Thursday, December 08, 2011

Occupy Aristotle

Recently, I saw that a philosopher friend of mine (Jeffrey Bernstein) posted the following as his status update on Facebook:

"For an explanation of (1) why Occupy Wall Street doesn't need a positive political program and (2) why the Occupy Movement exceeds the designations of Democrats and Republicans, read the first paragraph of Aristotle's Metaphysics."

I'll admit, it's been a while since I've read Aristotle's Metaphysics, but every philosopher worth his or her salt knows the first sentence of that text: "All men by nature desire to know." So, I went over to the shelf, dusted off the Metaphysics, and refreshed my memory of the rest of Aristotle's first paragraph. Not surprisingly, Bernstein's recommendation was spot-on. The first passage of the Metaphysics posits our universal desire to know, but also explains why we are inclined to value our sense of sight above all the other senses. Here's the whole paragraph:
ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.
Maybe it's not so obvious what Aristotle's insights have to do with to the Occupy Movement, so here's a summary translation of the operative metaphor: The Occupy Movement is like our sense of sight. It's not (instrumentally) valuable for what it allows us to see, but rather it's (intrinsically) valuable in that it allows us to see. Like sight, it "brings to light many differences between things"; it is able to "make us know." And all of us by nature desire knowledge.

Why doesn't Occupy Wall Street need a "positive political program"? Because, apart from anything particular that OWS may want to posit or accomplish, it has allowed us to see the world we share in new ways. (NB: I think the OWS does have a positive political program-- see here, here and here, for example-- but I agree that it doesn't need one.) Occupy Wall Street, quite literally, brought to light many differences between things, including but not limited to: the difference between the reality of the lives of the so-called 1% and the lives of the so-called 99%, the difference between a primarily economic view of the world and a more humanistic view of the world, the difference between our interests in and conceptions of things like justice and fairness, the difference between our democratic principles and our actual democratic practices, and the difference between the aims of libertarian and capitalist ways of organizing our social interactions and the (until recently hidden, disavowed or ignored) consequences of those interactions. OWS has, quite literally, brought to light things that many of us did not know or did not see. To that end, its primary value is to be found in its "enlightening" function, that is, its satisfaction of what Aristotle calls our "natural desire to know."

You may remember the now-famous little bit of wisdom issued by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld back in 2002, when he said (video here): "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know." I think the most valuable achievement of OWS has been in moving things previously located in Rumsfeld Category 2 (unknown knowns) to Rumsfeld Category 1 (known knowns), and secondarily in moving things previously located in Rumsfeld Category 3 (unknown unknowns) to Rumsfeld Category 2 (known unknowns). Evaluating this movement and rearrangement of things known and unknown is where Aristotle's insights are the most fecund. According to ¶1 of Aristotle's Metaphysics above-- and to Book X of his Ethics, and to the whole of Aristotle's Politics-- the work of moving things from Rumsfeld Categories 2 and 3 to Rumsfeld Category 1 is not only the most important work of the kinds of rational, political animals that human beings are, but also the most pleasurable work. Again, we all, by nature, desire to know.

The reason the Occupy Movement exceeds the designations of "Democrat" and "Republican" is because it has figured itself, first and foremost, as a knowledge-seeking movement. That is to say, a truth-seeking movement. It has aimed, from its beginning, to draw back a veil of lies that has convinced us that some untruths are true, that other truths are unknowable. For all my disagreements with Republicans (and, less often, with Democrats), I fundamentally believe that each one believes his or her analyses proceed on the basis of a "true account" of things. And I fundamentally believe that, were any of them to see the difference between their accounts of the world we share and a truer account, they would amend their positions. As I hope would I. "Political discourse" is not, primarily, partisan discourse... but, rather, the discourse in which partisans take part (and are "parted"). It exceeds the designations assigned to any particular position. In fact, it is what makes those designations make sense. I think there is a good case to be made that the Occupy Movement is chiefly concerned with refiguring political discourse in such a way as to reorient its focus, away from partial accounts and toward true accounts.

Even if my evaluation is not true of every individual Occupy Movement supporter, which of course it cannot be, it is still the case that one can value the Occupy Movement as a metonym for the kind of sight Aristotle praises in the first paragraph of his Metaphysics. The Occupy Movement has brought to light differences between things and it has forced, as a matter of principle, one to decide what difference those differences make. It can be loved, to use Aristotle's language, even apart from its usefulness, even if we are not going to do anything about it, because we prefer seeing to not seeing.


cplong11 said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a more literal translation of that first sentence of the Metaphysics is this: "All human beings (anthropoi) by nature stretch themselves out (oregontai) toward knowing." I make a big issue of this translation in my book, Aristotle on the Nature of Truth, p. 17, 150, 206, 220, 224. This translation avoids the sexist language and gets at the sense that we stretch ourselves out to knowing in an organic way.

This point does nothing to undermine the things you say about vision. However, I would add that if you stop reading the Metaphysics at the first paragraph, then you miss the manner in which Aristotle introduces the idea that the ability to teach is a sign of knowing and how he subtly suggests that the ability to learn is rooted in an ability to hear (see, Aristotle on Truth, 225-9).

So, if we are going to Occupy Aristotle, we better get ready for a challenging and enriching endeavor.

DOCTOR J said...

@Chris: Thanks for the translation. And I, for one, am ready for the challenge of the all-senses-included endeavor!

Emma B. said...

But the sight hegemony here as the privileged sense is also worth questioning (as Irigaray and others have pointed out). Or as Heraclitus put it: "If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them."

JeffB said...

I just want to mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that my status post originated from my Holy Cross colleague Joseph Lawrence, who (the day before) had participated in a campus-wide discussion on Occupy and had brought Aristotle to bear on it. He would definitely agree with Christopher's point about reading beyond the first paragraph! :-)

Drake said...

Any way we can get this post connected to a larger media vehicle (e.g., NYTimes, WaPo, etc.)? I think it's that good.

DOCTOR J said...

@Drake: Thanks. I don't know how the other post got picked up by NYT. I just noticed that I had a ton of traffic that day and tracked it back to NYT.

Have you read Josh Miller's post on this topic? It's reall good. Check it out here!

Marginamia said...

Fantastic post! Seen, heard, smelt or felt--analogy applies beautifully.

Brian Blake said...

Hey Dr. j! Very interesting post. I think the analogy works very well. If you don't mind going on a bit of a tangent, I'd like to inquire (and press some) about a small part of your post, and why you believe it:

"For all my disagreements with Republicans (and, less often, with Democrats), I fundamentally believe that each one believes his or her analyses proceed on the basis of a "true account" of things. And I fundamentally believe that, were any of them to see the difference between their accounts of the world we share and a truer account, they would amend their positions."

In most circumstances, I think that's true, but there's reason to be skeptical about always. For example, some people obstinately deny the existence of climate change (nevermind the issue of whether its man-man.) That might be an instance when some people will prefer partial accounts to true accounts. Now, perhaps they don't fully appreciate the possible commitments of their positions, or they're unaware of the extent of the evidence or the power of the methodology used to establish it's "truth." Maybe even this just shows how our broadly political commitments resonate even in how we judge truth.

On the other hand, it's also plausible that, for some, furtheringtheir worldview and goals, in effect, is a consideration that trumps any fidelity to truth, in just about any usual use of the word, whenever the two appear to conflict and the political conviction is strong. In this case, cynically denying climate change because the denial serves a particular political, economic, or ideological agenda. Or, to put it in your phrasing, they don't amend their partial positions, despite recognizing i'ts not as true, because amending them in favor of more complete, true position might be contrary to their narrow interests.