Aristotle on the ‘proper function’ of an object

Karen asked:

Part of Aristotle’s argument for his conclusion requires everything to have an ergon or proper function. How plausible is this claim when applied to natural objects?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The notion of a function applies naturally to artefacts: the function of a knife is to cut, of a printer to print, and so on. And Aristotle makes free use of the notion here, adding that a feature conducive to good function is a virtue e.g. sharpness is a virtue in a knife.

A ‘proper’ function is one peculiar to or characteristic of an object. A knife, for instance, could function as a poker or screwdriver, but cutting is its proper function.

What about extending the notion beyond artefacts?

The function of an artefact is built in by human intelligent design.

So if we think the natural world was designed (by God), then the idea of function can clearly be extended to natural objects.

However, Aristotle extended the notion to natural objects without assuming design: to inanimate objects, living things, and to humans and their institutions.

How plausible is this? The short answer is that extension to the inanimate relied on a now long-superseded physics and cosmology, and is of antiquarian interest only, whereas extension to the living world and to humans is insightful and fruitful if somewhat controversial.

I will deal briefly with each.

Functions of the inanimate: the proper function of heavenly bodies was circular motion; of elements (earth, air, fire, water), it was movement to their natural place and ordered transformation one into another. All this was a coherent system assuming the cosmology of the day, namely concentric spheres of differing densities centred on Earth. Thus the movement of the elements is a consistent theory of fluid mechanics. This physics and cosmology stood for two millennia but was decisively ousted by the geocentric cosmology and gravitational physics of Copernicus/ Galileo/ Newton so that Aristotelian cosmology, physics and associated notions of function applied to the inanimate are of historical interest only.

Functions of the animate: the difference between inanimate and animate beings was obvious to Aristotle (yes, these days we know of borderline cases like viruses, but leave that aside). A rock, say, doesn’t do anything, or have a goal, or act to maintain its stability and survival. A rook, by contrast, does things, gathers food, builds nests, cleans its feathers, lays eggs, all functions proper to its survival, health and reproduction. And we can extend the notion to the parts of an organism e.g. the function of the heart is to pump blood, the lungs to breathe in oxygen/breathe out CO2, the kidneys to clean the blood. And all these organ functions work together to facilitate the organism’s larger functions of survival and reproduction.

Aristotle of course included the human animal, which shares some functions with all living things, other functions with other animals, and has species-specific functions.

All of this was mostly uncontroversial for centuries. But it is tied in with Aristotle’s view of causation. This view is that explanation of something requires not only an account of what produced the thing (efficient cause) but also an account of what it is for (final cause) So, as regards a statue say, the efficient cause is the action of a sculptor, the final cause commemoration of a famous person. You can see that final cause is aim, goal or purpose (telos). And of course talk of function is much the same as talk of goal or purpose — the purpose of the heart is to pump blood, the goal of the rook’s flying around is to find food.

But then Descartes put the boot in.

Aristotle was a great biologist (his fieldwork in marine biology is at least as great as his writings on metaphysics and ethics), content to see function, goal and purpose everywhere in animate nature. Descartes, by contrast, was a great mathematician and physicist, greatly impressed by the new mechanical, corpuscular, philosophy, whereby one state succeeded another by necessity or natural law involving interaction of these corpuscles. In short he thought all causation in the physical world was efficient, mechanical causation, and declared that the notion of final causation was ‘useless in physics’. Later criticism of final causation accused it (unfairly) of entailing backward causation, and of positing conscious intentions in primitive organisms.

At any rate, thereafter, most philosophical discussion of causation was solely about efficient causation — think of Hume’s famous constant conjunction account, Kant’s transcendental argument for efficient causation.

Because of the link between function and goal (ergon and telos), and the disrepute telos fell into, some philosophers today are unhappy to admit that organisms/ parts have functions. Thus, they say, we claim the heart’s function is to pump blood, but it does other things, like making sounds (which doctors listen to), and we might as well say the heart’s function is to make sounds. By choosing the pumping rather than the noise option, we impose our idea of function on the world. I find this quite implausible. The pumping of the heart serves the needs/ends/functions of the organism, and without a pumping heart it dies, whereas the sounds produced are an inessential side effect — if mutation produced a variant heart that was quieter but just as good at pumping, this heart would function just as well as a heart.

I agree with Aristotle that full explanation includes final cause (what for?) as well as efficient cause (how come?). Of course we can give an account of any event purely in terms of efficient causes. Thus a rook’s flight (looking for food) is explained by certain brain states producing nerve impulses leading to wing muscle contractions resulting in flying here and there. But the story leaves out what it’s all for.

I recall a biology teacher asking my school class why polar bears are white. To camouflage them when they creep up on prey in the snow, we said. No, said he, it’s because bears in ancestral populations who happened to be white had a survival advantage so that, whiteness being heritable, succeeding generations included more and more, eventually all, white bears. Agreed, I said, but why was whiteness a survival advantage? Ah, because it afforded camouflage when stalking prey, admitted the teacher. You can’t get away from the teleological aspect of explanation.

Function of humans: we share the vegetative and reproductive functions of plants, and in addition the locomotive functions of animals. However Aristotle thought that the proper function of humans was reasoning: we are the rational animals. And the proper end for humans is a life of rational activity in accordance with virtue. His view of ethics with its emphasis on character and virtue (rather than on duty or consequence) saw a substantial revival in the 20th century — virtue ethics, as opposed to deontological or utilitarian ethics.

We could argue that other features than reason are peculiar to humans e.g. humour, genocide. But I feel that these either depend on reason or are an extension of functions seen in some other animals, and so Aristotle’s choice was a wise one.

I won’t deal with Aristotle’s views on the function of human institutions.

In conclusion I feel that Aristotle’s extension of the notion of function (ergon), intimately linked with purpose (telos), from artefacts to living organisms and humans, is entirely plausible and immensely fruitful.


Hume’s problem of induction

Sam asked:

What is the Humean problem of induction? If generalizations cannot be rationally grounded, then why do we believe in them?

Answer by Helier Robinson

The problem of induction is the problem that induction is logically invalid. Induction is arguing from some cases to all cases; in science it is argument from all cases so far observed to all unobserved cases. For example, energy has so far always been observed to be conserved, so it is argued that energy is always conserved. In daily life induction is generalisation, and its unreliability is shown by the falsity of superstition and stereotyping. The general case may be put in the form of sets: if a set P is a subset of another set Q, and it is known that something is true of every member of P, is it also true of every member of Q? The answer is, of course, maybe and maybe not.

There is an exception to this, involving intensions. The intension of a set, if it has one, is that property or properties that all and only the members of the set have; that is, every member of the set has that property or properties, and everything that has that property or properties is a member of that set. If now Q has an intension, and what is true of every member of P is true because of this intension, then it is true of every member of Q.

This is significant in philosophy of science. There are two branches of science, empirical and theoretical. Empirical science collects data, in the observatory, field, or laboratory, finds patterns among the data, and generalises these patterns into scientific laws. Theoretical science tries to explain these laws by describing their underlying causes. Explanation is causal: to describe causes is to explain their effects; but causes are never perceived (only correlations are perceived) and therefore are not empirical, so are theoretical. Empirical science is not intensional, so has the problem of induction, while theoretical science is intensional and so does not have that problem (That is, empirical science generalises patterns into laws, and these generalisations are inductive.) On the other hand, explanations — hence theories — can be wild and wooly, as some old fashioned metaphysics used to be. Science gets round these two difficulties by relying on accurate observation for truth, and by requiring theories to correspond to empirical fact. For example, modern theoretical physics requires the principle of conservation of energy to be true by Noether’s theorem.


Parmenides and Zeno on the impossibility of change and motion

Sam also asked:

Why do Parmenides and Zeno think that change/ flux/ motion are impossible?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Parmenides took one side in the problem of identity and change. This is a problem that is largely ignored today, although it should not be. It begins with the logical fact that qualitative difference entails quantitative difference. This is easily proved: whatever A and B may be, if there is a qualitative difference between them then there is some quality, Q, such that A is Q and B is not-Q (or vice versa); if A and B are one and the same (that is, identical) then one thing is at once Q and not-Q, which is impossible; therefore A and B are two. Hence qualitative difference entails quantitative difference. Secondly, change is defined as any qualitative difference over time. Thirdly, one thing cannot change and remain the same one thing — remain identical; because if it did then the thing before the change would be qualitatively different from the thing after the change, by the definition of change, and therefore they would be two.

Heraclitus famously claimed that you cannot step into the same river twice (because both you and the river have changed) and that nothing is permanent except the fact of change. In other words, there is no identity, only change. Parmenides took the opposite view: all change is illusion, only the One is. In other words, there is no change, only identity. A particular case of this problem is the problem of personal identity: we each of us believe ourselves to be one person, changing through time — and this is logically impossible. The best solution to this is to say that between each personal change there is a numerically different person, and personal identity consists in the totality of these different momentary persons.


Marx on ‘alienation’ and Heidegger on ‘deworlding’

Paul asked:

Are there any similarities between Marx’s theory of ‘alienation’ and Heidegger’s view of technology and the resultant ‘deworlding’ of being?’

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Marx and Alienation

Marx’s writings on alienation appear most significantly in his earlier works such as Comments on James Mill and Estranged Labour both from 1844 and both contained in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Here the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and his Humanism is explicit. For Feuerbach, human beings have somehow externalised their qualities objectifying them in an entity called God. The human creator became the created of God or the subject becomes the predicate and the predicate the subject in the terminology. Consequently, the human essence or gatungwesen is alienated from itself, reducing itself the more it posits a God. Even Hegel’s philosophy, of which Feuerbach and Marx were initially followers, perpetuated estrangement with its divine Reason subordinating human beings to a non-traditional conception of God. In sum, the human essence is alienated from itself and what it is posited in, becomes a ruling power over human beings.

In the early 1840’s, Marx clearly adopts and generally works within Feuerbachian categories modifying them slightly. With Marx, the same pattern of alienation is discerned. The species-essence of human beings to be social and creative has been alienated into private property and all that supports it: state, law, money; the socio-economic system of Capitalism. Private property, the creation of human beings, becomes a power standing over and against them. The wealth creators are locked out of wealth to endure poverty, exacerbated by economic slumps. Importantly, their essence is denied fulfilment. The products of their labour are taken from them legally and become the private property of the capitalists. Human beings themselves become subsumed in the these relations of production, mere quantitative commodities receiving money in lieu of the expression of their essence; mere employed talking machines employed to operate inanimate machines. In short, they are viewed merely as objectified commodities, defined by and subject to the Capitalist Market relations of Production. Human beings are alienated, estranged from their essence. In place of it, is the quantitative label of the cash nexus and their objectified, alienated essence becomes a power standing against them in the form of Capitalist Private Property.

In abolishing Capitalism, the communist revolution abolishes private property — the objectified and estranged essence of human beings. Social, productive and creative life are restored to human beings and as such, human essence is re-appropriated and alienation banished.

The important point with reference to Heidegger, is that the categories the humanist Marx uses are those inherited from German Idealist Philosophy, namely the famous Subject and Object. The Subject — be it Consciousness for Hegel, Species-essence for Feuerbach, Proletariat for Marx — interacts with the Object. Whether by means of subject-predicate inversion (Feuerbach) or dialectical mediation (Hegel and Marx), the Subject is eventually to become identical with the Object. In other words, we have a super Cartesianism in which the human, anthropos is now, after banishing alienation, identical with the world but, by means of production uses the world and its resources, to procure its means of life. Rather in the same way the dominating and controlling driver, drives the vehicle at its disposal. For Marx, with the Communist revolution Alienation will be overcome and identity will be practised in common, free human creativity: productionism. The basis of all societies including that of communist society is production save that with communism, not a Ruling Class but united humanity is the productive agent. The point being that Productionism obtains, a point which will become clearer above.

Heidegger De-Worlding and Homelessness

Substance, (ousia) the presencing of being in their presence was the building block of metaphysics. With Descartes, substance becomes divorced into Mind (subject) and Body (Object): the nascent Subject-Object problem is announced. Mind, Subject or Subiectum as Heidegger terms it (Hegel and The Greeks) strives to know, comprehend what is confronting it so as to Objectify it. This is the historical thrust of metaphysics, now expressed in natural science and now expressed in the technologist world-view. So objectified, the world and everything in it becomes a ‘standing-reserve’, enframed as a mere resources for instrumental use and exploitation (On Technology). The essence of Technology, expressed in discourse, in attitudes towards our self, others and the world, is the danger that looms over humanity. In other words, the world has been ‘de-worlded’.

Metaphysically, humanity is its essence, his substance; being is the substance of beings, as the subject, as the tyrant of being, he may deign to realise the beingness of beings into an all too loudly bruited ‘objectivity’ as ‘Lord of the World’.

This moving of humanity away from its home in Being and defining itself in being follows from the Destining of Being, a trajectory established with Plato, continued in Aristotle, continued in Christian Theologico-Metaphysics, secularised in Natural Science and operable in the contemporary world as a quantitative, instrumentalist value of beings in economics, in science, in views of ourselves as objective bodies in time and space, in describing ourselves analogously as computers, as human resources, in measuring our ‘happiness’ in material acquisition, in GDP’s, mere statistics and so on. Humanity has been distracted from its home in Being to a homelessness in the Metaphysical/ Technicist paradigm.

In his Letter On Humanism, Heidegger writes that Marx’s recognition of alienation arises from the Homelessness of Humanity although Marx expresses it Metaphysically. As such, Marx and indeed any thinker who remains within Metaphysics, will not be open to the Homelessness of Being for, Metaphysics institutionalises it as normal. Nevertheless, Marx has recognised that something is amiss in modern life. Secondly, Heidegger writes approvingly of the importance of History for Marx. This importance of both History (the original harmony of Primitive Communism perhaps akin to the home of humanity in unconceptualised, unthematised Being?) and its culmination in Alienation under Capitalism makes Marx’s account of History superior to other accounts. In fact, Heidegger concludes that it is because of the dimension of the Historical in Marx that a ‘productive dialogue with Marxism can occur’ (Letter On Humanism).

What could such a dialogue achieve? From Heidegger’s perspective, it could clear up the nature of materialism upon which Marx’s Historical Materialism rests. The essence of materialism necessitates a view that everything is regarded as the ‘material of labour’ (what Michael Zimmerman succinctly calls ‘Productive Metaphysics’). In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the metaphysical essence of labour is the self-establishing process of unconditional production or, the objectification of the actual through humanity experienced as subjectivity. It is no great leap from the essence of materialism to the essence of Technology.

The essence of Technology as written above, is to seize upon beings, to exploit them, to valorise them only insofar as they have use value. Informed by this essence, human activity has, as Heidegger wrote in the 1950’s, produced atomic energy which as both a source of power and warfare, threatens the destruction of humanity. Perhaps similarly in our own times, we face ecological destruction and perhaps human disenchantment with the turbo mode of life.

Any Similarities?

The point with Marx is that insofar as he is a materialist, he remains philosophically, for Heidegger, within the framework of Metaphysics. Metaphysics is blind to the essence of Technology and has indeed been its philosophical midwife.

Marx has recognised Alienation and its Historical development culminating in Capitalism but his solution remains within metaphysics and productionism. Thus Heidegger sees no essential difference between the Capitalist consumerism of the USA and the Socialist 5 year plans of Stalin’s USSR. Marxism continues the Subjectivism of the Subject — Object relation (borne of Hegel, Leibniz, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato). Even if we dismiss the USSR as Marxist, Marxism remains a Subjectivism in which it’s aim of a United humanity standing over and against the world in a relation of Production: the essence of humanity realised and manifested in a way denied under Capitalism. Communist Humanity will become the collective ‘Lord of the Earth’. Alienation from production may have been overcome but, for Heidegger, humanity remains alienated from Being. The onus will still be on production and the supremacy of humanity — Subjectivism.

Heidegger would argue that such Subjectivism will perpetuate de-worlding. Instead of maintaining a philosophy in which essence’s have to be realised (i.e. metaphysics) in a closed schematic; human beings should be open to and receptive to the callings, solicitations of Being which interrupts existing discourses, values, practices particularly that of Technicist Thinking and doing. Such interruptions can allow Thinking to think differently. Thinking differently may lead to acting differently — in a non-technicist way and correspondingly engage. Humanity, for Heidegger, cannot simply be defined in a new Essence, where the definition closes itself off to the solicitations of Being; this merely perpetuates the problem. Humanity must remain open to the callings of Being, must be ‘Ek-Statik’ (Letter on Humanism). Closed structures and concepts of Metaphysics prevents this.

Perhaps Marx would reply that Communist society in overcoming Alienation would simultaneously have overcome the de-worlding of the world and its concomitant instrumentalist view of beings as mere means to increase profit. What of the problem of Productionism? Perhaps a Marxism informed, qualified by political Ecology could move away from Productionism (John Bellamy Foster Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature)? For this to happen, Marxism would first have to abandon the schematic of the human essence and alienation. For Productionism is present in the concept of essence — that it is a ‘doing’, an activity, a performitivity — even in the guise of free, social, creative communist labour. If so, we’re looking at versions of Marxism that do not hold there is such a thing as a human essence which can become alienated or, the answer to your question Paul is, there are no similarities between Marx and Heidegger.

Isn’t Marx’s estranged Human essence the same as Heidegger’s estranged ‘homelessness’ of beings from Being? To paraphrase Heidegger’s response to Sartre: a Metaphysical statement remains a Metaphysical statement even if the terms are modified. Heidegger is not making a Metaphysical statement, he is not talking about an ‘estrangement from an essence’ — structures which pertain only to Metaphysics. To read Heidegger in such terms is to completely misread him. So not any grounds for similarity here.

So what of a Marxism that has abandoned the Metaphysical schema of an Essence? Non-Hegelian Marxism such as that offered by French Marxist Louis Althusser rejects the whole panoply of Essence, Alienation, Subject-Object structured Dialectic as belonging to the ‘early, humanist Marx’; a position the later Marx eschewed. If however, there is no such thing as ‘Alienation’ in mature Marxism, there are no grounds whatsoever for any rapprochement with Heidegger.

In conclusion then Paul, I do not think with either the ‘Early Marx’ nor the later Marx, are there any similarities between Marx and Heidegger. Hope you find this answer has use value.


Is Russell right that ethics is not a branch of philosophy?

Edward asked:

Do you agree with Bertrand Russell that ethics is not a branch of philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Did Russell say that? where? (Comment if you know.)

University departments of philosophy offer courses in ethics. So at first sight it seems a bit odd to claim that ethics is not a branch of philosophy. Then again, you might be taking a course in logic. Is logic a branch of philosophy? Hardly.

There is a subtle difference between the two cases. A course, say, in first-order predicate logic or axiomatic set theory might have philosophy undergrads sitting side by side with maths undergrads. Same course, same subject. What the philosophy students do with the knowledge they gain from the course is different from the maths students. Questions arising from logic are central to philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition. However, logic is also one of the constituent parts of mathematics, along with set theory, number theory etc.

As a rule, you don’t find courses in ethics for philosophers and non-philosophers. There was a time, not that long ago, when a book of all the branches of human knowledge might contain a chapter on ethics, not as philosophy but rather as a set of rules and prescriptions widely accepted in society. Today, it’s very difficult to find agreement on what those rules or prescriptions should be. The nearest equivalent would be something like medical ethics, which is practised by health professionals and embodied in principles of professional association and the Hippocratic Oath.

The point Russell was making is this. You can talk about ‘ethics’ without actually doing philosophy. Most people have ethical beliefs. Questions of medical ethics are generally not decided by philosophers but by the governing bodies of physicians and other health professionals. Or take Christian ethics, which is an aspect of Christian teaching. The point of reference is the Bible and the Catechism, not the views of this or that philosopher.

Philosophers are interested in ethics because of the challenging problems raised by the questions concerning the foundation of ethics, and the basis for deciding between rival ethical claims. For philosophers, a course on ‘ethics’ would be a course on ‘moral philosophy’.

The term, ‘meta-ethics’, as a second-order discipline is sometimes used to describe inquiry into different theories of ethics. However, philosophers also look at philosophical justifications for different ethical claims as a first-order inquiry. So it can sometimes be difficult to draw a precise line between thinking about ethics in a non-philosophical way and thinking about ethics in a philosophical way. The point is that if you are thinking about ethics in a philosophical way, you are not just thinking about ethics. I guess that’s what Russell was driving at.


Which came first: the individual or society?

Ursula asked:

Which came first, the individual or society?

Answer by Helier Robinson

This is basically the same question as which came first, the chicken or the egg? In evolutionary terms the egg came first because dinosaurs laid eggs and birds are descended from dinosaurs. Equally, individual humans are descended from primates which had societies, so society came first.