Aristotle Generally Has A Point

Glenn Reynolds responds to an article in the Washington Post in a way I find is not uncommon, but is ill-advised. The article cites a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric, which I'll give in full in a minute. Reynolds responds:
Given the change in military technology and the state since Aristotle, I’m not sure the quotes are apposite.
That is doing Aristotle poor justice. He is not talking about military technology or the state here. He's talking about persuasion, and in particular in persuasion by example. So here's the citation:
The “example” has already been described as one kind of induction; and the special nature of the subject-matter that distinguishes it from the other kinds has also been stated above. Its relation to the proposition it supports is not that of part to whole, nor whole to part, nor whole to whole, but of part to part, or like to like. When two statements are of the same order, but one is more familiar than the other, the former is an “example.”

The argument may, for instance, be that Dionysius, in asking as he does for a bodyguard, is scheming to make himself a despot. For in the past Peisistratus kept asking for a bodyguard in order to carry out such a scheme, and did make himself a despot as soon as he got it; and so did Theagenes at Megara; and in the same way all other instances known to the speaker are made into examples, in order to show what is not yet known, that Dionysius has the same purpose in making the same request: all these being instances of the one general principle, that a man who asks for a bodyguard is scheming to make himself a despot.
A position I've long defended in this space is that this kind of reasoning is analogical. It would be easy to read this as a kind of logical reasoning instead. "Instances of one general principle" sounds like there is a single thing of which this is an instance; a type of which this is a token, to put it in the way contemporary philosophers prefer.

But that isn't Aristotle's point. Here's what he says next:
There is an important distinction between two sorts of enthymemes that has been wholly overlooked by almost everybody-one that also subsists between the syllogisms treated of in dialectic. One sort of enthymeme really belongs to rhetoric, as one sort of syllogism really belongs to dialectic; but the other sort really belongs to other arts and faculties, whether to those we already exercise or to those we have not yet acquired. Missing this distinction, people fail to notice that the more correctly they handle their particular subject the further they are getting away from pure rhetoric or dialectic.
As a point of pure rhetoric -- which is what he was talking about -- the charge by example that a bodyguard implies tyranny is an effective tool. As a point of understanding the real world, that is not the case. The more correctly you understand your subject, the less you're doing rhetoric, and the more you're doing arts and science, certainly to include military and political science (which are more properly sciences on Aristotle's terms than on the contemporary understanding of what a "science" is).

The thing about analogies is that they always break. The question about analogical reasoning -- which includes all forms of the example -- is whether the breaking point comes before or after the thing you're talking about. If you're using rhetoric to try to understand the world, that's the thing to keep in mind.

If you're just trying to persuade someone of a point you'd like them to adopt, well, this is a perfectly good rhetorical argument. It's not that Aristotle didn't understand enough to give you good guidance. It's that even the people who read him rarely read him closely enough to understand what he was talking about. Here he's just talking about persuasion, creating the impression that a single real principle is governing disparate events. In fact, that is never the case: analogies always break. It is my contention that Aristotle knew this perfectly well, and defends it as a governing principle of ethics and politics in the early Nicomachean Ethics. (1094b12-28, for those who are serious about following along.)


Tom said...

I think I generally agree with your point, though I feel a question coming on.

In ancient Greece, did "bodyguard" always mean "private bodyguard"? Trump already has Secret Service bodyguards, so even if Aristotle meant what Sasha Volokh claims he meant, the point about bodyguards wouldn't seem to be relevant to the US today.

Another problem is that he claims that Aristotle using this as an example of argument by example shows that a request for a bodyguard was well-known sign of danger, when really it could just mean it was a well-known example of an argument by example. There were a number of handbooks on rhetoric at the time, so it could have been.

Grim said...

No, you're right. The concept was a publicly-funded bodyguard.

Tom said...

Interesting. Why would a publicly-funded bodyguard abet a tyrant? Couldn't the citizens simply defund them? Was there something in the concept of a bodyguard that dictated personal loyalty to the guarded over a sense of civic duty?

I want to make sure I understand your argument about examples and analogies. Could we rephrase your claim to be "examples are always analogies when used in reasoning"? ('Reasoning' itself being trying to decide what to do or believe.)

So, examples would not be analogies then in a didactic situation. If a science teacher is teaching students about the class Insecta, examples such as 'ant' or 'bee' would not be analogies but actual instances of the class.

Is that right?

Grim said...

That's a troubling philosophical question, actually. :)

Consider the theory of evolution. In principle, every child is an instance of the same species as its parents (leaving aside cases like mules). Occasional mutations do not cause a dog to cease to be a dog, for example: it's just an odd dog, or a dog with a genetic oddity.

However, it is just as legitimate to say (according to the theory) that at some point there has been a change of species. Some wolves gave birth to children that, eventually, were not wolves but dogs.

So is it right to say that the middle children in this process are instances of wolves? Or that they're instances of dogs? Or that they're individuals, which we might classify in this way or that, but which classifications exist in our minds more than in the animals?

That's the issue we're really getting at with the business of examples being analogical. The question has to do with the status of forms. For Plato, as you know, there is somewhere a Form of Dog of which every actual dog is an instance. The Form of Dog has more reality, in fact, than the actual dogs that participate in the form.

For Aristotle, that's a silly thing to say: the form of dog exists only in actual dogs, and nowhere separate from them. Nowhere, that is, except in our minds: we are able to extract the form using our imagination (this is in De Anima), so that it comes to be in our minds. It isn't separate in the Platonic sense, as it still inheres in us. And it really is supposed to be the same form in our minds that is in the dog, for Aristotle -- but in a different way.

Certainly the animal between the wolf and the dog also has a form -- it has a genetic code, it has legs and a tail, etc. That form is its own form. When we see it, we have a sense of at least some of the details of the form in our minds. If we study it in a laboratory, we may come to know other details of its form, such as its genetics. We can say how its form is different from a 'standard' wolf or dog. But where is this standard wolf or dog? Presumably every actual wolf or dog may differ slightly from the 'standard,' which exists as an idea in our minds.

So the question is about the status of forms, or of "types" in the "type/token" distinction that contemporary philosophers prefer. It's the same question with species: do they really exist, or are there only individuals that we happen to classify in certain ways?

Grim said...

Aristotle didn't have a concept of evolution, but he knew about mules. They were a significant puzzle for him. His biological science suggests that animals get their forms from their fathers, but their matter from their mothers. A mule, then, should be a horse or a donkey depending on which one its father was.

(In fact, we get most of our matter from our mothers, but we inherit only part of our form from our father -- a concept the Greeks didn't know what to do with, as forms were supposed to be unities since they were immaterial, which made it strange to talk about the "parts" of something that has no matter. But it turns out that the way in which we inherit forms is not immaterial: things like genes have a matter as well as an order and structure.)

To return to the basic question, then, it turns out that the answer isn't clear. I argue that classifications of physical objects of any complexity are analogical because of these difficulties. Things like electrons may be instances of a universal, or tokens of a type. However, once you get complex things like animals, it's no longer clear if there is a real universal. The danger is that you'll take your mental categories ("dogs," "wars," "women") and treat them as if they provided more than analogical information about the real individual in the world. Analogies always break. Some of them may carry you a long way, but eventually you're going to run into the parts that aren't instances of a universal -- they're features of an individual.

Tom said...

Well, zoological classifications don't pretend to tell you everything about the individuals in them. Ants and bees are both perfectly insects, but it isn't until you know the rules of what an insect is that that is necessarily clear. If we consider such examples analogies, then I might say that analogies in some cases break, but sometimes they are incomplete by design.

For example, as long as you know Insecta is a type of category that only gives you certain kinds of information about its members, then the example of an ant doesn't break the analogy. The analogy is true and useful to the extent that it is defined to be.

On the other hand, if you want to say that analogies always break, then I don't think all examples are analogies.

If you are reasoning by examples, then, I would think you would either need to know if your point is made before the break, or within the accepted limits.

Grim said...

An example by itself is not an analogy. It's one thing, not a comparison between multiple things. Reasoning from examples is to make them analogies.

This is because no two cases are exactly the same. The only way they could be exactly the same is if they were in fact the same thing. Thus, there's going to be a breaking point somewhere. Your example(s) may not break as analogies before you get to the important point for your decision, though. It may well be that they'll hold past that point.

Thus, it's a useful way to reason -- you just have to be very clear in your mind about the points of difference in the cases, and try to judge if those differences are going to be important here.

Tom said...

Right. I can agree with you as long as you're talking about reasoning, but my point about didactic uses of examples isn't about reasoning. At least, I don't think it is.

It's when you go beyond reasoning and claim that non-reasoning uses of examples are also analogies and therefore necessarily must break that I think I disagree.

Tom said...

So, when our science teacher is explaining the concept of "insects" to his young students, he's not saying ants are like insects. He's not making a comparison. He's saying, ants are one example of insects. Bees are another.

I think this is also relevant to your wogs or dolves point. If we're trying to figure out how to classify something like that, we're reasoning, not teaching. So your point holds there.

Grim said...

This the problem, though: is there a thing called an insect? Are we discovering a class of things that exists in the world, or are we creating a class that exists only in our minds?

At least sometimes it's the latter. Witness herpetology, once taken seriously as a science, but it turns out that amphibians and reptiles are almost completely unlike one another. Snakes are closer to birds than to frogs. So at one point the professor teaching his students to think of frogs and snakes as being instances of a class was just speaking analogically: they're sort-of similar, at least as we experience them through our senses.

I'm wondering if that isn't true for species in general, at least if evolutionary theory works like we think it does. It may be that there aren't species. There are just individual organisms. The creation of conceptual categories like "species" is then just a way of analogizing a bunch of examples based on some set of similarities between the examples. It's exactly like analogical reasoning, in other words: it is analogical reasoning of the same kind.

Tom said...

Was the professor speaking analogically, or was he just wrong?

This sort of thing is part of how we have scientific revolutions. Science is always wrong somewhere, somehow, and when we run into enough anomalies to recognize one of those points, then scientific knowledge changes and something we believed before we no longer do. But having been wrong doesn't make our past incorrect beliefs analogies at the time we believed them, does it?

Grim said...

The question isn't what might be wrong, but what is in fact right. It looks to me like the concept of "species" may be just a better-fit analogy than the concept "herpetology." It doesn't break quite as quickly, but at some point -- if evolution works as we think it does -- you have an animal that is neither a wolf or a dog, and yet somehow also both a wolf and a dog. But maybe that means that no animal is really a wolf or a dog, except as a useful way of gathering similar animals together; maybe they're all just individuals, and when we try to create a "species" we're failing to notice that every new generation is a bit different from the one before it.

Tom said...

I don't think it's a question of right or wrong, but rather how language is being used. Is the example being used to reason toward what we should do or believe, or to teach something that's already generally accepted and about which students are not expected to reason?

Let's say the professor is teaching the students about mythical beasts and gives them the examples of dragons and unicorns. These aren't analogies, they're just examples of the category.

I think you may very well be right about the concept of "species." It's an interesting discussion, but it's reasoning.