Sunday, October 24, 2010

Aristotle’s Criticisms of Plato’s Form of the Good

Greek philosophers Plato (ca. 427 - 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 B.C.E. - 322 B.C.E.)

The categories are Aristotle’s attempt to place the senses of being into ten classifications. They are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection.

Aristotle argues against the Platonists’ view that there is such a thing as the “form of the good.” Aristotle believes that good is not a single, common universal because what it is to be good is particular to the essence of the individual; that is, what makes something good varies depending on what the thing is.

Aristotle defines what goodness is with respect to each category of being. For example, he says the good place is the right situation, the good relative is the useful, and the good time is the opportune moment. He says that if good were a common and single universal, it would be spoken of in only one of the categories and not in them all.

To describe two different individuals as “good” is to assign them a homonymous quality. They are both called “good,” but what it is to be good is different for the two individuals. For example, what it is to be a good master is different from what it is to be a good slave because different properties define each individual and different properties define what makes each individual good. Were a slave to try to be a good slave by partaking in that which makes his master a good master, he would either cease to be good, cease to be a slave, or both.

Aristotle says that “good” is the same as “good itself” because they both have the same account of “good” in the same way that “the human being itself” and “human being” have the same account of “human being”. To argue this is to disagree with the Platonic idea that “good” and “human being” are individuals that partake of the forms “good itself” and “the human being itself.” To add the word “itself” to an idea is to suggest that the idea is a form that is dependent upon the things that partake of it.

Aristotle also says, “good itself will be no more of a good by being eternal; for a white thing is no whiter if it lasts a long time than if it lasts a day”. Aristotle means that just because some individual may have a quality that is thought of as a perfection, it does not mean that that individual is any more perfect with respect to what makes that individual what it is. In other words, if an individual (“f”) has a perfection (“p”), its “f-ness” is not affected.

Next, for the Platonist who would respond to his criticisms by distinguishing goods which are good in their own right from goods which are merely useful, Aristotle poses a dilemma. He asks, “is nothing except the Form good in its own right, so that the Form will be futile?” He then says that if practical wisdom, pleasures, and honors are goods in their own right, and if there is a Form of good, then the same account of good turns up in all of them. He says those three things have different and dissimilar accounts, so “the good is not something common corresponding to a single Form”.

When Aristotle says that good “is not like homonyms resulting from chance,” he means that it is not due to chance that one definition of “good” shares something with another. “Good” has many meanings depending on the nature of the individual to which it is applied. This is why the idea “good” can be represented in a single word; for each individual, there exists a property or a set of properties required for the individual to be called “good.”

Aristotle also asks whether good is spoken of by analogy. This may be so, as when two individuals each have the set of properties that respectively make them good, the goodness of one individual is analogous to the goodness of the other with respect to what the individuals are and what makes them good, even though the properties that make them good may be in completely different categories.

Aristotle says that in trying to determine whether there is a Form of the Good, we are looking for “the sort of good which a human being can possess or achieve in action.” He says, “If there is some one good predicated in common, or some separable good, itself in its own right,” that is not the sort of good that we can possess or achieve. He disagrees with the proposition that if we have a view to the Form of the Good “as a sort of pattern, we shall also know better about the goods that are goods for us, and if we know about them, we shall hit on them.”

Aristotle says it is useless for a craftsman to know good itself because the craftsman has nothing to gain by knowing it. What makes a doctor or a weaver or a carpenter useful is his understanding of the work he practices; not simply knowing good itself and thus being able to partake of it.

It may not be the case that the “possess and achieve in action” argument is an argument against Plato at all. What is probable is that it was not intended as an argument, but rather as a rationalization. In this section of the text, Aristotle is not using his statement about the uselessness of understanding the Form of the Good to mankind to argue against its existence, but  rationalizing the difficulty of determining, once and for all, the answer to the question of whether there exists a Form of the Good.

Aristotle’s weakest argument against Plato is the argument that “good itself will be no more of a good by being eternal, for a white thing is no whiter if it lasts a long time than if it lasts a day”. Aristotle is trying to say that if an individual “f” has a perfection “p”, the “f-ness” possessed by “f” is no greater. This statement seems true, as it does not contradict Aristotle’s assertion that for an individual to have a superfluous characteristic in a state of perfection does not make that individual any more “good.” However, the first statement makes it necessary to ask, What does Aristotle think is the property that allows for goodness itself to be good?

Aristotle’s strongest argument against Plato is the argument that good is spoken of as an analogy. If two individuals are described as good, a Platonist would take that to mean that both individuals partake of the same thing, goodness. Aristotle, on the other hand, understands that the individuals are good with respect to what it is for each individual to be good. He rejects the idea that their goodness is the same, but he also rejects the idea that they are both called good for no reason whatsoever. Instead, he sees goodness as something abstract and difficult to define, proposing that the goodness possessed by the individuals are analogous with respect to what makes the individuals what they are. This argument is fair to Plato in that it seems to reconcile that notion with Plato’s position that the Form of the Good exists as something that encompasses all different types of good.

Originally written in November or December 2007 as a college essay

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