Tuesday, April 24, 2018


[First of an ongoing series on major figures.]

Aristotle i(384-322) ranks as a major figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, and literary criticism. As a polymath it was his fate to perform better in some areas than in others.

Aristotle was a student of Plato just as Plato had studied under Socrates. Somewhat extravagantly, Aristotle has been credited with radically transforming most, if not all, the areas of knowledge he touched. For this reason Thomas Aquinas referred to him simply as "The Philosopher." Aristotle was the founder of the Lyceum. a school of learning based in Athens; and he was an inspiration for the Peripathetics, his followers linked with the Lyceum.

In his lifetime, Aristotle may have composed as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive. Unfortunately for us, these works are in the form of lecture notes and draft manuscripts never intended for general readership, so they do not demonstrate his reputed polished prose style which attracted many followers in antiquity.

As we have them, Aristotle’s lumbering, often opaque writings are burdened with obsolete observations about scientific matters in which time has left him behind.  Possibly his key insight, however, concerns motion, that is the distinction between being at rest and movement.  The latter state exhibits regularity - growth and transformation - where patterns can be discerned and explained. Aristotle owed a debt to Heraclitus with his assertion that everything is in flux, but he avoided the error of overstating this instability.  This measured understanding makes Aristotle the father of processual thinking.

As the father of the field of logic, he was the first to perfect a formalized system for reasoning. Aristotle observed that the validity of any argument can be determined by its structure, and not necessarily by its content.

Nominally a student of Plato, Aristotle famously rejected his master’s theory of forms, which states that properties such as beauty are abstract universal entities that exist independent of the objects themselves. Instead, he argued that forms reside internally in the objects we encounter.  Forms cannot exist apart from them, and so must be studied in relation to them.  In later times this union of matter and form was termed hylomorphism.

Many of the theories that Aristotle put forth have not held up to the passing of time and scientific advancement. Even so, this provisional status may count to his method’s credit, since science constantly examines hypothesis through empirical and conceptual challenge.  In this way claims that cannot hold up yield to stronger assertions. 

There are a number of key principles that must give us pause. Aristotle thought that everything was made up of five elements: earth, fire, air, water, and aether. He is also famous for his “four causes,” which explain the nature of change. A thing’s material cause is what it is actually made of; its formal cause is how that matter is arranged; its efficient cause is where it came from; and its final cause is its purpose. From a modern perspective this ambitious scheme stretches the idea of causation to the breaking point - and beyond.

Aristotle believed that in our quest to determine the fundamental nature of reality we must begin with basic axioms. One such axiom was the principle of non-contradiction, which states that a substance cannot have a particular quality and lack that same quality at the same time.  This principle played an important role in his theories about logic, an important advance in his time.

Aristotle’s ethics are agent-centered, whereby the moral agent determines the right moral action. Aristotle thought that no rules or appeal to consequences could possibly give a person correct guidelines in which to respond to all situations. His ethical viewpoint was largely disregarded in the medieval period where it was assumed that ethics had their basis in the will of God, and in the early-modern period more materialistic views of ethics began to compete with religious concepts. 

It seemed that Aristotle had been definitively left behind.  Yet after debates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries failed to resolve the conflicts between Immanuel Kant’s Deontological ethics and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian viewpoint, many philosophers had recourse again to a version of  Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.

Aristotle thought that the goal of human beings in their search for happiness was to reach eudaimonia, or a state of human flourishing. (The Greek term is sometimes rendered as “happiness,” but this seems inexact.) He held that Virtue did not necessarily lead to a better life, but he did think that in order to achieve a true state of eudaimonia, aiming for virtue was necessary. 

A central principle in this inquiry is Aristotle’s concept of the Mean.  In many cases virtues may be usefully analyzed as the middle term between two extremes.  In this way courage stands between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness,  In the first case one is paralyzed by fear.  Yet it is prudent to entertain some fear, rather than to discard it altogether, when rash conduct may ensue.  Similarly, temperance occupies a middle ground between insensitive and licentiousness.  In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle goes on to analyze ten more virtues in terms of the doctrine of the mean.

This has proved a fruitful concept in a number of realms.  Aristotle himself thought that it could be fruitfully applied to the conduct of states, which are better led by citizens of middle status than by either the wealthy or the poor.  In modern times astronomy has made use of the Goldilocks principle, which assesses the habitability of exoplanets by ruling out those that are too hot or too cold. 

It is evident that the principle of the mean does not work equally well with all virtues.  In book V of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gestures towards applying it to the important concept of justice.  This simply does not work, and a binary contrast is more plausible, with justice contrasting with injustice.  Similarly honesty and dishonesty, and truth and falsehood.

A common objection is that what may be considered a virtue in one society may not be rank as a virtue in another. Critics adopting this view decry Virtue Ethics as little more than moral relativism. While Deontological and Utilitarian theories have their flaws, these philosophers argue that Virtue Ethics is merely a side-stepping of the ethical problem, endorsing and the moral norms of a given society rather than a reliable ethical theory based on reason. For their part, proponents of Virtue Ethics assert that since ethical theories proceed from shared moral intuitions in the first place, universal rules or criteria are not only ineffective but unnecessary to the individual who wishes to achieve a virtuous life.

I revert to what is for me the most useful Aristotelian concept is eudaimonia, loosely rendered as happiness but better described as human flourishing.  In outline, for Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting excellence (arete) in accordance with reason. This conception of eudaimonia stems from Aristotle’s understanding of human nature, which ascribes reason as unique to human beings. Thus the ideal function or work (ergon) of a human being is the fullest or most perfect exercise of reason. Basically, human flourishing (eudaimonia) is gained by proper development of one's highest and most human capabilities and human beings are "the rational animal.”

The most essential texts are the Categories (perhaps meant as an introduction to the whole), the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, the Metaphysics, the Physics, On the Soul, the Rhetoric, and the Poetics.

Further Reading.  A standard work is Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 vols., Princeton, 1984 (since it lacks annotation and internal headings, while the index is inadequate, this set is of very limited value).  The Loeb Classical Library has the Greek texts.  For introductory work prefer the editions of separate works in the Penguin Classics, the Oxford World Classics, and the versions published by Hackett.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Lovelace myth

We are currently seeing an effort to secure for gifted women proper credit for their achievements. As a rule this effort is commendable. But sometimes it exaggerates, as seen in the crediting of Ada Lovelace (a daughter of Lord Byron, 1815-1852) as the first computer programmer, or even the inventor of the computer tout court. 
Cf. Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 article "Difference and Analytical Engines":
"All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a 'bug' in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so."
Bruce Collier, who later published a biography of Charles Babbage, wrote in his 1970 Harvard University PhD thesis that Lovelace "made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in any way".
Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole consider it incorrect to regard Lovelace as the first computer programmer, as Babbage wrote the initial programs for his Analytical Engine, although the majority were never published. Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace's notes. 
Dorothy K. Stein regards Lovelace's notes as "more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author, the political purposes of the inventor, and, above all, of the social and cultural context in which it was written, than a blueprint for a scientific development".
Doron Swade, a specialist on the history of computing known for his work on Babbage, analyzed four claims about Lovelace during a lecture on Babbage's analytical engine:
She was a mathematical genius
She made an influential contribution to the analytical engine
She was the first computer programmer
She was a prophet of the computer age
In Swade's view, only the fourth claim has "any substance at all". He holds that Ada was only a "promising beginner" instead of genius in mathematics, that she began studying basic concepts of mathematics five years after Babbage conceived the analytical engine so that she couldn't have made pioneering contributions to it, and that she only published the first computer program instead of actually writing it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Warren Johansson

Yesterday was the birthday of the late Warren Johanson.

I thought of writing something acknowledging my indebtedness to him. He taught me the essentials of gay studies, namely that with careful philology one could extract much of value about the past. He made me read Hirschfeld and the others, before they had been translated. Of course his model was mainly limited to Western civ, with some Semitic additions. He had no interest at all in the Far East, not to mention tribal societies. So I got from Steve Murray and Paul Knobel, much needed expansion. One must study the West AND the rest. I would write these things down, but there has been too much water under the bridge - the foul effluvia of Queer Theory and its postmodern avatars.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where are we going?

The other day I heard a left-leaning commentator on NPR ask some pertinent questions about where the country is going. Let us suppose that we are successful in electing a Democratic Congress, and that Trump is impeached and ejected from the presidency, and that some means will be found for avoiding Pence as his replacement. 
Then what? The US will still in all likelihood have most of the same horrific problems that afflict it now, viz. catering to Wall Street, lack of a truly adequate health system, neglect of our infrastructure (highways, bridges, and tunnels), excessive incarceration, spying on our own citizens, inordinate spending on the military (which always seems to be increasing), continuing interference, often violent, in foreign countries, sending out drones to kill people, and so on. 
By and large the Democrats are no better on these matters than Republicans. These considerations should not lead to despair, but they do indicate the need to think holistically about these issues. As far as I can tell they are not on the radar of the Resist folks.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Today the word "Beatrice" serves as a synonym for "muse," an individual who fosters creative achievement. In fact, Beatrice Portinari (born 1265), was a real person. Dante Alighieri records the effect she had over him in his searing memoir, La Vita Nuova, consulted over the centuries by those of us who have sought to understand the sudden flood of emotion that ensues from an early love, as unexpected as it is powerful. 
Today it comes as a shock, perhaps, that when Dante first saw Beatrice she was not quite nine years old. Paedophilia? Certainly not, as there was no age discrepancy for the poet was then himself only nine years old. There were several subsequent sightings, until the paragon died at the age of 24. As an angelic being she guides the poet in the Purgatorio. 
In life Dante never consummated his passion, nor did he aspire to. The narrative is in fact a legitimate variation on the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, where the lady remains, in most cases, inaccessible.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Even though I live in Manhattan, I have long been aware of the huge cultural differences that separate our privileged bicoastal enclaves from the heartland. With my ex, who loved driving, we would sometimes head West. As soon as we crossed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania I noticed a marked contrast. 
Based on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, hoping to find there an overall explanation of this Other America. That is not what I discovered, for the book is basically a personal account of Vance's growing up in a dysfunctional extended family in Kentucky and southern Ohio, where there was a lot of substance abuse and violence. 
Vance overcame this heritage by joining the Marines. The lessons he learned there enabled him to go to Ohio State University and Yale Law School. 
It is hard to gauge what degree his upbringing is typical. Once upon a time, I can affirm, it was not. Both pairs of my grandparents were farmers in rural East Texas. As a child I boarded for a while with my paternal grandparents, who ran a dairy near Fort Worth. The lives of all these people were, as far as I could tell, boringly conventional. They did not act out, or resort to alcohol or other stimulants, but concentrated on making an honest living in the circumstances they were given. To be sure, this was during the Depression, a major shot of reality for those who experienced it. 
Recently, there has been, in the heartland, much joblessness and opioid addiction. In this light, the Vance approach would benefit from a diachronic orientation - then vs. now. There is also a need for comparison with other regions.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


"Words don't matter." I heard Karl Popper make this shocking statement in a class in London in 1964. In all likelihood, he was reacting against the current philosophical fashion in Oxford and Cambridge for "ordinary language." I suppose that Popper's remark was deliberately provocative, a little like the Zen master who instructed that if one meets Buddha on the path, one should kill him. 
At any rate, the observation chimes oddly with Popper's own quest for precision in language, all the more remarkable as English was his second tongue. 
When in the 1970s I and a group of scholarly friends realized that there was an intellectual component, a necessary one, in gay liberation. We sought to look into the history of words. In those days words were implements of our degradation, whether learned (e.g. perversion, degenerate), or demotic (faggot, fairy). The need to deglamorize these tokens of pejoration led to an effort to trace their history, as I attempted in my sketchy early book, Homolexis. 
There was always the solution, somewhat deceiving I think, to introduce neologisms. Today we are faced with an array of such terms, ranging from the cis- prefix to intersectionality. In time these gargoyles will fade, but the renovation of language continues apace - not always to our advantage. Hence the importance of studying the classics, because they preserve tried and true ways of putting matters, ways that should not be forgotten.