Why Are We Even Contemplating Canceling Aristotle?


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There is a good piece hidden in philosopher Agnes Callard’s recent article for the New York Times about cancel culture. Unfortunately, that piece is lost in the framing device. Professor Callard makes a very good point that there is a distinction between “messaging” speech that brings with it political context and motivation and “literal” speech that allows for genuine inquiry and debate. It’s a distinction too often blurred by people of ill-will. Yet the framing device she uses concerns the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In using that device, she does Aristotle, and her audience, a disservice.

Professor Callard relates her distinction between the forms of speech to the question, “Should we cancel Aristotle?” because of his views on slavery. She opines, rightly, that Aristotle’s views should be taken as literal speech, something that we can debate without the baggage of the 19th-century struggles to abolish the institution and the use that slavers made of Aristotle’s and other ancient defenders of slavery. Therefore, she suggests, there is no need to remove Aristotle from his position of prominence in academia and dealing with his ideas is an example of what we really mean by free speech — the practice of free inquiry.

Yet I suspect even this argument concedes too much. Professor Callard concentrates on Aristotle as a political and ethical philosopher. Yet he was so much more than that. Here is a list of his works, broken down into four categories (and excluding the works that are generally agreed to be “Pseudo-Aristotle,” works by another mistakenly attributed to him over the centuries.)

On logic and metaphysics: Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior AnalyticsPosterior AnalyticsTopics, Sophistici Elenchi, Metaphysics.

On Nature, Life, and Mind: Physics, De Caelo, De Generatione et Corruptione, Meteorlogica (unless that’s now been moved entirely into the pseudo-file), Historia Animalium (and all the other animalia works), De Anima, Parva Naturalia (itself a collection of separate works).

On Art: RhetoricPoetics.

Only then, finally, on Ethics and Politics: Eudemian Ethics, Nicomachean Ethics, probably the Magna MoraliaAthenaion Politeia (although likely not him, sadly), and the Politics.

Aristotle was far more than just a political and ethical philosopher. His work on logic and metaphysics was foundational to philosophical thought. Even the word “metaphysics” itself originally meant the works of Aristotle to be studied after his Physics. The Prior Analytics was the basis of logic until the early 20th century. His work on scientific understanding and animal biology are at the root of the scientific method and the life sciences. His works on art fundamentally influenced the development of theater, novels, and even the cinema (and we can only speculate on what influence the lost work on comedy would have had).

Read the full article at the National Review