Aristotle on the Meaning of Man

A Philosophical Response to Idealism, Positivism, and Gnosticism

by Peter Jackson (Author)
Monographs XLVIII, 396 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Note on the Text
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1.1: Is Aristotle’s Philosophy “divine, but useless”?
  • Chapter 1.2: Surveying the Definition of Aristotle’s “Man”
  • Chapter 1.3: Exploring the Habits of Aristotle’s “Ethical Man”
  • Chapter 1.4: Exploring the Habits of Aristotle’s “Working Man”
  • Chapter 1.5: Aristotle on Becoming Something
  • Chapter 1.6: The Gods and Giants Grapple with “Art”!
  • Chapter 1.7: Aristotle’s “Philosophical Man” Finds His “Goods”
  • Chapter 1.8: Aristotle’s “Philosophical Man” Sees the World in a Grain of Sand
  • Chapter 1.9: Aristotle’s “Philosophical Man” Gets to Know His Limits
  • Chapter 1.10: Aristotle’s “Philosophical Man” Finds “God”
  • Chapter 2.1: Aristotle’s “Man” Competes in the Philosophical Marketplace
  • Chapter 2.2: Aristotle’s “Philosophical Man” Finds Himself
  • Chapter 2.3: Plato’s “Clever Modern Man” Loses Himself
  • Glossary of Greek Terms
  • Note on the Bibliography
  • Bibliography of Classical Resources
  • Select Bibliography of Modern Resources
  • Indices

← viii | ix →Foreword

This work has the objective not only of giving a detailed account of Aristotle’s philosophical representation of the world but also of defending it vis-à-vis other accounts, including our own. I hope, at the very least, to prove to the reader that Aristotle’s account of the world stands up as a possible alternative to our own and, at the most, to prove that Aristotle’s vision possesses a sanity, depth, and attachment to nature which we have lost through our desire to idealise, standardise, and manipulate the world. In this work, Aristotle on the Meaning of Man (AMM), I have considered how Aristotle represents “man” as a particular natural object in the world; i.e. as a chemical, physical, substantive, biological, political, ethical, and individual object. A subsequent work titled Aristotle on the Meaning of Everything (AME) will continue by providing a detailed survey of Aristotle’s account of ourselves and of the world, and will also explain in more detail through three essays the nature and consequences of the three great philosophical “errors” of reductionism discussed in this work, i.e. of idealism (reduction of world to ideas), positivism (reduction of world to science), and gnosticism (reduction of world to myth), which Aristotle and I seek to refute. I note in respect to these philosophical “errors” that the immense success of reductionism in helping man manipulate the world and act within it rather complicates our situation in the sense that it shows us that there is value in both the Platonic and Aristotelian positions, and force in both ancient and modern worldviews.

Whilst noting that my conclusions, contentions, and provocations are my own and cannot be ascribed to anybody else I would like to thank for their thoughts, guidance, and interest Abraham Bos, Frank McGillion, Simon Goff, Bob Sharples, Malcolm Lowe, Samuel Scolnicov, Rosalind Thomas, Stephen Colvin, Andy Gregory, Sebastian Beatty, Graham Davey, ← ix | x →Theodora Toumanidis, Tanya Tsoneva, and Chris Maddocks. I would like to thank Peter Lang for agreeing to publish this work and for all the good natured support and patience of the Oxford team in doing so. I would like to thank Isobel for raising me and to convey my appreciation for my family and friends.

Peter Jackson
Surbiton, 2016

← x | xi →Preface

I am in one sense disappointed by and in another sense proud of this work. I have a nagging awareness of the fact that the discomfort produced by the clear vocalisation of a very different alternative perspective on the world than the one we hold – and the one which we are expected to hold – renders this work unapproachable for many people. In another sense, however, I feel pride in having opened up avenues of philosophical reflection which show (a) that Aristotle’s “realistic” approach to the world is not archaic, rudimentary and academic but is, rather, a living representation of our own natural and full and fully developed understanding of worldly reality and (b) that our own “idealistic” perspective is itself rudimentary, reduced, and unsatisfactory (and I take “idealism” to be an overarching position which covers such supposedly “alternative” positions as theism, rationalism, materialism, etc.). In respect to this “idealism” – our idealism – I suggest that a useful parallel for my position here is provided by Eric Voegelin, who accounts for a range of supposed “alternatives” through a single concept of “gnosticism” as follows:

By gnostic movements we mean such movements as progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism1

← xi | xii →by arguing that these “alternatives” have a common aim, namely that: “The aim of parousiastic gnosticism is to destroy the order of being, which is experienced as defective and unjust, and through man’s creative power to replace it with a perfect and just order”2 and that they share a common approach, namely that:

In order…that the attempt to create a new world may seem to make sense, the givenness of the order of being must be obliterated; the order of being must be interpreted, rather, as essentially under man’s control3

and I similarly suggest that the main supposed “alternatives” of our modern philosophical thought – rationalism, empiricism, existentialism, etc. – should be understood as being variants of idealism or reductionism (all of which, I note, possess associated mythologies) which we follow because they allow us to imagine that we control the world by possessing its “key” in our minds. I suggest that the ultimate distinction which we uncover is, again following Voegelin, really between: “Philosophy [which] springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavour to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it [and] Gnosis [which] desires dominion over being”.4

← xii | xiii →As regards “idealism” and “gnosticism” in general, I suggest that the only “key” which Aristotle offers us is the reasoned and substantiated understanding that there is no simple mental key which unlocks the world, but Aristotle’s caution does not lead him to nihilism, scepticism, or “positivism”5 but, rather, to the conclusion that we must engage with the world itself in a complex manner both to understand it and also to appreciate its nature and nuances.6 I suggest, then, that Aristotle offers us a contrary philosophical, scientific and, importantly, political and ethical approach to the one ← xiii | xiv →we are accustomed to and that it is the fundamental nature of this conflict which leads me to believe that it is not enough to merely expand upon the power and validity of an Aristotelian approach to the world, but that we need to be willing to clear away our own error, denial, and dogma if we are to meaningfully understand and appreciate the meaning and value of Aristotle and of his approach to the world. It is on this basis and for this reason that I have engaged in a thought experiment of sorts which looks at the world from an “Aristotelian” viewpoint in order to both see the value and nature of that viewpoint and also uses it as a comparator with which we can consider our own viewpoint and consider (a) why Albert Camus supposes that: “The nihilists today are seated on thrones”7 and why T.S. Eliot thinks of us as scarecrows, as “hollow men”8 (b) whether our worldview contains meaningful improvements upon, answers for, and/or rebuttals to Aristotle’s scientific and philosophical questions and viewpoints and (c) what our true relationship with mythology, truth, and being really is.

To expand upon this first position I suggest that I have been led to both defend Aristotle and to expose and attack his opponents (dual objectives which are necessary when dealing with fundamental and complex matters which are poorly understood, deeply held, and hence invariably contested) on the basis (a) that philosophy has collapsed in our modern thought into ideology9 and has accepted a subordinate or supporting role to science or ← xiv | xv →religion10 whereas, as Michel Foucault explains, the “parresiastic discourse and standpoint in philosophy”11 of the ancient world which is:

…the discourse of the irreducibility of truth, power, and ēthos, and at the same time the discourse of their necessary relationship, of the impossibility of thinking truth (alētheia), power (politeia), and ēthos without their essential, fundamental relationship with each other12

enabled philosophy to act as an independent lightning rod which kept politics, science, and religion honest and prevented human beings from being shoehorned into any one of these aspects, with Foucault explaining further that “Socrates is the parrhesiast”13 ne plus ultra and that in our modern thought “the parresiastic modality has, I believe, precisely disappeared as such.”14 If this is our general situation I add that the concrete ← xv | xvi →problems which have arisen are, in more detail, (b) that by formalising and abstracting and disengaging truth and value from its context we render the value of the world superficial in three ways: as idealism, i.e. as the principle that the real values of the world can somehow be captured through mental constructions; as positivism, i.e. as the principle that the real values of the world can somehow be captured through scientific representations; and as gnosticism, i.e. as the principle that there is some hidden message written in the world for us to find.

Now, I add that there is actually one mythos producing “idealism”, “gnosticism”, and “positivism” which is itself neatly framed and represented by Comte’s “law” which maintains that we progress through the stages of primitive subjectivism (or “gnosticism”) and then through the stage of abstract metaphysics (or “idealism”), and then to the ultimate stage of scientific rationality (or “positivism”).15 I will oppose this central myth of progressivism on the basis (a) that “positivism” is a corruption of science (b) that “gnosticism” is a corruption of religion (c) that “idealism” is a corruption of philosophy and (d) that “progressivism” is a corruption of history. I add further that all of these corruptions share the important common feature that they interpose themselves between man and reality and I add that Michel Foucault explains the relationship between idealism and gnosticism as being that: “…the gnosis is…that which tends to transfer, ← xvi | xvii →to transpose, the forms and effects of spiritual experience into the act of knowledge itself…all the Gnostic movements are more or less Platonic movements”16 and that Foucault makes an important distinction (as we will see later) by juxtaposing this elevation of abstract knowledge with the grounded expression of self, as follows:

For a Greek, human freedom has to be invested not so much, or not only in the city-state, the law, and religion, as in this teknē (the art of oneself) which is practiced by oneself. It is, then, within this general form of the teknē tou biou that the principle or precept “take care of yourself” is formulated17

and, in summary, I initially posit that how we envisage the human “self” is a critical philosophical battleground which determines our whole picture of the world and that this defence of the self played a central role in Aristotle’s philosophical “realism” and in his rejection of Platonic and other forms of “idealism.”

My objective, then, is to defend Aristotelian “realism”, but I add that I will not primarily seek to do this through logical argument but by presenting the objects of reality and showing that they should not, and perhaps cannot, be properly or fully represented in any other way than through the Aristotelian approach. I comment that it is in this context that I have tried to ← xvii | xviii →use “man” as a paradigm or case study throughout this work. In more detail, I suggest that we can (following Aristotle) employ the example of “man” as an example of the real world (a) because “man” is a subject matter which is, by definition, close to us and which is something of which we have detailed and intimate experience and (b) because we simply must work through our own being, our own human experience – through our logic and our sensual engagement with the world – in order to “know” the world in any sense. I add that there are two other reasons why the human example is significant, namely (c) that our philosophical account of the world can tell us what we are and can inform how we do and should subsist in the world as human beings and (d) that we actually find that this “highest” knowledge about the nature of “man” does itself represent a total or full fusion of all of our knowledge since this picture must include and give a satisfactory explanation of all the layers and aspects of our human perspective upon the world from which arise philosophy, science, and politics/ethics. I suggest, then, that “man” is a subject matter offering us a richness and complexity through which we can understand the richness and complexity of the world itself and through which we can also see how reductionist representations of the world founder when they are made to actually face reality in its fullness.18

← xviii | xix →Upon the basis, then, that we are taking “man” as our case study let me explain how I will study “his” elements in order to draw wider conclusions about him and also about nature in this work. I extrapolate from “man” as follows. First, I consider Aristotle’s thinking over the many subject areas of observed worldly being that he treats – including all the aspects of worldly reality that support man; poetics, ethics, politics, biology, physics, etc. – in order to show that it is both a consistent and profound vision of the world. Second, I seek to bring the consequences of Aristotle’s philosophical and physical vision of the world home to the reader by comparing it with our own default philosophical and physical perspectives on the world and by considering the meaningfulness of the differences that arise. Third, I seek to ← xix | xx →show how the different philosophical approaches to the world under review do in an important sense derive from and/or create a specific approach to “science”. Fourth, I try to show the difference between a delimited and operational “science” that simply seeks to understand the functional mechanisms and structures of the physical world and a “scient-ism” that uses the authority of science to enforce nineteenth-century philosophical positions such as positivism (and seventeeth-century positions such as idealism and materialism), which are not supported by the findings of modern science. Fifth, I seek to show that Aristotle explains the invalidity of the attempt to explain the world through a “unity of science” on the basis that it is naïve and dangerous to think that worldly reality can be understood through or reduced to a scientific or any other idealistic representation of it.19 Sixth, I seek to show that Aristotle demonstrates the value and necessity of philosophy through his understanding that we need to approach the world armed with both philosophical “subtlety” and scientific “reduction” if we are to avoid our own human shipwreck. I add the further general points (a) that my project extrapolates from man to show how his being explains Being and also interpolates within man to show how our understanding of his being helps us to explain and come to terms with “man” and with ourselves as men and (b) that I have taken “man” as my subject matter not just because I can thereby prove a philosophical point through it but also because I wish to understand the springs and qualities of the subject matter itself.

← xx | xxi →My project in further detail is as follows. This Preface and Chapters 1.1 and 1.2 set the ultimate framework question of this project which is: “Why do we need philosophy and what should be its shape and direction?” and they seek to explore both Aristotle’s answer to this question and also how we can engage with and come to terms with this answer. Chapters 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6 consider in more detail how we should philosophically explain the structures, principles, and states of nature by considering how “states” of being are realised in the “substance” of “man” as standing up as “courage”, achieving the equilibrium of “temperance” and by considering how the “being” of a “state” comes to be in a human “substance” as an “art/craft”. Chapters 1.7, 1.8., 1.9, and 1.10 work through how we should philosophically explain the nature of “man” as a bounded “substance” or “ousia” and with Aristotle’s ultimate conclusion being that worldly meaning is derived from the “reason” and “love” which is in nature and with these forces of “reason” and “love” flowing through the world epigenetically as structured “archai” or, for want of a better word, “principles” which serve to achieve and shape possible being. Chapter 2.1 considers Aristotle’s philosophical vision vis-à-vis that of “atomists”, “idealists”, and “naturalists/physicalists” and shows how and why all of these philosophical approaches to the world are all idealisms and reductions of reality (and this chapter provides an effective answer to the question of Chapter 1.1). Finally, Chapter 2.2 considers Aristotelian “subtlety” and the positive conclusion of Aristotle’s Ethics that human being possesses and must be understood in the light of such subtleties as friendship, justice, pleasure, contemplation/reason/intuition, personhood, culture, and being itself and Chapter 2.3 considers “reduction” and the negative conclusion that philosophical and scientific reduction necessarily incompletely represents “man” as an “idea”, as a “thing”, as an “object”, as a “bundle”, and/or as an “animal” which must be philosophically rejected on the basis that it is a false and harmful philosophical approach to the world.

Having outlined my project above let me outline Aristotle’s philosophical “realism” and of his critique of Plato’s “idealism” below. Apart from extending and substantiating my above outline I hope to give the reader here an example of my methodological approach which should serve to show (a) that I seek to work from Aristotle’s own argument in his own words whenever possible, to bring together various texts, and to show ← xxi | xxii →Aristotle’s thought holistically, i.e. as a series of localised expressions of a single philosophical vision and (b) that I have supplied detailed references from a wide range of scholars, scientists, and philosophers in order to show the depth and scope of support for Aristotle’s philosophy which often – in respect, for example, to his critique of atomism, reductionism, materialism etc. – transcends any one philosophical or scientific position or discipline but provides a philosophical support for all.

On this basis, then, let us consider Aristotle’s treatment of “idealism” by considering in overview how Aristotle explains mathematics and (mathematical) abstraction through his drawing the distinction between (i) the physicist regarding whom:

…the physicist must come to know not only about the matter (ο γρ μόνον περ τς λης δε γνωρίζειν τν φυσικν), but also about the substance expressed in the formula (λλ κα τς κατ τν λόγον; Met. Z 1037a 16–17)

and: “…the physicist is concerned only with things whose forms are separable indeed, but do not exist apart from matter” (κα περ τατα στι χωριστ μν εδει, ν λ δέ; Phys. II 194b 12–13) and (ii) the mathematician regarding whom:

…the mathematician… treats of these things [but] does not treat of them as the limits of a physical body (λλ’ οχ φυσικο σώματος πέρας καστον); nor does he consider the attributes indicated as attributes of such bodies.20 That is why he separates them; for in thought they are separable from motion (χωριστ ← xxii | xxiii →γρ τ νοήσει κινήσεώς στι), and it makes no difference, nor does any falsity result, if they are separated. The holders of the theory of Forms do the same, though they are not aware of it; for they separate the objects of physics, which are less separable than those of mathematics (Phys. II 193b31–194a1)

and Aristotle additionally introduces (iii) the philosopher regarding whom:

The mode of existence and essence of the separable (πς δ’ χει τ χω ριστν κα τί στι) it is the business of the primary type of philosophy [i.e. metaphysics] to define (φιλοσοφίας ργον διορ ίσαι τς πρώτης; Phys. II 194b 14–15)

(see also De An. I 403b 14–16) and with the key philosophical concept of “separability” being elucidated by Aristotle as that:

Natural science deals with the things that have a principle of movement in themselves ( μν ον φυσικ π ερ τ κινήσεως χον τ ρχν ν ατος στίν); mathematics is theoretical, and is a science that deals with things that are at rest, but its subjects cannot exist apart ( μν ον φυσικ περ τ κινήσεως χοντ ρχν ν ατος στίν)…every movement is change from something into something (πσα γρ κίνησις ξ λλου ες λλο στ μεταβολή)… The continuous is a species of the contiguous; two things are called continuous when the limits of each, with which they touch and are kept together, become one and the same, so that plainly the continuous is found in the things out of which a unity naturally arises in virtue of their contact (λέγω δ συνεχς ταν τατ γένηται κα ν τ κατέρου πέρας ος πτονται κα συνέχονται, στε δλον τι τ συνεχς ν τούτοις ξ ν ν τι πέφυκε γίγνεσθαι κατ τν σύναψιν)…a point is not the same as a unit; for contact belongs to points, but not to units, which have only succession (λλ τ φεξς); and there is something between two of the former but not between two of the latter (κα τν μν μεταξύ τι τν δ ο; Met. K 1064a 31–1069a 14)

which, we see, breaks our systematic thought down into our “static” and formal interpretation of the world and the action of the “moving” and connected world itself and which does, I suggest, (a) establish the critical Aristotelian distinction between the being (and coming-to-be) of the world which is expressed through things which possess moving principles transmitted through and actualised through contact in matter21 and, alternatively, ← xxiii | xxiv →the abstractions of the mind which are derived from forms and units and (b) give us a glimpse into Aristotle’s specific and personal and powerful and valid philosophical framework which employs such technical terms as “contact” (φή), “separable” (χωριστός), “continuous” (συνεχής).

Moving on to consider the quality of mathematical abstraction itself we find that Aristotle argues (iv) that any thing itself both in fact and in principle must be something and cannot be a mathematical abstraction, and hence:

…its parts must be perceptible; for they cannot consist of mathematical abstractions (λλ΄ ναγκαον· ο γρ δ κ γε τν μαθηματικν; Sens. 445b 14–15)

and also that: “…the mathematical sciences are concerned with forms; they do not confine their demonstrations to a particular substrate (τ γρ μαθήματα περ εδη στίν· ο γρ καθ’ ποκειμένου τινός). Even if geometrical problems refer to a particular substrate, they do so only incidentally. As optics is related to geometry, so is another science to optics, namely, the study of the rainbow” (Post. An. I 79a 6–9)22 and (v) that mathematics and language “resemble” and represent the world as forms whilst being distinct from it, and hence:

…the objects of mathematics, while differing from the things in our world in another respect, resemble them in being a plurality of objects similar in form, so that their principles cannot be numerically determined (στ οκ σονται ατν α ρχα ριθμ φωρισμέναι)…just as the principles of all language in this world of ours is determinate not in number but in kind – unless one takes such and such a particular syllable or sound, for the principles of these are determinate in number too – and ← xxiv | xxv →similarly with the Intermediates, for in their case too there is an infinity of objects similar in form (Met. B 1002b 14–23)

and in respect to his closely associated critique of language we find that Aristotle places the “word” in the same hypostatised zone as “number” and hence: “…two fives will make ten…there is no common limit (κοινν ρον) whatever at which these two fives coalesce. And the same with the parts three and seven… The same may be said about speech…No common limit (κοινν ρον) exists, where those parts – that is, syllables – join” (Cat. 4b 28–39).

I finally add (vi) that the science of mathematics does for Aristotle play the exemplary role of definitively and evidently exposing the order, symmetry, and definiteness of the world to us, as follows:

…those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing of the beautiful or the good (περ καλο γαθο) are in error. For these sciences say and prove a great deal about them; if they do not expressly mention them, but prove attributes which are their results or their definitions, it is not true to say that they tell us nothing about them. The chief forms of beauty are order (τάξις) and symmetry (συμμετρία) and definiteness (τ ρισμένον), which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree (Met. M 1078a 33 – 1078b 1)

and Aristotle argues explicitly that number allows us to understand “form” in the sense that: “…just as a number does not admit of variation in degree, so neither does substance in the sense of form; if any substance does admit of this, it is substance in combination with matter” (κα σπερ οδ ριθμς χει τ μλλον κα ττον, οδ κατ τ εδος οσία, λλ επερ, μετ τς λης; Met. H 1044a 9–11). Regarding, however, the conceptual problem posed by number per se and its ultimate inadequacy as a philosophical explanation for the world Aristotle argues that:

…a number must be something in virtue of which it is a unity (whereas our opponents cannot say what makes it one); that is, if it is a unity. For either it is not a unity but a kind of aggregate, or if it is a unity, we must explain what makes a unity out of a plurality (λεκτέον τί τ ποιον ν κ πολλν). And the definition is a unity; but similarly they cannot explain the definition either (Met. H 1044a 2–5)

← xxv | xxvi →and I ultimately suggest (following the above schema) (1) that Aristotle argues in (i) and (ii) and (iii) that the physicist deals with the physical realisation of nature, that the mathematician deals with the quantative abstractions of being, and that the philosopher deals with nature’s underlying metaphysical principles (2) that Aristotle argues in (iv) and (v) that neither physical nature nor the mind and its products can themselves be mathematicised since mathematics and language are only formal hypostatisations of reality and (3) that Aristotle argues in (vi) that there is considerable merit in our being able to simplify or reduce the world through mathematical means even if we are not thereby fully engaging with the (objects of the) world itself or engaging with the world using our full mental (and philosophical) capabilities (and, indeed, Aristotle suggests at De An. III 429b 20–22 that this power of separation is actually a pure aspect of “mind” or “nous” itself).

We immediately see, then, that the traditional distinction between a “mathematical” Plato and a “biological” Aristotle is (partially true but) simplistic since Aristotle claims that his ultimate philosophical goal is to understand the order (taxis), symmetry (summetria), and definiteness (to hōrismenon) of nature and that we find a pure but limited expression of these features of nature via mathematics. We also clearly see that we see that the nature of Aristotle’s philosophical approach – or of his “realism” – is to measure both mathematics (and the abstract) against the fuller reality and I add that Aristotle also sees the need to embed mind and human being in the reality represented by “experience” and it is hence that Aristotle argues that:


Why was (and is) Aristotle «right» and why are we «wrong»? In other words, why are Aristotle’s philosophical reflections on man and the world full, real, and convincing and why is so much of our modern philosophy partial and false? This work offers a detailed assessment of Aristotle’s thought in response to these questions.
Using «man» as a case study, this work shows how Aristotle philosophically treats «him» as a physical, biological, social, political, ethical, creative, poeticising, and philosophising object in the world. It then continues by laying out his consequent conclusions regarding the necessary capacities of natural objects in the world.
Regarding the modern philosophical approach to «man», this work shows that it flows from several directions into narcissism, nihilism, and a desire to control and manipulate the world and other people. In short, this work considers these approaches and seeks to show that Aristotle’s philosophy is «right», true, and commendable and that our modern philosophy is (often) «wrong», vacuous, and distasteful.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XLVII, 396 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Jackson (Author)

Peter Jackson has an MA from the University of London and works in finance in London.


Title: Aristotle on the Meaning of Man