Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Allan Gotthelf, Teleology, First Principles and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Biology. Oxford Aristotle Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 440. ISBN 9780199287956. $99.00.

Reviewed by William Wians, Merrimack College (wiansw@merrimack.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Animated by a conviction that there is much to learn about Aristotle's philosophy through a study of his biological writings, Allan Gotthelf has over thirty-five years explored and encouraged others to explore Aristotle's writings on biology. Largely neglected by philosophers at the start of Gotthelf's career, the biological treatises have been subject to a flood of articles and books in more recent years—though I suppose one ought to say stampede, given their zoological focus. For this, Gotthelf gets a fair share of the credit. Through influential papers—twelve of which are collected here, including one that is significantly expanded, along with three articles previously unpublished (a table of contents appears at the end of this review)—the editing of contributed volumes, the organization of conferences, and the mentoring of younger scholars (indeed, one of the papers here is co-authored with Mariska Leunissen, and the appendix to another with Pieter Beullens), Gotthelf has played a major role in drawing philosophical attention to these works.

In his preface, Gotthelf claims that the work under review is more than a collection of papers on the basis of the strong continuity of themes and the overriding point of view. I think he is right about this. Everything here deals with the biological writings, particularly the methodological assumptions and procedures Aristotle employs in them, or with philosophical issues that animate them and extend beyond them, particularly the pervasiveness of Aristotle's teleology and its relevance to other parts of the corpus. And as with Aristotle's corpus as a whole, Gotthelf's papers show relatively little overlap, so that the collection effectively assumes a book-like character.

What's more, though the earliest papers were not, of course, conceived of as part of a larger whole, the revisions of older papers, including notes added to draw attention to links between papers, provide a sufficiently strong sense of continuity and reinforce a presiding point of view. More significantly though more subtly, two of the three newly published articles deal with the still relatively neglected Historia Animalium. While Gotthelf simply suggests that these papers may serve as a philosophical introduction to this work, his placement of them as Part IV, after his papers on the more often studied de Generatione Animalium and de Partibus Animalium, shows a sensitivity to the rhetoric of education and persuasion, leading the reader in an almost Aristotelian way from the more familiar to the less. While not a systematic treatment of all of the philosophical issues that the biology poses, the collection succeeds in articulating Gotthelf's sense of the importance of the whole of Aristotle's biological writings.

Because so many of the articles here are well known and are often cited, I shall deal with the previously published material quickly, even when it has been revised, so that BMCR readers unfamiliar with Aristotle's biology or Gotthelf's work on it will have a sufficient sense of the whole. I will then comment on the three previously unpublished pieces, one on the de Generatione Animalium, the other two on the Historia Animalium.

Gotthelf's approach to Aristotle and his biology makes central what Gotthelf calls the irreducible potential for form. All organisms are essentially goal-directed. Their primary structure, form, functions, and development are to be understood as directly toward some end. To be such-and-such an animal is to have such-and-such potentials—a potential for one form of reproduction as opposed to another seen in nature, a potential for a certain kind of movement from place to place, a potential for a specific level of functionality and integration of parts of a larger whole. Exceptions to these overriding potentialities, such as vestigial organs and monstrosities, can be understood only against the fixed framework that a system of natural potentialities provides. Gotthelf's position regarding Aristotle's teleology is mostly spelled out in the six papers making up Part I of the collection, including one new paper considered below, and the first paper of Part II, along with the two papers of Part III relating his approach to what he calls 'metaphysical themes'.

Closely connected with this view of Aristotle's teleology is Gotthelf's position regarding the method practiced in the biological writings. According to Gotthelf, Aristotle's biology is demonstratively structured. Working decisively against the grain of what was then the current thinking, that demonstrations are not to be found in the scientific writings (a view which still has some purchase), Gotthelf contends that Aristotle constructs the de Partibus Animalium and the de Generatione Animalium in conformity with the strictures of the Posterior Analytics, even though this conformity is not immediately apparent. In practice this means that Aristotle begins by working to establish the first principles of the subject and then traces out the explanatory force of those principles as they apply to the most persistent patterns of phenomena and to seemingly disconfirming exceptions. Thus, swimming against other recent scholarly currents, Gotthelf explicates Aristotle's method in biology largely without appealing to the dialectical or pedagogical techniques. Papers dealing with this side of Gotthelf's approach appear primarily in Part II of the collection.

(In addition to the papers focused on the themes of teleology and method, the fifteenth and final paper defends the sincerity of Charles Darwin's evaluation of his great predecessor, while a coda derived from a public lecture offers both a convenient overview of Gotthelf's reading of Aristotelian biology and a defense of it as properly scientific.)

The first of the three chapters of previously unpublished material takes as its subject a single chapter of the Generation of Animals, II.6, and its account of the formation of the embryo. Gotthelf's larger aim, however, is to show how, in this chapter and by extension the whole of the treatise, the explicit search for the efficient cause of animals is intimately connected with the teleology of final causes, so much so that efficient and final causes 'are in a way the same thing'. He therefore devotes the first third of the paper to laying out the theoretical foundation of the GA from the work's very beginning. From this foundation, he works to establishing two general claims: (i) that Aristotle appeals to a primitive dunamis that directs the formation of the offspring, rather than to a full material-level account; and (ii) that the vital heat which is the material basis for this dunamis is itself given no material-level description. Thus, rather than a material-efficient account that depends on the interaction of various elemental bodies, Aristotle pursues a formal-efficient cause, where the causal agent is a formal nature essentially possessing a dunamis for a specific form. In the end, I think Gotthelf largely succeeds in establishing the pervasive force of Aristotle's teleology in the work.

The two other papers not previously published (along with a third that has been published) deal with the Historia Animalium. Together they argue that this large, unwieldy work is, appearances and reputation to the contrary, carefully structured. Organized around principles and techniques found especially in the second half of the Posterior Analytics, the treatise amounts to a sustained effort to form and refine a new conceptual apparatus for the study of animals.

The first of the new papers, 'Data-Organization, Classification, and Kinds', is for the most part not, frankly, an original contribution to scholarship. It begins with a useful overview of the history of the study of the HA, PA and GA, with particular attention to their neglect by philosophers after the time of Darwin. But upon turning to the revival of interest in these works since the 1960s, it becomes for much of its length largely a summary of the contribution of David Balme to the study of the HA. Balme deserves credit for showing the inadequacy of a reading of the HA as working toward a taxonomy of animals (the absence of which led others to view the HA as a mere open notebook of observations by Aristotle and his followers) and for the fluid use of the key terms genos and eidos, which vary in their hierarchical connotations with the context. But Gotthelf does not add any significant evidence to Balme's case or treat it with any notable critical attitude.

Only toward the end of the chapter does Gotthelf begin to move into new territory with a consideration of the first six chapters of HA I. These, and especially I.6 with its identification of the megista gene, are the most methodologically explicit parts the treatise. Gotthelf outlines a position that sees them as providing a framework for what is to come, but which itself is refined and completed by what follows. I am myself quite sympathetic to a reading of an Aristotelian treatise that takes the initial statement of explanatory principles as provisional, pointing to and requiring the unfolding exposition to make them fully clear, rigorous, and persuasive. For Gotthelf, the ensuing investigation amounts to a long process of concept-formation, each subsequent stage presupposing earlier ones, that moves from an initial 'intuitive' grasp to a grasp of the full universal at the heart of an Aristotelian explanatory demonstration. But as Gotthelf himself acknowledges, making good on his sense of how these chapters shape and are shaped by the rest of the treatise would require a lengthy investigation that he does not conduct. What would be a highly original reading of the HA remains to be written.

The second paper on the HA is of a different order. It delves deeply into I.6; indeed, it is practically a commentary on the first thirty-four lines of the chapter. Aristotle's stated purpose in the HA, which serves to relate it to the other biological treatises, is to 'grasp the differences and attributes that belong to all [animals]. After this we must try to discover the causes' (HA I.6, 491a9-11). But Gotthelf shows how grasping the differences is far from straightforward just on a conceptual level, never the mind the practical challenges of such a vast empirical study. What kinds constitute the megista gene? Should we be bound by the kinds commonly recognized? If not, how are proper kinds to be identified? The task is complicated by the fact that while some of the greatest kinds exhibit intermediate groupings before reaching individual species, other kinds do not seem to do so, so that groupings based on one characteristic will differ from those based on other characteristics. In fact, Gotthelf notes, even the key phrase megista gene can be used in different contexts to refer to different kinds at different levels of classification. Gotthelf persuasively argues that the kinds identified in I.6 require the support of the subsequent investigation even as they outline the groupings by which it will proceed.

Let me conclude with an unusual item to be addressed in a review: the book's dedication. Gotthelf dedicates the book to 'the memory of Ayn Rand and David Balme'. His commemorating of Balme is easy to understand. It was Balme who more than any other scholar (at least in English) blazed the path that Gotthelf has followed, and the direct contact between them was long and fruitful. The dedication to Rand, on the other hand, might give readers pause, given the low esteem bordering on contempt in which she is held in mainstream philosophical circles. I have no intention of faulting Gotthelf's choice. He speaks eloquently of the effect that Rand's 'respect for the mind' had on him, initially through reading her novels and subsequently through coming to know her personally. One need only say that this influence has had a broadly beneficial effect on Gotthelf's professional work, just as his work has benefited those who have joined him in working to understand Aristotle as both philosopher and biologist.

Table of Contents

(new or significantly revised material is marked with an asterisk):

PART I: Teleology, Irreducibility, and the Generation of Animals (GA)
1. Aristotle's Conception of Final Causation
2. The Place of the Good in Aristotle's Natural Teleology
* 3. Understanding Aristotle's Teleology
* 4. Teleology and Embryogenesis in Aristotle's Generation of Animals II.6
5. 'What's Teleology Got to Do with It?'--A Reinterpretation of Aristotle's Generation of Animals V, co-authored with Mariska Leunissen
6. Teleology and Spontaneous Generation in Aristotle: A Discussion
PART II: First Principles and Explanatory Structure in the Parts of Animals (PA)
7. First Principles in Aristotle's Parts of Animals
8. The Elephant's Nose: Further Reflections on the Axiomatic Status of Biological Explanation in Aristotle
9. Division and Explanation in Aristotle's Parts of Animals
PART III: Metaphysical Themes in PA and GA
10. Notes towards a Study of Substance and Essence in Aristotle's Parts of Animals II-IV
11. A Biological Provenance: Reflections on Montgomery Furth's Substance, Form, and Psyche: An Aristotelian Metaphysics
PART IV: Starting a Science: Theoretical Aims of the History of Aims (HA)
* 12. Data-Organization, Classification, and Natural Kinds: The Place of the History of Animals in Aristotle's Biological Enterprise
* 13. HA I.6 490b7-491a6: Aristotle's megista gene
14. Historiae I: Plantarum et Animalium
PART V: Aristotle as Theoretical Biologist
15. Darwin on Aristotle
*Coda: Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict

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