Apologetics to the Glory of God

Ancient Empiricism: Aristotle (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, p329-333)

0875520987Ancient Empiricism: Aristotle (139)

(A)In a non-Christian scheme of thought abstract universal and particulars stand over against one another in an unreconcilable fashion. Such was the case in Plato’s philosophy. Aristotle sought to remedy the situation by teaching that the universale are present in the particulars. But he failed to get genuine contact between them, inasmuch as for him the lowest universal (infima species), was, after all, a supposed abstraction from particulars. Hence the particulars that were presupposed were bare particulars, having no manner of contact with universality. And if they should, per impossible, have contact with universality, they would lose their individuality.(140)

(B) As over against Plato, Aristotle contends that we must not look for rationality as a principle wholly beyond the things we see. Universals are to be found within particulars. All our troubles come from looking for the one apart from the other. We must, to be sure, think of pure form at the one end and of pure matter at the other end of our experience. But whatever we actually know consists of pure form and pure matter in correlativity with one another. Whenever we would speak of Socrates, we must not look for some exhaustive description of him by means of reference to an Idea that is “wholly beyond.” Socrates is numerically distinct from Callias because of pure potentiality or matter(141). Rational explanation must be satisfied with classification. The definition of Socrates is fully expressed in terms of the lowest species. Socrates as a numerical individual is but an instance of a class. Socrates may weigh two hundred pounds and Callias may weigh one hundred pounds. When I meet Socrates down town he may knock me down; when I meet Callias there I may knock him down. But all this is “accidental.”(142) None of the perceptual characteristics of Socrates, not even his snub-nosedness, belong to the Socrates that I define. (143) By means of the primacy of my intellect I know Socrates as he is, forever the same, no matter what may “accidentally” happen to him. And what is true of Socrates is true of all other things. Aristotle’s philosophy, then, as over against that of Plato, stresses the correlativity of abstract rationality and pure Chance. Aristotle takes Plato’s worlds of pure being and pure non-being and insists that they shall recognize a need of one another. Neither Plato nor Aristotle speaks of limiting concepts in the sense that modern philosophers use this term. Yet both Plato and Aristotle in effect use such limiting concepts and Aristotle more so than Plato.

(C)Thus, in contradistinction from Parmenides, Aristotle holds that being is not all of one kind; it is inherently various and hierarchical. At the bottom of the ladder is pure matter or potentiality. At the top of the ladder is pure form. But we never meet with either pure form or pure matter in actual experience. Reality as we see it is always composite.   The matter in it contributes the individuating, and the form in it, the universalizing, element. Thus Aristotle thinks that he can do justice to individuality and universality alike. The relation of Aristotle to his predecessors is therefore very similar to that of Kant to the empiricist, Hume, and the rationalist, Leibniz. Aristotle’s position may, we think, not  unfairly be said to be a sort of pre-phenomenalist phenomenalism.(144) Of course Aristotle’s position is not modern; it is realistic, not critical. Our contention is that he takes the first important step in the direction of modern phenomenalism, and that there was nowhere else that anyone, who wanted to maintain the non Christian concept of the autonomy, of man, could go.(145) The autonomous man must on the one hand seek to explain reality exhaustively; he must hold that unless he does so, he has not explained it at all.(146) By definition, he has no Creator-Redeemer Mind back of his own mind. On the other hand, the autonomous man must hold that any diversity that exists is independent of God…(147)

It should be noted that Aristotle himself never separated sharply between the passive and the active intellect in man. He was indeed anxious to develop realism, the reality of facts and their true existence apart from the activity of the human mind with respect to them…
In Aristotelianism God is pure active intellect. He is pure act. Man’s mentality shares in the nature of the divine activity. It is only on the basis of this sharing in the divine activity that abstraction from the sensible world, or the making of generalizations, so essential to the Aristotelian scheme, can be effected. The intellect of man abstracts the  intelligible species that are said to be found in the facts that surround him. All certain knowledge is exclusively of universals. The intellect cannot deal with sensible facts otherwise than in terms of concepts. But facts are not concepts; they are individuations of concepts. Matter as such, pure matter as opposed to pure Act, is non -rational and cannot be the object of intellectual knowledge.(148) It is the species that exist in the facts of sense that are said to be discovered by the intellect, and this discovery is not merely a passive something…no non-Christian can finally escape the virtual identification of the human mind with the divine mind. So Aristotle, in thinking of the human mind as discovering the intelligible species in the things, is virtually attributing the same powers to the human mind that he attributes to the divine mind. The active mind of man is ideally identical with the active mind which is God.
What this position really amounts to, is that man can by these self- evident principles interpret reality correctly without taking God into consideration from the outset.

This position is(149), to be sure, not the same as that of Parmenides, or even of Plato. For convenience we may say that whereas Parmenides wanted to use the law of contradiction positively, Aristotle wanted to use it more in the way modern philosophy uses it negatively. We do not say that he was doing what Kant did when he formalized and subjectivized universality entirely. Aristotle was still a realist and not critical in the modern Kantian sense of the term. But he was working in the direction of Criticism.(150) He was frankly allowing that there was a reality beyond that which can be conceptualized by man.(151) But he was also saying that for any such reality to be known by man, it had to lose its uniqueness and be subjected to the classification of formal logic. The essential point, then, about the human mind as active, in the way Aristotle conceived of it, is that it is virtually taken out of its temporal conditions. The intellect of man is absolutized. Its ultimately legislative character is taken for granted. When it is compelled to admit that there is anything in reality that is beyond its control, it assumes that this something can have no determinative significance for the knowledge that man has…

The Thomistic notion of the mind of man as potentially participating in the mind of God(152), leads to an impersonal principle that is purely formal, and as such is correlative to brute factual material of a non-rational sort. It follows that it is only by abstraction from individuality that the facts can be known. The whole scheme of the philosophy of nature is made into a “Chain of Being” idea(153), fitted into a pattern of ever-increasing universality. Inasmuch as anything is higher in the scale of being than something else, it is to that extent less individual. All knowledge is of universals. And, as already observed, it is the mind conceived of as ultimate and as correlative to these facts, that has to abstract from particularity in order to know them.

The point we are now most concerned to make here is that the position of Aristotle and Thomas is essentially no more realistic than is any form of modern idealism.(154) The pure intelligible essences of Thomistic philosophy are virtually intellectual constructs. If they did exist, they would be eternal and unchangeable and as such destructive of the Christian teaching about history.(155)

139 The following excerpts are taken from:
(A) Common Grace, 81; (B) “Nature and Scripture,” 285—86; (C) Reformed Pastor and Modem Thought, 82—83, 85—86, 88-90.
Aristotle (384—322 MI.) was the most famous student in Plato’s Academy and was an instructor there until Plato’s death; after tutoring young Alexander the Great, he returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum. His collected works cover nearly all the “sciences” of that era and are characterized by a breadth of empirical data. While appropriately calling his viewpoint “empiricism,” we should nevertheless distinguish it from the more stringently observational epistemology of (say) Epicurus; Aristotle still retained the Platonic presupposition that reality resides in Idea (or form). But Aristotle was critical of Plato’s theory of a mysterious, transcendent realm of Ideas, finding such Ideas useless as an explanatory instrument especially for explaining the most common feature of natural experience, change or motion. For Aristotle, individual, sensible things are the “primary substances” which alone have separate existence; the species (concepts, forms) of such things, which make them intelligible, are embodied in the particulars themselves. Every natural object is a compound of intelligible form and individuating matter. An object is known through sensation (acting on the “passive intellect”), followed by the “active intellect” drawing out of it the object’s intelligible form or Idea a process of mental abstraction. There are two kinds of being for Aristotle, then: actuality (found in the definable, universal form or Idea) and passive potentiality (found in the particularizing or individuating principle of matter). Change in a sensible particular (say, an acorn) is a process by which a dynamic potentiality in it (say, an oak tree) becomes actualized (“realized”).
140. Is the individual substance or particular dog, Fido, knowable or intelligible in his individuality? For Aristotle, what is “knowable” is the definable concept that is common to the many particulars (e.g., the many “dogs”). Thus, even the most specific thing that you could say in order to differentiate Fido from the genus (the lowest species) would still be an abstraction. If Fido stands in his bare particularity, he cannot he known. To the degree that Fido is known, he loses his individuality.
141. Socrates and Callias are both instances of the “form” (universal) of humanity, but they are different from each other because they have different material bodies.
142. In philosophical terminology, “accidental” qualities or properties are those that are not “essential” to what a thing is. For example, a fish tail is essential to a mermaid, but the color of her hair is an accidental or incidental quality; if her hair color were different, she would still be a mermaid.
143. If one devised a “complex” universal (e.g., the form or Idea of man weighing two hundred pounds, having a snub nose, etc.) for every particular met in one’s experience, there would be as many universals as particulars and no point to distinguishing between universals and particulars. Moreover, the problem would then arise of how the universal of snub-nosedness relates to the complex universal of Socratesness (and to every other universal that incorporates snub-nosedness) .
144. CVT: Phenomenalism: “The theory that all we know is a phenomenon, that is, reality pres-ent to consciousness, either directly or reflectively; and that phenomena are all that there are to know, there being no thing-in-itself or object out of relation to consciousness” (Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, ed. James Baldwin, Gloucester: 1960).
145. That is, autonomous realism degenerates into its opposite, namely, phenomenalism. For a philosopher like Aristotle who is attempting to defend the knowledge of “real” objects that are public or external to the mind, this is a devastating critique by Van Til. On Aristotle’s own assumptions, what an individual man knows (i.e., the abstraction, the intelligible species) is the result of the internal activity of his own mind and thus private to himself.
146. If there is a segment of reality that he is not aware of and cannot account for or understand (and who could know how extensive it is?), then he cannot be sure that there are not factors that are relevant to, or would interfere with, the adequacy of the explanations he has offered for what he experiences. If his explanatory principles cannot be thought of as universal, but are subject to possible qualification, he cannot say in any particular case that it is appropriate to use those principles or that he is not being arbitrary or short-sighted.
147. The particularity of objects and events is simply random and unintelligible a matter of chance, rather than produced by the creative and providential work of God.
148. Accordingly, Aristotle’s version of empirical epistemology renders the particularity of facts (or individual objects) nonrational or unintelligible another disastrous internal failure.
149. In context, Van Til has just mentioned the view that the first principles of reasoning are self-evident, but that the existence of God is not a view advanced by Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.
150. Immanuel Kant’s scrupulous attempt to investigate the nature and limits of human understanding is often called “Criticism” following the titles of his important treatises: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of judgment.
151. In Aristotle’s approach, what can be conceptualized are the formal or universal aspects of an object. Beyond what is rationally known, however, there is also the material” the irrationally individuating principle, which accounts for what the particular sensible substance is. As with Kant, there is a mysterious realm beyond appearances that is not accessible to rationality, which might popularly IN called the realm of “chance.”
152. In the gradation of being from “pure actuality” at the top as Aristotle would put it, God as “thought thinking thought” and “pure potentiality” or matter at the bottom, there are different levels or degrees of reality and intelligibility. Man is a mixture of form, matter, and soul (psyche), which is active and intellectual like God in this respect. Man’s “active intellect” discovers what is know-able or intelligible about the world that we sense.
153. CVT: Cf. A. 0. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, 1942).
154. CVT: J. Maritain, a Roman Catholic philosopher, has attempted in his Degrees of Knowledge (London, 1959), to establish, unsuccessfully from our point of view, this more “realistic” nature of Thomas’ thought.
155. Since eternal and unchangeable things are entirely unlike indeed, contrary to the character of brute and contingent facts, they would be destructive of the non-Christian’s conception of history as well. This is the dialectical tension inherent in Aristotle’s version of empirical knowledge. If the historical facts are knowable, they are eternal and unchangeable and thus not historical at all. But if the facts are brute, contingent, and always changing, they are “historical (in the sense given to that term in unbelieving worldviews), but unknowable.



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