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).


Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

More Difference, Less Conflict

This is not a panacea because often people are not attuned to logical subtleties, but strife can be reduced by closer attention to distinctions. Even opposite assertions about what are actually different things do not conflict at all, except possibly through their implications. More qualified assertions also reduce the potential for conflict.

Claims of incommensurability tend to end dialogue rather than promote it, so it is not clear that they actually reduce conflict. Intelligible distinctions, on the other hand, are an important part of the implicit basis of civility. Much of civility and ethics is about appropriate response, which depends on intelligible distinctions.

Attention to distinctions is entirely consistent with a Kantian concern for ethical universality. It actually helps. We can do a better job of applying universals to particulars when we have more distinctions to work with. (See also Practical Judgment; Reasonableness; Contradiction.)

Logic as Semantics

I think of logic in general as mainly concerned with the perspicuous rendering of distinctions for use in reasoning, rather than with the arbitration of truth based on some other presumed truth as a starting point.

An emphasis on this expressive or semantic role was, I think, what led Aristotle to insist that what modern people call logic should be viewed as a tool (organon) and not a “science”.

The great scholar of Latin medieval logic L. M. De Rijk, in his major study Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology (2002), recommended replacing references to Aristotle’s own “logic” with references to semantics, or investigation of meaning.

Hegel contended that traditional metaphysics should be replaced by a kind of “logic” that addresses meaningful content.

Brandom has given us an unprecedentedly thorough and clear account of the conditions that make meaningful content possible in the first place.

On the formal side, type theory and category theory provide a new, unified view of logic, mathematics, and formal languages that fits very well with this “meaning before truth” perspective.