Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Philosopher's Plant 2.0: Aristotle's Wheat

Nicknamed “the Reader” by Plato himself and known as Ille Philosophus (or The Philosopher) in the Middle Ages, Aristotle was responsible for singlehandedly systematizing philosophy, gifting it with a unique technical vocabulary. Words with humble everyday meanings received a new lease on life when, at the hands of the Master, they were transfigured into abstract concepts.

We need not go far for an example. Matter, a term we tend to take for granted, is among Aristotle’s enduring achievements. It, too, issued from an ordinary word, hylē, which in colloquial Greek meant “wood,” whether the growing forests or timber.

Unlike its modern variation, Aristotelian matter does not refer to just about anything with volume and mass; nor does it describe a physical extended substance. Instead, it has to do with the stuff of which a thing is made, the so-called “material cause”. Matter is nothing but materials (bronze, stone, and so forth) before they are shaped into a recognizable form.

What is curious, though, is that one type of material, wood, lends its name to materiality as a whole. In line with its pre-conceptual origin, matter is essentially wooden!

So, the world of plants has been the inspiration behind the birth of a vital Aristotelian concept. But, besides this vague allusion to vegetation, there is also a particular plant that crops up with notable consistency in texts as diverse as Physics and Metaphysics, Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. That plant is wheat.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle’s cereal of choice goes to illustrate the strongest sense of being entailed in the copula “is.” We mean different things, Aristotle observes, when “we say Hermes is in the stone, and a half line is in the line, and that a growing stalk is wheat [sitos]” (Metaphysics, 1017b). In the first case, the statue of a god is in the stone only potentially, awaiting the sculptor’s chisel to bring it out in all its splendor to the light of day; in the second, half a line is contained in the entire line, of which it is a part; and in the third, there is a felicitous coincidence, a necessary identity between “a growing stalk” and “wheat.”

This stalk we are leaning over with Aristotle is a specimen of wheat, a tiny sample of the genus it represents. It may be neither ripe nor a perfect specimen nor one that embodies the genus as a whole. Still, the growing stalk is wheat in a stronger sense than the yet uncreated statue of Hermes is in the rough stone or half a line is in the line. Why? Because it is a momentary actualization of the cereal not as mere potentiality, inherent in the seed, but as the presence of the plant before us, even if its qualification as “growing” or “not yet ripe” disallows the attribution of full presence to this, or any other, living being.

The Greek sitos, in addition to being the word for wheat, applied broadly to any staple food. Symbolically, it was an umbrella term for the human fare. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, for instance, humanity is specified as “men who live on sitos.” Homer in Iliad identifies sitos as the food of the mortals, in contrast to the “blessed gods” who “eat no bread [sitos], drink no shining wine, and so are bloodless, which is why we call them deathless” (V, 382-4).

Not only did the same word correspond to the cultivated plant itself, the edible product into which it was transformed, and all types of human food, but it also betokened a variety of grains, including wheat and barley.

This semantic confusion surely provided Aristotle with ample food for thought, given his persistent efforts at disambiguation, classification, and separation of wholes from their parts. Everyday language in all its messiness intruded upon the philosophical work of ordering and explication. And the unexpected harbinger of the intrusion was a measly stalk of wheat, which, at the same time, exemplified and subverted Aristotle’s reasoning.

Now, Aristotle spent a fair share of his intellectual energy on determining how the whole relates to its parts, and the parts — to the whole. To everyone who knew “the Reader,” it was no surprise that this seemingly obscure problem preoccupied him so. After all, he was extremely dissatisfied with Plato’s gloss on the connection between the Ideas and their shadowy reproductions, the things of the sense that somehow participated in the Ideas’ immortal essence.

One of Aristotle’s targets in trying to solve the riddle of the whole and its parts was rhetoric. In common discourse, we state that “a child comes from father and mother, or a plant out of the earth.” But, Aristotle clarifies, “they come from a part of these” (Metaphysics 123b).

A stalk of wheat does not germinate from the entire earth but from a tiny cubit of land, wherein it is rooted. Grasping this does not require much musing. What to do, however, with the small linguistic conundrums, in which one word-label attaches itself to the part and the whole alike? How to analyze the relation of wheat to grains and of grains to staple foods, if each of the three terms goes under the same name, sitos?

When a part stands in for the whole, we deal with what specialists in rhetoric call synecdoche. We have already stumbled upon this rhetorical trap when we discovered that the original concept of matter derived from one type of material, namely wood. There are also less abstruse usages of synecdoche: for instance, a news reporter, who evokes a capital city (say, Paris) in place of the entire country (here, France).

Aristotle is acutely aware of this phenomenon, which in Rhetoric he groups under the heading of metaphor. And, with equal acuteness, he feels the blows these rhetorical tropes deal to the philosopher’s “bread and butter,” that is, to reason and formal logic built on the axiom that X and not-X cannot be true at the same time.

The assertion that something is simultaneously the whole and not the whole, a part and not a part, grossly violates the principle of non-contradiction, so dear to Aristotle’s philosophical heart. Although he concedes that metaphors can promote learning, he would vehemently object to the mystifying rhetorical force of the synecdoche that erases the lines of demarcation between parts and wholes. A stalk of wheat turns out to be a stick in the wheel of the well-oiled philosophical machinery.

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    1. CommentedStefanos Kourkoulakos

      The following is an anti-logue for a-letheia (truth), in response to Michael Marder’s December 11, 2012 piece “The Philosopher’s Plant 2.0: Aristotle’s Wheat” in the online Project Syndicate, which I just happened to read.
      This piece was the second in a series of monthly commissions (seven so far) in which Marder briefly discussed key philosophical figures (in apparent chronological order) and certain of their references to, or conceptions of, plants. All seven pieces and others to come will form parts (or the bases of parts) of a whole, the whole being a book on philosophers and plants that Marder, a young in years and phenomenally prolific - nearly peerless in world history in this respect - and maximally erudite contemporary thinker, is writing. The general bent of this and Marder’s work, as far as I know, is anti-philosophical, insofar as philosophical stands for any pre-Nietzschean philosophical thought, and also recently phytophilic (in other words, unfriendly to pre-Nietzschean philosophers, but friendly to plants).
      The nature and logistical restrictions of his piece (two and a half pages long) are such that do not afford Marder space to engage with any of the philosophical figures of his choice. Yet, if willing, intellectual sensibility can find itself at home even under the greatest restrictions and in the most narrowly confined spaces. No such sensibility, however, is extended to Aristotle. He comes off as a sadly mechanical, misdirected, and inadequate thinker. If Marder’s writing style and words (intimating comfortable theoretical superiority over Aristotle) had a corresponding visual expression, it would have been a smirk.
      Marder’s thinking (beyond the piece in question) may be superior to, and not just different than, Aristotle’s. Or it may not be. It certainly deserves time, effort, and the benefit of the doubt. After all, Aristotle would be the first to recommend giving superior thinking its due. What Marder’s (or anyone’s) piece does not deserve, however, is to be accepted at face value.
      I read it as attentively as I could. It fails to make its (or any) case. Worse, it makes it appear that Aristotle lends himself to not being taken seriously, and implies that he flatly failed elementary tasks. To this, I react. Marder should have put Aristotle to the test. He didn’t. Instead, he summarily put him to an apparently Heideggerian-inspired (with being-as-presence insinuations) Procrustean bed.
      My reaction takes the form of an exchange (but not a dialogue) between two fictional (but not entirely) characters, Marder and Non-Marder. It is an antilogue, that is, a juxtaposition and an opposition between certain views, on the one hand, certain of Marder’s (but not only his) as these are reflected (somewhat indirectly and elliptically) in his piece, and on the other, certain of my own (but not only mine). A dialogue would have been preferable, but this requires mutual desire and commitment to certain values and conditions, as well as significantly more time and space than what Marder allotted to Aristotle, or I allot to him.
      Surely, mine is a graceless task, entirely deficient in departments where Marder does exceedingly well, e.g. originality and elegance of literary expression and truly encyclopedic scholarly erudition. It is also an immensely unpopular and academically marginalized task, as it entertains - in effect - the currently unfathomable possibility that the medievals who were unsecular and held Aristotle in such a high esteem were not dummies for being/doing so, or, conversely, that the moderns and postmoderns (two sides of the same anti-medieval coinage) are not necessarily philosophically (or otherwise) better (in any significant sense) than their premodern (ancient and medieval) predecessors.
      An exchange between two characters, then. In naming one of the characters Marder, this exchange (taking its heed from Marder’s piece in question) will try to steer clear of synecdoche. The character Marder aims to be a true representation of its namesake, the actual author of the Aristotle-plant piece in question, but only insofar as the piece in question alone is concerned. The character Marder, thus, does not stand for the whole of Michael Marder or his opus. The relation between this part/piece and the rest (“whole”) of Marder’s opus remains an open and undecided question at present.
      A synecdoche cannot be so easily avoided in the character named Non-Marder (that is, the antithesis of the character Marder). On the one hand, it is the concrete product of a particular subject - myself. On the other, it is a socially anonymous and logically substitutable character (it is in principle expressive of many who are able to read and understand Marder’s piece and also have an inkling or two about Aristotle; in other words, this character’s positions are potentially attainable – and I am sure actually already attained - by more subjects than I - Stefanos Kourkoulakos).
      An exchange between two rather asymmetrical characters, then.
      MARDER: Everyday language abounds in semantic confusions, one of which concerned the Archaic and Classical Greek word “sitos” which stood for wheat, grains or cereals (including barley), staple food (of the Greeks), or human fare as such, and food of the mortals. For Aristotle, “sitos” additionally stood for both part and whole, signifying a “necessary identity between a ‘growing stalk’ and ‘wheat’” (thus, being a case of synecdoche).
      NON-MARDER: The meaning of everyday words and the philosophical meaning given them by Aristotle do not necessarily coincide. If they do, one must demonstrate that they do and not assume so. Marder does not demonstrate. The “riddle” (Marder’s word) of the specimen-genus relation is not the same as the “riddle” of the part-whole relationship. Marder reduces the former to the latter.

      MARDER: Aristotle persistently engaged in disambiguation, classification, and separation of wholes from their parts.
      NON-MARDER: In doing so, Aristotle is no different than Marder. Or rather, Marder follows in the footsteps of Aristotle. Ambiguity is carefully managed, contained, and minimized or eliminated in Marder’s piece. Classification, at least at a basic level, is also inevitably involved in Marder’s piece. Wheat is a plant. A plant is a living organism. Plants are not humans, etc. etc. Marder separates wholes from parts too. His piece is only a part (or the basis of a part), and not the whole, of his forthcoming book on philosophers’ plants.

      MARDER: A stalk of wheat is the forerunner of everyday semantic confusion/intrusion into Aristotle’s philosophical thought. A stalk of wheat both exemplifies and subverts Aristotle’s reasoning.
      NON-MARDER: Everyday semantic confusion/intrusion spares Marder no less than it spared Aristotle. Marder both exemplifies (see #2, as well as his adherence to the basic principles of formal logic) and is subverted by Aristotle’s reasoning (again, see #2, as well as his adherence to the basic principles of formal logic). Marder’s reasoning is a specimen, but not a part, of formal logical reasoning (systematized by Aristotle).

      MARDER: “What to do, however, with the small linguistic conundrums, in which one word-label attaches itself to the part and the whole alike?”
      NON-MARDER: How about we do what Aristotle did in such cases (i.e. cases of homonymy)? Disambiguate, classify, and separate.

      MARDER: A synecdoche, i.e. a rhetorical trope/trap, a case of a term used for both part and whole, signifying that the part stands for the whole “deals blows” to the philosopher’s (provided he is pre-Nietzchean, of course) “bread and butter”, “that is, to reason and formal logic built on the axiom that X and not-X cannot be true at the same time”.
      NON-MARDER: A synecdoche is a special case of homonymy and metaphor. It only deals blows (felt long after the fact and only because their effects are first observed by third parties) to those who fail to detect and confront homonymies and metaphors. Marder may dislike the formal logical principle of non-contradiction, but he does his very best to exemplify it. He studiously avoids contradicting himself. Yet, the moment he proceeds to call this principle into question (rhetorically, not logically), it subverts him. Every single sentence that Marder writes or claim he makes has its antithesis. Marder’s claims (“X”) in the piece in question (and anywhere else) have their antitheses in opposite claims (“not-X”). They cannot be both true at the same time. Does/Can Marder dispute this conclusion?

      MARDER: “The assertion that something is simultaneously the whole and not the whole, a part and not a part, grossly violates the principle of non-contradiction”.
      NON-MARDER: It would, but only if it were meant in the exact same sense or with respect to the exact same thing. Marder provides no argument or even proper illustration to substantiate his charge against Aristotle. What is the something which is simultaneously the whole and not the whole, a part and not a part for Aristotle? The stalk of wheat? The (i.e. a particular) stalk of wheat is a specimen of wheat in one sense (i.e. there are multiple other stalks like it, all sharing some fundamental structural characteristics and ways of growing). Furthermore, the stalk of wheat is wheat in the sense that it is not hay, or a pine tree, or a book, etc. There is no formal logical contradiction between the two senses of the same term (stalk of wheat). Terms are rarely univocal and almost never susceptible to any rigidly singular usage.

      MARDER: Aristotle singlehandedly systematized philosophy and endowed it with a unique technical vocabulary.
      NON-MARDER: True and false at the same time (yet, no formal logical contradiction involved). As for systematization: True in relation to his predecessors with the relative exceptions of Democritus and Anaxagoras. False in relation to almost all philosophers after him, especially the moderns. The Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, is vastly unlike (and antithetical as prose) to anything that, say, Descartes or Hobbes or Hume or Kant or Hegel wrote on ethics. As for technical vocabulary: True, but generally without steering far from ordinary language and expression (the Prior Analytics and the Metaphysics being relative, yet notable, exceptions). False in relation to several currently influential thinkers, such as Nietzsche and Derrida and any postmodern thinker (and many moderns too, e.g. Hegel, critical theorists).

    2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

      Generalism is what we know as coherency, and the other end of synecdoche as you describe it is the property of category. The sense of genus may be a mistaken idea that generalism is category, when it is in fact the 'divisible principle'. Aristotle would be familiar with a divisible principle in his Categorika---but does his division of categories any longer seem universal? Modern scholars have doubted that universal categories are possible, and thus have ignored the potential for exclusive judgments.

      In an effort to re-evaluate this tractable area, I have written the book The Dimensional Philosopher's Toolkit, which is scheduled to be released by the publisher in 2013. Coherent philosophy, using opposites such as black and white but not black person and white person, since their opposites cannot be people.