Saturday, November 19, 2005

Review of A. E. Taylor's Aristotle

A. E. Taylor wrote Aristotle in 1919, so you expect the book to be a bit antiquated, and it is. But that is only the beginning of this book’s problems. This book is what you get when you ask a Platonist to write a book about Aristotle. The author obviously has little sympathy for Aristotle or Aristotelian thought.

It is weird seeing Aristotle via the lens of a Platonist with too much respect for the Midieval interpreters of Aristotle. He actually goes so far as to call Aristotle a Platinist.(30-31) This reminds me of some students (and friends) of mine who seem to make it their life's work to show that everyone agrees with them, so Maiminides becomes a mystic, or Plato is a Darwinist, or the Vilna Gaon was a Hassid. I am all for non-conformist beliefs, but this is going a bit far.

There are a whole bunch of places where he seems to get Aristotle wrong. When he talks about Aristotle's theory of knowledge for one.

On page 33 he seems to confuse truth with certainty in mathematics. He rarely seems to grasp what Aristotle meant by what Science is really about, or what sort of things are knowable (ie, first principles). Neither does Taylor get self-evidence or dialectic as Aristotle had it, and he makes the "active Intellect" a spiritual thing, following some of the later commentators, whereas in Aristotle himself it is not all that clear.

When it comes to Aristotle there are many things that are worth appreciating. Aristotle had a methodology not all that different from the one we have today. At least its essence is similar. Taylor dismisses all of this because Aristotle got the answers wrong. (And of course Plato had them all right!) Thus Aristotle was a bad scientist.

Taylor endlessly nitpicks on the details that Aristotle misses, and ignores the Aristotelian methodology. We thus do not get out of the book what civilization has gotten out of Aristotle. But this is the main point of the book, to give the lay reader an appreciation for what Aristotle gave to civilization. So the book fails at its own goal.

This is meant to be a popular book, as such it has no references, to let you look at Aristotle for your self. This is annoying to someone who has a deeper interest in this. Don't bother with this book unless you are not very bright and have a simplistic nieve dislike of things Aristotelian. Robinson's book is infinitely better.


Shosh said...

I'm a woman. Therefore, I don't like rules. So it naturally follows that I don't like Aristotle. But I don't think I'd like this book, either. Do I like anything? Uhhh..... 1919?? Why the heck are you reading that, anyway??

A- said...

Don't knock the Maimonides as mystic thing. I don't think anyone considers the theory to be 100% solid, but there are reasons to suspect a "post rational" trend in his works - not a new theory considering it was more or less the position of Abulafia, or more importantly, Rambam's own son. Also, I'm not a huge fan of his (though he is a nice guy) but I would be hesitant to discount a theory held by Idel in his field. I certainly wouldn't put it at the Gr"a=hasid level.

Also, can you get me a set of those cups? I think Hildesheimer was a distant cousin, too (yes, I know, I got the dumb branch of this family), though this is not that unexpected - there were not that many orthodox (modern or otherwise) in north Germany, so they just married each other.

Maybe I'll scratch out the "n."

Off to make a Glock go pop pop pop!