Aristotle's Essentialism and its Enemies

Aristotle – Popper – Quine

Term Paper, 2008

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0

Adam Seitz (Author)


University of California at Berkeley Fall 2008

Department of Philosophy

Course 290-1: Aristotle's Posterior Analytics

Aristotle’s Essentialism and its Enemies

ThePosterior Analytics, the oldest text on the philosophy of science known today, displays Aristotle’s ideas of systematic acquisition of scientific knowledge and its proper demonstration. On the basis of thePosterior Analytics, and by means of two examples, this essay wants to sketch the critique on essentialism and universals in the mid-20th century. The focus is on Karl Raimund Popper’s account given inThe Open Society and its Enemies(1945), namely book II chapter 11, and on Williard Van Orman Quine’s essayOn What There Is(1948).

Popper’sOpen Society and its Enemiesmainly is an attack on what he calls Historicism, the view that historical development has inherent laws which, once discovered, allow to prophesy the course of future events. The three “great men” who are, according to Popper, the main exponents of historicist narratives and hence the “fathers of modern totalitarianism”, are Plato, Hegel, and Marx; it is to them the majority of his work is devoted. Nevertheless, references to Aristotle are scattered throughout the two books and, most importantly, the chapter mentioned above contains Popper’s reasons for his fierce attack on Aristotle’s essentialism in this context, which, according to Popper, bears “all the elements needed for elaborating a grandiose historicist philosophy.”1 Furthermore, Popper also focuses on the impact of Aristotle’s account on science and its development, and this will be a major point here.

Quine, at the very beginning of his essay, famously praises the “ontological problem” for its simplicity, answering his own question “What is there?” with the short answer “everything”, but stating as well that “disagreement overcaseshas stayed alive down the

centuries.”2‘From a logical point of view’, Quine’s essay mainly raises questions in four

fields, namely the problem of non-existence (“Plato’s beard”), ontological commitments (Russell’s “singular descriptions”, which are supposed to detangle Plato’s beard), the problem of universals (the use of “bound variables” as the only way to make ontological commitments), and his thoughts on how “we” are to “adjudicate on among rival ontologies.”3In the context of this essay, the focus will mainly be on Quine’s remarks about the “ontological problem” of universals, his rejection of classical essentialism, and on how he suggests to integrate his ideas in the philosophy of science.

At the beginning of all teaching and learning, Aristotle starts out in Book I of the Posterior Analytics, there has to be pre-existent knowledge. He asserts the existence of first principles, which are supposed to be primitive, immediate, and true - true simpliciter, i.e. “in itself” or “per se” - for the only alternatives would be an infinite regress or a circular proof. The first principles, Aristotle continues, are supposed to be necessary, universal, and eternal, and they have to be neither provable nor demonstrable, not even to be understood. Being at the basis of every proper science, the same first principles can never be applied to another science (except if it was subordinate to the former).

First principles are at thebeginningof every science (as their name suggests). They have to be ascertained by sense perception, as they are immediate on non-deductible. Science starts out through induction, for “it is plain that we must get to know the primitives by induction”4, and if we know the first principles, we also have their definition. As for Aristotle, “the principles of demonstrationsare definitions, and it has been proved earlier that there will not be demonstrations of principles - either the principles will be demonstrable and there will be principles of principles, and this will continuead infinitum, or else the primitives will be indemonstrable definitions.”5 Aristotle’s discusses his idea of the relation between demonstration and definition at length. Here, the following points are sufficient: Definitions and demonstrations are not the same, nor included in each other. As stated above, there cannot be a definition and a

demonstration of the same thing, and an understanding of something through

demonstration is impossible without knowing the definitions of the immediate principles.

The question how to arrive at that definition of a first principle or essence, which is “in itself true”, Aristotle does not make clear. However, for him it is evident that they are not innatelyknown. This is one point Popper especially picks on, since Aristotle appears to follow Plato in assuming that there is some kind ofintellectual intuitionwhich somehow transforms sense perception into a first principle. Indeed, Aristotle refers to some innate capacity, and construes a metaphysical chain of comprehension starting from sense perception, which leads to memory, and memory to experience, and finally experience to understanding: “Thus from perception there comes memory, […] and from memory […] experience, […] and from experience […] comes a principle of […] understanding […] And the soul is such as to be capable of undergoing this”6, for there is a “primitive universal in the soul.”7

Two more points, concerning Aristotle’s account, are important to make in the context of this essay. First, Aristotle’s distinction between knowledge and opinion, important because of Popper’s objections mentioned below, is illustrated in Aristotle’s notion that “understanding is universal, […] comes through necessities”8, and is “always true”, whereas opinion “admits falsehood”9and is of what can be changed; but, evenly important, Aristotle also leaves the possibility of understandingandhaving an opinion of the same thing. Second, it should be noticed that the essence, mainly hinted at here, is oneof Aristotle’s four causes which show up throughout his later works: in addition to essence the matter, the moving cause, and the final cause. Most of the times, a fact Popper picks up in his critique as well, Aristotle perceives the essence and the final cause as one and the same entity.

Popper starts out with the notion that Aristotle was less a philosopher of “striking originality of thought”, but mainly just added systematization to the Platonic ideas:

“Aristotle’s thought is entirely dominated by Plato’s.”10 Less important here, but

nevertheless to be mentioned, are Popper’s comparisons concerning both men’s ideas about the structure of society, e.g. what he perceives as Aristotle’s just gradually more positive attitude towards democracy or their very similar approach towards slavery and class rule. However, the “one important adjustment” Aristotle made in Popper’s eyes is a shift away from Plato’s pessimism to a more optimist view, especially onchange. For Plato, Popper points out, “all change is degeneration.” Aristotle, on the other hand, generally allows change to have an improving character. Aristotle’s final cause is the end towards which all movement aims; for him, as stated above, “the form or essence of anything developing is identical with the purpose or end or final state towards which it develops.” Popper points out that “the form or idea, which is still, with Plato, considered to be good, stands at the end, instead of the beginning. This characterizes Aristotle’s substitution of optimism for pessimism.”11Although opposed to evolutionary biological theories of his time - Aristotle perceived animals as eternal and unchanging - the main reason for Aristotle’s “peculiar optimistic twist […] to Platonism”, according to Popper, seems to have been a result of speculations in this field, connected to the idea of the final cause.

Aristotle’s version of essentialism is basically very similar to Plato’s, Popper continues, although another difference is that Aristotle, in contrast to Plato, sees the essence of a thing not existing prior and external to it, butinherent. For Aristotle, change happens according to potentialities of the thing’s essence in form of aninnermotion. And this, together with the optimistic twist ofchange, for Popper is the main reason why he sees Aristotle’s essentialism as main basis for historicist “doctrines”. First, according to this view, an entity’s (person or state) essence can only be identified in its “hidden, undeveloped essence” (Hegel) by the analysis of its history, and if itdevelopsat all in the first place. This leads to the view that something like a knowledge of social entities or essences, and a pattern of development can be obtained by applying a historical method. Second, Popper points at the function of change in Aristotle’s view. If change reveals what is hidden in a thing’s undeveloped inherent essence, then change is only about making potentialitiesapparentwhich had been inhered from the beginning, which leads


1Popper, Karl R.: The Open Society and its Enemies 2: Hegel and Marx, Princeton, 51971, p. 7.

2Quine, WVO: On what there is, in: From a Logical Point of View, Cambridge 31971, p. 1.

3Quine, p. 15.

4Aristotle: Posterior Analytics (100b4f), translated by Jonathan Barnes, Oxford 22002, p. 74.

5Aristotle, p. 50.

6Aristotle, p. 73.

7Aristotle, p. 74.

8Aristotle, p. 45.

9Aristotle, p. 74.

10Popper, p. 2.

11Popper, p. 5.

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Aristotle's Essentialism and its Enemies
Aristotle – Popper – Quine
University of California, Berkeley  (Department of Philosophy)
Aristotle's Posterior Analytics
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aristotle, essentialism, enemies, popper, quine
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Adam Seitz (Author), 2008, Aristotle's Essentialism and its Enemies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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