Are the goals that we aspire to achieve the result of our rational considerations and choice? Or, are we more closely akin to animals, pursuing only those goals determined by our non-rational desires? In his ethics, Aristotle is notoriously unclear about where he stands. At times he seems to conceive of humans as highly rational while at other times he seems to portray them as largely animalistic. By approaching these questions through the lens of the Rhetoric, a text little studied in philosophy, I propose a view that harmonizes Aristotle’s seemingly conflicting positions. I maintain that desire is responsible for determining which ends we pursue, but that reason can prod and nudge those desires to pursue different ends. This account shows that the apparent unclarity in Aristotle is merely the consequence of a long standing prejudice that he must side with either a more rationalist or more animalistic conception of human beings. I show that these seeming contradictions in Aristotle can be understood as part of a single coherent account.
Dominic Scott’s Levels of Argument is a comparison of the Republic and Nicomachean Ethics, focusing on the methods and structures of the texts’ arguments. In his analysis, Scott’s chief point is that in both texts, Plato and Aristotle recognize two separate “routes” or arguments that are both capable of leading one to an understanding of why justice is beneficial (in the case of Plato) or the human good (in the case of Aristotle). In both texts, the shorter route is seen as a less rigorous but adequate method of arguing for the authors’ respective conclusions. It is also the route that both authors actually traverse in the texts. The longer route, in contrast, is taken to be more rigorous: its arguments are more precise and detailed but as a consequence are far more difficult to follow. However, Scott argues that the authors differ in their attitude to this longer route. Plato sees it as an ideal, one that he would like to follow but cannot due to its difficulty. In contrast, Scott argues that Aristotle sees the longer route as superfluous given that political science is a practical discipline. In addition to articulating and comparing these two routes, Scott also discusses key methodological passages, contrasting Plato’s journey out of and then back into the cave with Aristotle’s comments about whether he is working to or from first principles. In what follows, I will focus on how Scott distinguishes the two routes, elaborating on those parts of his argument that I take to be the most crucial in drawing this distinction. I will then briefly look at what we learn from this comparison and mount a worry about his reading of Aristotle.
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Originally published by Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, Volume 99, Issue 2, Pages 229–232
The viewer is immediately struck by the the brilliantly colored surfaces in Gertie Garbage's "I Am My Own Keeper." Multicolored flowers crown an attractive, sultry, bejeweled face, though it is her tears that prove to be the most brilliantly decorous part of the composition: painted, so to speak, with video. The sequence proceeds in a single shot with a single, repeated action: a woman slowly biting petals off a red rose. At first, the sensuality of the action only lends to the overall visual pleasure of the scene. But as time goes on, her biting falters. Her teeth do not immediately tear the individual petals, and we see the effort that must be put into the action. In her struggle, she forgets to keep up the sultry appearance. Remembering between petal picks, she makes a point of looking toward us, putting on her best face. This appearance of effort grates against the visually stunning surfaces. In contrast to the non-functional decoration, her mouth is by nature a tool, functional, suitable for breaking down material. As the action continues, and the rose gets barer, we are reminded that these appearances cannot be kept up. They will eventually break down, and what will be revealed is the functional organism that lies behind.
Originally published in Video! Video! Zine
In “William,” Lillie West poses adult questions to her six-year-old brother. "What is your occupation?," "What are your passions?," "What is your greatest fear?," etc. The responses are predictably naïve, ranging from gurgling sounds, to statements of incomprehension, to moments of brief enlightenment—as if these questions reveal to William aspects of himself that he has never, heretofore, articulated to himself. The contrast between William's child-like responses and Lillie's high-minded questions is visually marked by a juxtaposition, revisited several times in the video, between shots of William sitting, fielding Lillie's interview questions and William chasing ducks while making spitting sounds.
What this juxtaposition indicates is unclear. Perhaps it is a celebration of the idyllic, pure, blissful, and seemingly non-rational exuberance of the young, untouched by the practical reasoning and reflection that tends to dampen such pure expressions of joy. Or perhaps William’s exuberance is an illustration of the morass of animal desires that—rather than being dampened—still underlie our seemingly rational, practically minded actions. They are the desires that form the basis of our psychologies, motivate our movements throughout the world, and ultimately determine the direction of our lives. Seen in this latter light, we adults do not take control of our lives by reasoning about our desires, rationally directing ourselves toward more informed goals. Rather, reason merely does the work of articulating the goals that our childish desires have already chosen for us. Reason is slave to desire, and as such, we are still subservient to those base desires we thought we outgrew years ago.
Originally published in Video! Video! Zine
Claims throughout Aristotle’s corpus seem to support two opposing views of motivation which have divided commentators: a rationalist view, which maintains that reason ultimately controls our actions, and a Humean view, which maintains that non-rational desires ultimately control our actions. My dissertation harmonizes these seemingly incompatible claims by offering the first robust account of Aristotle’s psychology to detail how reason can modify desire. My project argues that our actions are motivated by sense perception: we pursue what we see as good. By and large, what we perceive to be good is determined by non-rational desire. However, reason has the ability to re-arrange and manipulate the content of our perceptions, altering them and potentially changing what we see as good.
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