The Hero’s Journey

Thursday

1441 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

This has been troubling me since last night. It’s definitely been a process, but perhaps I’ve come to a conclusion about it. Actually, I’ve come to several conclusions in the course of deliberating about this for the past few days. (And despite my raving and ranting against them and their kind, I am grateful to Gavin Lawrence and to Whiting for their sincere and thought-provoking essays on the matter.)

My conclusion on the matter is this: If one wishes to correctly assess the quality of the agent indirectly by assessing the performance of a function, the performance must be executed in external conditions that are optimally conducive to the execution of the performance by the agent.

This is not so different from what Thoreau says in Walden, about sufficiently clothing and feeding a fellow before judging his character.

◊ Second, there is also the question of what to do with the assessment of the performance and of the agent. Is the aim of this assessment to hold the agent responsible or liable for the quality of her performance? If this is the aim, then I think that the aim is a misguided one, given the fact that the assessment of the performance depends in part on the external factors. (eg, even an excellent set of eyes sees poorly or even not at all when in extreme light conditions) Or, is the aim to enable the agent to perform her best by providing her with conducive external conditions? If humans were to have a function qua human and not as bakers, philosophers, warriors, or queens, then it only makes sense to provide humans conducive external conditions before any kind of assessment over the quality of their performance can be said to be accurate. I think that everyone can see how ridiculously inaccurate it would be to conclude that a person is a “bad” student because she failed her test on account of her having a broken pencil. And if this is ridiculous, then it would be just as ridiculous to say that a person is a “good” student because she aced her test on account of her utilizing a cheat-sheet with all the correct answers to the quiz. The assessment only contains truth if the students are each given optimal conditions for taking the test. If the project was to increase the quality of students, then the focus would shift from holding the student liable for her performance in test-taking, to figuring out what sorts of external conditions affect the quality of the performance, and what can be done to provide an optimal environment for those students who do wish to perform better, and then finally, to realize that environment. I can see no other correct use for transferring the assessment of the quality of the agent’s performance onto the agent herself.

◊ Third, I am still not entirely convinced that humans do have functions qua humans. But if Socrates/Plato says they do, then surely they must — I just fail to comprehend it as well as I’d like to. (Certainly, I am not already all-wise, for if I were then I wouldn’t need to undergo a graduate program in order to do philosophy at the academic level.) However, I must say that I have not found any explicit evidence that suggests that Socrates/Plato do in fact think this. To my [limited] knowledge, any explicit references made are those made in respect to the function of souls, and the function that pertains to various occupations, and even the function of a citizen in relation to the city-state. But I have found nothing from Socrates/Plato that explicitly or irrefutably claims that humans have a function qua human. And until I encounter irrefutable evidence of Socrates/Plato making this claim, I will continue to think that humans themselves do not have functions — at least not without the relation of a larger context in which to frame the function. My intuitions on the matter is that if Socrates/Plato were to think that humans had a function qua human, then it could only ever be in relation to a larger context. But what this larger context might be, I cannot say at the moment with any great conviction. In any case, even if the human has no function qua human, still she can possess a soul with a function — and according to Socrates, there are such things as “good” souls and “bad” souls. And this might actually be the thing that’s causing the confusion among Aristotelians, and Aristotle himself.

To add to the last thing, I certainly do not think that humans exist in context-less “brain-in-a-vat” type of situation, in which perhaps contemplation is the sole and unique activity of a human. Perhaps this could be true for a computer, but certainly not a human. (And so, I think that Aristotle got it really wrong on that one.) What I mean when I say that humans don’t have a “function,” is really to say something about what sort of thing a “function” is, and less about what sort of thing a human is. A “function” is a special sort of activity that is necessarily teleological — ie, a purpose is necessarily built into something like a “function.” For instance, it’s actually not as open-ended as the word “activity” connotes. (Eyes are a great example, because eyes are organs with highly specialized functions. But Socrates also mentions horses as an example of something with a function. But I think that Socrates means in saying that horses have a “function” is not to say that horses were invented by the universe solely for the sake of carrying humans, but more correctly to say that when ordinary people think of horses they tend to identify horses by their particular relationship to humans. But this doesn’t mean that this kind of identification is objectively true, or that this description is somehow intrinsic to horse-ness. And of course, relationships are fluid and indefinite things, and they can evolve, grow, or change — just as much as the bones of hands can sometimes grow into becoming wings, as in the case of bats.) And so when I say that humans don’t have functions qua human, I simply mean that humans don’t have some intrinsic purpose qua human; the only purpose that I can even imagine a human having qua human would be in relation to other humans. Still, this is not to say that humans can’t choose to have ends and purposes of their own, and in relation to the larger context of “human society” or a “city-state” etc. I do think that humans can be bakers, philosophers, warriors, and queens — and I do think that they can be good or bad ones.

◊ And so this brings me to my fourth conclusion: Regardless of whether humans have functions qua human or whether they simply possess souls with functions (as I suggest it to be the case), if each function has a single excellence pertaining to it, then we are dealing with not just a single function but rather four central ones. For, if there are four virtues, then there must also be four distinct functions for each of them — even if there is only one human. According to Socrates, the virtue of the whole soul is “justice.” (Ethics and morality being distinct subdivisions of justice.) The three other virtues come from the souls being in three distinct parts, and each of these parts have their own particular functions and virtues. And this is how we get four virtues in Republic.

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2129 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

I think Lawrence might have gotten himself into a contradiction with Aristotle.

In Book 2 of NE, Aristotle says: “Virtue of character is a result of habituation, for which reason it has acquired its name through a small variation on ‘ethos’. From this it is clear that none of the virtues of character arises in us by nature… 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…Virtues, however, we acquire by first exercising them… So too we become just by doing just actions…” (1103a)

Presumably, I take this to mean that merely possessing the potential to be virtuous does not make one virtuous. One must actually perform and perform well, in order to be considered virtuous.

Now, in attempting to make a different point (against Glassen), Lawrence writes: “Thus when we say that the goodness of a pen consists in its writing well — or that a good pen writes well (or is one that writes well) — the sense properly at issue is that of first actuality: that is, a good pen is one that can, or is disposed to, write well — is one that has the excellent states proper to writing. After all, a pen that isn’t being used but is in a drawer doesn’t thereby lose its goodness or cease to be a good one… The goodness of an X then consists not in its actually x-ing successfully, or excellently, but in its being so disposed.” (p.343-344)

And thus, it seems to me that Lawrence gets himself into a contradiction with Aristotle. It seems to me to be a pretty fatal contradiction.

I’ll have to continue reading to see if he gets himself out of this apparent contradiction somehow.

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2239 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

I think that I’ve uncovered a possible reason for why Aristotle thinks that “contemplation” is the human function par excellence. I couldn’t understand where he got this from, considering how there’s actually four cardinal virtues per Republic. But basically it has to do with what Aristotle takes the “rationality” to be, and the fact that he seems to be predisposed to a brand of “intellectualism.”

The first problem is that Aristotle takes soul to mean “mind” because of his predisposition to a kind of intellectualism. But soul doesn’t mean “mind.” He only thinks this because of a misapplication of Socrates’ description that the function of a soul is to manage (ἐπιμελεῖσθαι), to lead (ἄρχειν), and to plan (βουλεύεσθαι). I can see how it’s easy to mistake the “soul” as “mind” given these descriptions, but there are other descriptions elsewhere from Homer et al, which also suggest that the soul (ψυχή) is more like “breath” and “epos/word” than it is “mind.” I think that it’s also translated into “life.” I personally think that it is best translated into modern English as “life-story” (eg, literally a biography). And I think that a “life-story” has just as much capacity to manage, lead, and plan a person’s experience as a “mind.” Furthermore, my translation is superior to “mind” because it ties in quite smoothly with older and more traditional usages of the word ψυχή implying meanings such as “breath” or “epos/word,” and even “life.”

Now, consciousness is, of course, a minimal requirement for certain aspects of the soul, since a story can only be held together by a conscious being. And so I can see how a “mind” can be indirectly implied by implying an underlying consciousness of the running narrative of an autobiography. But consciousness isn’t unique to humans. I do think that nonhumans animals certainly have it. And I see no particular reason for thinking that nonhuman animals do not carry around autobiographies in their heads (maybe it’s an interrupted autobiography, like the way Dory experiences her life), except that Aristotle necessarily rules it out quite explicitly.

In any case, Aristotle mistakes ψυχή to mean “mind.” And this, I think, is the first problem.

The second problem is that Aristotle (or his minions) mistakenly take “rationality” to be chiefly the logical, calculative, “intellectual” ability, rather than the original “motive-forming” ability. To be fair, “rationality” likely involves the ability to do both. But I think that it’s mistaken to think that this logical, calculating, “intellectual” activity is the characteristically human activity. Aristotle calls this activity “thinking” or “contemplating.”

But I think that this is wrong. I think that the activity of the soul more chiefly has to do with the “motive-forming” ability. That is, satisfaction of a motive can only happen once a motive has been consciously formed. In other words, there can be no story without a hero and her background to provide a plot-seed with which to compel the story towards its conclusion. This is the context in which the hero’s character matters. And this is the context in which there can be things like “happiness,” and “justice,” souls, and good-endings.

I’m afraid that Aristotle has misunderstood the entire situation entirely. In Aristotle’s world, the hero sits in an armchair and spends all of her time theorizing about a life that she might have, and never actually lives it.

If Socrates/Plato is anything like me, then I doubt that this is the sort of life that Socrates/Plato had in mind as the ideal sort of life.

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