to shift my mode of thinking just slightly.

Given that external factors can affect the quality of performance, and on occasion transfer that assessment onto the agent herself, it doesn’t seem appropriate to me to hold the agent liable for external factors that she can’t control. But suppose that the reason for assessing the agent’s quality wasn’t to condemn her or to hold her liable? Suppose that the project was to produce high-quality agents? If this were the project, then it would be useful to know how the quality of agents could be improved. If it were discovered to be a fact that the quality of an agent can and does depend on external factors, then one would also be led to the conclusion that a higher-quality agent can be produced by improving upon the external factors surrounding the agent and her capacity to perform according to her function. For instance, a flute-player can play the flute better if she has a nice flute to play. Perhaps she will play even better if she’s provided with music lessons and a quiet place to practice. Finally, perhaps the best flute players are produced when only people who have a self-driven passion for flute-playing actually take up flute-playing at a professional level.

I think that Aristotle is too obsessed with things like status. Once I rephrase the whole situation into a project of improving the quality of agents instead of a project of attempting to hold agents liable for their quality, then I suddenly seem to have less of a problem with the idea of assessing the quality of agents. I’ll have to think about this some more.

That said, I’m still not convinced that humans can be defined by some particular function. People can have various occupations with specified functions, but I don’t think that being “human” is a function. But souls can have functions. And people can have souls.