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Preus on Bechler’s Aristotle’s Theory of Actuality

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Preus on Bechler’s Aristotle’s Theory of Actuality1995

זהו הדו"ח שכתב Anthony Preus, עורך הסדרה Studies in Ancient Philosophy, אשר החליט לקבל את הספר לפרסום בSUNY.

נהנתי מתשובותיו ל-6 ו-7 וכן מהצטרפותו המפתיעה לטיעונַי בקשר לתורת אלהים בAdditional comments . ד.א. אינני חושב שאני אומר מה שהוא מיחס לי שם. (טיעוני הפוך בכיוונו: מי שמקבל את אי-נפרדות הצורה חייב לדחות את תורת אלוהים של אריסטו.)

Preliminary remarks:

On its face, Bechler’s book is a massive attack on several of the central positions of Aristotle’s philosophical work; one may characterize it as a massive attack on Aristotle’s philosophy. The attack proceeds on two fronts: the first front begins from the rather unusual thesis that Aristotle’s chief philosophical motivation was to create a consistent philosophical system. In comparison with Plato, Bechler’s Aristotle turns out to be less informative in his explanations of the natural world than Plato, rather than more; in particular, Aristotle’s pervasive reduction of explanation to dunamis and energeia turns out, according to Bechler, to be logically satisfying, but completely uninformative. Bechler argues throughout the book that many of Aristotle’s major theses are essentially vacuous, and are made so by a misplaced or mistaken drive toward consistency, particularly with regard to the concept of actuality. The second front (the other shoe, so to speak) is the frequently reiterated claim that nevertheless Aristotle’s philosophical position does not turn out to be all that consistent after all.

A generalized attack on Aristotle of this scope and magnitude, coming from a person this well acquainted with the central doctrines of the metaphysics, is somewhat unusual, although of course not unheard of. There’s something in it reminiscent of Sextus Empiricus, Against the Dogmatics, and thus of the skeptical tradition, which in some ways Bechler appears to represent; there is also a lot in it reminiscent of Harold Cherniss, Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato and the Academy, although what Bechler does really is to fill in the side of the argument where Cherniss was rather weak: Cherniss argued that Aristotle was not fair to Plato, but did not succeed as well in showing that Aristotle’s own philosophical position fails.

I think that Bechler’s book resembles Cherniss’ in that it emanates from a Platonist point of view. It may be seen as a major counter-attack by Platonism on Aristotelianism. Bechler (unlike Cherniss, for example) is not very open about that, but occasionally he tips his hand, hints that that is what he is up to; he repeatedly tries to demonstrate that Aristotle’s argument leads Aristotle into a logical difficulty, and then, suggests that one way out would be to accept some bit of Platonism after all.

As I began to read the book, I was quite irritated with it, since at first it seemed to be a purely destructive criticism, but for me, as I began to interpret it as a Platonist document, it became more palatable. Although the argument is (prima facie) very negative about Aristotle, from a certain point of view it does repeatedly indicate the possibility of using some Aristotelian structures in a more adequate philosophical position. In that respect, one might find Bechler’s book to be a step toward a renewed Neoplatonism. I really have no idea what he would think about that interpretation. Probably he would not be pleased, but that is the price of writing a very “strong” book: it will be interpreted in wildly different ways by different readers.

So now to the specific questions.

1. Is the manuscript competently written? Is the scholarship sound? Is it accurate? Is the organization good? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence? If the answer to any one of these questions is negative, please write “NO” and indicated the problem on a separate sheet. These are qualifications for further consideration.

Certainly the book is competently written. Very well written in fact. The scholarship sometimes appears monomaniacal, but “sound” in the sense that Bechler is aware not only of the texts that support his thesis but also the texts that (appear to) refute it/cause it some problems. Bechler is generally aware of relevant secondary literature; a more complete discussion of the secondary literature would detract from the sweep of his argument. The secondary literature essentially gets in his way, and he is rather good at dismissing or undermining or refuting or coopting the standard texts on various parts of the subject. The organization is excellent for his purposes; his arguments are certainly consistent and persuasive, given the way he reads the evidence.

2. What do you like most about this manuscript?

It will stir things up, I think. Some of the standard Aristotelians are bound to get upset enough with it so that they will write serious replies to it.

3. What is your greatest concern about this manuscript?

At this point I don’t believe Bechler’s conclusions, but in a sense my greatest concern would be that Bechler might turn out to be right.

4. Is the manuscript interesting to read?

Very, to me at least. There are those that feel that a book about Aristotle’s theory of actuality is likely to be a soporific on a par with the New Jersey Real Estate Code. I don’t find that at all, and Bechler is one of the more lively writers on Aristotle I have met up with recently.

I should also add that English is not Bechler’s first language, and that shows occasionally, although his English is generally excellent, even magnificent. Should the Press decide to publish this work, a copy editor should be engaged to go over the whole thing to eliminate occasional “Hebraisms” and a few inappropriate colloquialisms.

5. Is the topic significant? Is it important in itself or central to an important field of study?

Aristotle’s Theory of Actuality is central to Aristotle’s philosophy. Or to put it another way, this book is nothing less than an entire reinterpretation of Aristotle’s philosophy from a to z, at least in principle. That in turn has important consequences for, among other things, the understanding of the history of scientific explanation, of metaphysics, of mathematics, of ethics, and other things that arise out of Aristotle’s philosophy of potentiality and actuality.

6. Is this work useful? Would the book be useful enough that a reasonable number of individual persons (not libraries) would buy it?

Depends probably on how much it costs. It’s a pretty big book; it might be pretty expensive for a lot of individuals to buy it. Still, it’s outrageous enough that perhaps a lot of Aristotelians will figure that they can’t really get along without it.

7. Does the author show unsuspected ramifications, provide insights and flashes of recognition, and bring forth something of intellectual importance in the texture of the work?

This is Bechler’s forte. He does it constantly; there is something really important, that an Aristotelian has either to accept or to refute, at the rate of one every five pages or so, for 493 pages of text, and then footnotes to boot. It’s terrible. You could spend your life refuting this guy.

8. What are the competing books in this field if any?

Depends on what you mean by “competing”. In one sense this book is totally unique, since it defends a thesis that is totally Bechler’s. On the other hand there are lots of books on Aristotle’s philosophy in general; Bechler refers to many of them: Guthrie’s History vol 6, Lear, Graham, Barnes, Hartman, Lloyd, Owens, Sorabji, S. Waterlow-Broadie, and so on. Bechler’s book competes with those books in roughly the way that the Koran competes with the Bible. In another sense, this book may be inscribed in the tradition of Platonic and Neoplatonic understandings of Aristotle: while a good many Platonists have written about Aristotle in recent decades, none I think have waged as direct an assault on the central tenets of the Aristotelian system, at least not in a format this extended. One might well compare this book to Terry Irwin’s, Aristotle’s First Principles: Irwin tries very hard to make positive sense of Aristotle; Bechler tries just as hard, and in the same ballpark, to show that Aristotle’s position is nonsense.

Additional comments

Like several other Aristotelians, I was rather pleased with Bechler’s argument that the theory of the Unmoved Mover in Met. 12 is redundant, and not really a part of Aristotle’s ontological theory (see 2.2). Bechler goes on to argue that Aristotelians who agree with him on that matter should be committed to agreeing with him in the remainder of his critiques of Aristotle, but I don’t see it. His point about the Unmoved Mover is that positing this entity is inconsistent with the rest of the Aristotelian theory of potentiality and actuality; it seems to me that one may accept that point, and still accept the fundamental theory of dynamis and energeia, with the unmoved mover removed.

I also find his chapter on Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics quite interesting. In this case he is really dealing with constructions that commentators have put together, since Aristotle didn’t exactly write a book on philosophy of mathematics. His general argument, that you’re better off with Plato, is likely to find many sympathetic readers.

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