Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wehrle on Aristotelian scholarship

Walter Wehrle writes in his The Myth of Aristotle's Development and the Betrayal of Metaphysics:
One of the most objectionable tendencies I find in developmentalism is the sheer audacity on the part of commentators who shamelessly think nothing of correcting, at every turn, what they (erroneously) perceive as Aristotle's failures. Having painted themselves into their hemeneutical corners by assuming what Aristotle must be doing, any textual anomalies or even outright contradictions to their prescribed views can only be dismissed as some sort of mistakes on Aristotle's part, whether those mistakes be the result of mere absentmindedness or, more seriously, the result of confusion in Aristotle's mind. Accordingly, while these commentators cannot physically change the confounded text, they must resort to wholesale revision of Aristotle, along the lines of their predigested views. It is not surprising that the revised Aristotle looks more like something out of the twentieth century than a philosopher in his own element, the ancient world. For example, a developmentalist might be quite certain, on the grounds of a few texts, that Aristotle must be (in his mature theory at least) a materialist monist, and seeing that materialist monism represents his real views, can only shake his head at the numerous textual anomalies that he is likely to encounter. No matter, says the developmentalist, we know better than Aristotle did about his real intentions. Here is what Aristotle should have said. How often in these revised accounts do we encounter remarks such as "Aristotle does not really want to say this, because his commitment to materialist monism will not allow it" or "Surely Aristotle cannot have meant this; we shall just ignore this passge since it is obviously a _____" (fill in the blank with 'mistake,' 'oversight,' 'faulty text,' or whatever).

Of course what Aristotelian scholar has not had at some time or other the impulse to improve upon Aristotle's own words, or perhaps found himself wishing that the text were closer to his own interpretations? Moreover, have we not at one time or another run into those betes noires, passages that are so truculently contradictory to our prized interpretation that they might just as well be saying to us, 'Do what you will, you will not fit me into your interpretation"? But when we have run out of acceptable textual emendations that might make the offending passage at least palatable, or when we cannot write it off as a forgery, or we cannot identify it as the intrusive marginalia of some overzealous scribe, or when tradition has more or less corroborated its right to be there in all its brazen defiance of our own pet interpretations, then it seems that we are stuck with this anomaly and should treat it as such. But developmentalism gives rise to a reckless tendency to dismiss anything that would seem to be an anomaly (i.e., anomalous to their developmentalist interpretations), and so, armed with developmental theories, they become no longer interpreters but revisers, rather like scientists who would fudge or ignore altogether the flagrantly contradictory empirical evidence that fits ill with their a priori theorizing. An archaeologist may well wish that certain artifacts appear in Troy V instead of Troy VII, but clearly qua scientist, he must persevere with the evidence as it is given, even if he must seriously revise his pet theory or perhaps even chuck it altogether.

My complaint with developmentalism on this score is twofold. First, developmentalism itself is just one more tool by which scholars can dismiss these anomalous texts by consigning them to some early period (or even, as the evolutionary-minded Thomas Case would suggest, to the 'missing link' period when 'early' and 'later' will no longer suffice). If scholars in previous times used to cite textual authority (or lack thereof) as a basis for such dismissal, now we have an even better tool to get rid of unfriendly passages. And if the anomalies present themselves too prominently and frequently, we can always resort to the last-ditch remedy, namely, the comforting thought that Aristotle, in changing his mind, simply could not keep track of all the views he has held in his lifetime. Yes, developmentalism amounts to almost a blank check for those who would rewrite Aristotle along lines more suitable to themselves.

Second, if it were merely a matter of suggesting ways that Aristotle might have improved his philosophy, it would be one thing, for that, too, is a natural tendency in Aristotelian scholars. But it does not stop there. The revised view actually becomes the tail that wags the dog, by guiding the interpretation fo the actual text. One may well wish that Aristotle had been more like us, a positivist, say, or a materalist, but when one allows that desideratum to become the arbiter of what we are supposed to read into the disputed texts, I begin to wonder if one has not once again abandoned the role of interpreter and taken on the prescriptivist role of the dogmatizer. (1-3)
Apparently Wehlre approves of Robert Bolton's interpretation of Aristotle. I'll try to read more Bolton, but I certainly don't have high expectations for Anglo-American scholarship on Aristotle.

Now it is not out of the ordinary for the grad student preparing for M.A. comprehensive exams (which one must pass to qualify to teach, and to confirm that one's training has some sort of historical breadth) to rely upon some sort of history of philosophy, such as that of Fr. Copleston, S.J. I remember one Ph.D. student in particular who was discussing Aristotle's Metaphysics--she gave a presented Aristotle's teachings in contemporary terms (which are tied to contemporary philosophical accounts), and a "meta"-description of what he is doing, without grapplying with his arguments and relating them to reality. So, for example, "Aristotle's metaphysics is heavily influenced by his biology." (Now I know that something like this can be found in Majorie Grene's introduction to Aristotle, but I'll give her a pass for now, given her work on Aristotle and Descartes). But the student went on to claim that Aristotle's "empiricism" conflicted with his "Platonism" and this tension could be seen in the text of the Metaphysics.

There are plenty of other examples of "meta"-descriptions that gloss over the actual arguments and evidence in attempting to give a short and sweet summary of some "idea" or "teaching" and to draw as many connections between that thinker and other thinkers throughout history as possible. (Another weakness of a historical approach.)

Lloyd P. Gerson, What is Platonism

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