Review of Aristotle by John Herman Randall, Jr.

by Ayn Rand
From The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
The Voice of Reason
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This essay was originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter in May 1963 and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).

A version was also delivered as a 28-minute radio address in May 1963.

If there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders, it is Aristotle. He has been opposed, misinterpreted, misrepresented, and — like an axiom — used by his enemies in the very act of denying him. Whatever intellectual progress men have achieved rests on his achievements. 

Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural barometer of Western history. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind. The Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century brought men to the Renaissance. The intellectual counterrevolution turned them back toward the cave of his antipode: Plato.

There is only one fundamental issue in philosophy: the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind. The conflict of Aristotle versus Plato is the conflict of reason versus mysticism. It was Plato who formulated most of philosophy’s basic questions — and doubts. It was Aristotle who laid the foundation for most of the answers. Thereafter, the record of their duel is the record of man’s long struggle to deny and surrender or to uphold and assert the validity of his particular mode of consciousness. 

Today, philosophy has sunk below the level of Aristotle versus Plato, down to the primitive gropings of Parmenides versus Heraclitus; whose disciples were unable to reconcile the concept of intellectual certainty with the phenomenon of change: the Eleatics, who claimed that change is illogical, that in any clash between mind and reality, reality is dispensable and, therefore, change is an illusion — versus the Heraclitean Sophists, who claimed that mind is dispensable, that knowledge is an illusion and nothing exists but change. Or: consciousness without existence versus existence without consciousness. Or: blind dogmatism versus cynical subjectivism. Or: Rationalism versus Empiricism. 

Aristotle was the first man who integrated the facts of identity and change, thus solving that ancient dichotomy. Or rather, he laid the foundation and indicated the method by which a full solution could be reached. In order to resurrect that dichotomy thereafter, it was necessary to ignore and evade his works. Ever since the Renaissance, the dichotomy kept being resurrected, in one form or another, always aimed at one crucial target: the concept of identity — always leading to some alleged demonstration of the deceptiveness, the limitations, the ultimate impotence of reason.

It took several centuries of misrepresenting Aristotle to turn him into a straw man, to declare the straw man invalidated, and to release such a torrent of irrationality that it is now sweeping philosophy away and carrying us back past the pre-Socratics, past Western civilization, into the prehistorical swamps of the Orient, via Existentialism and Zen Buddhism. 

Today, Aristotle is the forgotten man of philosophy. Slick young men go about droning the wearisome sophistries of the fifth century B.C., to the effect that man can know nothing, while unshaven young men go about chanting that they do know by means of their whole body from the neck down. 

It is in this context that one must evaluate the significance of an unusual book appearing on such a scene — Aristotle by John Herman Randall, Jr.

Let me hasten to state that the above remarks are mine, not Professor Randall’s. He does not condemn modern philosophy as it deserves — he seems to share some of its errors. But the theme of his book is the crucial relevance and importance of Aristotle to the philosophical problems of our age. And his book is an attempt to bring Aristotle’s theories back into the light of day — of our day — from under the shambles of misrepresentation by medieval mystics and by modern Platonists.

“Indeed,” he writes, “[Aristotle’s] may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line. His crabbed documents exhibit, not ‘cold thought,’ but the passionate search for passionless truth. For him, there is no ‘mean,’ no moderation, in intellectual excellence. The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life of nous, of theoria, of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.”

Indicating that the early scientists had discarded Aristotle in rebellion against his religious interpreters, Professor Randall points out that their scientific achievements had, in fact, an unacknowledged Aristotelian base and were carrying out the implications of Aristotle’s theories.

Blaming the epistemological chaos of modern science on the influence of Newton’s mechanistic philosophy of nature, he writes: 

It is fascinating to speculate how, had it been possible in the seventeenth century to reconstruct rather than abandon Aristotle, we might have been saved several centuries of gross confusion and error. . . . Where we are often still groping, Aristotle is frequently clear, suggestive, and fruitful. This holds true of many of his analyses: his doctrine of natural teleology; his view of natural necessity as not simple and mechanical but hypothetical; his conception of the infinite as potential, not actual; his notion of a finite universe; his doctrine of natural place; his conception of time as not absolute, but rather a dimension, a system of measurement; his conception that place is a coordinate system, and hence relative. On countless problems, from the standpoint of our present theory, Aristotle was right, where the nineteenth-century Newtonian physicists were wrong.

Objecting to “the structureless world of Hume in which ‘anything may be followed by anything,’” Professor Randall writes: 

To such a view, which he found maintained by the Megarians, Aristotle answers, No! Every process involves the operation of determinate powers. There is nothing that can become anything else whatsoever. A thing can become only what it has the specific power to become, only what it already is, in a sense, potentially. And a thing can be understood only as that kind of thing that has that kind of a specific power; while the process can be understood only as the operation, the actualization, the functioning of the powers of its subject or bearer.

To read a concise, lucid presentation of Aristotle’s system, written by a distinguished modern philosopher — written in terms of basic principles and broad fundamentals, as against the senseless “teasing” of trivia by today’s alleged thinkers — is so rare a value that it is sufficient to establish the importance of Professor Randall’s book, in spite of its flaws.

Its flaws, unfortunately, are numerous. Professor Randall describes his book as “a philosopher’s delineation of Aristotle.” Since there are many contradictory elements and many obscure passages in Aristotle’s own works (including, in some cases, the question of their authenticity), it is a philosopher’s privilege (within demonstrable limits) to decide which strands of a badly torn fabric he chooses to present as significantly “Aristotelian.” But nothing — particularly not Aristotle — is infinite and indeterminate. And while Professor Randall tries to separate his presentation from his interpretation, he does not always succeed. Some of his interpretations are questionable: some are stretched beyond the limit of the permissible.

For instance, he describes Aristotle’s approach to knowledge as follows: “Knowing is for him an obvious fact. . . . The real question, as he sees it, is, ‘In what kind of a world is knowing possible?’ What does the fact of knowing imply about our world?” This is a form of “the prior certainty of consciousness” — the notion that one can first possess knowledge and then proceed to discover what that knowledge is of, thus making the world a derivative of consciousness — a Cartesian approach which would have been inconceivable to Aristotle and which Professor Randall himself is combating throughout his book.

Most of the book’s flaws come from the same root: from Professor Randall’s inability or unwillingness to break with modern premises, methods and terminology. The perceptiveness he brings to his consideration of Aristotle’s ideas, seems to vanish whenever he attempts to equate Aristotle with modern trends. To claim, as he does, that: “In modern terms, Aristotle can be viewed as a behaviorist, an operationalist, and a contextualist” (and, later, as a “functionalist” and a “relativist”), is either inexcusable or so loosely generalized as to rob those terms of any meaning.

Granted that those terms have no specific definitions and are used, like most of today’s philosophical language, in the manner of “mobiles” which connote, rather than denote — even so, their accepted “connotations” are so anti-Aristotelian that one is forced, at times, to wonder whether Professor Randall is trying to put something over on the moderns or on Aristotle. There are passages in the book to support either hypothesis.

On the one hand, Professor Randall writes: “That we can know things as they are, that such knowledge is possible, is the fact that Aristotle is trying to explain, and not, like Kant and his followers, trying to deny and explain away.” And: “Indeed, any construing of the fact of ‘knowledge,’ whether Kantian, Hegelian, Deweyan, Positivistic, or any other, seems to be consistent and fruitful, and to avoid the impasses of barren self-contradiction, and insoluble and meaningless problems, only when it proceeds from the Aristotelian approach, and pushes Aristotle’s own analyses further . . . only, that is, in the measure that it is conducted upon an Aristotelian basis.” (Though one wonders what exactly would be left of Kant, Hegel, Dewey, or the Positivists if they were stripped of their non-Aristotelian elements.)

On the other hand, Professor Randall seems to turn Aristotle into some foggy combination of a linguistic analyst and a Heraclitean, as if language and reality could be understood as two separate, unconnected dimensions — in such passages as: “When [Aristotle] goes on to examine what is involved in ‘being’ anything . . . he is led to formulate two sets of distinctions: the one set appropriate to understanding any ‘thing’ or ousia as a subject of discourse, the other set appropriate to understanding any ‘thing’ or ousia as the outcome of a process, as the operation or functioning of powers, and ultimately as sheer functioning, activity.”

It is true that Aristotle holds the answer to Professor Randall’s “structuralism-functionalism” dichotomy and that his answer is vitally important today. But his answer eliminates that dichotomy altogether — and one cannot solve it by classifying him as a “functionalist” who believed that things are “sheer process.” 

The best parts of Professor Randall’s book are Chapters VIII, IX, and XI, particularly this last. In discussing the importance of Aristotle’s biological theory and “the biological motivation of Aristotle’s thought,” he brings out an aspect of Aristotle which has been featured too seldom in recent discussions and which is much more profound than the question of Aristotle’s “functionalism”: the central place given to living entities, to the phenomenon of life, in Aristotle’s philosophy.

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