Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004; see also Natural Ends; Sentience).

Free Play

A central concept of Kant’s Critique of Judgment is that of a free play of imagination and understanding, associated with what he calls reflective judgments of beauty. “[I]t is precisely in this divorce from any constraint of a rule… where taste can show its greatest perfection in designs made by the imagination” (Hackett edition, p. 93). He also associates this with looking for a universal when we don’t already have one. (See also Searching for a Middle Term.)

This seems to be just what was missing from his account of ethical deliberation, reviewed in Kantian Maxims. It seems to me that the emergent synthesis of a unity of apperception must also involve something like this free play, and that ethical judgment should be considered as involving a whole unity of apperception. (See also Beauty, Deautomatization; Kant and Foundationalism; Kant’s Recovery of Ends; Truth, Beauty; Interpretation.)

Alongside the autonomy of reason, the notion of free play also seems to me to add a resource for nonvoluntarist readings of Kantian freedom.

Beauty, Deautomatization

The 20th century Russian Formalist literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky said that art is the deautomatization of perception. At first this seems a specialized perspective best suited to various kinds of modern art, but on deeper reflection it may apply more broadly. Most traditional art, whether representational or pattern-based, is grounded in some kind of nonordinary perception or apprehension of things.

Kant in the Critique of Judgment talks about the sense of beauty as a kind of feeling of pleasure that is disinterested, in the sense of not being determined by impulse. He says it is even our duty to regard beauty as the “special symbol” of morality. For Kant, a moral will is grounded in deautomatization of action. It makes sense that this would be supported by deautomatizations of perception. Sensitivity to Kantian beauty also helps reinforce the acquired emotional intelligence that grounds ethical development. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three stages mentioned above represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Objectivity of Objects; Brandom on Truth.)