My former St. John’s tutor Joe Sachs, from whom I especially learned to appreciate Aristotle’s biology, later produced a wonderful series of translations of Aristotle and Plato, on which I often rely. The first part of his introduction to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, entitled “Ways of Writing and Ways of Being”, emphasizes the Metaphysics’ dialectical character.
“Two mistakes give rise to the widespread opinion that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not a whole. One of them is that written treatises must always be conceived deductively, even if they are presented with their highest assumptions given last. The other is the belief that, in the first place, all wholeness of thinking must be logical [i.e., deductive]” (p. xi).
Robert Pippin has argued that none of Hegel’s works is intended to implement a deductive order, and that even his Logic is fundamentally structured as a kind of narrative of a development. Previously, Paul Ricoeur developed an extensive account of the “logic” of such narrative structures. Both make very significant use of Aristotle.
Sachs notes that in Plato’s Meno, “dialectic is explained as the way of doing things that suits friendly conversation about serious questions. Unlike debate, where the aim is victory in verbal combat, dialectical speech cannot be content to say something true, but must get at the truth only by way of things the other person already understands and acknowledges” (p. xiii, emphasis added; see also Aristotelian Dialectic).
Plato is here anticipating both Aristotle’s more developed account of friendship and Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition. The ethical and more specifically “intellectual” aspects of such conversation with another person are deeply intertwined.
Sachs goes on to note that in the Topics (Aristotle’s treatise on dialectic), Aristotle explains how the same kinds of benefits can follow from a written account that does not take the literary form of a conversation, but proceeds by reasoning from “things that seem true to everyone, or to most people, or else to the wise, and of the latter either to all of them or most of them or to those who are best known and most respected” (ibid).
Sachs continues, “By writing in this way, or reading things written in this way, one will not only gain agility in thinking and become better at conversation, but one can also get at the heart of all knowledge, since dialectic ‘contains the road to the starting points of all pursuits’. Dialectical reasoning does not set down permanent beginnings such as, for example, David Hume’s declaration that all knowledge must derive from sense impressions. A dialectical inquiry might assume some opinion that equates knowledge with perception (which is just what happens in the first half of Plato’s Theaetetus), but it would do so in order to try it out and test it. This is the humble meaning of that passage in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates assigns dialectic to the fourth and highest part of his divided line, and to those knowable things ‘which speech itself gets hold of by means of its power of conversing, making its suppositions not ruling beginnings but in fact supports, like scaffoldings and springboards, in order to go up to what is beyond supposition at the beginning of everything’…. Aristotle praises Plato for inquiring whether the philosophic road is down from or up to first principles” (pp. xiii-xiv, citations omitted; see also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).
Aristotle also explicitly says near the beginning of the Topics that inquiries into first principles are best pursued in this dialectical way.
“It is already abundantly clear that the dialectical ascent of the Metaphysics is not simply a deduction in reverse. Various roads are traveled, that are partly parallel, partly divergent, but always finally convergent; the goal is not simply to get to an end but to get there well, to cast a variety of lights on the way that it is an end, to reinforce previous conclusions with related observations, and to reflect the true complexity of the topic, in which there is no reason to expect neatness. Such a journey involves repeatedly stopping, backing up, and partially retracing some ground that has already been covered in a different way” (p. xvi).
Sachs is not very sympathetic to Hegel, but I think particularly the interpretations of H.S. Harris and Robert Pippin serve to show that Hegel’s dialectic works in the very same way that Sachs attributes to Plato and Aristotle.
Like Owens and Reale, Sachs ultimately defends a more or less Thomistic claim that for Aristotle, being “in its own right” is identifiable with the first cause, understood as the supreme Being.
I prefer his more neoplatonic-sounding formulation that the good is beyond being, and being depends on it. As I see it, this makes considerations of normativity, ethics, and hermeneutics prior to any possible ontology or epistemology, and I think this is the path Aristotle took.
The “first philosophy” that is Aristotle’s own name for the subject of the Metaphysics is identified by Aristotle with what turns out to be a unique kind of theology. But I would argue that Aristotle’s unique theology is characterized by ultimate explanation in terms of the “upward” movement of what Kant called “internal” teleology, rather than by meditations on the “downward” movement of a creative Act, or on external teleology (see also Thoughts on Teleology; Aristotle on Explanation; Aubry on Aristotle; Not Power and Action; Life: A Necessary Concept?.)
At least in this very important regard and some others, I think Hegel as read by Harris and Pippin is relatively closer to the historic Aristotle than Aquinas is.