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Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: a preview, part 3 of 6

Item 3 in the RP issue is not precisely on Objectivism, but is close enough: a review essay, by Owen Goldin, of two books of Aristotle scholarship. The first book is Allan Gotthelf’s Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology (Oxford, 2012); the second is a festschrift for Gotthelf, Being, Nature, and Life: Essays in Honor of Allan Gotthelf (Cambridge, 2010), edited by James Lennox and Robert Bolton.

Gotthelf is currently the Anthem Foundation Distinguished Fellow for Teaching and Research at Rutgers University; he is also Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at The College of New Jersey, and Adjunct Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a close associate of Ayn Rand’s, and a co-founder of the Ayn Rand Society. Readers of the Appendix to the second edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology will perhaps know him as “Professor B”; others may know him as the author of On Ayn Rand (2000). With James Lennox, he’s revolutionized the study of Aristotle (especially Aristotle’s biological works), and has probably done more than anyone else in the past few decades to bring Objectivism into conversation with academic philosophy and vice versa. He was, he tells us in a biographical essay in the Teleology book, inspired to go into Aristotle studies by Ayn Rand’s review of John Herman Randall’s Aristotle (he was a student of Randall’s), and his Aristotle scholarship, though rigorously textual, is obviously influenced by Objectivism. You don’t have to be a specialist in ancient philosophy to learn something—to learn a lot—from it.gotthelf teleology

Goldin is professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His area of specialization overlaps almost exactly with Gotthelf’s, and though he’s not an Objectivist (that I know of), he certainly knows his way around Objectivism, and capitalizes on that knowledge in his review. As with Gotthelf, his scholarship is valuable not just to specialists in the field, but to those who want to learn something about philosophy from ancient texts (Greek or otherwise). Readers interested in the Objectivist ethics are likely to learn a lot about the metaphysics of life from Goldin’s paper, “Aristotle on Good and Bad Actualities” (Journal of NeoPlatonic Studies, vol. 2:1, 1993, pp. 126-50).

I won’t summarize Goldin’s review, but there are two points worth highlighting in it—points that Goldin himself highlights. Both points bear on the intersection of Objectivism with Aristotelianism.

Chapter 2 of the Teleology book is an essay by Gotthelf called, “The Place of the Good in Aristotle’s Natural Teleology.” Gotthelf argues here that contrary to many accounts of Aristotle’s teleology, the central concept in it is a descriptive (not normative) conception of actuality (and life), not an irreducibly normative concept of goodness formed out of relation to actuality or life. The debate may sound esoteric, but it has large implications for the interpretation of Aristotle, and it bears some affinity with debates about the Objectivist ethics. Objectivists have long debated whether flourishing is in the end ‘reducible’ to a descriptive conception of survival, or whether flourishing is an irreducibly normative concept. Similarly, much of the contemporary debate in analytic philosophy about moral realism concerns the metaphysical status of “normative properties”: can normative properties be reconciled with metaphysical naturalism? Are normative properties irreducible, or do they supervene on natural ones? Gotthelf takes a strong view on this, which he defends against Theodore Scaltas’s contrary view (itself reliant on a version of Hilary Putnam’s internal realism). I won’t try to summarize or clarify the terminology; the debate has to be read in its particulars to be fully understood, and the legitimacy of the terminology is half the debate. Obviously, I don’t mean to imply that Gotthelf’s interpretation of Aristotle doubles as an interpretation of Ayn Rand. What I mean is that Gotthelf’s interpretation of Aristotle discusses issues isomorphic to very similar ones in the Objectivist ethics. Objectivist meta-ethicists–and I’m one of them–have yet to achieve the same rigor for discussion of Objectivism as Gotthelf et al have achieved for discussion of Aristotle.  gotthelf being

Chapter 10 of the Being, Nature, and Life book is a paper by John Cooper of Princeton, “Political Community and the Highest Good.” (Cooper is decidedly not an Objectivist, but he chaired the “Ayn Rand as Aristotelian” session at the Ayn Rand Society’s meeting back in 2005.) The paper’s title is nearly self-explanatory: how—that is, in what way—does Aristotle think (as he does) that politics promotes the highest good? The central concept of Cooper’s account is one that Objectivists tend reflexively to reject: the common good (or more strictly for Aristotle, the common advantage). Rand’s own comments on “the common good” are a bit equivocal: in some contexts she seems to be denouncing it outright, but in others she accepts it, at least if it’s understood in terms of her trader principle (so that every member of a common good benefits in the right way from membership in it). But then, Aristotelians are equivocal about the concept, too: in some contexts, Aristotelians like to suggest that every member of a political community (without exception) benefits from membership in it; in other cases, they seem to be saying that some members get sacrificed for the good of the community as a whole. Even on the first, more Objectivist-friendly interpretation, there are questions about what counts as benefiting from membership in a political community, the subject of Cooper’s essay.

Goldin correctly points out that Cooper’s claims will rub Objectivists the wrong way, not just as claims about politics, but as an interpretation of Aristotle as well. (That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cooper is wrong.) Discussion of this subject by Objectivist-sympathetic Aristotelians begins with Fred D. Miller’s Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford, 1995). Other important discussions include Roderick Long’s “Aristotle’s Conception of Freedom” and “The Classical Roots of Radical Individualism”; David Keyt’s “Aristotle and Anarchism”; Robert Mayhew’s Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic; and Carrie-Ann’s “Aristotle, Citizenship, and the Common Advantage” and “Aristotle on the Mixed Constitution and Its Relevance for American Political Thought.” The last of these essays does the most to clarify the contemporary relevance of the issues; Mayhew’s book, I think, gives the most precise account of the conceptual issues at stake. Together, they give some substance to Ayn Rand’s prima facie outrageous claim that “an ‘Aristotelian statist’ is a contradiction in terms” (Review of Randall’s Aristotle, Voice of Reason, p. 12).

Meanwhile, Goldin’s essay shows how Gotthelf’s work gives specificity to Rand’s not-at-all outrageous claim that “[i]f there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders, it is Aristotle” (Review of Randall’s Aristotle, p. 6).

Irfan

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  1. […] Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: a preview (part 3 of several) (instituteforobjectiviststudies.wordpress.com) […]

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